On Information Literacy, Students, and Syllabuses

I sometimes get terribly annoyed with LIS literature. Often, I encounter articles that use small samples to confirm that librarians are indeed essential to post-secondary education. Given this cynicism, reading Alison Head’s 2008 article, Information literacy from the Trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research? was a breath of fresh air. Although Head used a small sample for her research, she crafts a solid argument which shows that student expectations, anxiety, and even information literacy levels are affected by poor guidance in the classroom and from syllabuses.

Let me say before writing further that Head isn’t suggesting that teaching faculty are ghouls living in the ivory tower whose purpose it is to make things difficult for students. Rather, she argues that most students encounter a fundamental information gap between what professors expect of them and how they are supposed to achieve it. Syllabuses do a great job at listing schedules, reading lists, and essay requirements, but they fall short when it comes to explaining how the student is to meet the professor’s research expectations.

Head analyzed 30 different faculty handouts to achieve two goals:

  1. to find out what professors assign
  2. to find out the amount of guidance professors offer students about how to carry out their research, how to evaluate resources, and how to assemble and prepare the paper (p. 431).

The answer to the first question shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone working in the humanities and social sciences: 30% of assignments are argumentative research papers, while another 17% are lit reviews, and 16% are about theory (p. 432). Assignments in the arts, we know, are based on critical inquiry and interpretation – two related competencies that students often struggle with.

Head’s data show that undergraduates feel pressured to be original and creative in their work (p. 433), which is a difficult task when you’re writing on a tight deadline about a subject you know very little about. Her research on what professors assign to students confirms a lot of the things we already know – that bibliographic instruction isn’t always appreciated, that procrastination and time management are large stressors, and that student success is largely dependent on their understanding and grasp of basic IL competencies (p. 434-435).

The article really begins to shine, though, when Head shows that students often feel disadvantaged by the syllabuses that guide their coursework. 12 of 13 members of her student focus group felt that “one of their most serious obstacles is understanding professor’s expectations for assignments” (p. 435), and 48% of survey respondents felt that “a lack of information from the assigning professor stymied them the most, sometimes keeping them from beginning an assignment at all” (p. 435). Head continues:

The [content analysis] data show a lack of detail and guidance in many research assignment handouts. As a whole, the handouts offered little direction about: (1) plotting the course for research, (2) crafting a quality paper, and (3) preparing a paper that adheres to a grading rubric of some kind. (p. 435)

Head’s work identifies a major information gap that stalls the student’s attempts to produce academic research: a lack of guidance about basic research skills. Junior undergraduate students, who often have very low information literacy rates, have got to learn how to research effectively and also understand the professor’s expectations before tackling their topic, but they have been given very little information to help them along in this regard.

I don’t think that Head is trying to start a fire in the academy with this article. She’s identified a significant problem in post-secondary education but follows up by listing three remedies: more information from the professors, more IL instruction, and more proactive intervention on the part of faculty and librarians (p. 438). The article resonates because it clarifies the muddled situation we face at the reference desk when confused students find a helpful librarian, often by chance. Librarians know that a student’s information-seeking skills may not be as great as they could be, but we aren’t always thinking about what kind and amount of guidance the student has been offered before seeing us. Sometimes the student can’t find answers to the research question because they don’t even know what the research question is or how to produce an academic response to it.

Head’s article reminds me that students often have neither the skills needed to research effectively nor an understanding on how to improve those research skills in the first place. The IL help we provide at the Reference Desk is a bit of a bandaid solution for this problem. Yes, we must continue dressing those wounds, but it is imperative for us to raise the importance of basic research skills and IL competencies when we speak to our peers beyond the library. Whether you’re speaking with a faculty member or some one in student services, remind them of what students ought to be learning in basic writing and research courses. Faculty are accustomed to a research culture that has been nurtured by years of scholarship, but their students are only at the start of their own academic journies. This means that more time must be spent on basic research skills in the classroom, in one-on-one situations, and in handouts given to students. Although librarians have taken up the information literacy mantle long ago, we can’t solve this problem on our own. Raising IL competencies requires collaboration with our colleagues in the professoriate and in student support services.

note: If ever you’ve read anything by Gloria Leckie, then you’ll understand where Head is coming from in this article and why I support her argument. I’ve studied under one of Leckie’s own students, which has clearly informed my own opinions about the information seeking behavior and predicament of PSE students.

Head, A. (2008). Information literacy from the trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research?. College & Research Libraries, 69(5), 427-45.


