According to academic libraries, there’s a just-over-the-horizon golden age in which “you always have whatever scholarship you need access to, at any time and wherever you are.” This quote comes from my library’s “welcome” page, but it could as easily come from many American university libraries.
Having e-books supersede and replace physical books is essential to the vision. Accordingly, libraries have made great advances in digitizing their paper book collections and making them available online through Google Books, HathiTrust and other digitized collections. These superb collections make the vision seem possible, enticing and even closer than we might imagine. Many university libraries have taken another step toward its realization by instituting policies that either prefer or require new book acquisitions to be in digital rather than paper format, when available.
But there is a fundamental difference between digitized versions of physical books and born-digital books. While the former move us closer to the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” future, the economics of the latter are pushing us in the opposite direction, toward a future in which access to digitally published titles is restricted and provisional.
This difference becomes apparent when we consider interlibrary loan. I regularly explain to patrons that they cannot use an e-book licensed by another University of California campus and that their best option is to request a paper copy by interlibrary loan. In one recent case a patron wanted a book that had been published only online and only as part of a package. Since subscribers to the package were prohibited from sharing any of its contents via interlibrary loan, there were only two options for the patron: either she had to read it while physically situated at a subscribing library, or my library would have had to pay many thousands of dollars to license the package.
To understand what is happening, it is first necessary to understand that digitizing projects like Google Books and HathiTrust are possible because libraries own the physical books they contain and because they choose to exercise the option to make them available in this fashion. The key point is ownership. Acquisition of a physical book brings with it a consistent and well understood set of rights and restrictions that have been clearly defined and relatively stable for more than a century.
Collectively we refer to these rights as conferring ownership. The principle that the sale of a book extinguished the right of the seller to control the subsequent disposition of a book was established by the United States Supreme Court back in 1908 in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus and reaffirmed only last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Known as the first-sale doctrine, this principle underpins fundamental practices of a research library. It means that libraries can do pretty much what they wish with their books as long as those actions do not violate copyright (or other) law -- such venerable library practices as lending books to whomever they choose and for however long they wish, sharing them through interlibrary loan and selling or giving them away derive from the first-sale doctrine.
First-sale doctrine also provides the legal basis for such innovative practices as digitizing books; if the digitized books are in the public domain, then libraries can make them freely available, as they do with the full-view titles in HathiTrust. Copyright law and court decisions also permit digitization of in-copyright books for such transformative uses as full-text searching (you can find out if a term is used in a book, and how often, even if you can’t see it online) and data mining of digitized collections to discover patterns of thought and word use. One of the most exciting uses of digitized in-copyright titles is to provide print-impaired readers with full-text, screen-readable access to a body of literature orders of magnitude greater than previously available.
Born-digital e-books are very different animals than digitized e-books, even though they may appear similar on the screen. Where digitized e-books are owned by libraries, born-digital e-books are almost always only licensed from either the publisher or a third-party vendor, not purchased outright. The distinction between owning and licensing means, among other things, that the digital file is located on the seller’s server and not on one owned or controlled by the library. Additionally, the bundle of rights associated with ownership of a physical book is not transferred intact when a library merely pays for access.
E-book licenses vary widely. At one end are subscription packages with low per-title prices and few rights; a library’s patrons can access a subscription title only as long as it pays an annual subscription fee, effectively renting the books like you rent a car. Libraries’ ability to share titles acquired this way is extremely limited.
At the other end are licenses that ensure the library’s access to the title “in perpetuity,” for a one-time fee, permitting the library to engage in many of the practices associated with owned books. Most limited perpetual access e-books licensed by libraries (in contrast with inexpensive personal copies) generally cost about the same as a physical book, but add on rights and users and prices quickly escalate by three and five times. (The per-title cost drops if book packages are licensed, but bulk acquisition has problems of its own, and in my opinion should be avoided.)
I am aware of a single major vendor that permits the purchase of an e-book allowing a library to download and maintain a copy of the title on its own hardware, but the rights that accompany a title purchased this way are still far more limited than those associated with a purchased book. For example, it would be a violation of the purchase agreement to send one of these books out on interlibrary loan; only a single chapter can be shared per request.
