What’s In a Name? A Vision for a New Department

Over the past year, the School of Information Sciences (SIS) has been immersed in discussions to merge with the Computer Science department to form a new School of Computing and Informatics (final name yet to be determined). It is anticipated that the new school will start operations on July 1, 2017, pending approval by the Provost and Chancellor. In the meantime the existing four programs of SIS were formed into two new departments. The Library and Information Science program was morphed into the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship. This department will officially start operations on July 1, 2016. I was elected Chair of this new department. What follows are notes I prepared for a presentation to the All Faculty meeting at SIS on February 19th? My comments at this meeting were informal, but what follows is a more formal statement, one that is my own personal vision.

We live in interesting times, the emerging Digital Era in which the computer has impacted everything and is ubiquitous and essential to nearly every aspect of our work and lives. Yet, we recognize that with this new change come many challenges requiring a rethinking of what we do. There are new professions, new ways of conducting research, and new ways of teaching. The computer is, after all, both within our society and a shaper of it. Such issues have long characterized much of the orientation of the old Library and Information Science program, and they explain the new name for the Department, Information Culture and Data Stewardship.

There are four key words in the new department name: Information, Data, Culture, and Stewardship. All of these have multiple meanings, but let me explain how we are viewing them. Information has been the mainstay of our school for half a century. Data has emerged as a more recent aspect of our society and this school, reflecting the growing role of computing across society. Both have affected and are affecting traditional libraries and archives, and we acknowledge this, addressing the need for new educational programs to prepare new kinds of information professionals and researchers.

The more important words are Society and Stewardship. Using Information Culture, we are communicating that what we are about is not just building and using tools but in understanding the implications and often unintended consequences of computing. The phrase has often been used to indicate how information is used within any given organization (behavior, norms, and values), but we see this in a much broader way. In this, we are emphasizing the computer’s functioning in society – its ethical, legal, political, privacy, and other implications.

We can get a glimpse of what this is about by examining the expanded scope of the journal Information & Culture: A Journal of History published by the University of Texas at Austin. The journal covers the “interactions of people, organizations, and societies with information and technologies,” examining the “social and cultural context of information and information technology, viewed from an historical perspective.” Of course, we also recognize that there is a long tradition of writing about the place of computer in society from within the information disciplines, by individuals such as Arnold Pacey (The Culture of Technology) and Thomas Landauer (The Trouble with Computers). Research monographs, social commentaries, reports, and essays have continued to pour forth, indicating the important role computing plays in our lives, both good and bad

Now, what do we mean by data stewardship? Historically, libraries have functioned as repositories of human knowledge. Archives are even older and have been the focal point of maintaining critically important information for the benefit of humankind, for purposes of memory, accountability, and evidence of past activity. The shift to computing as the means for creating and using information and data challenges the normal means by which such archival and stewardship roles have been carried out. This is why we have appropriated the word stewardship, managing data and information in a way (content, metadata, and policy,) that ensures that we will not lose material (now generally digital rather than analog) that is essential to organizations, government, and citizens. Embracing this and the notion of information culture gives us, we believe, an essential and somewhat unique role within the new School of Computing and Informatics. It is a role we are quite excited to develop and lead in.

At this point we are developing what we call “pathways” to refocus our curriculum. We have two primary pathways, Librarianship (pulling together many specializations in traditional librarianship (academic, public, and school libraries, for example) and Archives are the two current ones. In both of these well-established areas we see them more as functions rather than places, although the latter may be a substantial barrier to better recruiting of a more diversified student body. However, what we are doing is reflecting the changing nature of these fields in the Digital Era. A recent sidebar article in the March 2016 Atlantic (Deborah Fallows, “The Library Card”) rejects the stereotyped images of libraries and librarians in favor of them as “bustling civic centers,” emphasizing their roles as providing computers and Internet connections, supporting education, and building community. So much for libraries as just places to store books or to offer quiet study rooms.

We are intending to finalize a new pathway in Data Stewardship by the end of this term. We also intending to begin developing new undergraduate courses reflecting these three and serving as feeders to our masters program; how this works out, depends on how the undergraduate area is organized within the new School. Next year we intend to revisit the idea of a Professional Institute, something discussed during the merger discussions but never clarified in a satisfactory matter. We do not see this as a place to put teaching faculty, but rather we see it as a central aspect of our commitment to supporting professions with critically important roles in our society. Given that data is at the heart of new industries, disciplines, and governance, it is essential that we have experts who will ensure that the right data is identified for long-term retention and use.