Muppet News Flash: Digital Libraries cost a lot of money (but don’t tell the general public)

A recent piece in the New York Times is reminding me why people don’t understand the enormous costs (let alone the time and effort) associated with digitizing a world’s culture.  Natasha Singer’s January 8 article does a great job at helping the public imagine the possibility of a Great American Digital Library, and she even quotes Benjamin Franklin to lend her argument a certain value that is created when ideas are linked to the nation’s forefathers.  What the news piece is real light on, however, are financial figures.  Check it out and see.

The article neatly summarizes the digitization efforts of certain national governments, compares them to the Library of Congress’s American Memory project and then to the Google Books project.  We learn that the LoC project has no formal connections to any public library projects and that several leading figures and organizations would like to collaborate on one giant digitization venture.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could coordinate our efforts, standardize systems and processes, and make it accessible to archivists, researchers, and to the public?  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

My problem lies with the way the article pays short shrift to the costs of such an effort. After telling us that Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society would like to develop a “digital public library of America,” Singer tells her readers that:

Of course, practical matters — like cost, copyright issues and technology — would need to be resolved first.

“The crucial question in many ways is, ‘How do you find a common technical infrastructure that yields interoperability for the scholar, the casual inquirer or the K-12 student?’” Dr. Billington says.

The New York Times does precious little in this article to break down the costs associated with a digitization project, let alone one of the magnitude to which it alludes.  What we’ve got listed are “copyright issues” and “technology”, which don’t touch the human capital required to develop and then maintain this digital archive.  And when Singer says technology, I don’t know if she means hardware, software, maintenance, preservation, or all of these things together.  And the piece says nothing of the physical plant required to house these servers, because even computers must be stored somewhere.  A digital library on any scale is expensive, but this article doesn’t explain why.

Now consider this second quotation, which considers the value of the Google Books project and then notes that in the future, copyright costs may have to be settled by universities, research facilities, and other PSEs:

People can read out-of-print items at no cost on Google Books, if those works are no longer subject to copyright protection. But if a judge approves a settlement between Google and copyright holders, subscription fees to access scans of out-of-print books still covered by copyright will have to be paid by universities and other institutions.

An American digital public library would serve as a nonprofit institutional alternative to Google Books, Professor Darnton says.

Now we have an example that raises the spectre of “subscription fees” without explaining the burden these fees are to universities.  I have no doubt that when most people read “subscription fees . . . will have to be paid by universities”, they don’t have a sense of the business models and financing at play; for a lot of people, what will really matter is that the buck stops somewhere but thankfully not with them.  As librarians, we know that our electronic resources, as valuable and cost-effective as they are, eat up a large part of our (largely taxpayer-funded) budgets.  These “subscription fees” are not at all like the fees people pay for cable tv or internet connection at home.  PSEs and their libraries pay through the nose to large, for-profit organizations for electronic access to materials that are often funded by the PSEs themselves.  And even in the case of non-profit organizations like JSTOR, the fees remain costly.  So a “non-profit institutional alternative” that seeks to facilitate digitization and access to a nation’s cultural heritage at reasonable rates could still leave a collections librarian bruised.

Digital Preservation is a labor of love: this machine cost nothing to Penn State and this man is happy to volunteer his time and expertise.

We need to get real when we talk about digitization projects to the public, especially when we talk about huge mega-projects like a mass digitization of American cultural history.  Articles like this New York Times piece do nothing to explain the real costs involved in digitization, collections, and electronic access.  And cost is where it counts.  Too often at the reference desk do I find myself explaining to students that material found on Internet is not free and that the dollars they pay for access on their smartphones or at home covers the cost of transmission but not for “content.”   We need to start educating people so they understand that a monthly data plan or Internet bill pays only for the pipes through which content is downloaded to their devices and not for the actual development and maintenance of the content they are retrieving, let alone the infrastructure (human and physical) required to maintain it.

I apologize if I sound like a cranky curmudgeon here.  Like most librarians, I fully believe that information wants to be free.  But that’s only a desire.  Information may want to be free, but right now it isn’t.  And it’s up to people like us to explain to the world the real costs associated in our information landscape.

 

Reading Lessig’s Remix : Copyright Regulating Culture

Lessig at Meet the Media Guru
Lawrence Lessig will tell you what copyright does to culture

My summer reading this year includes Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix, and it’s so far been refreshing to read about how copyright drives and hampers our culture.  Tonight, though, I’m hung up on a dark, sour fact about copyright, especially as it exists in America, which is that an act that was meant to control professional duplications (i.e., piracy) now regulates the lives of everyday citizens.

