Getting Serious About Research Online

Recently, a small journal entitled RNA Biology announced that it will now require all authors to also create Wikipedia pages about their discoveries.. This move is, no doubt, trying to make the electronic content as credible and more accessible than the printed content. But how will academics embrace this mandate? Especially since, once the pages are posted, they could be changed by anyone.

Other recent headlines showed the Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy protection and two Detroit newspapers reducing their daily home delivery to only three days a week. This news made me ponder the ever-dynamic argument over the seriousness and necessity of printed publications. In my former life, before joining academe, I was a graphic designer, so my biases are toward all things print. I love print. I love the tangibleness of printed material, the presentation of the designs, the longevity of the output, and, in terms of academic publications, the seriousness of printed material. However, I also embrace technology and the flow of information now accessible to us because of it. But how do we manage this growing tide?

About six months ago, when I asked a graduate student about a theoretical framework he was using in a paper, he said he “researched” it. I winced to learn that this meant he merely Googled it. Similarly, when I asked another graduate student to conduct a literature review and find some articles about technology use by adults with developmental disabilities, he sent me an e-mail that consisted of three Web site addresses. That was it. I was shocked at his apparent laziness and naiveté on conducting research. But then I realized that no one had shown him how to conduct a proper literature review. No one had told him that referencing involved more than hyperlinks, and that referencing in and of itself had a hierarchy: Printed materials first, Web pages last, and wikis never. But wait, in 2006 the creator of Wikipedia advised us not to use the site as a source, and yet two years later he now wants to make the site more accepting to academic referencing by having “faculty-approved” sites. Also, wikis such as Scholarpedia claim to have content written by experts with a curator moderating all changes. Gray matter, it seems. If we are to use these quality online resources, while insisting on high standards for students, academics need to take seriously issues related to citing materials in media that didn’t exist a generation ago more seriously.

The new style guide of the Modern Language Association no longer recognizes print as the default medium. The recent American Psychological Association style guide includes many different types of electronic referencing. Yet it’s a race to see how credible and reference-worthy are newer forms of electronic communication. Referencing a blog, an online journal, an e-mail, a forum post, or a Podcast are all a part of APA referencing . But what about a “tweet” on Twitter, or a text message to one’s phone, or an instant message to one’s computer? Even though we can now cite electronic messages, many would argue that this is not equivalent to referencing something credible. When respected professionals cite Wikipedia, as with the recent case where a Connecticut Supreme Court justice used Wikipedia content as a source for his decision to support law to legalize gay marriage, isn’t this a justification for academics to also begin to embrace this site?

It seems that most of the communication that occurs over the Internet can be lumped under the reference of “personal communication”. But it’s time for this grouping to be broken down into more categories. Some issues that need to be specified include communication with someone who is unknown to the author; if the communication was conducted in real-time or was asynchronous; if the communication was solely one-way; or if it will be recoverable at a later date. The transitioning is also occurring because today’s technology allows for delivery of the content to be considered personal. How should we reference a mass e-mail sent to a person’s cell phone?

Personal information is transitioning into reliable news, and other gatekeeping organizations are embracing this movement. Although this is not a new phenomenon (i.e. the Zapruder film) the current transition is about every-man reporting:

  • Immediately after escaping from the burning Continental plane that skidded off of the Denver runway, a citizen journalist posted numerous messages about his experience and health status (he was unharmed) to the social networking site Twitter.
  • Television programs recently featured a cell phone image of a missing toddler; the image was taken by a Florida mall employee.
  • The New York Times encouraged readers to send in their photos during the recent elections and then posted a few on their home page.
  • Google announced that by analyzing search terms, it can track flu trends in the U.S. two weeks faster than traditional systems.

Since groundbreaking information may be delivered from a grassroots level, academics should not dismiss this type of content creation. A filtering process still needs to be in place, but there needs to be a wider acceptance of the various origins of the material. We need to have sound procedures for citing such materials to show that we are aware of their limitations, but also of their value.

Finally, we need to start attributing intellectual respect to online-only journals as much as we do to printed journals. Who cares about the output delivery method. It’s all about the content. If the Tribune Company decides to lessen its production of printed papers because they are too costly, does this mean that they are implying that printed content is less intellectual than Web content? Of course not. But academic circles are not all following suit. Online-only journals often have no impact factor scores, yet the students who use Google will find these journals pop up more frequently than the traditional publications. Perhaps this move toward paper-free publications will speed up the process of submitting an article, waiting for the first review, re-submitting the article with changes, waiting for the next review, (hopefully) getting the article accepted, and then waiting to have the article printed in the journal.

