Tag Archives: anthropology

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/

 

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.

Teaching, Learning, and Vulnerability in Digital Places: Library Instruction West 2016 keynote

I just got back from Salt Lake City yesterday.  I was and still am so pleased and flattered to have this invitation to speak to another group of librarians, another room of my colleagues inspired and challenged by the nature of instruction in and around libraries.  This was my third (out of four) big talk of the Spring, and it was also the one I wrote the last, the one I struggled with the most.  I knew I wanted to say something about vulnerability, but kept coming up against how to frame it, what was the point I wanted to make?  I think in the end I came up with a point, but I confess that it was mostly in the improv around my notes,  in that room this past Thursday morning, that it all came together (you can also see from the Storify ).  Those who were in the room with me may reasonably disagree, of course.

I should also thank before I continue the people who helped me think this through, whether they realized it or not:

@edrabinski  @davecormier

@tressiemcphd  

@slamteacher  @bonstewart

@jessifer  @AprilHathcock

***************************

As an anthropologist who works in libraries, my fieldwork takes me beyond libraries into a wide variety of learning places.  And those learning places are classrooms, cafes, parks, Moodle, Facebook, and Twitter.  I spend a lot of time online and talking about being online, not just in my fieldwork, but in my academic practice.  

Online is a place.  It is not just a kind of tool, or a bucket of content, but a location where people go to encounter and experience other people.  Places, online and otherwise, are made things, they are cultural constructs.  Technology, and the places technology helps create, are likewise cultural constructs, and therefore:  Not Neutral.  They are human, they are made, they contain values.

I am not telling people anything that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth repeating.

Libraries and Librarians aren’t neutral either.  

I see some Librarians try to position themselves as neutral, supportive nurturing helpers, and those who try this are not always good at conveying it.  I think the reason for that is that such neutrality cannot possibly be real–we are all human, we all have biases, we are not “objective” and pretending to be just allows us to deny our subjectivity rather than working through it.  

[at this point I asked the room:]

How many of you have ever been told,

“I have a really stupid question?”

[lots of hands went up.  Seemed like the entire room]

When people walk up and say, “I have a really stupid question,” It’s because they are preemptively signaling they are not comfortable yet.  They don’t feel safe.  So I’m wondering, how do we build, within libraries, and within education generally, places for people to feel safe?

And in thinking about places, I want to ask, where are librarians?  Where do you want to be?  Why do you want to be there? I am making an assumption here that If you are in online spaces, it is to connect, with each other, with students, (not because “it would be cool” please no not that). 

I think presence in those places signals that you care, and value connection, and want to create safe spaces.  How, then, does that affect practice?  How do we think critically about practices such that we can make places feel safe?

How do you become trustworthy?  Not as individuals, but structurally?  What makes it make sense for students or faculty to come to you?  To the Library?  Where else is the library?  Does the persistent question, “why don’t they come to us?” make sense if we are all supposed to be part of the same community?

What do you do to become part of your community?  What do you do that is trustworthy?

And, also, how do you come to trust the people whom you are trying to reach?

How do you find them?  How do you find out about what they are doing and why?  Because it can be difficult to trust people you do not understand.

And this, actually, is part of the problem I have with these notions of empathy as some sort of prerequisite to action, to connection.  I am troubled by the suggestion that you need to muster up empathy first before reaching out to students or faculty.  (Not that I am opposed to empathy, I’m a fan of it in my life and work)  Our students and colleagues are worthy of our respect, they have an inherent human dignity that means it is our responsibility to reach out, to try to connect, whether we have achieved empathetic understanding beforehand or not.

Perhaps, perhaps that empathy actually comes most effectively post-connection.  Empathy is not a prerequisite, but an outcome.

Some of the work I do in my research and practice might point a way towards understanding the motivations behind practices online.

Picture1

Visitors and Residents map, collected from one of the workshops we’ve conducted over the years. Visualizing practices, and online places, is a first important step towards understanding motivations to engage.

I have spoken and blogged before about mapping practices.  In research and in workshops we can get people to talk about where they are online and also how it makes them feel.  People feel about digital places in similar ways to feeling about physical ones–I’ve interviewed students who sigh deeply in dismay at the thought of their Facebook account, full of troublesome family members, or who smile in thinking about their Twitter community, configured carefully so that they can be who they want to be, feel how they want to feel, while in that place. 

Online behaviors are not determined by the venue.  Facebook is not always about what you had for breakfast, and Twitter is not always about politics.  Each of these places, all of the new and old online places, are about people, and choices.  So, mapping, as with the V&R maps, can show us where people are, but the important part is the conversations that are generated, about why they are there (or not).

I think about the emotional associations of institutional spaces, for example in usability studies of library websites revealing the embarrassment and frustration students can feel at not being able to wrangle the website.  In fact, they frequently blame themselves for the tech failure, apologize to us for our crappy websites.  They say they will try again, but when they are away from us, why would they go back?  Who voluntarily goes back to some place that makes them feel stupid?

Picture2

During the Twitter-based #digped discussion in mid-May, there was a discussion about how to make ed tech more human.  This tweet I’ve captured points to some of what I have been turning over in my head about digital and presence.

When thinking about instructional online spaces, I’d like to ask (and I’m far from the only one) how to make them human as well as positive?  How do we build in access to other people, and not just provide buckets of content?  Where are the people in your online learning environment?  Are they connected to each other?  In my experience, students find their human connections outside of the institutional learning environment–they are on Snapchat, on Instagram, in Facebook and Twitter.  So we should continue to think about the role of digital places, outside of institutions as  where connections happen.  

We need to continue to think about identity, and how it plays out online.  Where and how do we develop voices online?

I have been thinking the role of vulnerability–it troubles me lately, because I often see it approached in terms of personal vulnerability, of some sense that sharing your personal life at work is necessary, so as to give people a “way in.”

In my own practice, I’ve made deliberate decisions to share parts of my personal life, on Twitter, in my blog. I approach it as a political decision as much as anything, a result of what I think needs to happen around the representation of women as professionals and academics.  And things I’ve written can indeed be interpreted as a wider call for more people to be “personal” online, so as to be human, and therefore accrue  a different kind of credibility in the new academic spaces of the Resident web.

“Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human”…rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.”

Lanclos and White, “The Resident Web and Its Impact on the Academy,” Hybrid Pedagogy, 08 October, 2015

Who is a scholar?  Who is a professor?  Who is a teacher?  The many paths we take now didn’t always exist, and there are indeed political as well as pedagogical reasons for revealing those narratives (as I have, in talking about mine).

But I wonder, how do you reconcile that with the narrative of “risky” online environments, and how faculty and students need to be “cautious?”  How do you balance the need for a kind of vulnerability with desire for “safety”–how is that possible?  What does “safe” mean?

What constitutes vulnerability online, and for whom?

Who gets to be vulnerable?  What does that mean?

Who is already vulnerable?  

“Risk-taking” is so often framed as a positive thing, especially when people in a position of privilege engage in it.  But when the intersections of our identity place us in more vulnerable categories, ones other than white, straight, male, cisgendered, middle (or upper)-class when does “risk-taking” segue into “risky?”  When do our human vulnerabilities get held against us?  This is about context–who is classed as positive risk-takers when they make themselves vulnerable, who is classed as “risky” and perhaps necessary to avoid, someone who makes people uncomfortable.

So, what price “approachable?”  How much do we strip ourselves of ourselves so that people are comfortable, so that we are not “risky?”

This, I think is the tyranny of NICE–I see this especially in libraries, wherein “approachability”  can be shorthand for “seems enough like me to be safe”  How do we create environments where unfamiliarity doesn’t have to feel risky?  Where “discomfort” isn’t a barrier to engagement or thinking?

How do we get a diversity of “safe” people into our networks, who do not discount us as “risky” in our vulnerabilities?

