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Let's (Not) Do the Numbers
December 3, 2012 - 10:48pm

Over the weekend I had a fascinating conversation over Twitter with Aaron  Tay, a brilliant young academic librarian at the University of Singapore. (I’m not the only one who thinks he’s smart; Library Journal named him a Mover and Shaker last year.) We were discussing Library Journal’s recent report, covered right here in Inside Higher Ed, about students’ views of academic libraries.

There’s really nothing earthshaking about it. It confirms what Project Information Literacy found some time ago, that students use libraries, but by and large don’t turn to librarians for help. No shocker, there; their course instructors are much more influential when it comes to guiding research. A majority of students use library databases (as was reported also in PIL’s research).

The number that caught Aaron’s attention was 40 – the percentage of students who don’t see a correlation between their campus library and their academic success. He found that troubling. I wasn’t at all surprised. When I was a student I probably thought I was the primary driver of my own success.

Why should these numbers bother us? I spent a lot of time in the library as an undergrad, but I was, frankly, a little odd. A lot of students were doing things I wasn’t: rehearsing plays, working in science labs, doing things with slide rules. (I’m old, okay?) The library was considered an important part of the university, an essential part, but I don’t remember anyone being disturbed if it didn’t capture the hearts and minds of 100 percent of the students. And this was before you could use the Internet to find a lot of good stuff. But that seems to be the rub. We’re not the only game in town, and that threatens us. It shouldn’t.

There seems to be a sense that if libraries can’t please everyone all the time, if they don’t have as much market share and mindshare as possible, they are not demonstrating their value and . . . and what? They’ll be closed? I can’t think of a single case in which that happened. Libraries ought to pay attention to the student experience, to the role libraries can play in learning, to the little human things that can make a library visit pleasant or a pain, and they should use imagination when it comes to what they can accomplish. But why does it matter so much whether students recognize our brand and find it valuable for their own self-interest? When did being liked become our mission?

I blame Mark Zuckerberg. Actually, I blame the larger forces that have primed us to believe that being liked in quantifiable numbers is our goal in life, that we are, in fact, more or less successful brands competing for market share. I blame the market fundamentalism that has seeped into every social exchange and every decision institutions make and fill us all with constant low-grade anxiety. If we weren’t so busy fretting about metrics, we might get some work done.

This mania for the metrics of likeability turns our students into (indebted and desperate) consumers. It  turns our interactions into measurable quantities we can use to score our value. It makes us forget we are humans and that our relationships need not be competitive.

In a provocative essay, learning technologist and rabble-rouser Richard Hall, who teaches at De Montfort University in the UK,  asks the provocative question, “Do Universities Care Too Much About Their Students?” When we’re counting how much love we get from students, or how successful we decide they are using mechanical measures, it isn’t because we care about actual individual students and their needs. We’re using them to demonstrate value. Our value, not theirs. They become a strange kind of currency we collect to stave off austerity.

We don’t have to think this way, as is pointed out in a marvelous whinge by a public servant and blogger who goes by the name Rusticello, who writes:  

markets are inventions. We make them, we devise them, we regulate them, and we invoke them as tikis to an all-powerful naturalizing force that absolves all of us for the injustices that are fundamental to being here. The market is a proxy for mechanical relations. As time goes by that proxy is standing in place for any number of things: for justice, for politics, for God-like determinism, for morality, for a life well lived, for bodies in rest and motion, for the operation of power. The market acts as an alibi for everything, bad things and good things . . .

The construction of the market as a natural force for efficiency is, to my mind, the core myth of modernity. It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card for governments and for citizens. No one need ever get down in the weeds of accountability and transparency because the market did it. I didn’t do it, no one saw me do it, you can’t prove anything. The market ate my homework.

I’ll just add one more from Music for Deckchairs, in which Kate Bowles critiques the way our institutions try to mechanize and measure our value and, in the process, miss it entirely.   

Even though every day we act out of courage, curiosity, and kindness, in our market-saturation we don’t know how to count these gestures . . . so we hardly recall them; they’re nowhere in our end of year reporting. We forget that we know how to act for any reason other than competitive self-interest . . .

But what if we pushed ourselves to think beyond the market as our governing authority, to remember what lies outside? What practical gestures of rank-blind respect and care in our university workplaces would we then choose to value, and how would we express our appreciation of those who make them every day—without creating yet another system of competitive reward?

She really wants to know. And so do I.

 

 

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