Terra nullius

https://pixabay.com/en/desert-dirt-dry-cracked-mud-terry-1803878/

Part of the work I do now is going into organizations and working with people on the ways they would like to change both their own and their institution’s collective practices around research,  teaching and learning within digital contexts.  I facilitate workshops, collaborate on research, and deliver talks wherein I try to center the practices and priorities of people, rather than the technology they are using.

In this work, I have encountered a troubling pattern.  I’ve started thinking of it as the terra nullius framework for digital.  I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because I don’t want to say that justifications for digital change initiatives are the same as the justification for colonization, dispossession, and genocide.  What I am struck by is the number of times I’ve been asked into a room, or encountered people within a particular room, and heard “we need to become digital”  “People don’t do digital around here.”  “No one here is engaged with [insert digital thingy here.]”  And then in the course of the workshop/conversation/research project it becomes obvious early on that people are engaging in and within digital platforms, places, and tools.  Just, perhaps not in the way that institutional leaders assume they should be, or that marketing folks recognize as valuable practice, or that lecturers recognize as legitimate educational behaviors.  

When leaders, managers, lecturers, or consultants (who are becoming more common in higher ed, she said, advisedly) or indeed anyone suggests that there are no valuable digital practices in their particular context, they set the stage for the wholesale import of a set of practices.  They ignore what is actually there because it’s more convenient, or more politically useful, to suggest that there is no pre-existing landscape of behaviors that deserves attention.  The political reasons for such an approach are clear–people brought in to effect and manage change want to be able to point to massive “progress”–”See, there was nothing here, and now LOOK WHAT THEY ARE DOING it’s all down to me.”  And then they can move on to the next post, on the back of their record of “effective change.”  

The terra nullius approach to digital takes away at least two things:  1) the ability to recognize and encourage good practices, and 2)  the ability to recognize and change practices that do not currently serve anyone particularly well.  

Making the assumption that there is “no useful existing state of affairs,” means that during any change process you will be leaving people behind; and whatever emerges from the process will also have meant leaving any pre-existing effective practice and culture behind too. A terra nullius approach does not recognize or value people.  

I see mapping practice, and then communicating the content of those maps, facilitating conversations that emerge from the mapping, as one antidote to the problematic assumptions of a digital wasteland, empty of good things.  It’s an approach that values the people in those workshops, that recognizes their presence in their organizations, and the value of their work.

All of the metaphors in my head are colonizing, are military, are brutal.  Any “leaders” or “change agents” who assume that the people in their organization are lacking, and have been until the moment the new leader showed up with their all-new plan, are acting in violent ways towards the people who work for them.  Why assume people aren’t doing anything that works?  Why assume there is no reason for practice to look the way it does?  Why assume people don’t know things?

It’s also worth asking who might get to continue doing what they are doing, after the change initiatives take place.  Whose practice gets valued?  Is it only one kind of person?  What structures of power, of racism, of sexism, of other discriminations, are shot through organizational assumptions around what people are doing, and whether or not it is worthwhile?

How about asking:

What are you doing?

What works for you?

What would you like to be doing?

How can I help?

 

How about saying:

I see you.

 

Beyond Metaphor: New Iterations of #JiscDigLead

co-authored by Lawrie Phipps, James Clay, and Chris Thomson

It’s been three years since we ran the the first Jisc Digital Leaders Program. During the program we have have emphasized the need for leaders in education to model the behavioral change that they wish to see in digital. “Be more digital”, “Write a digital strategy”, “Go do Twitter” are things we have heard many times, and these are sometimes the reasons that delegates attend the course.  We hoped to give leaders contexts beyond tasks within digital, to provide a way to discuss the implications of digital tools and places that were not just to-do or top-ten lists.

We built the individual digital practice elements of that first course around what delegates gained from doing the Visitor and Resident mapping process.  At the time, we were intent on getting people away from assumptions that digital capability was defined by their identities (especially not their “generational identity”), and thought that the V&R model gave them a new place from which to orient the conversations we wanted people to have about their practices.

For the most part, we were correct. We did have and facilitate conversations that went beyond both top-ten tech lists and “I am X identity,” and brought people together for conversations about what they want and need to do, and what their motivations are.  In the setting up of the V&R model we were careful to discuss them as modes of behavior, not identity types. However, we have continued to see, through three years of iterations of the course, an impulse to pigeonhole, to identify themselves and others as “visitors” or “residents”; creating a barrier to freeing ourselves up to having new conversations around digital.

As much as the metaphor freed us from the tyranny of generational stereotypes, it opened up a debate around the nature of what it means to be “resident” or “visitor”, with participants asking what is “right”, what is best, and how to become more of one or the other.  This was never our intention. Substituting the stereotype with a metaphor still, to some extent, obfuscated the real aim – to discuss practice in context. It is difficult to move people away from value judgments around practice, and harder still when they are couched in language that seem to involve personal identity.

On the course we want our leaders and future leaders to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to practice in a time of ubiquitous digital.

We have arrived at the point where we need to go beyond metaphor. Rather than annotating a metaphorical model with allusions to practice and motivation, we will start with the practices, the behaviors, and motivations we want people to reflect upon.

The use of tension pairs to surface behaviors and practices has proven effective as a baseline for change; a visual tool for identifying where both individuals and organisations are in their digital practice and their motivations, and importantly for the digital leaders program, where they want to move their practice to. The new iteration of this element of  the workshop will be more tailored to support delegates in identifying what the most appropriate tension pairs are for their context.

Rather than using the visitor-resident continuum as one axis we intend to provide a range of continua composed of actions and behaviors, instead of identities. For example, we might suggest that leaders map themselves against a broadcast – engagement axis.  We might even solicit tension pairs from the room. We think this small modification to the leadership course format will make it easier to dig into the important content that has always been a core part of the program:  an engagement with practice, with current behaviors, such that people are more capable of strategic thinking about the ways they want or need to change what they are doing, and what if any role digital tools and places can play in those changes.  We think it’s time in our work to give people opportunities to visualize and develop their approaches to and within digital, to center what people want to do, first.  Identity is always an important part of why and how people do what they do, but it doesn’t have to over-determine their practices.  Our intention is to open doors, not close them by making people think that certain paths are closed because of who they are.

 

The Anthropologist’s Tale: Lianza #open17

My first view of Aotearoa.

I was invited.  This time I got invited to Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.  I had never been to that part of the world, and this part of library-land was also new to me (even as I had been following some library folks there via Twitter).

The Lianza conference was full of amazing people, it’s a fantastic community, I am so pleased I got to spend time in that room, filled with enthusiasm and criticality, public as well as academic librarians.  You can watch keynotes and sessions recorded at Lianza and I recommend you watch them via their site, here.  If you want to watch mine (including the Q and A, as well as the song they sang to me after I was finished!), that’s here (you’ll be asked to register for the site).

