Monday, March 20, 2017

The wonder of libraries

They are the mainstay of research, the boring resource our students tend to forget about. Students keep asking me to help them find books and articles, I send them to the libraries, and they are always shocked. One student I worked particularly much with I met up in a library in order to show her how just sitting within their magical wireless aura boosts you access - at least if you are in a University Library in most of Europe with a Eduroam access, the way our students are.

In Copenhagen, I regularly use the large libraries in the city for my reading periods. Sitting in a common reading room focuses me wonderfully, my student discipline takes over and I write or read while I am there. The space is too public and too uncomfortable, but still just sufficiently safe and familiar that I stay alert, on track, but relaxed at the same time. The soft thread of careful feet trying not to disturb is endearing in it's civilised and polite concern for the work of others, and the scent of stacks of books carries the memory of more than 30 years of study and work. This is, as much as any place in the world, home.

And so it is with a familiar delight that I settle into the library at the University of Bologna. This is one of the oldest universities in the world, and it has the libraries to prove it. My main library is at the media and music department, where the tables for reading and working are scattered among the stacks. Saturday I was introduced to another library I am definitely going to be using - although I have to book a time to get the full use of it - the Renzo Renzi library and their wonderful videogame archive. Others have pointed to fantastic libraries - some so stunning that they have closed them to tourists, and I will have to prove my need in order to access them, such as the Archiginnasio library. As a visiting scholar I can probably get in there, but as a digital media scholar it may be a somewhat better use of my energy and connections to book time at the videogame archive.

What all these libraries have in common is a wonderful opportunity for access. They are, to me, the ultimate symbol of freedom and equality. They offer to all who are willing to respect the work and curiosity of others, the opportunity to learn, be entertained, discover, study, and enjoy, a vast body of literature, art, creativity and research, that covers centuries, and in some cases, millennia.

And this is the message of today. I am one month and 17 days, one article and one book chapter into my sabattical. It's spring in the world outside of these dusty rooms, and I walk to and from my beloved libraries under the beautiful porticos, sheltered by ancient, civilised laws protecting common rights and  public spaces. If anybody ever make me choose between the bicycle lanes of Copenhagen or the porticos of Bologna, I am going to have to struggle with which to vote for, but right now it is colonnades all the way - literally.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The exhaustion within.

When people talk about academics, it's as if they speak of something belonging to another, walled-off world. To many, that is probably kind of true. If you don't make academe your career, you visit it, live in a very particular type of bubble where you cram your head with knowledge and experiences that change you more or less fundamentally, and then you move on to a community where the changes wrought on you are more random, less planned, less visible and less controlled. In their lives, being at a college or university is a limited, enclosed experience. "When I was a student," they may say. "At the university, these were the experiences..."

This sense of living a life apart from every other experience makes being an academic something romantic and nostalgic, even if you walk away from it with scorn. Perhaps it is even why so many walk away with scorn. In order to be able to distance yourself from a way of living which is so different, you need to start hating it a little, to convince yourself turning away was the right things. To explain why you didn't study more, or learn something else, you sneer at academic knowedge, and call it irrelevant. It might be to cover the secret desire for a Ph D and a lifetime of learning, why you left, why you failed. The reason isn't really important, the thing that is still with you is the sense of those who become academics as people who remain in the dream, who live a life apart, who do not touch reality. They are still in the ivory tower.

Sadly, there's not a lot of ivory in that tower. Most of the resources invested in Universities you have already seen. The auditoriums, the classrooms, the libraries - they are there for the students, like you were and like your children will be. The offices are crowded and the book collections you perhaps admire during supervision are collected over decades of work, one book at the time, not through some magic privilege. Imagine the money you spend on your favourite hobby (drinking and shopping counts). Then every time you spend 25€ on your hobby, you buy a book as well. That's where the books come from. Also, the students admiring those book collections will steal your books. I lose some every year to students who "forget" to give them back, believing that there must be some secret source of books where I can just go get a new one.

And that professor you just "borrowed" a book from isn't paid particularly well. It's not bad, being a tenured professor is in most places of the world one of those pretty safe middle-class jobs. But the realities of life are as real to scholars as to anybody else. So where, in all this, are the ivory towers?

