Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Overcommitting: Inevitable?

I just reread the post I made early this year as I approached the spring semester, totaling up all the things I had committed to do over the course of the semester, in addition to a full course load, and no wonder I nearly went insane. What on earth was I thinking? And have I done it again? Well, no. I am only taking one class. That has got to make a big difference. But here's the list of extra-curriculars -- so far:

Bring OGC and UT Austin task forces on Eres/Blackboard issues to a close (finalize reports, recommendations, etc.)
Prepare course materials for re-hosting Eres/Blackboard course for UMUC
Host course for same (in late October/early November)
Prepare and make presentation for Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala re how to decide what to digitize and provide public access to
Revise paper about Eres/Blackboard for publication in Learned Publishing
Peter Brantley's DLF fair use panel invitation in November

And there's work at the library. Google (pd determinations; orphan work determinations); the UT Press project (Lords of New Spain Website); open access issues.

And school and the dissertation topic search.

Oh, it all seems so easily manageable, compared to spring semester. But I have these ideas that I'll still be able to work in the garden over the fall (as I have over the summer), that I'll still be able to cook and bake, that I'll still have coffee with friends once in a while (there's the new coffeehouse in the conference center and Caffe Medici, my favorite place, has opened a location right on Guadalupe just a few blocks from the Library), and come spring, that I can rent a house in Patagonia for a month and take my kitty and really, truly get into the Arizona sky islands in a thorough way, as I have dreamed about for years (about 12 to be exact). Well, we will just see. NO WONDER I have a tough time settling on a dissertation topic. I have too many things I want to do other than research and writing... Maybe Kenny is right. It's not like there's something missing from my life, without the dissertation.

Not knowing is ok

Only ten days or so until tuition payment is due for the fall semester. I am going to pay it. It's the last class I need to satisfy all the course requirements. Though I am not any closer to deciding what to write about, I am much more at ease with not knowing than I was at the start of the summer. I have so many ideas; it's just that the thought of two years delving into any one of them just doesn't seem right. Sometimes it occurs to me that I just don't care enough about anything to spend two years submerged in it. That is such a shock. I can't believe it.

One thing that is odd about this whole process is that I used to make relatively major decisions with very little fuss. I didn't feel compelled to take all future ramifications of them into account (as though I really knew what those might be!). I was much more comfortable with the idea of the path leading off into the woods (no way to know where it's going and that's ok). Now I seem to expect that what I decide to write about has to be the first step along a path that I know now I'll want to stay on for twenty years. I think that's asking way too much. I need to just look at it as a single topic, a single experience, like the last two years of coursework has been. It's just something I'm going to do, and then move on.

I got some good suggestions from friends in comments to last blog entry and in conversations with others on the phone. School will start next week and I will be back on campus and will have lots of opportunities to explore these ideas with others. I definitely need to stay relaxed about it, comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing what I'm going to be doing or what difference it will make or where it will take me. Zen Mind Beginner's Mind.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Oh, and theory

I was just reviewing a book I bought for Dr. Northcutt's class last summer (an overview of qualitative research methods) and it occurred to me as I prepared to review for the nth time all the various theories of social science, the philosophies of science and quantitative and qualitative methods, that maybe there's no magic theory that I have to latch onto to look into the question of the effectiveness of best practices over guidelines. Maybe it is a simple as my own intuition (my own theory?) that people have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, and an intuitive sense of what will work in their day-to-day lives, and they react positively to, are more receptive to, "norms" that don't offend their intuition. That's always been one of the most perplexing things about trying to explain copyright law to people: it confounds expectations, logic, and intuition. What a normal person expects or thinks the law must be is not what it is. It is horribly counter-intuitive. Maybe best practices are, well, they actually are, what people are doing, that is, what they believe is ok, so they are much more in line with intuition, not bent ("negotiated") to the bizarre fears of copyright maximalists.

So, theory would be that best practices, being documented practices of a representative sample of teachers or librarians or whatever, inspire confidence because they make sense at an intuitive level. This puts me squarely on the subjective/interpretive side of things. I am interested in how and what people perceive as fair, rejecting that there is some objective fairness out there to be discovered. It is subjective, what's fair. We won't all agree. But we can document what many teachers or librarians think, and put it out there for others to see, and they either will or won't feel validated in their own subjectively held beliefs about what's fair.

Feels too thin. Too easy. Too superficial. I need to talk to other grad students about this and what it is part of (I feel that it is part of a bigger picture, but I can't see the rest of it).

The search for the question

I got some good advice from a fellow grad student in response to my last post (thanks, Bettie). She noted that I had failed to state any research questions in there, and was stuck on method (which I did acknowledge in the post). Excellent points. I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn how to generate research questions during the last year of classes. I never quite got beyond the point where it seemed like an artificial process because I had always been starting from the point of wanting to explore some phenomenon very generally. My "real" research question was merely, "what's up with that?" And therein lies the reason that ethnography appeals to me so much: that's precisely what it's about -- what's up with that. But she convinced me that continuing to look at research questions as an afterthought is not going to work. Merely explaining some phenomenon is not going to work. I need to start with questions, not tack them on at the end.

