Friday, June 10, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (1)

My colleges are in the news

Tom Friedman received an honorary degree from my alma mater and -- of course -- manages to turn it into a column. This one highlights a lovely graduation tradition:

Every year, in addition to granting honorary degrees, Williams also honors four high school teachers. But not just any high school teachers. Williams asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers.

Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school. The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend....

"Every time we do this, one of the [high school] teachers says to me, 'This is one of the great weekends of my life,' " said Williams's president, Morton Owen Schapiro. "But it is great for us, too. ...

"When you are at a place like Williams and you are able to benefit from these wonderful kids, sometimes you take it for granted. You think we produce these kids. But as faculty members, we should always be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of great high school teachers, we get great material to work with: well educated, well trained, with a thirst for learning.

"So we have been doing our little part to recognize that. ... We take these teachers, who are not well compensated and often underappreciated, and give them a great weekend."

If you think these awards are not important for the teachers receiving them, then you don't know anything about teachers.

I must also applaud President Schapiro (for whom I was a teaching assistant when he taight Economics 101) to for being savvy enough to lure Friedman out to Williamstown and getting some fine press for the institution in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, my current institution of higher learning has also generated some press which reinforces all the good things you hear about the U of C. Scott Jaschik explains in Inside Higher Ed:

To understand why professors need great libraries, says Andrew Abbott, “you need to think about an ape swinging through the trees.”

Abbott is not an evolutionary biologist, but a sociologist at the University of Chicago. And to Abbott, a scholar in a library is just like a swinging primate. “You’ve got your current source, which is the branch you are on, and then you see the next source, on the next branch, so you swing over. And on that new hanging vine, you see the next source, which you didn’t see before, and you swing again.”

When books aren’t browsable or instantly available, Abbott says, a scholar becomes the ape “with no branch to grab, and you are stopped, hanging on a branch with no place to go.”

At far too many libraries, he says, that is becoming the norm. Many universities are boasting about how they are digitizing collections or building vast, off-site facilities to store millions of books. Even when those books are available within hours, Abbott says, that destroys the way scholars need to think — moving from source to source, not knowing which source they will stumble on.

Abbott heads a faculty committee at Chicago in charge of guiding a mammoth expansion of the Joseph Regenstein Library there. Chicago recently embarked on a plan that will end up with Regenstein housing more volumes — 8 million — under a single roof than any other university library in the United States (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign currently has the honor, with 7.5 million volumes in its main library). What’s more, none of the library’s collections will be moved off site, most monographs will be browsable, and miles of new stacks will be added in the expansion of 38,000 square feet....

To understand how unusual the Chicago expansion is (Regenstein currently has only 4.5 million volumes), Harvard University offers an illustrative comparison. Harvard has more volumes in total — 15 million — than any American university. But Harvard has more volumes stored off-site (5.5 million) than in its single largest library, Widener Library, which has 3.5 million volumes.

The non-bibliophile might ask, isn’t 3.5 million plenty?

Judith Nadler, director of the library at Chicago, answers with an emphatic No, which isn’t surprising given that she supervises the purchase of 150,000 new volumes a year. “Collections within quick reach matter,” Nadler says. “Our research today is interdisciplinary. You don’t just go in one subject area. So the more you have under one roof, under one classification system, the easier it is, the better it is for scholars.”

Nadler is quick to point out that Chicago is not Luddite with regard to the role of technology in helping libraries. Regenstein’s users, for example, have access online to full text of more than 40,000 journals. But she says that the hype about digitization ignores the limits technology offers, especially for research facilities with global subject matter.

“I think the significance of what we are doing is enormous,” she says. “We have a very, very large and rich collection, and it is rich in area studies, in languages, rich in materials from all parts of the world — including many parts of the world where digitization will not come for a very long time in the future.” Chicago intends to step up its purchasing in such areas in the years ahead, Nadler says, creating a repository of materials that the best search engine couldn’t find.

Thanks to alert reader B.K. for the pointer.

UPDATE: The utility of searching the stacks contrasts nicely with James Falows' lament about computer searches in the New York Times:

Search engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.

When it comes to digging up a specific name, date, phrase or price, search engines are unstoppable. The same is true for details from the previously concealed past....

Yet for anything but simple keyword queries, even the best search engines are surprisingly ineffective.

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true? When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit, exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state data covering the last 40 years.

posted by Dan on 06.10.05 at 10:53 PM


I'm surprised to be saying so, but I agree with the 'swinging monkey' theory and I'm a chemist: I'm consistently amused at how searches quickly lead from the very accessible 90's to 1940's German journals that just can't be found online. That's when it's fun to go to the stacks at the library.

posted by: Klug on 06.10.05 at 10:53 PM [permalink]

Open stacks have ever really been the scholarly norm: European libraries all have closed stacks and many American libraries did until the 60s or 70s. Sure they're nice, but don't go swooning over them: they are not necessary for great scholarship.

posted by: Isaac on 06.10.05 at 10:53 PM [permalink]

Why does it matter whether open stacks have been the "scholarly norm" or not?...if the "swinging through the trees" analysis is accurate, then the additional speed of access to books will pay off, whether it's been the "norm" or not.

posted by: David Foster on 06.10.05 at 10:53 PM [permalink]

Fallows' comment is interesting. I've had to look up similar data sets for California, and vast quantities of useful information are available online. BUT ... you have to know where to look. The California Department of Finance has vast quantities of data on its Web site. Google will never point you to what you want, though. Expertise and experience (are they the same thing?) will always count.

posted by: trotsky on 06.10.05 at 10:53 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?