U.S. copyright law significantly hinders access to information (essay)

Last summer, the U.S. Senate easily confirmed Carla Hayden to became the first new librarian of Congress in almost three decades.

At her confirmation hearing last April, Hayden conversed fluently with admiring members of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. All enthused about the promise of the internet to make information universally available. All agreed on the need to digitize the Library of Congress’s holdings and place those holdings on the web. Senator John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, said it was time to get the Library of Congress “out to the hinterlands.” Hayden agreed.

In this era of fierce partisanship, the genial bipartisanship on display that day was remarkable, flowing naturally from the self-evident value of disseminating information as widely as possible.

Good education happens, and, indeed, democracy itself works, only when students and citizens enjoy unfettered access to good information and good scholarship. In practice this means that neither a homeschooled fifth-grader, nor my 15-year-old son, nor a high school student in rural Arkansas, nor a college student at a state university, nor a scholar in Niger, should be denied free and easy access to nearly all unclassified information held by the Library of Congress. Or, for that matter, from any major library.

Current technology makes this somewhat lofty vision eminently achievable.

But standing in the way is an 800-pound gorilla: U.S. copyright law.

The current copyright statute, passed in 1976 and revised in 1998, grants authors of books, articles, films and other creative work exclusive rights to their publications -- including the exclusive right to distribute their publications -- for the length of their earthly sojourn. Plus 70 years after they die. The vast bulk of material published in the U.S. after 1923 cannot be digitized and shared.

Hayden knows this. She sees the gorilla every day. But she ignored him during her confirmation hearing, thus placing herself in an awkward position. She could describe in the Senate hearing room the Library of Congress’s laudable decision to digitize the 1774-1804 papers of Alexander Hamilton, this past year’s unanticipated Broadway idol. But she could say nothing about most of the approximately 2,000 published works about Hamilton cataloged in the Library of Congress’s collection.

Might not a student/retiree/scholar/hipster interested in Hamilton’s papers be equally interested in John Chester Miller’s Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (1959), James Thomas Flexner’s The Young Hamilton (1978) or Albert Furtwangler’s The Authority of Publius (1984)? The Library of Congress and my library own all three books, but, under current law, we may not digitize or distribute any of them.

Examples of disconnects between copyright law and the public interest are endless. Should the mother of a child with leukemia enjoy access only to medical books published more than 70 years ago? Should the father of an autistic child read only scientific literature published before 1923? (Hint: the serious study of autism began only in the 1940s).

The point, here, is obvious: Congress’s library and other libraries cannot distribute most of their literature to most people. Current copyright law undermines the Library of Congress’s mission, Carla Hayden’s ideals, the professed desires of senators and, of course, the public interest.

It was not always so.

The first copyright statute, enacted in 1790, allowed authors to retain copyright in their work for 14 years. And they could, if they desired, renew that copyright for an additional 14 years. Congress believed that a maximum period of 28 years offered the “limited” protections authorized by the U.S. Constitution to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

Under the original statute, the Library of Congress, my library and any library in the world could digitize and disseminate without charge Miller’s, Flexner’s and Furtwangler’s studies of Hamilton to the homeschooled fifth-grader, to my 15-year old son, to the high school student in rural Arkansas, to the college student at a state university and to the scholar in Niger.

We have now, today, the technology to achieve the vision endorsed by our new (and possibly best) librarian of Congress -- a vision ostensibly shared by her admiring senatorial colleagues who, though they agree on little else, appear to agree on this.

What we lack and what we need is an old law -- an old law to serve new technology.

But first we need our new chief librarian to point at the gorilla, yell for Congress’s attention and beg the legislators who confirmed her to act in accord with the ideals they articulated last spring.

Bryn Geffert is the librarian of the college at Amherst College.

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Professor's anti-immigration comments on social media fuel a day of action on campus


Minnesota philosophy professor writes that immigrants have low IQs and refugees are part of "religious-political cult." Reaction is intense.