We recognize that we face some daunting tasks. We must rebuild our faculty to reflect and support the Digital Age. We must rebuild our enrollment. It is at the lowest levels we have ever experienced, reflecting downward trends in other similar programs. Developing unique new features in our curriculum and revitalizing our recruitment approaches will change this. We must strengthen our research output and research funding. While we have faculty engaged in research and publishing, we need to diversity and expand into new collaborative and interdisciplinary avenues. We must develop an array of revenue streams in order to support our Department and build for the future. We must, ourselves, be driven by data about enrollment and revenue to make appropriate strategic decisions for the future. In this, we must recognize that we have to work in different ways than we have been accustomed to doing.

I see my role as a leader and facilitator, not only as a manager. I am working on an approach that will have us spend less time in meetings and focused more on getting things done. Talk is important, but action is essential. I am now discussing with faculty about how they see their roles in the new Department and how they will assume some service responsibility. I am not a micro-manager. I will use what resources we have at this point to support important strategic aims.

The challenges are, indeed, immense. But the opportunities are unlimited with this new Department and new School.

Vocation and Universities

When my daughter went to college, within several days of arriving there she was asked what she wanted to be and told she needed to decide very quickly. Emma, age 18, was uncertain about this. In conversing with her about this, I advised her to focus on learning and pursuing what she found interesting. This is pretty much what she did.

This stress on going to college to prepare for a job has become a dominant topic for discussion and debate, sometimes contentious. Job-preparedness seems to have crowded out any aspect of learning, becoming a well-educated citizen or consumer. It is why there is a fleet of books out there lamenting the demise of the humanities or explaining why the liberal arts are actually useful for career preparation. It is why politicians often lambast subjects like the Classics or the study of poetry, emphasizing that students need to be grounded in computer science, mathematics, and the sciences. This may also explain, of course, why so many politicians make hilarious and disturbing comments about topics like history and global warming.

There is an aspect of vocation, however, that it would be useful for students to be better grounded in, and that is the notion of discerning a calling. Tim Clydesdale, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) provides a useful perspective on this issue. Clydesdale argues, “institutions of higher education, if they wish to maintain their autonomy and core structure, must undertake: intentional and systematic assistance to students in identifying talents, clarifying values, and developing the grit that will sustain them in the long path to productive, global citizenship” (p. xvi). As it turns out, what he is considering is not some sort of vocational-technical training, but a more sophisticated approach to getting students to look deep within themselves about their life aspirations and values.

This book is a detailed evaluation of the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, funded by the Lilly Endowment, drawing on its operation at 26 different colleges and universities, interviews with 284 students and 274 faculty and staff, and a survey of 2111 program participants. The intent is to make such an effort more effective and encourage its use at other higher education institutions. There is considerable analysis, not surprising given that Clydesdale is a sociologist, all leading to ne overarching conclusion: “There is one place . . . where colleges and universities do possess responsibility for aimless and lengthy wandering by college graduates. That place is higher education’s retreat from questions of purpose and vocation” (p. 204). Such questions must involve engaging students about religion and spiritual issues.

Some will worry about the dimension of religion in this. However, in my experience, it is critical when discussing matters like professional ethics and related concerns to ask students to relate on their own personal ethical values and these often have a religious characteristic. Codes of professional conduct have limitations, most notably the fact that most are aspirational and unenforceable. Given that, what do students, future professionals, resort to in such a void? How do they wrestle with appear to be ethical misconduct and still function?

In Praise of Old Men

I just recently turned 66, reminded by Social Security that I had reached full retirement age. But this post is not about me. Rather it is about three men who are still publishing in their nineties, making me look and feel young again. The three – Roger Angell, Bernard Bailyn, and Herman Wouk – each have been publishing for more than six decades.

Angell, an editor and long-time contributor to The New Yorker who is best known for his books on baseball, has pulled tog his ether a wide-ranging collection of essays in This Old Man: All in Pieces (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Angell waxes eloquently about sports, growing up, his family, writing and editing, writers, his family, and, of course, aging. All of his essays are lyrical reflections of life in our country and what makes life worth living. His personal knowledge of the events and personalities he writes about deepens our sense of them, all while entertaining us.

