Tag Archives: undergraduates

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.

Defending Quebec's Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.


Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