Monthly Archives: April 2014

Post-Digital Learning Landscapes

So I’ve just started to look at what I collected in London last month, but I’ve actually been thinking about and playing with cognitive maps for the past year or so, and I’ve got some preliminary analysis already.

Primarily, what I see in the maps that I collect from undergraduates, post-graduates, and faculty/academic staff are learning landscapes.  There is much talk of learning “spaces,” but I think the problem there with that terminology is that they can be thought of too easily in isolation.  “Landscape” implies a network of spaces, with a relationship to each other.  Some landscapes are extensive, some are relatively local and limited, but they are all networks, and involve buildings, people, technology, modes of transportation, institutional spaces, commercial spaces, domestic places, and so on.  The reasons that people locate themselves in particular places tend to have less to do with the absolute qualities of a particular place, and more to do with a complex calculus of motives, including not just what they want to do in that place, but where they need to be beforehand, and after, with whom they will be (or want to be, or cannot be with).

The map above was generated by a 3rd year student in Project Management for Construction.  He has drawn UCL on the left, and then broken UCL down into the various institutional spaces he visits for his academic work (the Library, lecture halls, tutors’ offices).  These institutional spaces are embedded in a larger network of cafes, domestic spaces, and even (weather permitting) parks.

This MA student in Russian literature has spaces all over London in her map.  Her home has sub-areas she has identified for particular sorts of work, her commute on the bus is earmarked for certain sorts of reading or listening work, and the UCL part of her map includes not just the SSEES library (ostensibly, her academic “home”), but also the Institute of Archaeology library, the Post-graduate common room, the Main library, and various cafe spaces.  She has called out her laptop in the UCL spaces as a crucial part of her landscape.

This faculty member in the Institute of Archaeology has separated his London landscape from his other significant locations, and has included labels for London libraries (the British Library, Senate House, the IoA Library, and in particular the Wellcome Library, limned in red), antiquity societies and museums, the Tube, and his office in the IoA.  Cambridge is important because of its connection to his brother as much as it is for its academic resources.  Yale’s Beinecke gains additional importance because of New Haven’s pizza.  His home setup is represented by him in an armchair with his laptop and a cat.

What strikes me most about these maps, especially given that I followed up the mapping exercise with a structured interview (modeled on the V&R instrument) is the relative lack of representations of “the digital.”  We get some tools (computers, iPods, phones), and occasional representations of places/services such as Dropbox or Evernote, but in general, the digital is shot through these, but invisibly.  If I were to try to layer “the digital” onto a map such as this, it would simply light the entire thing up.

I want to pause here and note that when I first heard “post-digital” in conversation with Lawrie Phipps and Dave White, I was incredibly annoyed.  What on earth could they mean by that?  It smacked of “post-racial,” which in my experience is a phrase used by people keen to deny particular sorts of realities.   But these maps, and the interviews that accompanied them plus the last 3 years (yikes) I’ve spent working on the Visitors and Residents project have apparently made me less resistant to the idea of “post-digital” than I would have been if I’d heard about it when the 52 group (Dave Cormier, Richard Hall, Lawrie Phipps, Dave White, Ian Truelove, and Mark Childs) came up with their concept paper in 2009.

I think I have post-digital learning landscape maps here.  The digital is just understood.  It’s water to these academic fish.  And it’s not just academics; people generally take the digital so much for granted, that when we ask them (as we do in the Visitors and Residents structured interviews) to think about what they do “with technology” or “on the web” they are taken aback, they have to think about disentangling it to talk about it separately, because their everyday practices are so completely wound around digital tools and places.  The role of the digital is practically unspeakable, we in our interviews are asking them to describe what it’s like to breathe.  And when people do talk about technology, it takes very few sentences indeed for them to switch over to talking about people, or information–that is, the stuff they are accessing via technology is far more important, and far more the point, than the technology itself.

