31st Annual Conference
Dr. Richard J. Cox
Professor, Archival Studies
Department of Library and Information Sciences
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh
KEYNOTE ADDRESS: 31ST Annual Conference, Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus, Sterling, Virginia
Wandering in a Strange Land:
Technology, Teaching, and Knowledge
in the Cyberspace Age
April 1, 2005
In a summary overview of his talk, Cox writes:
"In some ways, I have had a strange career. As a child I found myself fascinated by history, and I pursued degrees in the subject and began a career in the early 1970s as an archivist. That was only the first phase. In the later 1980s I joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences to develop a graduate program in archival studies, picking up a doctorate in library and information science along the way. For nearly two decades I have worked in a school mostly surrounded by people interested in computers and the information sciences, employing scientific and technical approaches to their research, problem solving, and teaching. Over the past few years I have found myself wandering in a strange land, sometimes the lone humanist among technocrats, other times a minority opinion about curriculum design, course delivery, or entrance and graduation requirements. This has led me both to wonder what is wrong with professional schools and what is wrong with me. More reflection has brought me to the conclusion that the problems I am experiencing are not unique to me or my circumstances, but they are endemic to higher education and, perhaps, society and its institutions.
This address reflects on my journey, considering the problems generated by an era possessed by the notion that it is "the" Information Age, and where technologies often create challenges seemingly only resolvable by other technologies. I try to consider, as part of understanding the true dimension of these issues, the emergence of the corporate university, the transformation of students into customers, the selling of credentials through distance education, the demise of value in scholarship, the emergence of secrecy and the decline of collegiality, and other problems all exacerbated by the advent of the ubiquitous computer. Yet, we also must recognize that the wise use of certain information technologies can enhance the educational process, and that many of our students are accustomed to and expect to be using modern information technologies; how do we integrate information technology into our teaching? Moreover, how do we educate students (and ourselves) to be able to evaluate critically the information technologies so that these technologies can be understood and used appropriately, ethically, and wisely for the public good? I argue that the root cause of such problems is not merely technology (I am not a technological determinist or technophobe), but that they stem from problems such as an eroding of interest in the excitement of intellectual engagement, a loss of interest in educating and settling for training, and a belief in our mission to be change agents to strengthen the public good. The nature and value of technology as applied to education is only as good as our values; information technologies are tools to be used or abused by us."
Introduction. Technology, supported by design and engineering, can be mesmerizing. Examining a mid-nineteenth century cast iron bridge, perfectly blending form and function, can generate a sensation like gawking an Old Masters painting in a museum; discarded as bridges needed to accommodate heavier traffic patterns, now we work to save these statements of Victorian engineering. The sweeping lines of a 1930s Art Deco toaster contribute to making us forget about its utilitarian uses and to appreciate it as an art object; some people go to specialty kitchen shops to pay twenty times the price of an ordinary (but functional) toaster to acquire a handmade reproduction of these appliances consigned to the rubbish heap by our mothers and grandmothers. After a generation of pressing fingers down on the keyboards of personal computers, many now also use beautifully designed fountain pens that feel comfortable in the hand and glide smoothly over paper, putting us back in touch with the sensation of writing; old fountain pens are desirable collectibles and dealers like Levenger's have built a customer base by offering products stressing writing's pleasures.
Such liaisons with technology are very different from the countless diatribes about the sterility and stresses of an increasing reliance on computer technology calling to us in the bookstores and libraries, once we navigate beyond the shelves of “idiots” and “dummies” guides about how to harness this technology. As long as people have had to contend with technological changes, there have been laments about the perils of making these transitions (think about the shifts in sound recording from LP's, through 8 tracks and cassettes, to compact disks). In my own specialization, archival studies, we understand that every stage of writing and recordkeeping involved technical innovations. Clay tablets required one kind of technology, papyrus and parchment other forms, as did the hardware and software in our modern word processors. At every stage of a technology shift, some lamented what was lost, others made promises for what would be gained, and others predicted the demise of civilization. Today, computers are blamed for most of society's problems (poor education, pornography, long work hours, the demise of social skills, and terrorism), and similar attributions were made in the past about much more primitive technologies. Naysayers have been around for a long time, such as scribes complaining about movable type printing five hundred years ago, one of the most dramatic technology changes in human history. Now, we take courses in calligraphy, study the illuminated page for clues about the design of Web pages, and mimic scribal hands in our printing fonts; the good qualities of technology stay with us.
I think about the ramifications of technology because of where I teach (a professional school focused on the information sciences), what I teach (archival studies), and the immense hype about the Information Age swirling about us every day (except when I stay at home, sealed off in my study with antique mission furniture, eighteenth century prints of writing tables, and reproduction medieval wax document seals). As a child I was fascinated by history, leading in the early 1970s to a career as an archivist. In the later 1980s I joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences (except in those days we used “library” in our name as well) to develop a graduate program in archival studies, picking up a doctorate in library and information science along the way. For nearly two decades, I have worked with information scientists employing scientific and technical approaches in their research, problem solving, and teaching. Over the past few years I have found myself wandering in a strange land, sometimes the lone humanist among technocrats, often offering minority opinions about curriculum design, course delivery, and entrance and graduation requirements. This has led me both to wonder what is wrong with professional schools and what is wrong with me. More reflection has brought me to the conclusion that the problems I am experiencing are not unique to my circumstances, but they are endemic to higher education, society, and its institutions.
