Recharging Our Ideals | Peer to Peer Review

Recently, I read an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Hiscoe, an academic who left a tenure-track faculty position long ago for the corporate world and has recently returned. Looking around the campus, he likens himself to Rip Van Winkle and marvels at the changes. While he was away, the university became bloated with staff and too many competing agendas, students began to take on crippling debt, and the whole house of cards is trembling, on the verge of collapse. He takes temporary solace when he goes to the library, because he sees students taking delight in their learning. He writes:

A big part of my day is spent in the university library. Coming in one morning recently, I paused to watch a young man walk up and join three students who had pulled chairs together around a table. As the new arrival settled in, he let out the archetypal "That's awesome!" cry, loud enough so that I leaned in to see what he was admiring. He was looking at what appeared to be an animated differential equation making itself visual in stages embedded in a PowerPoint chart. As I walked by, he was practically chewing his lower lip off in his enthusiasm and was asking the laptop driver, "How did you do that?"

It was a moment that could have awakened Rip Van Winkle's long-dead dog. A moment that crystallized all the reasons that most of us went into teaching to begin with. And I see a half a dozen of these a week. It's easy, since this place-the library-is crowded, packing in the equivalent of a fourth of the student population on a good day. I generally walk around for 10 minutes or so each afternoon to recharge.

Some of the students are on Facebook; some are watching cats do funny things on YouTube. But most are heads down in their studies, or working out physics problems together on whiteboards they've drawn into impromptu circles. When we started lending out iPods, they would sometimes come back loaded up with an app that some student had developed herself to make the device more useful. I interview lots of students, and they tell me they love the library, love the university. They are not kidding. They are idealistic and hardworking.

And they're lucky enough to attend North Carolina State University, which has a fine library and the combination of insight and wherewithal to hire Hiscoe as its communications director. (His PhD is in medieval poetry; his corporate work was for a large telecommunications firm that was big, but not too big to fail—it went bankrupt soon after he returned to academe.)

The best place on campus?
But a lot of us who work in academic libraries recognize those moments of joy when walking through the library. We see the potential, we see moments when students have made the shift from transcription clerk (gotta get that paper written, gotta find sources to quote) to becoming engaged and curious co-creators of knowledge. Those members of the faculty and administration who don't take a few minutes every now and then to reclaim their sanity and sense of mission by strolling through the library when it's busy are missing out. Sadly, that category includes the vast majority of faculty and administrators.

As one of the commenters noted, the library is not just student-centered, it's knowledge-centered, and that meeting of students and raw knowledge can catalyze learning and spark a whole new relationship between students and the world. He (or she; the comment was anonymous) writes, "The library should be the best place on campus; the challenge is to figure out a way to channel the 'awesomeness' of students clustered in the library out to the classroom and further, into the world of adults who are hungry for the chance to reflect and learn."

Or corporate mill?
So how do we do that? We can't all hire gifted scholars to tell our stories, and even if we did, those stories still wouldn't pry people away from their constant stream of email and meetings to visit the library.

And as Hiscoe himself points out, those stories aren't necessarily going to change anything. The solace he takes in the moment is matched by the heartbreaking knowledge that what these students are experiencing will likely be extinguished in a few years. The house of cards is toppling. One symptom of that collapse, though Hiscoe doesn't mention it, is the fact that those students will be expelled from that library and the knowledge it holds; the minute they stop paying tuition, we slam the door and turn the key. No more knowledge for you! Our instructional programs don't do much to help them find ways to continue those energizing conversations with ideas after they graduate, whatever platitudes we utter about information literacy for lifelong learning. We're mainly helping them survive as students, using tools available only for as long as they're students.

Hiscoe acknowledges he is not awakening from a golden age; the trend to corporatized higher education was already entrenched when he had his apprenticeship toiling as an underpaid adjunct before finally landing a coveted tenure-track job. But the problems he witnessed in the academy are even worse now. And I can't help but notice that this situation has exactly the same timeline as the so-called "serials crisis," which we all know is not just about serials; it's about the commodification of knowledge that in the good old days was created to be shared. We no longer create knowledge for the common good and to advance our understanding of the world. We create it as grist for the corporate mill, and it's getting pretty dark and Satanic, that mill.

Toward unfettered sharing of knowledge
So I'm left pondering the question of how we get out of this situation, and how to sustain that excitement and energy we see in students and pass that light along to our exhausted, discouraged colleagues. As my mind does its hopscotch act, I remember Thomas Jefferson's argument against treating knowledge as just so much property:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

However we solve the twin crises of scholarly communication and the damaging effects on all of higher learning caused by the corporatization of the university, libraries can be a source of light, a light we need to share. We need to rekindle in our faculty and administrators—and in our taxpayers and legislators—a faith that knowledge can do more good when it's freely available than when it's hoarded as property.

Around the same time that Hiscoe's essay was published, a representative of the Association of American Publishers appeared before Congress, reassuring legislators once again that there is no crisis in scholarly communication, that by adopting rules that would make federally funded research free to the public that funds it would be the ruination of peer review and accuracy in research, and could even endanger national security because American research could fall into the hands of foreign nations. (I am not making this up; read it for yourself.)

If anyone needs the skills of critical information literacy, it's decision makers like those in Congress listening to that kind of testimony, packed with misinformation and baseless scare tactics. I'm not sure we can do much about politicians, given the corrupting influence of money in the campaign system, but we need to ensure that more people in a metaphorical sense, if not in reality, visit the library to see in action the value of the unfettered sharing of knowledge. It's too important to let that fire go out.

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