20 March 2007

Sound Suggestions on Wikipedia

A phenomenal piece by Cathy Davidson in the Chronicle on what the lessons we, as academics, can learn from wikipedia and the pedagogical tools it provides us as educators. I couldn't agree with Davidson more in that the academy needs to shake our tail feathers a little bit and quell their fears of new technologies. The idea of having students contribute to wikipedia is a great opportunity to increase buy-in from students in their research and their writing. It also gives them first hand experience in the publishing and editing process, and more likely than not, in the way that publishing and editing will be handled by the time many of them are ready to make contributions to their fields.

Davidson makes an interesting point in her essay regarding wikipedia as a vehicle for the common good, "the life of the intellect." In many ways, I can't help but agree that an environment that not only encourages but is based on collaboration and contribution nourishes the appetite of the mind. If you did read the "Discussion" section of any wikipedia article, you might suprised at the amount and level of the debates about small areas of the article. What a phenomenal way to illustrate the writing and research process to students!

Yet I still hesitate to agree wholly with this characterization of wikipedia. Perhaps it is the anonymity of contributors that irks me and the consequential questions of reliability, objectivity, and longevity of the entries. One thing that Davidson, and many other supporters of wikipedia are quick to point out is that if you don't like what is written, you can change it. Does that not have an Orwellian ring to it? And how can we assert that there is no continuity or steady pace to knowledge? Remember, wikipedia is claiming itself as an encyclopedia, a compendium of knowledge. Perhaps I would feel better it they called themselves a compendium of information?

16 March 2007

Annotated Literature

A clever piece in today's NYTimes on the benefits of annotated editions of classics. At first glance, I was concerned that the piece would laud an annotated edition over the simple text. But, thanks goodness, it does not. To imagine trying to read Pride and Prejudice with annotations the first time around, to try to suck in all the details and intricacies of18th century England, and as the author points out, there are a great many, could doom the reader to the popular claim that Jane Austen is dense and boring.

This is my complaint about most introductory literature courses. Introductory courses, or even more importantly AP level high school English courses, should emphasize engaging the reader in the rhythm of the text and the fluidity of the story. To give them the chance to feel the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy, Tess and Angel, Lady Chatterly and Melors. To force their eye from the body of the text to the annotations requires a disconnection that is to the detriment of the tale and, therefore, to understanding the initial purpose of the novel. While I am a firm believer in underlying themes of books and the novel as a vehicle for social criticism, I am also as equally a firm believer that the novel is itself, and above all else, a story. And because students today have a difficult time exerting their minds to other syntaxes or foregin vocabularies, the only way to make readers of them eventually is to help them see the light in the clouds.

Bravo to William Grimes for balancing the benefits of annotation and the limited role it should play in the life of a reader of classic literature.

08 March 2007

Writing on Wikipedia

As most of you know, Middlebury College announced that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia anyone can edit, was forbidden as a cited reference in academic work . The sounds of the uproar still ring in my ears.

Subsequently, my college's Center for Teaching and Learning reached out to the faculty to gauge their opinion on Wikipedia with the catchy quip, "Do you think Wikipedia is wicked or "wicked" cool?" The volume of responses illustrated that this is clearly a hot but controversial topic. At our college, it made clear a divide between the technologists and the traditionalists, leaving some of us in the middle, bracing the challenges of being budding academics in the age of mass collaboration and interactive information. To my mind, however, the discussion over Wikipedia's appropriateness in academic work is most often a discussion of two, equally important, but different topics: 1. the interactivity of information best encapsulated by the collaborative and democratic nature of wikis, and 2. Whether Wikipedia is an appropriate source to be submitted for academic work,particularly as a basis for scholarly analysis.

Elaine Young, one of our faculty members and fellow blogger, in her posts on Wikipedia, brings up a number of interesting points in terms of the consumer driven nature of information. This is an exciting time to be driving down the "information superhighway" (how can I resist such a wonderfully hokey yet apt metaphor). To continue the metaphor and borrow from Volkswagon’s ad campaign, on the road of life, there are passengers and drivers. Wikipedia does offer unparalleled opportunities to engage in epistemological discourse: it asks for drivers. But I must take issue with the presupposition that posters to Wikipedia do indeed have "knowledge" in a topic area and are "experts" in different areas, essentially that they are qualified drivers. As the much heralded "Nature" article points out, Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) is not as interested in "checking articles with experts as getting them to write the articles in the first place". While that might be a terrific teaching point for students in the need to rethink, revise, and rewrite, needn't we wonder if that is an appropriate selling point for an "encyclopedia" that purports authoritativeness?