In addition, the fact that titles are licensed enables the owner to engage in practices that libraries traditionally reject. Foremost among them is gathering data about readers. For libraries, protection of reader privacy is a core value, and they routinely break the connection between borrower and book as soon as the book has been returned.
Vendors, on the other hand, can monitor and record individual patrons’ book choices. They can even assert control over readers’ behavior. Once, when I was skimming an e-book, a “Browse Warning!” appeared, asserting that I was either illegally copying pages or “navigating the book in an inappropriate manner.” Were I to continue my inappropriate navigation, the vendor warned, it might not only cut me off from this book, but from all its books. I never skimmed one of the vendor’s titles again.
Finally, there is a separate problem associated with the practice of licensing, not purchasing e-books. The perpetual access model assumes that the publisher or vendor of the title is a stable, financially secure corporation that possesses the expertise to write -- or at least vet -- complex legal instruments and has invested in whatever backup mechanisms are needed to provide satisfactory assurances of access, perpetual or otherwise. However, there are ever-increasing numbers and varieties of small, individual and ephemeral publishing outlets that lack the resources to meet library standards. Consequently libraries are simply unable to acquire the e-books produced by a growing segment of the publishing industry.
For all these reasons, born-digital e-books pose significant challenges to libraries’ abilities to operate effectively, protect their patrons and meet their needs, and acquire the books they need at a reasonable cost. If libraries are to continue to provide the unique services they offer, if they are to realize the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” vision, and if they are to support the future use of their holdings in ways we cannot yet imagine, they need to own, not merely license books. And e-book ownership needs to be more closely equivalent to ownership of a physical book than is currently the case.
In short, we need to renegotiate the way libraries operate in the e-book marketplace so that they can fulfill their unique and irreplaceable functions while also ensuring that publishers and authors receive their due. It will be expensive, if we can ever get there. Books will cost more and libraries will have to develop the infrastructure needed to host, preserve and deliver the books they acquire. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. We have some existing, if imperfect, purchase models on which to build. It will take time, and the golden age may be farther off and not as perfect as we had hoped. In the meantime, libraries should ease off on their preference for licensing e-books instead of buying physical ones.
Daniel Goldstein is an arts, humanities and social sciences librarian at the University of California at Davis.
Students at Queen's University, in Canada, are demanding that the institution do something about an instructor who is teaching scientifically repudiated views that vaccines harm children, The Globe and Mailreported. Students have shared PowerPoint presentations and other course materials from the instructor, who teaches health. Students have complained in the past, but the issue is attracting more attention now because of the measles outbreak in the United States. Queen's officials said they are investigating the situation. The instructor, Melody Torcolacci, did not return an e-mail message from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment. The Globe and Mail reported that Torcolacci is a former shot-put national champion in Canada and former head coach of the Queen’s track and field program.
The National Labor Relations Board issued three decisions Wednesday regarding religious colleges where faculty members have attempted to form unions and where administrators have objected, saying that their spiritual affiliation puts them outside of the board’s jurisdiction. In each decision -- regarding Seattle University, Saint Xavier University and Manhattan College, all of which are Roman Catholic -- the board remanded the case back to the NLRB regional directors to take appropriate action in light of the recent NLRB decision regarding Pacific Lutheran University.
In that case -- which many called a major win for unions and a blow to longstanding legal precedents challenging the right of tenure-line faculty members at private institutions and faculty members generally at religious institutions to freely form unions -- the board said adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran could form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union. The board based its decision on its opinion that adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran didn't perform specific religious functions that might cause them to fall outside its jurisdiction and on the opinion that the faculty members lacked the managerial duties that might prevent them from forming a union.
Louisa Edgerly, an adjunct instructor of communications at Seattle, said the ruling appeared to be good news that brought the would-be union “one step closer” to finally being able to be count the union election votes that have been impounded as the university appeals a local NLRB decision in the adjuncts’ favor. William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said the orders appear to be largely procedural, but that it was “important to recognize that the NLRB could have chosen to decide the merits of the issues in each case based on record already before it, as it did in Pacific Lutheran. Instead, it has sent each case back to the regional director for further processing, which might result in additional briefing by the parties or the reopening of the record for the presentation of supplemental evidence and argument based on the standards set forth in Pacific Lutheran.”
