Tag Archives: engagement

Welcome! Where do you Belong?

Well!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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



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

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

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

[Tenure…]”

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

“–not enough computers

–electricity for laptops

–keeping students off FB and on task”

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

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

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

“Inquiry assignments work great!

Spontaneous “write-think” exercises

Discussions are more productive”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What are we telling our students, through our practices?

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Connect : Disconnect

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, do social media practices connect or disconnect?  

Yes.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

These are the questions I continue to have.

 

Spring Tour 2017

My front yard this Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Critically about Scholarship, Teaching and Learning

city-of-charlotte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please.

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.

Introducing Donna Lanclos and Dave White: ALT-C 2016

One of the previous times Dave and I argued on stage, thanks @whaa for the image, and of course to @Lawrie for that particular debate.

 

It’s nearly September that must mean I’m gearing up for another trip to the UK.

This time I’m heading over to attend ALT-C.  Dave White and I have been invited to deliver the final keynote together.  Do please let me know which of these  you think we are either during or after the fact–we hope to have the Twitter stream up on screen as we speak.

I am lucky (Dave and I both are) to be invited to give these sorts of talks on a semi-regular basis.  So I’m not exactly complaining when I say that the bios we are usually asked to submit are So Very Boring.  The list of descriptors might be useful to someone trying to decide if they want to hear us speak–but I wonder, especially given the things that Dave and I have written about the importance of being human as an essential part of academic and professional credibility these days.  Are lists that reduce us to the work we do really engaging?

So in the spirit of being human, and also having a bit of fun, we offer these alternative bios.  Hope to see you at ALT-C in Warwick.

“Dave White would quite like your attention. He makes a habit of building castles in the sand not because he particularly likes castles, or even sand, but just to see what might happen before the waves come in. Despite having grown up near the sea he does not enjoy raw oysters, and would rather thank you very much for some macaroni & cheese. He is a big fan of the Internet, just not always in the ways you might think he is. He blogs, tweets, writes, speaks, and is generally quite Googleable.

Donna Lanclos was born in the desert and managed to name her son after a coyote. She has very little patience for bullshit, despite her American heritage. She is an anthropologist in all things and you really shouldn’t invite her to speak or write or work with you if you are unclear about what that means. Her love for shoes and cocktails has thus far not managed to get in the way of her work around digital and physical learning places and practices. She has lived on the prairies of North Dakota, the coast of California, and in the North Carolina foothills, as well as in the UK and Ireland.  She is very happy to see you.

Donna and Dave have been working together since the early days of the Visitors and Residents research project in 2011.  That was when they started their long-standing argument about whether there’s anything “old” in the cities of the United States.  They began arguing in public with each other in about 2013 about education technology, the nature of the digital, and the role of the internet in the structure and content of academia.  And also about how awful Dave’s shoes are. So far people remain willing to listen.”

 

Three Stories: UXLibs II Keynote

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Last year’s tote, this year’s badge.

UXLibs II, with hindsight, feels like it was always inevitable , but right after the exhaustion set in last year after UXLibs The First, there was no sense from anyone (outside perhaps of Matt Borg and Andy Priestner) that it was of course going to take place.  We even thought that if it did happen, it might be in two years (and possibly in Moncton).  I was really really pleased to find out that they were going to take the plunge, have a second event, and see what else could emerge from the UXLibs community this time.  A different event, with some of the same people, and with some new people, and with more things to talk about and explore.  

I was thrilled to be invited back to participate in any way.  I love the UXLibs team, the community they are building.  I want to hang onto the hope, drive, and positive energy they are bringing to our practices.  So I’ll put these words here, and look forward to hearing when and where we all get to be together again for UXLibs III.

Last summer, Ned Potter tweeted this to me:

When Ned introduced me to the UXLibs II group this year, and said out loud what he tweeted last summer, I smiled and was grateful to be in such a friendly room.

There are those who measure their success as an anthropologist by whether or not they are kicked out of the place they do their fieldwork.  I prefer to measure mine by whether or not I am invited back–I am so pleased to have been invited back.

I’d like to tell some stories.  And then we can think together about what they might mean.

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My mother’s back garden.

My parents live in Southern California, and they have been in this house since 1983. My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew flowers and fruit in his yard in Louisiana, where she grew up.  I remember visiting him and eating satsuma and kumquats off of his trees, admiring his tulip tree, taller than his house, and eating the marigolds (well, when I was very small) from around the lamp post not far from the swing set.  My family moved into the Southern California house when I was 13, to citrus trees, plum trees, one white nectarine tree (that fruit tasted like heaven) and a whole lot of other things my mother didn’t really like very much.  Since then she has been planting, digging, replanting, and this is what we have to show for it.

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These amaryllis came from my grandfather’s yard in Louisiana.

My mother’s gardening philosophy:   plant what you think might work.