And that gets to the heart of the matter for me. Calling something an "encyclopedia", whether collaborative, electronic, or dust-laden and multi volumed, connotes a level of authoritativeness. Students look to encyclopedias (and yes, most often Wikipedia) to gather essential information on a topic. And it is up to the authoritative community of the college and knowledge, professors and librarians, to a) point out to students the limitations in looking at issues in such a myopic way as is often done in encyclopedias and, b) to decide what we demand from our students in their research. In my classes, encyclopedic entries are starting points and are not acceptable, whether from Wikipedia or not, as a source for academic work. It's a great place to go to find out what something is and what are some key terms to apply to further research. Students should be bringing their critical thinking skills to all and any information they procure, whether for academic work or out on the road of life.

Wikipedia is an exciting project and I admit to using it often. It is a valuable resource for information and to deride it soley on its nature is to ignore the changing nature of information. But it is a question of what we are using that resource for that is of paramount importance to me as I consider how to answer questions about Wikipedia in library instruction sessions and as I consider
whether to put a disclaimer on my syllabus or my assignments.

There are a myriad of fascinating and informative articles on Wikipedia out there. I have listed a few on the side bar HOT TOPIC, and I am always looking for more.
(NOTE: most links are through Champlain affiliated databases and may not be accessible to general readers)

01 March 2007

Library's Blogs?

My fellow funky librarian, Paula, and I were discussing whether blogs would serve a purpose at the institutional level? Does the Miller Information Commons need a blog?

We think no. What would we say? For example, my previous post on Copyright is a personal experience. If I had to write solely as a representative of the Library, and not as a individual librarian, that post wouldn't be up for all of you to see (tongue in cheek).

We scanned Google for library blogs and found a few, but none kept up, which proves our point: what is there to say from the institutional perspective?

Well, then Paula mentions (she is standing next to the Sheck as she writes), that our local community college, CCV, has blog . And it's pretty cool. They aren't limiting themselves to just library stuff. They have a post for the Oscars for pete's sake! How is that library related? Or is it? It brings us back to the question of image: what is the library and to whom? Is it so hard to believe that the library could be fun? Funky? Interesting? Entertaining?

No way. They just have dusty old books over there and old ladies with buns. (Paula Whoops!)

Copyright Collaboration

Yesterday was Professional Development Day at the college and we worked on setting goals. One of mine was to use the skills and knowledge I gain at a workshop and apply it when I return to strengthen our team and the library.

More specifically, I am attending the ACRL preconference on copyright. The college and the Library has neither sufficiently addressed copyright, nor have we developed any kind of resource for faculty that have basic questions.

I want to develop and implement a "Copyright Questions" page to our faculty resources that addresses the most frequently asked questions and direct them to an identified resource if they need further help. In doing so, the Library would help clarify the college's position on copyright. We would work with the Provost's office and perhaps a legal consultant to provide appropriate information to faculty. We would review other college's copyright websites: Smith, Wellesley, Bates, Carlton, and many more. We would identify particular issues we would address and those issues that would lead to consultation.

So, once I developed my goal, we shared it with the group. I then find out that the VP of Administration has already initiated a institutional copyright policy group with no representation from the library! My question to him was how could the college try to address copyright without collaborating with the library? The library is where students come to get information from their professors; it is where faculty leave reserves; it is to whom the majority of questions regarding copyright are addressed.

After sharing my goals with him, I will be the representative on the committee from here on out. But it only reminds me of how important it is for the Library to remind the greater college community, not just the faculty, of our role. As the VP said, he wouldn't know to turn to the library for such things. Shame on us for his not knowing that. Again, it is an issue of our image: he didn't see the Library as a place for collaboration or as a central part of the academic core. That is our problem, not his.