Who Are You and What Are Your Superpowers? Creating Student Trading Cards

This term I am leading a “supermodule” (undergraduate and postgraduate students combined) on User-Centred Systems Design. We had our first session on Monday morning first thing.

Sometimes we may underestimate the importance of ice-breaking activities and of getting to know each other at the beginning of a course/module. I feel like the increased costs of higher education have created a perception that any activities done in class that do not appear to be immediately related to the content of the lecture are a “waste of time”. However in order to make the most of an educational experience we need to attempt to design such experience by helping to create the circumstances that will allow students and staff to make the most of it.

It is hard to expect student engagement (their focused attention, participation via comments and questions, effective working in pairs or groups) if we haven’t made an effort to learn about each other (even if to a limited degree) and try to create an environment of trust. This trust will need to be developed over the term but we can begin to do that by making the time to introduce each other and to learn a bit more about our general and specific expectations.

Activities where students are asked to meet each other (let alone work with each other) can be very hard for different students for a plethora of reasons (I won’t go into those here). In my experience it does help if the activity introduces them to the skills and strategies that are included in the module’s learning objectives. It also helps if the activity is structured, rather than left to the students’ own devices (“talk amongst yourselves”).

Since the module I am leading provides an introduction to User-centred Design Activities, I aimed to fulfill various objectives in one through a “student trading card” creation ice-breaking activity.

The motivations behind the activity were:

  • To contribute to breaking the ice between students and staff through a dynamic, engaging activity
  • To prompt students to talk to each other in order to get to know each other better beyond those they already know
  • To help me as module leader to know my students’ needs better
  • To prompt students to reflect on the relationships between information architecture and layout, and between form and content- how the design of a template demands a particular type of data entry
  • To introduce students to qualitative data collection via an in-person interview
  • To prompt students to reflect on three personal and/or professional “superpowers” i.e. something they feel they are good at, prompting the rehearsal of positive thinking by focusing on diverse skills
  • To prompt students to reflect on a personal and/or professional “weakness” i.e. an area of activity, knowledge or skill they wish to improve

With this requirements in mind I designed the activity reusing a very basic blank “trading card” template, which I printed out copies of, to hand them out to students, one each. I also had extra A4 blank paper to hand out and pens in case they were needed.

I introduced the activity and provided a summary of the instructions on the screen as a slide:

Trading Card activity slide

While I introduced the activity I got students to reflect on where they thought each answer should go on the form. No one, for example, suggested the name should go in the bottom box- but there were different views on what the top left circle and top right rectangle could contain. By doing this we were already very loosely anticipating content we will see later in the course, such as hierarchical analysis and user research activities such as semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and data collection.

What we meant by “superpowers” and “weaknesses” had to be defined- things we felt we were good at and things we though we needed/wanted to improve. It was important to not constrain these too much, allowing students to reflect on their own views on what their three “superpowers” and one “weakness” could be and to feedback each other about them. For example often during the conversations “weaknesses” could be turned into superpowers under the right circumstances. The main thing is to focus on the positives and to instill a sense that improvement is possible.

It was great to see the students engaged with the activity and ended up collecting more student trading cards than the single one I initially anticipated. As we were pressed for time we did not follow up the activity by getting students to actually “trade” the cards as a way to then find the students they represented, nor did I encourage students to draw “profile pictures” of their interviewees (some students did this without being prompted to).

I asked volunteers to feedback on the activity. They shared they found it enjoyable, had met colleagues they had not met properly before. I asked them about what they had found challenging about the activity, and indeed they shared that some had found it way harder to think of their own strengths and easier to think of their own weaknesses… or easier to think of personal “superpowers” than strictly “professional” ones. Feedback agreed that students “felt better” once they had their own cards read back to them.  Some students regretted we had not had time to be more creative designing each other’s trading cards, adding illustrations, colour, etc.

We discussed how even those “superpowers” we ourselves could think of as not relevant to our professional practice could be easily transferred or useful to enhance it. I emphasised how they all had collected data from fellow participants using a standardised data collection template following a semi-structured interview, and that though this was an informal exercise giving us but a tiny glimpse of what talking to people for research purposes could be like, the module will go into detail on how to conduct user research using a range of practical methods. We also drew parallels between the trading card template and other user-centred design activities we will cover during the module, such as personas and wireframing.

