My superior students, or, let’s do away with grades

It’s a beautiful day here is the WAMC listening area and I am listening to Ralph Gardner (4:23min) talk about the constant requests to provide feedback for every service, purchase or experience. In the process he also came to realize that the only acceptable score he can give is 10 of 10, and anything else might send the agent looking for another job: “I now realize the only acceptable score, the only one that keeps workers out of hot water, is a perfect ten”.
Which reminded me of the letters or recommendation that are part of students’ college application. Pratt requires two letters and includes a form for the recommender where they are asked to rank the applicant on a list of qualities such as intelligence and aptitude. It looks pretty much like the form many other universities use, except that Pratt’s scale is from below average to superior. My experience reading applications is that the overwhelming majority of students are ranked in the references as Superior. Now when I see straight-superiors, I translate this to anything from this-student-is-superior to this-student-can-hopefully-complete-your-program.
Some of these students do turn out to be superior, most are average and above average, a small number are below average. But like their recommendations, their grades are more likely to be an A than anything else. According to Pratt’s grading scale, A is excellent, but in reality A is excepted and B is suspicious.
Gardner too points to the grade inflation mentality:

Inside Higher Ed 3/29/16

It’s all about grade inflation. Meritocracy run amuck. What matters isn’t real achievement but its illusion. The greatest rewards and recognition come not in achieving actual excellence but in knowing how to game the system, massage the algorithms.
In reality an A means anything from truly-brilliant-work to followed-all-instructions-successfully and the system is designed so that everyone gets an A.
Would getting rid of grades solves this? Ideally I would like to see a system that has A, Pass, and Fail. The truly exceptional, original, or otherwise special students will get an A and the rest will be Pass/Fail. It’s one of those solutions that sounds simple but somehow hits nothing but walls. Oh well. Doc May 05, 2019, 08:11-1


Information and Human Rights, Part II Semester’s end: The short of it.

Now that the semester is coming to an end, and the final product is ready to print, it is time to revisit the semester, and examine the outcomes in terms of learning objectives and my expectation as described in the first blog post.
I hope to provide a detailed report on the semester in forthcoming posts. I documented the semester quite carefully and will include class notes, photographs, updates on discussion and on mapping information and human rights, and more.
But for now, I can say as follows: We produced two posters that depict the students’ conceptual map of information and human rights. It is a result or a truly participatory design concept, although the polished poster owes a lot to the design skills of one student.

Navigating Human Rights

Navigating Human Rights
Credit: Eleanor’s head: BrainPOP
XXX= students who prefer to remain unnamed

Under the title Navigating Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the crafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), represents the Common Good. Her left [robotic] are represents the Infrastructure (in terms of hardware and software) of information and human rights and the right arm represents the Legal Framework (laws, treaties, case law). The arms are holding onto the boat wheel which represents Access.

The concepts, represented as words or symbols, are “tattooed” onto the arms, “engraved” onto the wheel, they decorate the pill hat sailor Roosevelt’s head, and adorn the shirt.

Infrastructure (the robotic left blue arm) includes references to equipment such as satellite, broad band and electricity to providing available, affordable and accessible information as a human right. In keeping with one of the class themes of exploring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), strong infrastructure supports many of the UN’s SDGs, in particular goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

The Legal Framework arm is tattooed with a quote from Article 19 on the UDHR in the five official languages on the UN: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The legal framework also supports SDG #16: … provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

The wheel of Access depicts the processional organizations that support access to information, such as ALA and IFLA, the SDG directly related to access, specifically goal 4: quality education and goal 10: reduced inequality.

The Common Good highlights the theorists and writers whose thoughts and philosophies contributed to shaping our understanding of information and human rights this semester, specifically James Baldwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Manuel Castells.

The corresponded second poster provides more explanation and sources for the concepts in the first poster. poster_02_bib-1

In the next few weeks I will provide more details on how the we developed the design concepts, as well as highlight some student work and some thoughts about the learning outcomes of the project.

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Student work: Robin Miller

A Blueprint for Information and Human Rights

The syllabus for my Spring 2018 course, Information and Human Rights, is ready to go and I am excited to introduce it here. I have changed the course significantly since I taught it last in Fall 2016. That semester was marked by the US presidential election, and shadowed by it.
Broadly the course explores ways in which information professionals can support human rights work by learning about theories and methods in human rights research, aid, development work and more.

However, the major revision in the course is not in content but in pedagogy. As part of the class we will chart the field of human rights and its intersection with information inspired by Blueprint for Counter Education.