From the 52 group’s 2009 concept paper, thanks to Doug Belshaw and his blog for leading the way to the cite:

Not only is the digital subservient to the social, it is, in some ways (and soon most ways), transparent. We are moving towards a postdigital age where the tools driven by the microprocessor are common to the extent to which they will no longer be noticed. As the ‘digital’ calculator and the ‘digital’ watch have become calculators and watches, so will the ebook become a book and IM become ‘message’: the ‘instant’ will be taken for granted. Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”

London Travelogue, Part the Third: Senate House

Thanks to Andrew Praeter and Simon Barron I got a fantastic tour of the Senate House library (and building) just before I left London for home.

It’s a spectacular building–apparently, if WWII hadn’t broken out, it would have been part of a complex that extended all the way up through Gordon Square (right in front of the current Institute of Archaeology building).  Crazy to think about.  It was the first skyscraper in London.

It’s a landmark in Bloomsbury, and I’ve been walking past it for years, never quite realizing that’s what it was.  Senate House is an interesting library in that it’s not attached to any one particular University, but rather has (someone correct me if I’m wrong) member institutions who pay for their students to have access.  Senate House showed up in some of the cognitive maps that I collected from people at UCL, as a place where people enjoyed working.  It’s a lovely building, I adore Art Deco architecture and design, and it’s a pleasure walking around it.  The specific history of the building is fascinating, as there are elements that are simply unfinished (especially decorative flourishes that never happened), because of the War.  The decorative flourishes that did manage to happen are stunning.

Stained glass windows.

The Senate Chamber.  I want to give a talk in this room SO MUCH.

More stained glass.

Beautiful clock (with the reflection of Simon for good measure).

Lovely fabulous marble hall.

The library-specific spaces in Senate House are uniformly Traditional Quiet Library spaces–there are no group study spaces in Senate House (although, apparently, students will walk up to the desk and ask “where are the group study rooms?”).  The assumption is that there are such spaces provided by the home academic departments.  I wonder how accurate that assumption is.

At any rate, as Traditional Library Spaces go, the ones in Senate House are nicely appointed, and are a good fit with contemporary scholarly behaviors (and technology).

This traditional reading room has tables big enough for people to spread out, and also use their laptops/tablets
This reading room used to have desktop computers in it, but they moved those out and now just have large tables as shown.

Self-service laptop checkouts have replaced desktop computers distributed throughout the Senate House spaces. Patrons can take the laptops wherever in Senate House they feel most comfortable working, and don’t have to rely on where computers happen to be, if they don’t walk in with their own devices.  Wireless is throughout the building.
Up in the stacks, there are workspaces as well.  These little window seats have always been popular (windows are popular in Atkins, and really in nearly every library I’ve ever seen, at least in terms of where patrons like to park themselves).  Senate House recently got new fittings for these window areas.
A light, a shelf, a work surface, and outlets/powerpoints.  And, a chair.
There are also these tables, with powerpoints and room to spread out.  The funny pillars on the end of the table are artifacts from when there was a fixed desktop and monitor on one end of the table.  Senate House has moved away from desktops in their library, except where they are used for catalog check stations.
This, however, is my favorite space in Senate House.  Filled with huge tufted leather sofas.  Magic.
Apparently there was some initial worry that the sofas would encourage talking.  I think that the arrangement of them in rows, the fact that they are massive heavy pieces, and the placement of them in a room that is clearly a “Traditional Reading Room” all sets the tone nicely, and it’s clearly a quiet place to study that just happens to be filled with soft seating rather than desks and hard chairs.  I would spend all of my time here, if this were My Library.

London Travelogue, Part the Second: Mostly not London, the Pitt-Rivers Museum (with a bit of the Soane at the end)

My favorite thing about Oxford (once I figured out that DS Hathaway was not in fact waiting for me in a pub alongside the Thames) was the Pitt-Rivers Museum.  You have to walk through the Oxford Museum of Natural History to get to it.

Once I walked into the room, I laughed aloud.  It was 19th Century Anthropology Overload.  It’s magnificent and mad.

