satifice

operating on the principle of good enough

Who Is Academic and Who Is Public?

One of the more interesting comments I got from a reviewer of teh article was on a footnote (no longer there) where I mentioned that I wasn’t an academic and, thus, didn’t actually have to do a thing that academics would normally need to do. The reviewer said it was jarring and didn’t make any sense because why would I publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal if I wasn’t an academic…?

It was a weird comment, to me, mainly because the journal asked me if I wanted to write and publish the paper, not the other way around. Also because it is a library journal and I figured that it was an appropriate space for librarians to publish… even when we aren’t academics.

I don’t call myself an academic because researching, writing, and teaching aren’t part of my job. I don’t get paid to blog. I don’t get paid to write papers or present at conferences. The latter of these is particularly important since, any conferences I do must be paid out of my own (pretty empty) pocket. Or I need to get scholarships set aside for diversity (which tend to be competitive and not as numerous as one might hope).

And after reading that article this morning talking about how ‘good academics engage in teh ~public~ discourse’ (in reference to twitter and blogs), I totally get that I’m considered the ‘public’ as far as academia is concerned. Or am I??? Hard to say as a PT librarian at an institution where librarians have faculty status. Technically, I’m faculty at MPOW… but based on a few interesting factors, this is really in name only. Part-time librarians at MPOW belong to no union and we have zero benefits of any kind. Yes, this means that we are even below adjunct faculty in terms of labour status. Heck, we are below TAs and RAs in terms of labour status.

This situation is one of the things (all of it, not just the details of my current position) I dislike most about academia. Why, indeed, would a non-academic, a member of the unwashed ~public~ want to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal?

I ask this question like this because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the way that academics view themselves in relation to the rest of the world (while always untenable) really retains the hallmarks of the elitism that has always been a part of the Academy. Especially in reference to that article that necessarily placed an opposition between those bloggers and tweeters and academics. That ‘academics’ ought to engage in ‘public’ dialogue to be good academics.

But how is this position tenable in a network environment? It the case that academics are also bloggers and users of all kinds of social media, while — and this is really important — not always identifying themselves as such. It is also the case that many bloggers and social media users are students, have been students, etc. It is even more the case that academics have been, for a while now, plagiarising, stealing, and exploiting the ~public~ they encounter on social media and blogs.

Just last week, I saw an announcement from some shitty tech companies to create an abliestly named data consortium or whatever, to facillitate academic (and other kinds of) research. I hear, every week now, about the opportunities that social media data provides for researchers in many disciplines to do a side run around ethics and mine all the delicious data.

In a networked world, I would actually like to know what it means for academics to engage the ~public~. As far as I can tell, it involves always referring to us but never actually, you know, engaging us. It involves citing our blog posts, tweets, etc (or, in the worst cases, using our ideas without citation). It involves maintaining a distance, a distinction between us and them.

But it rarely involves in any real awareness that ideas and knowledge can proliferate outside of the academy. That some of us ~public~ individuals were pushed out of the academy for a variety of oppressive reasons but… wait for it… that being pushed out/excluded from the academy doesn’t mean that we’ve lost our love and passion for learning. That somehow, as we are escorted to the exits, we suddenly lose our capacity for critical thought.

So who is an academic? I’m not sure. But I know that I’m not. This message has been received (over and over and over again).

The Problem With Higher Ed

On reading a(nother) article this morning about how impact factors and bibliometrics are creating a situation whereby academics engage the ~public~ discourse less often because of something something.1 After reading the article, I suddenly realized that a bunch of different, current critiques about the state of higher ed really boil down to problems with capitalism.

1) Adjunctivication

One of the main (biggest) concerns in higher ed right now is the fact that more and more teaching (and research, btw) is being done by adjunct faculty. Faculty that are in positions that are precarious, poorly paid, without benefits of any kind, and generally shitty working conditions. Tenured positions are fewer and fewer, even as there are more and more PhD graduates.

There are a few different causes usually cited for this. The businification of higher ed (ie, higher ed taking on more and more of a profit driven model). The increase of high paid administrative roles (ie, the growing beauraracy of higher ed). The reduction of public funding for higher ed. The increased (perhaps artificial) demand for higher ed. Etc and so on.

The thing is, is that all of these boil down to issues stemming from capitalism. To a certain extent, the state of higher ed can be seen as likely inevitable withing a capitalist economy. Universities and the like were created and founding in pre-capitalist societies. Yes, the probably did a better job of living up to the ideals of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but this relied on entrenched classism and elitism. Translate these ideas of classism and elitism to a capitalist economy, and we end up exactly where we currently are.

2) Publish or Perish

Another problem in higher ed is the quantification (or attempts to quantify) stuff that, uultimately, cannot be quantified. Things like ‘impact’ or even ‘knowledge’. Much of what bibliometrics and impact factors and the like really attempt to do is quantify stuff that has not actually quantity. Unfortunately, these units have become increasingly more crucial to success in academia.