I must also confess to being seduced by technology. When my daughter started college a year and a half ago, we bought her an Apple Ibook computer, recommended for her Integrated Arts program at Penn State. I was intrigued by the computer's sleek design and silky feel, attractive interface, and general ease of use. I read about the reliability of Apple computers, but then I began to be drawn to the advertising hype as well, about how Apple users were part of a kind of computer counterculture and just plain smarter. Not long after, an Apple store opened within ten minutes of my house, and my life changed. As you walked into the store, you were drawn to its gleaming white interior, the quotations of famous literary figures and philosophers about the nature of knowledge, the engaging display of computers, IPods, speakers, and digital cameras, the enthusiastic Apple devotees and salespeople (so well-matched in their enthusiasm that it was hard to tell the difference between them), the “Genius” bar where you could go to work on serious technical issues, and the “lab” in the back where you could take classes about everything from the most basic pointers to producing a multi-media presentation. I converted, and I now use an Apple Ibook G4 and proudly display an Apple logo sticker on my car's back windshield. Somehow, I do feel smarter and more confident with my white laptop with the glowing Apple logo on the back, and I feel camaraderie with other Apple users when I run into them at the neighborhood coffee shop, airport terminals, and bookstores. In some ways, I have the same feelings about my Apple as I do for my personal library for four thousand books; both reflect my identity and give me a sense of security, even though I know the books will be around long after my computer is abandoned for the next generation of technology. I confess that I am just as easily seduced by technology as the next person, even though I am a confirmed skeptic about its promises in our world.
This address reflects on my journey into the world of technology, considering the problems generated by an era possessed by the notion that it is “the” Information Age, and where technologies often create challenges seemingly only resolvable by other technologies. I consider, in understanding the true dimension of these issues, the emergence of the corporate university, the transformation of students into customers, the selling of credentials through distance education, the demise of value in scholarship, the emergence of secrecy and the decline of collegiality, and other problems exacerbated by the advent of the ubiquitous computer. Yet, we also must recognize that the wise use of certain information technologies can enhance the educational process, and that many of our students are accustomed to and expect to be using modern information technologies; how do we integrate information technology into our teaching? Moreover, how do we educate students (and ourselves) to be able to evaluate critically the information technologies so that these technologies can be used appropriately, ethically, and wisely for the public good? I argue that the root cause of such problems is not merely technology (I am not a technological determinist or technophobe), but that they stem from problems such as eroding interest in the excitement of intellectual engagement, a loss of interest in educating and settling for training, and a belief in our mission to be change agents to contribute the public good. The nature and value of technology as applied to education is only as good as our values; information technologies are only “tools” to be used or abused by us.
The Societal Context. An information ecology is defined as a “system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technologies.” The fervor by which the high-tech industry markets its own products leads to extraordinary claims about the miraculous powers of its tools. Humans, and the factors they add to the information technologies, often seem beside the point. Even in a professional school educating information specialists like mine, the sense of an ecology can be difficult to maintain, possibly because of the peculiar place of this professional school in the university. As a way of ensuring some prominence, we need to remind ourselves that the university is, as well, an entity in a marvelous new information age. Drawing on the writings of many pundits, we claim that we are in THE information age, partly for persuading the university that we are an important player, one that the university needs to support. This is a kind of academic inferiority complex, where we are unsure about relating to other historic roles of the university. This may be quite natural, the typical plight of the professional school seeking its place in the university. But, for sure, it brings serious problems. It creates some irony in everything we do, causing us to ignore the advice we offer our students and to make unjustified claims. It causes us to ignore the human aspect, sometimes including ourselves, of the information era we claim to be in.
One of the persistent problems in reading and teaching about information technologies is the lack of historical context about the technologies. The students are easy to understand. Many of them do not remember when the PC did not exist or have grown to maturity along with the Internet; in a few more years, we will have students who think the World Wide Web has been here forever. It is more difficult to understand those who write about the modern technologies. Of course, there are fine histories of these technologies, but these works are not the ones most often discussed in the public forum or, I fear, in our classrooms. Instead, much of the discussion stems from the “information pundits,” individuals who from varying perspectives either damn technology as the source of all evils or praise it as the solution for all problems. Both views are missing the social, political, economic, and other contexts often best captured through the lens of history.
There has been a large-scale abandonment of a historical or contextual perspective in many professional schools. Given the choice between teaching the history of the book or computer rather than the technologies, the former is sometimes dismissed as being “soft” and the latter embraced as “hard” skills that our students must possess. Neil Postman, a quarter of a century ago, understood the seriousness of making wrong choices. He lamented that we had “lost the arts of preservation,” reminding us that “schools are, in fact, always given a measure of responsibility to serve as a society's memory bank, even in quiet times” - and that they weren't doing so well . Without such a base, we can be “overwhelmed by philosophers, priests, conquerors, or even explorers,” he argued . For Postman, history is critical to every curriculum, at any level, since “every subject [should be] taught as history,” enabling students “to understand, as they presently do not, that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a stage of human development, with a past and a future.” This suggests, of course, one way of educating our students, by getting to see the bigger societal and historical picture.
We can see these problems in the predictions about the end of the printed book. Jacob Epstein thinks that the “Internet, with its unmediated and instantaneous transactions, its indifference to time and distance, and its negligible cost per unit of transmission, abhors middlemen.” This suggests a new world of communication possibilities, a gold mine for those interested in the information professions. Epstein's comments caused me to reflect on my own experiences to expedite communication in higher education, with little success, but with delicious irony about why communication is often so poor among a faculty supposedly teaching about the use of information technologies to foster communication, understanding, and knowledge.
