Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Metaphors for the "participatory Internet"

In the wake of several court decisions on liability and Internet file-trading (sharing? stealing?) systems, a NYT article entitled Web Content by and for the Masses does a nice job of illustrating all of the different ways that people previously conceptualized as Web "audiences," "surfers," or "users" are today engaged in actually producing content:

From photo- and calendar-sharing services to "citizen journalist" sites and annotated satellite images, the Internet is morphing yet again. A remarkable array of software systems makes it simple to share anything instantly, and sometimes enhance it along the way. [...]

Indeed, the abundance of user-generated content - which includes online games, desktop video and citizen journalism sites - is reshaping the debate over file sharing. Many Internet industry executives think it poses a new kind of threat to Hollywood, the recording industry and other purveyors of proprietary content: not piracy of their work, but a compelling alternative.

The new services offer a bottom-up creative process that is shifting the flow of information away from a one-way broadcast or publishing model, giving rise to a wave of new business ventures and touching off a scramble by media and technology companies to respond. [...]

"The giant brain is us," said Peter Hirshberg, a former Apple Computer executive who recently joined Technorati, a service based in San Francisco that indexes more than 11 million Web logs. His reference is to the 1960's fear that computers would emerge as omniscient artificial intelligences that would control society. Instead, he said, the Internet is now making it possible to exploit collective intellectual power of Internet users efficiently and instantly.

I find all of this fascinating too, but I'm also surprised at the many descriptions and metaphors used in this article for user actions which, for me, essentially come down to sheer "labor". We apparently find it easy to talk about "ehancing," "annotating," and "sharing" information as if that were an easy, unproblematic process that we're all equally adept at. We talk about "user-generated content" but not about the sheer time and effort and training it takes to allow users -- certain users, privileged users -- to actually generate this content. We talk about the collectivity of active, producing Internet users as a "giant brain" with "collective intellectual power" (knowledge) but we don't think in terms of the collective time expenditure or value generated through this knowledge. And we talk about the "two way flow" or "interactive flow" of information without conceptualizing the differential risks borne, and rewards received, by each endpoint of this flow (eg. corporate media firms on one side, who are increasingly released from the obligation of producing, verifying, and remaining accountable for content quality, and media consumers on the other side, who are increasingly expected to have the knowledge and time and good will to freely create content for the rest of us).

Don't misunderstand me: I'm glad to have the power to labor through, and upon, the Web. I'm doing so right now, largely for free (though in some calculation of value, perhaps my in-between academic and popular writing here on this weblog works to shore up my salaried position as a university professor). And I'm doing so in recognition that labor is not merely an activity which produces value for use and exchange in a society, but which "produces" personal engagement with the world, personal identity as a valuable individual. But I'm also acutely aware that i'm doing so at the expense of other productive activities (like writing my next book) and other reproductive activities (like eating my breakfast). I'm doing so using tools and skills and knowledge gleaned from a long history of privilege in both the educational system and the corporate workforce. I'm doing so within a geographic and political-economic infrastructure of regularly-supplied electricity and broadband household communications. This "shared" labor that I'm performing through and for the Web -- labor that admittedly increasing numbers of similiarly-situated Net users are also willing and able to perform -- must still be contextualized and analyzed before it is naturalized and romanticized.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Faculty salary divides between different disciplines and between different universities

An article today at Inside Higher Ed discusses a soon-to-be-published study from the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute on faculty salary divides both across different disciplines (especially engineering and humanities) and across different universities:

Why do aerospace engineering professors make a little more money than classics professors at some public universities, and a whole lot more at others? [...]

The researchers looked at 1992-3 salary data from 88 institutions, 85 of which are public, many of them flagships or other research insitutions. The researchers already knew that computer science teachers at a given institution make more than philosophy instructors, but what they found was that the relative spreads between any two particular disciplines were widely variable at different universities. The study found a correlation between department quality as determined by National Research Council ratings, and the relative pay of faculty members in different disciplines.

For example, if a college%u2019s economics department was rated well and its English department only average, the salary gap between economics and English faculty members at that institution was likely to be larger than the gap at an institution where both were rated equally.

The article also cites the research director of the American Association of University Professors who is worried by this trend:

Higher education really is something for the common good that provides a benefit for society as whole. When you see some of these large differences, it’s easy to slip into a system that emphasizes individual payback instead of payback for society. [...]