In my field, gerontechnology (you can Google that), the fact that this reviewing process can take over a year showcases how many articles are somewhat out-of-date due to the fact that technology can change so rapidly. It would be advantageous if this respected, peer-reviewed process were still in place for online-only journals; but because there is no waiting for the printed deliverable, the content would be disseminated much more quickly and consequently have a higher level of relevance. While this is the case in some fields, most others lag.

While it once made sense to equate print with quality, it’s time to embrace newer forms of communication as valid. If they need academically sound forms of verification and procedures for citation, let’s get to work.

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Sara Kubik is an associate faculty member in visual communications and design at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

These Kids Today!

At the National Book Critics Circle awards event last Thursday, I had the pleasure of presenting this year’s Balakian citation for excellence in book reviewing to Ron Charles, the weekly fiction critic for The Washington Post -- and once, in a previous incarnation, an assistant professor of English at Principia College. He has been a finalist for the award several times, displaying great patience with NBCC as we’ve climbed the learning curve. His acceptance speech was, by acclaim, the highlight of the evening.

But to judge by the blog chatter, the high point of Ron’s public impact actually came earlier this month, when his essay on the extracurricular reading habits of college students appeared. Citing recent best sellers reported from campus bookstores, he noted that you found nothing even vaguely akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the poetry of Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg. Instead, there were novels about wizardry and adolescent vampire romance.

“The only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, the choice of a million splendid book clubs. Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment. ... In the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today?”

As much as I like its author, some aspects of this complaint strike me as problematic. In general, of course, Ron Charles is pointing to a real phenomenon, a tendency towards juvenilization that seems all-pervasive at times. His observations call to mind Andrew Calcutt’s Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Castells), an insightful book from the late 1990s that still seems quite on-target.

To suppose that things were really that much better in decades past, though, may be the historical equivalent of an optical illusion. I don't know whether anyone was tracking campus bookstore sales in the 1950s or '60s. If so, the record would probably show Peyton Place and Happiness is a Warm Puppy doing pretty well – and Diana diPrima's poetry, or Herbert Marcuse's social criticism, not so much. When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981, my first roommate was quite devoted to Jonathan Livingston Seagull while the rest of my dorm was trying to imitate Hunter S. Thompson (in lifestyle, not prose style). The number of young people reading anything serious at any given time tends to be pretty small.

Via e-mail, I ran some of these thoughts by Ron -- who answered with good humor that he’d “just [been] giving a twist to the Old Man rant about Young People Nowadays,” after all.

“The presence of a few numbers and stats gave my essay the gloss of a piece of sociology that it doesn't really deserve,” he says. “I couldn't find much data about what college kids were reading in the '50s and '60s, and even the data available today are far more suspect than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, Follett and Barnes & Noble control a huge portion of the college bookstore market, so what's promoted on college campuses is far more homogenized and commercialized than in earlier decades. Also, many of the reporting college bookstores serve their communities at large, so there's no way to tell what's really being bought by college students and what's being bought by the professors' own young children or just people who happen to live near the university.”

Much of the discussion generated by his article has ignored such questions and gone directly to the argument that Ron Charles is a conservative dinosaur who must have been a teenager circa World War Two.

Either that, or he lives on a commune in Vermont where he went into hiding during the Nixon years and wrote his essay out of disappointment that he can’t recruit kids to the Weather Underground. (Possibly both.) Actually he is in his 40s, lives in a suburb, and has the demeanor of someone who sat out the Culture Wars as a conscientious objector.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he told me, “by the number of respondents who felt I wanted college students to start reading the works of Abbie Hoffman and other '60s and '70s writers. Or that I was complaining that they weren't reading more Serious Literature. That wasn't really my point: I was actually disappointed that they weren't reading more age-appropriate material: not stuff for middle schoolers and not stuff for adults, but all the kinds of crazy, wild, naïve, in-your-face, big-think literature that young people should be reading during that magical moment between high school and the first soul-crushing job.”

Usually, he says, adults complain that “college students are too wild and irresponsible; I wanted to claim that their reading habits imply that they aren't nearly wild or irresponsible enough: mostly books borrowed from the Young Adult shelf and their parents' book clubs. Where's the real college lit?”

A fair question -- but one that I suspect cannot be answered with marketing survey data. As the late John Leonard put it, the work of a writer is “experienced by the reader as a competing solitude. It’s not communal. It’s intimacy to intimacy, one on one, down there with the demons.” (Or seagulls, as the case may be.)

Last year, as a Christmas present, I gave a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 to an old friend. But his daughter got to the book first, reading its nine hundred pages in a weekend marathon and promptly drawing connections to the work of Ernst Jünger. She is fourteen.

I am not prepared to make any generalizations about the Younger Generation on the basis of this small data set. But there are moments when gloom doesn’t seem completely appropriate.