Lessig explains that American copyright legislation, as it was originally crafted in the 1790s, regulated the ‘printing, reprinting, publishing, and vending’ of works (2008, p. 100), i.e., it meant to prevent the professional reproduction and sale of texts; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the law was redrafted to refer to the general copying of a text by a variety of means and for a variety of reasons.  As Lessig explains, “as the range of technologies that enabled people to ‘copy’ increased, so too did the effective scope of regulation increase” (p. 101).

On the surface, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this increased regulation – it should be well and proper that an individual’s creative works be protected, right? To an incredible degree, the answer is yes. A problem lies, however, in the fact that “every poet is a thief,” especially in a post-modern technoculture.  So much of art is inspired by one’s encounters with people, places, and texts (in a broad sense), and so many of these texts are today developed and then reserved under license by various copyright holders.  Art today, and our responses to art, are a pastiche of other objects (Lessig would call it a collage), which means that our ability to communicate freely is hampered by a law that has inadvertently grown out of control:

More and more people use technology to say things, and not simply with words. Music is remixed; video mash-ups proliferate; blogs begin to build a culture around the idea of talking back . . .

. . . Digital technology also changes how RW [remix] culture and copyright interact.  Because every use of creative work technically produces a copy, every use of creative work technically triggers copyright law.  And while many of these uses might be fair use . . . the critical point to recognize is that this is still a vast change to the history of American copyright law. For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally . . . For the first time, the law reaches and regulates this culture. Not because Congress deliberated and decided that this form of creativity needed regulation, but simply because the architecture of copyright law interacted with the architecture of digital technology to produce a massive expansion in the reach of the law.

(Lessig, p. 103.)

The point to take home is this: Copyright as we know it is an old law.  So many recent changes to it (e.g., the DMCA) have maligned the original law’s intention and are encoding into law the regulation of culture.  This isn’t to suggest that we should run back to 1790 or 1909 and interpret the act as lawmakers would have then, but it is to state that our current interpretation of Copyright doesn’t account for the effects that modern technology has on our culture’s relationship with an old statute.  The maligned interaction between copyright law and digital technology was not deliberate, so we have no reason to assume that any modernization should enshrine this faulty status quo.

Readings: Lessig, Remix (2008) – Media Matters

Lawrence Lessig, <i>Remix</i>
Lawrence Lessig, Remix

I’m reading Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix for the first time and it’s a thrill.  Frankly, it makes me want to pursue doctoral work in information culture and the information society – a thought I’ve flirted with for a number of years.

Something that struck me about fifty pages into Remix is Lessig’s contemplation on the nature of fair use and citation with books versus the nature of copyright infringement with other media.  Lessig notes that in literature, academics, and to a certain extent, law, people are expected to borrow and acknowledge other people’s works; the citation serves to create a thread that connect similar ideas to one another.  The example he uses is the production of an English essay on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, where:

citation is required.  But the cite is always sufficient payment.  And no one who writes for a living actually believes that any permission beyond that simple payment should ever be required.  Had Ben [Lessig’s friend, a former English major and now an attorney] written the estate of Ernest Hemingway to ask for permission to quote For Whom the Bell Tolls in his college essays, lawyers at the estate would have been annoyed more than anything else.  What weirdo, they would have wondered, thinks you need permission to quote in an essay?

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix.  New York: Penguin.  p. 53

But on the following page, Lessig asks us to consider how the act of citing the text of For Whom the Bell Tolls differs from citing, quoting, or referring to Sam Wood’s filmed adaptation of Hemingway’s book: in today’s DMCA culture, permission would have to be sought from a film company for anyone to “use” a clip.  This entire passage struck me because just last week I had written commentary about labor rights in a personal blog after reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  I included in the post a quotation from the book – Tom’s famous “I’ll be everywhere” speech, followed by YouTube clips to the Ford filmed adaptation, and to Bruce Springsteen‘s and Woody Guthrie‘s songs about Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad.  I knew I was likely violating some sort of DMCA regulation even though my post could probably be considered Fair Use (it certainly would be considered Fair Dealing in Canada).  I was aware of this while I wrote a proper citation for each work.  And I was aware of the fact I might be DMCA’ed not only for the film clip (a “remix” Ford probably secured rights to), but also for the Guthrie and Springsteen clips (where it’s questionble if either performer ever asked Steinbeck or his estate for permission to use the text).  In short, I can cite Steinbeck’s book with ease, but my ability to use these clips might be trumped by corporate rights-holders through the DMCA, even though my reasons for doing so – academic, critical, and commentary – would be considered fair use, even though the content in these clips is not necessarily “original”, and perhaps most important, even though the artists who produced this now-protect content did not not always seek permission to create their own adaptations, derivations, or remixes.

Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior
Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior

Lessig’s friend’s essay on Hemingway and my compilation of clips inspired by Steinbeck are great examples of what Lessig would call “remix culture”.  The legal manouvres made by the producers of these clips to ensure copyright protection, meanwhile, are great examples of everything that’s wrong with copyright law today.  Fair Use deems it okay to cite from a text, but the MPAA and the RIAA, through the DMCA, would trump Fair Use and demand that I take down these YouTube clips because I never secured permission – even though they are excerpts of cultural products that are remixes or adaptations of a wholy different and antecent cultural product.  The MPAA and the RIAA might claim that I am infringing on their copyright to Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” even though Springsteen was inspired by (or to use the rhetoric of the day: pirated) the works of another.

Why is our relationship with books difference than with all other media?  By studying Lessig’s quotation above, we can see that some of it lies in two areas, value and purpose, and they are closely related to one another:

  • On Value – Lessig frames this as “payment”.  The citation his friend Ben makes to Hemingway’s text is not only an acknowledgement but a transaction of cultural or intellectual value.  Ben saw enough importance in Hemingway’s work to tell his readers that his own ideas were inspired by it.  It also creates a cultural and informational chain that links the consumers of Ben’s work to Hemingway’s book, which in this case is the “original” text.  But as Lessig later writes, since the value transaction Ben makes is not financial, his fair use of the work, his essay, and the citation is generally a non-issue to DMCA rights-holders.
  • On Purpose – Lessig makes clear in this paragraph that no lawyer would care about a silly permission when Ben wants to cite Hemingway’s work for an essay.  Things are different, however, when the object of the remix / cultural adaption / reproduction has discernable commercial purposes.  In my Steinbeck example, John Ford ostensibly secured the rights to adapting The Grapes of Wrath because his art’s mode of transmission (i.e., film) created a financial model that would benefit many others.  Perhaps Bruce Springsteen should have sought permission because his “remix” of elements of Grapes, “The Ghost of Tom Joad“, might have commercial value (see above), but I imagine The Boss didn’t bother because his song is written and performed in a folk tradition that often eschews the merits of capitalism.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me state that Lessig isn’t foolish enough to propose that the production of art should be divorced from the economic engines that drive it.  After all, there are fundamental differences between the economic value of an undergraduate essay or scholarly article and that of a motion picture or song. Lessig’s anecdote reminds me, however, that copyright law and copyright enforcement as it exists today not only protects the interests of the copyright holder (instead of the creator). And furthermore, copyright law is the de facto piece of legislation that regulates society’s relationship with culture (Lessig, 2008).  Something is wrong when I can’t talk online about how a book, its filmed adaptation, and songs derived from its main character, affect me without first securing the permission of rightsholders, especially since the Internet has become the dominant form of communication in western society.  There is something wrong because regardless of the cultural work’s mode of transmission:

  1. my consumption of it affects me so that my discussion is not wholly about the cultural product but about how I have interpreted the cultural product, and,
  2. any ecomomic model that demands constant permission from consumers to so much as talk about a product is rotten at the core.

Imagine having to call Atlanta every time you want to talk about Coca-Cola, Santa Claus, Polar Bears, and the business’s beautifully produced Christmas commercials.  That is not a recipe to control the the Coca-Cola brand and product – it’s a method to destroy any good will the company has with its consumers.  Although my first point is more important to me, I honestly have never been able to figure out why members of the MPAA or RIAA would carry on their ridiculous DMCA business on account of the second point, which is directly related to their ability to remain a going concern.  Creating barriers between the consumer’s ability to interact with your product is a sure-fire way to drive the consumer away from what you’ve got to sell.

For whatever reason, I can quote from Steinbeck’s book without any threat of litigation, but the moment I quote visually from Ford’s adaptation, I better be prepared to deal with a DMCA violation warning.  This may be one of the reasons why Lessig wants the world to open its eyes to the control that culture producers have over the consumer’s ability to interact with a cultural product.  It’s moved well beyond the point of restricting some people (i.e., culture pirates) from intentionally stealing cultural products.  At this point it about controlling the way that all consumers actually consume a work, right down to watching it, reading it, listening to it, and then talking about it. It’s no longer about the regulation, protection and control of the cultural product.  Now, it’s an unfair regulation of our lives.