Adjuncts at Boston University voted by a two to one margin to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Wednesday. Some 750 adjuncts make up the union, which is part of SEIU's Faculty Forward campaign to organize part-time professors around Boston. Adjuncts already have formed unions at Tufts, Lesley and Northeastern Universities. Laurie LaPorte, an lecturer in anthropology at Boston University, said in a statement that organizing "started with a simple premise: if excellence in learning is the core mission of our university, then we need real investment in the classroom -- in the equitable, sustainable treatment of all educators." Colin Riley, university spokesman, said that the institution is "looking forward to working with the union representing our adjunct faculty."
I remember well the meeting with a senior faculty leader. It was early in my Wesleyan University presidency, and I was excited about the many things I hoped to see accomplished. We were talking about the objectives for the year that the administration would be presenting to the board of trustees, and I asked what her goals were. Clearly surprised by my invitation to help set the agenda for the university, this faculty veteran -- well respected by her colleagues and a devoted mentor for her students -- explained to me that she would do what she could to ensure that not much would change. When I seemed incredulous, she emphasized that “preventing disaster is not the same as doing nothing.”
What to make of this exchange? Emblematic of the university’s disdain for innovation? Of higher education’s notorious inertia in the face of change? Certainly the conservative dimension of academic culture is real and important, protecting the university from merely echoing microtrends that may be irrelevant, even antithetical, to quality education. But in this age of increasingly rapid change fueled by technological innovation, we might find, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein, that we have been protected out of all we own.
In their Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in Higher Education, William Bowen and Gene Tobin defend a contemporary model of shared governance, one that emphasizes robust consultation. In the end, however, they stress that if colleges and universities are to thrive in the current environment, the power to initiate changes and make them stick must be centralized. Although recognizing that new academic programs need faculty support, they underscore that the allocation of resources and even pedagogical initiatives are going to be most successful with leadership unbeholden to any existing constituency.
Successful change will emerge, Bowen and Tobin underscore, when leaders work for the good of the university as a whole and over time. Given that both authors were themselves presidents, it is unsurprising that when they look for people thinking of the good of the whole, they find them in the central administration.
Colleges and universities have been under enormous pressure to change, and change they have. Faculty authors of the Yale Report of 1828 defended their work against critics who claimed that colleges “are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.” Sound familiar? The 19th-century Yale faculty pointed out that they also had to deal with alumni who complained that the college was no longer teaching the way it had decades before, just as today college-educated parents often express surprise that their children aren’t learning the same things they were taught. The notion that professors have been teaching the same things in the same way for centuries is just false.
But modifications of the curriculum, even alterations in teaching style, may not be what the “disrupters” are looking for when they talk about the importance of transforming higher education. They want universities to be more nimble, capable of responding to the needs of students and to “just-in-time” research opportunities as these emerge. Critics rightly charge that the structures of universities insulate faculty, administrators and students from many stimuli (and incentives) for change. Sure, new kinds of colleges, like Minerva, and new platforms for taking classes, like Coursera, are putting pressure on some colleges to adjust, but according to higher education’s critics, most institutions just go along their merry way.
I served as president at the California College of the Arts before coming to Wesleyan, and I’ve seen some pretty big changes at those institutions. Some of these changes came from enterprising faculty, others from students, and some from administrators who saw real advantages to altering the traditional models we were using. A few came from my own initiatives. All of them eventually required the kind of consultation Bowen and Tobin describe, though none of them would have had consensus right off the bat. In higher education, the promise of consensus usually devolves into the threat of veto. Consensus kills innovation.
At California College of the Arts (CCA), I had a key role in the momentous decision to change the name of the institution, long known as the California College of Arts and Crafts. Although I was personally committed to many of the values of the arts and crafts movement out of which the college emerged, I came to see that the name was no longer helpful in designating a vibrant place where digital design, architecture, film, fine arts and writing often intermingled in powerfully creative ways. We could have embraced the name and made it work, I thought, but the leadership of the college hadn’t been doing that.
For at least 20 years much energy had been spent complaining about or defending the name. As president, I was able to guide a process involving faculty, students and board members that eventually led to the name being changed. My major contribution was just setting parameters for the discussion and saying that we would finish our decision-making process within a year. Either we would change the name or we would not talk about the issue for the duration of my presidency. In 2003, the board unanimously approved the name California College of the Arts, with the understanding that craft, design, architecture and writing were all part of our approach to learning through the arts.
