Thursday, March 8, 2012

Efficiency and Friction in Academia

After reading Barry Schwartz's opinion column in the NYT, I wondered if his "efficiency-friction" metaphor had any resonance in an academic setting. To paraphrase poorly, Schwartz thinks efficiency is generally a good thing, while friction sometimes provides a useful counter-balance.

Almost instantly after I had framed that question, I recalled how hard it was to carry out some routine research tasks when I first "started", less than 15 years ago.

As an undergraduate student doing some literature survey, I remember the hurdles one had to jump over - first, one needed to check out a Chemical Abstracts or Inspec CD, and try to hit the static databases with meaningful queries. After studying the abstracts, one hoped to come up with some leads. I shudder to imagine what people had to do before CDs became cool.

Then, one had to figure out where the particular journal was archived (if it was at all) to hunt down the article.

After spending some time reading the article, one had to figure out if it was worthwhile to "save" it. If it was, then one headed with the big tome (usually several) to the photocopying unit, usually on a different level in the library.

The process of coming back from the library with a couple of useful articles was a full afternoon's workout.

Contrast those times with today.

I sit in my office, do a quick google search, and a couple of mouse clicks later, I have downloaded a PDF on my computer.

In rare cases, the article is very old, or the journal is not housed in our library.

No problem! I simply fill out simple form on my library's webpage, and usually I get a PDF emailed to me in a couple of days.

I can open up the PDF, read it, annotate it, and upload the annotated copy on a site like CiteULike, with some useful tags. I don't even have to store a copy on my Desktop. I can search (re-"search") for it whenever I like, I can read it from anywhere, and I can easily cite the paper.

If "Efficiency" ever wrote an autobiography, it would be littered with such anecdotes.

So no, I don't see any role for friction in literature surveys.

The only places that I can think of where efficiency sometimes becomes too much of a good thing  are classes with an over-reliance on Powerpoint (link to comics) lectures.

It is no wonder that some of the most popular material on the web (including Khan Academy, or lectures on MIT's OCW) tends to be very "old-school" chalkboard talks.

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