Advice to minority scholars for obtaining financial support for research (essay)

The freedom that research support brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color, writes Victor Ray, who gives advice on how to obtain it.

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Friday, February 24, 2017
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Thursday, February 23, 2017

An insider's view of the life of a first-generation scholar (essay)

While a huge literature exists on first-generation undergraduates, there is only silence about what happens to those students when they go on to doctoral or faculty life. Herb Childress provides an insider’s description.

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Colleges award tenure

Harvey Mudd College

  • Vivien Hamilton, history of science
  • Gordon Krauss, engineering
  • Ben Wiedermann, computer science

Macalester College

  • Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, international studies
  • Rivi Handler-Spitz, Asian languages and cultures
  • William Hart, religious studies
  • Andrea Kaston Tange, English
  • Mark Mandarano, music
  • J. Ernesto Ortiz-Díaz, Hispanic and Latin American studies
  • Karin Vélez, history

Middlebury College

Essay on the documentary “Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray” and Svend Brinkmann, “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze”

The documentary Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, shown at film festivals last year and broadcast on CNN a couple of months ago, is now available from Netflix, where it is certain to reach a much wider audience than Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, a new book from Polity. But they came to my attention within a few days of each other and now seem linked. Let’s start with the film.

James Arthur Ray was at one point regarded as a rising star in the world of self-transformation, giving lectures and workshops on how to escape emotional pain, reach your full potential and so forth. Self-transformation is a crowded field and a competitive market. The pool of potential customers is constantly replenished (the human condition disappoints a new batch daily) but so are the ranks of self-help authors, life coaches and other varieties of freelance sage. Until about 10 years ago Ray had only a middling success. Then he came to the attention of Oprah Winfrey and was asked to appear on her program to discuss the life-changing wisdom of a book and film called The Secret, which teaches the importance of thinking positive thoughts while also taking care to avoid thinking negative thoughts. I’m not clear if there is more to it than that, but it seems the universe is compelled to turn those thoughts into reality, somehow.

Ray seems to have had a telegenic and plausible manner and was invited back by Winfrey, at which point the universe started coming across for him in a big way. He filled auditoriums and wrote a book that reached the New York Times best-seller list. Clients were willing to pay thousands of dollars for Ray’s weeklong marathons of intensive paradigm shifting. One of the more demanding features of these retreats was a sweat lodge. Attendees packed themselves into a restricted, tentlike space for long periods, breathing steam until it felt like their lungs were on fire. Ray’s claim to be following a Native American spiritual practice ought to have been viewed with skepticism: shamans do not traditionally get paid per head.

The obvious potential for disaster was finally realized in late 2009, when three sweat-lodge participants died and 18 more ended up in the hospital. Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and spent two years in prison.

Enlighten Us tells this story while following Ray after his release from prison, as he seeks -- against very long odds -- to re-establish himself professionally. It may sound appalling that he even tries. But the documentarians are quite effective in letting him rationalize his effort to stage a comeback, trying to convert his prison experience into a teachable lesson in the power of positive thinking. The cringe factor comes in large part from the gradual revelation that Ray is not really malevolent, just incredibly obtuse -- shallow all the way down, the power of positive thoughts inuring him to any sense of guilt or responsibility for a needless loss of life. As far as James Arthur Ray is concerned, the three deaths were a learning experience, at least for him.

The sweat-lodge calamity must not have made the news in Denmark, where Svend Brinkmann is a professor of general psychology and qualitative methods at the University of Aalborg. Otherwise he surely would have mentioned it as a cautionary tale in Stand Firm, first published in Danish in 2014. James Arthur Ray embodies the very cultural trend that Brinkmann wants to resist:

The buzz all around us is about development, change, transformation, innovation, learning and other dynamic concepts that infuse the accelerating culture …. The upshot of this is that most of us are easy marks for all sorts of guidance, therapy, coaching, mindfulness, positive psychology and general self-development. In spheres like diet, health and exercise, a veritable religion has emerged that constantly churns out new edicts to follow and regimes to live by.