After about three years or so at CCA, I introduced the idea of an M.B.A. with a focus on design. Lots of people laughed at the idea of a business degree at an art school. Having no business background myself, I hired a faculty member, designer Nathan Shedroff, to help plan a distinctive business program that would work in our creative context. The provost (now president), Steve Beal, and the CFO, David Kirshman, were enormously helpful in launching the program, which has now received international recognition from the design and business communities.
We brought the program for detailed discussion with more faculty members only after we had done quite a lot of planning -- and knew that we would not spend very much money in advance. Before launching the program, nobody else at the institution would have been invested in its success. If we had asked for a vote, we would have lost. Now, with allied programs, a larger faculty and successful alumni, the graduate Design Business program is an important part of the wonderfully eclectic CCA mix.
If these examples from CCA depict presidential initiative, two examples from Wesleyan shine a light on how individual faculty members can create broad institutional change. Over the past 30 years, Jeanine Basinger has taken film studies from the small interest area of a few colleagues to a fragile interdisciplinary program and on to a department with its own lines and facilities. As she has told me more than once, “They tried to kill it many times.” But through her indefatigable efforts together with her example as a teacher and scholar, she turned film studies into one of the university’s most widely recognized areas of excellence. And she’s still going. Two years ago, I asked her and her colleagues to make the interdisciplinary department, including an important historical archive, into the College of Film and the Moving Image. We are now building an endowment for C-Film as a permanent part of our academic offerings.
Biologist and environmental scientist Barry Chernoff was one of several faculty who responded to my call for new academic proposals when I began my tenure at Wesleyan. A radically interdisciplinary scientist, Barry wanted to bring more collaborative research and teaching under the environmental studies tent. In 2009 we created the College of the Environment, a program in which all students have both a major in environmental science and a linked major -- be it economics or biology, anthropology or dance. In addition, there is a think tank attached to the college in which faculty and undergraduates from very different departments work together on collaborative projects. A number of important publications have already emerged, and we have built a significant endowment for the program.
In both these cases, individual faculty were not only the instigators of new programs, they were also the builders. As president, I knew when to get out of the way and also when I could help them raise additional resources to make their enterprises sustainable. This last part is often important in gaining buy-in from the faculty more generally. Raising additional resources “expands the pie” so that older departments don’t block change out of fear that they themselves will receive less.
But the notion of expanding the pie also fosters illusions because it masks the trade-offs that should be visible with innovation. If new programs become more successful, according to transparent criteria, then resources should be reallocated. That often painful process of reallocation, as Bowen and Tobin argue, is the responsibility of the administration, and, ultimately of the board. It’s up to the president and provost to explain publicly the criteria for the distribution of resources.
The faculty rightly controls the kinds of courses offered for credit, and it has clear rules for approving promotions, new classes and different modes of teaching. At Wesleyan, though, students have often played an important role, instigating changes in the curriculum by bringing their intellectual interests to the fore (we want environmental design! we want more art classes! more labs!). Recently students, along with a group of faculty who wanted to experiment with intensive teaching, were instrumental in opening up the academic calendar. They made a strong pitch to faculty leadership to offer classes in the summer, and then in the winter break. The intensive courses award full academic credit and are offered at sharply discounted tuition, incentivizing breaking away from the conventional undergraduate calendar.
These proposals had strong administrative support, and it was crucial that there were faculty leaders who were willing to try the new modes of teaching. Our summer and winter terms are small, but they are growing. They offer all students more pathways to complete their degrees, often with substantial cost savings and evidence of deep learning.
My final example of change at Wesleyan is my decision to partner with Coursera in the summer of 2012. This was an unusual moment, a time when I was convinced that we at Wesleyan needed more experimentation with online learning, a time of both MOOC mania and backlash against MOOCs. I was very impressed with Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller’s approach to building a group of strong classes through an iterative process of running them and improving them.
Since these classes were not being offered for credit, I knew I did not need authorization from the faculty as a whole. We were going to produce the classes very economically, so money wasn’t the issue. I decided to join the first group of Wesleyan teachers online, inviting some of the most respected and celebrated faculty members to join me in the experiment. We were very fortunate to enlist five colleagues from very different departments. None of us knew precisely what we were getting into, but we all were curious about pedagogical innovation and eager to share our classes for free with students from around the world.
