Friday, January 30, 2009

The End of Solitude

William Deresiewicz has an interesting essay about “The End of Solitude” (in our fast-paced, hyper-networked digital world) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 55, Issue 21, Page B6. You can find it online at

Here is a sampling:

“Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

By the way, I love solitude.

Timing the PhD

I thought this was interesting . . . .

The Impact of ‘Time to Degree’
The most logical reason to focus on “time to degree” for doctoral students is that most of them say they want to finish — and most graduate departments say the same thing. People are happier and programs are more efficient.

But a new national study suggests another key reason — at least in social science disciplines: Those who finish earlier than others do are more likely to land jobs on the tenure track. Of those in the national sample whose first job was on the tenure track, the median time to completion of Ph.D. was 6.5 years. For those whose first job was an academic position off the tenure track, the median time to completion was 7.5 years.

The data are from “Does Time-to-Degree Matter?,” a new analysis of the “Social Science Ph.D.’s — Five + Years Out” project, which has been yielding a series of insights into the path students take in graduate school and beyond. The work is done at the University of Washington’s Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education and is based on national data on doctorates in anthropology, communications, geography, history, political science and sociology.

Maresi Nerad, director of the center and associate graduate dean at the university as well as principal investigator on the research, said that the finding has several possible implications. One is that those doing the hiring view “time to degree” (fairly or not) as an indicator of quality. She said that the findings can suggest inappropriate considerations (favoring younger candidates) or skepticism about whether someone taking a long time to finish a dissertation may also take a long time to finish a first book or other research projects.

While Nerad’s research has stressed the importance of helping graduate students finish in a timely manner, she said that hiring departments’ preferences could play out in good or bad ways if they influence doctoral students’ behavior. To the extent that students are motivated to get through on time (and that departments help them do so), it’s all for the good, she said. But if this encourages students to pick only “safe” topics — those assured of a reasonably timely completion — for dissertations, that’s not so good.

Other findings from the new analysis support the idea that graduate programs need to spend more time on helping graduate students prepare for their careers — not just their dissertation defenses. In surveys of Ph.D.’s wherein they evaluate their programs, those who finished doctorates sooner than others were more likely to give “excellent” rankings to both their mentoring and training and also to “professionalization” activities, which include programs to prepare graduate students for careers (both finding jobs and being socialized into academic life).

Those findings are important, Nerad said, because they show that professionalization need not lengthen the duration of a graduate program. Some professors who believe a doctoral program should focus strictly on academics have suggested that adding programs to help with jobs could delay dissertation completion — and Nerad said the data suggest otherwise.

In addition, Ph.D. recipients gave higher marks for overall satisfaction to programs with professionalization activities than to those without.

Nerad stressed that the reasons any individual doctoral student completes a program in a set time period relate to a variety of factors — both personal, those that relate to the student’s project, and those that relate to the program. But it’s also clear, she said, that for many people “time to degree can be an indicator of program quality.”

Looking ahead, Nerad said that some fields may see changes in the duration of programs because of the economic downturn. In fields in which job prospects in academic appear bleak, especially in the humanities, graduate students may “opt to stay a little longer.”

But in fields in which there are good non-academic jobs, or where postdocs have become the norm prior to permanent employment, the shifts may be minimal, she said.

— Scott Jaschik

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at

Tongue in Cheek

Scott Douglas, Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008) is alternately funny and scathing about the life of a public librarian (he is a librarian at the Anaheim Public Library in California). He provides an insider's view of the hectic activities and often weird adventures of someone working in a city library, on the front lines. And, although I could not bring myself to check, I am sure many librarians have been rattled by the book. I have a sense that the publisher worked with him to juice up the more ridiculous aspects at the expense of his obvious commitment to the public good of such institutions. His education as a librarian gets a pretty tough raking over the coals, although there is nothing particularly new in his comments on that score; we tend to be easy targets, especially since it is easy to play on the public perceptions of what a librarian needs to or should know. There are two reasons to read the book. First, perspective and new students will read it (I have this awful feeling it is sitting in the careers section at the bookstores). Second, there are many stories about work in public libraries that ring true about this sector of our field; if I had the equivalent for archives, I would use it in one of my courses (the closest I have is Nicholson Baker's Double Fold and he really didn't understand archives clearly enough -- although I have used it more than once). We should embrace such stuff as a way of adding a little spice and controversy in our courses, and, if nothing else, to get some humor into our classes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Articles on teaching Web Design in the University