Is it possible that the lack of use of information technology within my own school may have to do with the fears associated with committing to writing, going on record, or being misinterpreted? Jeffrey Rosen, in his analysis of the decline of privacy, notes that “when intimate information is removed from its original context and revealed to strangers, we are vulnerable to being misjudged on the basis of our most embarrassing and therefore most memorable, tastes and preferences .” It is why privacy is needed. Electronic mail messages are especially susceptible to misinterpretation. As Rosen explains, “Because e-mail messages are often dashed off quickly and sent immediately, without the opportunity for second thoughts that ordinary mail provides, they may, when wrenched out of context, provide an inaccurate window on someone's emotions at any particular moment .” Faculty at a school of information sciences are particularly sensitive to this, but one still must wonder what the cost has been to faculty governance and the general business of the school. One would expect that since the faculty were educating students about harnessing information technology that they would draw on the technology for their own use.
My school's use of the World Wide Web has also been strange at times, and what I have witnessed here has probably been typical of what has happened in other professional schools and organizations. For a long time we administered the site as not having much importance, failing to see that it was a means by which many prospective students found us. Eventually, we learned our lesson, making greater efforts to keep the site current, that it was effectively and pleasantly designed, and that it was easy for faculty and staff to update it. We have not learned how to use the site for faculty governance. While some faculty maintain very open web sites with copies of publications and course syllabi, other faculty refuse to share almost anything about their work, teaching, research, and professional careers. Even today, if one became a faculty committee chair and announced their intention to utilize the Web for exchanging information, some faculty would refuse to participate. One colleague, chairing my department's curriculum committee, created a Web site for the committee use to post reports, make comments, and conduct other activities pertinent to its work, using his expertise, information architecture, to support the committee. No matter. While a couple of faculty posted some materials, most of the committee members even refused to key in the password or examine what was on the site. These problems are manifestations of the general state of the university today, and not just my own school.
The General State of the University. Recently, an English professor, Phyllis Rose, reflected on her life as an academic. Among other things, she lamented the onslaught of poststructuralist criticism, and the loss of interest in reading, the value of literature, and the demise of any common core holding her colleagues together. Rose also reflected on the nature of students and information technology:
The average student arrives fitted out with computer, television, stereo, and cell phone. . . . In the forty years since I was an undergraduate, we have gone from one telephone per hallway in the dormitory (that is, one phone for twenty to twenty-five students) to a phone and voice-mail hookup in every student room. . . . These aren't students. They are self-contained information-processing systems, with the line between information and entertainment sometimes thin.
Like many other recent commentators about modern higher education, Rose attributes this not to the general progress in information technology but to the shift in American education in recent decades to be “as concerned with the student's psychological state and self-esteem as with the passing on of knowledge” as well as the transformation of education into a “consumer item” where universities “need to make students and their parents happy with their own experience and convinced that the money they have spent is well spent .” This also may be the result of the loss of the historical sense Neil Postman lamented.
In any discussion about higher education and the deployment of information technology, we need to consider, first, what is happening in universities and colleges today. There is a thunderous avalanche of writings about the transformation of the university into a corporate entity, with a focus on generating revenue, where research is geared to saleable products, students are customers, and intellectual curiosity or dissent is not deemed to be in the best interests of the new educational corporations.  This may be overstated, for surely there are individuals who are functioning much like their predecessors of a generation or two ago, spending their time reading, engaged in some form of scholarship, teaching, and mentoring students; the problem is, of course, it is just as likely that these are a dying breed, literally the last generation of faculty tenured under older principles and values. It is not my intent to summon up great hordes of statistics or facts to support this bleak scenario, but I do want to provide some impressionistic comments about what has happened.
One of my former doctoral students recounted to me being informed by his dean that he should never worry about the students or teaching, instead focusing on his personal research and grants. The university lost a good teacher as he became disenchanted with the academic life. At his school, a professional school that had transformed itself into a major research unit within a major research university, all the emphasis had shifted to research (and funding). My former student termed the problem as a moral or ethical issue. These students had paid lots of money, he reflected, and he was repeatedly reminded that he could neglect the students. You become available to your research and collaborators, not your students. You conduct research that attracts large quantities of dollars but not necessarily students because the subject of the research might not have much to do with what you teach or what your students expect you to teach. The prospects for a synergy between what you research and what you teach are negligible since students have been taken out of the picture. For that matter, the prospects for how your research adds to your expertise may be weak since the aim of such research is often funding, fame, and fashion rather than contributing to your own teaching tools.
I have become weary with the discussions about success in higher education, often couched in terms of survival. What about making a difference? What about contributing to human knowledge? What about helping individuals determine what they want to do with their lives? Donald Kennedy dared to discuss faculty as being “moral teachers.” Kennedy continues, “By their own style of conduct, they set examples for the next generation of explorers. It thus follows that part of academic duty is the practice of civility in scholarly discourse - through which we may, by example, encourage the kinds of attitudes and behaviors we see among our most generous colleagues.” Admittedly, the high-octane research discourses would seem to connect with the knowledge issue, but not really, at least not as discussed in the typical professional school. But is this at all an example for the next generation of educators? The driving forces behind these discussions often seem to be more about funding than they are about contributing to knowledge. Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. Who will do this for us?
I have had countless discussions about such matters, sometimes even at public faculty meetings. I have heard colleagues declare that we cannot really discuss quality education, because we have to focus on generating revenue in order to survive. Fortunately, there were no students present who were paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of attending our school. The shock and outrage might have been too great. What is the point of existing if we are not educating individuals or contributing to a body of scholarship and knowledge with some modicum of benefit for society? It was also obvious that if one did not buy into the numbers or money game than you are seen as uncooperative, as not being a leader, and, worse, as not fulfilling basic obligations. More recently, in a debate I engineered about identifying a list of items for priority discussion about the future directions of the department, I was told by one faculty member that the number one priority must always be revenue, trumping all other priorities. A few days after this faculty meeting, I had a discussion with a colleague from another professional school who told me that they were adopting distance education for the sole reason that they received a substantial part of the tuition of these students and none of the tuition of on-campus students. Please note that in all these discussions, there was no articulation of a greater public good or a vision of reaching people as students who could not be otherwise reached. If such discussions occurred, they happened after the potential financial dollars were added up. Even non-profits outside of the university are adopting a business mentality, leading the authors of one study about this to somewhat glibly state that “sometimes, the pursuit of profit directly conflicts with the pursuit of social good.”