What I wanted to do was to apply interaction design principles to the activity. As in that session we would cover usability and user experience, I wanted the activity to be enjoyable, fun, entertaining, motivating, aesthetically-pleasing and rewarding. The positive feedback from students during and after the lecture gave me an indication we might have achieved precisely that!

For this activity all you need is sheets of paper and pens- students can sketch their own templates. Unidrectional, hierarchical, non-dynamic classroom activities can be disempowering- and students of different educational levels (for example undergraduate and postgraduate) can feel apprehensive about their own skills,  and most of the times do fail to make students become protagonists (“heroes”) of their own stories, making them feel dependent on external guidance and afraid of taking independent decisions. Allowing a safe space to reflect on our individual abilities (“superpowers”), to see each others as heroes of our own stories, without forgetting about those areas we would like to improve, can hopefully provide an initial step towards greater student empowerment.

Values, Not ‘Value’: Mechanization, Marketization and the Prevention of Thought

Gooble Books Ngram Viewer results: value, values
Google Books Ngram Viewer results: value, values

 

A sad triumph of the ultimate consequences of the marketisation of Higher Education is when it annihilates solidarity- it dehumanises all stakeholders and minimises empathy.

The process is complete when education is compared without nuance to services like transport or hospitality: like airlines, rail companies or restaurants, universities are “service providers”, and students -arguably because they pay fees- are “customers”. Customers expect the service they think they are paying for. In the Regulatory Framework released by the new Office for Students,  for example, the term ‘provider’ appears 988 times (‘students’, 370; ‘knowledge’ 15; ‘lecturer’ 0 times).

 

In this discoursive universe the lecturer is a replaceable medium to deliver content. Automated means such as Lecture Capture (audiovisual recordings of lectures delivered in real time, most often limited to the audio and images from the slides on the screen) and materials shared on virtual learning environments can be reproduced and re-delivered automatically. As in self-service check-outs at supermarkets and more recently at airport check-in desks, human staff is reduced to fixing machinery errors and replacing paper rolls on the printer. The customer is supposed to get what they have paid for quickly and efficiently, ideally without having to even interact with a human being.

There are still interstices of hope from those who, seeing themselves as consumers or service providers, can still ‘problematise’ the situation contextualising specificities. There’s been enough examples of students supporting striking staff. However the long-term, official plan seems to be designed to completely erradicate empathy & solidarity from activities that are increasingly reduced to commercial exchanges. This is not limited to teaching. Research and scholarly publishing, including public engagement, “knowledge exchange” and “impact”, are increasingly reduced to administrative, management activities, highly defined by the need to meet mandated, automated, metricated processes of asessment, rating and ranking. You are so moneysupermarket. Go compare. Simples.

No doubt the industry’s long-standing fascination with robotics and Artificial Intelligence has to do with the ability to maximise the dehumanisation implied in unempathetic transactions with machines. And though internationally Computer Science programmes are concerned with tackling new and not-so-new ethical dilemmas, in general, culturally, the term “value”, in an economic sense, is dramatically trumping “values”, in a moral sense.  On “value for money”, read this excellent post by Andrew McRae.

And I return to George Orwell once more. In a 1946 essay titled “The Prevention of Literature”, in which Orwell discusses the effects of Totalitarianism on writing, imagination and thought, he writes:

 

“It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors. So also with the innumerable books and pamphlets commissioned by government departments.

Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials, and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of literary schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula by the use of which you can construct plots for yourself. Others have packs of cards marked with characters and situations, which have only to be shuffled and dealt in order to produce ingenious stories automatically. It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state.” (Orwell 2008: 37-38).

Orwell forsaw, with clarity, how the mechanization of the production chain in Disney animated films would lead to today’s transformation of storytelling into multimodal transmedia ‘franchises’. As demonstrated paradigmatically by the Star Wars series (not too long ago acquired by Disney itself), contemporary popular culture and artistic practice are not merely post-post-modern: the “algebraical formula” Orwell described is indeed an “algorithmic formula” that has manifestations well beyond Hollywood. An example is, indeed, the UK government’s insistence not only metricating all aspects of Higher Education practice, but on transforming the practice and experience of Higher Education into automated processes motivated and fuelled by solely un-transparent, biased economic indicators.