In particular i want to ask this question:

What does it mean when we ask Students to be vulnerable online?  How is it different if they are women?   Black?  White?  Brown?  LGBT+?   Fill in the category of your choice here.  

Because some of us show up more vulnerable than others.  Our identity is not just the categories and characteristics we self-identify with, it’s the boxes people try to place us in.  it’s involuntary vulnerability, the people we are perceived to be become a way to dismiss us, our expertise, our content.  Structural and personal vulnerability can’t be shaken off, and maybe we don’t owe anyone our personal vulnerability.  Maybe our students don’t owe us personal vulnerability.

Vulnerability doesn’t have to be personal.

I think about professors giving phone numbers out to students, back before social media ubiquity.  Choosing to give out home phone numbers, or even cell phone numbers wasn’t something everyone did, it signaled a particular approach to boundaries and the role of professors in student lives.  What is the online equivalent?  Is it friending or following on social media?  

I wonder what are other ways of being present and human to students without violating important boundaries yourself?  

I don’t think that kind of putting yourself personally out there is mandatory.  Personal narratives don’t have to be the default.  You don’t owe anyone your personal story.  And sometimes just your existence is story enough.

We do owe them professional vulnerability.  That way lies inclusion–for our colleagues and our students.  Professional vulnerability can model the kind of society that we want them to have.  We need them to be flexible, transparent, and to expect that from their professional and civic networks going forward.  

So what would that kind of professional vulnerability look like?

Libraries have traditionally expressed “service” in terms of seamlessness–systems that don’t need explaining, for example.  And from a UX perspective, that’s one thing. But in an instruction context, that’s problematic.  Seamlessness doesn’t signal a way in.   iPhones don’t tell you how they are made, they just expect you to use them.  How do we build educational environments, both digital and physical, that give people a way in?  In to the course,  to the library, to the discipline, to the University?

One answer might be in engaging with seam-y (“see me”)  practices and pedagogies.  Showing the seams, being open about how educational experiences and scholarly content are produced.  Academia is a made thing, we can show students the seams, and allow them to find their way in.  

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Seams showing how the locomotive cylinder is put together. Image from page 180 of “The Locomotive” (1867) Internet Archive Book Image Flickr Stream: https://flic.kr/p/ovuPbj

I see examples in many places.  Including the rhizomatic learning work coming from Dave Cormier. In his connectivist approach to education, he argues that:

“What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions.”

Teaching a class where you admit that you aren’t quite sure where things are going, where you are clear in not knowing everything, that is professional vulnerability.  Instructors who construct their authority in the classroom around knowing everything, or at least knowing Way More Than Their Students about Everything, are at risk of #authoritysofragile, of that moment when it is revealed that of course we don’t know everything, and the authority is shattered.  We can avoid those shattering moments by never pretending in the first place to know it all.  Positioning ourselves confidently alongside our students as we explore things without being sure of outcomes, that’s powerful, that is seam-y, that is professional vulnerability.

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If you read this blog you’ve seen this map before. This workshop participant annotated her V&R map with arrows indicating where she wanted to move her practice, mapping the trajectory of the changes she wanted.

In the V&R workshops we conduct we ask people to annotate their maps, to show where they are willing to move and change, and even discontinue what they are doing.  The epiphanies that happen when people realize this thing they have been doing doesn’t serve them especially well can feel like admitting a mistake. These conversations reveal emotions that these places and practices engender, and those revelations are a form of professional vulnerability.  

Open practice is a kind of vulnerability that reveals the seams of academic work.  I am open in my own practice, in sharing rough drafts via Google Docs, in blogging half-formed ideas, in Tweeting even less formed ideas.  If you look at my blog from when it first started my voice was very different than what it is now.  I am never finished, my work is never seamless and complete.

What can we do in our own practices to create spaces where the seams of academia are visible?  Create places where our students can see how and where they fit?  The possibilities for our students finding where they can get in are contained in the spaces we do not fill with content, or cover over with seamless interfaces

The work of teaching and learning is challenging, and when we talk about seamlessness we are lying about what education is supposed to be.  The challenge is in doing the things we don’t know yet, and how will our students learn that if we do not?  If we do not model our own unformed and unfinished practices, how can they even know that is what happens?  How can they imagine themselves doing it?

Digital affords us different ways of revealing the seams, the mess of our academic projects.  We can, without revealing ourselves totally, still reveal process in a way that makes it clear that academia is a cultural construct, made by people not entirely unlike our students.  Tools and places are out there such as Hypothes.is ,GoogleDocs, Twitter, blogging platforms. Facebook groups, Instagram, Pinterest, ephemeral contexts such as Snapchat. The point is not the specific environment or tools, but in the possibilities to connect, and capability of revealing process along the way.  

We can highlight the importance of engaging in unfinished thoughts, in exploration.  Where a .pdf is seamless and a finished product, an invited GoogleDoc is seam-y and in process, perhaps never entirely done.

Libraries have a history of engaging with process, not just content.  Libraries are good at this, their particular area of expertise is in navigating, framing, and evaluating content (in its myriad forms). Open practice, professional vulnerability around the processes of academia, this is an opportunity for Libraries and Information Literacy and Library Instruction to shine. 

My friend and colleague Emily Drabinski writes marvelous things, and one of her latest, a co-authored piece with Scott Walter, “Asking Questions that Matterchallenges us to articulate not the value of libraries, but the values within libraries, coming out of libraries, of library instruction.  

So I want to end, as I usually do, with questions.  

What values are you expressing with your instructional approaches? How can you express them digital places?

What is the role of vulnerability for you?  How can you protect yourself, model protection for your students, and still achieve seam-y pedagogy?

What would that look like?

 

 

“Digital” Doesn’t Do Anything: #digifest16

 

I got to attend my third Jisc Digifest (out of three) last week in Birmingham, because I was invited to participate in the plenary keynote panel at the beginning of the event.

Jisc invited all of us in the plenaries to write something ahead of the event to get people thinking, and you can find what I wrote on the Jisc blog.  I was also interviewed for the DIgifest podcast, you can hear me speaking starting about 1.30.

So here is roughly what I said (those of you who know me will realize that not all of the adlibs are captured here, but I try).    Nicola Osborne of Jisc did a nice job of live-blogging both days, and she captured the keynote Q and A (as well as other things) here.   I also Storified it so you can get some sense of what the content of the room while I was speaking was like.  I had no slide deck, just paper notes, and the #digifest16 Twitterstream behind me.   It’s my understanding Jisc will be posting video highlights soon.

 

“The power of digital for change”

The power of digital is not contained in nor limited to, the kinds of tools it can offer.  Tools change, and how people use them does too.

More than this, as we discussed recently with the Jisc digital leaders programme, education leaders should now think of “Digital” as place.  The implications of society as we experience it face to face also erupting within the digital are wide-ranging and profound.  Have we really thought about what that means in terms of education?  

What does it mean for the human experience of teaching, learning and research to know that it is possible to carry these places around in our pockets?  

Digital is not just about attention, and where people put it, but about where people are themselves.

This means that (those endless circular) debates we have about tools being “fit” really miss the point.  In fact, they are symptoms of a flawed system wherein we hand people tools and insist that they use them regardless of their practice.  The point is actually the people, and the practices in which they are engaging.  And our work should be to facilitate the exploration of all the different ways they can do that.

What are the implications for research?  What are the implications for teaching?  What are the implications for pedagogy?  What does it mean for the design of learning spaces, when, with digital places, nearly any physical place can have a learning space nested within?

And furthermore what does it mean for those who don’t have access to those spaces?  What is lost when those spaces exist but not everyone can get to them?  More than just a digital divide, it’s segregation, lack of access to the places where power and influence can accrue.

It’s crucial that we move the conversation from “tools” and even sometimes from “practice.”  Let’s talk about place, let’s talk about presence.  Let’s talk about (says the anthropologist) people.  Where are we?  Where are our students?  They can be scattered, or they can be layered in their presence–for example, in a room, on Twitter talking publicly about the content of the room, and in DMs snarking about the content.  

