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Long Delayed Musings

I’ve been meaning to post a “State of the Schooling” kind of thing for quite a while, as the six week mark of the semester neared and then swooped past–it’s funny how “six weeks” still has meaning to me, nearly ten years removed from high school as I am. Having a report card might not be such a bad thing; there are several post-graduation job openings with deadlines in the next few weeks. What, precisely, should I show them, in lieu of a degree, or even a transcript? (A cover letter and curriculum vitae, I suppose. Speaking of, if anyone would like to do a CV review for me or give me some academic library-specific tips for cover letters, I would be most grateful. I still don’t feel like I know what goes in either.)

It isn’t that I don’t have work to do tonight, by the way; I had reserved today to work on a grant proposal for my Management class, but I was tackled to the ground by a cold. I’d like that to be more metaphorical than it is, but I think I’ve spent 18 of the last 24 hours asleep on an air mattress, where I collapsed last night and again this afternoon. My head is achy and stuffy, and I’m just kind of vaguely miserable and totally wiped out. Fortunately, though I don’t have the wherewithal to work, I have it to blog. And blog I will!

There are some really fantastic things going on, schooling-wise, and some really not fantastic ones. Let’s start with the good before we move on to complaining, shall we?

I love my Organizing Information class. It’s one of the five “core” courses people in the general, academic, or digital track are required to take before graduating, and the professor who teaches it is just so great. She obviously cares very much about the subject, but she doesn’t take it so seriously as to take the fun out of it. Actually, it isn’t even just that she cares about the subject: she cares that we understand it. After every assignment she asks us if we learned from it and thought it was worthwhile, and she seems to really listen to our feedback. I think I will take the Cataloguing class next semester because her class has been so good; honestly, I’m really thinking about going into metadata librarianship (of the “data wrangling” variety, as Mike Bolam put it in his guest lecture, not the really hardcore cataloguing). … Which sounds so flakey, as I re-read it. But it isn’t just that I like the professor; I really find the subject interesting. I liked English classes because I liked grammar. The structure–diagramming sentences–really pleased me. I think engineering and computer programming–and sorting through data with Matlab (which, inexplicably, I miss very much)–appealed to me for the same kind of reason. There’s just something very comforting about hierarchies and trees and structure. (Not that I apply any organizational acumen to my own life, but I imagine that’s part of what appeals to me about studying the subject.)

My Digital Libraries class is also pretty good; I’m frustrated with trying to use the poorly-documented digital library software (I admit, Dreamhost’s CGI support page is above my level), and I’m kind of nervous about the midterm, but there’s a lot of good content in the class. Some of the topics are a review, but even that isn’t a bad thing. I wish I had time to sit down with Lesk’s book (Understanding Digital Libraries), to just read it cover-to-cover. Honestly, I’d settle for the time to really do the assigned readings in depth, rather than skimming through them in a hurry. (I’ll get to that in a minute; honestly, the time requirement for this class is very reasonable, and I’m selling it shorter, in the time I give to it, than I would like.) But our professor encourages us to ask questions, lets us use blogs (instead of horrible, horrid, nasty Blackboard) to communicate with one another (as you know), and is just generally very understanding and accommodating. It’s a good class.

My Management class … isn’t bad. I mean, I’ve never liked fuzzy business speak. It brings my hackles up and evokes a feeling of distrust in me (yes, even after a couple of years of consulting in the DC area… especially after that, actually). The assignments are kind of poorly defined, which I found frustrating until I started seeing the grades (both mine and the averages); I think perhaps the expectations for the assignments are also poorly defined, so the grading is fairly lenient. On the up side, two of the three group projects we’re doing for the class are really relevant and useful to us in a real-world way; we will be writing a “management portfolio”–with a needs assessment, mission statement, vision statement, staffing plan, budget, and business plan–and a grant proposal (which the professor keeps referring to as though it is part of the other assignment, but very few of us joined up with partners who are in our management portfolio groups; also, most of the class seems to have gone out and found real-world grants to write up, whereas our management portfolios are all fictional). The irrelevant project is a slide show put together with a group of 5-6 people, to share with our “virtual groups” of 15 people chosen randomly from the in-person and online students. We’re supposed to discuss these slides in the group discussion boards, but nobody cares; most of my group logged in, made a token comment, and never checked back again, the week my slideshow went up. (My feelings weren’t hurt.)