It is particularly poignant that Orwell, in the context of England in 1946, discussed the effects of Totalitarianism on prose writing, and this included effects on imagination and free thought. For those of us interested in computer science and humanities computing/digital humanities, the schizophrenia that Orwell detected as caused by Totalitarianism is well known: the tools and processes are not neutral, and what can be liberating can be equally oppressive. The ongoing decimation of Higher Education as an activity motivated by the love of knowledge as a value in itself feels relentless, and its expressions are indeed technologically driven: marketization and machinization/automation are two key components of the strategy. It is about the de-valorisation of the human and the prevalence of so-called ‘value’ over values. Some of those values are solidarity and empathy for those who are not as privileged as we are, or whose work is not solely motivated by greed, social positioning or profit.

I am emphatically not a luddite nor technophobe, and I believe “performance indicators”, if correctly implemented, are important and potentially useful. However, in my humble opinion —and I know I am not alone in thinking this— current Higher Education policy seems hell-bent on eliminating, to reuse Orwell’s phrase, “imagination —even consciousness, so far as possible —from the process of writing”, and also from publishing, and engaging with the public, and teaching students, and marking, and providing feedback, and planning lectures, and doing everything that makes Higher Education socially valuable and more often than not individually and collectively enjoyable and important.

There is indeed the clear whiff of Totalitarianism in the disdain for nuance and non-economic values and in the obsession with enforcing and following quantitative measures and economic profit. It’s a a strategy for the prevention of thought: the idea seems to be that in the future, anything that is driven by values other than “value for money” would endanger the structure of the state.

Perhaps one day robots will be capable of organising themselves to resist unfair treatment- by then their human overlords and customers will be well trained in lack of empathy. Finally non-human.

 

References

McRae, A. (2018). Value for money in higher education: a very English debate. Head of Department’s Blog. 25 February 2018. Available at https://headofdepartmentblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/value-for-money-in-higher-education-a-very-english-debate/ Accessed 14 March 2018]

Office for Students (2018). Securing student success:Regulatory framework for higher education in England. Available at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/1022/ofs2018_01.pdf [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Orwell, G. (2008). The Prevention of Literature (1946), in Books v. cigarettes, London: Penguin. Available online at http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/prevention/english/e_plit [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Priego, E. [ernestopriego]. (2018, Feb 22). A sad triumph of the ultimate consequences of the marketisation of #HigherEd is when it annihilates solidarity- it… https://t.co/lpna0Kuwca [Tweet Thread]. Available at: https://twitter.com/ernestopriego/status/966656207623684096  [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Priego, E. [ernestopriego]. (2018, Feb 28). @martin_eve A word cloud, FWIW. https://t.co/AucJYnGNVy [Tweet]. Available at: https://twitter.com/ernestopriego/status/968860029985095681  [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Richardson, H. (2018). Degree courses to be rated gold, silver and bronze. BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43346678 [Accessed 14 March 2018]

Singer, N. (2018). Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It. The New York Times. 12 February 2018. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/business/computer-science-ethics-courses.html [Accessed 14 March 2018]

 

 

 


This post includes lines I originally tweeted as part of a thread on 22 February 2018.

 

Higher Education Matters: A Personal Reflection

Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections
Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections

 

“It is difficult for a child to realize that a school is primarily a commercial venture.”

-George Orwell, 1952

 

These have been tough days in UK Higher Education. You can read about what’s been going on here. If you would like to know more about how University strikes work in the UK, this FAQ has useful information. The latest information about the dispute should be available here.

Yesterday the British TV broadcaster Channel 4 aired a 30-minute episode of ‘Dispatches’ that exposed the “lavish spending by university chiefs“. I thought the programme failed at contextualising the reasons why what was exposed is scandalous, presenting a world of Higher Education composed of white posh older men claiming thousands in extravagant expenses, dissatisfied undergraduate students struggling to make ends meet and an articulate Union leader in the middle.

