Monday, March 29, 2010

Digital Rhetoric

Elizabeth Losh, Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), with it long sub-title, offers something for everyone in an I-School. Losh states that “this is a book about public rhetoric and its subversion about the way that traditional institutions of knowledge do not always conform to social practices around information, and about how computer technology creates secondary purposes and secondary audiences never imagined by the original readers of an official message or the architects of a given system of state-sanctioned communication” (p. 4). Losh includes case studies about videogames and violence; interpreting digital rhetoric using both literary and computer science theories; military uses of videogames; what official government websites convey; what PowerPoint suggests about the rhetoric of display; e-mail and its use in whistleblowing; public health websites, simulations, and videogames and what these do to the notion of expertise; and the successful use by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of its Mars rover program.

What might be of particular interest is Losh’s efforts to be interdisciplinary: “This research is intended to bridge several fields that address the study of contemporary electronic communication, ones that predictably often do not talk to each other other. Rhetoric, Internet research, game studies, web design, information science, fair use and intellectual property law, and the study of popular culture as it relates to political discourse are all critical disciplines for this project” (p. 11). While this sounds like an approach that could be right at home in an I-School, Losh later (p. 327-328) briefly describes a shift from information sciences to information studies, a dominant paradigm she sees emerging, that encompasses more of a shift to the humanities away from the physical and biological sciences, computer science, and mathematics. From my vantage, this may or may not be what we see occurring in the new I-Schools. Clearly, we can discern what Losh describes in the current transforming of data curation to digital curation and the expansion of digital libraries to being more about libraries than digital. However, it still seems as if the domains Losh mentions earlier are very dominant in these schools, even if the cultural, social, and humanistic are more prevalent.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Academic Trials

A disturbing, but informative, reading about the nature and threats of litigation in higher education comes from Amy Gajda in her The Trials of Academe: The New Era of Campus Litigation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). Building on the notion that as universities become more complex and adopt the corporate model, they become more susceptible to lawsuits and the courts being more open to hearing cases they would not have considered in the past. Gajda discusses anti-discrimination law, free-speech issues, intellectual property, privacy, academic defamation, tort law, and contracts. This is a good, clear assessment of the topic.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Disgrace of the Universities

Anthony Grafton, in considering the drastic budget cuts British universities are facing, has written a brief, but compelling, essay considering the dangers higher education is facing in this country. You can read it in the current New York Review of Books as “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities,” NYRB vol 57 (April 8, 2010): 32 or at the NYRB blog,

Here are some interesting statements to reflect on:

“The realities that this cloud of ink imperfectly conceal are every bit as ugly as you would expect. Humanists who work on ancient manuscripts and languages or write about premodern history or struggle with hard issues in semantics don’t always make an immediate impact or bring in large amounts of grant money—even when other scholars around the world depend on their studies. If you don’t see the point of their work, why not eliminate them? Then you have room for things that pay off immediately.”

“Universities exist to discover and transmit knowledge. Scholars and teachers provide those services. Administrators protect and nurture the scholars and teachers: give them the security, the resources, and the possibilities of camaraderie and debate that make serious work possible. Firing excellent faculty members is not a clever tactical “disinvestment,” it’s a catastrophic failure.”

“Accept the short term as your standard—support only what students want to study right now and outside agencies want to fund right now—and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most in twenty years are often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship—like Slow Food—is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way. The British used to know that, but now they’ve streaked by us on the way to the other extreme.”

These are some observations that we need to keep in mind. How will the I-School movement address such matters? Is there anything in the LIS community that we should protect as the shift to I-Schools continues that address such issues?

How students use Wikipedia?!?

College students love Wikipedia, and a study published in the journal First Monday offers details on how they use the Web encyclopedia.

Among the findings of a survey at six different colleges:
  • A majority frequently used it for background information, but less often than they used course readings and Google.

  • Architecture, engineering, and science majors were more likely to use Wikipedia for course research than were those in other majors.
  • Wikipedia is generally used in combination with other information, not alone.

Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg. How students use Wikipedia First Monday, Volume 15, Number 3 - 1 March 2010.

[credit: Inside Higher Education, March 17, 2010]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Galieo in Pittsburgh

Some faculty in our school might be interested in Clark Glymour's Galileo in Pittsburgh (London: Harvard University Press, 2010), a "collection of personal anecdotes and reflections on some paradigms and bandwagons in contemporary science and education" (p. 4). Glymour, a philosophy professor at CMU, includes among his insightful and entertaining essays one on Herb Needleman's study of lead exposure on the intelligence of children. Because Needleman demanded a public inquiry, this is "one of the best-documented modern examples we have of misguided canons of scienthific ethics based on misconceptions about sound scientific method" (p. 57).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

possible "reorganization" at the iSchool at Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)

There are apparently proposals underway to reorganize some of the "smaller" professional and graduate schools at the University of Illinois; the iSchool is one of the schools under discussion. Here is a link to the website that their Dean has put up to keep interested parties informed about the issues of "Stewarding Excellence."

Stewarding Excellence at GSLIS

This web page has been created by Dean Unsworth to keep GSLIS students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends informed about the University's response to current financial challenges and how related decisions impact GSLIS. Go here to view the web page:

18th Century Skills

I found this interesting, and I agree with it as well:

March 9, 2010, 08:00 AM ET
Employers Want 18th-Century Skills
By Mark Bauerlein
The other day my sister the epidemiologist overheard me talking about the writing problems of undergraduates and she jumped in with, "It's a real problem for us, too." She outlined one instance. When senior researchers conceive their projects, one of the first things they do is ask assistants of various types (interns, etc.) to conduct a "literature review." That means reading up on the topic and summarizing every relevant study, report, essay, etc. Each item gets a one-page synopsis, a clear and short and simple but comprehensive description. No critical thinking required, and no other "21st-century skills" needed, either.

According to her, more and more young people rising in the sciences have a hard time with it, and it's blocking the progress of research.

Her conclusion agrees with a survey conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The findings are here. The survey asked employers what skills and knowledges they wanted out of college graduates, and the AACU aimed to take the findings and determine how colleges are performing on the "workplace readiness" factor.

Here is one finding:

"Only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy."

As for employers having a narrow, vocational view of higher education, this finding is a surprise:

"Employers believe that colleges can best prepare graduates for long-term career success by helping them develop both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth skills and knowledge in a specific field or major." Note the general knowledge request.

Finally, when it came time to identify the most common skill or knowledge cited by employers as needed in the post-downturn, globalized, 21st-century universe, what came up first was a basic, longstanding skill: "The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing." Eighty-nine percent of employers highlighted it; "critical thinking" and "analytical reasoning" came in second at 81 percent.

We hear lots of talk about the rise of "nonlinear thinking" in the Digital Age and "interactive writing" in Web 2.0, but I take "effectively communicate orally and in writing" as a straightforward, linear practice, one that serves best in most scientific settings. And business, too, according to my brother the actuary, who told me a while back: "Anyone who can write is a major asset in business."

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Adam Perer talk

Adam Perer gave a talk at LRDC this morning in which he discussed and described some of his research related to the analysis of social networks. The tools he describes look very interesting to many in the SIS community, in particular Social Action. He also mentioned an open-source Microsoft Excel extension that can be used for social network analysis called NodeXL. This looks as though it would be useful to those in SIS doing this kind of work.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Why we can't trust most medical studies

This article over at Ars Technica raises some important problems for those of us who do empirical research. In essence, the article states
According to a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this isn't a failure of medical research; it's a failure of statistics, and one that is becoming more common in fields ranging from genomics to astronomy. The problem is that our statistical tools for evaluating the probability of error haven't kept pace with our own successes, in the form of our ability to obtain massive data sets and perform multiple tests on them. Even given a low tolerance for error, the sheer number of tests performed ensures that some of them will produce erroneous results at random.

You would also be well advised to read Taleb's "The Black Swan", which addresses a host of other epistemological and statistical problems with many of the models we use.