Thank you to Viv Fox of PiCS for sponsoring me, to Kim Tairi and David Clover for excellent advice while writing my talk, and to the scholars whose work I consulted in the course of putting this together (I tried to link within the blog, but have also put together references at the end of this).   Thank you to Paula Eskett, and to the entire conference program committee and team for working hard to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

This is, as best I can recreate, the text of my talk.

Tēnā koutou katoa

(Greetings to you all)

I am from California, near the Pacific Ocean, and also near the high desert in the south.  I lived in Chumash, Ohlone, and Yuhaviatam land.

I live in North Carolina, in the piedmont, between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic ocean.  It is Catawba and Cherokee land.

My father’s family is from Louisiana, along the Bayou Teche, we are Cajun.  We were settler people, on Chitimacha land.  My PaPa was beaten for speaking French in school.  My MonMon never learned to read.

My father is Harold John Lanclos

My mother is Judith Cameron Lanclos

I am Donna Michelle Lanclos, named after a Beatles song and my mother’s college roommate

Tēnā koutou

Tēnā koutou

Tēnā koutou katoa

Kia Ora

Thank you for inviting me, thank you for bringing me here.  I am so grateful.

I am at the mercy of people’s invitations, personally and professionally, I get to be where I am because someone, at some point, let me in.

This is true for anthropologists generally–we get to be where we are, to do the work we do, because someone lets us in.

(I talked about my work at UNC Charlotte here in the talk, you can read more about it elsewhere on my blog here.  I made the basic point to the Lianza audience that my work is an anthropology of academia, my responsibility is to research and analyze the logic, the motivations, and practices of academics)

Once anthropologists are let in, then, we do the work of stories.

We collect stories.

We listen to stories

We interpret stories

We put different stories together.

And then we tell stories.  We tell our own, as a way in, we tell the stories of other people, because it is our work, the work of making the “exotic familiar” (and, the familiar exotic). When people talk about qualitative work, especially in contrast to quantitative work, they often invoke stories, they talk about the work of stories.  Some people use story as an epithet, synonymous with anecdote (also meant as an epithet).  But, stories are data, stories are information, stories are ways of representing and interpreting reality.

I started thinking about this talk with the framing of stories in part because I realized early on the link between colonial New Zealand (especially ChristChurch and Canterbury) and Chaucer.  Maybe it’s only a link in my mind, it made me think immediately of my mother, who was an English major at university, and who kept her copy of Canterbury Tales in our house when I was growing up.

Photo by Jim Forest cc-by on flickr https://flic.kr/p/5QqRuR

When I was in my last year of High School, my teacher taught us about Chaucer, and his Canterbury Tales.  We had a textbook that excerpted several of the tales–the Miller’s tale, for example.   But also, and this was formative for me:  The tale of the Wife of Bath.  I had my mother’s book, and I could see that the tale of the Wife of Bath was very very different from the one we were presented in our textbook.  There were words in the college version that did not show up in the high school version.

I was the kind of student who wanted to ask questions about that.

So I did.

I brought my mother’s book to school, and as my teacher was having us read the bowdlerized story of this woman who had many husbands and a lot of sex, I was raising my hand on a regular basis.

“Mr Taylor, that’s NOT what it says in MY book.”

I was not my teacher’s favorite student in that moment, but the story was different!  I wanted what I thought was the “real” story, not the one packaged as appropriate for children.  Chaucer told a story about storytelling, the way my teacher was using it taught me a great deal about the power of who controls stories, and what different versions can do to your sense of reality.

I am also a folklorist, and this awareness of multiple versions of the same story, this is part of what defines something as folklore.  And folklore materials are another kind of data, there is meaning in the stories.  There are always versions, and meaning within that variation.  Think of Cinderella, of  Little Red Riding Hood; who tells the tale informs what tale is told.  Sometimes the huntsman rescues Little Red Riding Hood.  Sometimes she rescues herself.  Sometimes the stepsisters live happily ever after with Cinderella.  Sometimes they lose their eyes to birds as well as parts of their feet to the knife.

I am an anthropologist.

I study people.

I am located in a discipline with a troubled history, and a collusion with colonialism that we can never shake, and we have to acknowledge.  

Social Anthropology in the UK in the early 20th century was literally tool of the man.

Cover of E.E Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography of the Nuer.

After his initial fieldwork in the 1920s among the Azande in the Sudan, E.E. Evans Pritchard was hired by the  Anglo-Egyptian government–the context for this hire was the conflict that the colonial government had with the Nuer people in the 1920s.  

Colonial officials thought if they had more information about the people they wanted to control, they would be able to do so more effectively, and wanted anthropological knowledge to be a part of this mechanism of control.  Control did not necessarily happen, but this was certainly the intent.

 

 

Smithsonian Archives, ” Franz Boas posing for figure in USNM exhibit entitled “Hamats’a coming out of secret room” 1895 or before”

 

Franz Boas took up anthropology as his life’s work after his previous academic life as a physicist, who wrote a dissertation on the color of seawater. He is known as the Father of American Anthropology, and a champion of anti-scientific racism.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, the “extinction narrative” had already quite caught hold, and Native American and First Nations groups were the object of study at least in part because they were framed as “disappearing”

19th century anthropology co-occurred with the systematic dispossession, persecution, and killing of indigenous peoples, the “salvage anthropology” that followed in the 20th century referred to “disappearing” people as if they were fading, not being colonized and displaced by white settlers.

 

 

 

First edition cover for Ruth Benedict’s ethnographic treatment of Japanese culture. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/90/TheChrysanthemumAndTheSword.jpg

In the mid-20th century, during the second World War, anthropological knowledge was leveraged as a way to better understand (and, it was presumed) and so control our conquered enemies, the Japanese.  Ruth Benedict did “armchair anthropology” during WWII, and her resulting work, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, informed the occupation strategies by the US of Japan after the war.

These are not the only examples of anthropological knowledge being taken by governments and other policy makers as part of their toolkits for control.  The debate within anthropology over the role of the knowledge it accesses, communicates, and creates in the military, and in government, erupted strongly during the Vietnam War, and again with the US war in Afghanistan since 2001.  

 

 

 

 

I keep coming back to the example of the work of Margaret Mead when I talk about the potential of anthropological work.  There are problems with whose stories she told, and for what purpose, but her purposes shifted from those of institutional control to one of understanding, and it is for this that I value her work, in Samoa and also in Papua New Guinea.

Margaret Mead. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Margaret_Mead_NYWTS.jpg

Her intention, as a student of Boas and Benedict (among others), was to make the unfamiliar familiar.  And also, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to question the practices of her own culture with regard to, for instance,  adolescence and childrearing.  She brought what she learned from other cultures back to her own, as a way of advocating for change, as she considered many practices in the US to be toxic.  She used other cultural practices to feed her imagination, for what else might be possible.