Unless I missed it, the programme did not interview any junior, senior, visiting or retired lecturers, PhD students, research assistants nor any administrators, library straff or other university employees. No other stakeholder was featured. Apart from a final scene where a recent UCU demonstration was shown, there was no description (let alone thorough discussion) of the pensions dispute, or what the actual role (apart from travelling and claiming expenses) of VCs is, funding cuts, the organisational challenges that Universities face or the role that Higher Education plays within society, etc.

This worried me because, had I been a member of the public not working at a British university, I suspect I would have struggled to feel empathetic towards Universities. To me it would have looked like University staff (solely represented in the programme by VCs) is having a lush great time, well outside the everyday circumstances of the rest of British society, at the expense of students and the taxpayer.

In my conversations with friends outside academia last weekend, it’s been apparent that the strikes have not had  major nor thorough media coverage. Even more worryingly, even if one explains the situation carefully our current situation is still perceived as an extravagance, as a ‘first-world problem’ within the ‘first world’, a privilege of the already-privileged. Folks I’ve talked to are educated people, many of them with postgraduate degrees, but, having graduated and moved on into the private, non-academic sector, did not immediately empathise with the urgency of the demands.

On Monday, the Guardian print edition did not mention the university strikes at all, apart from a photo on page 35 illustrating an article about something else in the financial section. BBC Breaking News, on TV and radio, have not featured the strike prominently after the first mentions last Wednesday.

I was an undergraduate student at UNAM in Mexico at the time of the 1999 student strike (protesting the university fee hike that was eventually detracted). That strike was a very complex affair which lasted for a whole year (here’s the Wikipedia entry shared as-is; it needs significant editing; for a selection of media coverage and a photographic archive, see this). This means that the university was closed. To all. Unlike here, where picket lines do not impede (should not impede) anyone access to buildings, the strike in Mexico did close all/most of the doors of the university campus to all.  In Mexico, even before the strike started, in the early days and throughout the conflict, the university’s strike was a situation known and discussed by everyone: bus drivers, shop-keepers, politicians and academics alike. (I had a student research grant at the time, and in retrospect it seems the stuff of fantasy that we were still punctually paid– our cheques were issued from alternative administrative locations).

Having this perspective, what stands out to me is that the British universities’ strike does not seem to be part of mainstream society’s concerns, at least not as represented by its media coverage and the conversations one may have in public out and about. It looks like, at least in terms of the public discourse triggered by mainstream media coverage, the UK only has capacity for one or two important issues at a time. If one reads the newspaper headlines, listens to the radio or turns on the TV news, the university strikes are clearly not of great importance (i.e., public interest).

The huge popularity of British Higher Education amongst international students from so-called developing nations is not only a consequence of colonialism, legacy reputation, British cultural soft power, a privileged geographical location in relation to continental Europe, Africa and Asia, and the fact that English remains the lingua franca of commerce and research. In general, developing nations perceive higher education as a crucial step towards the achievement of individual professional development, individual and collective social mobility and national sustainable development.

This is not merely an expression of the idealised romanticism of the have-nots: the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals include Quality Education as it’s 4th goal. This goal has 10 targets encompassing many different aspects of education, target 4.3 reads:

4.3 Equal access to technical/vocational and higher education
By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary  education, including university

It seems clear that this target can only be achieved by a concerted effort involving everyone in society. It is therefore disappointing to realise that while many of us with backgrounds in developing nations learned that Higher Education was absolutely essential for development, developed nations do not really seem to give it the same societal importance. It is all of course highly paradoxical when the UK government, via the UK Research Councils, have made “Impact” a key, if not the key performance indicator of the Higher Education sector.

In May 1947, George Orwell wrote an autobiographical account of his school days, which he published as ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ in the Partisan Review, September-October 1952, and popularised in the Books V. Cigarettes ‘Great Ideas’ Penguin edition. Any international student and/or academic could do worse than revising it to understand the history of attitudes to education in the UK. Orwell’s account of his school days experience before 1914 describes the foundations of an educational system and therefore a society whose values clearly “cancelled each other out”:

[on the one hand]…insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreginers and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and above all, the assumption no only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit than to have to work for them. […] For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination-passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible.”