What does this sound like? Well, it sounds like academic worth is being judged solely on productivity. Some of the quantification is feeble attempts to measure quality, but they really substitute ‘quality’ for different, complex measures of quantity.2 However, in the end, the tenure file really comes down to productivity. Are you a productive member of the academic community? Do you publish? Serve on commities? And so on.

Again… capitalism is to blame for this. Within a capitalist society the only value that any given individual has is in their productivity.

3) High Costs

High cost, here, refers to all of the really expensive aspects of academia. The high cost of tuition. The high cost of academic publishing. The high cost of research. All of this. In capitalism 101 (oh, sorry, I mean ~economics~) we learn that supply and demand are the basic (and most simplistic) factors in determining cost.3

Academia is in high demand. So it costs a lot. That is really the long and short of it.

Look, the fact that academia has ‘costs’ associated with it at all is a function of capitalism.4

The solution

End capitalism. No, really, dismantle capitalism. I’m not even joking.

Plus, if academics were to work towards dismantling capitalism, there are all sorts of other benifits beyond effectively reforming and reshaping what academia is. Benefits like perhaps reducing a great deal of the current economic and social inequity. You know, small stuff.


  1. Yes, I really ought to have read the article more closely and, very likely, I should put the effort into actually finding said article so I can link to it….

  2. For example, one measure for the impact of an article is how many times it has been cited. This, allegedly, is supposed to tell us something about the quality. Except that “how many times it has been cited” is a quantitative measure. It doesn’t tell us whether or not the articles citing the original have only negative, derisive things to say. It doesn’t tell us whether or not the academics doing the citing are qualitatively good. Of course, the ideal would maybe be getting a definitive measurement for knowledge. So then we could be like “Oh, I have contribute 12 knowledge units to humanity” when 10 knowledge units ar sufficient to obtaining tenure.

  3. Yes, I’m well aware that there are many other factors in determining cost.

  4. And, no, I’m not saying that without capitalism higher ed is free or that higher ed cannot be free in capitalism. I’m using ‘cost’ here to refer to dollars and cents, rather than other types of cost.

What of Knowledge Literacy?

My last post still has me thinking, especially with the ensuing discussion on Twitter about how the data/information/knowledge/wisdom model is still a prevelant and commonly taught thing in lib schools (although, as pointed out to me, not the only extent model in info science).

So now I’m faced with this question: what would a move from information literacy to knowledge literacy look like?

(Oh! And as also pointed out on Twitter, I’m not just fingering reference/instruction librarians for the ways that they do their jobs. This isn’t about that, since a lot of how we approach information literacy is based on community demands, rather than necessarily operating from our own epistemologies.)

I was also grumbling on Twitter not too long ago about how irritated I am whenever I see educators talking about how ‘kids these days are afraid to/can’t/won’t think critically’. The thing is, is that the way that ‘information literacy’ is usually presented, it pretty much discourages any real level of critical thought. Professors just demand that student’s cited sources are peer reviewed papers or acadmeic monographs. We more or less tell students that ‘authority’ is the best gauge for quality resources and try to equip them with the tools they need to find these ‘authoritative’ resources.

All well and good… but it just feeds into itself. And it definitely seems to work against the stated goal of most people involved in higher ed that university is a place where we teach/encourage critical thinking. Yet, at least on this front, it would seem that we do everything but encourage students to be critical thinkers.

If we were to shift to ‘knowledge literacy’ we might actually be getting to a place where we truly attempt to give students the tools they need to critically assess the resources they encounter in the world. Unfortunately, this also gets incredibl messy and would, without a doubt, requrie that librarians finally drop any and all pretenses of ‘neutrality’.

Knowledge is messy because, if we are working with the classic white model of knowledge being ‘justified, true belief’ then we basically have to address those two major elements: justification and truth. This also means that we absolutely cannot rely on the common markers of ‘authority’ that we usually teach. ‘Knowledge’ being expressed within a peer reviewed article has no greater value the exact same bit of knowledge expressed on wikipedia. Credentials are meaningless when we are trying to assess the truth of a claim. Does the truth of ‘the sky is blue’ depend at all on whether or not the speaker has a PhD?

So what would happen if we (higher ed in general) tell students that we want knowledgeable rather than authoritative resources? Obviously, some resources are both, but we need to be able to say which ones are both and why. How would instruction change if we were tell students not to assess ‘credibility’ but to assess the justification and truth of a resource?

Try as I might, I’m truly beginning to not understand how ‘information literacy’ teaches anything but passive acceptance of authority and credibility being more important than justification and truth. Or, at least, treating like these are interchangeable and/or equivalent concepts. Authority has no bearing on whether or not something is true (or counts as knowledge). Neither does credibility of a resource.

You should trust me on this, I’m a librarian.

