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A Surfeit of Surveys and Three Short Questions
April 11, 2013 - 9:47pm

The Ithaka Faculty Survey for 2012 is out. Just as in 2009, the faculty don’t think much of the library - except for the news that humanities faculty are a little more inclined than in the previous faculty survey to start their research using a library catalog. The report speculates this may be because many libraries are investing tens of thousands of dollars and an undetermined number of FTE in setting up discovery systems, software that allows searching multiple databases and the library’s catalog at once. It would be nice to all that expense is paying off, but I doubt it actually has an impact of faculty searches which are often for known items, something discovery systems seem to handle rather badly. As in 2009, the library’s most valued function is to pay the bills for content, but even that function is less important than it was when the survey was last conducted. I can't help wondering - could it be because libraries have less money and the bills are higher?

This time, the survey asked about librarians’ role in developing research skills. Less than half of faculty thought librarians played a role in gaining those skills, though slightly over half thought librarians were helpful to students doing research. To put it another way, nearly half of faculty respondents didn’t think librarians helped students with research and over half thought they had no role in student learning. (This makes me think we should stop writing so many articles about information literacy for other librarians and think about reaching the faculty. Just a thought.) Interestingly, a majority of respondents felt it was neither their job nor the job of librarians to help students develop the ability to locate and evaluate scholarly information, though around 40 percent felt students are bad at it. Either they’re okay with that lack of skill, or it’s somebody else’s problem, but not one librarians can help with.

It may be worth bearing in mind that the survey, which went out to just over 160,000 faculty members, had 5,261 responses (after lots of reminders). Though I trust Ithaka did its best, it’s hard to know what “the faculty” think based on a 3.5 percent response rate.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine what “the faculty” think about anything, given the findings of another report just out, one which tells us a whopping 76% of faculty are contingent. Those who are paid by the course earn a not-whopping $2,700 per course on average (and are probably reluctant to spend time answering surveys about libraries they don’t have time to use). Unfortunately the New York Times story on the report puts in the lede the salary paid to what they call the “academic elite” – full tenured professors at private research universities – which seems likely to lead the casual reader to the wrong conclusions. “Professors earn over $167,000 a year! No wonder tuition is through the roof!” Buried further down in the story is the fact that assistant professors at public universities earn on average $58,591 – and (even more pertinent) only 24 percent of the faculty are even in the running for that pay.  Instead of connecting the dots and seeing what happens when you stop funding public education, people often blame the cost of tuition on faculty salaries which, based on a lede in The New York Times, appear to be crazy high.

But wait, there are more efficiencies to be made! We can have machines grade student writing. That must be cheaper than having human beings do it. We can also detect whether students open their textbooks without, you know, having to pay attention to them, which means we can mechanize even more of the teaching process. As John Warner points out, mechanized writing assessment assumes that when we assign writing, we only want to find out if the student has written down the right answer. A machine can do that quickly, and can make her keep trying until she gets it right. But that’s not what we’re doing when we assign writing. It’s so far off it’s mind-blowing.

Let’s consider one more report that has just been published: one from the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ survey of employers. What do “job creators” want? Most of them want students who are capable of “critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.” They want more of this kind of education from colleges, not less. Add this to what we know from Project Information Literacy’s excellent report on what students experience in their first jobs – and what information skills employers feel is lacking -  and it seems even less likely that robo-grading and spying on textbook use will be a good substitute for human teaching.

So, after all of those surveys, Here are my three questions (for which there are, alas, no simple right answers):

  • Why would we expect libraries to matter when we assess the value of faculty using expensive credentialing performed by publishers but won’t pay most faculty a living wage?
  • How do we expect students to become information literate and ready for employment if we won’t invest in their learning?
  • When are we going to wise up?



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