Gavia Libraria

An end to blogging

The Loon’s Boring Alter Ego was outed as the Loon today at her place of work, in such wise that denying the association would only have made matters worse.

That makes Gavia Libraria no longer a safe pursuit. It is therefore ending.

The Loon will take thought about what to do with Gavia’s archives.

On teaching ethics, to technologists or otherwise

The Loon is neither philosopher nor trained ethicist. This puts her at some disadvantage when faced with the challenges of imparting a reliable, pragmatic sense of ethics to her students, be they future librarians, future technologists, or just plain old future people. She had to think hard about where her own sense of ethics comes from, in fact. The answer appears to be that the Loon, when she was young and impressionable, was fortunate enough to meet several people who wore their ethics on their sleeves as well as clearly living them. She was drawn to such people—continues to be, truthfully—and patterns her life on theirs both consciously and un-. Of course she does not claim this is the only road to a more ethical life; it just happens to be her own.

As might be imagined, the Loon has been watching the current discourse on ethicking up technology industries and technology education with considerable interest. She agrees that Chief Ethicist positions are a bandaid solution doomed to failure. This is Coordinator Syndrome crossed with innovation shielding. It will end quickly but not well; indeed, it already has at least once. Paradoxically, after a few more Chief Ethicists get burned, the only people willing to take such a position are liable to be the less-than-ethical.

The most substantial challenge the Loon faces in her teaching is that so many of her students, if they have encountered the word “ethics” at all (and many have not!), view the matter as decontextualized unlikely algebraic word problems (the Loon is heartily sick of the trolley problem and would delight in a moratorium on its discussion) with zero relationship to anything they themselves have ever or will ever encounter. Another, much smaller, group treats ethics as an unrestrained exercise in point-scoring debate performance, equally divorced from real-world decisionmaking.

Doubtless credentialed ethicists and philosophers would be aghast at the Loon’s methods, but they do seem to work, so for the little they are no doubt worth:

  • Explain that work and life will provide both opportunities and inducement to do wrong, and to refrain from doing right.
    • Some people, including people with power over us, will demand wrongdoing of us.
    • Some situations will make wrongdoing far easier than its opposite. Courage and strength are required to walk the harder road.
    • Doing right can cost us. It is rarely a consequence-free path. If it were, we wouldn’t need to bother with ethics as an intellectual pursuit or pragmatic practice, would we, now?
    • Not a few situations involve competing wrongs and rights. Disentangling them to find the best (or least-worst) way to proceed is rarely straightforward.
    • Our heuristics-driven brains betray us here. (The Loon flatly refuses to use the wretched trolley problem as her illustration.)
  • Explain that one can only do good, never intrinsically be good. (It is frankly shocking how many of the Loon’s students this surprises.)
  • Say, clearly and without hedging and as soon as reasonable, “this is wrong” or “this should never have happened” when it is or it shouldn’t. Students respect that, not least because it appears to be unfortunately rare in their educational experience, and they need it. Of course back the statement up with reasoning and evidence, but the Loon has seen too many classes and instructors floundering in the evidence-and-reasoning weeds without ever making an unequivocal statement about wrongness. At its worst, this tendency can lead to the abovementioned point-scoring debates over whether some people even exist. Do not ever let a classroom decay that far!
  • Explain that ethics and its professional apparatus (codes, code explications and interpretations, and so on) are meant as a general toolbox to help resolve murky and/or unforeseen situations. They are not a cut-and-dried decision tree, because they can’t be.
  • Use recent (ideally local) real-world examples to illustrate the need for ethics generally, and ethical dilemmas particularly. Never, ever use homogenized, regurgitated, decontextualized “case studies.” Make students work through what they could have done in a given participant’s shoes, encouraging lateral thinking, root-cause analysis, and constraint/opportunity analysis over tiresomely performative “well, of course I would have put on my cape and superheroed!” posturing.

The overarching idea is instilling a sense of personal ethical responsibility, and preparing them to act on its nudges. If that foundation is there, the Loon finds that the rest tends to work itself out… but for those who prefer a more decision-treelike approach, the Loon rather likes this comparison of ethics schools, their virtues and flaws, and how to use each of them in decisionmaking.

She hopes she is paying forward the good examples she learned from.

“S” planning

A set of European research funders calling itself “Coalition S” has banded together to forbid pure toll-access and hybrid publication for its grantees. The thinkpiece engine is revving up, so the Loon will let it. She merely has a practical question or two about the scheme.