As public support declines, institutions become more driven by the outside market. [...] If we move to a more corporate structure, then there’s an idea of ownership of data or information, and of limited exchange, and that, in the long run, will damage the whole enterprise.

But there's another potential that the article doesn't report, but which the original Cornell study suggests: the divide between faculty at the same university, in the same discipline, but of different genders. From the original working paper:

One hypothesis that we did not address in the paper is whether differences in field differentials in full professor average salaries across universities also may reflect differences in the gender composition of faculty in different departments at different universities. To see why this might occur, consider the following example: Suppose there are only two universities and two departments, economics and English at each. Suppose the economics department at each university hires only males and economists receive the same average salaries at both universities. Suppose further that the English department at the first university hires only males and that the English department at the second university hires both males and females and that the male faculty at both English departments receive the same average salaries, which are lower than the average salaries paid to economics faculty. Finally, suppose the English department at the second university pays its female faculty members a lower average salary than it pays its male faculty members because of gender discrimination or other factors.14 If this situation prevailed, the ratio of the average salary of economists to the average salary of English professors would be higher at the second university.

Put simply, if, as a long literature suggests, female faculty members on average get paid less than male faculty members, other factors held constant, differences in the gender composition of faculty members within a field across universities may influence the average salary of faculty members in the field vis-à-vis their colleagues in other fields at an university.


What I think this report should remind us of is that there's a discussion that needs to happen about the value of information labor in higher education, connecting all of these disparate divides (and other potential divides according to prestige of the university, money available for research expenses, ability to hire high-quality graduate students, cost-of-living differences of the local university community, and the like) in order to allow academics to speak with a greater collective voice, not only about their own bread-and-butter worklife issues, but about the place of academia in society as a whole.

Friday, June 24, 2005

TV viewers shirking their labor tasks

An article that popped up in the UK press recently cited a report by Accenture (the former Arthur Andersen) on US TV viewers avoiding advertisements:

American viewers will be skipping almost 10% of TV advertisements within four years by using personal video recorders, research claimed yesterday. Accenture, the consultancy which published the research, said the technology would have a dramatic impact on the advertising and TV industries unless changes were made. The TV ad market is worth $60bn (£33bn) in the United States and £3bn in Britain.

The consultancy based its figures on statistics that show that up to half of all ads in homes with personal video recorders are ignored. However, such homes watch more TV in total. By 2009, 40% of all American homes are expected to own personal video recorders, compared with 8% now. The machines can automatically skip ads when recording programmes.


The report is a bit misleading in saying that personal video recorders (PVRs) can "automatically skip ads when recording programs". Some may be able to, but many (including the brand I use, TiVo) cannot. This is reportedly not because of any technical difficulty in detecting ads and removing them (the black-screen breaks and dramatic increase in sound levels alone are often enough to cue a computer algorithm that an adverisement has arrived) but because of agreements with advertising-supported broadcasting networks who have attempted to sue PVR makers and service providers in the past. For example, in late Oct 2001, ABC, CBS, and NBC filed suit against then-maker of ReplayTV SonicBlue to block sales of its PVR once a "commercial skip" feature was added. (Cite: Laurie J. Flynn, "Networks see threat in new video recorder," NYT 2001-11-05)

How does this relate to "information labor"? Interestingly, one way of looking at the economic model for advertising-supported broadcasting (television or radio) is that we as consumers are "employed" by networks and their advertisers for the "work" we do in watching commercials, and are "paid" through the currency of (supposedly) high quality, entertaining and informative programs. (See for example the work of Dallas Smythe.) Another complementary way of looking at the relation is that networks "purchase" our attention by paying us with programming, and then turn around and "sell" that attention -- our "eyeballs" -- to advertisers trying to get their product or political messages out. Since labor per unit time is, in neoclassical economic theory, simply a service or commodity bought and sold through the competitive market, thinking of that bought-and-sold consumer attention as labor fits in here as well. Finally, one of the tenets of several different forms of qualitative and interpretive analyses of mass media is that media messages do not flow unproblemmatically from sender to receiver in a "transmission model," but must be put into lived context and thoughtfully interpreted (or willfully ignored) by audiences in more of a "cultural" model. (See for example the work of James Carey.) This "work" of meaning-making can be applied to advertising messages as well -- work that is avoided through careful or automatic use of the PVR.