This article and this other article from A List Apart discuss the challenge of teaching a rapidly changing field in a slowly moving university environment. One would think similar challenges apply to many other things we teach and do...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Google & Books

Robert Darnton is always worth reading, and he does not disappoint in his “Google and the Future of Books,” The New York Review of Books 56, no. 2 (February 12, 2009):9-11. Darnton, being the historian of the eighteenth-century that he is, starts his analysis of the Google digitization copyright deal with the promises of that earlier era’s Republic of Letters, where people could become citizens by engaging in reading and writing. It is not a perfect comparison, as he himself admits: “Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged. Yet I want to invoke the Enlightenment in an argument for openness in general and for open access in particular” (p. 9).

Initially, Darnton tackles some of the more inane features of recent copyright legislation, where “When it comes to digitization, access to our cultural heritage generally ends on January 1, 1923, the date from which great numbers of books are subject to copyright laws. It will remain there—unless private interests take over the digitizing, package it for consumers, tie the packages up by means of legal deals, and sell them for the profit of the shareholders. As things stand now, for example, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, published in 1922, is in the public domain, whereas Lewis's Elmer Gantry, published in 1927, will not enter the public domain until 2022” (p. 9). Yep, that doesn’t make much sense to me either. So, maybe this Google thing is fine after all.

Darnton provides some history of libraries and scholarly publishing, and disciplines as well, to note how complex the world has gotten and how different it is from just a couple of centuries. Darnton believes that the library is still at the center of the university (and the universe), but that it exists now because of its ability to utilize cyberspace via its networks. And he believes that some of the old disciplinary and other barriers to learning have collapsed, where the Republic of Letters can now support both professional scholars and a host of amateurs: “The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality” (p. 10). Now we are breathless.

Hold on. Darnton reminds us that there is a “fundamental contradiction” in this Googlization of the world’s libraries: “Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere” (p. 10). This does not deter Darnton from grasping the more positive benefits from the digitization of all this stuff, although he states that in order to digitize we must also democratize: “We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning” (p. 10).

What worries Darnton is that we are allowing the lawsuit against Google to settle an important issue of public policy, noting that it is already too late to do much more than worry about the future, contending that the “settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything” (p. 11). He is worried, and we all should be worried as well. Darnton believes that “if we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever” (p. 11). Too bad, I liked the dream.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Report on global mobile penetration

This report, from Tony Oettinger's Program in Information Resource Policy at Harvard. This report, written by longtime industry participant Kas Kalba, does a very careful analysis of mobile phone penetration in industrialized and developing countries. If you are interested in this subject, it is well worth the read.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

White House and the Dark Ages

The following article, found at, is interesting. Here is the beginning of it.

Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009; A01

If the Obama campaign represented a sleek, new iPhone kind of future, the first day of the Obama administration looked more like the rotary-dial past.

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Last Professors

From the New York Times – reflecting what I see as the decay of the university, and, as well, an issue professional schools such as ours need to be sensitive to, since we need to have this perspective as well

JANUARY 18, 2009, 10:00 PM
Stanley Fish, “The Last Professor”

In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.
This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”

Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.
This view of higher education as an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility has often been challenged, and the debates between its proponents and those who argue for a more engaged university experience are lively and apparently perennial. The question such debates avoid is whether the Oakeshottian ideal (celebrated before him by Aristotle, Kant and Max Weber, among others) can really flourish in today’s educational landscape. It may be fun to argue its merits (as I have done), but that argument may be merely academic – in the pejorative sense of the word – if it has no support in the real world from which it rhetorically distances itself. In today’s climate, does it have a chance?

In a new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers “No.”

Donoghue begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

“Such a vision of restored stability,” says Donoghue, “is a delusion” because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals.

Humanities professors like to think that this is a temporary imbalance and talk about ways of redressing it, but Donoghue insists that this development, planned by no one but now well under way, cannot be reversed. Universities under increasing financial pressure, he explains, do not “hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers.” Tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up only 35 percent of the pedagogical workforce and “this number is steadily falling.”
Once adjuncts are hired to deal with an expanding student body (and the student body is always expanding), budgetary planners find it difficult to dispense with the savings they have come to rely on; and “as a result, an adjunct workforce, however imperceptible its origins . . . has now mushroomed into a significant fact of academic life.”

