Big Unanswered End-0f-Year Questions

A look back and a hopeful look forward, thanks to a brilliant essay by Kevin Seeber.

December 17, 2014

I thought I’d look back at a year’s worth of Babel Fishing to see what was on my mind in 2014. Privacy. Net neutrality. What libraries mean as social institutions. Where social justice fits into what we do and what happens when we forget that it should. How and why librarians and scholars should reorganize our work and resources so that knowledge is open to all. How to help undergraduate students learn to navigate that record of knowledge so that they can make their own.

These are issues that have been on my mind for much more than a year, and I hope we’ll see progress on some of these fronts, though I think we librarians need to do more to defend what really matters. Privacy matters. Equal access to knowledge matters. Genuine learning isn’t going to happen thanks to learning analytics, algorithms, and forcing underpaid writing instructors to teach more sections of writing without extra pay or support. Algorithms don’t do nearly as good a job of teaching writing as actual caring human beings – nor will spending money on data mining schemes that will supposedly improve student success do much good if we aren’t willing to help students new to college have human company as they learn the hard business of writing for college and beyond. If this is penny wise, we are trillions of pounds foolish.

These issues are all bound up together: why do have universities and libraries? To grow our local market share, train workers for non-existent jobs, count lots of things and produce reports to prove we deserve to exist? Or do these social institutions – universities and libraries – exist to promote freedom and wisdom? I’m increasingly convinced we can’t do both - accommodate number-hungry market-driven algorithmic "education" while trying to squeeze in a few minutes of teasing students with ideas of freedom and wisdom. I'm increasingly convinced that everything we do needs to be considered through a critical lens that questions the imperative to count, measure, prove, produce, and compete constantly. That we don't set aside hard questions in favor of ones that we can easily satisfy or "cover" in fifty minutes.

That sounds like a vague new year’s resolution, and no more helpful than those generally turn out to be. But I do have one thing worth sharing – a really insightful, inspiring, and challenging essay by Kevin Seeber, “Affect, Evidence, and Oppression,” which weaves together just about everything that matters to me in a way that makes me question everything afresh. It’s that affect piece – that human piece – that we jettison when we trim budgets by cramming more students into writing classrooms and more courses into adjunct contracts. It’s that slipperiness of evidence and knowledge and the creative challenge of making judicious, informed decisions that we lose when we treat the library as a shopping mall for those five scholarly articles required for a paper so that students can "succeed." It’s the point of it all that we lose when we tally up numbers of students entering the library, using databases, attending library sessions, and GPAs and congratulate ourselves on our relevance and institutional value.

These students of ours are human beings. Their lives matter. We have to do better. 


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