However, the "work" metaphor can be extended in other ways as well -- particularly through the idea that "work" must be qualified not only by how much labor is performed (and by whom), but how productive that labor is in the end (and for whom). I submit that PVRs actually make the "work" that viewing audiences do on behalf of networks and advertisers more productive. After all, PVRs are typically arranged in an information network which allows anonymous feedback to the PVR service provider on a whole range of consumer behaviors. TiVo can presumably collect data on who watches which shows, where and when they watch, even what moment they abandon a recorded show in favor of another. Advertisments viewed can be tracked along side advertisements skipped; moments when people are watching "live" TV can be correlated with moments when they "time shift" TV instead. All of this gives the networks and their advertisers an immense amount of consumer behavior and (ostensibly) consumer desire data, which can then presumably be "put to work" in the service of creating ever-more targeted and effective strategic communications, not only in television but in other less-avoidable media environments as well.

So instead of paying twelve bucks to TiVo every month for the privilege of (somewhat) shirking my commercial-viewing duties, maybe I should be asking my TiVo to pay me for the privilege of learning my complex consumer behaviors instead ...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Information labor without borders

In the wake of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, frustrated by my national government's pitiful response as well as my national media's lamentable reporting, I found myself searching for international organizations which I could support in both the short-term disaster relief effort and the long-term goal of building a just and sustainable global society. "Doctors without Borders" (actually "Medecins sans Frontieres" or MSF) struck me as a great model of organized, distributed, transnational, nongovernmental, noncapitalist professional action -- so they got my monetary donation. On their English-language website ( they explain their origins and goals:

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international independent medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters, and exclusion from health care in nearly 70 countries.

Each year, MSF volunteer doctors, nurses, logisticians, water-and-sanitation experts, administrators, and other medical and non-medical professionals depart on more than 3,400 aid missions. They work alongside more than 16,000 locally hired staff to provide medical care.

In emergencies and their aftermath, MSF provides health care, rehabilitates and runs hospitals and clinics, performs surgery, battles epidemics, carries out vaccination campaigns, operates feeding centers for malnourished children, and offers mental health care. When needed, MSF also constructs wells and dispenses clean drinking water, and provides shelter materials like blankets and plastic sheeting.

Through longer-term programs, MSF treats patients with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, and HIV/AIDS, and provides medical and psychological care to marginalized groups such as street children.

MSF was founded in 1971 as a nongovernmental organization to both provide emergency medical assistance and bear witness publicly to the plight of the people it assists. A private nonprofit association, MSF is an international network with sections in 19 countries.

Now you might think this post is leading into a discussion about how new media networked information technology is giving a boost to such organizations in terms of fundraising, information distribution, press awareness, and on-the-ground coordination of volunteer effort. I'm sure that all of this is happening, but that's not what I'm thinking about today. Rather, I started wondering if there were any similar "without borders"/"sans frontieres" organizations out there which dealt more directly with what we might call "information labor."

A quick Google search turned up several variations on the original theme. For example, "Engineers without Borders" (

Engineers Without Borders - International facilitates links and collaboration among its member groups toward improving the quality of life of disadvantaged communities worldwide through education and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while promoting new dimensions of experience for engineers and engineering students.

Or "Reporters without Borders" (

More than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Reporters Without Borders works constantly to restore their right to be informed. Fourty-two media professionals lost their lives in 2003 for doing what they were paid to do -- keeping us informed. Today, more than 130 journalists around the world are in prison simply for doing their job. In Nepal, Eritrea and China, they can spend years in jail just for using the "wrong" word or photo. Reporters Without Borders believes imprisoning or killing a journalist is like eliminating a key witness and threatens everyone's right to be informed. It has been fighting such practices for more than 18 years.

And finally "Teachers without Borders" (

Teachers Without Borders is a non-profit 501(c)3, non-denominational, international NGO founded in 2000, devoted to closing the education divide through teacher professional development and community education. We work primarily, but not exclusively, in developing countries, in order to build self-reliance, health, and capacity. We base much of the spirit and focus of our work on the inspiration provided by Jacques Delors' report: Learning: The Treasure Within.

At 59 million, teachers are the largest single group of trained professionals in the world AND the key to our children's future. Equally amazing is the estimated need for more than 30 million NEW teachers to achieve the goal of the U.N.'s "Education for All" initiative by 2015. The issues are complicated by the number of children who do not go to school at all - 104 million, 50% of whom live in countries touched by conflict.