We need to ask ourselves how much things have changed since Orwell’s school days. The University sector’s KPIs and the wider culture within and without universities tend to cancel each other out just like St Cyprian’s disapproval for self-indulgence cancelled its de-facto encouragement and rewarding of inherited privilege. All of us working in Higher Education labour within a complex network of contradictions, balancing the need for robust and thorough specialised focus and public engagement, the demands of ‘delivering’ a ‘service’ of quality often without the required resourcing to do so.

It seems to me that beyond the ‘Impact’ of research and the survey data British Higher Education needs to reconsider its role within society and interrogate the reasons why for so many years the sector has been (apparently) largely unable to gain the solidarity and empathy of the wider public. The role of Higher Education in entrenching social hierarchies and in protecting an untouchable elite may have a something to do with that.

For Orwell, “the pattern of school life” was

a continous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people- in dominating them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way.  Life was hierachical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”

If this was the pattern of life learned at school, no wonder so many would not feel an inch of empathy for those working within that system– and indeed, at the same time this lack of empathy is the result of such ‘education’. The aggressive marketisation of Higher Education, one could argue, has brought things full circle in the 21st century.

For all the talk of ‘value for money’, it is perhaps crucial we continue arguing for a kind of social value that cannot be fully monetised nor transformed into a numerical value. How do you measure social relevance? (If funding has been allocated to researching this question and it has been explored in academic papers, are they paywalled?) How do you quantify solidarity between workers from different sectors? How to reintegrate Higher Education into the British social tissue and gain the solidarity of students and the public when most feel excluded from it?

This is an urgent discussion to be had.

Academic Publishing and the Word of the Year

“All that the sharpest Critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimless-ness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”

-Walter Lippmann, [1920]. Liberty and the News. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.

If you are reading this you are very likely to know that Oxford Dictionaries ‘declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year’.  According to the BBC, the OED defines ‘post-truth’ as ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.’

What most media coverage has not necessarily said is that it was blogger David Roberts who popularised the term; in his blog post titled ‘Post-Truth Politics’, published with dateline of April 1st 2010 (the permalink indicates March 30th 2010) , Roberts wrote:

We live in post-truth politics: a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation) (Roberts 2010).

For Roberts, no matter what Democrats did or proposed, Republicans met it “with maximal, united opposition, criticizing it as socialism, tyranny, or appeasement”. This described, indeed, the impossibility of changing perceptions with evidence and to have evidence-based policy.

Since then, the term has escaped the immediate context of US politics to be as widely adopted as ‘filter bubble’. In the UK, ‘post-truth’ was a popular term amongst pundits trying to make sense of the Brexit Referendum  before and after it became a reality.  In the December 2016 issue of Political Insight [£], Jane Suiter, Director of the Institute of Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, defined ‘post-truth politics’ as

where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions (Suiter, Political Insight 2016:25).

The announcement from the OED has been made public only 7 days after the result of the US election was confirmed. In a post titled ‘Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook’ (Select All, NYMag, November 9 2016), Max Read wrote:

The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a problem unique to Facebook, but Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three (Read 2016).

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg responded to the criticism in a press conference, arguing that ‘the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election was ‘a pretty crazy idea’’.  In the New York Times Op Ed ‘Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial’ (NYT, November 15 2016)  Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, provides an eloquent critique of Facebook’s position and provides evidence of the platform’s role and influence in a time in which almost half of American adults rely on Facebook as a source of news.

As we can see the OED’s announcement couldn’t have had better timing. Though ‘post-truth’ and the proliferation of fake news on a massive social network like Facebook are two distinct yet related phenomena, it seems to me it is essential for Higher Education, and particularly academic publishing, to reflect on its own role within a culture where, to quote Suiter again, ‘appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions.’

Indeed, on 16 November 2016 BuzzFeed reported that

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.

Visualised in chart the difference in engagement looks like this:

Total Fecebook Engagements for top 20 election stories
BuzzFeed News [Source data]

This is, of course, any  teacher’s or librarian’s worst nightmare (some parents are worried too).  In the last few days, there’s been an endless series of opinion pieces on ‘post-truth’ in relation to the issue of ‘fake news’ on Facebook and the latter’s role in the outcome of the US election. As I write this, many of these pieces keep appearing in an ongoing basis and it’s hard to keep up. Some have even come from  Higher Education and scholarly publishing trenches.  Andy Smith, for example, does a good job at outlining recent significant developments contributing to a demise of appreciation for expertise. Clever Library and Information Science scholars have pointed out the importance of critical information literacy and the role that libraries can play in this context.