The Democratization of ‘Information’ and Authority

I was thinking earlier this morning about the fascinating nexus of problems surrounding authority on the web and the nature of ‘publication’. I recently finished up an article wherein I basically used only one non-OA resource (a monograph). I read a bunch, but refused to cite or engage with formally published academic work that wasn’t openly available. This greatly restrained my ability to do comprehensive writing/research, mainly because I tried to also make sure that the open resources I used were, by and large, ones that would be recognized as being ‘authoritative’ by academics1.

It occurred to me this morning that early (and ongoing) rhetoric about the web often talks about the ways that the internet has facillitated this shift in the world whereby the creation of knowledge and information is no longer the sole purview of newspapers, academics, magazines, books, etc. Blogs were, perhaps, the first real example on the internet of what, exactly, it would mean for information/knowledge creation to be pulled outside of mainstream, institutional areas. And the relationship of blogs to journalism is still debated (and it is super fascinating to read articles from when blogging was still an emergent force on the web). As the latter linked article notes:

Easier than building a web site, these simple web publishing tools promised to democratise the web, allowing anyone with internet access to have a voice online. source

Of course, what strikes me as super fascinating is, as always, the inherent tension of perceived quality of the new medium vs the old:

If journalism is by definition the reporting of news in a fair, balanced and accurate way, then blogging is not journalism. But if the truth is that not all journalists and media outlets adhere to these principles, the distinction is less clear. source

All of this is super fascinating to me, in light of my time spent as a library student where questions of authority and reliability on the web are often presented as a key pedagogical concern, especially when talking about information literacy.

We’ve all heard the standard “use .edu sites, .gov, etc.” and “don’t use wikipedia” and so on and so forth. These varying strategies of how to ‘objectively’ determine whether or not a web resources is trustworthy and, thus, whether or not the information/knowledge contained within is likewise trustworthy.

Of course, there are several issues with these rubrics. Like privileging ‘form/style’ over the actual content (yes, it has happened more than once that people all but assert that the quality of the site design has some bearing on the quality of information…). This is, of course, both epistemologically and critically absurd. But this is still low-hanging fruit.

What about the consideration of the source? We are told to communicate to students that (and supposed to behave in our own research and writing) a journalist writing for the New York Times is more ‘reliable’ than a blogger writing under a pseudonym with now other indication about their background or credentials. Or that an academic article, peer reviewed, is more reliable than the same blogger. Or, to use a real example, that a professor of art history is more reliable that the moderator of MedievalPoC.

Except, that if we are to take Said’s (and other people’s) criticism about knowledge creation with the academy/empire seriously, then this rubric for determining ‘reliability’ ought to seem well and truly suspect. What reason do we have to believe that academics in service of the empire are better able to perceive and communicate truth than someone who is less beholden to the institution? This rubric should also be suspect for the subtle way it instatiates a classic fallacy of ‘appealing to authority’. Indeed, the entire system of academic citation and the ‘appropriateness’ of resources is a large scale appeal to authority. This professor of art history at Harvard clearly has privileged access to the truth over the moderator of MedievalPoC, who doesn’t even have a PhD. Isn’t it obvious?

You’ll notice that I’ve subtly have been moving towards discussing ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ over ‘information’. One of the insights I gained in the course of writing my recent article is the way that ‘information science’ defers its complicity in white supremacy by invoking a spurious and unclear distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’. We like to claim that we are neutral providers of neutral information when we are not neutral and neither is the ‘information’. Viewed from a lens of epistemology and knowledge, the way that information literacy is taught begins to become a very troubling thing, since we focus on anything but question of truth in the information provided by resources. And we constantly appeal to authority in how we (ourselves) access resources but also how we instruct students to access resources.

Without getting into a metaphysical debate about the nature of truth (and an ontological one about whether or not such a thing as ‘truth’ exists), not equipping students with a basic rubric of how to assess the truthiness of a site, rather thans it reliability, does them a large disservice. Is the claim, tweeted by a pseudonymous user with no biographical information, that ‘the sky is blue’ less true than a similar claim in a peer-reviewed article? No. But accoridng to our profession (and many others) the this claim is more reliable or trustworthy when sourced from the article than the tweet. But who cares about this when the claim is identical and true? Of course, the issues and claims students (and most people) usually grapple with tend to be much much much more complex than a statement like ‘the sky is blue’. But the basic pricinple holds.

This tension between the ‘democracy of information’ and authority become most visible in clashes between individuals whose authority is legitimized by the current system and those individuals with no legible claim to authority. The ongoing trigger warning debate is a great example of this. Trigger warnings, as they currently are instantiated, are a grassroots effort by disability (and other social justice type) activists usually for use within the respective community. But now these grassroots ‘technology’ have begun to creep into higher ed, giving rise to a big debate and many reactionary responses by ‘authorities’.