Despite its crucial connection to economic and social development, teacher training is often uneven, protracted, or unsupported. In addition, teachers are rarely included in educational policy change or significant decision-making. Teachers are not just a resource for our children, they are the key to development. They know who is sick, who is missing, who has been abducted into the sex trade or conscripted into a military gang, who has been orphaned by AIDS, who is achieving and who is not. In short, teachers are society's glue, and they certainly deserve our assistance; otherwise, we are all left with a gaping digital, educational, and economic divide. If the key to economic development and our young people's future is education, then teachers should have resources, tools, and access to the Internet, as well as each other.

Teachers Without Borders was founded to addresses these issues. [...]

All three of these could certainly be considered part of the information professions in their own way -- providing information infrastructure (among other crucial infrastructure such as power, water, and transport); providing news information (and a basis on which to trust it); and providing educational information (and the means of understanding it). So my next question of course was: where are the library and information studies professionals in this mix?

Where are "Librarians without Borders"? Well, they're right here ( and they're brand new:

Librarians Without Borders (LWB) is an organization founded in February 2005 at the Faculty of Media and Information Studies (FIMS) at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London, ON, Canada. LWB is composed of Master of Library and Information Science students, as well as FIMS faculty and students from other university departments. The group is already 50 members strong.

LWB is an organization that strives to improve access to information resources regardless of language, by forming partnerships with community organizations in developing countries.

LWB envisions a global society where all people have equal access to information resources.

According to a press release from the University of Western Ontario, an MILS student actually started the effort there:

Librarians Without Borders (LWB), a non-profit organization based in London, Ontario, and founded by Western MLIS student Melanie Sellar has launched its first international mission by organizing a much-needed medical library in Luanda, Angola.

Sellar was moved to start Librarians Without Borders after working with a graduate student from Angola named Jorge Chimbinda and hearing his stories about the devastating effects of a recently ended 27-year civil war in his homeland.

Working with Angolan partners, LWB is helping to develop a desperately needed collection of medical and nursing texts written in Portuguese. "LWB is unique from most other book donation programs," Sellar explains, "because its objective is to provide essential information resources in the official language of the country or region."

A building purchased by the Catholic Mission in Luanda has been repaired and is ready to function as a medical library to support students and faculty of the University of Agostinho, but it is lacking essential resources such as medical textbooks to stock the facility. As an alternative to aid donations, LWB intends to build partnerships with medical textbook publishers to help develop a medical library that will assist Angola with rebuilding its medical profession.

"By focusing aid on specific projects," Sellar says, "Librarians Without Borders will give its stakeholders a clear sense of what their support is achieving by providing a detailed plan of action and continual updates about how a project is progressing. In this way, we hope to give people the confidence that their support is really effective and a sense of participation in the process of social progress."

But there must be something going on in Canada, because early in 2003 another LIS student, Andrew Fraser (this time from the University of Alberta), wrote a historical argument outlining the need for an international "Librarians without Borders" organization which is still available on the web:

What is do done about the destruction of libraries in time of armed conflict. The recent looting of the National Museum of Iraqi in Baghdad in the recent Gulf War II highlights this issue. I propose an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called "Librarians Without Borders" modelled on the various professional organizations with "Without Borders" like Nobel Prize winning "Doctors Without Borders" and others NGOs like Engineers Without Borders and Teachers Without Borders. [...]

Librarians Without Borders or LWB assists in the rebuiding of libraries and archives after times of armed conflict,and natural and human-made disasters. A private, nonprofit organization, LWB is at the forefront of emergency rebuilding of public cultural institutions which house the collective knowledge of people effected by above listed calminities. Through longer-term programs, LWB hopes to assist in the training of librarians and archivists in the developing world.


These recent efforts make a great start at linking up the international community of information professionals in service of global justice, especially those focused on the demonstrable historical importance, philosophical social necessity, and current technological possibilities of physical libraries as living institutions and organizations of information provision. But as far as I can tell, there is still no international network of such movements, and in particular no US presence in this project. Perhaps some smart and committed library students in the States (or even, dare I hope, in my state of Wisconsin) will find a way to meet this challenge?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Growing digitial divide in IT labor

Another article on tech employment, this time from the San Jose Mercury News (out of Silicon Valley itself) citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics data, reveals that the percentage of both women and African-Americans in IT jobs in the US has declined since 1996, with Latino-Americans making only slight gains:

Women held 32.4 percent of IT jobs in 2004, down from 41 percent eight years earlier, despite holding steady in the overall workforce. [...]

