I’m re-visiting a topic that I wrote about recently because…well, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves discussion, and also because it re-surfaced for me this week when I read this memo from the faculty advisory council of Harvard detailing how the subscription prices that the school pays for academic journals have reached a level that is unsustainable.

Now, this is a bit of a sticky subject, partly because I’m a writer, and because I have several friends and a spouse employed in academia. Let me say up front that I recognize that getting an author’s writing into the hands of readers in published form is not an inexpensive process. I also recognize that professors and researchers perform a critical public service and should be paid well, and, as with nearly any profession that provides critical public services in the U.S., they are grossly underpaid now. I recognize that publishers must earn enough money to cover the costs of distribution and to pay their marketers and editors and designers, etc.

All that said, though, I have a problem when businesses opportunistically seek to earn a profit from critical public services, and an increasingly large profit, at that. University professors are conducting their research to contribute to the development of their disciplines. This is how knowledge grows. All of these disciplines, whether they are arts, humanities, or sciences, are components of our society at large. Thus, while the professors’ teaching is reserved largely for those paying for a seat in their classroom, their research is conducted for the public good, and, in the case of public schools, are funded at least in part by public money.

We consider access to our culture’s literature to be a right, not a privilege. That is why publicly funded libraries exist (although some areas have tragically chosen to curtail that funding). I would argue that access to research conducted for the public’s best interest is also a right.┬áTo take research that is conducted, written, and reviewed for accuracy by peers, all for the public good, and trap it behind a paywall that, by definition, limits the number of people who can access it, is an approach that I find to be misguided at best, and reprehensible at worst. Yet, just as publishers have moved to rob the public of its right to read literature by limiting ebook access to libraries for fear of losing profit, so do some academic publishers appear to be limiting scholarly pursuits by placing exorbitant prices on their subscriptions.

For a school of the economic stature of Harvard to declare the subscription prices of academic publishers unsustainable is indicative of a very, very serious problem. Yet, acceptance of publishers supporting these business models seems to be so widespread as to even have Congressional support. Is the goal to preserve an academic, ivory tower elite by also preserving a public that remains largely illiterate of new research in various disciplines by virtue of the fact that it has no access to that research? Doing so smacks of pre-Reformation church practices of perpetuating Scriptural illiteracy and subsequently selling indulgences.

As I know many professors, I can tell you that this is not the goal of the researchers. They, like artists, are interested in their work being available for the public to engage, and for the public to walk away from this engagement growing as human beings. As with artists, though, researchers are subject to the fact that distributing their work places them at the whim of publishers who sometimes place needless limitations on who can read their work.

I’m happy to see that Harvard is encouraging its faculty to seek publication in open access journals, because they have the academic and cultural prestige necessary to help force this into common practice. I believe that open access should be the future of academic publishing. What this looks like for professors and researchers, I don’t know.

What I do know is this: as new ways of instant distribution and communication have become ubiquitous, both traditional and academic publishers must stop dragging their feet in embracing and adapting to new models simply because they fear some of their precious money slipping through their fingers. Doing so will result in more authors and researchers choosing to simply bypass them altogether to place their work into the public sphere. Adapting to concepts like open access is in everyone’s best interest.

And by “everyone,” I mean all of us.

Photo Attribution: G&A Sattler

Revelations in Cardboard

I took Karen to a nearby museum to celebrate our anniversary this weekend…the museum has only opened in the last two or three years, and it was one of those excursions that we had been planning to take and never quite gotten to. Being a relatively new museum, there weren’t a great deal of exhibits. One installation, however, was really fascinating. It was a sculpture of Poseidon and several sea nymphs and dolphins charging forward, entitled the Corrugated Fountain. What was striking was that the installation nearly filled an entire room, such that you could walk through it, and was sculpted from cardboard. I learned about the sculptor that the piece was modeled after, an artist with which I was previously unfamiliar. I also refreshed my European history a bit during an exhibit of paintings commissioned by the Medici  family. One of the reasons I love museums is because you learn. They are a place where art (or science, or whatever the medium to which that particular museum might be dedicated) and history meet. There are even museums of history, of course. The point is that it is an interactive learning experience, from which I always walk away richer.