In many ways, it would seem as the early promise of the web begins to become truly realized, ie the democratizing of information/knowlege, that this process continually becomes a ‘bug’ rather than a feature. It becomes fairly clear that the desire was for ‘legitimate’ sources of information to become widely accessibly not for the control of information to be wrested from the institutions charged with producing the ‘real’ and ‘reliable’ knowledge (as in the knowledge necessary for the ongoing, smooth operations of the settler state/empire).2


  1. For good or ill, this is a decision I made. I probably shouldn’t have bothered but… I guess I was hoping to at least obtain some veneer of ‘respectability’ myself, so that the article wouldn’t be discredited on these grounds, since I’m already running a risk by not doing the academic thing of using all resources, regardless of their accessibility.

  2. I actually think that this process is one reason why, by and large, many academics treat personal blogs of marginalized people as ‘subjects’ of research rather than resources of knowledge, beyond the capitalist necessity of treating marginalized people as commodities rather than human beings.

I Desire to Be More Sensitive

Yesterday, I made it through about almost ¼ of the software carpentry workshop focused on librarians. I left because after a few off-colour jokes, I was triggered by a joke about ‘how we all have abusive relationships with software’. This was the third cringe-inducing thing that was said (actually maybe 4th? idk.).

I left even though I’m about 90% sure that there are more than a few people who think I was/am ‘too sensitive’ regarding jokes like the above. I wish there was a way for me to convey how much I don’t care. There is a reason why I decided to title this post “I desire to be more sensitive”. I also really wish there was a way to convey the years of struggle I’ve had with getting to the point where I don’t minimize my own experiences with abuse. After all that work, I’m sure as shit not back tracking now. I also wish there was a way to convey how much time and effort it has taken me to get to the point where I could actually walk out of that room so that I could go home and do some self-care. By the endof last night, I was feeling pretty okay again.1

But I did want to talk a little bit about some of the stuff that happened and why it was bad.

1) Unpaid labour and ‘volunteering’

So the first remark that I called out was:

And then followed up by a comment ‘we’d love to exploit you!’ (re: volunteer)… >.> source

There was this strange moment when Greg pointed out that everyone except him who was leading/facillitating/helping at the workshop was a volunteer. Talking about how great it was that Software Carpentry [SWC] was a volunteer-led initiative. And while I do understand the point he was trying to make…

This boast + the fact that most volunteers were men = a small revalation about the lack of gender diversity. And why this lack of diversity is likely to be static for quite some time. Add on a joke about how SWC would like to ‘exploit you’ to an audience of mostly women….

First, we could talk about the ethics of unpaid labour. We could also talk about how women tend to already engage in a lot of unpaid labour (in the form of housekeeping, childcare, care giving, etc.). We could talk about how facillitating one of these workshops necessarily means taking two days off of work. Two days where you most likely will not be getting paid. This also becomes a class issue (which is still gendered because women, on the whole, are poorer than men).

Unfortunately, all of this ties into why I also made the decision not to return after needing to leave. Yes, the motivation for each decision (the decision to leave and the decision to stay away) were not the same. I’m not there today because of this:

@satifice Thanks for the call-out – chat at the lunch break about how we could do better? source

After a rocky start to the morning, I can tell you the absolute last thing I had any desire to do during my one hour lunch break was to engage in the emotional and intellectual labour of teaching SWC how to do things better. What I wanted to do during lunch was meet some awesome people in meat space for the first time (see @ahitchens, @marvellings, @collingsruth). Instead… I felt like I was ‘volunteered’ into doing work over lunch. In a word… being tapped for ‘exploitation’ simply because I spoke up (almost like a punishment…).

2) Ableism

So this was said:

“Everyone must get up and move around during breaks…” — This is an accessibility problem. source

I get that he was coming off this explanation why cognitively getting up and moving around during breaks can improve your concentration…

The thing that makes me shake my head about this, is that just a slight change of language and we’d be okay and inclusive.

“Try to move around a little during breaks, if you can”

Or something similar. And, periodically, we were told to stand (I can’t remember why, because I was focusing on something else). Again. “Stand if you want and/or can”. Shifting towards inclusivity in your language doesn’t take that much work and doesn’t require learning a new vocabulary.

This was also said:

“Normal, sane people” >.> source

I believe the context was something about coding and whatever. I can’t remember. It doesn’t really make a difference. I’m only halfway through this post and already feeling exhausted with the effort to not simply give a harpy screech of frustration. Neuro-diversity is a thing. Please don’t say things like this.2

3) Abuse culture

Abuse culture says things like this:

“As with any abusive relationship…” There is almost no limit to my disdain for ‘jokes’ that trivialize abuse. source

Context for this: talking about how some computer stuff starts counting from 0 instead of 1. And how pretty much every technical explanation for this is post-event rationalization (because it is apparently something to do with IBM executives who liked yachts or whatever). But instead of using a nice, handy term from cognitive science like…. ‘post-event rationalization’ … a joke is made about gaslighting. And then expanded into a more general joke about how we have abusive relationships with software.

