More news meta…

…still thinking about last week’s conversation about the corporate media and what that means for information literacy instruction and the broader idea of library users as informed citizens. A couple of things have come across my screen that seem to fit into this conversation.

First, continuing the theme of cool and awesome visualizations is Muckety, with the tagline “exploring the paths of power and influence.” The site is a simple blog like presentation of news stories, focusing on the connections between people, corporate entities, topics and more. But the stories are accompanied by these interactive maps that let you explore those connections on your own. I like how easy and responsive it is – do a search, choose a result and generate a map around that result. The visualizations seem to be based on an in-house database, so it’s not as easy as it could be to follow the sources and explore the relationships further.

The first thing I thought of was using this tool to look at some of the corporate relationships I talked about last week – someone’s already done it. And that’s great because the resulting map is a bit chaotic and crazy and probably took forever to put together -

Big 8 + Sony Muckety Map

And in a nice bit of synchonicity – today’s top story on Muckety is the other thing I was going to talk about here. Jason Mittell and Barbara Fister both talked about this yesterday and got me thinking about the connections between all of these conversations. Barbara got a comment when she cross-posted the story on ACRLog that suggested the commenter saw the story as an attack on the Bush administration and nothing more.

I think the commenter was primed to see things that way and wouldn’t have been open to any other interpretation, but I also think Mittell’s JustTV post raises another important issue that has particular significance for us when we’re trying to think about the question of how to teach information literacy – the kind of information literacy that supports informed citizenry and lifelong learning:

The biggest gap in Barstow’s article is an explanation for why the media allows its “experts” to hold forth unchecked, whether due to conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, or demonstrated ineptitude for actually displaying expertise. The end of the article tries to address this, but the networks stonewall Barstow in a range of ways, from ABC saying it’s the responsibility of analysts to report their own conflicts of interest, to Fox’s outright refusal to participate in the article. Of course looking too closely at these issues would force the Times to justify why it publishes its own discredited “expert,” William Kristol, despite nearly every claim he’s made for the last 7 years having been proven wrong.

So yay for the Times for pulling back the curtain – but to some extent this little glimpse just shows how much more pushing at the curtain still needs to be done.

cool stuff that’s fun to look at!

For reasons I won’t go into, I recently spent way too much time on the internet looking for magazine scans. (Anyone going to Online NW might soon be able to piece together why). Looking for those I ran across some other things I thought were awesome, even if I’m not always clear on what to do with them.

The Book Scans database

  • I’m linking to the main page – the database page is on the left. I probably lost an hour going through these. The site design is a little old-school, and navigating can be kind of clunky. The site is also intended for the collector community, so it might be perfectly organized for their needs and only clunky for non-collectors. Oddly there’s no notes anywhere about what one can do with these images, or actually anything at all intellectual property-related.

Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

  • Again, more a browsing space than a searching one, and initially I was like “why would I want to browse this.” Thirty minutes later I still wasn’t sure but I couldn’t stop. These are screengrabs of the title shots from a whole lot of movies. I almost didn’t include this one when I couldn’t find All About Eve, but this one from The Awful Truth was entirely charming so I left it in –

Title shot from The Awful Truth

Vintage Vanguard

  • A big collection of scans of old Vanguard record albums. Both front and back material, which is awesome. I love these because you can see how old they are.

And I also found magazine scans galore — these were my two favorite sites:

MagazineArt.org

The Conde Nast Store

And finally this – cute mid-century French stuff. I’m not sure how to categorize this, but how could I not include it?

Lefor-Openo

Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.

YouTube & me

The Royal Family apparently started a YouTube channel about two months ago, but I don’t think many people over here noticed it until it came time for the Queen’s annual Christmas message.  At least, I don’t remember seeing anything about it two months ago, but I’ve seen it mentioned on three or four blogs this week.

I’m trying to figure out why I think this is such a good idea.  If the Bush Administration suddenly started a YouTube channel, I wouldn’t think anything good about it.  And I don’t think that’s entirely partisan.  I don’t see myself watching 20 minutes of old Clinton home movies on the morning after Christmas either.  But this morning, that’s what I found myself doing with the Royal Channel.  An old movie depicting events from the death of King George to Elizabeth’s coronation, followed by a silent movie about the Queen Mother’s wedding and all of a sudden it was 20 minutes later.

Interestingly, they’ve disabled embedding.

I think there’s some aspect of admiration for whoever in the Royal Household had the idea of putting video proof of charitable acts and royal family events out "where the people are," to use that tired phrase — but I don’t think that by itself explains why I’m taken with this idea.  I think that combined with the kind of information the royal family has available to broadcast in this way — those old videos, the historical stuff — is what makes this seem right to me.  Most of the time that’s where I end up losing time on YouTube.  Thirty minutes searching for Mario Savio talking about the machine, two hours of old Olympic coverage.  This is where my actual time has actually gone in the last year.

So that leads me to the question – is this just the historian in me?  Am I taken with the royal family channel because it’s way to see historical artifacts I wouldn’t otherwise easily see?  Or is this a more objectively cool example of the right medium for the right message?

