Category Archives: academic models

Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.

Teaching Reforms and Humour

A funny spoof (in French) on education reforms in Quebec since 1960.
L’enseignement à travers les époques – 🙂 & < – by adamsofineti

The “current” buzzphrase in Quebec is «approche par compétences», which could roughly be described as a “performance-oriented approach to learning” or, somewhat more generally, “objective-oriented learning.” The main conceptual tools used in this approach come from socio-constructivism, at least officially.

It’s never a good strategy to make fun of colleagues but I can help but be amazed by how a conference presentation on «approche par compétences» manages to not say anything substantial on the subject. Here’s an iTunes link to that presentation. I’m sure professor Marie-Françoise Legendre is a very thoughtful scholar and that this MP3 version of her talk doesn’t do justice to her presentation, but there’s something about some of these approaches which just, honestly, makes me laugh.

Funnily enough, my father was trained by Jean Piaget who is sometimes associated with constructivist approaches to learning. (In fact, my relativistic/holistic approach to life and anthropology probably relates very directly to some indirect influences from Piaget.) And my favourite Course Management System, Moodle, mentions (social) constructivism and constructionism in its philosophy statement. Many of the pedagogical principles labeled by those buzzphrases are widely accepted and I do personally tend to accept them. At the same time, some pedagogical practises allegedly based on these principles seems almost absurd to me and several colleagues.

An interesting situation, if not a rare one.

McGill and UofT Ranked

Speaking of university rankings, McGill University describes its presence in the Princeton Review as praise. Their actual rankings in distinct categories are [drumroll, please…]:

The first category (rare class discussions) is surprising to me because, in my experience (taught at two universities in Quebec, two in Indiana, two in Massachusetts, and one in New Brunswick), university students in Quebec tend to discuss quite openly in class, much more so than U.S. students. But these rankings are based on perception, not analysis of classroom behaviour, AFAIK. And McGill has a high proportion of students from the United States.

In my mind, Concordia University would be likely to rank higher in “race/class interaction” as it’s a well-known part of people’s experience there (faculty, students, and administrators frequently discuss diversity issues). And since Concordia’s campus is quite close to McGill’s, it’s quite possible that Concordia would rank close to McGill for the “college town” category. Although, McGill students tend to live close to campus (including in the so-called McGill Ghetto) while Concordia students are scattered across town. Still, Montreal is considered a cool “college town” by people who attend all of its four universities.

The other Canadian university in the Princeton Review rankings is University of Toronto, which is similarly “praised“:

Hmmm… Where’s the UofT press release about its consecration by The Princeton Review? Can’t wait to see how they spin it. “At UofT, we pride ourselves for our groundbreaking approach to teaching. Students are encouraged to work by themselves, without the hassles of communicating with their professors or with their fellow students.”

Of course, those rankings aren’t based on stereotypes or frivolous factors. After all, which serious ranking wouldn’t have a category for “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians?” Maybe rankings made by “Dr. Martens-Wearing, Tree-Cutting, Non-Smoking Omnivores.”
It’s quite difficult to compare Canadian universities with those in the U.S. because the systems are quite different from one another. For instance, tuition fees at (publicly-funded but private university) McGill are quite low ($1,668 for “Out-of-State Tuition”) and a full bachelor’s degree in one of Quebec’s universities is typically three years (because Quebec has a separate program between high school and university). So a full degree at McGill can cost less than $6,000. The “Best Value College” according to The Princeton Review is the University of Central Florida which charges $17,017 a year for Out-of-State students. Other expenses seem fairly similar between these two universities. UCF’s ranking is 16th for “Their Students (Almost) Never Study,” which is obviously a very important factor in selecting an institution of higher learning. We wouldn’t want these kind souls to be wasting their time studying! So, “best value” in the U.S. is quite different from “best value” in Canada. (AFAIK, no Canadian university charges as much as $17,000 a year in tuition fees.)

Ah, well…

France and Higher Ed

[Yet another older draft…]

Choses Vues » Blog Archive » Higher education in France

(That link now leads to a paid article. Here’s another link to the article.) Perhaps typical of NYT pieces these days, this article is rather detailed without being edifying and somewhat provocative without being thought-provoking. It’s also very ethnocentric. Too bad, though, as the issue would merit a thorough analysis. Coming from French-speaking institutions outside of France and currently connected with academic institutions in the U.S., my personal perspective is quite different. Not that the issues with the French system are at all surprising to me. But comparison with the United States doesn’t really bring the issue forward. As Paul says, Scandinavian institutions could provide more interesting models. My experience in Switzerland and Quebec is also significantly different from what is described in the article. Not that any one of those post-secondary educational systems is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. But post-secondary education is not limited to France and the United States. In fact, France and the U.S. are isolated cases in today’s educational world. What might even be surprising to many people is that those two countries are often much more similar than different. For instance, the extremely high prestige afforded a precious few institutions is a striking feature of both educational systems (Grandes écoles, Ivy League…). It might exist in other places (say, England) but, at least, it’s not characteristic of universities in Quebec. In Canada generally, most academic institutions have much of the same status, despite attempts by MacLean’s to rank universities every year (à la Princeton Review). While the rankings have some effect, they are much less restrictive than what exists in either the U.S. or France. Also, faculty members across Canada get almost exactly the same salary for the same position, irrespective of their host institution. Disparities in salaries exist at many other levels but they usually don’t distinguish one institution from the rest. Will probably post a blog entry about this pretty soon.

