Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The cache of ideas and academic judgment

School starts in only a little over a month. I am enjoying the big slow-down so much, it is hard to imagine gearing up for a marathon again. Here are the dissertation ideas I have grown accustomed to entertaining:

1. Ethnography of the process of building a new library.
2. Ethnography of the process of building a copyright evidence base for orphan and public domain works (OCLC's Copyright Registry).
3. Ethnography of the process of creating Best Practices for Fair Use in Education (a Berkman Center project I just learned about).
4. Ethnography of the processes involved in envisioning the future of the book (not sure of the venue for this, but it could be a really visionary scholarly publisher/library collaborative). This one is not about e-books or e-book readers. It's about entirely new ways of envisioning communication of ideas. Actually, this one could be the story of creating an innovative dissertation, but it would also have to be the story of fighting to get to communicate in innovative ways. That would be too many stories...

All of these are interesting to me, but all pose significant challenges -- not intellectually, but rather, challenges to being acceptable topics to study and write about.

Challenge 1: There's no theory. I have no theory. I want to do inductive research. I want to explore and see what's there and tell a story about how things grew, changed and evolved at this time in the history of libraries and books and the ability to access and use information.

Challenge 2: I have no clue about who among the faculty would be interested in or support my working on this kind of project. I also would have to come up with a non-iSchool committee member. Again, I'm clueless.

Challenge 3: I'm not sure any of these will sustain my interest long enough to result in a "finished" communication. I am so interested in process, that I just am not sure I'll be willing to hang in there to perfect product when I think I have communicated sufficiently what I have learned.

Challenge 4: I'm worried about my colleagues' and faculty members' judgment that an ethnography is at best a tool, a method, not a goal in and of itself. I know my interest in ethnography to tell a story, simply to tell a story, will be insufficient in others' eyes, especially those who see qualitative studies as of little or no value to the academy.

Challenge 5: I can see doing these projects without being in school, or only very tangentially associated with school. I see the work, the process of discovery, as enjoyable and likely very fruitful, but the effort to structure it to satisfy scholarly criteria as tangential and superfluous. This stems from my increasing concern that I am not really cut out to be a scholar. I'm just someone who likes to learn, likes to study, and likes to convey what I've learned to help others. I thought that university life would be a good fit, but I'm increasingly concerned that it really isn't.

As I remarked earlier this summer as I pondered my future, not needing a degree underlies all of this ambivalence. If my goal is to investigate, learn, communicate and interact with others around the learning, there are plenty of hurdles to actually doing that, plenty of challenges, without adding on top of all the intrinsic challenges, the challenge of doing it in a particular, and rather precisely defined way, to satisfy some set of criteria that I'm not at all sure are relevant to me or what I want to do. I think I need to spend some time over the next 4 weeks talking to people at the iSchool about all this. I'm fast approaching decision time.

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