Hmmmm…..

reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

I don’t often envy my friend Matt his Harvard education, except for on days like today.  After skimming through my RSS feeds and finding not one, not two, but three links to the same New Yorker article – I remembered why occasionally I think Harvard wouldn’t have sucked.  Because Matt went to school with Caleb Crain.

And if you want to know why, just read Caleb Crain’s latest article in the New Yorker – Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?

I’ve read enough apocalyptic, end-of-knowledge type discussions of how the kids today, they just don’t read that as soon as I hear there’s another article on the topic I get twitchy.  And since the NEH report (To Read or Not to Read) hit the airwaves the number of simplistic mass media treatments of the topic have about made me crazy.  When I read this morning on Cliopatria that Caleb Crain had written about reading my spirits — they noticeably lifted.  Noticeably!

And he doesn’t disappoint –

He considers history.  So many critics worry so much about losing the habits of now that they forget that the now is a relatively short blip on the epistemological radar screen.  While the ideas of text, of authority, or single authorship hold a lot of power over us now it wasn’t that long ago that that’s just not how we knew things. 

"Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be
explained but the fact that we read at all."

I just can’t take criticism seriously, no matter how serious it is, when it has no historical perspective.  And those who don’t recognize that ideas like the author’s voice, or even intellectual property itself are historically and culturally situated — no matter how insightful or intelligent their criticism is, I can’t treat it as such.  While I do think that we have something to lose if we stop reading, if we stop arguing, and if we stop communicating as we do now – I don’t necessarily think that we also have nothing to gain if those things go away. 

History is change – but the changes are the result of real people making real choices and at any point things could go a lot of ways.  Now isn’t inherently better than then, and tomorrow won’t be inherently better than now.  Just as a step away from now isn’t a step away from progress, the right path, the best way.  I don’t know what it is that we might gain, but I do know that we just don’t know.

Looking at Walter Ong and especially Maryanne Wolf, Crain looks seriously at what we knew pre-reading – how those brains differed from our post-reading brains.  When he says that if the movement away from reading continues in our culture "the world will feel different, even to those who still read" you believe that by "different," he means "different" — not "way worse OMG".  Western reading, western epistemology aren’t just the result of some inevitable progressive march towards perfection – it’s what happened, it’s not what obviously had to happen.  And that means if it changes, then the impact of those changes aren’t inherently good or inherently bad – they just are.

Which isn’t to say that they’re value-neutral or that there’s nothing there to value.  But this kind of examination is a necessary first step to any real, meaningful reflection on what it is we might want to preserve about what is.  What we might want to fight for.  Because we can’t pull out the act of reading itself and assign it inherent value and bemoan its lack — it’s not the number of words or pages that we read that we need to think about – it’s something else.  In higher ed, a lot of the people I know have come to call it "critical reading" — by which I think they’re getting at our students’ ability (or inability) to learn from what they read. 

Citing Wolf, Crain talks about how fluent readers have enough free brain time while they are reading — during the process of reading — that they can think about what they read.  They can reflect, synthesize, anaylze, criticize and evaluate. 

"The efficient reading brain, quite literally has more
time to think."

– and –

"The secret at the heart of reading, is "the
time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came
before."

This resonates because I think we’ve all felt sometimes that some of our students are so focused on the act of reading that they forget about the thinking.  Or worse, that they’ve never really been taught that thinking is part of the process.  One of my colleagues in graduate school used to tell her students that "you can’t read without a pen in your hand."  Reading with thinking is an interactive process – the reader and writer both engaged, both creating, both thinking.   That’s the piece that we want to preserve — or to create — students who can engage with a text and learn from it.  That’s far more important than their page counts.

Crain talks at length, in part because Wolf talks at length, about television and other visual media.  The overarching theme is that exposure to visual media threatens out ability to think, to understand.  We lose grade levels if we watch too much tv.  But even here, Crain’s treatment shows that the picture is more complex than "tv makes us dumber."  Some tv for younger children is good, Sesame Street raises grade levels, older teens can’t watch much without damage…

When I read these types of arguments I wonder a couple of things.  One relates to what I was talking about above – is it really fair to use the ability to read and engage with text as our only or primary measure of the impact of our students’ engagement with visual media?  Or is that focusing on what’s lost, without considering what might be gained?  Beyond this, but still connected, is the idea of creativity.  Does it change the equation if our students are engaging with media interactively, if they are creating, if they are thinking while they do it.  Is there a media fluency that can free the brain up to think and read and consider and analyze and evaluate?  I don’t think that all kids today are doing this, because I’m not crazy.  But I’d love to see someone examine the question of is there a difference – is there a difference between people actively engaged in the creative production on visual media and those who only consume?

Anyway, read this – pass it along – this is the kind of smart, complex criticism we need to really think about how we can help our students learn today.  Reifying the past without criticism means we won’t get there – articles like this one make me think we can.

Note: Karen Munro points out another good article on the reading question.