This is multi-modal engagement.  What does the presence of these places mean for engagement?  We have never been able to take engagement for granted–disassociation happens in face to face spaces all the time.  What’s happening in this room right now?  How does that make you more here?  How does that take you away? Who else is here?

“The power of the digital for change.”  That’s the theme for the next two days.

In thinking about change I am less interested in what we are changing than how change can happen?  And also thinking about–change for whom?  Why?  I am never interested in change for change’s sake.

At the end of the Visitors and Residents workshops we do, that we’ve done for Jisc and for other orgs,  where we talk about practice, we do end up talking about tools, but then we always, always end up talking about people.  Who are the people with whom you connect?  What does engagement look like?  

And, when you want to change things, who are the people you need to influence, not just the things you need to do?  And if you don’t want to change things, make that argument.  Make the argument for change, too, not just saying the word change over and over again.

More than that–we need to think about what the role of leaders is in making space for these questions to be asked, and explored.  Institutional acceptance of risk, change, failure, this is all crucial.  Accepting change means accepting a certain lack of control.

We on this stage have been asked to help frame what Digifest can be for you, and of course I would recommend that you go to the mapping sessions, explore your own  practices, and engage in discussions around the implications of digital practices for individuals and institutions

But beyond specifics,   I would encourage you to explore the parts of the Digifest that are not someone handing you a tool or a piece of tech, but are about people talking about their educational agendas, their practices, and the people with whom they are working, and why.

Eventually tech will come into it.  But not starting there is a much more interesting conversation

 

 

 

 

 

And you may find yourself…

RhodiePath2015cropEdit

 

The beginning of the calendar year can be a traditional time for people to write about What Will Come Next.  I find myself, after a nice chunk of time disconnected from work and some social media places, thinking about What Has Come Before, for me. And reflecting on how I got here.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with colleagues during which I realize that they don’t know how it is that I came to the work that I have.  And while it’s not mandatory that anyone in particular know my story, I personally find it valuable to know how people got to where they are (See:  An anthropologist for as long as I can remember, I just can’t help myself.” ).  Making transparent all of the mess and backtracking and accidental connections that can go into people’s current work and lives feels important.  Very few things are as simple as deciding to do something and then it coming to pass.

So, prompted by those conversations, and also by the memory of Andrew Asher’s blogpost about his alt-ac career, I’d like to tell my story so far.  I have told it in bits and pieces in talks, in conversations, but not on this blog.

In 1999 I was finishing my dissertation and looking to file.  My anthropology and folklore fieldwork was in Northern Ireland, with primary school children, so I was looking at a job market of folklore, anthropology of Europe, anthropology of Childhood, and 4-fields anthropology jobs.  The latter was going to be a difficult sell because it’s still the case that socio-cultural anthropologists tend to get stereotyped as not-proficient in teaching intro courses on anything but their own subfield.  My background in archaeology and enthusiasm for intro physical anthropology might have saved me.  Who knows.

As I was finishing my dissertation, my husband got a full time job as a lab manager in an academic research unit at UC Berkeley.  We finally had grown-up style health insurance!  So we thought we’d try to have a kid.  We had no house, or what we thought of as permanent jobs, but health insurance felt more stable than anything we’d had in our seven or so years thus far in grad school, so this felt like a good decision.  And, we wanted children.

I assumed, because I’d seen it happen all around me, that I’d have the baby, go on the market, something would happen, and I’d figure out how to be a junior faculty member with a partner and a newborn.  

Lily was born on October 9, 1999.  

Lily died on October 29, 1999.

The world I thought I was building shattered and disappeared.  

I filed my dissertation in December and was handed a See’s lollipop, with a “Congratulations” label on it (I think, I don’t actually remember what the little tag said) by the smiling woman with her ruler (to check the margins) at the Graduate Division office, and then I went home and cried.

The thing is, in my grief, I actually applied for more jobs.  I remember the tears in my advisor’s eyes as he read my cover letters that started to suggest that my next project might be around themes of child loss in folklore.  I was never short-listed.  It was probably just as well.  My assumptions that I would have full time academic work faded.  I figured I’d just have to do something else, but at that point, I didn’t have the energy to figure out what.

My husband continued to work as an archaeologist and build his CV.  We had two subsequent children, and they are still with us, now 15 and 12 years old.  I published my dissertation as a book just before the birth of our son.  My son was 2 1/2 years old when my daughter entered public school (as we had no money for preschool before then), when a friend needed someone to substitute teach her college archaeology class, and contacted me.  So I found part time daycare for my son that would not cost all of what I was being paid, and did that.  And that led to being invited to teach a January term class on the anthropology of childhood.

And then we picked up and moved to my husband’s tenure track job at UNC Charlotte.  Please note:  he had been on the job market for six years.  He had his own path through grief.  Neither of us were living the post-dissertation life we thought we would have, before Lily died.

Our new university home found adjunct work for me, the trailing spouse, and we were lucky that we had landed in a city that was livable on one salary.  I assumed that this was going to be my life–part time anthro teaching to supplement my husband’s full time work.  My CV was out of date.  Had I not had recent teaching experiences courtesy of my friend who was both aware of and valued my anthropology experience, despite the big hole in my CV, I wonder if I would have been hired even as an adjunct.

In 2009, UNC Charlotte hired a new university librarian, and he created a job for an anthropologist.  Several of us with anthropology degrees were employed part-time by the anthropology department, and I was not the only one who interviewed for the library job.  When I was hired, it was clear that it was not because I had ever had great ambitions to work in libraries, or to study higher education, but because I was an anthropologist, and was trained to study people.

I was 39 years old, and I had landed my first and (to date) only full time academic job.  10 years after filing my dissertation I had found my second field site:  Academia.

That was the start of the Anthropologist in the Stacks.  That space, a space created for me to do anthropology in a library context, started everything that came next.  When I was hired, I was asked to do work at the university, in the library building.  I found, in the course of my work, opportunities to collaborate across campus, because staff and students who use the library live and work other areas of the campus too. Serendipity and a good friend from a previous part of my life invited me to do work at University College, London.  A conversation with a guest speaker at UNC Charlotte led to my being invited to be a part of the Visitors and Residents research team.  The agenda I have now, the one I cite in my bio, the broad-ranging, international work around information, digital and physical places in higher and further education, leadership and policy, and the nature of academic work, none of that existed until about 3 years ago.  It’s only in the past year or so that I feel I’m truly building something, something of value, something that will have an impact.

I can still vividly remember the time when I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have the chance to contribute anything to anthropology or academia ever again.

My point is not that that non-academic path not taken would have been meaningless (of course there is meaning outside of academia!), but that this path I find myself on is in many ways happenstance.  I’m being as mindful and purposeful (and frankly, ambitious) as I can be while realizing that this was not really ever part of some Grand Plan.

The life and work I have is a direct result of the derailment of the life I thought I would have.  My satisfaction in the work I have and the colleagues I get to enjoy now is impossible to disentangle from the persistent absence of my child who died just as I finished graduate school.  

Through it all I am lucky.  I am lucky. This is how I am here.

I didn’t start this off intending to give advice, or to offer myself as any kind of lesson.  I am not a lesson.  My life and such career as I have are examples of just how little plans can have to do with how things unfold.

I do want to point out that part of my luck was to have trust, friends, and opportunities.  At key moments I was offered opportunities and people trusted that I would not only take the chance, but do well enough to make the risk of me worthwhile.  I have taken opportunities, and run with them.  And then been further fortunate that people around me agreed that it is worthwhile, what I had done, and continue to do.

So if you want to take anything away from this, here’s what I suggest:

Collect colleagues and friends, not followers and minions.

Pay attention to what is being offered you.