The mention of an “accelerating culture” driving the self-transformation craze comes from Brinkmann’s use of the social theory of Zygmunt Bauman, who died in England in January. I wrote about Bauman’s work in this column a while back and will forgo trying to boil it down any further now. Suffice to say that for Brinkmann, we are under pressure to be flexible, adaptable and affirmative toward the constantly changing and unpredictable demands that Bauman analyzed under the heading of “liquid modernity.”

You go with its flow, or else. “If you can’t stand the pace,” Brinkmann writes, “… the prescribed remedies are coaching, stress management, mindfulness and positive thinking.” And that’s just the short list: the coping technologies are just as subject to flux as anything else in liquid modernity. Brinkmann is not content to identify trends and complain about them, however, and recommends something even older than sweat lodges as well as considerably safer: the doctrines and practices of the Stoic philosophers.

Where positive visualization is preached nowadays (think of all the things you want to achieve!), the Stoics recommend negative visualization (what would happen if you lost what you have?). Where you are now encouraged to think in terms of constant opportunities, the Stoics recommend that you acknowledge and rejoice in your limitations. Where you are now expected to give free rein to your feelings at all times, the Stoics recommend that you learn self-discipline and sometimes suppress your feelings. Where death is now considered taboo, the Stoics recommend contemplating your own mortality on a daily basis, in order to nurture gratitude for the life you are living.

With tongue in cheek, he presents a seven-point plan for how to stop changing yourself and just get on with life. Despite the parodic gesture, Brinkmann is perfectly serious about trying systematically to undermine grandiose expectations regarding the self’s mutability, efficacy and entitlement. There is a dignity that comes with acknowledging limits; that is Brinkmann’s point in brief.

While reading Stand Firm, I thought of interviews with some of James Arthur Ray’s adherents in the documentary. They recalled how they discovered him while “ready to reach the next level in life” or to “go beyond everything that’s been holding me back.” They all seemed to have reached a fairly comfortable position in life (enough so to spend up to $10,000 in search of whatever wisdom they thought Ray had to teach) and it was hard to tell what they hoped to transform themselves into, exactly. Brinkmann’s book would seem to suggest they might not know that themselves, but some of them died, pointlessly, trying.

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We must expand our cultural understanding of who can engage and succeed in mathematics (essay)

One need only consider the cultural impact of the recent film Hidden Figures to see the need to expand our cultural understanding of who can engage in mathematics, writes Sara N. Hottinger.

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Actress Janelle Monáe discusses the film “Hidden Figures”
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Gender Gap in Academic Cardiology

Academic cardiology remains a medical field in which women are a distinct minority, and a new study suggests this is a particular problem at the senior levels. Only 15.9 percent of women in the field are full professors, compared to 30.6 percent for men. Notably, the gender gap remains significant when data are adjusted for age, years of experience and research productivity. The study was conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and was published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

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Faculty Layoffs at University of Phoenix

About 170 full-time faculty members at the University of Phoenix are losing their jobs, Phoenix Business Journal reported. Some of those faculty members, however, may be hired back as part-timers. The layoffs follow enrollment declines. A university statement said that in 2013, the university converted many part-time positions to full-time slots, hoping to improve retention rates, but that studies have not found a difference in retention rates in courses taught by full-time or part-time faculty members.

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Harvard Cutting Graduate Admissions

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is cutting the size of its incoming class. “In the process of developing the fall 2017 admissions targets in conjunction with the graduate financial aid budget, it became clear that a modest year-over-year reduction in class size would be necessary in order to ensure no disruption of support for current students,” the university said in a statement Monday, declining to share an exact percentage decrease in slots.

The decision was driven in part by lower-than-expected endowment results. Harvard announced earlier this academic year that its endowment had suffered a 2 percent, or $1.9 billion, loss, and that performance could be “muted” for some time to come. Harvard’s graduate school has relatively generous aid packages, with most Ph.D. students guaranteed funding and benefits for at least five years. At the same time, Harvard remains the world’s wealthiest university, with an endowment of $35.7 billion.

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