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If it dies, there are two lessons to learn:

1) don’t plant that again

2)  PLANT SOMETHING ELSE

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Far too often, organizations just don’t plant anything else.  There needs to be an additional step–the reason they tried something in the first place was that they knew something needed to be done.  That situation hasn’t changed, even if the plant they tried is dead.  Plant something else!

One hazard of being in organizations within Higher Education such as libraries is there are people who’ve been around for so long that they remember all of the plants that have died–some of them keep lists!  And that list of dead plants can seem like reason enough to never plant anything new again.

An addendum from my mom:  sometimes, the plants die and it is your fault.  You didn’t water them enough, you put them in too much sun, or not enough.  The things you do always take place within a larger context–provide yourself with enough space to reflect so that you have a fighting chance of figuring out why things didn’t work.  And then still, try something else.

Ethnography can give people a window onto possibility, not just onto what has been done, or what people say they want, but what can be done, and how useful it would be.  Having a sense of the larger context in which you try stuff is crucial–this is what I keep talking about in libraries, not existing in isolation, but in a network.

The tracks of UXLibs II are Nailed, Failed, and Derailed.

Here is where I am a bit cross with you, UXLibs darlings:  I happen to know that there were far fewer Failed and Derailed submissions.  

I think I might know why, I think it’s  because of that word, fail, and even the sense that you got derailed, it’s hard to talk about that, it’s easier to talk about our successes, (that’s what I’m asked to talk about in my work, in my day job–what are we doing well?)  It’s easy and satisfying to get to stand up and say “We did a thing!  It’s great!  Yay us!”

And we should have those opportunities.  But I find conferences these days, especially library conferences, full of these kinds of self-congratulatory presentations.  But failure and derailment have the power to reveal processes, structures, possibilities.

 I’m so much more drawn to the Failed and Derailed parts of UXLibs II, because while it’s great to hear success stories–they are necessary beacons to our ambitions– it is to me more interesting and useful to hear the things that didn’t work out, or didn’t go quite as things planned.

For instance, my entire career, the whole string of reasons that I am here today, are because at a very important part of my life, I was utterly derailed.

To even get to the point where you fail, you have to have gotten the chance to try. So when your subjective experience of trying to effect change is not successful, what do you do?

What does “doing things” mean?  What do we mean by “action?”

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Portrait of the anthropologist in the field (far right, back turned).

Once upon a time I did fieldwork in Northern Ireland.  

I was doing cross-community work, and working in schools because I wanted to collect children’s folklore, and being embedded in schools was a safe way (for the kids and for me) for me to be in touch with them and talk to them and observe what they were doing when not in the classroom.  One school in particular was small, so small they did not have regular recess times, but just went out on the playgrounds when their teachers felt it worked with their schedule.  I sat with those kids over school dinners to maximize my time with them.   

One small boy in particular would tell me jokes;

“What do you call a man made out of cement?” 

“A wee hard man.” 

That punch line, which made my 8 year old friend laugh like a drain, was also real. This was a school that had a paramilitary mural painted on its side.  The “hard men” were these kids’ fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandfathers.  

So there was a time when there were very few kids at school that day, for several days, and the reason that the kids were absent was because of a feud.  Not sectarian violence–that’s Protestant-Catholic.  Just violence.  Kids whose family members were involved in Loyalist paramilitary groups were staying away from town, everyone was hunkered down at home.

And I felt more useless than I had in my entire life (Note:  I’ve since felt more useless than that, but not by much).

So I took my feelings to the pub, to my friend Noel–a former social worker.  And he shared that the same feeling of uselessness had dogged him while doing social work.  And had in fact informed his move into doing an anthropology degree.  So he re-framed things for me.  While I had the sense that I “wasn’t doing anything,” my friend suggested rather that anthropology is not just doing something, but providing a platform from which to effect more change than direct action sometimes yields.  You can’t fix things.  But that doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything.  

People who work in libraries want to FIX THINGS.  I see this, they want to find problems to solve, and solve them.

But there are other things to be done once you gather this kind of information, the insights yielded by ethnography.  You can report, observe more, collaborate–there are so many different ways of approaching results, and not all of them involve coming up with a Fix for a Problem.  I wonder how we can effectively move away from that sort of solutionism.

Ethnography is not just about identifying problems to solve.  It’s about gathering different understandings.   We need to be up front about how qualitative approaches fundamentally change the ways we approach Doing Libraries. Centering our practice around qualitative data and analysis flies in the face not just of LIS, which is still deeply embedded in the quantitative, but also current entrenched practices in Higher Education.

This shift, it’s bigger than Libraries.  Libraries exist (as I have said before) in a larger context.

So it’s important to have a sense of what qualitative approaches such as ethnographic methods and perspectives can do in terms of informing new approaches and developing new practices.  

I’d like you to think about the rooms you’ve been in where they talk statistics, talk about all the things they don’t know, and cannot know from the numbers.  THERE ARE THESE OTHER WAYS OF KNOWING THINGS, they can help us get at the “whys” to figure out, that numbers cannot show.  