[T]he presence of African-Americans in IT slid from 9.1 percent in 1996 to 8.3 percent in 2004. They held steady in the overall workforce.

The Latino presence increased slightly in both IT and the workforce. But Latinos made up only 6.4 percent of IT workers, compared with 12.9 percent of the workforce. [...]

The percentage of whites has also dropped in IT from 85.1 percent in 1996 to 82.8 percent in 2004. Still, whites make up by far the majority of the workforce, both in IT and overall.

Asians stood out as the only overrepresented racial group in IT, making up 12.1 percent of IT jobs but 4.3 percent of the overall workforce.


As with all reports on IT labor, the question arises "how is IT labor being defined?" Are these high-wage, high-status "knowledge worker" jobs which women and (most) people and color are trailing in with respect to their overall workforce representation, or are they low-wage, low-status "data worker" jobs instead? The report says the data include "IT jobs in industries ranging from banking to retail," and suggests,

Among reasons for the decline, one in three women in information technology holds (or held) an administrative job, such as entering data or operating computers -- the kind of jobs that have taken the brunt of cutbacks in recent years. Women have made up 80 percent of data-entry keyers since 1996, suggesting they aren't climbing the IT ladder [...]

The report does suggest some possible reasons for the unrepresentative social division of labor in IT: "lack of mentors and role models in corporate management, negative perceptions of IT work as isolating and geeky, and [...] the lack of student enrollment in math and science classes." These are all "human factors" sorts of reasons, blaming any workplace injustice on the individual strategies of managers or the individual skill sets of workers. There are whole other sets of possible reasons, though, including outright individual and collective injustices: from individual discrimination in hiring and education -- conscious or unconscious on the part of employers and teachers -- to collective discrimination through still-separate and still-not-equal primary and secondary education for students in socially-, economically- and politically-disconnected (even abandoned) neighborhoods and towns, levels of voluntary "enrollment in math and science classes" by students in those places aside.

Given earlier business press warnings that simply acquiring "IT skills" will not be enough to keep the US IT labor force "competitive" (profitable? exploitable?) in the face of global telematic labor competition, I would hope that the ability to produce and sustain a diverse IT labor force -- both diverse in the social groups that the labor force represents, and diverse in the skills beyond the technical that the labor force holds -- would be a top priority for political and economic decision-makers wishing to invest in the future of the US economy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Reframing computer programming in a global labor market

As a former computer programmer myself, I found this article in Business Week kind of interesting. Apparently the meaning of "programming" has now narrowed into "technical" work which, by definition, can be outsourced/offshored and made into lower-paying, more-contingent labor. Thus would-be and current "programmers" are now redefining and remarketing themselves as business consultants:

As tens of thousands of engineering jobs migrate to developing countries, many new entrants into the U.S. work force see info tech jobs as monotonous, uncreative and easily farmed out -- the equivalent of 1980s manufacturing jobs.

The research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that up to 15 percent of tech workers will drop out of the profession by 2010, not including those who retire or die. Most will leave because they can't get jobs or can get more money or job satisfaction elsewhere. Within the same period, worldwide demand for technology developers -- a job category ranging from programmers people who maintain everything from mainframes to employee laptops -- is forecast to shrink by 30 percent.

Gartner researchers say most people affiliated with corporate information technology departments will assume "business-facing" roles, focused not so much on gadgets and algorithms but corporate strategy, personnel and financial analysis.


From my own experience, though, "programmers" have been competitively advertising themselves as anything-but-programmers for some time. In the early 1990s, I and the other folks in the MIS department where I worked as a "programmer" learned to seek job titles like "analyst" and to talk of ourselves as "internal consultants". Job trajectories careened between bouts of contract work with outside consuting firms -- both small and large -- and stints of in-house employment at firms large enough to demand their own MIS departments. There were more objectives to this "tacking" strategy than simply increasing one's salary: we "programmers" simultaneously sought positions where we could acquire specific new software and hardware skills (the latest database product, the latest server platform), and positions where we could claim a new set of core business familiarities and competencies (from engineering firms to banking firms to real estate firms and so on).