University Rankings and Diversity, Redux

For some reason, responding to comments on my own entries doesn’t seem to work.

Jason points out McGill University as an example of the phenomenon discussed in own of my most recent entries:

University Rankings and Diversity « Disparate

And it’s exactly the case that McG fits the pattern. But they’re not alone. Some schools in the U.S. (with pretensions of being top-notch academic institutions) are even more deeply entrenched in this educational philosophy favouring prestige over knowledge.

Ah, well…

Good thing there’s such a thing as Concordia University.

Instructors and Open Textbooks

Freeload Press is publishing difficult-to-read textbooks as free, ad-supported downloads.

Interestingly, the Slashdot thread sparked by this news item revolves more around the issue of cost-prohibitive textbooks than around ideological issues surrounding advertisement in publication. Several of the dozens of comments in that thread are quite insightful, including some below the moderators’ radar.

Here’s my own comment on that thread, slightly edited.

My 2¢ as an instructor (cultural anthropology, African studies, linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology).

Contrary to what some people seem to think, some of us instructors do care about the price of textbooks. Many of us see textbooks as a necessary evil and some of us get almost allergic reactions when sales representatives from publishing houses come to our offices. (Got several visits and calls myself, even as a visiting lecturer.) For those of us who care about reasonably-priced textbooks, some publishing houses’ practises are anti-competitive and unfair.
Case in point. Decided to use a short, inexpensive textbook for one of my introductory-level classes, two semesters in a row. Price and length did have an impact on my decision (the textbook was itself better than more expensive ones). It was published just in time for the first of those semesters and cost about 40$ at that point. The second semester, without notifying me, the publisher had bundled that textbook with another book. The bundle was 60$. Not that expensive. But my students still had to buy something that we never used.
One problem for an instructor, when the textbook is cost-prohibitive, is that students are more likely to complain if the course doesn’t follow the textbook very closely. Secondly, different editions are often confusing in the changes that they imply (much more so than software releases!) and it’s difficult for an instructor to keep track of all of those discrepancies. Not to mention that an expensive textbook may discourage students from buying other material for that subject.
According to someone close to me who used to work at a publishing house, textbooks are the main source of income for several publishers. A bit like “hits” for record labels, but students aren’t free to choose textbooks as they please.
Obviously, the financial model is skewed.

Those issues should be enough to encourage everyone to adopt a new model. But there’s even more.
Textbooks are typically written by a handful of authors who may be well qualified for explaining several of the issues included in those textbooks but who still have areas of limited expertise. The result in cultural anthropology, for instance, is that textbook chapters on language are usually full of inaccuracies while chapters on the authors’ areas of expertise appear quite decent. In some cases, an instructor might even end up having to “fight the textbook” instead of using it as a reference.
Online material accompanying textbooks in some disciplines generally seem like an afterthought instead of representing a central part of the approach. The ultimate effect is that students get disinterested in that material and will come to rely on other (and often unreliable) sources.
While some publishers offer instructors the possibility to use material from different books, these sources should all be from the same publisher. So an instructor can’t use Chapter 3 from Jane Smith’s textbook published by one of Thomson’s many subsidiaries and Chapter 4 from Amy Johnson’s textbook published by Oxford University Press. How can we get a diversity of viewpoints, in such a situation?

The solution, IMVHO? Open textbooks. Teaching material based on an open content model. Supported by instructors and their institutions. With a flexible, modular design.
Yes, Wikibooks may be part of that solution. But there are other issues to think about. How do we motivate instructors to contribute content to such a project? Does it count for tenure? Who will lead the effort to complete such a textbook? How can we integrate those books in our teaching? Will students use those textbooks the way they were intended or discount them based on perceived lack of quality? Are students without Internet access out of luck? Who will provide “technical” support to students and instructors? How can we produce affordable dead-tree copies for those who need them? How can we make deals with publishers to integrate excerpts from primary texts? How can we share material to instructors without giving too much away to students? How can we integrate this material with course management systems like Moodle (and, for the unlucky ones, even Blackboard)?

Still, if we get together, as students, administrators, and instructors, we can eventually solve all of these issues and, hopefully, challenge prevailing models of academic publication.