In my free time, I’ve been reading back over some history of theology to get my brain back in gear for PhD research proposals (go ahead…yawn). I look back over the four or so years since finishing grad school, and think about the things I’ve learned, and it’s surprising how many new discoveries have occurred since I finished…that is, while I wasn’t in school. On our first real date, I loved how challenged I was by Karen’s intellect. She has forced me outside of my own perspectives, and pushed me into new areas of discovery. 
Call it being enrolled in the school of life, or the university of hard knocks, or whatever you like. I just find it ironic that both grad school and my undergrad were more catalysts than complete and self-contained educations: they forced me to think and explore, and those thoughts and explorations solidified once I had finished and was back in “the real world.” 
Now, its no secret that I have enjoyed being a student much more than I have enjoyed the “real world” to date. However, I think I needed to be free of the stress of assignment deadlines and research paper edits to let things process through my brain. After a certain point, any student knows that you reach critical mass, and nothing else is going to  make it in for a while. Similar to eating a delicious meal,  you have to give it some time to digest before taking in anything else. 
Karen is the educational theorist of the two of us, and she tells me that this is how education works: that you are presented with and work through the subject matter, and then you must give it time to “sink in.” This is apparently not a short process, or at least it has not been for me. I’ve only recently arrived at some idea of how my myriad interests connect, and even still the ideas are in the process of solidifying rather than being a finished product. This is a journey that I have been on for years, and continue to travel. 
Even from a purely “book smart” perspective, though, I find that only now can I truly connect many of the concepts that I crammed in for exams or projects while in school. Now, those ideas and theories meld and make sense. Then, they were more information that I needed to be able to reproduce mechanically or write about with some coherency. This is not unlike the way a technical education (which I had studying theatre technology) requires some time after learning for one to become proficient.
I made a comment a few weeks ago that I had to go back and learn the things I should have learned when I was in school. I don’t think that’s really accurate, though. I think that I’m just experiencing the full digestion of the meals I’ve eaten, and am beginning to be ready for the next. 
So, tell me: what have you learned after years of letting something percolate? I don’t believe for a second that this is confined to the classroom. “Real life” lessons are a long time in the learning, as well.  

Majoring on the Minors

My college years were tumultuous ones, at best. I began as a music major, was a music education major by my second semester, dropped out entirely, transferred schools, declared a communication major, then theatre, threw in psychology….makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Part of the issue was that I felt as though I had to fit myself into a specific category…that I felt pressured into thinking that I had to be singularly focused. Eventually I succumbed to the promptings of my family in focusing on something that could potentially earn a good income for me in the future, shying away from some of the things that I truly loved (“What are you going to do with a theatre major?”) in favor of an education that would be focused more toward a specific career. Certainly they meant well, and thankfully I have landed in a career in which I can make a difference and in which I can earn income. However, I often wonder what life would have been like had I remained on the path that I initially chose.

Today, my morning began with a post from my friend Catherine entitled “The Humanities Are Dead,” in which she discussed the trend toward adjuncts teaching at universities in higher proportions than tenured professors, and the negative ramifications this has on education. This began the turning of my mental wheels and led to an interesting conversation over on my Facebook page about the link, as three of us hypothesized what the core issue could be. I’ve come to a conclusion that is a bit of an explanation for the tumult I experienced in college (well, the academic tumult, at least), and perhaps even for a few other things as well.

In an industrialized culture such as our own, things tend to be forced into categories with labels by which they can be neatly defined and cross-referenced. Professional fields are victim to this just as is everything else. Thus, universities focus their education in these areas specifically in order to prepare someone to obtain employment in a specific field. In turn, areas of professional practice are able to set standards that force its members to obtain specific educational credentials in order to even the playing field, and (let’ s be honest) just because they can. As a result, education becomes utilitarian, focused only on a goal of earning income, and the concept of “liberal arts” becomes a loosely-utilized tag line to attract students to a school.

Combine this trend with the fact that science is deified and the humanities are treated as cultural events that are good only to have around for weekend entertainment, and we have an industrialized culture that has become enslaved to its industrialization. We major on the minors, obsessing with the physics of how a sunrise casts its light over the landscape before us, while ignoring the poetic contemplation of what it means that it does so.

Just as our culture has become marked by utility without meaning and money at the expense of substance, so has our education followed. As a result, institutions of academia are beginning to lean toward being degree factories that utilize a business model, looking to earn a profit while keeping costs low. Education, however, was never meant to be a business, and the students are losing, often without even knowing that they are losing, because they are blindly rushing into careers with prized pieces of inflexible paper in order to obtain something as fleeting as money. In doing so, they open themselves to life crises when they change careers (as most statistically will at least once), perhaps returning to school in order to begin the process over again.

Then again, that’s good for academia’s business model, isn’t it? Perhaps a coincidence, but…

To this we are leaving our future. I think we should be very concerned, don’t you?