Information Studies 209 -- Information Policy Seminar

Phil Agre
Office: 229 GSE&IS Building
Phone: (310) 825-7154

Fall 2005
Wednesday 9:00am-12:30pm, GSE&IS room 121

This course is a seminar about information policy. It is mainly designed for MLIS students but PhD students are welcome as well. The course has no prerequisites other than those of the information studies program in general. The course complements several other courses in the program, including IS 200 (Information in Society) and IS 203 (Seminar on Intellectual Freedom and Information Policy Issues).

Format. Some students may not have taken a seminar course before, so first a few words about the format of the class. Each week we will read a single important work about information policy, and we will spend nearly the whole three-hour class on structured discussion of the reading. The reading will average not too far beyond 100 pages a week. The general idea is that students will learn by bringing their own ideas and issues to class, and by hearing how those ideas and issues are worked out by the group. Every week, therefore, each student should do the assigned reading and come to class with a topic for class discussion, including specific page references in the reading where the topic is most relevant. We will begin each class by gathering these topics and sorting them into a logical order. Then we will divide the available discussion time into blocks, one for each topic. The student who introduced a given topic will start the discussion for that topic's block of time by explaining the topic and identifying a particular passage that is most relevant to it. Because the discussion in a seminar is most useful when it is closely connected to the text, as opposed to floating in generalized abstractions, it will often be useful to read the passage out loud, and to read other passages out loud as the discussion proceeds. Each class will conclude with a half-hour lecture on the reading for the succeeding week.

Papers. The overall purpose of the course is to relate the readings to each student's own professional interests in as many valuable ways as possible. The class meetings are simply a resource for each student in trying to achieve this goal. The instructor has no way of anticipating what uses the students might make of the readings, and it is likely that the discussions will happen very differently each time the course is offered. Each student's number one assignment for the course is to identify a topic that draws out and synthesizes the student's own particular way of relating to the material, and then to write a 5000-word scholarly paper on this topic. The topic might be internal to the readings (e.g., David and Spence's argument analyzed as a type of design), or it might be an application of concepts from the readings (e.g., how Weill and Ross's framework might be relevant to information systems in libraries), or it might disagree with an important idea from the readings (e.g., Wenger's notion of managing by identity). In any event, the paper should be based in substantial way on concepts from the readings, and should cite them in detail accordingly. Identifying a topic like this is not easy -- indeed it is just as difficult as writing the paper -- and the class discussions will be a good place to try out various candidate topics as the course goes along. The paper should be a Web page. Paper proposals are due in class during week 7, and all proposals will receive comments within a week. Draft papers are due by week 9 -- e-mail Phil a URL. The paper will be due on Thursday of finals week.

Links to IS 209 final papers.

Grades. Grades will be 70% on the papers and 30% on participation.

Five required texts should be on sale in the bookstore, although most of them can be gotten more cheaply from used bookstores on the Internet: <> or <>.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, New York: Norton, 2004. (This is also available online at <>. If you print it out, please use the PDF version so we can use the page numbers in class.)

C. Edwin Baker, Human Liberty and Freedom of Speech, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, London: Penguin, 1974. Please buy this (cheap) edition so that we will all have the same page numbers in class.

Peter Weill and Jeanne Ross, IT Governance: How Top Performers Manage IT Decision Rights for Superior Results, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

In addition, one book (which is unfortunately too expensive for most people to buy) will be available on reserve in the lab:

Sun Xupei, An Orchestra of Voices: Making the Argument for Greater Speech and Press Freedom in the People's Republic of China, edited by Elizabeth C. Michel, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

And one additional reading is only available online:

Paul A. David and Michael Spence, Towards Institutional Infrastructures for E-Science <>, September 2003.

Please print it out and bring it to class in week 9.

Course schedule. The readings indicated for each week should be completed before that week's class. There is no reading before the first class meeting.

Week 1 (October 5). Introduction.

Week 2 (October 12). Mill, including the editor's introduction.

Mill is the most important libertarian theorist of civil liberties. He advocated aristocratic domination of society, and yet he articulated the argument for freedom much better than the noisy democrats of his day. For Mill, freedom entails a particular type of culture whose relationship to Internet culture, say, is a matter of some importance.
Week 3 (October 19). 9/11 Commission Report, chapters 3, 6, 8, 11, and 13.
This is the best government report ever written, and every citizen ought to read it. We, however, will be reading it in a special way. Although terrorists are of course important, our own topic is information, and the 9/11 report is packed with ideas about information.

We're not reading the September 2005 update to the report, but here it is anyway:

Week 4 (October 26). Baker, introduction and chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10.
This is the leading left-wing alternative to Mill's theory. In contrast to Mill's theory, Baker argues the more expansive thesis that free speech exists to promote individual self-realization and participation in social change. Is such an idea even intelligible in the wartime climate post-9/11?
Week 5 (November 2). Sun.
It is time for us to learn about China. Westerners have read many Western arguments about why China should increase its press freedom. This, however, is a Chinese argument for increased press freedom, one whose relationships to the arguments of Mill and Baker will probably take some analyzing.
Week 6 (November 9). Wenger, prologue and part 1.
The West has generally interpreted learning as something that happens inside of individuals. In this ethnography of information work in an office, Wenger describes types of learning that take place in communities.
Week 7 (November 16). Wenger, part 2 and epilogue.
Learning for Wenger isn't basically about getting something but about becoming someone -- acquiring, that is, the identity of a community. The epilogue explains what this novel idea means for the design of technologies, organizations, and educational systems.
Week 8 (November 23). Weill and Ross, chapters 1-5.
Modern organizational activities are thoroughly mediated by networked computing systems, and these systems continually grow and change. This book explains how organizations can design rational policies for the governance of all this growth and change.
Week 9 (November 30). David and Spence.
The future of the Internet is the grid, a stack of technologies for bringing together diverse computational resources in a general, dynamic way. The grid will make possible new and advanced types of collaboration, and this paper discusses how these new relationships might be governed.
Week 10 (December 7). Draft papers.
Please bring a draft of your term paper -- as complete as possible -- to class during week 9, one copy for everyone. During week 10 we will divide up the available time and discuss the drafts in whatever ways might be useful.