Respect My Praxis
May 06, 2011
I am an academic librarian.
This may seem an odd thing to admit in a collection aimed at Ph.Ds. I don't have a Ph.D; I dropped out of Wisconsin's Spanish program, defeated and broken, a dozen years ago. I came to librarianship after a reconstructive interval of work in scholarly publishing, during which I piled up a lot of learning and a lot of stories. I've been headhunted by Microsoft. I participated in the ebook boomlet of the early 2000s, and watched the dot-com implosion hoping for the best for my friends and colleagues. I learned plenty that would now come under the "digital humanities" rubric. I built subsets of TEI to mark up work by American luminaries from George Washington to Edmund Burke, all the way through James M. Buchanan. I rescued the World Book Dictionary from an obsolete typesetting format and remade it in XML singlehandedly.
Sadly, I left publishing when it became clear that publishing praxis would not adapt itself well or quickly to the digital world. After a year thinking things through while I paid the bills and picked up some database knowhow doing data entry and cleanup on a census demography project, I decided that academic libraries were doing good work with digital materials, and now I am an academic librarian.
My six-year-old career, from a strictly careerist perspective, has done rather well. I published an article in 2008 that has been called an "instant classic," one that changed the way academic librarianship thinks about what I do. I've done the keynote for a small conference and a plenary for a rather large one, as well as a startling number of other invited conference talks. I have taught three courses in two library schools and received enthusiastic appreciation from students. I sat onstage for our latest library-school graduation ceremony and blinked back tears as new colleagues who had been my students crossed the stage on their way to change the world.
What I've never done is research, in academia's sense of the word. I do write professionally, to be sure. I write jeremiads, I write futurist screeds, I write systems analyses, I wrote a weblog full of pigheaded but well-read rants for seven years — but nothing I've written is academic research, because I don't do academic research.
When I'm not teaching, I work to reconfigure the entire system of scholarly communication. I am an open-access advocate, an institutional-repository manager, a copyright consultant, a metadata manager, a small-time data curator, an occasional problem-solving hacker. Because of what I do, more people can find and use more information. In its small way, the work I do changes the way the world works and learns, every single day.
How many researchers can say that about their research?
Having been headhunted by two library-science Ph.D programs (not coincidentally, the same ones I've taught for), I've had ample opportunity to think about my relationship to academia and research. What I have decided is that academia-style research does not fit how my brain is wired. I hack. I build. I mark up. I design. I am fundamentally a doer, not a researcher. I teach and write about what I've learned by doing. I can only reason and theorize about things after I’ve done them, not before.
This would all be fine, except that academia privileges its notion of research to such a degree that it refuses to respect my praxis. The library literature argues ceaselessly about tenure for librarians, a decision that often hinges on "research," just as for other faculty. (At neither of the institutions where I've worked as a librarian have librarians been tenurable.) Likewise, discussion of the digital humanities often revolves around "But is it really research?" as often as not. Who cares? I answer. Is it useful? Then it's useful.
The looming spectre of the deprofessionalization of the professoriate doubtless underlies some of the undue privileging of the research enterprise. Professions that do not demarcate their boundaries and their specialized functions very carefully do not survive. Ironically, however, the creeping adjunctification that threatens to destroy tenure for all happened not because anyone undervalued research, but because institutions undervalued teaching, and the research-besotted professoriate let institutions get away with that undervaluing scot-free. Indeed, insofar as institutional academic governance rests with the professoriate, the professoriate cut its own throat.
Have research quality and usefulness improved because of this relentless overfocus on research over any other kind of academic praxis? I cannot speak for all fields, only for my own, which boasts both a strictly academic and a praxis-oriented literature. For my part, then, I read voraciously in my field, but very little of what I choose to read, and even less of what I find useful as I go on changing the world, is academic research. Much of it is project reports and white papers and similar praxis-based information.
I encounter academic research mostly as its subject. For some ungodly reason, the institutional repositories I spent most of my early career on became a hot research topic among young information-science researchers. I have therefore been bombarded with survey requests, not to mention the occasional request for a lengthy interview. And the result? Practically none of these research projects investigated a phenomenon of any use or interest to me.
Finally, after explaining at great length in many a survey's free-response field, tongue clamped between my teeth, why a certain question was built on flawed premises and nonexistent understanding of the phenomenon under investigation, I went on strike. I no longer take academic research surveys. Enough of my time has been wasted on other people's pointless, fruitless, groundless "research." I'm a librarian; I have work to do.
Yet those flawed, useless articles receive more respect within the academy than my praxis and the experience-based reporting I perform on it. Until the academy learns to recognize that not all wisdom comes from observation and controlled experiment alone, "alternative" academic careers such as mine will remain marginalized, and the research enterprise will remain a sickly rootless weed torn loose from the good rich earth of praxis.