  • How do the funders plan to enforce this? Since they are funders, they bypass the tiresome wrangling over academic freedom that enjoins higher-education institutions from such schemes, so that is all well and good. Still, to make this plan stick, the coalition needs, shall we say, a stick; carrots by themselves will not do. Worse yet, the stick will likely have to be deployed mid-grant now and then. What is the infrastructure by which these funders will track manuscript submissions, and what will they do when one (inevitably) goes to a forbidden journal?
  • Will career-conscious faculty go along? Grants are often sufficiently carroty to compete with glamour-mag publication, never mind bread-and-butter journals. Problems arise when faculty do not initially understand—or choose to brush off—certain types of fine print in their grant agreements, and then find themselves arguing with their funder. The NIH mostly managed because its strictures about allowable publication venues were quite lenient (especially after the big pigs were strongarmed into accepting the scheme). We have not yet seen such strict limitations as these. We do not know how faculty will respond. The Loon is popping a large bowl of popcorn for the occasion.
  • Do the funders really understand what they’re doing? As the Loon reads the plan (with the understanding that so far, its verbiage is limited and somewhat vague), it has a strong whiff of Finch Report about it—and this is not a good omen. Who were the movers behind this? Whom did they consult? What is their understanding of academe’s wicked publishing problems? The Loon does not care to assert (as a few already have) that the coalition will unavoidably fall apart under pressure from researchers and big pigs—but she does think it possible if some coalition members are underprepared for the flak likely coming their way.

Apologies for brevity; the Loon is diving into the fall semester and is quite busy. She wishes Coalition S well.

Quality heuristics and coercive citation

The Loon saw a hapless researcher on Twitter today, wondering what to do about a journal that asked them to insert sixty (60!) citations to itself into their manuscript as a condition of acceptance.

The answer, should any of the Loon’s readers run into this, is “withdraw your article and run; screaming is optional, but may relieve the spirit.” This practice is known as “coercive citation” and is a naked attempt to game Journal Impact Factor by manufacturing illegitimate citations. Twitter intervenors suggested two responses: reporting the journal to current JIF owner Clarivate, which can yank a journal’s IF, and reporting the journal and/or publisher to the Committee on Publication Ethics (though this will only help if the journal/publisher is a COPE member).

The Loon is not the first to observe that scholarly publishing makes a market in prestige as well as money. We hear a great deal about how scammy open-access outfits interfere with the proper workings of the prestige market. (We hear ever so much less about how scammy toll-access outfits do, of course.)

We don’t hear about the gaming of quality heuristics, though our Twitter researcher’s experience illustrates the cycle beautifully:

  • Journal implements coercive citation.
  • Journal’s JIF rises.
  • More researchers—especially those not paying attention to much beyond heuristics like JIF—submit work to journal.
  • Journal coerces them as well… and ’round the circle goes.

The question of attention-paying is important, but much-discussed elsewhere. The Loon will limit herself to observing (again) that coercive citation, like so much other scammery inside and outside scholarly communication, thrives on picking off the naïve and careless, of which academe has many.

The Loon is terribly tempted to write an out-and-out no-holds-barred spittle-flecked philippic on how impact factor is ruining scholarly publishing, cozening poor innocent scholars into destroying their own reputations, and poisoning the scholarly record. Ruining, cozening, and poisoning, she tells you! Unfortunately, she is as usual very pressed for time. If any of her gentle readers would enjoy writing this philippic, do feel free.

In which “learning outcomes” can go right back in

When the Loon has a new course to design, she starts a (completely disorganized stream-of-consciousness) list of what she thinks students want and need to learn, assignment ideas that will inculcate that learning, and whatnot. She does the usual competitive intelligence work—similar courses and their syllabi, competency lists (much though she hates them, she knows her courses will be measured against them, so becoming aware of them is instructorial self-defense), relevant job descriptions—to add more grist to her list.

Once the spate of ideas has slowed to a trickle, she reorganizes and culls the list into a week-by-week course outline, ideally with a strong narrative throughline. Here, constraints enter the picture: time, students’ pre-existing knowledge (which in areas the Loon teaches tends to be either nonexistent or—most frustratingly—a strongly bimodal distribution), time, infrastructure, time, the Loon’s own knowledge, time, and did the Loon mention time? One semester is not very much time at all, and the Loon can only decently make claim to a slice of student time per week. Much of the list disappears at this stage—well, not entirely; the Loon does keep the discards in case she is wrong on the low side about how much time a given topic will take such that she can pop another topic in.