So, I'm going to expand on idea number 3 from the last post: Ethnography of the process of creating Best Practices for Fair Use in Education (a Berkman Center project I just learned about).

Strip out the ethnography pre-condition and I have a phenomenon, the phenomenon of generating best practices. Now I'm going to have a little talk with Bettie (a pretend talk) about this idea.

Bettie asks, "what do you want to know about generating best practices?"
Me: Well, I want to know if they work.

Bettie: What does "work" mean?
Me: Work means that they change perceptions or they change behaviors, or both.

Bettie: Whose perceptions and behaviors?
Me: For starters, the people they are created for, in the case of Harvard's Berkman Center fair use project, teachers. But second, I wonder if they change perceptions and behaviors of people who have traditionally wanted to limit or even marginalize educational fair uses, the copyright owner community. In the Center for Social Media's first set of best practices, the documentary filmmakers were on both sides of the debate, both users and owners of copyrights, so there was less a sense of imbalance, of power versus powerlessness. In educational environments, teachers, rightly I think, tend to view themselves as vulnerable and powerless in the face of possible allegations of infringement and the resulting liability that can ruin their lives.

Bettie: There are a lot of questions in there. List them out.
Me: Do teachers feel more comfortable relying on fair use after they learn about normative best practices documented by prestigious research institutions? Do teachers actually rely on fair use more after they learn about normative best practices blah, blah, blah? Do copyright owners accept and express support for statements of best practices to which they did not contribute? Ultimately, the question is, does the best practices process increase reasonable reliance on fair use when compared to guidelines?

Bettie: What are guidelines?
Me: Well, they are statements about the scope of fair use that are "negotiated" between the content owners and educators, and as such, they tend to be skewed towards the interests of the more powerful of the negotiators and thus, quite narrow in their interpretations of what is acceptable. While colleagues might disagree about how narrow and whether or to what extent they are useful, it seems that it would be possible to determine to what extent they are used and relied upon, and compare that to the extent of use and reliance on a similar best practices document that did not involve the "negotiation" among grossly unequal bargainers, by not including input from the copyright owner community at all. That seems to be the core question.

Bettie: OK. You have a question now. How would you go about answering it?
Me: EEK. It seems to require some big-time surveys of lots and lots of teachers regarding their comfort levels with relying on fair use in their teaching, whether they know about and if they do, how they use existing guidelines, and then some surveys of teachers after the best practices are published, to see if attitudes change. I wonder if it would have to be the same teachers, a longitudinal study? And the Berkman Center estimates its project will take 3-4 years. EEK again. I don't think this is doable.

Bettie: Try another question.
Me: But that's what I want to know about. Are they effective? Why put a lot of energy and time into a process that is going to be, in the end, a waste of time? Again, folks can disagree with me about this, but I would *never* become involved in a guidelines negotiation again because I think they are a huge waste of time. The whole concept of the "negotiation" is flawed. And yet, this is a common practice, not just in this context, but in life in general. We reach compromise.

But if the guidelines compromises have been on the whole not very useful (and I could find out how useful or not useful they have been), why do we think that best practices will be any better when we are leaving one side out of the discussion? What is it about this process that we think will satisfy and calm the excluded interest? Or is it that we are just giving up on caring about what they think?

I know how I reacted to the statement on a group of STM publishers' websites of what they considered best practices for researching orphan works status, which clearly did not involve any normal people (non-publishers). I thought the effort was designed for other publishers and of no relevance for regular people at all. You'd have to have a commercial motive in planning to use the orphan work, and the money to back up your plans with very expensive research to satisfy their best practice document. Sort of like the slant of the most recent orphan works bills. But I digress. But only a little.

I guess I really want to know if this is different and if it will be a more productive use of time, money and energy. Ultimately, if it is effective and productive, I would like to see best practice documents for librarians about how to select analog materials for digitizing, online materials for archiving, etc., taking the copyright caselaw and statutes into account, but relying more on actual best practices, and without undertaking the largely futile attempt we saw in the Section 108 study group, to obtain buy-in for what publisher participants seemed to feel are monstrously threatening actions, that are in reality, very important and useful library functions of archiving and providing public access (I hear the screams -- access!!!!!! oh, my god no, not that...). In truth, I don't think a substantial number of publishers will be able to accept any risk to their current business models until more of them have managed to move beyond those models, and who knows when that will be. Thankfully there is progress here, including notable efforts by many scholarly publishers to experiment with new business models. But it is very slow-going, and while the majority of publishers is figuring out that easily accessible and freely usable digital copies are their friends, libraries still need to make decisions about what to save and who to let see what. Best practices might help. Might not. Wouldn't it be useful to know something about how they are created and how they are used? Or not?

Next time: uh, oh, what about theory? Am I just too practical? Is all I care about what works, efficiency, and getting results for effort? Damn. I'll never be an academic. Must... drag... self.... to... ivory... tower... Oh, who am I kidding?