Say yes.

Offer people opportunities.  Be part of someone else’s happenstance narrative.

 

You cannot know what will happen.  It is worth finding out.

 

Happy New Year.

 

 

UXLibs in Cambridge–Keynoting, Dining and Punting, Oh My

 

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The Room (and The WALL) of UXLibs, St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge.           Photo by Jamie Tilley, see full Flickr photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/132033164@N06/with/16842774026/

 

I have never been to a conference like UXLibs.

I wish more conferences were like UXLibs.  There have already been posts written about what set it apart–the activity, the engagement, the integration of the keynote content *and speakers* with the agenda of the conference, the way the conference team did EVERYTHING including mentoring the teams and checking their luggage.  Etc.  It was a grass-roots conference, an activist conference, born of a conviction that hey, this ethnography/usability/qualitative stuff has legs, you guys, maybe we should talk about it and explore it for several days.

So, we did.  My small part was to deliver the keynote on the first day, and run an ethnography workshop.   My larger agenda was to witness the seeding of ethnographic perspectives among more than 100 people from libraries across North America, the UK, and Europe.  It was fantastic.  I saw the creation of what promises to be a hugely energetic community of practice.  I look forward to what comes next.

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All of us at dinner in Corpus Christi College. HOGWARTS YOU GUYS TOTALLY HOGWARTS. And apologies to Andrew Asher for blocking his face with my head.                                  Photo by Jamie Tilley, see full Flickr photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/132033164@N06/with/16842774026/

 

In which I thank people, bear with me:

I need to thank Andy Priestner, Meg Westbury, and Georgina Cronin for asking me, in March of last year, to keynote.  I need to thank the entire UXLibs team for including me in discussions of the conference agenda, and for their confidence that I was one of the right people to speak to their delegates.  I need to thank Andy again, and Matt Borg right along side him for their clear vision and unwavering enthusiasm for this conference, and for my work as a part of it.   I need to thank Georgina again for logistics and also enthusiasm.  I need to thank Ange Fitzpatrick for unicorn menus and Cambridge Green.  I need to thank Matt Reidsma for the best damn keynote talk I’ve ever attended.  I need to thank Cambridge for being Hogwarts, really y’all, it was magical.

 

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Punting. Champagne. Amazing.  In the boat with me are Andrew Asher, Julianne Couture, and Matt Borg.  Confession: we had 2 bottles of champagne, guys.       Photo by Jamie Tilley, see full Flickr photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/132033164@N06/with/16842774026/

 

In which I say what I said in my UXLibs Keynote:

In my keynote (MY FIRST ONE YOU GUYS I AM STILL SO EXCITED ABOUT THAT) I wanted to set the tone by exploring what I thought was at stake in libraries and universities, and how ethnography and anthropology can restore/reclaim narratives generated by the practices and priorities of the people working and studying within our institutions.

That’s the TL;DR summary, btw.  Quit now while you are ahead.  You can read Ned Potter’s Storify of it instead, if you like.

The rest of this blogpost is an attempt to recreate what I said that day.  I do tend to improvise and riff when talking (she said, unnecessarily), but I think this will give you the gist.

UX Keynote

I wish to make the argument here for usability as a motive, ethnography as a practice, anthropology as a worldview.

Qualitative approaches provide opportunities, provide space, give chances for breath, reflections, possibility, and perhaps most importantly of all:  persuasion.

I am going to talk for a bit about how i see those things, and then I want to hear from you.  This is a conference centered on Practice.  Let’s think about our practices together.

So.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Let’s begin.

Libraries are artifacts

UX Keynote (2)

Little Free Library Easthampton photo by John Phelan: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Free_Library,_Easthampton_MA.jpg

 

Universities are artifacts

They are made things, they emerge from particular historical moments and social processes embedded in the lives of people.

 Libraries are cultures.

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NYPL photo by Ran Yaniv Hartstein: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NYPL.jpg

 

Universities are cultures.

There are conventions of behavior and expectations that come along with being in a library, being in a university, there are roles and structures and rules, subcultures and communities.

 

Libraries are places

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Photo of UNC Charlotte Atkins Library ATRIUM by Donna Lanclos

 

Universities are places

Places are also cultural constructions; these are the layered meanings that are put over spaces by the people who inhabit, move through, and even avoid them.  The identity of the people within these spaces informs what sort of place they become.

 

Once upon a time, Libraries were measured in terms of how large and rich and unique their collections were.  The great collections were those that attracted scholars away from their home institutions, the great institutions were those capable of amassing enough in their collections to keep their scholars at “home”—the goal was to make it so their faculty would not have to leave the university to do their academic work.

 Of course very few (if any) achieved that goal, but the tight circulation of scholars among the great collections of libraries such as the British Library, the Beinecke, and so on reveals the network of traditionally rich scholarly institutions, traditionally great libraries, with richness that was quantifiable and easily measurable.

 But we cannot all rest on the laurels of our marvelous historic collections.  Each library has the potential to be both less and so much more than the great traditional repositories.

 Libraries are portals today, as they have always been, to content, to information.  They are increasingly locations — both digital and physical–  that provide not just access to content (text, videos, documents, artifacts, datasets), but to a place where people can also produce something new.  As locations for creation libraries stake a claim to something new, and something terrifically difficult to quantify.  What do we talk about when we talk about the value of libraries?  Do we need to quantify what is valuable?  What are the things that make up libraries and universities?  What are the different ways we can describe and advocate for them?

 What happens to the story of libraries  when we who work in them take the risk of de-centering our expertise, allowing space for students and faculty and other inhabitants of our spaces to speak to what libraries mean for them, independent of our intentions?

 What happens when we (like Andrew Asher has done) approach Google not as a competitor, but as a made thing, a piece of cultural process?

UX Keynote (5)

 

What can we learn about searching for information once we look outside of the library?

 

What happens when we, as Maura Smale and Mariana Regalado do , demonstrate that students are writing research papers on NYC subway cars, using their phones?

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What does that teach us about the nature of research and writing outside of traditional academic places?

 

What happens when we take on other people’s definitions of academic places?

Think about the difference between this picture of  a university

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http://masterplan.uncc.edu/sites/masterplan.uncc.edu/files/media/final_aerial_v2web_2.jpg

 

 

the map that Google gives us

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the map the Institution provides

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And this.

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This  map of a UNC Charlotte student’s learning places shows all the things we don’t see if we limit ourselves to institutional spaces.   This map is a story, the meaning of this person’s life is shot through the lines of activity, the calling out of institutional and non-institutional space, the people who she encounters or avoids in the living of this map.

 Maps like this  tell stories, show us that the library does not exist in isolation.  Perceptions of importance, accessibility, of usability do not originate with the library, but in the non-library spaces that people are familiar with.  Higher education generally exists in a larger cultural context—what makes it navigable or incomprehensible is that larger context.  Connecting what we do within libraries with the expectations of the people who come to us is crucial—this is not the same “giving them what they want,” or “dumbing things down.”  It is working to  mindfully translate the value of what we have using recognizable signals from non-academic, non-library contexts.

 Because what do we want to spend our time doing?  Showing people maps of our corridors?  Demonstrating how to click links on our website?  Or, do we want to streamline access to information and resources so that people can engage in the heady work of making? And we can join them.

That sounds amazing to me.

How can we do that work, in the current institutional culture of assessment?

Just as academic departments with responsibilities for instruction do, libraries– as institutions within higher education– have to confront Assessment

 Jesse Stommel (one of my favorite people on Twitter, and a writer about pedagogy)  asks the important question:

 “Does this activity need to be assessed? Or does the activity have intrinsic value? We should never assess merely for the sake of assessing.”

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National Survey of Student Engagement is GOING TO EAT YOU.    Image by Maggie Ngo, UNC Charlotte Atkins Library.

The monsters of assessment.