Why am I telling you this?  Many of you probably know the colonial history of anthropology, the problems and pitfalls baked into its disciplinary history.

 

So let’s talk about Libraries—This is Andrew Carnegie, founding the Carnegie library in Waterford, Ireland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Foundation_stone_of_Waterford_Free_Library.jpg

These libraries (in the US, the UK, and also in New Zealand, among other places)  were ways for Carnegie to impose his idea of what communities “should have” as expressed in a particular structure of knowledge and respectability.  The leaders who petitioned Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th century to have these libraries built in their communities were buying into that particular kind of respectability.  They wanted to be associated with that respectability, and the power associated with it.

This is Libraries as colonizing structures, structures shot through with orientalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.  

The problem with these, with any colonizing impulse (OK, one problem among many) is the assumption that if you don’t put a library there, if you don’t establish a colonial government, there won’t be anything.  It ignores what is there.

Aotearoa pre-dates New Zealand.  There were people, long before there were libraries.

In my own work, I see the colonizing impulse in libraries in two specific ways.

The first is the reaction I occasionally get when I present on the logic behind student or faculty behavior that might be confounding to library professionals (eg, using SciHub, citing Wikipedia, not putting their materials in the Institutional Repository).

I talk about motivations, about the competing and conflicting messages that people get around information, and the ways that some things (using ResearchGate, for example) make sense to individuals even if those choices, from a library perspective, are less than ideal.  And I am asked:

“So how do we get them to change their behavior?”

Fortunately, that’s not my job.  But if that’s the end point, I’ve failed a bit in what is my job, that is, generating understanding of the underlying logics behind human behavior such that the thought of what might be “best” can fall away, to allow for a wider range of possibilities.

The second reaction is one that I sometimes get when I propose open-ended investigations of human behavior in universities.  Projects such as the Day in the Life study, which was pitched as broadly exploratory, without particular questions beyond, “what is student everyday life like at universities in the United States?”  And I am asked:

“How will this help me solve X problem?”

In this case, I don’t mean to be dismissive of a particular problem, but problem-solving is rarely the point of exploratory research.  Gaining insight, creating a sense of a bigger picture, revealing context that helps with understanding, these are all things that such research can generate, but those things are not aligned with the metrics that libraries are beholden to, the quantified existence that higher education and other municipal entities are increasingly made to endure.   What value?  How much?  What is the ROI?

I cannot answer that.  I don’t want to.

You don’t do anthropology among students and faculty so that you can manipulate them do to library-style things

You do it so that the library can more effectively shift its practices.

The impetus for change should come from libraries, not from “users”  How do you listen?  How do you change what you’re doing?  How do you create inclusive spaces?  Spaces that welcome whether someone has been invited or not?

How do you find out the stories behind the people in your library?  How do you find out stories about your community, whether they are in the library or not?  Anthropology can be one way.  In particular, the anthropology that invites you to de-center yourself, your perspectives, your biases, and take on the priorities and perspectives of the people you are interested in learning from.

I want to contrast the “understanding people to control them” anthropological heritage from the “understanding people to connect with them” piece that I think should actually be the goal.   Trying to get libraries to understand the difference is crucial–we don’t want to be the colonizing library. No matter how much power librarians don’t think they have, you have so much more power than the people who are in there using the library.  So, you have a responsibility to be careful.

In the long history of colonialism and anthropology, there is a thread of interrogating practice without valuing it, and for the purposes of control.  We should rather be engaging with communities via research, exploring in ways that are about generating big picture insights, not “action research” problem solving and repetitive projects.

What are the stories we need to hear, and retell, from the people in our libraries, in our communities, whether they are in the libraries or not?

Anthropological fieldwork can’t help you if you’re still only interested in telling the library’s story.

So what can we do?  How can we reframe?  I’d like to suggest a couple of things.  

First:  Syncretisim, a concept which might be one way around the solutionism that I see so much in libraries.  In my experience I have encountered syncretism most in anthropology of religion, to refer to that cobbling together that people do around beliefs and practices, especially in colonial situations, but also in contexts of migration.  Population movement and contact brings people together from different places, and the power relations that also inform that context result in not a seamless blending of religious practices, but a seaming together, a picking and stitching so that you can see the original component parts in the something new that emerges.

I think syncretism emerges in the ways that people approach libraries these days.  They come to libraries, public and academic, with an already formed set of practices around digital and information.  When they come into contact with library practices, their own don’t suddenly disappear–they make room for new practices if they serve them, and incorporate them into their own.

As educators in libraries we have a reasonable expectation that we can teach people in our communities new and useful things about information, about research, about reading and interacting with all of the resources that libraries can serve as a portal to.  We should also expect to be taught by the people in our communities what libraries (and the content and expertise within libraries) are for to them.  

Second:  Decolonizing. Breaking down the power structures that are barriers to inclusion in institutions such as libraries.  Libraries, like anthropology, emerge from and reproduce colonizing structures.  They “other” in defining who belongs and who doesn’t, what “fits” and what doesn’t.  And here I am particularly indebted to the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, nina de jesus, April Hathcock, and Fobazi Ettarh

I also want to recognize that this is not a new idea to New Zealand, even as there is still clearly work to do.

If we acknowledge that libraries are colonizing structures, we should ask what it would mean to not have the library define itself, but to listen to the people who are in the library, but not of the library?  How can we make space, fight for space so that the definition of library emerges from the community in which the library sits, so that the library becomes indelibly the community?

We need to move away from the language of “user” because that privileges the buildings and structures of libraries.  I want to follow Chris Bourg here in emphasizing that what our responsibility is, is to our community.  This word “community” does an end-run around “users”–because the construction of user suggests that the significant people to libraries are only those who are in their buildings or in their systems.  But our responsibility is to our community, whether they are “in the library” or not..

I want us to think of and speak about and emphasize Libraries as a social place, with a mission that is beyond content.  

Who is in your library?  Who is of your library?  

Public libraries have a much better handle on this than academic libraries.  There’s far less “how do we get them to library the way we want them to” in the air in public libraries, and we in academic libraries would do well to pay more attention.  This, too, anthropological approaches can help with.  But only if we follow the line of anthropology that moves away from colonizing structures.

He aha te mea nui o te ao?

(What is the most important thing in the world?)

