Quote That: WHY I READ THEORY

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In other words, the theory and methods I discovered and then committed myself to offered ideas not to be applied to the work but rather inherent in it—or at least inherent to my understanding of it. In a sense, then, these ideas served to reaffirm, expand, and deepen my own hunches, legitimizing but also pressuring my burgeoning thinking, even as they offered a vast context to enter. -Johanna Burton, Outtakes from Another Conversation: Thoughts on Curating and Education.

Ima Read, Ima Research

This song came from a twitter feed. Being a librarian, the words “IMA READ” act like a sign post for “please investigate.” It turned out to be a music video for a song which had blown up over Paris Fashion Week, specifically Rick Owen’s show. I won’t recount the shock this video first registers. The thing is pure unadulterated menace and cool.

With the slightest bit of internet digging, it comes to light that the song is not specifically a misogynist chant, but the work of a ballroom scene traveler and artist Ojay Morgan, who created the alter-ego of Zebra Katz for his musical projects. At least to Morgan, to read someone is  a high form of insult. Basically, making the other person a passive object to be taken in and dismissed in the face of one’s own place. Interestingly enough, the thing also came from a college experience:

 The song has always been my self-mantra—it’s just something I would always say to myself as a joke, because I took this class called  “How To Read A Play,” and I couldn’t stand the teacher, so I was always like “Ima read that bitch.” -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

Namely, the song primarily seems to be in the voice of a teacher. Someone who from their own knowledge can quickly sum up and judge:

That really helped make it a song that you can pay reference to, even if you don’t know anything about ball culture—hopefully you went to school, then college, then at that point, hopefully you would write a dissertation so you can excuse your shit! -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

The requirement of “reading” someone, and specifically “taking them to college” implies both violence and education, and the powers that it grants. Nothing so dire came of Morgan’s classroom experience, but the song highlights those fraught relationships anyone can feel in a classroom: when the students are bored and feel unchallenged, or feel that the teacher looks down on them, and the instructors saddled with curricula they dislike but have to deliver, or shoehorn previous work into, or feel that their students are in fact, facebooking, text-message spewing ignoramuses. Whatever the reasons, as a librarian, your heart goes out to both sides as they work out a difficult student-teacher relationship as the tensions escalate faster than we can breathe the words “critical literacy.”

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I was glad to read that Morgan saw the value in education despite the violence it can unwittingly do, so he can write a dissertation and excuse his own shit. In any case, Morgan dropped the R-word and the C-word in another interview, and it goes a long way in making the song make sense, and even, to him, a funny self-mantra from his college days:

“When the song hit Paris, it completely skyrocketed,” Mr. Morgan said. “All these people in the fashion industry that I looked up to had to listen to that song, and I knew a lot of people weren’t going to get the context right away. You have to do the research to get what I’m saying.” -Eric Wilson, You Have to Know the Context

Libraries and librarians can always help create a context for education, and even if it’s not a pretty one, often knowing it goes a long way to help all of those participating in higher education. And the only way to get the context is to do the research, both for the class and about the class, to understand the content and the form of the classroom and the school. This is why we are the archive that can help critique a canon.  You can’t take someone to college until you give yourself some knowledge. Ima Read, Ima Read, Ima Read.

Technology, Meritocracy, and the Problem of Measurement


This is not about how much I dislike any of the three above-mentioned things. I use technology and measurement to make decisions about merit all the time. Instead, I want to offer a broad critique of them, and suggest a way for libraries to differentiate themselves as institutions in the face of pervasive cultural myths. There is an unspoken connection between what is transparent and what is measurable, that the combination of the two creates a gold standard of creating value, so I wanted to take a quick pairing of quotes to untie them:

Belief in the inherent progressivism of the Internet and digital activism obscures the way transparency actually exaggerates those asymmetries of power that Sifry so earnestly believes will be reversed…. But web technologies have rendered the defenseless citizen far more transparent than any well-fortified government agency or corporation. Institutions use their existing power to better exploit the affordances of new technologies; they don’t level the playing field, let alone turn the tables. -Sarah Leonard, The Fog of More

Sarah Leonard’s quote is somewhat out of context, but it is worth honoring the fact that any large-scale, internet based action requires a significant investment of time and resources. What continues to matter is that those with more resources, information technology or otherwise, do more with them to their own benefit: “transparency” through technology doesn’t level the playing field, it’s just a shift of where resources are or are not. But what about measurability?