And here I am inspired by @audreywatters discussion about technology.  We have fed this monster, too, in our quest to Prove the Value of Libraries, we have taken it as written–far too often– that speaking in numbers is effective speech, that the way to demonstrate value is to count and quantify.

These monsters plague institutions, because there are some things that assessment wants us to do with numbers things that we simply cannot do.

 Particularly with regard to learning.

We can describe, demonstrate learning.  But measure?  What does testing measure?  What is the measure of an education?  Where do we see the results of education? I am not talking here about content knowledge, I am talking about fluencies of thinking, of questioning, of connecting, of creating.  Where can we see that in action?

In practice.

In places like these.

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Scenes from students working at UNC Charlotte’s Atkins Library, UCL’s Student Union, and UCL’s Institute of Archaeology library. Photos by Donna Lanclos

 

 

How does one measure practice?

One does not.

In the course of my work, I want to  dispense with the idea that the important things in education are measurable, and turn instead of qualitative approaches to inform our thinking about teaching, learning and education.

I want to allow for pause, for insight, for reflection, for description and analysis of meaning and behavior.  I want to reveal the relationships that impact the decisions that individuals make, that reveal the consequences of those decisions.  Not in terms of “success” or “failure” according to metrics, but according to the narrative of people’s lives, the revealed landscape of where they work and live and interact with people, and why.

 UX is a motive

Why do we care about usability?

I think  institutions can care about usability in the service of selling more things to more people.  They can care about the behavioral logic of their “customers” so that there is increasing levels of satisfaction with what is bought or consumed, and also a loyalty to institutions who provide good experiences or “good value”.

 That is the marketing approach.  That is a relatively mercenary way of drawing attention.  “Try us, you’ll like it, we’re easy.”

 But we are in Higher Education.  We are in public service.  We are libraries, we are universities, we are  educators, resources for people who need more than information.  We are for people who need to use information effectively, who need to think critically about information, who need us as partners in navigating the information landscape, and who can also become people contributing to the layout of that same landscape.

And this is where usability as a motive is very very important.  It’s another way of talking about Access

 If our systems are so complicated, our buildings so illegible, that they require mediation, that people walking into our libraries or encountering our web environments for the first time have to come to us for help in navigating links, or hallways, we are wasting everyone’s time.  We are spending time being a tour guide, a traffic cop, a gatekeeper when we  could instead be having conversations, picking things apart, writing things, analyzing thoughts, making something new.  We should aspire to be doing so much more interesting things.  And we have a responsibility to be accessible.

Because the purpose of education is not to produce people to work at jobs.  It is to produce effective citizens.  Engaged human beings.  People not just capable of independent thought but people who revel in it, who are so good at it that they come up with solutions to problems, that we make the world around us a more engaging, more constructive, more supportive, yes, a better place.

 If the only people  who can comprehend what we are doing are the people who already know the secret passwords, who already have the map, the keys to the kingdom, we have failed.

Then we are not educating, we are sorting.

Critical thinking happens in groups—distributed cognition about value and authority happens all around us.  It’s particularly visible on the web in the form of reviews, but also in blog conversations about theory, in twitter discussions of policy, in Facebook fights about inappropriate jokes and memes.   Libraries and universities provide nodes where people can come together to think, to argue, to consume with an eye to produce.  UX can help us think about the kind of environments that are short-cuts to that production.  We have the chance to think about physical and digital places that don’t get in the way, but that accelerate the process of scholarship, of communication, of effective policy, of education.

Libraries are made of people

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Soylent Green poster by Tim (tjdewey): https://www.flickr.com/photos/tjdewey/5197320220/

 

Universities are made of  people

I think here again of the work of Jesse Stommel and  also Dave Cormier talking about curriculum and courses.  They each make the point that community, the people in the course, are the content of that course.  “Intensely and necessarily social” is the phrase Jesse uses.

It echoes nicely a point Lorcan Dempsey made a while ago, “Community is the new content” of libraries–we are not about collections (as if we ever were), we are about relationships, people and what they know and do and produce are part of what the library facilitates.

 Libraries made of people, and the work of those people:

 How then do we study people?

Ethnography.

Ethnography is a practice

 There is a range of methods within that practice, I won’t rehearse them here.  I want to pay attention to the part of the story that talks about what the results of engaging with those practices can be.

 I understand the skeptics of ethnography in design.  All that work, and what gets done with it?  To what extent are ethnographic studies being used to justify what is already suspected to be the case?

How can we who work in institutions be more than automatic approvers of institutional agendas?

By being part of the full time team.  And by being more than methodologists.   It’s not just about the methods, it’s about what happens when you do this work, and with whom you work.

I’ve spoken about this before—we practitioners of ethnography are far more useful to you if we are around all the time (we may also be exhausting that way).  When we are brought in as consultants we have customers, and some pressure to please, however much we value our potential role as provocateurs.  When we are hired full-time, we are colleagues, and our awkward questions, our explorations of issues and patterns that are not immediately related to problems at hand, are in service of the greater good.  When we are invested in the organization, we want our work to contribute long-term, we have the time, the bandwidth, the organizational support for trying and failing and occasionally going into dark corners that people don’t habitually visit.

 Libraries have voices.

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Kermit lost his voice: Conrad, P. (1990, May 20). Editorial Cartoon. Los Angeles Times.

 

Libraries have lost their voice.

Look at what happened in December at Barnard College–their university librarian left, library perspectives were left out of the conversation about the new “library.”  I look at things being built or imagined on a variety of university campuses and think, “Well, that looks like a library to me!”  But some of the new things aren’t even called libraries–they are called “Hubs”, I have seen “learning centers” and “Commons.”

We need to keep “Library.” It is a word that has associations that some people think should be left behind, but part of the power of the word “library” is that is can mean so much.  Books.  Quiet.  Shelves.  Distraction.  Friends.  Computers.  Space.   WiFi.  Librarians.  Refuge.  Anxiety.  Cafe.  Printing.  Scholarship.  Community.

With a voice, libraries can shape perceptions of themselves.  Engaging in ethnographic practices can be one way of building and exercising that voice.

 

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Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte. Photos by Donna Lanclos and Cheryl Landsford, UNC Charlotte.

 

For example, on the ground floor of Atkins library (where I work)–data on student behavior gathered via ethnographic methods gave us the information we needed to tell effective stories to administrators about the kinds of spaces we needed to configure for our students [slide of the new ground floor].  Our attention to UX and ethnography has made us, at this point 5 years after we started with agendas, an authoritative voice in our university around physical and digital policies.  The library is not just in the library anymore.  Engagement with these methods have given us a voice that is heard, a place at the table.

 

Once you invite these practices into the the everyday way of doing things, it can be institutionally transformative.  It takes time.  It is inexact at times.  It requires reflection, the backing away from assumptions, it involves being uncomfortable with what is revealed.  Institutions willing to take on those complications can thrive—eg where I work.  Eg here at Cambridge.  Institutions who want the publicity that comes from ethnography but not the work, not the ambiguity, and not the full-time commitment, will fall short.   They will miss the opportunity, will fail to find new ways of talking to the people who hold the purse strings about how and why to spend money, resources, time, effectively, in our larger project of education.

Think of the act of ethnographic description, the moment of insight, as a simultaneous act of deconstruction.  It is not simply a bundle of methods, (Dourish and Bell location 904 Kindle edition), but theory, a way of seeing, and analysis.

 

Anthropology is a Worldview

We need more than methods and practices, we need anthropologists

 

We need ethnographic practices, informed by anthropological perspectives.

We need to ask questions, to find things out.  It is not enough to observe, we have to ask.

 

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Harouni, Houman. “High school research and critical literacy: Social studies with and despite Wikipedia.” Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 473-494. Big Bird image from Muppet Wiki, character images with blank background: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Character_images_with_a_blank_background http://img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120128201030/muppet/images/9/92/Bigbirdnewversion.png  

 

Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, Big Bird taught me that in my childhood.