Every case is chock-full of artifacts.  Check out that totem pole.

 Pitt-Rivers was an amazing collector, with connections to collectors, explorers, and ethnographers who worked all over the planet.  The Pitt-Rivers Museum’s website is a great resource for visualizing the collection, and exploring as much as they have been able to reveal so far online.  All of the items collected were either given to the collectors as gifts, or purchased from the people who created the artifacts, and then donated to the museum.  The Pitt-Rivers site also describes the rationale for having all of these cases arranged as they are:

“In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the displays are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. Here they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed in groups to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. The cases appear to be very crowded, as a very large percentage of the collection is on view. In some instances the ‘displays’ are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. The small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, are very revealing. We offer more contemporary interpretative displays in our special exhibition gallery.”

Collected by E.B. Tylor!

My problem (you knew there was going to be a problem, didn’t you, I’m just having that kind of week) with these sorts of museums/collections is that they make it terrifically easy for those who are prone to think in terms of Human Universals to continue to think that way.  While a nuanced reading of these packed cases allows us to see the variety of ways that people approach similar natural phenomena, or social phenomena, there is a curious flattening effect that can occur when so much variety is put in a glass case.   It becomes “people all play music!”  “people all represent animals!”  “people do body mods!”  And in the drawing of connections, the distinctiveness of each culture can be lost.

While I value tremendously the sense of shared humanity that anthropology can bring, I think it’s dangerous to take collections of human artifacts from the 19th century, a time of tremendous cultural upheaval and colonial violence, and draw uncomplicated inferences about the shared human condition.  I should be clear here that I do NOT think that is what the Pitt-Rivers museum or their (fantastic) staff are doing.  I do think that this sort of museum is most effectively experienced with some sort of mediation.  The context in which these artifacts were collected is as important to the meaning of the museum as are the artifacts themselves.

The most striking case for me was this one:

Many of the human remains in this case (a two-sided case) were from South American and Papua New Guinea.  They are fascinating, repellent, sad, fierce.  They deserve a book (at least)  all to themselves.  How can we interpret the meaning of these remains in the isolation of the glass case?  How do we dare?

It occurs to me that the Pitt-Rivers collection is of a piece with the Regency House in London that is now Sir John Soane’s Museum .  The architect Soane (who is one of my favorite people only because he designed the TARDIS)  filled his house with furniture, bits and pieces of sculpture, architectural details from buildings, some of it copies some of it originals, from all over Europe, from Egypt, and parts of Asia, in the grand tradition of colonial Britain.  He put together disparate pieces on the same wall, in the same room, according to what he thought went together, regardless of where it came from, of the lost intentions of the people who made it.  He was a magpie, plucking attractive things from their original location, and decorating his own home with them.

Exterior of Soane’s House in London.

I think it’s worthwhile (and I know this is not an original thought on my part) asking what the purpose of such collections was, and is today.   Is it to illuminate the study of form (as was clearly the case with Soane)?  Of function?  Of meaning?  Yes, of all three.  But collections of objects disassociated from their origins,  I think say much more about the collectors of the objects than they do about the the people who created them.

 The Pitt-Rivers museum has a great deal of contemporary interpretation to overlay onto this collection, and their upper galleries take on some of the issues of representation and collections like these.  I suppose everyone can visit the museum they think they are in.  My preference would be that visitors to museums like this be directed very explicitly to the particular nature of collections like these, how situated they are in history, how important it is to approach these objects thoughtfully, as a way of thinking about the people who produced them, not just the scholars, explorers, and colonists who acquired them.

Spectacular mask collected from the NW Coast of N. America.  I am proving my own point by not having recorded which tribe this is from.  I want to say Haida or Tlingit.

