Student Support: A Tale of Two Libraries

(Three, really, but they were in two countries.)

There’s been a lot of conversation on social media recently about whether the increasing administration costs of UK higher education are correlated to student support, and, if so, whether such support is necessary. I am firmly of the belief that pastoral care is vital (and not necessarily as novel a part of the higher education process as some suppose—Oxbridge has had high levels of para-academic support for centuries, official and un, simply shaped differently to reflect the changing times and demographics of its attendees), but without disparaging the many committed, talented people serving as university support staff, I am not necessarily convinced that UK students are seeing the benefits of supposedly abundant user-focused infrastructure.

I have attended three UK post-graduate institutions: two University of London, and two Russell Group and one 1994 Group: I say this just to observe that you could expect comparatively high levels of infrastructure and funding, and commensurate attention to student needs, at these institutions. I have had incredibly frustrating experiences with all three. At one point this situation was so bad that a university apologized and returned me a year’s worth of tuition. Really. I will at some point write in depth about the events (and about the frankly immoral way Goldsmiths chose to treat its ESL Cultural Studies graduate students), but I wanted to draw your attention, in this support debate, to an administrative interaction which serves as something of a synecdoche for the larger dynamic.

I asked, at two libraries I was associated with, after a given resource, and got what I felt to be disappointing and unhelpful responses. A friend at a similarly ranked (again, only interesting regarding access to resources) American university kindly agreed to ask her library the same question. She received an amazingly useful response.

I want to talk for a moment about the details and affective resonances of these interactions.

UK Russell Group University

Query:

Hello,

I’m a PhD student, and I’ve got a few questions about this resource:

http://nlx.com/collections/43

I can’t really tell exactly WHAT this is. I’m hoping it’s not a concordance or a data set for digital humanities research, but rather an ebook or online version of what are otherwise 12 very expensive volumes.

Does THE UNIVERSITY have institutional permission to use this? If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook? If we don’t, but it is what I need, how might I go about getting permission?

Thanks so much,

Response:

Dear Ms Horakova

Thank you for your email. We do not subscribe to this resource online, so we do not have access to this material electronically.

However, please note that we do have print copies of this material, which can be seen on the catalogue here:   THE UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE

We hope that this is useful. However, if you have any further enquiries, please do not hesitate to contact us.

With compliments

Analysis:

I could probably have been less ‘professional’ and more entreating in my request. The fact is at this point I go into any interaction with university infrastructure cringing and growling like a dog that expects to get hit again.

My short email contained three questions.

  1.     Does THE UNIVERSITY have institutional permission to use this?
  2.     If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook?
  3.     If we don’t, but it is what I need (i.e. 2), how might I go about getting permission?

Question 3 contains an implied offer to do the work myself. In order to get any further, however, I need help. I am not a trained information scientist with access to and familiarity with research databases; he is. He only answered Question 1. I am a distance-learning student, a fact which I have spent over a year trying to appropriately register on my records at this university with no success. The records he speaks of are, unfortunately, in another country within the UK/about 7 hours away by two expensive trains. Given that there are 12 volumes, this is not a quick research trip. Even if I lived next door, I might well require digital copies for the specific research I am engaged in, due to disability issues, etc. etc. 

Given that he did not address questions 2 or 3, even with ‘I don’t know’, seeming not to see them, I can proceed no further in chasing up the resource myself.

His tone is very cold. Overall, this letter leaves me feeling like I am a time-wasting idiot rather than a colleague and ‘client’ researcher attempting to do her work, accessing his expertise in his right capacity.

UNIVERSITY CONSORTIUM LIBRARY:

Query:

Hello,

I’m a [university with access privileges] PhD student, and I’ve got a few questions about this resource:

http://nlx.com/collections/43

I can’t really tell exactly WHAT this is. I’m hoping it’s not a concordance or a data set for digital humanities research, but rather an ebook or online version of what are otherwise 12 very expensive volumes.

Does the University CONSORTIUM network have institutional permission to use this? If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook? If we don’t, but it is what I need, how might I go about getting permission?

Thanks so much,

Response:

Hello Erin,

THE CONSORTIUM LIBRARY does not subscribe to Past Masters, so we are unable to help you access this resource.

Kind regards,

Analysis:

Only question 1 is addressed. This response is so lacking it makes the first letter’s provision of a catalogue record look abundantly generous. There is literally no way I can proceed with this information. Again, I feel unsupported, alone and like I am not even a basically respected part of this person’s workplace and academic community.

I am very aware that we are all pressed for time in this business, underpaid, etc. But I do feel this response is cool and rude as well as unprofessional. Seriously, how hard is it for people with humanities graduate degrees to read a short email, take in the number of questions, and address some answer to the questions in the email?

***

US IVY:

Query:

Hello!

I have found the following online resource, which UNIVERSITY seems to have institutional access to: http://nlx.com/collections/43

I would like to download Dickens’ complete letters for my work, but am not sure how to do this. I have researched marc files a little but have not found a way to make these files work for me as readable text. Can you tell if the intention of this resource is to make these files available to read, or are they ONLY machine readable? Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks very much!