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

(It is the people, it is the people, it is the people)

 

 

 

References:

Bourg, Chris  “Feral Librarian” (blog) https://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/

de jesus, nina. “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.” (2014). http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

Ettarh, Fobazi “WTF is a Radical Librarian Anyway?” (blog) https://fobaziettarh.wordpress.com/

Hathcock, April “At the Intersection” (blog) https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/

Johnson, D. (1982). Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service. African Affairs, 81(323), 231-246. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/721729

Leonard, Wesley. “Challenging” Extinction” through Modern Miami Language Practices.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35, no. 2 (2011): 135-160.http://uclajournals.org/doi/abs/10.17953/aicr.35.2.f3r173r46m261844?code=ucla-site

Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (2001). Handbook of ethnography (pp. 1-7). P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, & S. Delamont (Eds.). London: Sage.pp.66-67

Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda “Making Meaning of ‘Decolonizing’” Medium, Feb 20, 2017 https://medium.com/@chanda/making-meaning-of-decolonising-35f1b5162509

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd., 2013.

Te Ahi Kaa, Whakatuki for 26 May 2013, Radio New Zealand http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/teahikaa/audio/2556269/whakatuki-for-26-may-201

Unsettling America (blog) https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/

 

Welcome! Where do you Belong?

Well!

For those of you catching up (that, er, would include me), my family and I are living in the UK for a year.  The fact that we were already in the UK at the end of July meant that I actually got to attend the International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries conference (formerly known as “the Northumbria conference,” apparently), held in Oxford this year.

I was presenting along with Andrew Asher on our project (along with many other partners in crime) on a Day in the Life of our students.  There’s a version of our paper here, from what we as a group presented at LAC in 2016 , and the paper we presented in Oxford will be in the forthcoming conference proceedings.

We also, Andrew and I, were invited to run a workshop on ethnographic observations.  It was (it always is) great fun, and I enjoyed being reminded again about the power of qualitative research, and the insights and rich data even just 15 minutes of observing can yield.

The last time I was in Oxford was in 2014, and I was just a tourist, up for a day of wandering about.  I wrote about part of my experience at the time–I found Oxford lovely, but distanced.  It was a place I could never see myself being comfortable in, full of gates and doors that were closed, and walls with no entrances at all.

It was in stark contrast to my experience of Cambridge in the following Spring, which is weird when you think about it, because Cambridge too has walls and gates and closed doors.  The two places are often mentioned in the same breath, the same word, “Oxbridge.”  The difference to me (this will not surprise you) is that I was invited to Cambridge.  

I felt welcome in Cambridge because I’d been invited.  I am still leery of Oxford because that initial feeling that I didn’t belong there has never really worn off.  So, Cambridge probably isn’t actually more welcoming.  I was just invited.  

And the fact is I get invited.  I am a white middle class academic woman and I am a category of person by whom very few people feel threatened and to whom an inordinate amount of privilege accumulates.  My subjective experience of the world is generally:  I get invited.  I therefore have serious responsibilities to those who do not.

There have been events in the last few months that have generated discussions online and f2f that are shaping the ways I am thinking about inclusivity, welcoming, belonging.  How do we as people who work within institutions achieve the “inclusive,”what does “welcoming” actually mean, how do people come to feel they “belong?”

Fobazi Ettarh, Chris Bourg, April Hathcock, and several people within the #DigPed community, especially Maha Bali and Sherri Spelic, have been writing in and around these themes.  Who is welcome?  How is it signaled (or not)? What does it mean for those positioned outside?  

There are far too few people who feel welcome in our public spaces, in our gatherings, in our discussions, in our institutions, in our cities, in our countries.

If we have to explicitly call out people as welcome, then we leave other people out. So, how do we create inclusive spaces without the “welcome” problem?  I am thinking of a student I interviewed in the Spring–we were talking about belonging, and how he identified spaces where he belonged.  He was an international student, a graduate student from Pakistan, and he said that in North Carolina, for him, comfortable spaces were ones where he could look around and see lots of different kinds of people. Homogeneous spaces in North Carolina were usually people “not like him,” and a visible mix of a wide range of people signaled to him that he might have a chance to belong.

The places we create need to have “welcome” baked into them, and they need to be collectively created, not made by one category for another, but held across a range of perspectives, as a community.  This process requires letting go of ownership by the people who have power, influence, invitations.  It requires thinking about who has license to create and occupy places, and what history, what power relations are behind that license.  Places like Cambridge and Oxford were never built to be welcoming, they epitomize the architecture of exclusion and privilege.  But, such architecture, such structures do not have to be so obvious to be effective.   

Labeling ourselves as “welcoming” and “nice” is part of the problem.  We need, as April Hathcock has said in more than one context, to do the work, to sit with the more than occasionally uncomfortable realities of power and privilege.  Lorraine Chuen points this out in regard to conference codes of conduct:  we cannot simply assert that we are “nice”and think that means something to people who have been excluded and defined as “outside.”

So, in the short-to-medium term, in the work that I do, I want to turn to ways that students are finding and building places that they belong, the barriers they encounter, the help they find, and what success and failure in those endeavors might look like.  The conversations I had in the Spring are, I hope, a start towards informing institutional practices that can give students and faculty the space and the tools to make the places of the university (including the library) truly collectively held.

 

Education, Employability, Citizenship, the TEF (and me)

Last week, on the day that the TEF was originally supposed to be released, I delivered a keynote to the lovely and engaged crowd at the University of Gloucester’s Festival of Learning (you can see the conversations that ranged throughout the day at the #GlosLearn17 hashtag on Twitter, see the Storify here, and read two blogs thus far from David Webster and Lawrie Phipps about the day).

Today, on the day that the TEF results are actually released, I have the time to blog my talk.

(twice, it turns out, because the internet ate this post once already)

 

First, of course, thank you to David Webster for inviting me, and giving me the chance to share my thoughts.

 

I wanted in this talk to discuss the work I’ve been doing in collaboration with UNC Charlotte’s center for teaching and learning, how that fits into my larger body of work, and what I think is at stake when we talk about teaching and learning practices  in the education sector.  Within the #GlosLearn17 audience were not just HE folks, but people from FE, colleges, and primary and secondary education.  While my examples here are from HE, I think they have implications for the sector as a whole, and I’m keeping all of the various locations in mind when I think and talk about this.

 

As always, I come at this topic as an anthropologist, and while my job is situated in the library, my body of work is about far more than the library.  I am a researcher of academic practices (and the motivations behind those practices, and the contexts in which they occur).  As such, my work is not bounded by the institution, any more than the lived experiences of our students are.

I have blogged about the Active Learning Academy at UNC Charlotte before, and won’t rehearse it all again here, but I did, in the talk, go over what we had done as a case study for paying close attention to teaching and learning practices.   My role in the collaboration has always been to help observe and analyze the behaviors we saw in the classrooms, and also to help facilitate conversations among faculty and students about what’s working (and not) in the active learning environments.

I try, when I talk about these spaces, not just to point to the physical renovations (and the funding from Academic Affairs) that gave us these spaces, but to emphasize the importance of the continuing professional development community that the CTL and our Office of Classroom Support (and the continuing funding that requires).  I also point out that the initial design of our classrooms is based on a great deal of research on the part of my colleague Rich Preville, who drew in particular on the SCALE-UP model.