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Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom

When professors interact with students, an unspoken rule dictates that we should avoid calling unnecessary attention to the bodies in the room. We follow this rule instinctively and, for the most part, with good reason. This rule works well particularly in regard to gendered bodily differences. De-emphasizing bodily differences -- most differences being clearly of minor or no importance in an academic setting -- between groups constitutes one way to foster tolerance for individual differences and American democratic ideals. In this regard, classrooms mirror national ideals of human equality.

In the case of disability, America values the benefit gained from de-emphasizing bodily difference so much that this benefit has become a national objective through law: the Americans With Disabilities Act. The central functions of the law include not only ensuring that people with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations in the workplace but ensuring as well that they receive accommodations without having to disclose their disability publicly. This latter legal right is, of course, considered a particular advantage for those who have invisible disabilities, such as minor hearing loss (like mine) and other minor to moderate sensory disabilities, chronic non-life-threatening disorders, and some kinds of psychological/cognitive disabilities.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of retaining this right to privacy about one’s disability in our workplace — the college classroom — I would like to make a bold counter proposal to my professional peers who, like me, have invisible disabilities: let us as a group establish a common policy to come out as disabled in our classes each semester. My experience with both options of negotiating my disability — retaining privacy and coming out — has shown me that, although coming out is not a necessity for me to perform my job as a professor and has even brought about occasional awkward moments, coming out as a professor with a disability is more than worthwhile in so far as it fosters positive identity politics among my students with disabilities.

I had chosen to retain privacy at the universities, one in Rhode Island and one in Louisiana, I had taught at as a teaching assistant prior to being hired 13 years ago on the tenure-track at Angelo State University, in West Texas. However, to adjust to my new Texan students’ speaking style (for an exaggerated example of this style of speaking, think of Boomhauer on the Fox Network show "King of the Hill") and low-keyed body language, which limits visual communication cues I can usually rely on, I was prompted to disclose my right-side hearing impairment. I worried at first about causing unnecessary confusion for students about the extent of my impairment. But I found after that the results of the first experiment in coming out were so positive that such minor confusion, which was less difficult to dispel than I originally thought, was unimportant in comparison with what was gained in coming out as disabled.

In just the first couple of academic years out of the “able-bodied” closet, I was approached by more than a dozen students, including two hearing impaired students who had taken previous courses with me but whose hearing impairments I had not known about, who told me about their own invisible disabilities and sought me out as an academic mentor. I noticed that students with both visible and invisible disabilities exhibited a different attitude toward me and about their own identities as students with disabilities than I had perceived when I was passing as non-disabled. These students with disabilities to whom I had disclosed my disability were more self-assured than my students with disabilities had been with me when I had been passing as nondisabled. They participated more freely in class discussions and asked more readily and with less self-consciousness for appropriate disability accommodations. And in the decade or so since my first experimental semester coming out as disabled to my classes, I have found that these initial impressions were correct, as scores more students with disabilities responded in the same encouraging ways.

Of course, coming out with an invisible disability must be done carefully to avoid the difficulties often associated with any coming out process involving stigmatized identities. The disclosure must be performed so that one does not seem to be trying to elicit pity from students, either nondisabled or disabled. Nondisabled people confronted with another person’s disability tend to feel, often unconsciously, as Lennard Davis aptly asserts in Enforcing Normalcy, a “welter of powerful emotional responses . . . . horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance," emotions that most professors would do nearly anything, short of a crime, to avoid evoking on the first day of class.

And, even more important for my argument here, many disabled people despise pity-inducing moments on a more conscious level, thinking of them in the same category as Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day pity fest, which achieves its financial end through the unjustifiable means of ritually parading Jerry’s “poster kids” in front of a nondisabled television audience so that this audience may collectively sigh in gratitude that they are not “crippled” too. To avoid this counterproductive evoking of pity, I have found that maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude, keeping explanations as brief as possible, and focusing on the impact of the disability on classroom dynamics specifically make the disclosure practically and ideologically useful for both disabled and nondisabled students. (Conversely, professors with invisible disabilities that do not impact classroom dynamics might need only mention that, like some students and faculty, they have a disability too, without specifying it, perhaps as a quick addendum to calling students’ attention to their university’s procedures for acquiring accommodations, which most professors include on their syllabi and refer to on the first day of class.)

In light of these experiences, I urge other professors with invisible disabilities to come out to students as well and to become more aware of the considerable number of faculty with such disabilities on their campuses. For instance, in the English departments at the three universities at which I have taught about 20 percent of faculty members have invisible disabilities (not surprisingly, far fewer than this percentage — less than 5 percent — have visible disabilities). Unfortunately, however, none routinely come out as disabled to their students, and none have given much thought to how many professors and students with disabilities exist around them. Further, all of those to whom I have advocated coming out as disabled have been concerned about negative repercussions in their classes, while none of these professors have thought about the negative repercussions to students with disabilities of such passing by professors.