London Travelogue, Part The First: Not London, but Oxford and Manchester

So in addition to working in London, I had a couple of chances to do field trips to Very Special Libraries, one in Oxford, and one in Manchester.  The one in Oxford I’ve known about for a while:

The Bodleain

Oxford is lovely, old, and filled with high walls, locked gates, and closed doors.  It is a secret society, I will never know the handshake.
— Donna Lanclos (@DonnaLanclos) March 22, 2014

One of the many beautiful closed doors in Oxford

I know, I know, Oxford is not a “public” university, there should be different notions of access, I cannot expect the walls and gates and doors of Oxford to be open to all comers, because it’s just never been that way.

You have to climb up pretty high to see into the enclosures of Oxford.

But the collective experience of the closed-off feel, the tour wherein we were assured that the most important people in the building were The Scholars (and therefore, Not Us), and signs like this:

No Smoking I can get behind.  SILENCE PLEASE is different.

really hammer it home–“This is not for you.”

The Rylands Library, on the other hand, is a Special Collections library associated with the University of Manchester (a red-brick state school).

You can walk right in, no charge, even if you are not a student (which is not necessarily the case at UCL, even, where you have to swipe your bar-coded-card to enter every library, and most of the academic buildings).  The Rylands is a Gothic Cathedral to knowledge (I’ve blogged about libraries that make me think of ecclesiastical monuments before), and the reading room is open to anyone who wants to work in there, even if they are not working with the Rylands collections.   It’s a beautiful building, and a rare example of an inspiring space that is also accessible.

We talked briefly in our Spaces, Places and Practices seminar about the impact of spaces, in particular Traditional Library spaces that invoke places like the Bodleian and Rylands.  But Traditional Library spaces, while they can be used by students and faculty to get themselves into a desired state of mind (for reading, for writing, for scholarship of various kinds), can also feel exclusionary.  It’s as if some students internalize the signs that the Bodleian puts up (and sells in their gift shop!), and transfer that to all library spaces.  It’s not enough to be respectful of the space, you have to act so that they cannot tell you are there.  SILENCE.  I understand the utility of focus and quiet.  I understand less the signals that emphasize the otherworldly nature of scholarship to the point of alienating people from the traditional places of scholarship.  I am not convinced they are necessary.

They also make me want to stomp my boots and dance around in the courtyard of the Bodleian.

Probably not my dance partner, though.

A Whirlwind March, some Links

#SunnyLondon from Primrose Hill

I am just barely back in the US, I’m quite certain my brain has not arrived yet.  Already there are things on the internet that can give you ideas (because you haven’t been following my every move on Twitter, for which I commend you highly) about what I’ve been up to.  In particular, there are Storifys up of conversations I participated in at the SRHE in London on March 28th, with  Lesley Gourlay, Dave WhiteMartin Oliver, and Ibrar Bhatt. (there will be a podcast of the four talks, I’ll be sure to share the link when I have it), and of the joint UCL-IOE sponsored event, Spaces, Places and Practices, on March 31st, which involved presentations by Bryony Ramsden, Martin Reid and Anna Tuckett, and myself and Lesley Gourlay.

The #UKAnthroLib hashtag was followed by people outside of the room on March 31st, and the enthusiastic reception (and conversations that actually started long before March 31st) resulted in the swift creation (by Georgina Cronin and Andy Priestner) of the new #UKAnthroLib blog, which will involve multiple authors and I hope a great deal of interesting discussion.

Oh and of course there’s the actual research Lesley Gourlay and I did, in partnership with Lesley Pitman at UCL.  The Storifys will give you some sense of the preliminary things we are saying about the data we have collected so far, but I’ve got about 19 hours worth of interviews to get transcribed and then analyze, along with the cognitive maps we collected, and the SUMA data we gathered in each of the site libraries (Bartlett, SSEES, Institute of Archaeology at UCL, and the IOE library as well).  We should have enough analyzed to be able to say something interesting (I hope) at the HECU7 conference in Lancaster (well, Lesley will have to say it for us, as I am not Made of Money), and we have high hopes for more conference presentations (TBA!) in the Autumn.

In the meantime, we will be digging into what we’ve got, and attempting to figure out what we think it means.