What I perceive to be lacking in some of these pieces, however, is a willingness to recognise, or at least hypothesise more auto-critically, the role that higher education, and particularly scholarly publishing, has or may have played in contributing to the state of affairs perceived to be caused by ‘post-truth’ politics (with the ‘filter bubble’ and algorithmic relevance and ‘fake’ news at its core). The higher education perspective is justifiably shocked at the lack of appreciation for expertise, critical thinking and evidence-led decision-making. It is interesting however that ‘post-truth’ politics have come to be equated with the lack of appreciation (access, consumption, use and reuse) for trustworthy information, represented paradigmatically by the ‘fake’ news on Facebook.

I am interested in how the term ‘truth’ has been interpreted as an objective value, the extreme opposite to what is ‘fake’. From a journalistic perspective, ‘truth’ seems to be the one produced by ‘mainstream news’. One needs not to be into conspiracy theories to recall the work Walter Lippmann did in the 1920s, when he demonstrated serious flaws and bias in information systems, particularly in the authoritative New York Times.  From an academic perspective, the ‘truth’ in ‘post-truth’ seems to be the one defined by scientific discourse.  Though Michel Foucault’s theorising of the term ‘truth’ changed over the years and sometimes within the same text, it’s hard not to want to go back to the interview titled The political function of the intellectual (1976), where Foucault defines ‘truth’ as

“a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements […linked] by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it” (Foucault 1976: 113-114; 14).

Foucault identifies as a key political problem the need to transform the “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” to develop a new “politics of truth.” The need to change this “regime of the production of truth” would imply a transformation of the “system of ordered procedures” and the “circular relation to systems of power which produce and sustain it”.

I believe the higher education sector and scholarly publishing, as one of its main mechanisms for the dissemination of scientific, peer-reviewed, trustworthy information, has failed to adapt to the current (no longer new) information ecosystem. In other words, in spite of strong and sustained efforts towards opening access, scholarly publishing has been more preoccupied with the preservation of its own relatively privileged existence and has avoided to systematically engage in transforming or even intervening in a public politics of ‘truth’. Public opinion does not have the same dynamics today than in the 1920s, but Lippmann and Merz’s assessment that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news” remains relevant today (Lippmann and Merz, 1920: 1).

In  Liberty and the News, Lippmann argued that the crisis of democracy was a consequence of the crisis of journalism, which was unable to fulfill its duties properly. For the 21st century, it seems to me we urgently need more academic research into how ‘post-truth politics’, as a crisis of democracy, has also been a consequence of an academic publishing crisis created by both the lack of wider public open access to trustworthy information and the paucity of a wider, more transparent, researcher-led willingness to consider a more thorough critical transformation of peer review and metrics-led ‘research quality assessment’ processes.

The political consequences of this unwillingness to recognise that the ways we choose to disseminate (or, rather, to restrict the dissemination of) peer-reviewed information has still not generally been self-assessed enough by academia.  Instead of going to where the public is, it still debates the pertinence, or even worse, the perceived lack of ‘seriousness‘ of academic presence on social media.  According to Martin Eve,

 “The cost of subscribing to journals has risen by 300 percent above inflation since 1986 while academic library budgets have only risen by 79 percent” (Martin Eve to Noah Berlatsky, 2014).

This is the case of academic libraries; public libraries face even more drastic budget cuts and challenges. Meanwhile, students, members of the public, everyone with access to the Internet and a basic level of literacy is using Google, Facebook, Twitter, the open Web to access information. Rapidly and for free. In comparison to these tools, scholarly databases and library catalogues are (in general) not only expensive and often undiscoverable through the methods users are familiar with. They are also full of friction, poor usability, confusing interfaces and overcomplicated licensing terms.

Angela Cochran wraps up her post titled ‘What We Can Learn from Fake News’ (15 November 2016) this way:

Martin Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post, had this thought on the topic:

“People will ultimately gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable, and have an allegiance to telling the truth. People will pay for that because they’ll realize they’ll need to have that in our society.”

I guess time will tell if he is correct about that.