If Angell is the king of the short, pithy essay, Bailyn is the master of the historical narrative, as exemplified in his collection, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). These essays, originally published between 1954 and 2007 and updated for this new book, remain current, fresh, and provocative as when originally published. They wander over various approaches to history and essential topics critical to understanding the past. Some of the comments are fresh and relevant. “The greatest challenge that will face historians in the years ahead, it seems to me, is not how to deepen and further sophisticate their technical probes of life in the past, . . . but how to put the story together again, now with a complexity and an analytical dimension not envisioned before, how to draw together the information available (quantitative and qualitative, statistical and literary, visual and oral) into readable accounts of major developments.” He continues: “No effective historian of the future can be innocent of statistics, and indeed he or she should probably be a literate amateur economist, psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and geographer. In the end, however, historians must be not analysts of isolated technical problems abstracted from the past but narratives of worlds in motion – worlds as complex, unpredictable, and transient as our own (pp. 78-79).

Then there is the memoir of Herman Wouk, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). Wow, a century and still scribbling. Wouk, the well-known novelist of classics such as The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, provides a brief, engaging portrait of being a writer. In it, he describes his successes and failures and how he researched a number of his books, offering advice to both reader and writer. Some of this is particularly interesting to me, an archivist. At one point he mentions destroying all the files of one ill-fated project, in order to leave no trace of it. Other portions interest me, the bibliophile, as he considers the changing nature of the publishing industry. Near the end he mentions that he has been keeping a diary, now totaling a hundred volumes, containing the “whole Herman Wouk story” (p. 134). One only hopes they keep on writing, along with Roger and Bernard.

I like these old guys. They inspire me. They make me feel young, and hopeful.

 

Public Intellectuals

Recently, The Chronicle Review, the magazine insert of The Chronicle of Higher Education, devoted some attention to the nature and status of public intellectuals. The December 4, 2015 issue hosted a forum on “After the Last Intellectuals,” pp. B6-B11, based on a session held at the Society for Intellectual History in October. The title derives from Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe published in 1987. Jacoby’s book was a lament about the decline of public intellectuals in the university as higher education turned its attention to more specialized knowledge, the narrowing of disciplines, and new demands on academics to produce specialized and highly technical knowledge and writing for other specialists, in order to generate citation counts and to gain research grants. Jacoby’s book led to many others writing about this topic, generally in the guise of critiques about higher education (one thinks of the many books about the “corporate” university, for instance).

 

In this forum, Jacoby leads off by revisiting his book, how it was received, and whether the issues he identified in it still persist. He acknowledges that some of his critics were correct about what he missed or misinterpreted, but Jacoby still argues that something has been lost. He reflects on new assessments of his book, that there are public intellectuals who are using the Internet and blogging instead of publishing in traditional print venues aimed at the general reader. He still believes that a “middle ground of serious writing directed at the common reader might be disappearing and with them their authors” (p. B7).

This forum includes a number of other perspectives about public intellectuals. Historian Claire Bond Potter considers the new opportunities for networking on the Internet, ones that extend beyond traditional forms of publishing and rigid academic models. Jonathan Holloway considers how Black public intellectuals relate to what Jacoby and others have been discussing. And Leo P. Ribuffo claims that Jacoby’s definition of the public intellectual is too narrow and too concentrated in one time period and region (1890s-1950s and New York City).

More recently, Corey Robin published “How Intellectuals Create a Public” in the February 29, 2016 issue of The Chronicle Review, pp. B10-B14. He argues that public intellectuals are not just interested in wide readership but in writing that transforms and influences. Robin, a political scientist admitting the influence of Jacoby’s book, takes a very different tack, worrying about whether there are publics even to address. He sees that the “prospects today for public intellectuals seem even better. After all, one of the material factors Jacoby claimed was driving intellectuals away from the public was the ease and comfort of university life. That life is gone.“ (p. B14). Of course, this is painting in broad strokes. In some sectors of the academy there is comfort in researching and writing for other similarly-minded academics; even in professional schools, there is a drift away from addressing practitioners and an emphasis on publishing in the right journals and compiling the right levels of citation counts.

That there continues to be discussion about public intellectuals is encouraging. That the possibilities of influencing and informing the public are there, with digital scholarship and blogging in addition to publishing in a growing array of independent journals, also is reassuring. And, of course, there do continue to be outstanding examples of public intellectuals we can draw inspiration from, such as Jill Lepore, Alberto Manquel, Thomas Mallon, Henri Petroski, and Witold Rybzyzinski, just to name a small number. Some fields, such as history and literary studies, have done better than others, such as the information sciences, which, except for pundits critiquing the implications of technology, have stayed grounded in their own technical journals and conference papers. I explored this a bit some years ago in my “Accountability, Public Scholarship, and Library, Information, and Archival Science Educators,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science Vol. 41, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 94-105, discovering a decided lack of public scholarship; perhaps it is time to revisit this matter again.