Indeed, the choice to pass among professors with invisible disabilities prevents all of their students, disabled or nondisabled, from seeing an important facet of the diversity of American culture. Such passing particularly undermines the academic and career-related success of students with disabilities. When these students cannot find appropriate mentors among the faculty who serve them, they lose an opportunity to develop the identity politics necessary to collective social activism. Coming out, in contrast, provides an ideal moment to introduce disabled and nondisabled students to the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and to direct them to research done in the field through the Society for Disability Studies and other resources that examine disability as a category of identity instead of merely as a medical construct. By coming out — refusing the less ethical choice of passing — professors with invisible disabilities can educate students to become truly democratic citizens prepared to explore individual identity from all perspectives.

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Linda Kornasky is associate professor of English at Angelo State University.

Time Management


David Domke suggests a way for graduate students and others to think about balancing the demands of teaching, research and life.

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Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?

Several years ago I started asking students in my composition classes to compose entries for Wikipedia. Most of my students were familiar with Wikipedia as the most popular link at the top of a Web page after a Google search. But my purpose in bringing Wikipedia in to the classroom was not to use Wikipedia as a reference source; instead, I sought to bring a more authentic, immediate audience for student writing.

A little more than two years ago, this publication gave the story of the then typical higher education reaction to the use of Wikipedia in student writing, entitled “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” The story was centered on Middlebury's history department, but it could have spoken for academe's attitude in general. The message from faculty was clear: “Students, you cite Wikipedia at your peril.” While the article was nuanced enough to report that there was no outright ban of Wikipedia, but rather more a word of caution to students who didn't seem to understand the difference between a reviewed source and an open source -- or even an encyclopedia and primary source -- it elicited capricious screeds from readers like “Jim”:

BRAVO!!! I stand up and applaud at the professors who discourage Wikipedia being used. They are [sic] NOT, repeat, NOT, a valid source! They [sic] are loaded with so much wrong information, you would stand a better chance asking a complete stranger on the street about the same topic [. . .] As my students will tell you, if you site [sic] Wikipedia on ANY assignment, you WILL receive an F! Plus, I will take a point away for each source listed. Not only do you fail that assignment - you do get a chance to make up, but at a lower grade, but your overall grade will drop one point for each source you took from Wikipedia! We need to stand together, and teach these kids not to believe what just ANYONE tells them, including Wikipedia articles!

My purpose here is not to debate with Jim whether or not Wikipedia is an accurate resource. For those who are interested in that topic, I would refer you to the Nature study which found that while Wikipedia was less accurate that Encyclopædia Britannica online in its science entries, the aggregate difference in accuracy was not so large as to rule out the use of Wikipedia as a valid source for most readers (and there is no debate that Wikipedia is a vastly more comprehensive source and better able to update itself). No matter how counter-intuitive it might seem that an open source which anyone can edit would provide, on the whole, useful information, it is simply the case. And accepting the fact that a completely open source could render useful information is the price of admission for the ideas which will follow in this article. Useful information for a heart surgeon about to operate on you? Certainly not. Useful information for a general introduction to a topic? Certainly so.

Jim's reaction is fruitful to us as teachers in higher education because it provides a clearer picture of what the college classroom looks like for a contemporary student, who must use the wide range of information tools available to us all in a networked society. A few simple notions of information literacy could handle this teaching moment - such as explaining the role and nature of an encyclopedic source in a student research paper - but Jim's reaction is akin to decrying the advent of the telephone. Clearly, students shouldn't use telephones, since inaccurate information could be passed on them. We'll just ban the use of telephones in gathering information for our courses, penalize our students for using them, and later wonder why they seem under-prepared to succeed in a world dependent on the use of telephones. One can scarcely imagine the cognitive dissonance Internet native students still suffer in higher education, but comments like Jim's help us understand just how bad the problem might be.

While Jim's statement is indicative of how we have previously conceptualized the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, a little more than a year later another article appeared herein as a better indicator of where we might be headed. Mark A. Wilson penned “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” an article which understood Wikipedia as an online intellectual exchange. Acknowledging Wikipedia's challenges with verifying the accuracy and relevance of contributions, Wilson encouraged scholars to join Wikipedia's online intellectual community to broaden and sharpen its discourse.

I write today, however, to ask you to consider making Wikipedia a project not only for the teachers of higher education, but for your students as well. In 2004, I started asking students in my composition classes to write for Wikipedia and developed an assignment I still use today. Working in teams or alone, students choose a film page for editing. Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.