Building the above course skeleton takes quite a bit of (this word again) time. Fleshing it out—readings, assignment descriptions and weights, the fiery error-prone hell that is course-management system setup—easily takes five to seven times that time. What the Loon is saying is, thoughtful student-centered course design takes a lot of time.

(The Loon knows some people just find a textbook. Bluntly and immodestly: the Loon is better at course design than they are, and her courses, course evaluations, and student success show it. That said, if course design is not one’s strong suit—and even the Loon has blundered at it from time to time; it’s not reducible to algorithms—there is some sense in outsourcing it to people who have at least had to think about it as they build a textbook.)

At last, the Loon has a course she’s happy with and believes students will be—if not “happy with,” at least “the better for.” But she is not done, oh no, building a good course is never enough. It is now time for the Attack of the Learning Outcomes. If you remember that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (Moria, if the Loon recalls correctly) where a horde of little skittering reptilian goblin-things pours down the ancient stone pillars to overwhelm the Nine—yes, it is rather like that.

Now, the Loon quite understands that learning outcomes came about as a response to the sort of worthless classroom experience driven by an ego-laden bloviator who bloviates endlessly on whatever he (and yes, in the Loon’s direct experience these are “he”s) wants to bloviate about, heedless of what students might want or even need to learn. The Loon has been a student in that classroom, oh my yes, and she wants the bloviators stopped as much as anyone. They are legitimately awful.

But setting a horde of little skittering reptilian goblin-things on every single instructor daring to enter the course-design caves, the Loon included, cannot continue to be the answer it presently is. The learning-outcomes craze is thoroughly out of control, and it leaches the Loon’s course-design time and distorts her courses to zero productive purpose.

Consider a fairly typical course-design challenge for the Loon. The course will be mixed graduate/undergraduate, and must count toward the library/archives master’s degree. Already that brings in ALA accreditation standards and the master’s program’s overall learning outcomes (also mandated by ALA—not in so many words, but these days no school without a statement of overall learning outcomes can expect to pass an accreditation review). Two sets of learning outcomes, and we’ve hardly started! Both graduates and undergraduates are subject to various course requirements outlining their overall progression; for each requirement the Loon wishes her course to meet (given that meeting listed requirements raises enrollment), she will have another set of learning outcomes dumped on her.

One course she designed has no fewer than five sets of learning outcomes to cope with:

  • ALA accreditation standards
  • library/archives program learning outcomes
  • learning outcomes related to a specific requirement in the graduate program
  • one undergraduate minor’s learning outcomes
  • one undergraduate breadth-requirement’s learning outcomes

The Loon cannot simply declare that her course meets a given requirement, of course; that is a loophole bloviators can and will drive shiploads of useless bloviation through. No, most sets of learning outcomes come with a committee of enforcers (if you suspect the Loon mentally casts them as Uruk-Hai, you are quite right) and each committee of enforcers demands that the Loon prove her syllabus not only meets, but directly assesses, their learning outcomes.

Satisfying the enforcer committees, in the Loon’s experience, takes not only a significant commitment of Loonish time writing convincers—because enforcer committees cannot possibly be expected to read and understand the syllabus, oh no, it must be pre-digested and regurgitated for them like pap for a loon-chick—but a significant commitment of time back-and-forthing with each committee while it puts its self-important oar in. Worse yet, the sort of assignment that satisfies an enforcer committee as direct assessment of an outcome is very, very far from isometric with the sort of assignment that in the Loon’s experienced estimation is best for students.

All of this is time the Loon cannot spend actually making student experience better in her course. She is heartily sick of this, fond of her students and (if we are to be honest) vain of her teaching as she is.

The Loon is so frustrated by this farrago of sluggish half-witted bureaucracy that she blew up outright when her not-a-boss came to her asking her to make an existing course meet yet another set of godforsaken learning outcomes. (The Loon should have quietly but firmly said “no, that won’t be possible,” or “well, this will take a significant outlay of syllabus-redesign and committee-wrangling time; given that enrollments are healthy, is it really worth the effort?” She knows this, and is sorry for her outburst.)

But good heavens, are we supposed to spend our time teaching or meta-teaching? The Loon certainly knows which she finds more worthwhile.