By measuring as much of our behavior as possible and converting it into algorithmically analyzable data, we are supposed to learn the truth about what we really value, but this process simply creates an ideological justification for our believing that we want is only what can be measured. -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths

Technology, in any form, from the abacus to using computers for data mining, enables measurement. That’s fine. These tools are neither good nor evil, but the ability to measure is dependent on having those resources. Now consider our students: while they supposedly have some way to provide feedback, the reality is that they are the subject of technological measurement. Given the amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching and spending on technology schools do, it begs the question: what is all this for, when students are going deeper and deeper into debt, not getting jobs, tuition keeps going up, and are no more or less happy than anyone else?  Despite the fact that students are more measurable than ever, we continue to hear the same gripes about how less than impressive they are.

We are increasingly leaning on technology to enable measurement to determine value. But in addition to that, and maybe even above that, libraries need to promote and value the human in every student, in every interaction, in every classroom, in every meeting, in every technology, in every book, in every database, and in ourselves. Technology, meritocracy, and measurement are all part and parcel of working in the 21st century, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

But what will differentiate between one school and another, one library and another, is how they value and promote something which is immeasurable, the human being:

In particular, orienting education toward finding and reaping the talented at the expense of attention to the less talented betrays the possibilities of a humanist education, in which “every child is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society.” Conceiving of education spending as a mode of investment than can be evaluated in terms of economic returns vulgarizes not only the education system but the social definitions of intelligence and “merit.” -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths

Quote That:

Furman makes two crucial suggestions for reorganizing French studies that apply as well to some other disciplinary formations. She recommends that literature and cultural studies departments cease relying on exclusively sequential, chronological, cumulative models in which acquisition of knowledge begins with the beginning and moves forward through time, and shift instead to problem-based learning that entails identifying salient lines of inquiry, or what she calls “virtual sites,” and teaching students how to analyze backward from and across those specific sites. In my view, there is no need to oppose sequential, chronological knowledge to the analogic or diachronic. Problem-based interdisciplinary inquiry is essential, however, and there is no reason to believe that the knowledge it produces is less sound than more traditional disciplinary approaches.

-Biddy Martin, “Success and Its Failures”, in Women’s Studies on the Edge, p.170

The MOOC and the radicant.

My gut reaction to this video was to immediately suspect that it was a marketing ploy, but I was interested to see that the man behind it was Dave Cormier, who has some pretty broad-reaching ideas as to what education should be. My only critique there is that I’m weary of any educational proposal that comes close to equating “online” with “real life.” Certainly, we live a lot of our lives online, and the digital is part of real life, but I’m personally uncomfortable with making them equal. Outside of that, I like where Dave is coming from, although MOOC is pronounced like “mook,” which by the definitons of Urban Dictionary, is something to be avoided at all costs. I’m mostly be skimming the surface of what he’s doing, but I believe it applies pretty handily when understanding information literacy as a “lifelong-learning” skill.

All of this sounds pretty good, but it made me think of an even more broadminded/scary plant analogy: Nicolas Bourriaud’s Radicant.

Let us wager that our own century’s modernity will be invented precisely in opposition to all radicalism, dismissing both the bad solutuion of re-enrooting in identities as well as the standardization of imaginations….To be radicant means setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogenious contexts and formatsdenying them the power to completely define one’s identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviors, exchanging rather than imposing – The Radicant, p.22

What really sets the two apart is the need for rootedness. While I just made an arguement for tradition and materiality, I don’t think there’s unresolvable tension here. At the heart of the radicant is that neither roots and traditions nor immediate locations define someone’s identity. Cormier is concerned with local conditions on the ground, and many traditions focus on internalizing themselves into someone’s identity, going back to a pure and stable root (this is part of Bourriard’s point). The radicant takes them for what they are and leaves the rest. It’s up to us to make the choice, some of us will do it because we have to, but in order to really get at the heart of things, we have to do it because we want to.

Tradition and Community

Handmade Portraits: The Sword Maker from Etsy on Vimeo.

This video is very heavy-handed, but it gave me pause. Korehira Wantanabe’s major concern is not “innovation,” it is keeping a tradition alive by teaching a disciple who will surpass him.  David Lankes propses to make the claim that  “A new librarianship is emerging, taking the lessons learned over that nearly 3,000 year history to forge an approach based not on books and artifacts, but on knowledge and community. “  I just want to untangle this knot, because while Lanke is right to emphasize community, he overlooks the role of materiality in the formation of community. Wantanabe participates in a community based on a physical artifact. His understanding of it is informed by artifacts from the past, and he judges the success of his disciple on the artifacts he will create. In his thesis, Lankes overlooks the fact that our communities are built around shared artifacts, that learning and the creation of a community that will last needs artifacts to sustain it. I’m going to include books, born-digital media, and buildings in my list or artifacts. They are all parts of a community of practice, or to use an older term, a tradition.