With an understanding of what kinds of knowledge “count” in Wikipedia, and what might improve a particular film page, we then compose contributions to individual pages. As a class we then observe how Wikipedians react to our contributions and get advice from each other to develop effective rhetorical strategies before we respond to our audience online. Lastly, students are asked to compose an essay where they reflect on the experience of writing for this large audience, and how the experience fails or succeeds in helping them to develop their writing skills. Their grade is determined mainly by their participation in these offline writing assignments, and not the text contributed to Wikipedia itself. (For those who are interested, the theory and practice of these writing assignments are more fully outlined in my new book, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.)

Teaching writing with Wikipedia has several advantages which serve to complement the traditional college essay. When teaching writing with Wikipedia, the audience is real and, often, writes back immediately.

One of the foremost problems in teaching writing in the college classroom is helping students gain a more profound concept of audience. Trained for years to write answers to short questions in text books, while writing fewer and fewer essays in high school, students often come to college first-year composition without much appreciation for the fact that real humans read their writing. Wikipedia changes this writing environment, and students are often shocked when Wikipedians respond to their contributions with a critical eye. Sometimes those responses are polite, and sometimes, not, but they are mostly accurate and engaging.

This puts the writing teacher in the role of assisting students in making meaning for an audience with their text - something surprisingly elusive. Teaching writing for Wikipedia audiences points up the fact that the standard arrangement in the writing classroom, where the teacher stands in as a surrogate for a fictional, idealized, audience, is painfully inauthentic and yields predictable results. I can tell students that they should not write for me personally, but as long as I alone evaluate their writing, I cannot remove my subjectivity entirely from the assessment process - and they know this. Which explains why, when my writers find out I am a Red Sox fan, essays on the merits of Georgia's HOPE scholarship might include casual references to Big Papi or Josh Beckett.

Of course, not all of the assignments in my class are based in electronic networks. Many students need the one-on-one framework of the writing teacher alone reading his or her work before the challenge of a larger audience, and there will always be a role in the writing classroom for writing topics which are more abstract than the audience of Wikipedia would want to read. Thus assignments during the semester are ordered so as to increase the number of readers in the audience for the students' work, starting with the only the writing teacher and ending with the world.

Wikipedia writing assignments also offer us the chance to consider student writers' responsibilities in topic selection. Most traditional writing assignments are narrowly prescribed, and would make little sense to readers beyond the classroom who didn't have access to assigned readings and or academic questions. Wikipedia writing assignments require greater autonomy. Students are asked to translate their knowledge for a general audience. Making this connection involves “laziness” (to appropriate a term from hacking culture), or the ability to identify our individual passions within the framework of the project's needs. For example, students who write for Wikipedia film pages as described above are free to write on most any film, but they have to also evaluate the needs of the Wikipedia page with very specific measures before writing. Wikipedia writing assignments are therefore more honest; rather than handing writers a set of constraints for composition, such as compare and contrast the role of melancholy in “The Raven” to “A Cask of Amontillado,” writers have to think through what an audience might want to know about a given topic.

Composition assignments in Wikipedia frame writing as a collaborative practice hosted within a network. This arrangement seems much more predictive of the environment our students will find themselves writing in after they leave the composition classroom, both in later college courses (as they collaborate across networks with fellow students in coursework) or in the workplace (as they collaborate with co-workers to prepare reports, proposals, or Web pages).

What's more, writers in electronic networks learn to write in an environment where their creativity is the scarcest resource. In describing the controlling dynamic of collaborative writing on the Internet, or Commons-Based Peer Production, theorist Yochai Benkler notes that in an industrialized society where the cost of printing is extremely low (most anyone can gain access to a word processor in a public library) and the cost of publication is similarly low (again, the cost of a library card), that for topics where all information is publicly accessible, the sole remaining scarce resource is human creativity. This simple but profound truth of the information age economy means a big stage for student writers. They intuitively understand that rather than only consume knowledge, they are helping to create it by writing for Wikipedia. Which is exactly the role their college educations are preparing them to fill.

But it's not only college writing which works on Wikipedia. After hearing about my class, a colleague in Biology recently created a class assignment where his students created a page in Wikipedia to define Dictyostelium discoideum. And we're not alone. Though some Wikipedians debate whether it is appropriate to use Wikipedia as an assignment space, there is a rapidly growing community of college instructors who are doing just that.

And what has been surprising in students' attitudes toward Wikipedia? Though my evidence is anecdotal, in the years of teaching with Wikipedia I have found almost no difference in the range of opinions about Wikipedia held by student writers and those held by their - mostly - older teachers. I find that roughly the same proportion of people have concerns about reliability, open access, and information literacy among students and faculty, just as I find roughly the same number of enthusiastic adopters among teachers and students. But when I query reluctant students about how and where they formed their negative opinions about Wikipedia, they usually point to a classroom environment where they were penalized for using it as a source. They almost never have had an experience which encouraged them to move from simply using Wikipedia to writing for it. As we move from seeing Wikipedia as only a resource to an online intellectual community, students are more than ready to accompany us.

