Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Craig Robertson’s The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) is one of the most detailed histories of a documentary form I have ever read. He considers each specific aspect of the passport – how the name appears, the signature, the use of photographs, the bureaucracy supporting it – up until it becomes officially accepted in the 1920s. Robertson is not trying to write an archival history, instead trying, with success, to understand how the state emerges with authority for the control of personal identification. It is a rich and engaging history, one that is particularly relevant today with raised concerns over identity with the fears about terrorist attacks and government intrusions into privacy.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Innovation is something we are supposed to be doing here. Steven Johnson, in his Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010), demonstrates that the sources of innovation are more complex and messy than we could ever imagine. Drawing on many case studies, Johnson offers insights such as follows: "The trick to having good ides is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table" (p. 42) or "good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error" (p. 142).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Desperate misspellings

Ed Dante “The shadow scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story.” The Chronicle Review, November 12, 2010, available at

Is it possible that this alarming article, written with such beguiling candor, is itself a fraud? And perhaps the Chronicle is also in on the joke, as this issue also includes an article on the many fabricated voices assumed by the essayist. [1]

Surely meant to raise the ethical hackles of anyone who has graded a writing assignment, or designed a rubric to regularize that grading process, this discussion of the incompetence or disinterest of a wide range of students in undergraduate, graduate and professional educational programs invites indignant response. His client base is primarily students who fall into the categories of the “English-as –second –language student; the hopelessly deficient student, and the lazy rich kid.” What unifies these non-writers, says Mr. Dante, is that the Academy has failed them. So he picks up the slack, churning out apparently acceptable papers based on the snippets of full-text resources readily available from Amazon and Google Scholar, basing his arguments on the identification of significant issues according to Wikipedia.

Clearly it is our fault for setting unreachable standards and then not knowing our students well enough to know that those polished – and costly – final papers could not have originated with Dante’s clients – our students – who cannot spell desperate consistently.

[1] Carl H. Claus, “The put-ons of personal essayists.” The Chronicle Review , 19 November 2010. Available at

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Research and Ethics

Here is a description of the special issue of AAUP's Academe, available at

“The Conflicted University” examines the endangered future of independent, transparent research for the common good at universities across the country.

Guest editor Sheldon Krimsky, one of the nation’s experts in scientific conflicts of interest, teamed up with Academe editor Cat Warren to create this expanded issue of Academe.

In this special issue, a group of internationally respected academics, science journalists, and other experts tackle what have become some of the thorniest issues facing higher education: corporate conflicts of interest, the chilling of scientific speech and academic freedom, and the urgent need to protect the integrity of scientific research.

From the BP oil spill debacle and ideological attacks on climate scientists and on student law clinics to the troubling influence of Big Agra, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma at universities, the topics covered in the issue attest to the vulnerability of academia to both external influences and conflicts of interest.

But progress is possible, and the role of faculty is indispensible. We hope this special issue will stimulate faculty members, administrators, legislators, and the public to think about the need for more vigorous protection of the university’s core commitments to improving the environment, public health, and public knowledge.

Inside this issue:

“Kneecapping” Academic Freedom: Corporate attacks on law school clinics are escalating.
Robert R. Kuehn and Peter A. Joy, law professors, Washington University in St. Louis

The Costs of a Climate of Fear: Ideological attacks on scientists undermine sound public policy.
Michael Halpern, program manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

BP, Corporate R&D, and the University: New lessons for research universities, thanks to a catastrophe.
Russ Lea, vice president for research, University of South Alabama

When Research Turns to Sludge: Tying strings to sludge is not as hard as it sounds.
Steve Wing, epidemiologist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A Not-So-Slippery Slope: Rejecting tobacco funding isn’t rocket science. It’s basic ethics.
Allan M. Brandt , historian and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

The Historians of Industry: What happens when historians enter the courtroom? Mostly, industry rules.
Gerald Markowitz, historian, City University of New York, and David Rosner, historian, Columbia University

Hubris in Grantland: Languor and laissez-faire greet conflict of interest at the NIH.
Daniel S. Greenberg, science journalist

The Moral Education of Journal Editors: Disclosure is a necessary first step toward scientific integrity.
Sheldon Krimsky, urban and environmental policy and planning professor, Tufts University

Diagnosing Conflict-of-Interest Disorder: How Big Pharma helps write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Lisa Cosgrove, clinical psychologist, University of Massachusetts Boston, and residential research fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

Big Food, Big Agra, and the Research University: A Q&A with Marion Nestle, New York University food scientist.

The Canadian Corporate-Academic Complex: The unhealthy collaboration of corporate funders and university administrators.
James Turk, executive director, Canadian Association of University Professors

The online edition of this issue also includes a brief summary of the findings of Big Oil Goes to College, a Center for American Progress report by Jennifer Washburn, author of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Recorded Sound Preservation

The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress, August 2010) provides an important benchmark in the importance of recorded sound and the neglect to preserve it. The brief discussion on educating individuals to be experts in such preservation is sobering. The report laments that we are losing a foundational knowledge with older sound systems, namely, “The community of individuals familiar with legacy media is shrinking. A system must be developed to ensure that the generations of engineers and archivists who have had no experience with analog recording formats will gain familiarity with the physical properties of, and best methods for preserving, legacy media.” (p. 100). Likewise, “A generation of specialists with experience in legacy media is disappearing, as is equipment on which to play analog recordings such as open-reel tape or wire recordings. Fewer and fewer people are familiar with the care and repair of older equipment. Many of these individuals are collectors or hobbyists, not necessarily academic or industry experts. This fund of knowledge and expertise is not being documented professionally and is not being passed on in any systematic way to individuals studying audio engineering and who will work with legacy formats in libraries and archives.” (p. 102). There is a call for grounding individuals in the history of recordings and other historical aspects of this industry and educational programs that include “advanced management skills” (p. 102). However, the report also notes that recorded sound preservation has an uncertain future, with poor funding, few positions, and what there is based on soft money. The conclusion is that this is an area that cannot sustain its own graduate programs, meaning that whatever education is offered must be part of a larger, established graduate program or a certificate spinoff from such programs. Continuing education is also suggested as something that must be developed more fully. This discussion does not focus on how existing graduate archival programs (or others?), already crammed with demands for educating the next generation of archivists, will be able to do this (unless there is external funding for hiring new faculty, regular or adjunct, and even if there is such funding, where will these people come from?).