Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Barking my shins on a few 'lofty' ideals

On a rare visit to the campus library, I learnt a few disturbing things about academia today. Things that were totally at odds with the principles I thought were inherent in the whole process of learning at this level. Things that sounded an utter discord with the stance taken by the faculty members during lectures.

I sincerely hope that it is only at my university that such experiences occur.

First off, it seems you're not supposed to write anything new. The librarian was tutting over my subject matter, since no past examples of dissertations could be found in the catalogue which covered the same area. In my naivete, I pointed out that someone has to be first, and it might as well be me. The response literally had me dropping my jaw: “Well, that's fine if you're researching for a PhD, but not for a Master's degree.” I said something along the lines that I had hoped that we had moved on from such academic elitism and snobbery, which won me no friends among the library staff within earshot, as you can imagine.

The second thing bothered me far more. It seemed that the only information on record in respect of a dissertation is its discipline, the author's name and its title. No metadata whatsoever. Moreover, they are all kept in an access denied area in the bowels of the library. I had known that they could not be removed from the premises. I had not known that they were stored in the holy of holies! I was not free to go and pick a few at random, read snatches, put them back, find a few others, and so on until I happened upon some that would provide me with usable precedent.

What I had to do was search the e-catalogue and give a list of titles and reference numbers to a librarian who would fetch them for me. This is tough going when you have no metadata to go on. Unless a student had chosen to call his dissertation “A First Person Narrative Exploring XYZ” I was looking for a needle in a haystack. To make things worse, I was looking vicariously, and I was only allowed two at a time.


As I was going through this painstaking process, further damaging my popularity rating with the staff who had to run up and down the stairs every time I wanted two new titles, it occurred to me how far removed this whole business was from everything I thought academic learning was about. Not only are these publications stored in the holy of holies, they can only be read by a student or faculty member of the university. While I could only view them two at a time on the premises, you cannot view them at all. Ever.

The thing is, I was told that academic research is a discourse. You do your research and add it to the sum of knowledge. I come along and poke holes in it, or use it to springboard to my own research. How can we do any of this, if the stuff is all kept under lock and key?

After a long and rather fruitless search, I happened upon a PhD thesis called Facilitating Improvements in Teaching and Learning through Self-directed Professional Development (2001) by one Gillian Ann Turner. I was delighted. Although it is set in an entirely different field, addressing a different issue, there was so much in there that set precedent for what I am doing. It's that “self-directed” bit, you see.

It being a PhD thesis, it is something over 400 pages long. Not the sort of thing one can read in an afternoon in the library. And when one lives a two-hour drive from said library, several afternoons in a row are not really a viable proposition. I feel as if I have found a new pair of really comfortable running shoes that do wonders for my stride, but I can only wear them in the shop.

How does all that blood, sweat and toil benefit the knowledge pool if it's light under a bushel?

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