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Robert E. Cummings is assistant professor of English and director of First-Year Composition Program at Columbus State University, in Georgia. His new book is Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (Vanderbilt University Press).

I'm a Professor. Now What?


In 1978, I got my first teaching job — at a public high school. At the conclusion of the interview, my new principal asked, “What are your qualifications for teaching anthropology?” I retorted, “I can spell it within 75 percent accuracy.” We laughed, but I was 50 percent serious and a 100 percent panicked. I was in a graduate history program at the time, and my sole training in anthro was one undergraduate course six years earlier.

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The Reader

Sometime after my 15th birthday, to judge by the available evidence, I began inscribing my name on the inside of each new book that came into my library, along with the date of acquisition – a habit that continued for 20 years and more. The initial impulse seems very typically adolescent: a need to claim ownership of some little part of the world, and to leave your mark on it.

But there was a little more to it than that. It was a ceremony of sorts, a way to mark the start of my relationship with the book itself. For a while, I also noted when I started and finished reading it.That level of precision came to an end soon enough. In my twenties, the record dwindled to just an indication of the month and year the book reached me. By my thirties the whole routine started collapsing, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed stuff coming across my desk. The wide-eyed expectation that any given book might open some new chapter in my life was worn away. It happened, but not that often. Moments of inner revolution occur only just so frequently. In the meantime you had to keep moving.

The impulse to “brand” certain volumes was still there: I developed a fairly precise system for annotating texts, when necessary. But experience had proven the wisdom of Francis Bacon who responded to the publishing explosion of the early 17th century with a plainspoken call for a system of triage in handling the claims on one's attention.

“Some books are to be tasted,” he wrote, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books....” (Clearly Bacon predicted the rise of the graduate research assistant, trudging through the monographic literature for some great professor’s benefit.)

These reflections come in the wake of a recent essay on Kindle by the literary critic Sven Birkerts, our designated worrier in matters of print and digitality ever since the appearance of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994)

The ability to read books on a portable device violates some sense of cultural orderliness for Birkerts: “I see in the turning of literal pages — pages bound in literal books — a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon.... The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.”

True, that. Yet not the whole truth. I am sympathetic to Birkerts’s argument -- and perhaps even more so to the structure of feeling that rests beneath it, the sense of having been shaped (down deep and for good) by the experience of interacting with print and ink.But the fact that I do not read books on a Kindle, or any similar device, is for me a matter of economics, not principle. When the price comes down, I’ll be a straggling customer.

And an enthusiastic one, given two very obvious advantages that the device offers. One involves the eyeballs; the other, the back. With an e-book reader, it is possible to adjust the size of the type, which is not an option with the printed page. And you can carry scores of books, magazines, etc. in a single lightweight object -- something of inestimable value for anyone who has to travel. Not just on transcontinental flights, either. The advantage to a student of being able to carry a semester's worth of reading under one arm seems obvious; and a beleaguered book reviewer would find it easier to make progress on judging that hefty novel about the reign of Maximilian, emperor of Mexico, if it fit in his jacket pocket.

A willingness to incorporate the Kindle into my routines does not mean abandoning print, any more than giving up the habit of inscribing my name inside the cover of a book has made me any less bibliocentric. The patterns of engagement with text – the levels of concentration you bring to reading, the various degree of intensity with which you connect with a given work – change over the course of your life. The wizards of digital media will get me to part with the Nonesuch edition of William Hazlitt’s selected essays when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. But reading a collection of scholarly papers like Metaphysical Hazlitt: Bicentenary Essays from Routledge on Kindle sounds perfectly OK – especially for anyone who can't afford $145 for the hardback, while no paperback is to be expected.

And while it is painful to witness the erosion and collapse of large sectors of infrastructure for print culture, this is happening under the strain of internal contradictions, not because of e-book devices.

As Colin Robinson, a seasoned editor who recently lost his job at Random House, puts it in the latest issue of the London Review of Books: "A system that requires the trucking of vast quantities of paper to bookshops and then back to publishers' warehouses for pulping is environmentally and commercially unsustainable. An industry that spends all its money on bookseller discounts and very little on finding an audience is getting things the wrong way round. Following the strictures of their accountants, the large houses will intensify their concentration on blockbusters. High street bookshops will abandon deep stockholding, becoming mere showrooms for bestsellers and prize-winners. Ever more people will read the same few books."

It would be utopian to imagine that Kindle (and its ilk) might reverse such trends. But it's clear that the old way cannot continue -- and that, come what may, nostalgia won't be much help.