This shows some of the kind of work that’s possible in rooms like these–even in the first year of our Active Learning Academy, we had faculty members who were practiced in active teaching pedagogy practices, even in rooms that did not facilitate them (such as lecture halls).  The primary work of the Active Learning Academy leadership team was to provide faculty a chance to talk to and learn from each other about active learning.  The CPD piece was at least as important to us as the building of the rooms–we knew that the rooms were only the beginning, if what we wanted to do was to transform teaching and learning practices in a sustainable way.

In this CPD environment we captured some of the anxieties of the faculty:

“No time! to develop curriculum that maximizes the effectiveness of the room

[Tenure…]”

Faculty expressed concern about the time necessary (and not always available) to really sit down and work through their teaching practices to best align with active teaching and learning goals and with departmental mandates about delivery of content.  This is a real struggle–teachers who want to explore active teaching and learning are often told that this is in opposition to the teaching of a particular subject.  The “education is a process” piece is in tension with the “education is the delivery of content” piece, and the latter has a tremendous amount of traction, institutionally.

“–not enough computers

–electricity for laptops

–keeping students off FB and on task”

Present in the conversations were notions of scarcity–both of resources and of attention.  Will the room be enough?  How can we focus?  What do we focus on in rooms like this?  How do we get students to pay attention to ME?  Faculty under the impression that effective teaching requires students to pay attention to their performance as a lecturer (rather than engaging with the substance of the course) struggled here.

There was also an ever-present concern about the need to “train” students to use the technology (another blow to the “digital natives” canard).  I’m afraid we set this one up, in the first year, by front-loading the faculty orientations to the active learning classrooms with “tech training.”    We made the mistake of starting with “what button to push” rather than centering the approach around teaching and learning (we have since fixed that)

Positive things that emerged from these conversations were around what kind of teaching faculty could do, and what sort of learning they facilitated and witnessed.

“Inquiry assignments work great!

Spontaneous “write-think” exercises

Discussions are more productive”

Faculty can see real impact in their classrooms with these techniques, even as they are concerned about what else they could be doing, and how much more they can push their practices.   Faculty see more engagement and more interest, not just from their students, but from themselves.

There are at least 25 years worth of research pointing to active teaching and learning as more effective educational practices–far more research than points to the efficacy of lecture, for instance.  We have instructors who engage with these practices even when the physical spaces they have to teach in do not facilitate them.  They figure out ways to be modular in their approach, because the institutional spaces of the university do not universally have “active learning” as their default.

So why, at UNC Charlotte, or at any university engaging with active learning practices and spaces, aren’t these the default?  What right do we have as educators to not have this be the default?  Whether or not we engage in the active learning agenda is a social justice issue.*  We have an ethical obligation to engage with these practices.  

Why do barriers exist when we know that this is a better, more effective way of teaching?

https://flic.kr/p/cHzEMU By @sandymillin

Exercises like the TEF are symptomatic of the tensions between what is effective, and what is being assessed.  Extra-institutional forces continue to define education as filling students with buckets of content, rather than framing education as processes that can be engaged in within the context of any number of different subject matters.  Institutions and instructors are assessed/evaluated on outcomes, not processes.  Teaching strategies are homogenized across Quality Assurance frameworks** without talking about diversifying and widening access to education, expanding the ranges of effective practice, or about processes of education and the complex ways that can prepare our students to be citizens.  Checkboxes and metrics reduce teaching and learning to commodities that we sell our students.  We see this in higher education, especially in institutions that are historically positioned as “teaching” institutions.  The prestigious, research-centered institutions are the ones who are most likely to have the privilege to evade frameworks like the TEF, and also some narratives of employability.

The fees system that is relatively new to the UK is old news in the US.  And the narrative of skills and jobs and credentials and what kind of degree will “get you a job” isn’t new in the US either.  In her book Lower Ed, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom points to the systemic, structural problems underlying the rhetoric of “skills” education as a solution for a crappy economic situation, and a stratified, racist society.   Lower Ed is an ethnography of for-profit institutions of further education (that is, those for whom student fees go to profit executives and investors rather than get put entirely back into the running of the institution).  Tressie makes the compelling case that these institutions are the logical progression of “employability” narratives, setting up students to pay more money and go back again and again to get credentials to make themselves marketable.  

She furthermore makes the point that Lower Ed is a state of mind, not just a kind of institution.  And therefore the book Lower Ed contains lessons for all of us in higher and further education.  The responsibility of universities is not to provide jobs–that’s what the economy is for.  If we want to improve our students’ prospects, says Tressie, we fight for jobs programs, we work within political and economic systems.  Education is potentially a collective social good, but we have lost that thread, she argues in her book, we have allowed it to become commodified into an individual good.  Making education into “training” is Bad Education.  It is not the kind of education that results in informed, productive, engaged citizens.

Education cannot just be (never has entirely been about) filling students with content, but is (should always be) about engaging in processes of critical thinking, learning together, of knowledge creation as well as consumption and critique.  The passive consumption of content is what has got us here, in this particular moment, in this political situation, in my country, and in the UK.  This is about more than what happens in educational settings, this is about what is at stake for our communities.

In the same way that I find Dr, Tressie Macmillan Cottom’s work an antidote to employability narratives, I find Dr. Bon Stewart’s work an antidote to the notion of education as limited to “what we do in school.”  Her recently formed project, Antigonish 2.0 hearkens back to an adult education experiment of the 1920s-40s in Nova Scotia.  I am going to quote from Bon’s blog here:

Its vision was as education-focused as it was economic, with an emphasis on building literacy as an avenue toward civic participation. The Antigonish Movement addressed people’s poverty and lack of agency by creating collaborative capacity for pushing back on the structures of their disenfranchisement.

I want to try it again. But I want to focus on a different sort of poverty and disenfranchisement: our current, widespread incapacity to deal with our contemporary information ecosystem and what the web has become. The attention economy and the rising specter of “alternative facts” create demographic and ideological divides that operate to keep all of us disenfranchised and disempowered. Antigonish 2.0, therefore, is a community capacity-building project about media literacy and civic engagement.”

The point is that education cannot simply be about what happens in universities, colleges, schools.  Education is about more than school, or work, it is about our lives, in their entirety.  The problems we face, of politics and economy and of society at large, these are problems and contexts that we must tackle collectively, and with all of the capacities that process-centered education can build.

I have been thinking in terms of citizenship.  There’s a wide-ranging semi-structured conversation on digital citizenship happening at the #digciz hashtag on Twitter, on YouTube, as well as in numerous blogging spaces, and I encourage you to check those out.  When I talk about citizenship, I mean it very broadly, in terms of civic participation in service of a common good.  It’s a social value, not an individual one, for me.  