The big downside of the Management class, other than the vague hand wavyness of it (that’s a management class for you) and the fact that most of it is repetition from my two-day Project Management class at BAH, is the fact that the management portfolio and grant proposal are to be done in groups of five and two, respectively, on very different topics (which, again, the professor doesn’t seem to realize?), and turned in on the same day. The five-person group is deliberately chosen so that on-campus and online students are grouped together–one physical meeting will happen, less than a month before the project is due, for no more than an hour, and everything else is to be done online. I know the professor thinks this is a beneficial look into real-world working conditions, but I’ve done real-world distance collaboration, and there’s usually a little more in-person, or at least teleconferenced, interaction. So that’s frustrating. But group work in school is always frustrating; I’ve gone through worse.

Aaaand… I saved the class I like the least for last. (Say that five times fast.) It’s required of every single person who enters the program, regardless of their “specialization.” This semester, as an “experiment,” they have something like 250 people in the class, half of them online. There are roughly ten professors running it, and as nearly as I can tell, each one was allowed to pick a book or two that they’d like us to read. They didn’t, you know, whittle it down after that discussion, either, or choose a set of topics to really focus on: we are expected to read 15 books, on various subjects, clumped together in a sometimes arbitrary fashion. We are asked to write 400 word essays about these sometimes arbitrary clumps of books, citing outside reviews, roughly every other week, and to post them in our randomly-chosen “group”‘s discussion board. This week, we wrote about two books; next week (actually next week, not two weeks hence), we write about four. Roughly zero percent of the class [I’ve asked something like thirty people] reads every book, or even half the books, before “winging it,” as I say, and it kind of shows in reading their essays… (Sorry, my group! I am sure you’re very smart people, and I’m sure my essays also leave something to be desired.) Anyway, on the off weeks, we’re given big lists of articles and asked giant questions (“How has the WWW influenced the way in which ideas, information, and knowledge are exchanged? .. blah blah, Semantic Web”), which we are to answer in 250 word essays. Every Thursday, we turn
in the “big” essay, and every Monday, we are expected to write a response agreeing with one of our colleagues’ points and disagreeing with another. And then there are various other discussions we’re supposed to participate in, on Blackboard, as well. I think they also expect us to go to lecture, though I’m not sure how many people still do that. (Which is a shame. I actually really like the one professor’s lectures, but because of the class size, they had to move it to the far side of Oakland, near nothing else that interests me and up a smoker-filled hill from the closest bus stop. I’m not kidding; half the nurses at UPMC seem to smoke, and they all do it between the bus stop and class. The two times I went, I was miserable with asthma for half of the two-hour lecture. So, I decided to watch them online. But the online software is buggy, so the times I’ve tried, it’s often frozen on me part-way through. So I’m sporadic in watching it, now.) This kind of workload isn’t really conducive to, you know, having multiple classes and a job, and I find their lack of selectivity and realism–and particularly their lack of flexibility in the face of students’ complaints–deeply frustrating.

My big complaint about the program overall is that it feels very undergraduate. No kidding: we have to have our advisors’ signatures on our class signup forms–1) we have forms, rather than doing it online, and 2) I didn’t have to have an advisor’s signature even as an undergrad, that I remember. (I think I had to certify that I’d met with him, but he didn’t sign anything.) There are no research assistantships available–internships, most of them outside of Pitt, yes, but those are only allowed to provide up to half our tuition–and we are stuck into a 250-person lecture, then graded on our participation in discussion boards. I realize the program lets in pretty much everyone who applies, so they have to do a certain amount of hand-holding, but couldn’t there be, I don’t know, an “advanced class,” for people who’ve worked in the real world and don’t need to be condescended to?

My second biggest complaint is that the focus–at least this semester, in the particular classes that are taking up the bulk of my time–seems to be on technology, rather than on library skills. Now, it isn’t that I don’t care what effect Google is having on libraries, or what we should expect the future of the printed word to be, but those things will be different in five years. Also, you know, I already understand technology fairly well. I think it’s fantastic that my colleagues with less technical backgrounds are getting this kind of exposure–we need more technical knowledge in the field!–but it is really frustrating to me: I learn technology in my free time; I want to learn about libraries while I’m at school.

My third complaint is about Blackboard. I’ll tag this post with the “Blackboard” tag so you can click it and go read all about that, if you care to. Part of that, which I did not cover in the previous post, has to do with changing our in-person classes around and making the bulk of our class discussion happen, as they like to say, virtually. This bothers me. I just don’t see the same candor, or quality, in the discussions we have on Blackboard, possibly in part because the professors are watching and grading us on our comments; people are hesitant to criticize or make mistakes. I really think the quality of online classes is lower than the quality of on-campus classes because of it.

Next up: how’s the internship going? (Far less complaining in that post. Spoiler: I am enjoying it and learning a lot.)

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