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Fixing the Babel of Multi-State Licensure

From time to time there is discussion in higher ed circles about the desirability of developing a system of college approval using interstate reciprocity based on a model code. The reason this subject comes up more and more often is that more colleges are operating outside their original state of licensure. Schools end up complying with a dozen different sets of state laws and, in many cases, pay significant fees to multiple jurisdictions. All of this has the net effect of increasing the cost of serving students.

Because of the exceptionally decentralized system of college operations and approvals in the U.S., there is no meaningful federal approval that can be relied on to guarantee that certain standards are met.

Reliance on accrediting bodies does not work for a number of reasons. First, accreditors are membership-based organizations; they are not set up to operate as enforcement agents. Also, they are not structurally or legally capable of resolving student complaints, which is a significant role that states currently handle. They have standards that vary somewhat from group to group. In many cases they do not have frequent enough contact with schools. Finally, they are not answerable to the public in any reasonably direct way.

I have heard college leaders argue that they should not be answerable to the public. It is important to remember that although faculty require the freedom to pursue truth where it may lead them without political interference, colleges as a whole are indeed answerable to the public. In fact, only a government can give them degree-granting power, under U.S. law. This is our only bulwark against diploma mills, and the admirable recent actions by Wyoming and Alabama governments to snuff some dubious colleges demonstrates its necessity.

I have heard accreditors argue that because their standards are acceptable to the U.S. Department of Education, states should treat those standards as automatically acceptable. This assumes that the Department of Education has sufficient academic standards that it requires accreditors to enforce, which it does not. The feds do a fairly good job of making sure that colleges who get federal aid are capable of handling it, but they are not in the academic program oversight business. I do not think that any discussion of interstate standards or reciprocity should get tangled up in a discussion of what accreditors or the feds do.

But what do the states do? I work as principal college evaluator for Oregon, and have also done evaluations for several other states. The things that states focus on, and which any interstate agreements would have to incorporate, tend to be detailed and prescriptive, unlike the bulk of accreditation standards.

For example, every three years Oregon requires our approved private-college programs to provide my office with detailed qualification information for every faculty member, full-time and part-time. We look at exactly what their degrees are, what their experience is, and what courses they teach. We often find colleges using faculty to teach in fields in which they are not qualified. We fix that problem.

That is just one example, but it is something that no other type of agency, state or federal, does, except in certain narrow contexts such as evaluation of grant applicants. Why do we do it? Because states are legally responsible for the quality of the educational programs at all colleges, public and private, that operate in our jurisdiction, and in many cases only the state has that responsibility. We have to do it because no one else does or can. We take that role seriously and for the most part (California and Hawaii being the most obvious exceptions) we do it well.

It is time for states to look carefully at each other’s laws and figure out a way to recognize each other’s work when it meets certain minimum standards. What should those standards include? Although there are many possible things to evaluate about a college, the core of any model code upon which reciprocity could be based would have to include the following.

Faculty qualifications. Without a careful look at who is teaching what, and whether they are qualified to do so, meaningful evaluation of a college’s quality is not possible.

Curriculum. Are the programs in each field structured in a reasonable way, comparable to the norm at similar institutions?

Award of credit. Is credit awarded based on an appropriate amount of student work (for example, are schools prevented from giving a degree based on a weekend’s work)? Is credit awarded primarily based on teaching by the school’s own faculty? Is transfer credit limited to schools of demonstrably similar quality? Is credit by examination limited? Is so-called “life experience” credit strictly limited and carefully evaluated?

Admissions. Are admitted students capable of performing college-level work? Are they provided accurate information during the recruitment and admission process? Are any job placement claims backed by solid data?

Finances. Is the college solvent? Does it have adequate reserves to get through periods of falling enrollment? Are fees established and assessed in an appropriate manner, and only on a term-by-term basis? Are refunds available on an appropriate schedule, also term-by-term?

Are there other issues? Certainly, among which are student services, library access and the experience of college managers. However, the five categories shown above have proven to be the crucial ones in my years of experience as an evaluator. The reason is that a failure of performance in any one of these five almost certainly means that the college is not acting appropriately, cannot succeed and is likely to founder. Indeed, a major failure in any of these five should lead the responsible state government to take action to make certain that the college cleans up its act or is closed.

If I could be certain that another state was doing a good job of enforcement in the five core categories, would I be willing to allow a college based in that state to operate in Oregon without going through my own state’s detailed and expensive evaluation process? Yes, with a couple of provisos.

First, faculty teaching only at Oregon’s branch would have to be evaluated by someone, either my office or the state of origin. That is a fairly straightforward task and could be handled by either state, though if they are local residents it probably makes more sense for them to be screened by the state where they teach.