As a community of educators, we need to  collectively move practices to a place where we can do what we know is effective.  We have that responsibility, and we need to figure out how to do this– not just for the education sector, but for our countries, our communities, our people however we define them.  How do we practice education in a way that allow us to access social good, not just valorize education as an individual good to be exchanged for jobs?

 

What are we telling our students, through our practices?

 

What are we telling each other, as colleagues and peers?

 

 

 

 

 

 

*e.g. Freeman, Scott, et al. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.23 (2014): 8410-8415.

** BURKE, Penny Jane, STEVENSON, Jacqueline and WHELAN, Pauline (2015). Teaching ‘Excellence’ and pedagogic stratification in higher education. International Studies in Widening Participation, 2 (2), 29-43.

Connect : Disconnect

 

I am back home after a week and a half in the UK and I’m full of thoughts about the ways that people talk about Digital (especially tools) when what they mean to discuss are People.  Or, Organizations.  Or, Processes.  

I was part of the group who put on #FutureHappens in London (well it’s a trio really at this point, not grand enough to be a triumvirate though) and while we do say (or, I do say) “We don’t know what’s going to happen” at these events, we really kind of do.  We start the conversation off talking about tech of some kind, and end up talking about people and processes.  In this case we talked about teaching and learning, through the lens of social media.  Not social media in isolation, but very specifically in context, and the rules were we needed to do it constructively.

The “we” there is the other folks in the room too, of course, they are the main content of these events (which I’d like to stop calling Hacks, because of the gendered nature of that language, and I’m working on convincing my partners in crime on this).  And the people in the room were encouraged to get all of their anxieties and fears and also hopes out of the way (as it were) before getting into the core of the day, where we worked through the setups (you can see them on the website).  These I found fascinating, and so while others have written about the day as a whole, I want to focus on the Burnt (that’s what we called this preliminary part) in particular.

And I want to especially focus on the discussion I saw, in post-its and in the room, around connection and social media.  During the event, while people were discussing and working, I took the things that they had written on their respective “Burnt” post-its and clustered them into themes  It seemed to me that when people had hopes for social media, it circles around connection.  This is characteristic of people who work in teaching and learning who have experienced the ways that social media (across various places and platforms) can connect students to each other, to faculty members, to their interests in their course of study, and to the wider world.

Some of these connections were positive.  Some of these connections were negative.   So, when people have fears around social media, they also circle around connection.  To whom were student being connected?  To supportive community members?  To bullies?  To places and people they did not understand?  To places and people they could see themselves as a part of?  

Likewise there was a (to me) unexpected discussion of disconnection (I know, I should have expected it).  There was a thread that worried that social media use and presence would facilitate disconnection of students, from the same list of people and places–from each other, from their teachers, from their communities.  And from themselves–a sense that engaging with social media can be inherently alienating from one’s self, that one can be lost, that the authentic self (whatever that means) can become subsumed in the surfaces of social media performance.

I think that where we can get into trouble is when we assume that one will crowd out the other.  That you are either connected, totally, or disconnected, totally.  When the fact is, as with the V and R continuum, (any continuum!!) there are many in-between points, and many places where we are both, just in different contexts.

So, a student in class on social media might be disconnected in one sense from the room, but connected in another sense to peers outside of the room, or even practitioners relevant to the discussion in the room..  Or, students can be disconnected from one group online even as they engage intensely with another.  Or, students can connect with one aspect of themselves while de-emphasizing another.  These are not monolithic states.  They are modes that shift, with priorities and practices.

So, do social media practices connect or disconnect?  

Yes.

 

When people are connected to one group, does it come at the expense of connection to another?   Is connection a zero-sum game?

What is the utility of disconnection, of being aware of practices and places elsewhere, but leaving them alone?  

I don’t, as usual, have answers.  But I think this dyad, connect: disconnect, has something to it.  It’s not just about engagement, it encapsulates fears and hopes that people have for digital places in higher and further education.  From whom are we disconnected?  To whom are we connected?  Who is missing?  Who can help?  Who can hurt?

Social media is another place full of people.  The perils of humanity don’t disappear in digital places, and are frequently amplified.

So, what will we make of this?  What can we create with digital, rather than take as given?

 

These are the questions I continue to have.

 

Being a Leader isn’t about You

Look, I am aware of the ego it takes to get up in front of people and hold forth about things, I’ve been doing that for just a little while now and I’m a Leo so it works for me (and, I hope, for the people who invite me).  And I likewise think it probably takes a fair amount of ego these days to think to oneself, “You know, I really would like to lead X”  where X might be a department, a trade union, a library, a university, a town, a country, or your very own piece of the interwebs.

The thing is, for it to be a good move for more than just you, the desire to lead cannot end with “I’d like to be in charge.”  It really shouldn’t start there, either.  I am living in a country where ‘I’d Like to be in Charge” is currently in the White House, my State Legislature, and also occupying the majority of both national Houses of Congress.  ‘‘I’d Like to be in Charge” with an added dollop of “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” is currently riding roughshod over the social contract in the UK as well as in the US, deciding that coalitions are for losers and that caring for the welfare of other people is a sucker’s game.

There are likely several ways to be a toxic leader but this highly- visible -at- this- particular- moment model of “Leadership for the Sake of Me and Screw You Guys” (even as the rhetoric of these leaders is about countries, groups, people, institutions) is to my mind one of the most toxic.  Leadership for personal gain serves no one but the person in the leadership position.

That’s not the kind of leadership we need, if we are concerned about our society.   Or any other collection of people.

So when I and my ego get up in front of people in leadership positions in education next week, I want very much to swiftly reach a point where we are NOT talking about them as individuals.

Even as I recognize they are people.

Even as I emphasize that their humanity is a crucial part of their leadership potential.

In the Jisc Digital Leaders course I will be resisting any requests for to-do lists, or top-tips around practice.  I will be attempting, even as I get people to talk and think about themselves, to center other people in the minds of the participants.  Many of them will show up already with this orientation.  We start people off with examining their individual practices because that’s an important way in to thinking about the logics of those practices, and the logics of other people.  We move from mapping their individual digital and physical practices to a broader consideration of their organizational practices and priorities because that should be the point when you are in a leadership position:  everything except yourself.

Who you are as a leader is to some extent about you as a person, but effective constructive leadership is also about what you would like to do, and for whom you would like to do these things.  Leaders should value the voices of others, and de-center themselves as much as possible because collective action is effective action, and requires many, not few, or one person’s priorities.  Leaders should give more credit than they take, because they are confident enough in themselves and the strengths of their team to allow others to shine and pull their weight, and be seen and heard.