About half a dozen years ago my department began discussing the possibility of launching a distance education program as an alternative means to acquire the Master of Library and Information Science. The initial discussions were cordial. While a few faculty expressed some concerns about the educational quality of such an effort, the focus of these early discussions was on gaining the requisite financial and administrative support. Part of the intensity of these discussions was the Provost's messages urging us to increase the number of students, reminding that we were a tuition driven, revenue generating educational factory. What some of us should have seen then was that we were stepping onto the wide path heading to hell, while trying to demonstrate to the university administrators that we were both creative and responsive to the needs of the university to generate revenue from any source possible.
Distance education can be delivered effectively, providing real education, offering the opportunity to reach audiences beyond those normally found on campus. One could also make the argument that the traditional methods of classroom instruction, now seeming to be almost completely overtaken by the use of PowerPoint slides, wasn't without its own flaws and problems.  However, delivering distance education depends on having two basic elements in place. One, distance education needs to be placed in a set of educational priorities extending beyond generating revenue, especially since an online 24/7 environment requires additional time by the instructor for both preparing and teaching. Second, there needs to be an adequate infrastructure allowing faculty to teach effectively within the online environment and students, as well, to learn. As it turns out, neither element is often in place.
How does the faculty balance its time and other resources between teaching, researching, and supporting the graduate programs and their professional communities, with the additional burden of an online degree program? When we think rationally, we recognize that it is impossible for a single faculty to be fully engaged in an on campus program, distance education operation, their own research and writing, keeping current with their professional and scholarly literature, and nurturing doctoral students all at the same time. Yet, that seems to be exactly the decision we often make, with some arguing vociferously that we needed to be doing everything (although a careful checking of academic resumes might lead one to some interesting conclusions about how effectively distance education proponents are in supporting a fuller range of academic expectations). In a sense, then, distance education threatens to turn professional schools into teaching factories, weakening an already weakened professional school in the modern university, and we should be careful about just what we are committing ourselves to do. We might be adopting easy short-term gains that weaken professional schools in the university, and it is doubtful that a university would not close such a school if its intellectual and scholarly base evaporated over time (something very likely to happen if we stay with an exaggerated emphasis on distance education).
Perhaps distance education can be accommodated if a school can provide adequate infrastructure support for the faculty teaching in this manner. Some professional schools have done this, usually in the form of educational technologists who support free faculty to design courses, shape content, and teach. In some places, however, the faculty member assumes responsibility for everything, offering little more than a set of notes, a list of readings (some instructors rely on available online resources), the opportunity for a class chatroom, and access to the instructor. And, from what I hear, that access varies from excessive amounts of the instructor's time to nearly complete ignoring by the professor of the student.
Despite some serious issues plaguing distance education programs, they is heralded as wonderful successes. One can ask on what basis such a success was determined. I have seen demographic profiles of the students and heard general platitudes about how students learn in different ways, but in many places we have not seen course evaluations by the students, gained any real information about how these students are faring in the job market, considered whether these students received an adequate education, or discussed more serious issues concerning the distance education program and its implications for the schools. That students might be successful with such an educational foundation might speak more to the general problems with my discipline than with anything related to the challenges posed by the delivery venue.
Such problems are endemic to the university. In my experience, despite whatever platitudes have been sounded about the educational technology, the chief criterion for gauging a program like this has been the number of students (by which I mean tuition revenue) in the virtual classrooms. To be honest, this may be not unlike other platitudes hoisted about in higher education. For example, every university states that teaching is the pre-eminent concern. Yet, everyone in a university understands that a great teacher with no research publications or research dollars will not be tenured. Indeed, one way of looking at distance education in a professional school is to understand that many professional schools lack faculty with great research reputations because of their generally applied orientation to their field, and they must compensate for this weakness by building other justifications for why their school is important. Distance education, with its ability to generate extraordinary revenue, is very tempting. Professional schools in my field have also expanded out into undergraduate programs for much the same reasons, namely, that they can demonstrate how they are generating revenue for the university.
Returning to Core Values. The faculty need to be more assertive in identifying what our reasons are for being in the university. Professional schools have bought in to the prevailing perspectives of the university engaged in trying to make money rather than in trying to educate or in striving to be the repository (or guardian) of human knowledge; some argue that universities have been taken over by vocational training, jettisoning higher ideals of learning. Others have sounded greater concerns. Educator Alfie Kohn writes, “If you're in a sailboat without a map or a destination, you can get up to a good speed, but only in the direction that the prevailing winds are blowing.” Kohn's observation suggests something else that is equally important. Professional schools like mine may have lost their own moorings. Long oriented to their own professional community and craft, these schools often have not built records of scholarship or a recognizable academic profile within their own universities. Many of these schools also do not have good track records in securing research grants, partly because they lack faculty who are researching and publishing. As the universities began to shift more towards the corporate model, these schools began to seek ways of justifying their existence, usually by establishing undergraduate programs and distance education programs, or by adopting any other mechanism for creating new revenue streams.
