SLIS’s dilemma and the shell people

“It’s hard to find people to teach these things,” I heard said last week. Things like markup. Things like markup languages. Things like data modeling.

Sure it is. I believe it. That’s because the gut instinct of people who love these things isn’t to teach them—it’s to practice them. That is the root of SLIS’s dilemma.

SLIS can’t offer me a Ph.D program in which I’d get to practice; Ph.D programs are predicated on research, and practice isn’t research. They can’t offer me a job in the professoriate where I’d get to practice. Practice isn’t research, and research is what the professoriate is all about.

Yet SLIS’s master’s program needs to inculcate practice, not just research skills. To do them credit, they even realize it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bring them one millimeter closer to solving their problem.

What happens when researchers teach practicalities? Well, for one thing, you get people teaching (say) XML or indexing or thesaurus construction who have never in their lives actually tried to do it. At their best, these people do a fair job of teaching the reason for these things’ existence, the problems they try to solve. But they can’t teach people how to do them; they don’t know how themselves!

At their worst? (Here’s the snark I promised the other day.) Shell people, shoring up their ignorance and irrelevance with empty authority. A teacher of indexing software who doesn’t know the difference between an index entry with three first-level subheadings and the same entry with subheadings on three different levels. A teacher of information-seeking behavior who doesn’t grasp how unhelpful it is to spend many hours teaching future practicing librarians about time- and labor-intensive research methods such as diary-keeping and lengthy direct observations.

These people are doing their best. I can’t and don’t fault them for that. But, boy, you bring in one person who knows a few practicalities cold from experience, and students feel the difference deep in their bones. That’s why I got applauded, and I’m far from the only SLIS guest speaker who’s gotten that kind of applause. Sure, I’m a big ol’ ham—I project excitement just because that’s how I am, and people tend to respond to it. But most of it was just that breath of air from the world outside the classroom.

“A lot of the stuff taught here belongs at a community-college level,” one of last week’s sirens told me. Well, yes, I suppose so. I’ve been saying for years that markup ain’t rocket science, much to the consternation of a few people who would prefer that it be. But turnabout is fair play. I can’t do or teach the researchy type things that the professoriate does. I’ve just showed, though, that they can’t do or teach what I do either.

I don’t want to go as far as recommending a community-college model for SLIS. Community colleges have got serious problems of their own, not least among them a habit of treating instructors like veal calves. (How do I know this? I was in a Spanish department, y’all. I knew people who taught Spanish at community college. Not pretty.)

But if SLIS doesn’t manage to find a way to give people like me what we want in return for teaching, they’ll just keep right on with the shell people earning student anomie. I don’t know if they’ve got a way out, frankly, and I’m terribly glad I’m not the one who has to think about it.