Abuse culture makes people think that jokes like this 1) are appropriate and 2) funny. It is actually 2) that got me out the door. Because it isn’t just about the person who made the joke… but the handful or two of people who laughed at the joke. So this fault isn’t just with one unfortunate thing said by one person… but about a cultural attitude that staunchly refuses to take abuse seriously (and actively works to trivialize it).3

And, again, I hope to become more sensitive to things like this, not less.


  1. And since this is a ~professional~ blog, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that I won’t actually be getting super personal about my experiences.

  2. Sidenote… this is also a gendered thing. Why? Because women, on the whole, tend to get diagnosed with things like bipolar or borderline personality disorder far, far more frequently than men. Also a racialized reality since Black men tend to get diagnosed with schizophrenia at higher rates than anyone else. All of the above are ways of being neuro-diverse that are frequently constructed as ‘crazy’ in negative, harmful ways that significantly contributes to their marginalization.

  3. People labelled ‘crazy’ are especially vulnerable to gaslighting because they are constantly told not to trust their perceptions, intuitions, and feelings about the world (and themselves in relation to the world). I point this out to highlight how interconnected all of this stuff is.

Hiring Non-mlis Grads to Increase Diversity

It has been too long, so I can’t remember who made the comment that inspired this post, but it does tie in nicely to my previously posted ‘fix’ for librarianship. It struck me, as a read some comment again about the MLIS that one way to increase the overall diversity of the professionals within the field is to hire outside of the degree.

Yup. I said it. I think that the MLIS should maybe be a ‘preferred’ but not ‘required’ qualification to be a librarian. I know this is pratically heresy in a field saturated with hires competing for fewer and fewer entry level positions, but I honestly think that there may be a few benefits to this approach.

The largest, by far, is to simply sidestep the problem that library schools are having with recruiting a diverse student body (and I imagine that retention is likewise a big issue). Part of the reason that the lack of diversity in librarianship remains a problem is that marginalized students, for the most part, aren’t really going to library schools. There are many reasons for this, but I’m largely convinced that — without significant changes in higher ed beyond just library schools — librarianship will never be that attractive of an option to many marginalized students.

The economic cost of having to do an additional master’s degree combined with the relatively low wages and, importantly, the not-so-promising job prospects pretty much ensure that the MLIS is one of the least attractive graduate/professional degrees imaginable. There is very little about the hard realities of the situation to motivate marginalized students. It is foolish. The overall cost/benefit for a library tech diploma is much, much better for the marginalized student. Or, you know, something with better job prospects that pays better.

But… if we stop requiring an MLIS, we could possible recruit marginalized students who would be interested, if not for this significant barrier.

(Note: part of accepting this proposal means leaving behind the notion that the MLIS contributes anything meaningful to person’s ability to do librarian things. Given that the pervasive feeling, overall, is that library schools are largely failing to provide relevant education to the actual profession, this isn’t a tough sell. However, while I know that my particular library education was largely pointless, I don’t think that this is true of all schools. Importantly, I definitely think that the general dismay over library schools does a lot of damage to those schools trying really, really hard to provide a relavant, useful education for their students.)

Anyway, the point is, is that without searching outside of the non-diverse MLIS candidate pool, libraries will continue to maintain the status quo of employing a largely homogenous workforce.1


  1. Omg. And the super cynical part of my brain is suddenly wondering if maybe this is actually part of the unspoken, structural point of the MLIS requirment for jobs… I mean, employers are able to dodge responsibility for the fact that they are largely only hiring cis, white women (and cis white men for diversity) by simply saying, “well, these are the applicants with MLISs and since we can only hire people with an MLIS, what are we supposed to do?”. An example of how seemingly innocuous decisions serve to reinforce structural oppression and marginalization.

Fb Research, Ethics, and Informed Consent

Okay. I do have to say that I’m in a little bit “I told you so” about the recent news on FB allowing researchers to manipulate your news feed. It is almost as if I was talking about something similar not too long ago…:

But it comes out in subtle ways when academics and/or journalists engage with the work of marginalized people on the web. Since obviously, everything on the web is public by default. Combined with the idea that many people have that any marginalized person talking about our lives automatically equals a public, political, social justice-esque expression. And that these can be consummed for research articles, dissertations, newspaper articles, whatever without necessarily gaining consent or, in quite a few cases, even crediting the creator and, the worst, outright stealing ideas and words.

Now, the situation I’m discussing here is actually farther reaching than the ethical stance taken by Slate. The FB situation actually involves people’s ‘private’ news feeds and (possibly) private posts.

