Monthly Archives: October 2016

Thinking Critically about Scholarship, Teaching and Learning


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.


Advocacy, Critique, and Communities of Practice

picture by Juliann Couture, another partner in anthro Crimes.  Myself and Andrew after we’re done writing and thinking for the day.


Last week Weave, the open access journal for usability in libraries, published a piece that I wrote with Andrew Asher.  The piece, part of their Dialog Box series, was (as is a lot of stuff I publish) a moment that is part of a larger conversation–in this case, one that Andrew and I have been having about what our work looks like in library contexts, over the last several years since we’ve known each other.  

In particular, since he and I have at this point been working for a while now as anthropologists who have academia as their field site, we wanted to raise our heads up, look around, and talk about why, this far into the ethnographic moment in libraries, there are still so few full time positions for anthropologists in libraries.  Our questions were around the structure and culture of libraries because we are:  anthropologists.  And our work usually ends up with us pulling back to get a sense of the bigger picture, to get a sense not just of what things look like, but why.

This work is important right now in part because evidence suggests there’s a great deal of free-floating frustration around what is and isn’t possible in higher education.  Individuals have a few choices when they hit a wall around their practice–they can blame themselves, and decide they are at fault.  They can blame other people, and decide they are at fault.  Or, they can do as Andrew and I are doing and try to look at the bigger picture, and the structures that surround the work we do, and ask:  why does it look this way?  What forces other than individual interest and capability shape practices in libraries, and in higher education generally?

It’s a similar impulse to that which leads people to deconstruct imposter syndrome (you don’t suck, society just sets you up to think you don’t belong, particularly if you are any category of person other than a straight white dude), or which leads people to define educators as ineffective, when their individual practice has less to do with student success than larger contextual problems.  I am, as an anthropologist, a big fan of finding the historical and cultural reasons behind the structures of institutions, as a prelude to describing and situating practice.

The space that classic ethnography provides for open-ended inquiry, for exploring situations without requiring a solution or any other specific output, is something we think is particularly valuable in a time when institutions across the board (eg in industry, in education, in scientific funding bodies) are narrowing the window for people who want to pitch “let’s see what happens” work in favor of “I can fix a problem!” work.  It’s not that problem fixing is bad, per se, it’s just that if that’s all we do, we lose the opportunity to be strategic, to step back, to consider insights that would not otherwise be arrived at when focused on specific things to solve.  Ask anyone who has applied for an NSF grant lately how successful they were with their “We’re not sure what this will do” grant proposal.

So open-ended work without a hard stop is increasingly scarce, and reserved for people and institutions who can engage in it as a luxury (e.g. Macarthur Genius Grant awardees).  But this is to my mind precisely wrong.  Open exploration should not be framed as a luxury, it should be fundamental.  

How do we get networks properly valued as scholarship?  How do we de-center content and outputs in favor of process and community?  How do we get institutions to allow space for exploration regardless of results?

Libraries are not immune to these pressures, obviously.  And we share the frustration of practitioners who know there is more that can be done, because we experience those pressures in our own work.  The critiques we level in this article are aimed squarely at our own practices.  We want to make the case for the work yet to do, for the cultural transformation yet to have.

Shifting methodologies from quant to qual is not enough to effect institutional change away from tactical problem solving to strategic engagement with the situation on the ground.  “Your methodologies will not save you from the culture of libraries.” And there is a continuum of practice, clearly, within qual approaches, getting closer to and further away from classic immersive ethnography.  Which is not bad, it’s just practical.  But it bears identifying and discussing.

And being at TriangleSCI this past week reminded me that qual narratives can be just as misused as quant justifications–it’s never just about the methodology, it’s also about the mindful practice, and the values therein.  This, too, is not a problem unique to libraries

So we hope, if you read this piece, that you engage with it.  In particular I’m interested in a wide range of new work around ethnographic and other qualitative techniques in libraries being pushed forward as a response to our call for more, and different engagement with the possibilities of anthropological ethnography and ethnology.    I know that some of you are working hard on as yet unpublished work–has it been hard to do, because of institutional pressures like we describe here?  Or was it really straightforward, with lots of support?  You know, I hope for the latter, and would love to hear about it.

Our piece is intended as a catalyst for out-loud discussion of what might be possible now that there’s widespread grass-roots enthusiasm about ethnographic techniques.  And want it to provide an opportunity for making these possibilities not just visible but more likely.   To move open-ended inquiry into the core of what we do, not just leave it in the periphery.

Please let us know what you think.  Agree or disagree, but let’s talk.  If not here, then on Twitter, or by submitting a piece of your own to Weave, or some other place where the conversation can continue.

This field, the community of practice involved in UX and ethnography in libraries and elsewhere in higher ed, is strong enough to sustain critique.  It is with such critiques that we can move to create a culture of change.


We look forward to the discussion.