Wise Words on Creativity, Formal Education, and Life-long Learning

December 21, 2011

I posed a question to MEDLIB-l yesterday, a listserv for medical librarians. The previous day I had both read a story and heard an interview on public radio about MITx, the new online learning option launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stanford has a similar offering, as do other top-tier universities, I imagine. The premise is to allow anyone to sit in on current courses taught, via an online classroom; to take part in the same lectures, assignments, and tests as the matriculating students. Unlike open course ware (also offered by MIT and others), MITx provides the simultaneous learning platform, a learning community, for anyone to engage in and with. A person completing all of the work for the course on time may also request, for a small fee, a certificate of completion, thus giving some level of credit for the learning achieved.

The question I posed to my colleagues centered on whether or not people thought this model will serve as one for continuing education in the future. Specifically, I asked:

This story in the Chronicle and the one on WGBH radio (Boston) last night are both about MIT’s new online certification program. Stanford also started a similar model this past semester with a few classes – one of databases that I’ve followed, though admit that I’ve not done all of the homework.

I find these to be pretty progressive in thinking about education and wonder if it’s the way many of us will seek continuing education in the future. There is a lot of discussion on lists, at meetings and at conferences, on blogs, etc. about skills needed for the future, remaining relevant, and saving the profession. Do such offerings pique the interests of working professionals? Could you and/or would you find the time to commit yourself to the workload they require? They are free in terms of dollars spent, but certainly not in time and effort.

I was asking myself these questions last night as I heard the story on the way home (and had seen the Chronicle piece earlier in the day). I’m wondering what others think.

You may or may not be aware of the struggles the library profession, in particular medical librarians, are facing regarding their relevance and importance in the world of healthcare and medical research today. For years, searching for, securing and providing information was possible only through the gateway of the library. The internet, over time, has removed these barriers to information, making everything from journal articles to bibliographic databases available to users on their desktops, smartphones and iPads.

We can argue all day whether or not the information found by the user is as good in quality as that found by the professional, i.e. the librarian, but more and more this is a mute point. The information sought and found is often “good enough” for the purpose(s) and the thought of going to a library and/or asking the assistance of a librarian for such never enters one’s mind. This being the case, justified anxiety rises amongst the members of my profession; concern over not only our jobs today, but the very existence of the profession in the future. Hand-wringing and Chicken Little aside, the issue is real and calls for a thorough review of the skills librarians have, the skills they are being taught in graduate school, and the gaps between these skills and the ones needed to work in today’s medical and/or academic environment.

I received many thoughtful replies from colleagues. Some pointed out the difference in formal continuing education, i.e. recognized by a professional organization, and taking courses such as these. There were concerns expressed about the time commitment and whether or not employers would either support or recognize these type of learning activities. Some expressed the need to take such classes, but perhaps in a different time-frame. Others asked about the teachers and graders – who does this? In general, everyone who replied felt that another option for learning new skills is welcomed. The need is there, thus the more ways to fill it is appreciated.

One colleague struck a particular chord for both me and another librarian on the list. To paraphrase, he stated that the biggest concern should be learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do; beyond the graduate degree requirement for the librarian, few people look for credentials or extra credits. I liked this a lot. Learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do.

Going through Twitter this morning, I came across a tweet by one of my favorites to follow, Brain Pickings (@brainpicker). She pointed to a story by my very favorite author, Annie Dillard, that appeared in a 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated. Her tweet is filled with good advice. Heed it and read the piece:

More interesting, though, was that this particular tweet was preceded in my Twitter stream by one from Mother Jones referencing an article on Maria Popova herself. Maria Popova’s Beautiful Mind: The creator of Brain Pickings on how to think outside the corporate box, by Hanna Levintova. Of course, as it had so fortuitously landed where it did in my Twitter account, I followed the link and read the interview. It is a wonderful interview that reveals a few telling clues about what makes a person working with information truly successful today. More importantly for me, it had a section that spoke directly to the question I’d asked of my colleagues – thoughts on how we grow and learn and stay relevant in today’s world:

MJ: Have you always been so committed to information-consumption?

MP: Well, it’s an interesting thing. I didn’t really—at least intellectually and creatively—have a particularly compelling experience in college. But during my junior year, they made the TED talks public. So I started listening to them. They were producing one per day, and I was listening to one per day, every day, at the gym. And then I discovered PopTech and other kind of intellectual-ish, online portals for curiosity. Very quickly, I just got so much more out of those than from so-called “Ivy League” education that I knew it was on me to keep myself stimulated, and to keep learning, more than anything. And, because I paid my way through college, I was working at Penn, two to four jobs at a time to pay for school.

MJ: And in the middle of all this, you also found time to start Brain Pickings?!

MP: [Laughs.] It was crazy, crazy times. Well, one of my jobs was at a start-up ad agency. They were trying to do things differently, work with socially conscious clients, and to really be a more creative take on advertising than the industry itself. But I noticed that what the guys at the office were circulating for inspiration still came from within the ad industry. I thought that was really counterintuitive—to only borrow inspiration from within your own industry. So I started Brain Pickings as just a Friday, email newsletter, going out to my colleagues there, with five links, to five really different things that had nothing to do with advertising—from a vintage train map of Europe, to a Japanese short film from 1920, to the latest technology. Eventually I saw that these guys were forwarding these emails to friends of theirs that were in really different disciplines, not just creative ones—but writers, lawyers, students, whatever. So, I decided on top of all the jobs and school, to take a night class and teach myself web design and coding, just enough to get by. That’s how it started. And in the process, I was still digging into the things I was featuring, and in that process, you learn so much more than you do in a lecture. The whole life-long learner thing—this just became my way of doing that.

[emphasis mine]

More and more today, I believe that this really is the key to being successful in our field, and I define success not as accolades and a sense of grand importance on behalf of our institutions  (though those are sometimes, often, important), but as a sense of fulfillment; a sense of joy in the work we do. I believe that I am successful when, like Popova, I find myself stimulated and engaged and feeling most like the work I do through a fairly substantial portion of my life is … interesting.

Who amongst us longs for the career where we are nothing more than frustrated, day in and day out, by things well beyond our control? The internet is here to stay and with it, the searching habits, the access to information, and the “good enough” principle that keeps things moving at the speed that we, evidently, are convinced we must move. To rail against these things is a waste of energy. It seems to me, the people who enjoy life most are the ones who put their energies towards more constructive behavior, like learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do. The other is, to put it in my more common vernacular, “A waste of time, dude!”