The Slate article takes a slightly different approach than my previous post, which was more focused privacy. Notions of privacy are key in the outrage over FB’s experiment, mainly because users of FB definitely feel like they have a reasonable expectation of privacy (see the many controversies over FB and privacy). It is important to note that no matter what privacy options you choose on FB, nothing will protect from surveillance from FB itself. And don’t think that FB is the only large tech company doing this. Google+ would be doing this if they could figure out how to get people to actually use it after coercing us into getting accounts.1

Anyway, I’m mainly motivated by the Slate article because it is the first one I’ve read in a while that brings up the issue of informed consent regarding online research involving human subjects. Slate attempts to make their argument based on some law in the US concerning research and the general intent of research ethics and informed consent. Their argument hinges on the potential impact/harm of research requring informed consent.

Except that this view is too narrow by far. First, the notion that we should allow laws to guide our ethical decisions is ridiculous. This is not a chicken/egg scenario: our ethics (or lack thereof) is part of what motivates laws. And most laws do an imperfect or inadequate job of capturing ethics. Second, the definition of ‘harm’ here is too individual and direct. The line, for them, where informed consent becomes necessary is when the research directly makes you ‘sad’ (or whatever tangible harm).

I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that these sorts of discussions have been happening in marginalized communities for quite some time. The current understanding of ‘informed consent’ within research ethics generally precludes any notion of systemic damage or exploitation. Yes, there are some provisions for dealing with marginalized communities, but a lot of academics truly view the current ‘grey’ area of online research as a way to take ethical shortcuts for ~studying~ with marginalized communities.

I’m not too surprised that Slate wouldn’t tackle this aspect of informed consent, given that (perhaps) the only group of people with worst digital research ethics are journalists (although, from certain perspectives the two groups are indistinguishable). Slate takes issue with the Terms of Service providing adequate consent to be a research subject for FB, scholars, etc, but doesn’t follow this to the natural conclusion…

When I post something on this blog, does this count as adequate ‘informed consent’ for my words/ideas/experiences to be used in any and all forms of research by academics and/or journalists? The frequent response from most IRBs and ethics boards is “yes”.

Now, the feeling I get from a lot of the discussions I’ve been in about this, is this: if academics/journalists want to use my posts as a way to engage my ideas then this is maybe okay. But if academics/journalists are using my posts to study me as a member of some population, then probably not okay. One is about my work and the other is about studying me as a human being.

Then again, this is just my feelings about the distinction. I have several friends/acquiantances who’ve been so burned by journalists and academics that they don’t want any of them to interact with any of their work. In part because they aren’t the actual target audience but mainly because of the unethical behaviour of so many of them when interacting with marginalized people online.

And a portion of the harm, here (thus invoking the need for informed consent), is systemic not individual. It feeds into a system whereby the work/lives of some people are considered inherently ‘public’ and, by extension, inherently exploitable. It is dehumanizing for people who, a lot of of time, are stripped of their individuality and coercively forced into being ‘representatives’ of their community as a whole. And this kind of systemic, communal damage (via the perpetuation of stereotypes, biases, and prejudice) doesn’t appear to be an important factor when considering whether or not informed consent is necessary.

It also feeds into a history of the bodies of marginalized people being coercively and forcefully pushed into being research subjects in the ~real~ world. But it really just seems like academics are too busy cutting corners to truly consider these ethical questions (or, heck, to even listen to some of the populate they study).

I look forward to the next study from FB/Twitter/G+/whatever that will do the same thing because science.


  1. Although, as I look at the Slate article, the featured comment embedded in the article is basically telling people that if they want privacy they should stay offline, which is pretty much what I’m talking about in my other post.

What Matters for Archival Image Description?

I think I tweeted a comment about this image yesterday, namely asking about the peculiarity of the image description omitting race. Here is the full image description:

Image of closeup of woman with short curly hair and man with a beard.

And my question yesterday was about the fact that race isn’t mentioned at all in this description.

Of course, the pressing question here is “should race be included in this image description?”. The annoyed part of me thinks that if the fact that one of the individuals is a woman and the other a man is relevant, then so is race. It matters that she appears to be an East Asian woman and that he might be a South Asian man. It matters.

I look at this image, captured in 1970, and I have so many questions. I’m so curious about these two Asian people getting their pictures taken for a hair styling thing. I’m curious because they don’t appear to be of the same ethnicity. I don’t understand what is happening in the image. Why is he looking at the camera but she isn’t? What if they are a couple (which would be too cute for words)? I’m also deeply impressed by her makeup, since doing eyeliner that on point for monolided eyes isn’t easy. Did she do her own? Did the salon?

I’ve seen a lot of these images from this particular fonds and with this subject matter (search me for why the Toronto Telegram was so interested in hairstyling). Most of them are of white people. This is one of the few I can remember from this same that has Asians.

I also recall a different set of images from the Toronto Telegram that were mistakenly labelled as being in ‘Africa’ because the people in the images were Black. Except… they were Indigenous people in New Guinea. I can’t remember what the image description said about them…

I see a lot of the descriptions in the Toronto Telegram fonds will mention the perceived gender of the people… but rarely their race.