When I announced this partnership at the first faculty meeting of the year, there was real consternation. Did I actually have the authority to do this, I was asked by one of my senior colleagues. Yes, I did, at least according to the board chair and the general counsel. I knew that the ice on which we’d started skating was thin, but in the end the success of our efforts would be judged by the individual teachers involved and then on a strategy and policy level by the relevant faculty and board committees.
If I had asked a general faculty meeting for authorization, I doubt we would have ever gotten started. Instead, I asked the faculty committees to respond to our reports on the classes we taught, to refine the process of selecting teachers and subjects, and to help determine which lessons from our online classes were relevant to our work on campus.
Wesleyan is a small place. We have around 3,000 students, mostly undergraduates. In our work with Coursera over the last few years, we have worked with more than 1,000,000 students from over 120 countries. All of us who have taught in the program find it exciting and frustrating by turns -- and tremendously invigorating. We are taking lessons into flipped classrooms as well as into more traditional seminars. The partnership with Coursera continues. We are learning together. If in the end the faculty deems the experiment a failure, then will move onto other experiments.
Changes are happening at America’s colleges and universities as faculty, students and administrators grapple with making the education they offer more empowering beyond the university. Although the faculty as a whole may sometimes function as a guardian of mission and tradition, individual professors are often catalysts for innovations that can be put in the service of broad, strategic goals. As Bowen and Tobin emphasize, strong leadership recognizes the need for faculty as genuine participants rather than as adversaries.
And it’s not just faculty who can launch sustainable change. Sometimes initiatives come from students eager to try to modes of learning, or to delve more deeply into subjects not yet well represented in the curriculum. Deans, provosts and presidents learn to get out of the way when tailwinds can carry worthwhile initiatives to fruition, but they also can themselves initiate curricular experimentation in areas where there is of yet no campus constituency for new programs.
Bowen and Tobin’s main point is as simple as it is important: effective shared governance is not divided governance. Coordinated consultation and transparent decision making can ensure that universities aren’t just protecting themselves out of all they own, but are learning how to promote inquiry, learning and creative practice in ways that remain most empowering today.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.
As of this week, Intellectual Affairs has been running for 10 years, which is nearly as long as Inside Higher Ed itself has been around. My title when it all began was Essayist at Large, as in fact it still is: I can’t imagine a nicer euphemism for being, in effect, a perpetual student -- and somehow making a job of it to boot.
Few publications would offer such a position to a writer; fewer still, if any, would give a columnist such a long tether for such a long time. Inside Higher Ed’s exact launch date is not clear. The beta version went live during the Modern Languages Association’s annual conference at the very end of 2004, which the founding editors covered as it happened. But a placeholder page (the gamma version?) was online even before that. In any event, Intellectual Affairs made its debut on Feb. 1, 2005 -- a short time after IHE hit the ground running as a fully functioning (if, for a time, woefully understaffed) news organization, reporting on academe and publishing throughout the workweek.
As it happens, the column premiered almost exactly 19 years after my first article for the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca. Being so alert to the passing of anniversaries is undoubtedly a tic of consciousness, but in this case it underscores something that’s informed the column from the start: an effort to carry forward into the digital era as much of the tradition of the journalism of ideas and haute vulgarization as possible. The models I had in mind included the sort of review-essay that Francis Jeffrey fostered in The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, the more casual and sprightly genres of the feuilleton and the causerie, and the mode of confessional criticism practiced by Seymour Krim, one of this column’s patron saints.
While the rise of e-publishing may be irresistible, it seems that reports of the death of the traditional book are somewhat exaggerated. But the shape of the public-intellectual sphere has been forever changed by the past decade. It may amuse younger people to know that in 2005 the idea that scholars would blog was controversial. Just try to stop them, I remember thinking. (For a taste of what went on, search “Ivan Tribble.”) Both digital boosterism and neo-Luddism have always struck me as dead ends. Each evades the task of paying attention to the world and checking how well one’s stock of ideas and attitudes holds up in the flux of experience.