When I think about effective leadership, I recognize the importance of leaders bringing their own particular set of expertise to their work.  I also want leaders who don’t know everything, but are willing to learn.  I want leaders who don’t have to do everything, and who trust enough to delegate.  I want leaders who know enough to let go of control, because none of us really have it anyway.  We need, collectively, leaders who can see the places where they can and should work towards change in their organizations, in their communities, and recognize the need to do so collectively, and decidedly not from a place of “Good Thing I’m in Charge.”

I am looking forward to the work and conversations we engage in next week.  And hope the work continues beyond the confines of the course itself.  The course is ostensibly about “Digital Leadership” but our need to create and sustain effective, constructive leadership models is about more than digital places and practices.  We need them as a counter to the toxic leaders we have facilitated in the past, and which threaten us now.

Both motivational images courtesy of Lawrie Phipps.

Spring Tour 2017

My front yard this Spring.

It’s that time of year again, the time of year that I have been lucky enough to enjoy in a very particular way for the past 3 years.  I like Spring for a number of reasons, but these last few years I’ve been so pleased (and lucky) to be able to combine this season with chances to travel, to talk to people, to learn new things, and to think about new projects.  And also, have fun.  Because otherwise I’m not entirely sure what the point is.  Especially now that the world is on fire.

At this point in the year I’ve usually already been traveling, but I’ve been at home in Charlotte from January through now (with a hiatus in February to help my parents move), and have been getting to do productive work on how our attempts to remove barriers for students who are also parents (in the form of our Family Friendly Room) have been going, and what the implications are for future work we might do.  That (just completed!) internal report is going to form the core of a book chapter, so I’m glad I’ll get to share that with a wider audience than just my library.

I’ve also run some exploratory focus groups asking students to talk about places where they like to be on campus (versus places they *have* to be), and beginning to gather information about what goes into feelings of “belonging” for students.  I get to draw on the photo diary evidence we’ve been collecting since 2011 for context, as students have always taken pictures of favorite places, places where they feel lost, and now we are going to get to do a deeper dive into what makes something a favorite, and what are the things that contribute to being “lost.”  I don’t know what the results of our belonging project are going to look like, or just how far we’re going to take it, but I want to point out that Krista Harper has been working on similar issues with her team of student researchers at UMass Amherst and I hope at some point to connect our results with hers.

This Spring, so, has already been different, but there are things about it that will also be the same.  In things different:  the first place I get to go is Canada! This month I have the great pleasure of being invited by my colleagues Margy McMillan and Leeanne Morrow to run workshops in Calgary, for teams at Mt Royal, and at the University of Calgary.  I’ve never been to that part of Canada, and while it will be a short trip, I am going to make the most of my time there.  And possibly also shop for some shoes.  Boots?  Possibly boots.

In May, I get to be on the team delivering the latest iteration of the Jisc Digital Leaders Course, and I get to go back to Manchester.  I’ll be working for the first time running a workshop with Zoe Gardiner, and get to work again with Lawrie Phipps, James Clay,  and Chris Thomson, and I expect to be exhilarated and exhausted at the end of it all.  Before that, I will be experimenting again with a FutureHappens Hack in London, this one on social media, and a part of the schemes of Peter Bryant and Dave White (which I do not entirely understand, but am happy to be along for the ride, and for the beers and gin we will drink afterwards.  And possibly beforehand).

In June, I get to be a part of the team hosting the third UXLibs, and I get to hang out with (among others) the marvelous Meredith Evans in Glasgow (I miss getting to do so in Charlotte).  I HAVE NEVER YET BEEN TO SCOTLAND Y’ALL and I am going to dash over to have a gander at Edinburgh and will also wish I had more time to drive around (or, more likely, be driven around) and see All The Things because I’ve heard the Scottish landscapes are like Irish ones on steroids and I wanna see that.  No matter how much it rains.

And also in June, I’ve been invited by David Webster to participate in University of Gloucestershire’s Festival of Learning.  I’m talking a lot about teaching and learning this Spring, and happy to be able to draw on the work I’ve been doing with our Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte, and our active learning initiatives on campus.

And then I will need to go back home, and apply for the visas I and my family need for us to spend the 2017-18 academic year in Kingston, UK.  I am excited and worried about all that we don’t know and can’t control, but am truly hoping this year will give all of us space to find new possibilities.

As I have gotten to each Spring, since 2014.  Thank you for the invitations.  I will see some of you very soon.

Fearing the worst, and hoping for the best

harold-judy-michelle-1971

Myself and my parents in 1971

In 2016 I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to the UK and Ireland.  In the Spring, in the run up to the Brexit vote, I got a lot of questions about the US elections in the Fall.  What did I think would happen?  What am I going to do “when Trump is elected President?”  I would say the same thing:  “I can’t think about him winning.  I have to trust that my next President will be Hillary Clinton.”

It wasn’t exactly denial of reality.  I know how racist and sexist my country is.  And I witnessed, in June, the shattering reality of how racist and isolationist Britain had also become, with the Brexit vote that many of my friends hoped would not happen.  They weren’t exactly in denial either.  They knew what their worst fears were, and how they were grounded in reality.  But they wanted, as we frequently do, to hope for the best.  

So, all year I hoped for the best, and feared the worst.

In my family, dementia is a thing.  It’s shot through my Cajun family tree, with generations before me dotted with people who began suddenly and without much warning (except from the experience of previous generations) to lose themselves in their early 60s, in their 70s, and if they were lucky in their 80s.  The early-onset piece of it has really flared up in the last two generations, and my father used to joke edgily about it.  Daddy would suggest that his losing his keys, forgetting what he was getting at the store, all the various things that distraction would steal from our memories, was just “early-onset” losing himself to the family tradition.

About two years ago, he and my mother joked with each other that it seemed, on the cusp of his 68th birthday, that he’d dodged the family bullet, with no symptoms to speak of.  He was thinking that his worst fear might not come to pass, that hoping for the best had paid off,

In 2016, starting in 2015 actually, my father began to lose himself, and I am losing him, too.  He cannot walk easily, he responds in monosyllables to things that used to elicit fiery paragraphs.  He went to bed early the night of the 2016 election, this man from whom I inherited so much of my passionate care about the world and what happens in it.  There are flashes of him here and there, I witnessed some over this winter break, especially when my baby nephew was nearby.  Sometimes he makes it known that he hears what is happening, and remembers what has gone before.  But he is clearly trapped, and fading away.

We had all hoped for the best, fearing the worst.  And now the worst has come to pass.

This is hereditary, what is happening to my father, so I fear this worst for me, too, and for my children.  And still I hope for the best.  

Because in hoping, my father did not just deny what might happen (what is happening), he lived and fought and loved despite his fears.  He was afraid of dogs, but I had an airedale terrier as a pet from the ages of 5 until 8.  He was afraid that something would happen to me or my brother as we played outside, but I spent so much of my childhood hiking, biking, climbing trees, on beaches and up mountains, I was fully grown and a parent myself before I realized the extent of my father’s fears.  