Some critics of higher education perceive that evidence about the decline of the university can be seen in a misplaced professionalism, something that can only happen if we lose our sense of core values: “The University no longer has a hero for its grand narrative, and a retreat into `professionalization' has been the consequence.” In professional schools, this process may have been happening longer. This critic argues, “Professionalization deals with the loss of the subject-referent of the educational experience by integrating teaching and research as aspects of the general administration of a closed system: teaching is the administration of students by professors; research is the administration of professors by their peers; administration is the name given to the stratum of bureaucrats who administer the whole. In each case, administration involves the processing and evaluation of information according to criteria of excellence that are internal to the system: the value of research depends on what colleagues think of it; the value of teaching depends upon the grades professors give and the evaluations the students make; the value of administration depends upon the ranking of a University among its peers.”  Professional schools often exhibit all of these symptoms, especially as they are immersed in fields where practitioners are often worried or even antagonistic to the education of their peers in the university (with never ending debates about the relationship of theory and practice).
Whatever the symptoms, the critical point is that these symptoms appear because the mission of the university and the professional school to educate and to contribute to public knowledge has been lost. Credentials, customers, revenue, measures, and other elements become the driving forces for evaluation, and professional schools are all the more susceptible to such forces. The irony is even greater in a school of information sciences. As Bill Readings argues, as knowledge in the university has been lost as goal and replaced by the “processing of information,” the university goes into a downward spiral: “something should be known, yet it becomes less and less urgent that we know what it is that should be known.” As the university spins into the ground, many professional schools will be in the forward section, hitting the ground first and hardest. And few may be interested in erecting a memorial for us.
There are obvious ways of reflecting on these core values. Are students “customers” or “consumers”? They may be customers in that they purchase something with the expectation of a product or outcome. They buy a course in order to learn something or to satisfy requirements for a degree. Certainly our students fall into that category. Universities are suffering from the wrong public persona, as Donald Kennedy contends when he writes about the problem with public misunderstanding of the university's mission: “Whereas those within the system generally believe that their mission is to produce graduates who can think well and work effectively, and reflect upon their culture and upon the material world, much of the world outside sees higher education as a credentialing device: a way of estimating, for employment or other purposes, the comparative worth of individuals.” All of this is greatly exaggerated within the professional schools residing within universities.
But there are popular concepts of a customer that I suspect work against terming our students “customers.” For businesses, customer relations mean the customer always being right, as well as the concept of giving them a dependable product with a short-term (one or two years) guarantee or a longer service contract than can be purchased. Does this kind of thinking really describe university students? For a professional school, such matters are particularly troublesome, as many of the fields they support have standardized or certification tests that it is tempting to focus on. Students generally know about these credentials, and many, even as they enter the school, believe that what they will be experiencing in the professional school is preparation to take and pass these examinations. Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing against this in the K-12 realm, noting that the tests “have a very powerful impact on instruction, almost always for the worse. Teachers feel increasingly pressured to take time away from real learning in order to prepare students to take these dreadful tests.” At the graduate level, in a professional school, the temptation is further inducement to seeing students as customers and giving them what they want (rather than what they need).
What Are Our Values? The most important question may be how we each determine what our values are or should be. To ask the question out loud in the university is to invite someone else to hand you a list of values that you will be asked to accept as your own. Each person ruminating about values must start with their own, reflecting on what were the reasons originally motivating them to become a university faculty member. At my church one Sunday morning, the minister preached from one of those familiar Old Testament passages in which God's people were admonished for intermingling with the infidels. I found myself thinking about how these prophetic warnings have also been leveled at the university. Instead of God's anointed, we can substitute professors who strive to teach for the love of learning, the pursuit of knowledge, or the quest for an idea. The infidels really had not changed much in a few thousand years. Now they are the business people and the politicians who are trying to transform the university into a for-profit enterprise.
The reality is, of course, that the university has always been stuck in the middle of the world, where people have to make real things happen. Even classical education emphasizing ancient languages, rhetoric, and philosophy was deemed to have practical benefit to those who would work in mercantile houses, the church, and government. Still, there is something intriguing and useful about the idea of having a group of people assembled who can tinker with ideas, applied or even totally impractical except for being a reflection of knowledge. I have always been more of an individual who leans towards trying to make things that work, and it is a good commitment to have since I am in a professional school. But it is also better to have the freedom to tinker with stuff that might not have any short-term practical benefit. We need people who conceive of the long-term, try to see the big picture, who work always with an eye on the future. Otherwise, we transform the university into a place where workshops and institutes are taught with no aim in mind other than credentialing people to secure jobs. Learning is more than about employment protection and benefits. The older university ideal was that it was a foundation of learning preparing you for life. It is an ideal that needs to be resuscitated in the modern university, but it is an ideal that is particularly hard to find support for in the corporate university. Two professors of education, for example, recently wrote that:
We deplore the tendency toward “narrow vocationalism,” both because it undermines genuine occupational preparation and because it impoverishes the intellectual and civic roles that higher education can play. But professionalism broadly understood provides its own avenues back to liberal education. Ethical issues, central to every profession, provide a hook for the hook for the deeper study of ethical and philosophical issues.
This suggests hope, because it places the ability to address such issues squarely back in the classroom and under the purview of the individual faculty member.
If the university is lost to society, what other group or institution will do such speculation? Even in a professional school, sometimes looked askance at by other, traditional departments as being tainted by a kind of vocational focus, the faculty members at such schools are often the philosophers, cynics, questioners, and visionaries of their professions. Without them, these vocations might only look as far ahead as what would be going on within the four walls of their employers. And all, society, the disciplines, and the university would suffer in some way. What a professional school should add to a university is a foot within the real world, a bridge between knowledge and the application of that knowledge to solving real problems and challenges. But it might just be possible that professional schools have lost some of their edge because the rest of the university looks more like them. Now, professional schools are asked to count students as customers, make decisions enhancing revenues, and to take on work that generates additional funds. Some of the work at solving practical problems continues, but the process of deciding what problems to consider is now heavily influenced by business factors. This may spell serious trouble for the future welfare of professional schools.