What do I mean by a pedagogy of questions?  It’s teaching through asking.  Not by telling.

 

I want to pause the discussion of libraries here and talk about a question that I heard in 1997

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Photos by Donna Lanclos

 

My Belfast fieldwork was among primary school children, I was doing cross-community work, collecting their folklore in playground settings. I will ask you the question now:

[note:  I said the question aloud in my best attempt at a Belfast accent]

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 Can you understand that?  What does it mean?

What is it asking?

How can you know?

This question was asked of my husband, not of me, because he was new to my field site (arrived 4 months after I did)–the kids assumed I knew already, and assumed he needed to know.

 This question is actually an act of teaching. Understanding this “catch” question requires knowledge beforehand.  You have to know something about Northern Ireland, its divided society, before you can start to put the pieces together, so that we know that the Pig = P = Protestant, and Cow = C= Catholic.  Whether you answer “Pig” or “Cow” depends on who is asking the question.  Do you tell the truth?  Do you need to “pass?”  Can you tell the identity of who is asking so you can suss out the “right” answer?

Why do people want to know these categories?  Because they live in a divided society, and identities and allegiances matter.  Kids were teaching each other, through this question, what sorts of questions they needed to ask, and also what they needed to know before they started asking questions at all.

You have to know something about the situation on the ground before you start asking good questions, ones that will get you somewhere, to a greater understanding.

An anthropological perspective is one that generates questions.

 Anthropological perspective comes from a place of agnosticism, from what @jessifer calls “a voracious not-knowing.” 

 

We position ourselves with no answers.  We end up usually finding simply more questions.  There is a power in that.  An anthropological perspective, seeing with an anthropological eye, requires deliberately positioning yourself as the person in the room who knows the least about what is going on.  That is hard, not the least because we are professionals with expertise and we JUST WANT TO SHARE IT WITH YOU so you can DO THINGS RIGHT.

 Think for a minute about the position of libraries in higher education, and about who listens to libraries.  In general it’s:   other libraries.  Finding a voice in higher education, and people outside of libraries who will listen to us, depends in part on our generating interesting questions.  This is far more useful than telling people what they should do  This is not to say we cannot come up with answers to some of the questions–but many of the answers we uncover are problems.  And it is in our accurate identification of problems that we can be truly useful.  When people think that one sort of thing is “wrong” their perceptions of why that situation has come to pass can be incomplete, or completely off-base.  When some of the answers we provide are the outlines of Problems then we are truly worth listening to.

 So we are not talking here just about a pedagogy of questions, but an ontology of questions–queries nested within other queries, things we do not know influenced by what we never found out.

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Image by Maggie Ngo, UNC Charlotte Atkins Library.

 

Questions such as:

What are people doing when they talk about “intuitive” design?  Intuitive for whom?  What constitutes “intuitive?  Who defines it?  What is that experience, of feeling something “intuitive?”

What is studying?  Is it the same as “learning?”  Who is in charge?  Is that a meaningful question?  What are the power structures we can reveal by tracing the actions and reactions of students, faculty, and staff in academic spaces?  What is made, what is observable?  What can we see, what needs more work before it can be shown?

 You have to decide when to stop asking, start trying to work towards answers (and be OK with coming up with more questions).

You have to be capable of picking the moment where you stop questioning, if only for a bit. And also recognize that the place you have chosen to stop is relatively arbitrary–but it should be a useful place.

And for it to be useful, you should be embedded enough to know enough to be able to interpret the meaning of questions, and deploy them effectively.  You have to know stuff; questions cannot be asked from a position of absolute ignorance.   You have to keep watching,  to observe.  You have to ask questions of lots of people and then interpret what they say, in the context of all of the other information you have gathered.

I would say that I’m going to stop asking questions, because I know it’s annoying but you know what?  Being annoying can have its perks, too.  Being annoying, making people uncomfortable in their assumptions, that’s part of my job.  That is part of the purpose of engaging in this kind of work.

 Upending, challenging, questioning.

 Observations are not the same thing as insight

Answers are not the same thing as solutions.

Our job is NOT to find answers.  It is to provoke questions.

And the joy of it all is that we, for all the questions we come up with, we do not have to come up with Solutions.

That is the other part of what is at stake.  Once people are listening to us, we can engage them as part of the solution, or even a range of solutions.  We no longer, in this scenario, have to be subjected to solutions imposed on us from without.  We can generate solutions as a team, with our colleagues in HE.

Anthropology– Indiana Jones notwithstanding– is a team sport when done well.  Particularly in the case of applied, practical work. Library ethnography, and UX work generally can be usefully thought of as multi-sited ethnography:   different locations, but connected systems with connected problems, connected cultural phenomena across higher education, across society, across whichever plane in which libraries and universities exist.

I want to emphasize the importance of sharing, of collective thinking, of not thinking of ourselves as special snowflakes, of not allowing the tendency to silo  distract us from what we can reveal, confront, solve together, as a team.  So, when one person sees a library as a system, and the other sees it as an artifact, then there is a need to translate, to recalibrate , so that a conversation, an engagement can happen, and we do not end up just talking past one another.

 UX, ethnographic practices, anthropological insights should all be just the start of a much larger agenda in libraries and higher education. Making systems and spaces navigable and legible is important if we take our mission of access seriously. Understanding why something is navigable or illegible in the first place takes a deeper understanding, and can lead to insights beyond design, to organization, culture, process.

The act of ethnography, the interpretive lenses that anthropology can inspire, can help us  fight agendas that are destructive to that educational project—being deeply embedded in the behaviors, in the lives, of our students, our faculty, can give the lie to the vocational narrative of neoliberal educational policy.  The people who make up our institutions are more than a list of certifications, more than the money they might make, far more than the boxes they tick off as they work through their course modules in pursuit of their major.   Those people are revealed with qualitative research.  Their stories move policy makers.  We do not have to take policy-makers’ word for it.  We do not have to take the web template lying down.  We do not have to believe them when they tell us that students no longer read, or will only communicate via text, or have lost the ability to think critically.  We can push back, and point out the explosion of different kinds of reading, of all the different places where communication happens, that it’s our responsibility to model and teach critical thinking, not just assume that it will show up as they arrive to campus.  We can leverage our grounded sense of the lives and priorities of people to make effective arguments, to drive our own agenda.

 

To tell the stories we see around us.  To tell our own stories.

 

Thank You. (for reading, for listening)

Thank you to those who, whether they knew it or not, helped me think of what to say.  Follow them on Twitter, read their stuff wherever you can find it. 

@audreywatters    @davecormier    @lorcanD

@jessifer   @daveowhite   @aasher     @librarygirlknit

@mauraweb   @PriestLib     @mattjborg

 

 

#OA at #AAA2014: What do we talk about when we talk about Open Access?

 

 

(Note:  this is one of two posts I wrote this week about Open Access publishing.  You can read the other one here at the EPIC people blog).

I spent nearly all of my time at #AAA2014 this year talking and thinking about libraries, publishing, open access (OA), and anthropology.  The crowd with which I was talking included anthropologists, of course, but also librarians, publishers, and hybrid people who were a little bit of all three categories.    Informal conversations in the book room (the lovely oasis in the middle of the conference-hotel-chaos) were a prelude to my attendance at the Friday morning session on open access publishing in anthropology (one of the SCA-sponsored events listed here).   The panelists presented a variety of perspectives on open access, some nuts-and-bolts type “you need to be able to deal with funding/curation/discovery” discussions, and some much more theoretical “what does publishing mean” and “what would an open-practice (not just an open-access) anthropology look like?”