Originally published in 1970, Blueprint for Counter Education is the brainchild of two sociologists, Maurice Stein and Larry Miller and was designed by Marshall Henrichs (a Pratt alum and one time instructor). It is a work of [retro] radical pedagogy that proposes to contextualize teaching in the present and cross-pollinate fields of inquiry. The publication includes three large-scale posters that “offer a road map for a journey through the intellectual history.” The posters features major thinkers, schools of thought and theories in social-sociology. 25900226280_45fe67521f_o

In 2016 Inventory Press reprinted the Blueprint along with the posters creating a “portable learning environment for a new process-based model of education”. A forty-minute interview with the publishers Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels tells about the history of the original publication, the 2016 edition, and the rationale for the Blueprint

I admit I have a bit of a Power-Point dependency but I plan to teach this class seminar style, no slides; just maps, charts pads and markers on the table. The blueprint requires setting that allows participation as it “is designed to be constructively acted upon by the student in the widest and most creative sense of the word act: Since the project is planned as a highly participative series of art-life-politics games… This is the best tradition of the student-teacher relationship ; what as come to be known as ‘the community of scholars’” (Lipton, 1970).

The Blueprint will guide us as we map human rights, information, and their intersection throughout this semester. Our maps may chart the language of human rights, the documents of human rights, the values of moral rights and any interaction among these groupings. The outcome may be very different from what I am imagining right now, depending greatly on student input. In the end it will, by design or by necessity be “left open-ended for constant change as the needs of the times require and the community of scholars decide” (Lipton, 1970).

I hope that creating a blueprint for information and human rights will create a new kind of learning experience for students, one that give meaning to some over used phrases, such as “critical thinking”. To quote Gillmor “People are always learning things the way they’ve been taught to learn things. Here they are going to have to make their own decisions” (Dialogue, 1970).

Special thanks to Thomas Hill, art librarian at Vassar College who first brought the Blueprint to my attention

The course description is as follows and the syllabus is available here619_syllabus_SP18. Hope it goes well.

Information and Human Rights – Spring 2018

As the name implies, this course is at the intersection of information and human rights, and in this way its origins are bi-disciplinary. We will begin by gaining a better understanding of human rights – the theories, scope, laws and ethics of human rights, through readings and seminar-study discussions. We will learn of related terms such as development and globalization and their relation to human rights. Next we will introduce the concept of information, including its many variants such as disinformation. Our main goal in to examine the ways in which information professionals can support human rights work.
We will take a critical perspective and examine some of the questionable sides of human rights work, such as the corruption in many aid organizations, the give-us-trade-not-aid movement, the role of the media, and more.
This will be covered in the first 5-6 weeks of the semester.

The second part of the semester will be devoted to the application of information to human rights through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) also called the UN 2030 Agenda. There are 17 goals and 167 Targets spanning economic, environmental and social development in the SDG, and of these four focus narrowly on information. Each week we will question and understand how the role of information is defined in the SDGs, whether through readings and case studies, and how information contributes to development, and how we as information professionals can personally contribute.

We will be using a unique pedagogy called Blueprint for Counter Education. Originally published in 1970, this curriculum-in-a-box supported the Critical Studies curriculum at CalArts. The box (2016 edition) includes two booklets and 3 posters that map the intellectual thought, thinkers and philosophies in postmodern thought. In class, we will work to map the field of information and human rights along lines that reflect its intellectual and ethical foundation. The Blueprint encourages critical, non-linear, conceptual, and design thinking approach to education.
The outcome of this second part of the semester (UN 2030 Agenda) is an individual project that contributes to human rights with the use of information. This can be a research paper, a website, a visualization, a video, a green-paper, using methods such as literature review, data collection, data analysis, storytelling techniques and more.

Privatization of government information from the 1980s to today

Last week I delivered the keynote at the Westchester Academic Library Directors Organization (WALDO) symposium. A few attendees asked for the slides of my talk. This PDF includes the text and slides. Please note that this is an unpolished text, more akin to a draft than to a publication. I hope to develop this further in the future, focusing on the effects of privatization on access and the relationship (if any) between privatization and open-access. I welcome comments and thoughts on this topic. 512px-Reagan_et_Thatcher
This paper wishes to examine a phenomenon that has become practiced since the 1980’s: the privatization of information services. We will try to understand the phenomenon by examining its extent and scope (which kind of information services are being privatized, and where) and its effects.

Fall is in the air

Winter is back with a vengeance, spring and summer seem far away, but at the School of Information we are all planning for the Fall 2017 semester. It will be interesting, challenging and probably very frustrating to teach Information Policy and Government Information this fall and will require many revisions to the existing curriculum as many policies are changing and sources are no longer available. More details and updated syllabi will be available this summer. I am off to a good start with the flyers created by our wonderful office assistant that so very accurately reflect the content of these two courses.

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