Much of this churning seemed to be driven by the pace of technological development on the "supply side" (software and hardware firms constantly updating old products and innovating new products) and the pace of technological competition on the "demand side" (business firms constantly seeking competitive advantage by hiring individuals with the most recent knowledge and experience to increase accumulation through the use of these new products). Both time scales were so short that they constantly reproduced a large project-based, just-in-time, external technology consulting labor market, while sustaining a small managerial-based, long-term, internal business strategy labor market.

Thus when Business Week cites figures illustrating the decline in "programming" jobs:

The U.S. software industry lost 16 percent of its jobs from March 2001 to March 2004, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute found. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that information technology industries laid off more than 7,000 American workers in the first quarter of 2005.

I'm not sure that these statistics map so easily on straightforward and presumably easily-subsitutable "technical" jobs rather than more complicated "analyst" jobs -- both external and internal -- combining technical knowledge with business skills in varying doses.

No matter whether "programming" jobs are now declining in favor of "analyst" jobs, or whether such jobs have always blended into each other in practice, perhaps the salient question at this moment in time is, given the new discourse about the value of (supposedly) purely technical labor and the limits of (supposedly) purely technical skills, how should institutions of professional education and job training prepare the next generation of successful information laborers? How are information laborers going to understand their career opportunities, labor market competitors, and avenues for both professional growth and job security? The Business Week article warns that the previous academic markers of credentialing will be insufficient in a newly global competitive labor market for programming labor:

The average computer programmer in India costs roughly $20 per hour in wages and benefits, compared to $65 per hour for an American with a comparable degree and experience, according to the consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

According to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, 1.2 million of the world's 2.8 million university degrees in science and engineering in 2000 were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, with only 400,000 granted in the United States.

The implication seems to be that the US needs to both award more computer programming degrees to increase the size of the US labor pool, and to increase the value and/or cultural meaning of that programming degree to distinguish it from those earned by competing labor pools. But in doing so, we in the US also need to reexamine the actual work practices of those we consider to be performing purely "technical" labor, because our ideals of what we're teaching our workers might not match the reality of what those workers are actually doing. This points not only to more engagement between "information studies" teachers and researchers and the science- and engineering-based teachers and researchers who credential most high-wage information laborers, but also to an expectation that those "purely technical" workers in the outsourced/offshored areas of the global labor market may not themselves be so different from domestic "analysts" as free-market advocates in business and government would like us to believe. Differences in wages paid and status assigned to these workers, in other words, might be less a function of a well-working market which automatically discriminates between differing levels of skill and value, and more a function of both strategic discourse on the part of firms which desire to find high-skill workers but pay low-skill wages, and wishful identity construction on the part of domestic information workers who are seeing their own horizons of opportunity shrink, yet are unable to feel solidarity with workers replacing them who might live a county, a state, or an ocean away.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Uncovering academic librarians

Another quick tidbit found on Inside Higher Ed, dealing with the supposed "silence" of academic librarians writing about the political, economic, and normative debates surrounding their profession. Scott McLemee writes fondly of these librarians,

Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power — not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association’s page on the Patriot Act.)


But then he goes on to lament the lack of a collective voice that these information workers bring to the public sphere and the media landscape. He writes,

The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians — some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.

This is a great idea in my opinion, and obviously in the opinion of the legions of librarians out there who are already blogging, judging from the comments left on McLemee's piece. The article, with the addition of these thoughtful responses, turns from a call to action to an action resource, listing blog addresses and indexes for just the kind of purposeful debate that McLemee was searching for. (And let me say I'm liking InsideHigherEd more and more for just this reason -- the comments to its postings are the most civil and well-prepared I've seen on any web, news, or blog site in a long time). I share the belief that collective blogs rooted within communities of practice but intended to speak about and to the outside world of political-economic-social experience hold the best prospect of bringing the technological, spatio-temproal promise of blogging -- as crucial adjunct to and intermediary between both mass media and interpersonal interaction -- to fruition.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The changing mix of information labor in higher education

Over the past decade or so, those of us employed in what used to be called "state-funded" higher education have taken to calling our field "state-assisted" higher education instead, since in many states less than half of the funding for university systems now comes from state legislature appropriations (the rest usually comes from tuition, outside research grants, endowments, and things like patent royalties). Here in Wisconsin, where "state-assisted" means only about a 20% slice of the funding pie, we in higher education are trying to get a handle on the recent government budget plans announced by the Republican-controlled legislative committee overseeing such matters which continue their pattern of cutting college and university staffing funds for state information workers, and all but assuring continued tuition increases for state students hoping to one day become information workers themselves. (If you've followed my recent postings on funding debates over Madison schoolteachers and prohibitions on local communities raising the minimum wage you might be getting the picture that Wisconsin, long reputed to be a "progressive" state, is becoming more hostile to labor. Remember, this is also that state that pioneered national "welfare reform" posing as a jobs program.)