You can see from my tweets that I fairly quickly disagreed with the framing of part of the problem of OA–da Col is problematizing an approach to OA publishing that frames it within a gift economy, but in my experience the process of publishing scholarly communications is firmly perceived within the market–by publishers, and by scholars.  Scholars are in the market of exchanging their publications for academic success.  Publishers are in the business of selling scholarship back to the very scholars who produce the content.  I wonder if there is some conflation between the prevalent “The Internet is Free” narrative that libraries often have to encounter in justifying their existence within higher ed, with the “Content should be accessible” narrative that is more vividly shot through discourses around OA publishing.  I was especially frustrated at this approach from da Col, whose experiences with HAU as an OA publication seem to be an excellent model for some.  I would have liked to have heard more about the actual transformations of scholarly practice possible within the existing innovations at HAU.

 

This came up a lot, the “self-publishing” phrase, and perhaps it’s shorthand for “not-by-publishers” publishing, but I think it’s potentially dangerous to talk about OA this way, because it communicates to scholars that they need to DIY themselves through open access.  When what they actually should be doing is collaborating with people in libraries and publishing who are already engaging in open access practices (e.g.:  Duke, University of Chicago press, HAU, etc. etc.).  Cultural Anthropology, and in particular Tim Elfenbein, have offered themselves and what they have learned from their experiences so far.  I think what frustrated me most about the tone of the SCA panel on OA was its cautious negativity.  “This is hard.”  “We didn’t think of this”   When it’s clearly do-able, even with challenges.

At the same time that everyone in the room seemed to agree that it is important to figure out how to get to OA.  

I particularly appreciated the perspective of Jessica Cattelino, outgoing SCA treasurer, who even as she detailed some of the financial nitty-gritty behind open access, opened the discussion up to a consideration of what might be possible once more of us engage in these kinds of publishing practices.

 

 

This was another theme that came up again and again–publishing is a particular kind of expertise, and scholars in anthropology (and other disciplines) don’t necessarily have it.  The solution, to me, is not to insist that anthropologists become publishers, but rather to point to opportunities to collaborate with people who have the necessary expertise (again:  librarians and publishers).

 

Even with the optimistic talk about what an open-practice open-access anthropology might look like, the SCA panel left me with an overwhelming sense of the anxiety that academics carry into conversations about OA publishing.  And, no wonder–academics in all fields perceive traditional publishing as what they exchange for their success in academia.  But some of the anxiety stems, surely, in part from the fact that one can publish in academia, in high impact journals, and still not have full time (let alone tenure-track) academic work.

In the Global Social Media panel, Danny Miller’s team of ethnographers presented on their (very cool) work on social media practices around the world, and made the point of saying that the outputs of their research were all going to be CC-licensed OA materials, and not just in text format.  

This is a high-viz, well-funded anthropology project, and its unconventional approach to communicating their research results (scholarly and otherwise) could serve as another model for what it looks like to be OA in our discipline.

The need to be OA resonated nicely with the theme of the Popular Anthropology “Installation” on Friday afternoon, where a panel of anthropologists discussed, among other things, the persistent need for anthropologists and anthropological thinking to reach wider audiences.  OA is going to be a crucial tool in this.  We need to have more engagement with the public, not less, and in particular need to not play status games with those in our field who are particularly good at popularizing anthropology.   And we should make it clear that anthropological voices can and should be relevant, should speak to concerns of people outside of anthropology, not limit themselves to speaking in closed disciplinary circles.  Anthropological voices, with a few exceptions, are largely missing from national conversations around education, health, politics, race, and a whole range of structural inequalities.  We cannot sit back and expect that to change just because we have something to say.  We need to take our contributions to the public, engage with them, make ourselves visible.

I was so pleased with our roundtable discussion on Saturday morning, “Anthropological Knowledge: Access, Creation, and Dissemination in the Digital Age”  My colleague Juliann Couture co-organized this panel along with Richard Freeman–both of them are librarians, and the tone of the discussion in our roundtable contrasted remarkably with that of the SCA, in part because there were so many people in our room (even though it was a smaller crowd) who actually knew how OA could be (and was being) done, not just at Cultural Anthropology, but across the discipline, and even outside of it.  

Matt Thompson blogs for Savage Minds.   The list Matt has complied of current OA journals in anthropology is a valuable tool, for those interested in current practices, and for the journals themselves, to be able to identify important holes in how they are doing OA, and where they need to improve what they are doing to maximize access and discovery.  Also in the room with us on the panel was Tim Elfenbein, who by now is one of the most experienced OA publishers in Anthropology (along with the gang at HAU).

It is frustrating for me to witness anthropologists, who complain mightily when people outside of our discipline assume that our methods and theoretical approaches are intuitive, easy, and unproblematically acquired, do the same thing about other professions.  There are entire professions out there (I repeat myself for a reason:  LIBRARIANS AND PUBLISHERS) who can be partners with us in OA.  We need to reach out to and collaborate with them.  SCA already is with Duke Libraries  HAU already is with the University of Chicago. We have OA policies and journals at UNC Charlotte.   These and others can be models for the smaller society sections worried about how to do this and what would it look like, and will they lose their identity?  I think an argument can and should be made to the smaller society sections that the content of their journals, once they are converted to OA, can be more visible than now, to the greater good of their community of scholars and to the people who now have access to it.

Because it’s not just about being “accessible,” as anyone who works in libraries and publishing can tell you, it’s about being “discoverable,” and that’s a whole ‘nother thing.  

Other fields can help.  There are models out there.

 

Because when we talk about OA publishing, we are not just talking about OA publishing.

 

Notes:

Our panel abstract here, for those who can’t get into the (#ironyclaxon) AAA proceedings:

As information technologies have lowered barriers to content generation and user participation, anthropologists using digital means of transmission and communication have encountered a slate of challenges and opportunities. Traditional practices for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge are in a state of flux, transforming and shifting how anthropology research is produced, measured, and accessed. Rapid growth of Open Access (OA) journals, institutional and federal mandates, and sites for sharing academic work are coupled with confusion surrounding ownership and author’s rights. Researchers must navigate the new landscape to facilitate the communication of new knowledge, satisfy funding mandates, and leverage new venues to share research data with collaborators and communities. This roundtable will bring together scholars and practitioners to discuss these issues of access, ownership, copyright, production, and dissemination and what this means for the future of anthropological research. A variety of OA projects will be explored to expand the conversation beyond the author-pays model. OA publication and the social life of documents on the web raise practical and technical issues as readily as they reveal digital divides of unequal participation and representation. Negotiating of the agreement between author and publisher can increase access to anthropology research published in toll-access journals through the use of disciplinary and institutional repositories. We will discuss common publishing agreements and steps authors can take to negotiate their right to deposit in a repository and their right to make their work more widely available especially as publishers such as Elsevier have become more aggressive in policing how published work is shared. New modes of disseminating anthropology research allow one’s research to be widely available, beyond sharing drafts of papers or completed articles. It is a new way to share fieldnotes, data, videos, images, and audio recordings. This data sharing can expand collaboration opportunities with other anthropologists and students while creating digital collections and opportunities to communicate in formats beyond the traditional journal article or book format. As our methods of publishing and disseminating anthropological research shift, so do the ways in which we measure the impact of that research. Options beyond the traditional journal impact factor and citation counts will be explored including article level metrics, altmetrics, and how these new venues affect one’s publication record.

This session would be of particular interest to:
Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those involved in mentoring activities

Organizers:  Juliann Couture (University of Colorado Boulder) and Richard B Freeman (University of Florida)
Chairs:  Donna Lanclos (J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte)
Roundtable Presenters:  Richard B Freeman (University of Florida), Matthew D Thompson (Old Dominion Univeristy), Timothy W Elfenbein (Society for Cultural Anthropology) and Juliann Couture (University of Colorado Boulder)

Control

IMG_9055

Corridor in UCL’s Main Library.