How are things like this decided? I know I’m picking on my own institution, but it isn’t just my institution. I’m suddenly remembering a whole host of general archival stuff that operates on a similar principle: gender is important/noteworthy but race isn’t.

And I know that some will turn around and say “well, you can’t assume what race a person is” except that this also applies to gender. If all we have to look at are nameless people in a photograph with zero additional historical context, we also absolutely cannot assume we know what their gender is based on their presentation within a single image. Or even a series.

If we are going to aim for the most neutral descriptions possible, the image description above should be changed to:

Image of closeup person with short curly hair and person with beard.

Yeah, I know that the ‘beard’ part might cause a few people to assume things, but that is their problem.

And remember: this metadata is hugely important for access in the digital environment. Of all the metadata captured for this image, this is the most ‘creative’. The image description literally depends on the describer and then constructs how this image is found and perceived after it is ingested.

I don’t really have any answers, just a lot of questions. Because something here seems fishy to me. And I can see several different ways that the inclusion of race could benefit researchers and others wanting to interact with these collections. And since doing so would be as (un)problematic as including perceived gender, I’m not really sure why this informatio isn’t being captured.

Scholarly Communication, academia.edu, and Institutional Repositories

I mentioned on twitter that my bf burst into the bedroom yesterday to rant about scholarly communication at me (and then I joined up). He was mainly focused on the role that a particular legal blog played in the recent supreme court kurfluffle with the prime minister. Basically, that attempting to publish the material in any ‘formal’ scholarly channel would have created a delay that would have made what happened impossible. Essentially highlighting the fact that scholarly blogging, in a few ways, is kind of like academic journalism1.

He agreed, of course, but then he made a point also about academia.edu, a site that he uses (and that apparently a lot of legal scholars and students have begun to use as a means of distributing their work — published or not). If memory serves, this might be the only social network type of thing that my bf has ever beat me too. And I know that he’s added some of his own papers. And I wonder: has he added any of the same papers to UBC’s institutional repository (where is currently a grad student)? Not even one.

Moreover, I’ve begun to notice that papers on academia.edu have begun showing up more and more in google searches, far more frequently than I see any hits from any institutional repository.

It makes me wonder…

In a time where some institutions are mandating that all scholarly work produced on their campus be made available in the institutional repository, thereby forcing the issue on faculty, why is academia.edu succeeding but IRs, on the whole, very much not succeeding? What are the implications for scholarly communication in general?

I remember one of the first things my bf was excited about after getting his account was stats. He enjoys looking at where in the world people are viewing/downloading his papers (and other metrics). Because he isn’t yet faculty, his interest in this statistics has nothing to do with tenure (and I’m pretty sure that a tenure committee wouldn’t consider the metrics from academia.edu meaningful). The interest in the stats is all about the excitement and joy you feel when you are sharing something you enjoy and are passionate about. Likewise, I used to enjoy periodically checking the stats on my MA thesis hosted in UBC’s IR… until the feature disappeared on3 day a few years ago and I haven’t been back to check since.

But this is just a feature. As noted, features can be taken away or implemented far more easily than cultural changes.

I also don’t think that it is necessarily the ‘social’ aspect of academia.edu that is appealing to scholars. I mean, it certainly plays a role in making the system somewhat more attractive, but I also think this is simply a feature, but not the motivating one.

My suspicion is that it has more to do with the profile more than anything else. In some ways, academia.edu is functioning more as a linkedin for academics. I think the ability to create a profile/web presence with a fairly minimum of effort where people can read/download your papers right away, is why scholars are using this vs an institutional repository.

The problem with IRs is apparent in their name “institutional repository”. It makes it pretty clear that the individual scholar is subordinate to the institution and that their role is to bring glory and fame to their respective institution. And this might have been an okay stance… many years ago before it the adjuntification of higher ed and when tenure positions were more plentiful. When it was likely that a scholar would stay in the same institution for a long time (and thus be invested in the institution itself).

But this isn’t the reality today. The fact that nomadic scholars are well and truly a thing (perhaps even the ‘normal’ thing) means that these scholars have zero incentive to bolster the reputation of an institution that will likely never tenure them and that they may only be at for a fairly short period of time. Time during which they’ll continue to look for a tenure track position. I’m also pretty sure that even tenured faculty are far more mobile than they used to be.

What this all means is that the rewards for tying your scholarly work to your name, not the institution’s, are far greater. It means that your body of work is centralized in one place and builds your brand as a scholar.

Combine this with the fact that academia.edu is far easier to use than any of the common IR softwares… and we begin to see why a for-profit company appears to be succeeding where IRs are not.

(Er… okay. Because I’m clearly the most professional evah! I’m going to have to come clean. I started reading about the history of arXiv and now I can’t remember what point I was trying to make with this post. Sorry.)