Hidden in between the intense competition for work, the throat-cutting ambition that makes you mistrust old friends and new, the non-disclosure statements, the extreme work-hours and the nights of grading - somewhere in that world, there really ought to be a silver lining. The thing is - you need to be able to see it. It's not in the relaxed work hours, because any teaching scholar who also tries to research and publish will laugh until they cry at that idea. It's not in the respect and status - at the moment education and research is apparently the place where all governments agree they can spend less and cut more (and how ironic is that - the well-educated in power pulling the ladder up behind them, and the public cheering the decision, because teaching the young to question the status quo is ridiculous. After all this is currently the best of all possible worlds... OK, I will stop there, let's just say that you don't need to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that there is an agenda to the attacks on public education.)

It is something very small, a bit of wonder, a bit of desire, a bit of mystery. If you want to do well, over a long time, working long hours in a complex, often overwhelming job, you need to be intrinsically motivated. If not, the lack of funding, the constant care you need to offer students, the consistent self-examination and push for creative questions and new knowledge will break you. It happens. Scholars burn out, or decide to follow alternative tracks on a regular basis. They become administrators, advisors, consultants, or just pull back and into themselves, getting by with as little effort as possible.

And then you sit there, like I do right now, asking yourself - how did we get here? I was planning to write about the wonders of being a travelling scholar visiting the oldest University in Europe. About going from the shiny glass building of ITU to the solemn rows of colonnades connecting the buildings of the University of Bologna, but instead what I wrote about - what my fingers needed to work through - was academic over-work, loss, and exhaustion. But then there is that little bit of mystery.

It is what I am here to be reminded of. I am going away from everything that has made me feel like I have been mentally scraped clean, to rediscover the why of being a scholar. And I have come here, to the oldest well of knowledge I could reach, to recover. One month and three days in. Tomorrow I start writing a book. Today I eat "melanzane", read a new language, and walk the endless colonnades.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sabbatical, day 14. Or 10 if we count working days.

I am going to give up counting working days vs just dates. It will get too tricky. I will however talk about where my mind goes in this period, because that's what a sabbatical is all about. I am doing this is order to let my mind go somewhere different.

First, it got all busy finishing an article on asynchronous play. Then, muddling around in that pit and fiddling with my NintendoDS, I realised that we are in the age of asynchronicity. We think we are talking about Instant communication, because it is so easily available to us. We can, if we want, be in immediate dialogue all over the planet, but we rarely use that. Instead we permit delays, from micro-delays of seconds (do I respond to that text? Do I really want to like that picture?) to delays of hours, days, months.

These delays can be used in different manners. We use them to think. What do I really mean, what might this response lead to, how is this interpreted? This is the rational use of the delays. But we live in a time of emotion, and the question is - what can these delays do to emotion?

Emotion in itself is interesting. The last decades have been spent going away from rationalism towards emotionalism. We are at a point in history where it is more important to feel right than to be right. If this sounds like I am on the side of the edgelords yelling "be rational" at the top of their all caps keystroke voices, then trust me, the self-righteous anger of the internet rationalists is no less emotional than the outraged middle-aged woman ranting about being downgraded on their flight.

What it looks like those pauses is being used for is to up the ante - to make it harder on those around us. It hardens the resolve of the persons in the conversation, adding support for their feelings, rather than allow for a cooling down period to let saner minds prevail. The delayed mind isn't necessarily saner, it is, if anything, more set in its ways.

Of course, I am not sure if this is true. Immediacy is clearly part of the emotional response, and time to think means time to chicken out. However, time to think also means time to justify, place blame, and confirm bias.

(This is as far as I got the day I wrote this. The rest is from much later. So much for frequent bloggposts.)

Another direction is followed by Norwegian Broadcasting is currently doing an intresting experiment though. Their tech-blog NRK beta has designed a little questionnaire of three questions which need to be answered correctly in order to be allowed to comment. The questions are taken from the article, and ensure that people have some understanding of it rather than just commenting based on the headline or even other comments. An important part of their experiment is to provide a "cooling off" period, to avoid a response in immediate affect.