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the “higher learning.” John Sperling, founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense.

The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Sperling understands the difficulty of achieving accreditation for his institution as a proxy “for cultural battles between defenders of 800 years of educational (and largely religious) traditions, and innovation that was based on the ideas of the marketplace – transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”

In his preface, Donoghue tells us that he will “offer nothing in the way of uplifting solutions to the problems [he] describes.” In the end, however, he can’t resist recommending something and he advises humanists to acquire “a thorough familiarity with how the university works,” for “only by studying the institutional histories of scholarly research, of tenure, of academic status, and . . . of the ever-changing college curriculum, can we prepare ourselves for the future.”

But – and this is to his credit – he doesn’t hold out the slightest hope that this future we may come to understand will have a place in it for us.

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue’s book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rejecting Academic Positions in Research Universities

Interesting, if disturbing, story

Rejecting the Academic Fast Track
Research universities may not be able to count on their ability to attract the best young faculty talent, a survey being released today suggests.

The survey — of more than 8,300 doctoral students at University of California campuses — finds that they increasingly care about finding careers at “family friendly” campuses. And the survey finds that they doubt seriously that they can build such careers at a research university. Both men and women have these attitudes although they are more pronounced in women.

“In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation — one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life,” says a report on the survey, which appears in the new issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. “If this sentiment is broadly shared among current and future student cohorts, the future life-blood of academia may be at stake, as promising young scholars seek alternative career paths with better work-life balance.”

The survey found that 84 percent of women and 74 percent of men are somewhat or very concerned about the family friendliness of their future employers. But only 46 percent of men and a only 29 percent of women imagine jobs in research universities to be somewhat or very family friendly.

And this skepticism of research universities may be greatest among those with good reason to know. Among new parents supported by federal grants at the time of the birth or adoption of a child, only 35 percent of men and 16 percent of women think that tenure-track faculty careers at research-intensive universities are family friendly.

Research universities’ challenge may be an advantage for teaching institutions. The survey found that both men and women (82 percent and 73 percent, respectively) say that faculty careers at teaching-oriented colleges are the most family friendly in academe. They consider these positions more friendly than managerial careers or non-tenure track positions.

The survey results may be of particular concern in that the graduate school is experience is shifting Ph.D. students away from goals of having a career at a research university. Of those in the survey, 45 percent of men said that they started their graduate programs wanting to become professors with a research emphasis. But the point of the survey, only 36 percent of men had that goal. For women, the drop was from 39 percent to 27 percent.

The proportional shift away from academic careers is even greater in the sciences, a finding that the researchers view as “particularly troubling given the low numbers of women in doctoral programs in physical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

The authors of the study are Mary Ann Mason, a professor in the Graduate School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of Mothers on the Fast Track; Marc Goulden, a researcher at the University of California who has led numerous studies of these topics; and Karie Frasch, manager of the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge project.

The researchers found a correlation between graduate students’ attitudes about the potential for an academic career at a research university with what they see around them in their doctoral programs.

Of female doctoral students who report that it is not common for female faculty members in their departments to have children, only 12 percent said that they viewed research universities as family friendly. But among those who say it is very common for women in the departments to have children, 46 percent said that research universities could be family friendly.

Of the graduate students surveyed, 51 percent of women and 45 percent of men were married or with partners, and 14 percent of women and 12 percent of men were parents. Most of graduate students want children some day, but don’t think they can have and raise children while they are working on their doctorates.

The California survey is in many ways consistent with surveys of junior faculty members conducted by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a research project based at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. On many categories of job satisfaction in COACHE surveys, new professors give higher grades to colleges than to universities, and care a great deal about issues of work/life balance, not just pay and prestige (the factors that have in the past favored research universities).

The new report from California calls for “new thinking and a new model to attract and retain the next generation in academia.” Among the suggestions:

Allow faculty members to “shift to part-time status or temporarily elongate timelines over their academic lives without suffering career penalties.”
Allow faculty members “to take time out temporarily from their academic lives for care-giving” and support their return.
Abandon the idea that academic “stars” are “those who move through the ranks very quickly.” and embrace the idea that the stars are “those who produce the most important or relevant work — faster is not necessarily better.
Embrace the idea that “it is fine to have children at any point in the career path because a full array of resources exists to support academic parents.”
Challenge the stigma in which “having children, particularly for women, is often equated with less seriousness and drive.”
— Scott Jaschik

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at