  1. This is a point I made since, in a lot of ways, it really does work like this.

The Heroes of Academia: A Short Analysis of Academic Exceptionalism

In a recent twitter discussion about academic freedom, free speech, and trigger warnings in academia (re: the ongoing uproar over Oberlin’s policy decision — that it has already gone back on). I remarked that from both the student’s perspective (and that of general society, I’d imagine), the faculty is indistinguishable from the administration. Dana, of course, disagrees with me.

Fortunately, I have facts and reality on my side. Because if we are about to pretend that Deans, Heads of Departments, etc. aren’t actually faculty… I’d be curious to hear what their reactions to this news is. If we are also going to pretend like faculty (beyond what I’ve mentioned) don’t fulfill many other administrative duties, well, okay. If we are also going to pretend that faculty, as a collective bargaining unit, are not the most powerful and influential group on campus… Then I’m not actually sure we are talking about universities and colleges.

Like, especially coming at this as a librarian1. Absolutely everything on campus centres the needs and wants of faculty. Yes, the students matter, but faculty come first. If we have money to buy only one book, we’ll buy the one a faculty members wants and likely not even ask a student. Even the librarian faculty at MPOW is basically oriented towards serving the needs of the ~research~ faculty over and above any of their own needs.

In this age of rockstar academics, although certain aspects of this have been present for a while, we’ve built up this mythology around the rebellious academic who challenges the status quo, speaks truth to power, and pursues knowledge even (maybe especially) when it is unpopular or controversial. This myth is grounded in the notion of academic freedom and tenure. Academics need tenure to protech their academic freedom to pursue knowledge without limits.

Except… this has never been true of academics. At least not in modern times. Yes, there are many stories of scientists and the like being persecuted by the church for controversial (but true) theories of the world. Instead, today we get rock stars like Richard Dawkins who is an unapologetic misogynist and uses atheism to disguise his racism/Islamaphobia/xenophobia. He is sometimes framed as controversial, when all he does is reinforce the status quo and not actually challenge power structures at all.

And when we take things like Orientalism into account, we can also understand how the academic by its very role of producing knowledge and determining authority actually is a driving force behind global oppression. That the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy (especially by social science and the humanities) is far from a ‘neutral’ goal existing within a vacuum and unrelated to the social, economic, and historical contexts that frame it.

When we talk about something like disability accommodations for students within higher ed, we cannot afford to make a spurious distinction between faculty and admin, not when faculty represent a common point of failure for disabled students often by outright refusing to accommodate their needs2.

Faculty often like to think of themselves as not being the ‘system’. They like to point their finger at the administration and blame the many problems within higher ed on ‘them’. It is an interesting deferral of blame given that the entire university system and administration exists primarily to serve the needs of academics. Given the reality that many academics themselves play important administrative roles within the university. And when a situation comes up like this, it is pretty easy to see that many faculty are far more interested in protecting their privilege (academic freedom) than they are interested in the rights of their students.

More to the point, the notion that academics somehow manage to exist outside of the capitialist system that ensures that there is no ethical production of knowledge (or anything else) only serves, again, to defer their larger responsibility towards society as a whole. That (by magic maybe) the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy somehow doesn’t have real, material impacts on the way that society functions. That the university doesn’t exist as an incubator of ideas for how the privileged can consolidate power and excercise it in increasingly subtle ways…

And before anyone mentions the existence of things like ‘women’s studies’ or ‘Asian studies’ as examples for how the academy also serves as a site of resistance to dominant ideologies and to power… It is also pretty clear to see that where these things exist, they are usually amongst the poorest depertments on campus. They can also be viewed in a Foucaultian fashion as also being manufactured by power as sites where dissidents can be monitored and co-opted (as their own livelihoods become dependent on power and they become increasingly more invested in the system).

The fact that there is something fishy going on in the academy is often revealed in the dogmatic approach that many of its adherents have to certain sacrosanct principles of the current system. Question whether or not tenure is actually living up to its principles, and you’ll get shouted down by repititive arguments. Question whether or not academic freedom is a privilege worth fighting for, and you’ll get people literally asserting that using a logical fallacy (slippery slope) is a solid defense.

For all its stated values concerning critical inquiry and discussion, academia is strangely resistent to criticism and very resistent to substantive, systematic change. And faculty are very much the embodiment of this.


  1. Yes, librarians at my institution are tenured — at least if they aren’t contingent, precarious non-union labour like me.

  2. No joke. I think every single disabled person I’ve ever spoken to about their experiences in higher ed has had to struggle with faculty who simply feel that accommodating their needs is too much work and thus a waste of their ‘precious’ time. The reality is, is that a refusal to even consider trigger warnings in academia is the de facto stance towards disabled students. Academia is a very hostile learning environment for anyone with a disability.