Entangled Technology and AAA2013, or, What I did on Friday

My AAA 2013 partners in crime this year were some people I have presented with before (and was delighted to have a chance to again: Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado), and some new-to-me colleagues I look forward to working with some more (Lori Jahnke and Lesley Gourlay).
Andrew brought the donuts. We managed to wait until after our session before eating them. That is some seriously professional self-control. Yes, that is bacon on four of the donuts, from Do-Rite Donuts. The other two were pistachio.
Never let it be said I don’t blog about important things like donuts.
Our session, Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology, (here’s the link to the Prezi we used as a visual aid for the discussion) was a roundtable, where we presented and then connected the work we are engaged in, picking up on four main threads of discussion.
1) How institutional disconnect from student behavior and expectations affects access to education, to information, to what they need to engage with resources they need for their academic work, but also for the life they will build post-college.
Maura and Mariana’s work at CUNY spoke most powerfully to the everyday details of this, but I think Lori’s work text-mining IT and University strategic plans was equally important. The content of those strategic plans is just so strikingly distant from the priorities and realities of students and faculty members in higher education. We need to pay more attention to those sorts of documents, and in particular the urgency with which they need to be informed by social science research results.
2) How cultural, political, and social values are embedded not just in search, but in Higher Ed institutions generally. And again, the impact that has on #1
Andrew is doing such important work with this. Search is a cultural construction. Higher education is a cultural construction. Libraries are cultural constructions. They are not free from the values of wider society, and need to be observed critically if we are to truly concern ourselves with access to higher education, and the benefits, privileges, and problems inherent in the system.
3) The use of anthropological research to ground higher education policy (macro and micro) in the behavior of people, and the potential of the applied anthropological approach to improve outcomes of educational agendas broadly written, where ultimate goal of education is an engaged and informed citizenry.
I think this second theme is also linked to the underlying themes of the Liminality session that NAPA sponsored the previous day. My own work at UNC Charlotte is a nice example of what can happen when administrators are on board with a social science-informed policy perspective. Lesley is also trying through her work to effect change at the University of London.  But not all administrators are sympathetic. It can be challenging to inform policy beyond quantitative metrics, if qualitative approaches are not valued. Our challenge as anthropologists is to insert ourselves into institutional conversations, to become part of organizations that need more qualitative approaches, to provide perspectives that are currently all-too-scarce.
4) Our positions as professional outsiders in higher education contexts, but also as sort of native ethnographers, as we are all products of and participants in the kinds of systems we are studying.
My boss told me today that he values me at least in part because I am an outsider to the library. On the panel, our positions as people both within our institutions and tasked with thinking critically about those institutions can be personally and professionally challenging. And also, terrifically worthwhile.
Andrew, Maura and I live-tweeted this session, and I Storified it rather than put it here, because it’s kind of long.
I also quite liked our session abstract, and since you can’t see it without being a registered AAA member, I am going to reproduce it here:
Abstract:  Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology
“In this roundtable we propose to explore our status, research, and findings as we work as interdisciplinary collaborators with non-anthropologists in academic settings. Our projects initiate and facilitate scholarly as well as policy discussions about the nature of information, the configuration of digital and physical spaces in academia, and the changing state of academic work and scholarly communication in the 21st century. Some of us, employed in academic libraries, are positioned as native ethnographers, as we are tasked with observing and analyzing the thoughts and behaviors of our own communities: the students, faculty, and staff in the practical, everyday spaces of academia. Our outside eye is valuable in pinpointing not just ways that academic institutions and libraries can reshape themselves for the 21st century, but also in illuminating the nature of scholarly work among our peers and the relationship of that work to the world outside of academia. This roundtable provides a forum for sharing our work and our perspectives on anthropology in higher education settings.
The panelists represent a variety of ways that anthropological knowledge and research are presented and conducted. Through a range of methods, including mapping, time logs, drawings, photo diaries, and research process interviews, we have examined how students and faculty engage with and are constrained by technology as they navigate the spaces and systems of academe. As researchers we are diversely engaged, bringing not only anthropological methods and theories to our projects but also the methods and theories of library and information science, science and technology studies, education, sociology, and user experience research.
Our research actively explores the role of technology for students in their academic work at colleges and universities. At this moment when educational technologies are very much a part of the broader, global conversation about the cost and value of higher education, we examine how these technologies constrain and enable students, and how they fit with the essential learning mission of college, especially in the academic library, a traditional locus of student use of information technology. As social scientists embedded in academia, we leverage our research to bring student voices to these discussions. Our studies produce data which may be brought to bear on policy decisions at the college and university, and which has the potential to positively impact student academic success.
As researchers who are well positioned to observe the complex interactions between digital technologies and the social organization and practices of students and faculty member, this roundtable will speak not only to how technologies are used within higher education, but also to broader cultural transformations within and outside the academy. For example, how do political and cultural values embodied in digital tools and technologies constrain or empower students? How do the social contexts of students’ communities and universities affect their technology use? By examining these questions, anthropologists working in higher education can contribute both to improving the learning environments of our universities, but also to better understandings of the meanings, effects, and lived experience of technologies and technological change. “