Writing in the preface to the American edition of his essay collection Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco said something that left a huge impression on me and set the course leading to this column: “I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them, and then [you] forget about them.” It would seem that I took this even more to heart than I realized: by the time something is published, I don't want to spend another minute thinking about it. Sharp-eyed readers will occasionally point out a blunder or, more often, a garbled passage. (There is a very efficient gremlin who occasionally removes something important from a sentence, such as its verb, or the word "not.") Repairs are made, but otherwise my habit after filing a column and responding to edits is to go to work immediately on the next piece without looking back.
But here's a selection of columns that seem to have held up reasonably well, assembled with the help of friends with better memories than mine.
A handful of pieces elicited discussion far beyond the ivory tower, such as the early one on the 19th-century American novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, considering how and when her work had ever been called back from its richly deserved neglect. Another column from that period was among the very first articles about Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" when Princeton University issued it as a hardback booklet. The review had little or nothing to do with On Bullshit's subsequent best-seller status, but it was surely the only mass-media response taking into account the secondary literature. A column on the postpublication peer review of Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky seems to have made its way around the world and, if memory serves, into French translation. But the most notorious column, it seems, expressed my dismay at the as-told-to autobiography of Cornel West, a good man undone by mere celebrity.
The closest runner-up would probably be the piece discussing a publisher's effort to whitewash the abundant and well-documented scholarly transgressions of Michael Bellesiles. While distasteful to write, doing so was a basic obligation of intellectual hygiene. Much more agreeable was writing the profile of George Scialabba, an important cultural critic who now has the wider audience he deserves. It's also been gratifying to be able to alert readers (academic and otherwise) to university-press books shortly after they've appeared, such as a French historian's memoir on working in the archives, or a fascinating monograph on Santa Muerte, "the skeleton saint," who hears the prayers of spurned lovers, gangsters and entrepreneurs. And likewise to share the news that a fellow C. L. R. James scholar had discovered the long-lost script for a play about Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead. And the column's readers heard about The New Inquiry (here and here, for example) a year or two before The New York Times got to it.
Publication of Zizek's Jokes by MIT Press provided the opportunity to confess my secret shame at having dubbed the Slovenian thinker "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- an endlessly repeated phrase that will surely outlive me, despite it being, on the whole, fairly idiotic. Among the earlier Intellectual Affairs columns was a literature review on the field of Oprah studies, followed in due course by an interview with the organizer of the first academic conference on a reality TV show called Jersey Shore. More interesting and rewarding was a book that established how career criminals signal their competence to each other (despite the lack of an established credentialization process) and applied its findings to the world of incompetent-but-powerful senior faculty in Italian universities. The column explored such 21st-century questions as the sociology of trolling and the value of a comprehensive and professionally curated archive of Twitter.
The troubling developments at Miskatonic University were a challenge to report on, and I still regret covering part one of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, which gave the expression "train wreck" a whole new meaning. Reviewers have said that the budget and quality declined sharply with each new installment. I find that impossible to imagine but am glad to take their word for it.
Finally: I've written a number of commentaries and tributes following the deaths of various people, including the historian Philip Rieff and pomo prophet Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to the Google, I see that references to each of them have turned up in later years, including a description of J. B. as being, "in his day, [a] major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing," which still seems apt. So does the obit that says, "Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet," especially given Reed's place as a student of the poet Delmore Schwartz. A couple of the tributes were hard to write because the subjects were friends. Over the first few years of the column, I always kept in mind that the novelist and critic John Leonard was out there in the audience reading it. He said as much, which was inspiring and intimidating at the same time, and I miss him.
By contrast, the suicide of Aaron Swartz -- who, when we met, didn't look old enough to shave -- still seems difficult to believe. Yesterday I saw his photo while going through the spring catalog for The New Press, which is bringing out The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz in May. A worthy effort, but it's hard to feel anything but numb at the prospect of the posthumous collected works of an author who died at 26.
Ben Goldacre writes something in the preface to I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which left me slightly dreading today's column: "Reading your own work from 10 years ago is a bit like being tied down, with your eyelids glued open, and forced to watch ten-foot videos of yourself saying stupid things with bad hair." Indeed! It's been a week of careful, strategic combing, that's for sure. It has been an interesting decade -- and while the work seems never to get easier, in a sense the effort is its own reward. (I wouldn't want the editors to take that too literally, because I'm counting on the paycheck.) And as the guy in a medieval shtetl is supposed to have said about his job keeping watch for the Messiah so he could blow a horn to tell everyone else: "Well, at least it's steady work."