Now a recent report available from the National Center for Education Statistics (cite: illustrates that all across higher education, a profound shift in the source of funding for educational and research knowledge work at the university is taking place -- a shift which also impacts the norms and goals of such work. The relatively new online journal "Inside Higher Ed" reports that while state-assisted, non-profit faculty jobs only increased 3% from 2001-2003, faculty jobs at private, for-profit colleges increased some 46%. Further, the report reveals some disturbing divides along geographic, gender, and ethnic lines with respect to job security aka "tenure":

Men held 61 percent of full-time faculty positions.

Three states — California, New York and Texas — have more than 40,000 full-time faculty members, while full-time faculty jobs fall below 2,000 in three states: Alaska, Delaware and Wyoming.

Of full-time faculty members, about 45 percent are tenured and another 20 percent are on the tenure track.

Full-time faculty members are most likely to be tenured at public institutions (48 percent), followed by private nonprofit institutions (40 percent) and for-profit colleges (3 percent).

Within public higher education, full-time faculty members are more likely to be tenured at four-year institutions (50 percent) than at two-year institutions (43 percent).

A greater proportion of male full-time faculty members (50 percent) than women (36 percent) is tenured.

A greater proportion of white full-time faculty members (47 percent) is tenured than are members of other ethnic groups: Asian (42 percent), Hispanic (41 percent), black (38 percent).


Why does tenure matter? Why does diversity matter? Why does geography matter? All are related to the ability of academic faculty as a community to practice research honestly, openly, and for the long-term public good -- no matter what the profitability or social acceptability of that research might be at a particular point in the business cycle -- rather than for short-term private gain. A diverse faculty, spread among a variety of places, with enough tenured members to provide saftey and stability both generates new ideas and protects those ideas in the face of "common sense" and reactionary criticism (while at the same time subjecting those ideas to careful empirical and theoretical criticism, the value which academic study brings to knowledge production as a whole). But even apart from this, a secure, diverse, and dispersed community of scholars helps ensure that interested students from all backgrounds and all areas of the country may continue to find an educational niche to help them train and learn for the careers and lives they wish to lead.

Private, for-profit universities cannot create such a secure, diverse, and dispersed community. After all, they are not intended to. They are designed to appear when and where profit opportunities are greatest, "cherry picking" from the least-risky consumer trends, remaining "agile" enough in committment to any one norm or goal to shift on a dime if economic realities change unexpectedly (as they always do). They are designed to create short-term profit for their owner-investors, by selling short-term educational and training solutions to their student-consumers -- thus they offer at best short-term security to knowledge workers. They are designed to create a demand through marketing and then meet that demand through sales, not to work thanklessly but steadily for the public interest over a time scale of decades. Private, for-profit institutions of any sort are simply not designed to preserve and enhance collective culture, science, and wisdom. But as states defund primary, secondary, and yes, higher education to an alarming degree, they are in fact slowly but surely creating a private, for-profit educational system, leaving no institution standing to "compete" for the hopes and dreams of students or the wants and needs of communities in producing socially useful knowledge and socially productive learners.

Yes, I'm on a soapbox today. Education is a lifelong investment in individuals that yields lifelong dividends for communities. Therefore, the individuals who choose to labor in that field, training and learning for years themselves over a long-term life committment while often eschewing opportunities for short-term profits in their own work lives, deserve their community's investment in their efforts as well. Information -- knowledge -- must be produced, must be labored over, must be constantly questioned and refined ("sifted and winnowed" they like to say here in Wisconsin, even as they defund the university), and ulitmately passed on to generations of students, learners, and citizens, by someone. By educators, teachers, professors, staffers, and administrators. By information and knowledge laborers who shepherd this enormous resource of enlightment from mind to mind, community to community, order to bring value to us all.