He was afraid of the dementia that waited for him.  He did not hide waiting.  He lived his life.

There are some big changes waiting for me this year, ones that I know about, and I’m sure ones that aren’t quite visible yet.  My family and I will be moving to England for a year, starting in August.  My mother is going to be making big decisions about where she and my dad need to go, to spend the rest of their lives.  My Elder Teen is going to start her last year of high school while we are living abroad, and my Younger Teen will be doing his first year of high school at the same time.  I have hopes, and of course fears.  I am not unique in this.  

My work is shifting in interesting ways–I have always talked about more than libraries, and will continue to do so, in new environments and familiar ones.  I’ve already got some invitations to work lined up, and it includes at this point more workshops, fieldwork, and other interactions and less standing and talking.  In terms of content, I have hopes and fears in my work, that I’ve expressed over the past year, fears about the increasing prominence of technological solutions in contexts that should instead require more engaged human labor, should pay attention to processes rather than hard-stop fixes.  I worry about the diminishing value of expertise, of the continuing turn to entrepreneurs rather than to educators and professionals.  This is not unique to education, and I am not unique in these fears.

And of course there will be big and frightening changes in the political landscape that I need to figure out ways to resist, shape, and endure, as do we all.  I don’t know what that will look like, but am trying to pay attention to people who know much more than I do about what’s coming, so that I can actually be helpful.  I am not unique in these fears.

So these posts that have piled up in the end of 2016, and beginning of 2017, the people far more eloquent and knowledgeable than I am speaking of hope and action, they remind me as does my father that fear does not eliminate hope.  That hope should not allow us to forget difficult realities.  That hope is an action, and fear cannot be a reason for inaction.  We are all afraid, at some point.  We are not unique in this way.

 

We don’t have the luxury of inaction.

 

 

 

Thinking Critically about Scholarship, Teaching and Learning

city-of-charlotte

Downtown Charlotte, NC, on the morning of the UNC Charlotte-Kingston University London Critical Thinking Symposium, October 2016.

I have been recently following the #edu16 Educause tweets, and the responses to the recent NMC report on digital literacy.  The rhetoric coming from Educause (excepting the talk given by Chris Bourg, of course) and contained within the NMC report seemed very much the sort of thing I (not alone, of course) have argued against in the past–a model of teaching and learning and technology that focuses on problems to be solved, and solutions that can be purchased.

I have been more fortunate, in the last month, to have had the opportunity to attend two different events that have challenged me in very different ways to think about the outside-of-academia forces that shape the ways we approach teaching, learning, and research.  

At Triangle SCI we worked in teams across a range of scholarly communication challenges

  • the need for the integration of Global South scholars and scholarship into conversations and processes that continue to be dominated by the more resource-rich Global North
  • the desire to provide a solution for scholars to make their web presence, network of colleagues, and scholarly content connected and visible independent of commercial platforms  
  • to move away from the quantified scholarly self and towards a set of values that are more humane, less gamified, more oriented towards living a good scholarly life
  • to provide structures for small scholarly societies to persist and serve their communities
  • to get a handle on and move towards solutions for the range of issues that arise with digital editions

A persistent theme that emerged from all of the teams (more details on each challenge can be found here) was the need for collective action, for consolidated work that is accountable to many parties, for solutions generated from consortia and groups rather than handed to us by commercial products, and an underlying feeling that we must be in control of our own destiny, not swept along by the “solutions” being handed to us.

A consistent worry was the pressures of assessment, of tenure and review processes, of accreditation that push scholars and their universities towards assuming that measuring scholarship, quantifying impact, are the right things to do to demonstrate value.  These pressures come from political pressure, from skepticism about the worth of universities, increasingly framed with language such as “Return on Investment.”  Our search for solutions was in part a reaction to these pressures, and attempt to take back the rhetoric around scholarship so that it is not reduced to an economic model of value, but that retains and expands our notion of worth to include human, collective, unquantifiable (dare I say qualitative) values.  We as a room were pushing back against the quantified scholar, the transactional university, the techno-solutionism that reduces teaching, learning, and research to problems to be solved.

And then I attended the UNC Charlotte-Kingston University London Critical Thinking Symposium, where we spent an earnest two days talking about, collectively defining, and thinking about the role that our teaching and learning practices do or don’t facilitate critical thinking, and how important it is to effective scholarship and citizenship.  The 200 or so people attending the symposium were a mix of interested parties from across the Carolinas, from academic departments, assessment offices, centers for teaching and learning, libraries, administration, writing centers, and even some vendors.  And in our conversations, it was clear that we were trying to revive and recenter the values of a liberal arts education, we were trying to both respond to and counter the “employability” narrative that reduces education to a professional qualification.

The thing is, in that room, we were having earnest conversations about teaching and learning and citizenship and the crucial role critical thinking has to play.  But outside of the room, the conversations around the buzz-phrase “critical thinking” aren’t coming from any of those concerns, but rather from a desire to control and constrain the academy, and universities in particular.

All of these conversations are taking place in a larger context (#anthropology #drink) of suspicion of universities and the role they play.  The call for “standardized tests for critical thinking” don’t actually come from a concern for that capacity, they come from a place of surveillance and suspicion.  This is assessment as controlling process.

There are so many tools and platforms to facilitate that paradigm of education, one overdetermined by quantification and technology.  The collective critique by Audrey Watters of not just edtech but of the ways education is approached regardless of technology is instructive here.

I am thinking aloud about all of these things because of this recent post from Jisc by Lawrie Phipps, asking for feedback about “next generation learning environments.”  So I have some hopes and fears for this

My fears are that “nextgen learning environments” will be amplifications of all that is problematic in current platforms and systems that take as their assumptions the closed, controlled, quantified, content-based education that many see in now-traditional VLE/CMSes. That the desire to control the academy will result in more reification of silos, more ways to measure, more attention to buckets of content.   That the result will be to remove more people from the workflows of teaching and learning, and leave more work for the algorithms to do.

My hopes are that this is an opportunity to de-center platforms, and to re-imagine teaching and learning around the values of scholarship that we discussed at length at TriangleSCI, and were earnestly trying to get at during the Critical Thinking Symposium.  That is be a way to enact and make visible the networked human processes of scholarship.  That it be a way to fight the reduction of academia to a factory for publications and “employable” students.   A way to have more humanity, and more and more varied kinds of humans, participating in and producing  scholarship.  That this can be another chance for us to direct more of the conversations around teaching and learning and scholarship, rather than simply react to these persistent outside forces.

Do you share the same hopes and fears?  Do you have different ones?  Then I will suggest you go tell him your thoughts – go tell Lawrie, and Jisc, what we need to be built, and what not to build, what is important, and what is a distraction.

Please.