In a desire to be “change agents,” librarians set up unneeded tensions within their communities. Consider some quotes from the ebook frontlines at the ACRLog:

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

The answer ought to be no. If a community like the humanities is working out their own dealings with materiality, it is not in our interest to force new habits upon them, even if they fly in the face of the new paradigm of the digital, lease-access world. Using words like “tradition” is supposed to be avoided, because “innovation” and “speed” are in. It’s worth reading a little bit of Robert Hassan:

Temporal rights and temporal sovereignty would feed directly into democratic control over the forms and pace of temporal production in society. If the issue of temporality were made more salient, then the blanket acceleration that we experience under neoliberal globalization would rightly be viewed as illogical, and as ultimately inefficient and wholly unsustainable. Empires of Speed, 233.

True community building takes time. Participating in a community and in a tradition take time. The demands placed on our communities to respond quickly to their crises are perpetrated by those very forces which have sought to mask materiality with the gloss of “participation” in a digitized world. But a lifetime is short, so make something that lasts. That’s the goal of community. Lankes’ makes this proposal:

If you walk away from this talk believing that I see no value in cataloging, or books, or buildings, I have been unclear. All of these have been valuable to get us to today. However, their past value does not dictate their future value. We must constantly question everything we do, not to seek fault, but to test fitness. If a service adds value, we keep it. If it does not, we celebrate its past, and then move on. The mission and our values endure, the tools and functions we use to achieve this mission must change with the times.  -“A New Librarianship for a New Age”

For the first 2,900 years, librarianship was part of a humanist tradition, and it bears those marks, even with the new tools and functions we’ve been working with over the past 100 years. Like making swords, tools are part of a tradition, and the values of a community are reflected in them.  As a humanist and librarian, tools and tradition are not so handily untangled.

On Theory and Blowing Open the Doors

As far as I can tell, we need to have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those things in operation. Some, I’m sure, would want to scream ‘confirmation bias!’ at this–but the wonderful thing about the humanities is that they have always allowed scholars to work from problem to evidence, not vice-versa.

The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That’s the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique. -Benjamin Schmidt, Theory First.

The beauty of the humanities is that they allow for a reversal of the scientific method, which as Benjamin Schmidt pioints out, can lead to charges of “confirmation bias,” which is only really a concern if “objectivity” was what you were shooting for in the first place. In reality, humanists are in a luxury position of being able to create and analyze texts in the same motion, and work best to examine all of the human underpinnings of them. I think this creates a large problem for humanist librarians, espcially as we try and operate in the field now called “library science.” It’s got an attractive ring to it, that we  are social scientists exploring the reality of libraries. In all honesty, this is a fine way to explore the realities around us, but it does very little good when it comes to the things we do as practitioners, which is make something new. Architects, journalists, artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc., all do this without the compulsion to call themselves scientists. They start with a theory or idea of how things ought to go, and then they make it happen. There’s a vision that is called into being and they create the evidence for it. Anything less than that, while good, is an exhibit of technique. Schmidt callson the eternal snob, Adorno, to make the point.

It is now librarianship’s time to join the humanities again. It is time to look at the cracks. The theory that this is a science is troublesome because we are beginning to ” optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices,” which if you have taken a quick glance at the news, has not been working out as well as we’d like to pretend. If you’re inclined read Chis Lehman’s scathing Rich People Things . Librarians ought to be looking at theories which expose the cracks and faults of the world as it is.

Here’s an example: I believe that students ought to be taught to create openly while they explore their choosen academic fields. There is no reason to cheapen this and call it “play,” which can also be highly structured. I’m basing this on critical theory a la Paulo Friere. You can see examples of it in Critical Library Instruction, where learing starts from the student’s perspective and you go from there. It’s the exact opposite of this:

I could not help but to think of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for this transition. In fact, progression through the program is similar to ascending the various levels, steps, or stages. They are learning the language, behaviors, and knowledge base of their discipline. They are expanding their exposure and proficiency which leads to the goal of contributing something new. – Brian Matthews, “What It Takes to Become a Scholar

The theory here is based on a description of what already is: if you play by the rules, you will build up slowly through the accepted levels and will maybe succeed. What is essentially taught are the rules of the game, not an understanding of how to succeed on one’s own terms. Isn’t that what information literacy is supposed to be? A similar problem came up in a blog post that wandered it’s way through twitter:

  It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge.  When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution.  In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories – they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture. -Hugh Rundle, Evolution, The Death of Libraries and the End of History.

I’d like to emphasize the idea of “citizen-centered,” because it resonates with the idea at the heart of critical literacy, and it goes in with the evolution of thought that started as far back as Jaques Ranciere. There’s not much that is revolutionary with  these theories, they’ve evolved over time, and are part of the history of libraries. We’ve come a long way from chaining books to tables, or from being closed-stack, and began providing people with the means to put things together their own way. We need to build and explore library theory that reflects those interests, and not lock ourselves into the world as it is. That’s merely technique.