I would like to think there is still time for things to change towards a culture of literacy where users ‘gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable’. I doubt it. I doubt it because, at least for academic publishing, I see this as one of its fatal flaws. Higher education and scholarly publishing have for too long taken for granted that people will ‘gravitate’ towards them. The economic dimension (the cost of access to Higher Education) cannot be ignored, and we cannot keep assuming that lack of access to educational resources is not also defined by socioeconomic factors. Another aspect is that there are other methods for disseminating evidence-based research that do not depend on restrictive workflows and that to date continue without much official recognition nor reward, and therefore are beyond the reach/practice of those academics lacking the privilege of time and space for non-mandated work.

Traditional publishing has thrived, at the expense of poorer institutions and countries, most academic library budgets and thanks to millions of hours of free researcher labour. An era of what Clay Shirky called ‘algorithmic authority‘ has disrupted, amongst other factors, scholarly publishing’s comfortable reign within the Ivory paywalls of academe. The public are out there, googling, and the information we academics say we wish the public were aware of remains inaccessible or unaffordable to them.

It is time we accept our co-responsibility in fostering a political culture where non-trustworthy information has replaced the authority of evidence-based research. It is time we do more about it. We cannot hope for better times in which ‘people’ will come back to their senses and start appreciating robust scientific thought and processes. Digital literacy and critical research skills in information seeking and assessment are only meaningful if there is access to information in the first place.

We cannot simply sit on our laurels and wait, as we have done for a long time, for the mountain of users to come to us. Crucially, users have needed to be able to afford it (both socially and financially) and we need to recognise that not being able to afford it is one of the key reasons that took us to where we are now.

So ‘post-truth’ is the OED’s  international word of the year.

You want to find out what the word means in detail from an authoritative source? You had better start saving up for your OED personal subscription (£215.00 for a year) … *

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-16-28-44

*Your public library (if it has not been yet defunded and turned into a gym) may provide its users free access to it…

A #citylis 2014-2015 Term 1 Twitter Archive

#citylis logo

The taught component of Term 1 of the 2014-2015 academic year at the Library and Information Science scheme at City University London has finished today. #citylis is our hashtag and it is used by staff, students and members of the public.

Throughout the term I archived the Tweets tagged with #citylis and I have now uploaded to figshare a spreadsheet containing 4940 Tweets (there’s likely to be some duplicates there, and it includes retweets).

Priego, Ernesto (2014): A #citylis 2014-2015 Term 1 Twitter Archive. figshare.

http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1269285

Retrieved 18:14, Dec 12, 2014 (GMT)

All the usual information about collection methods, limitations etc. are included in the ReadMe sheet of the file.

The data is shared as is. This dataset is shared to encourage open research into scholarly activity on Twitter. If you use or refer to this data in any way please cite and link back using the citation information above.

#citylis term 1 twitter actitvity top tweeters

 

Using Scalar for an Open Look-in-Progress into Arts and Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowships in the UK

I have started using Scalar for a new open work-in-progress. I am looking at some public data about Arts and Humanities postdoctoral fellowships in the United Kingdom.

Who gets arts and humanities postdoctoral fellowships in the UK? How much do these fellowships cost? What kind of outputs do they produce? What are the most frequent keywords in award-winning abstracts? What does this tell us about the state of arts and humanities postdoctoral research in the UK? How could PhD students and Early Career Researchers use this data to make educated decisions?

I hope we can start asking some of those questions, and many more, here.

I’m aware I am most-likely misusing the tool, or giving it a very traditional use. I wanted to document my ongoing research on postdoc funding opportunities in the UK openly online and I was debating what was the best way of doing it. I thought I would give Scalar a go, as it is a fascinating platform.

As it is an ongoing work-in-progress (or “look-in-progress” as I’ve also called it) I will aim at keep updating the site and to add new content as soon as I come up with it…

@GdnHigherEd, Blogging – or the power of we, not me

Guardian Higher Education bannerBlog Action Day logo

Yesterday, Monday 15 October,The Guardian Higher Education Network published my Blog Action Day 2012 post   titled “Blogging – or the power of we, not me“.

Don’t forget to check out the Guardian’s higher education blogs network, “a directory of resources, commentary and analysis from the global higher education blogosphere.”