As Victor E. Ferrall Jr. offered a valediction for the liberal arts here, declaring them “over the brink,” colleagues at the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., were abuzz designing its future: #libedunbound.
During a session entitled “Liberal Education Unbound: The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment,” Rebecca Frost Davis of St. Edward’s University asked audience members to live tweet their reflections to the hashtag #libedunbound, to illustrate the productive potential of this networked back channel. The tweets posted during the session (including my own) were less than inspirational, perhaps because they were penned (thumbed?) on demand, in response to an assigned topic, “Where and from whom do you as a professional learn outside of the formal classroom or conference session?”
But the hashtag itself was inspired, as became evident during a later session, “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem,” led by Randy Bass of Georgetown University. Bass invited the panelists -- José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College; Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University; and J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College -- to move away from technology-driven questions about the future of higher education and instead pose a true design challenge: How would we reimagine and reconstruct the future (of) #libedunbound? As the speakers took on a series of probing questions about the possibilities as well as the threats “the new learning ecosystem” might represent, audience members’ -- and the panelists’! -- live tweets were projected onto a large screen. In this way, the panel’s official channel ran alongside its unofficial back channel.
The panel’s oral channel focused on a new vision of learning that will transform our conception of the liberal arts and higher education alike. Panelists spoke, for example, not just about students as content creators but about professors as “cognitive coaches.” They hypothesized that the role of faculty members might become to make their learning -- as process, not as an achieved state of being -- visible to students and to one another. How will we fulfill our responsibility to prepare students to “live fully in their time”? Are we preparing our graduate students to teach the future generations of networked learners?
As the panelists considered the conceptual parameters of the new learning ecosystem, the digital back-channel chatter -- a word that I find particularly suitable, as it captures the unscripted and unedited murmur of live tweeting -- both deepened and challenged the panel’s official argument.
Some tweets obliquely echoed the panelists, while others amounted to philosophical challenges and engaged fellow tweeters in a parallel conversation. One tweet asked, for example, if “it is possible to think deeply on [T]witter” (@noreen_o), while another (my own) mused that the concept of depth may have to shift in a networked environment. Particularly amusing was the banter about an imaginary gadget that a panelist described as the “academic [F]itbit,” which might provide future students and professors with a feedback loop on vital cognitive data. But even that jest quickly turned into a serious query: What questions would we ask about our learning and how would we measure it? How will we teach our students to read and monitor their own data?
We were, I admit, in a glorious echo chamber of like-minded liberal education enthusiasts, caught up in one of those electric moments of communal inquiry. We needed no convincing of the value of liberal education and we have not given up on its future. Ferrall is no doubt correct that we cherish liberal education because it helps students become “critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.” But what the hundreds of tweets to #libedunbound also demonstrated is that we may benefit from the exercise of thinking about the future of liberal education away from the historically accurate but no longer productive dichotomy that juxtaposes it with vocational training.
In the knowledge economy, critical thinking and what we typically call skills are much more closely bound and more difficult to disentangle than they were at the inception of the liberal arts centuries ago or even in the relatively recent course of their 200-year history in U.S. higher education. As Gardner Campbell observed from the panel table, the new learning ecosystem offers innovative symbolic possibilities that liberal education has yet to explore. Our conception of the liberal arts will evolve with the learning ecosystem that it inhabits.
That is the key point Ferrall missed: liberal education has never been static. An argument that presents it as such has already given up on its key component: learning as a never finished process, always renewed and always contextual. #Libedunbound may be one way to capture this idea: the chatter to this hashtag indeed emphasized active liberal learners of the future over and above the nominalized form of liberal “education.”
Any valediction for the liberal arts should, like John Donne’s, at the very least “forbid mourning”: our historical moment can certainly be read as a “breach” of the venerable tradition, but it must equally be read as presenting an opportunity for its “expansion.” As Nicola Pitchford of Dominican University of California observed in a tweet from the session, “Instructional technology is for augmentation of what we do, not automation.” Any tradition worth preserving must live and breathe with the times, and we are responsible for its augmentation in the future.
“Valete artes liberales.” Not yet. And hearty welcome to #libedunbound.
Eva Badowska is interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University.