The world has seeped so much into the university that it is impossible to distinguish where one starts and the other ends. For a professional school that might not seem so bad, since supposedly we are in the business of educating (some would say training) people to go and practice a trade. Yet, a focus too much on this practical dimension of the graduate school, and we can hear any hope for innovation or creativity being sucked right out of it. We train students to be little more than cogs in the wheels of the institutions where they eventually secure positions. And that training will have lots of problems.
We might rationalize that we are a professional school where we are expected to turn out graduates with marketable skills. However, our graduates need to understand how to apply their skills in complex and challenging environments, and this is where the wisdom, knowledge, and cultural understanding come in. But, are we creating the suitable environment at our schools to allow education, not mere training, to occur? For the past few years my own school put most of our energies, or so it seems, into business plans, student head counts, revenues generated, customers (those people we used to refer to as “students”) and other similar matters. One might think we were a dynamic for-profit corporation until they witnessed malfunctioning elevators, thirty year old carpets, and inadequate classrooms - these characteristics would make anyone realize we were part of a university and had different goals in educating students rather than running businesses. And, one might posit, all the entrepreneurial emphasis does not mean that anyone will be doing better. Physician Ronald Glasser writes, “Americans, we know, pay too much for their health care, and compared with other countries we receive a very poor return on our investment. The reasons are many, but they are not hard to understand: in essence, we have tended historically to view health care as a commodity like any other. But health is not a product; it is a public good. The evidence is clear that even when viewed through the reductive lens of purely economic self-interest, market-based, entrepreneurial medicine is a failure.” Education is, of course, also a public good, and its transformation into mostly a concern for credentials or profits is generating the basis for its failure as well. Martha C. Nussbaum notes that “Unlike all other nations, we ask a higher education to contribute a general preparation for citizenship, not just a specialized preparation for a career,” and “If we cannot teach our students everything they will need to know to be good citizens, we may at least teach them what they do not know and how they may inquire.” Even in our professional schools, we have to admit that we must not just teach about matters of technical and vocational education but address matters related to how technology is or should be used. Need I add that social scientists also have a role in helping students and society comprehend the strengths and limitations of the technologies it uses and will develop?
To be successful in a professional school, or maybe in any part of a university, these days has become more difficult, perhaps nearly impossible. If one stresses service to the professional community and advising and teaching the students who will become future members of that community, it is unlikely that that faculty member will be around very long. The university wants to see funding mostly, but apart from that, the university expects the faculty member to be part of an intellectual corps befitting the nature of a major research university. If the faculty member devotes him or herself to finessing theory and engaging in research, it may be difficult for that individual to relate to the professional community which by necessity must be focused on practical needs and issues. Carving out an in between road, balancing teaching and researching, seems the most likely route to follow, but that is just as likely to make both the university and professional community unhappy and dissatisfied with your performance. The reality is that the faculty spends considerable energy trying to educate both the professional community and the university about the importance of their work. In the case of my own field, the administration of records and archives, it is also important to be advocating and explaining the nature of that work to one's colleagues. And, as this is done, and as the focus of the university changes, that task becomes more and more difficult.
The primary problem in all this may be the failure of professional schools to explain themselves, their mandate, and the mission of the respective disciplines they serve. Freeman Dyson, in reviewing Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality - a popular account of theoretical physics, notes, when wondering if Greene's details are right or wrong, that “progress in science is often built on wrong theories that are latter corrected. It is better to be wrong than to be vague.” In many professional schools, theories are neglected because there is insecurity in the substance or relevance of these theories. It is a greater problem, however, that the faculty of these schools often have a hard time explaining how theories or the knowledge supporting their discipline mesh with the realities of what the practitioners in the field are about (and what their students will one day be doing). Perhaps the problem within our own school and its administration is due to the invisibility of the professionals we educate and unleash on the world. As some commentators observe, “Many of the contributions of librarians are invisible to library clients - not by accident, but by design. It is actually part of the professional practice of librarians to protect their clients from the messy details of their work. As a result, few people have much of an idea of what librarians do.”
Once in a while I experience a week in which everything I am engaged in is a reminder that in the modern university the faculty member can be seen simply as a hired laborer, far less significant than the academic administrators and middle managers outnumbering them. Things often do look differently on the inside of an organization than they do from the outside. To the outside, the faculty member appears to hold one of the cushiest jobs in the world, with a minimum number of hours required to be in the classroom, most of his time free for reading and reflection, and immense flexibility to come and go as one pleases. Much of this perception is true, of course, at least in the days and weeks that work well. As the university continues its incorporation, these times seem to occur less often.
Universities have become more businesslike, at least in appearances, and with it the faculty's role seems to have diminished. Many of us have given up on the endless meetings now required for some semblance of faculty governance because we desire the time to do other things, or, and more importantly, because we have become cynical about what we really gain from such uses of our time. We are told meetings are important, and chastised when we don't come, but the evidence grows that no real decisions are made at these meetings anyway. University administrators have filled the void and our influence has declined, at least in charting where the university is headed, how it uses its resources, and how it portrays itself to the world.