The larger issue is that of student complaints. One of the reasons that offices like mine exist is to provide students who have a bad experience owing to inappropriate actions by a college with a way to get complaints resolved without resorting to litigation. In effect, we are a mediator with a very large stick in the closet. In my ten years as Oregon’s chief evaluator, I have rarely had to use the stick, though I have occasionally cast an ostentatious glance in its direction for effect. Sometimes student complaints are simply not justified or don’t violate any state rule. Sometimes a student complaint uncovers a very significant issue that a college needs to fix. A state can compel corrective action.

It is impractical to expect a student in Oregon to get complaints resolved by a state agency in Indiana or Texas. It seems clear that any streamlined state approval reciprocity would need to leave a significant chunk of problem-solving in the hands of the state where the problem happened. That in turn would require that a model code and reciprocity agreement include arrangements for interstate cooperation in such issues. In practice, I work with my colleagues in other states (and several Canadian provinces) quite often already. We help each other with various kinds of issues. I have no doubt that states willing to sign a reciprocity agreement would be willing to help each other make it work.

So how do we begin? Well-meaning education organizations with little knowledge of the practicalities of how state approvals actually work will decide that they should simply invent such a system without bothering to involve actual regulators. To preclude this kind of bumblehandedness, we need the states to simply get to work on this project and develop a workable model code. An attempt to do this happened in the 1970s, but it was not timely. Today, with so many schools operating across state lines, the need has never been greater.

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Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Thoughts on Collegiality

A colleague's tragically early death prompts Teresa Mangum to consider the qualities those starting their careers need -- especially in such difficult times.

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Have You Visited a Middle School Lately?

To dramatically increase the numbers of low-income and under-represented students on college campuses, colleges and universities will have to offer more than handsome financial aid packages. If we really want to get serious about making colleges and universities more diverse and accessible, institutions must help to change the long-standing perception -- among both teens and their parents in some low-income communities -- that higher education is only for wealthy white students.

To change such long-held beliefs, we need to do more than simply stand at information booths on college nights or line school hallways with glossy posters. We need to dedicate the time necessary to motivate them, and we need to do it earlier -- when they’re in middle school.

Colleges cannot simply leave it to high school guidance counselors to inspire these young adults. We must, instead, take a more active role by reaching out to students when they’re in middle school, when college preparation begins. Almost all college-track programs require students to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. And yet many children with parents who haven’t gone to college -- including high-achievers -- are steered away from those courses by well-meaning friends and adults, who, by adhering to the myth that “college isn’t for people like us” mistakenly divert promising students off the college-going track. If we don’t step in and show these students and their parents that they are not only capable of going to college, but that we can help them find ways to pay for it, the money we pour into financial aid programs may never reach them.

For the last five years, Spelman College has participated in Project Nobility, an after-school and summer enrichment program at Brown Middle School in Atlanta. Financed by the Georgia State Department of Education, Spelman’s program supported hundreds of students and their families with tutoring, enrichment activities and workshops. But beyond that, we helped students get on the path to college by encouraging them to take those more difficult classes, teaching them essential study skills, and demonstrating to them that we were investing in their futures.

Just as critical, we worked with parents, offering them workshops on supporting their children’s academic success, financial literacy, and saving for college, constantly repeating the message that their children were worthy of a college education. Some parents were so inspired that they signed themselves up for continuing education courses, further fostering the college-going mentality while acting as examples to their children.

We can’t stop at the schools. Churches, particularly African-American churches, are fertile ground for promoting higher education in low-income communities. Several youth ministers take students on campus tours and are eager to formulate partnerships with colleges and universities. But if we want to reach more of these students — and help their parents understand that college is a possibility for their children — we need to go to them.

The California State University system did just that last year. Its Super Sunday program brought the system chancellor and campus presidents to 52 African American churches throughout California, where they offered students, parents and grandparents advice about college preparation, financial aid, and the application process. More of us should follow Cal State’s lead and spend time reaching out to ministers, parishioners and younger church-goers in our communities and beyond.

Admittedly, Spelman has no shortage of qualified applicants for a class of just 550 women. Still, it’s incumbent on all of us as educators to reach out to all potential students — men and women of all income levels and racial backgrounds — and encourage them to pursue a higher education, whether it at private institutions like ours, at state universities, or community colleges.

This isn’t just a priority for Spelman. In its report, “Coming to our Senses: Education and the American Future,” The College Board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education recently recommended that colleges and universities reach out to schools, communities and faith-based organizations to make sure students and families from underrepresented communities are preparing for college in middle school.

I cannot count the number of admissions essays that detail how young students were discouraged from applying for college by members of their own community, including teachers and other adults. But they persevered, inspired often by tutors or youth ministers to leave their communities for something better. We cannot expect to reach all of these kids by simply promising them scholarships. Instead, we’ve got to demonstrate that they, too, belong on a college campus, that they can do the work, and that we are ready to show them the way.

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Arlene Cash is vice president for enrollment management at Spelman College.


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