So I’m thinking a great deal about control in libraries, and have been for a while.  It is sending me back to the point, late in my graduate career, when Laura Nader’s Controlling Processes essay came out, and when some of my classmates were working with Nader’s paradigms in their own research.   Her argument is, in part, that tracing, describing, and analyzing the flow of power within systems is crucial to illuminating the potential to transform cultural ideas.  The redistribution of control in the law, in medicine, and in museums was the focus of her 1997 essay, but of course many institutions are fair game, and libraries are no exception.

Libraries are rife with controlling processes–they are cultural institutions infused with very particular senses of what scholarship and studying looks and sounds like, what the proper material environments are for such activities, what resources should be provided by institutions (and what should not be).  Rules around noise and quiet, consumption of food and drink, occupancy of space (when is the library closed?  Does it close?  Who is allowed in?  Who is prevented?) are all performances of library institutional control of library spaces.    These rules are shot through with power–who determines what is quiet?  What is noise?  Who makes the decision about who is allowed in the library?

Signs are great evidence of the attempts to control spaces in libraries.  “Quiet Zone.”  “No Phones.”  “No eating or drinking.”  “Silent Zone.”

LSE Saving Space Crop

The LSE is trying to address student demand for space with a “ticketing” system.

A lot of the conversations I participate in around configurations of library space involve me, at some point, advocating letting go of control.  Is there a noisy space in your library?  Why is that?  Maybe you don’t need to “fix” that?  Maybe just label it as such and move on?  Where are there “naturally” quiet areas?  Do they need policing to be that way?  Maybe they are not so “natural?”  Why are you trying to make atriums Quiet Zones?  Where do students go who need to talk to each other about their work?  Do you want them in your library?  Why or why not?

Are you sure about all of that?

This is a big part of my work.  Asking annoying questions.  But it’s also my job to pay attention to more than my personal theory that less policing in libraries is a good thing.

Because the thing is, that students are also asking the library for controlled spaces.  Tomorrow is the Last Day of Classes (#LDOC!) for students this Fall semester at UNC Charlotte.  The library is already full of people, and will only get more full.  This is the time of year when we get the most requests for protected spaces, reserveable spaces, for quiet spaces.  This is the time of year when requests for control are most acute:  make them quiet, make these computers available, give me space to think, give me space to talk, make them move so I can do my work, make this print.  The student sense that there is so much they don’t have control over spills out into the demands they make of their institutional spaces (I’m willing to bet they have demands for their living spaces this time of year, too, with regard to noise and quiet, access, technology, clutter).

If we think carefully about the nature of controlling processes in the library, what they do and who they are for, we need to remember that one of the defining characteristics of libraries is, in fact, control.

Libraries are constructed in part in contrast to the perception that everything outside of their spaces is uncontrolled.  The environment of the library is physical spaces, resources, and the people within the library.  Some of these things are easier to control than others.  The implications of controlling people are myriad, and not entirely benign.  Who is perceived as out of control?  Under what circumstances?  Is there another interpretation of their behavior?  One person’s “out of control” is another person’s “engaged conversation.”  These differences need to be navigated, negotiated, explored, not enshrined in rules.

Libraries in popular discussions of public spaces are often described as “oases” (for example, most recently and visibly, but not unproblematically, the public library in Ferguson).   Discussions around public libraries are of course infused with the same complicating factors of race, class, privilege, and politics that are present in any discussion of the public sphere, in the US and elsewhere.  One person’s “riot” is another person’s “protest.”

Of course non-library spaces are controlled, too.  And holding the library up in contrast to “chaos” is often an unnecessarily antagonistic way of framing the rest of reality.

I find myself sympathetic to the desire to find one place in the world where you can feel that things are controlled, if not by yourself, then by someone you trust.  Students trust libraries to control their environment, as students frequently feel they themselves cannot.

So while we listen to that desire for control, we need to not abuse that trust, and we need to listen deeply and carefully to what is behind it.  We need to trace the requests, listen to who is asking, consider what the mechanisms for effective control might be.  There are many models–they do not have to all be top-down.  I think about community self-policing.  I think about wide and varied student engagement in library spaces so that they are part of the solutions they want to see, not just demanding that someone else execute policies on their behalf.

What does control look like?  When is it strictly necessary?  When can it be let go?  What happens then?

 

 

 

 

It was EPIC

The Ethnography Praxis in Industry conference was in NYC earlier this month, and I was delighted to have a chance to attend.  I followed the #epiconference twitterstream avidly when they were in London last year, but couldn’t attend because I was busily applying for funding for the research I did in March.  

I wanted to attend for several reasons (NYC was just one of them).  Primarily, I wanted to be in a room full of people who do private-sector ethnography, because increasingly I am in contact with people, in libraries, in higher education generally, and also in architecture and computer science, who are interested in ethnography as a methodology but not necessarily in anthropology as a disciplinary frame for that method.  I need to have more familiarity with the range of ways “ethnography” is being talked about, used, justified, critiqued in practical contexts.  Industry is just one, but it’s an increasingly visible one, and is one that actually inspired the creation of library ethnography jobs, starting with Nancy Fried Foster at Rochester.

You can find the history of EPIC as an org, as well as the papers from all 10 years of the meetings since they began, here.  And the draft papers from this year’s meetings are here.  They are all worth reading.

If any of you follow me on Twitter, you know that I live-tweeted nearly the whole damn thing.  I will say again that is now one of my favorite ways of experiencing a conference–there are connections you can make in Twitterspace, not just with the attendees, but with people who are not in the room with you, around the content of the discussions.  I find it stimulating and enriching.  It’s like doing the reading for graduate seminars and getting to have the discussion all at the same time–I think better, IMO, in groups, I understand more, I have questions that can be thrown back at me and more interesting questions take their place.  I attend conferences alone, without Twitter, at my peril these days.  I was also lucky to be able to attend with my colleague Nicole Peterson, whose impressions of the conference you can read here.

I was struck by a few things.  The first thing was how much of an anthropology conference it seemed to me.  This despite the fact that those in the room were not exclusively anthropologists, but were also designers, programmers, other kinds of social scientists, like sociologist Sam Ladner.  Perhaps I was swayed by the unapologetically anthro-centric keynote of Christian Madsbjerg of Red Associates.  Perhaps this sense varies from EPIC to EPIC.  Nonetheless, I felt very at home in the discussions about the work and its implications.  I got a lot out of (to pick just a few out of a great sea of content) Sam Ladner’s discussion of embodied practice, Emilie Glazer, Anna Mieczakowski, James King, Ben Fehnert’s (from Eclipse) discussion of trust as an important part of motivating people to engage with digital devices, and Kate Crawford’s electric keynote about Big Data.

Part of the anthro-centricity too was the explicit contrast that EPIC-goers and presenters offered to academic work, and to anthropology in particular.  The insistence on the word “practice” in contrast to “applied” anthropological or ethnographic work was evidence of this, too.  I think I understand the reasons for it, but it was something to think about.  I still, for all of the practical work I am doing these days, identify as an academic, and I felt distinctly neither fish nor fowl in that sense while in the room at EPIC.

I loved that it was basically a plenary conference, with a few exceptions for workshops.  Everyone heard the same papers, attended the same keynotes, saw the same Pecha Kucha sessions.  I think it made for a richer conversation about the content of the conference, as people’s experiences were not fragmented across several small rooms.

The Pecha Kucha sessions.  I adored them.  And Simon Roberts has already said a lot of what I was thinking.  But I would also point out that I think that as a form, as a provocation, I wish the AAAs would do Pecha Kucha sessions at least as much (if not more often ) than regular paper sessions.  They are limited in time, visually arresting, and felt like really good uses of everyone’s attention.

I really enjoyed being in such a high-energy room full of people who wanted to think critically and engagingly about the practice of ethnography, and what it meant to their work, the work of the people who hired them, and to the wider world.  I may not make it to Sao Paolo in 2015, but will be happy to get to Minneapolis in 2016, to be in that room again.

#shoetweet #epiconference

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.