Confrontations with university administrators can often serve to remind us that we never want to do what they do, despite the bigger offices, higher salaries, and staff help. What they remind us is that the heart of the university is the classroom, where students are assembled to learn and where the only way they can learn is for someone to come into the classroom with expertise to share - the faculty member. If this is the heart of the university, and if the faculty is the key, then it is the faculty who still retain the power and who shape what the university is and what it will always be. While students are eternally upset with faculty about reading loads, course assignments, and course grades, it is also with faculty that whatever joy of learning they will experience will come. University administrators, removed from the classroom and in the corporate model farther removed than ever, are only the targets for gripes about education costs, losing football teams, poor telecommunications networks, and congested campus cafeterias. They will almost never experience the joy of learning and the experience of teaching when the eureka moment occurs for both faculty and students.
In the classroom, faculty members are in control (unless they have signed away their rights in a distance education, Web-based course). And in the university, removing the faculty will end the university (although academic administrators are increasingly unable to understand this basic truth). The university is still fundamentally about knowledge and the exchange of knowledge is transacted in the classroom, in old-fashioned lectures or seminars that have been the hallmarks of the university for at least a century and a half. The point in all this is that university administrators really can't reach us there. Even if they schedule us to different courses, we teach what we want and what we believe needs to be taught. If they remove us from the classroom, students still manage to find us. And if students can't find us, we still write and publish for our professional colleagues and, for a few of us, even for wider realms of the public. Anyone walking in and around the fringes of a university, by peering into nearby coffee shops and restaurants, will still see faculty conversing with each other and with students. Education is going on. Often the administrators won't be seen in these places.
Focusing on our mastery of the classroom does not mean that we will reject necessarily all information technology. We can be suspicious of the societal and educational implications of technology and still be effective in our use of e-mail, the World Wide Web, and the resources of digital libraries and archives. We can even harness information technology for both teaching and scholarship, as Edward Ayers, dean and professor of history, suggests:
Information technology has not made the impact on higher education-or at least on the core missions of higher education-that it has made on many other aspects of society. We've built a great infrastructure that has transformed many social and business aspects of our work and our libraries, but teaching and scholarship have been relatively little touched. I think we're ready for the next stage: building tools that can be carried into the heart of the academic enterprise. For teaching, we need tools that anyone can pick up, that can be customized, that are quick and adaptable, and that are less expensive in money, time, and commitment. For scholarship, we need to craft forms of scholarly presentation that take advantage of the power of the new media we now possess. For both teaching and scholarship, therefore, we need IT people and academic people to work together more closely than ever before.
Of course, we need to know what to say to the IT people, and this necessitates that we understand our own objectives and adhere to our own values.
My own situation is a good case in point. I came to a professional school in order to continue my career efforts to strengthen the status of my discipline in society. I do not mean this to sound as if it is only concerned with credentials, although this is part of it, no matter how grubby and self-serving this might seem. Rather, I have long had three career objectives, including: strengthening the scholarship supporting the discipline, raising up the next generation of academics to teach in the university, and creating a separate masters degree to support the profession.
In order to focus on the separate masters degree option would require me to take on administrative responsibilities I am not sure I want to assume. This is not an unusual dilemma for an academic, but, nonetheless, it causes one to reconsider his or her options, not only what that person enjoys but what that person sees as most important to be done with their relatively limited time on earth. Teaching, researching and writing, and administering are not functions that generally go together very well, especially in professional schools. Professional schools seem to parody their organizational counterparts in thriving on having as many meetings as possible, although these meetings in the academic sector seem to have less chance for actually resolving much of anything. Faculty members seem capable of discussing an issue to death without ever actually making a decision to try to resolve anything about that issue. Most faculty measure their careers by other markers, such as books published, and it is a good thing; the faculty members in professional schools seem quite willing to exist with little discernible results stemming from faculty governance. It is the proverbial crossroads for the individual who reaches this point.
As I examined the fork there were the two separate paths. One path offered the possibility of solving a professional dilemma, creating the new degree, and bringing a much more needed focus to the archival field (including the development of a more focused curriculum and teaching emphasis). With it would come much more administrative responsibility, especially in a school where there is little support offered for such administration. No matter how one could consider this option, it is clear that reflective reading, research, and laborious scholarly writing would have to diminish. The other path seemed to offer the possibility to pursue the research that supports better teaching, although in a professional school this also seems somewhat problematic. I fully understood that if I selected this path, I would still face pressure to spend more time in meetings, undertake more committee assignments, and to fill out forms in a endless parade of new initiatives and old, traditional responsibilities. This is, after all, the essence of the professional school. With its foot in one door of the university and its other in the grimier world of a profession, faculty would be constantly pulled in these and other directions. However, I chose this path because of the possibility of being more engaged in self-reflection, teaching students, and public scholarship in which the importance of records in society would be promoted. I hope I made the correct decision. And I hope that my continuing in a professional school was also correct.
Conclusion. You might have been expecting to hear more about technology. Without question, technology and its use and understanding will always be important. We cannot afford, if we still want to call ourselves educators, to become a new form of Luddites. We must be able to embrace technology (I am not giving up my Apple laptop), but we need to do so in a way that helps faculty colleagues make adjustments with newer forms and enables us to work with students who do not fully understand the limitations of the technology they have grown up with and often take for granted. Just as we find ourselves explaining to students that not all scholarship and information is found on the World Wide Web, we must also orient them to issues like eroding privacy and government and corporate accountability, the obsolescence of digital information and the potential loss of public and organizational memory, and the societal values and norms that necessitate the creation of a knowledge to be used for the public good. What has always engaged me in my chosen profession has been a sense of the immense importance of records and the intriguing set of problems and issues that threaten our documentary heritage. It is fun to wrestle with these always new and continually emerging problems and the challenges of explaining them to others. I suspect most of you are here today for much the same reasons.