Response:

Hi XXXXX,

I’m afraid we don’t have online access to the Clarendon Press set of Dickens’s letters through Past Masters, though I’ll contact the sales rep and find out how much that would cost.  In the meantime, the three volumes of Dickens’s letters published in the 1880s (seeUNIVERSITY LIBRARY CATALOGUE) have been digitized and are freely available from Project Gutenberg, which — as I’ve been told by David Mimno and others who do DH projects at UNIVERSITY– provides relatively clean text.  (I’m not sure how DH-friendly the Past Masters text would be, or even if the vendor would make it available for text mining.)  The pages below provide several downloading options for the text of each volume:

Volume I. 1833-1856:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25852

Volume II. 1857-1870:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25853

Volume III. Additional Letters, 1837-1870: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25854

These volumes are also available in various editions from HathiTrust (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Search/Home?lookfor=%22Letters%20of%20Charles%20Dickens%22&searchtype=title&ft=ft&setft=true ) , both in pdf and in plain text formats, but the text format does not appear to be downloadable.  The texts available at the Internet Archive might not be the cleanest OCR, but might also suffice depending on your needs.

I’ll let you know about the Past Masters database.  My funds are just about tapped out as we approach the end of the fiscal year (June 30), but if there’s any way I can afford the Clarendon letters when my funds are replenished I’ll certainly try to do so.  Having full-text access to the letters would be a nice complement to the texts of the fiction, etc. available in Literature Online.

Hope your summer is off to a good start.

All best,

Later unprompted follow-up:

Letter 1:

Hello,

XXXX University Library now has access to The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870 via the Intelex Past Masters database record UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE

Please let me know if you have any questions.  

Kind Regards,

Letter 2:

Hi XXXX,

Just to clarify, from the catalog record at UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE, click on the “Intelex site” link in the Availability box, then click on the “Dickens: Letters (I-XII)” link when you see the alphabetical author list.  We should have a separate record for the Dickens letters in the catalog at some point, but setting it up this way initially was the fastest option.

Thanks for letting me know about this.  I’m glad we could get access.

All best,

Analysis:

Now, I will grant that my friend summarized our discussion (via a designated online form, such as the libraries I was dealing with did not offer) in a peppier way than I did, and that this might have elicited a better response. I expect her happier attitude, however, is in part a result of better overall dealings with her university’s support staff. She’s not cagey because she doesn’t feel a need to be.

I find it amazing how much better the multiple people emailing her back treated her and her question. Not only was her query addressed in full, these responders went above and beyond, entering into her research question, helping her access alternative resources, offering reasons for his decisions, following up, obtaining the resource, and providing her with information about its use. Wow! You can really see that she is being treated like a valued colleague whose work and needs are valid!

Overall:

Now I’m not saying all UK admin staff need to meet this absolutely gold standard. These responses contain more pep than the UK makes in a year, and it’s hard to find the time to deal with student-staff questions in this in-depth manner, I’m sure. But a little civility couldn’t hurt, guys.

I grind my teeth through a thousand fakey UK ‘thank you for your email’s, which are of course immediately followed by terse response that makes me feel unvalued as a colleague and even as a person, and totally fail to provide me with the resources I need to do my work. My interactions with university bureaucracy make me feel unsatisfied as a paying ‘consumer’ of the education product, much less as the colleague these supposed colleagues are not treating me as. If these emails were a meal I’d bought, I’d send them back, and I have never done that to a waitress in my life.

Being a grad student is isolating and difficult, and if 60% percent of a graduate cohort experience mental health issues, is it any wonder? I know my own have been severely exacerbated by my demeaning, unhelpful and unfriendly interactions with this system. It’s not this email I’m upset about, it’s the whole tower built of them, and the greater aggressions they can amount to (recall the year’s refunded tuition).

I think in part UK academia has a vast existential horror of being ‘American-like’ in its working, which they somehow conflate with ‘mechanistic’ understandings of efficiency, probably because they can’t institutionally praxis Benjamin for shit and because they displace their unprocessed imperial guilt onto America so hard it’s not true. This Americaphobia perhaps contributes to the UK’s failure to broadly implement university writing centres (not a little workshop from time to time, not a writer in residence, a motherfucking brick and mortar but digitally-capable writing centre), for example, which I consider essential to actually creating an inclusive environment for students from different backgrounds who may well not enter university with the homogenous communications skillset you can expect of whatever Eton whelped out, unable to think much but capable of saying nothing very prettily, and in Latin if required.

For all the chat about the necessity of UK university support structures and cultures—well, where are those, then? Can we expect some soon?

 

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2 thoughts on “Student Support: A Tale of Two Libraries

  1. “This Americaphobia perhaps contributes to the UK’s failure to broadly implement university writing centres (not a little workshop from time to time, not a writer in residence, a motherfucking brick and mortar but digitally-capable writing centre), for example, which I consider essential…”

    … to producing students who can write worth a damn, let alone all the valid accessibility/inclusion points you make!

  2. @Jon yeah I’d agree that writing centres are something all students deserve access to and many could benefit from!

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