1 For a sense of how we have coped with these changes, see David Morton, Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
2 For a technologist who appreciates older technologies such as calligraphy, see David M. Levy, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.
3 Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (MIT Press, 1999), p. 49.
4 Such as Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (New York: Basic Books, 1996) and Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
5 Neil Postman, Teaching As A Conserving Activity (New York: Delta Book, 1979), p. 21.
6 Postman, Teaching As A Conserving Activity, pp. 31-32.
7 Postman, Teaching As A Conserving Activity, p. 138.
8 In library and information science education, there have been critics arguing for just such a larger picture. See, for example, Wayne A. Wiegand, “Critiquing the Curriculum: The Entrenched LIS Agenda Needs to Change to Reflect the Most Critical Functions of the Library,” American Libraries (January 2005): 58, 60-61.
9 Jason Epstein, “The Coming Revolution,” The New York Review of Books 47 (November 2, 2000): 4-5, predicts the ultimate marginalizing of print books as books are delivered electronically directly to readers. Quotation is on p. 5.
10 Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 9.
11 Rosen, Unwanted Gaze, p. 75.
12 Phyllis Rose, “The Coming of the French: My Life as an English Professor,” American Scholar 74 (Winter 2005): 67.
13 Rose, “The Coming of the French,” pp. 67-68.
14 For a few of these recent writings, see Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); David L. Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Donald G. Stein, ed., Buying In or Selling Out? The Commercialism of the American Research University (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).
15 Kennedy, Academic Duty, p. 184.
16 There is another way to look at what is happening in higher education and the professional schools situated there. Bill Readings, in his analysis of the decline of the modern university, essentially argues, among many things, that administration has trumped the other essential functions of the university: “The three functions that are still invoked in the contemporary University are research, teaching, and administration. The last of these is, of course, the most rapidly expanding field in terms of the allocation of resources, and, as I have argued, its expansion is symptomatic of the breakdown of the German Idealist contract between research and teaching. Indeed, I would be inclined to argue that the University of Excellence is one in which a general principle of administration replaces the dialectic of teaching and research, so that teaching and research, as aspects of professional life, are subsumed under administration.” Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 125. In some professional schools, where research was already weak, it has been more tempting for faculty either to become absorbed by administrative matters or to allow other administrators merely to become the dominate force in their schools. Indeed, this may even be committed in the guise of being more professional.
17 William Foster and Jeffrey Bradach, “Should Nonprofits Seek Profits?” Harvard Business Review 83 (February 2005): 99.
18 For some interesting discussions about PowerPoint and education, see Clifford Stoll, High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian
(New York: Anchor, 2000) and Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Power of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, September 2003).
19 See, for example, Christopher J. Lucas, Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).
20 Kohn, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated, p. xiii.
21 Readings, The University in Ruins, p. 126.
22 Readings, The University in Ruins, p. 86.
23 Kennedy, Academic Duty, p. 7.
24 Kohn, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated, p. 29.
25 W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, “Vocationalism in Higher Education: The Triumph of the Education Gospel,” The Journal of Higher Education 76 (January-February 2005): 16.
26 Ronald J. Glasser, “We Are Not Immune: Influenza, SARS, and the Collapse of Public Health,” Harper's 309 (July 2004): 39.
27 Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 294, 295.
28 Freeman Dyson, “The World on a String,” New York Review of Books 51 (May 11, 2004), p. 16.
29 Nardi and O'Day, p. 82.
30 Quoted from the electronic version of Edward L. Ayers, “The Academic Culture and the IT Culture: Their Effect on Teaching and Scholarship,” Educause
Review 39 (November/December 2004): 48-62, available at www:///
31 There are always challenges to be faced in the generational differences in accepting certain technologies. Poet Dana Gioia writes, “For years many intellectuals and academics have observed these trends with a mixture of disappointment and detachment. While lamenting the sorry state of literacy among the public, they remained confident in the power of print culture among educated Americans. That confidence now seems misplaced. Books, magazines, and newspaper are not disappearing, but their position in the culture has changed significantly over the past few decades, even among the educated. We are now seeing the first generation of yound intellectuals who are not willing to immerse themselves in the world of books. They are not against reading, but they see it as only one of the many options for information.” Gioia, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2004), p. 5.
Biographical Sketch of Richard J. Cox:
Richard J. Cox is Professor in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences where he is responsible for the archives concentration in the Master's in Library Science degree and the Ph.D. degree.
He has been a member of the Society of American Archivists Council from 1986 through 1989. Dr. Cox also served as Editor of the American Archivist from 1991 through 1995, and he is presently editor of the Records & Information Management Report as well as serving as the Society of American Archivists Publications Editor.
He has written extensively on archival and records management topics and has published eleven books in this area: American Archival Analysis: The Recent Development of the Archival Profession in the United States (1990) -- winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award given by the Society of American Archivists; Managing Institutional Archives: Foundational Principles and Practices (1992); The First Generation of Electronic Records Archivists in the United States: A Study in Professionalization (1994); Documenting Localities (1996); Closing an Era: Historical Perspectives on Modern Archives and Records Management (2000); Managing Records as Evidence and Information (2001), winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award in 2002; coeditor, Archives & the Public Good: Records and Accountability in Modern Society (2002); Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries (2002); Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age (2003); No Innocent Deposits: Forming Archives by Rethinking Appraisal (2004); and Lester J. Cappon and Historical Scholarship in the Golden Age of Archival Theory (2004). Managing Archives and Archivists and a second edition of Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, CO-written with James M. O'Toole, will both appear in 2005. He is presently completing a new book, Information Age Troubles: Ethics, Accountability, and the Contest over the Authority of Record keeping. Dr. Cox was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1989.
You can learn more about Richard Cox by visiting his web site.