I recall a poster session at ACRL, where there was a librarian who had carried out a qualitative (interview-based) study, and had results, but was uncomfortable with her study’s “low N” and so she made meaningless bar charts to put on her poster. She told me this made her feel better about talking about qualitative results that she didn’t trust.  I see this so much, people being unsure about this unfamiliar approach and running back into the warm embrace of their bar charts and figures.

How do we get leadership to trust qualitative approaches?

How do we get our colleagues to trust us, as qualitative practitioners?

Your Methodology will not save you from the Culture of Libraries.  

This project, here within UXLibs, is not just about telling people how to do this work. It’s about getting people clear about why you would do this sort of thing in the first place.

This a core problem:  how do libraries, how do people in higher and further education make the argument for using these techniques instead of quantitative ones?  Or just as much as?  I’ve made arguments for mixed-methods libraries, but I think it’s actually more important to make an argument for qualitative libraries, because the default is still quantitative.  “Data” is still often in terms of how much, how many, with credibility expressed in terms of quantity.  “Let’s do a survey” feels safe.  That feels like communicating effectively with the Powers that Be, and with our users and communities.

It’s important to be clear that when we are asking libraries and higher education to take qualitative methods and data seriously, it’s going to be challenging.  Because it’s asking for:

–time

–resources

–risk-taking

–vulnerability

— and the de-centering of all-powerful quantitative data that SOUNDS SO AUTHORITATIVE.

It can feel like we are taking people’s numbers away from them when we insist that they should be talking to people about motivations and meaning.  We need to now make the argument that this isn’t simply “more” data or somehow window dressing for the “real” data that is still numbersnumbersnumbers.  We need to make the argument that what we learn from qualitative approaches is the stuff that can drive and sustain the kinds of changes that academia and Libraries need to make to be truly responsive and effective.

This is also not just about knowing particular research methods, but in being willing to try, to risk, to ask how to move from status A to situation B.

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Photo of my own copy of this book. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/308290.Interpreting_Folklore

My PhD advisor, Alan Dundes, was a folklorist, one of the “young turks” of American Folkloristics in the 1960s, and he started off as a structuralist.  He was taught that the collecting and classifying of folklore materials (jokes, tales, songs, and all other manner of folk genres) was the core work of folklorists.  He swiftly grew weary of all of the collecting and classifying, the piling up of material in the absence of interpretation.  He became a Freudian, and remained so the rest of his career, alarming and annoying and infuriating as wide a range of people as possible with article such as “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown:  A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.”

Picture7

 

He really didn’t care if you agreed with him or not.

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He wanted you to take a risk, make a case, say something interesting.   And if you were wrong, particularly if you were his student, he expected you to make a new case with other interesting things.  

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Hanging out in front of Inka cut stonework at Q’uenko, Peru. Photo by the Elder Teen.

I have been with archaeologists in some form or another most of my adult life.  My best friend in graduate school was an archaeologist (and she still is).  I am married to Indiana Jones.

And I witnessed this thing where people would go into the field over and over again, constantly collecting data.  Their presentations were full of counts and pictures and maps.  They would spend their entire time talking about their methods and data and leave no time for interpretation and meaning.  

But:

At some point, in applied work (like we are doing here at UXLibs, like I have to do in my work), it becomes necessary to stop collecting data, engage in interpretation, and start doing.  Changing. To become an active organization, not just a reactive one.  To do more than what is simply being asked of us, and gather and build a firm sense of who we are based on what we do, know,  and understand.

 

So, what does “action” mean?  It has to be more than band-aids, more than “the printer is broken/out of paper, fix it and put it back”  

Action can be:

–describing and interrogating organizational structures (a necessary first step to change)

–representing missing points of view (which can then have an impact on what happens next)

These are things that are not traditionally “actions” but that do have an impact. To be truly transformative, you need to point these techniques towards big picture holistic shit.  If this work is only ever about how you figured out what kind of furniture to buy, it’s not transformative.

Ethnographic techniques are doomed to produce just another bucket of data if we do not use them to their fullest extent.  I am therefore making a cultural argument, one that requires leadership.  Leaders need to be on board, and in the room (some of you were in the room with us at UXLibs, that’s so great).

Without the space provided by leadership, those transformations cannot happen.

What organizations allow for risk?

What organizations allow for change?

What does leadership look like in those organizations?

Is it only top-down?

[I asked the question]

Who in the room is on their library leadership team as reflected in the organizational chart?

[some hands]

Who in the room is a leader?  

[some hands]

It’s the whole damn room, that’s why you are participating in UXLibs!

What is important here is not leadership, but NETWORKED leadership–if we are collectively working we are more powerful at effecting change.  None of the work we are doing now with UXLibs II exists in a vacuum–much of it came out of UXLibs last year, but some pre-dated it, and there’s more stuff that’s not in this room right now.  I would remind you here that the unit of analysis in anthropology is not the individual person, but groups of people.  What UXLibs did last year was reveal the community of people working with these techniques and perspectives to each other.  We are stronger as the network.

Leading change isn’t going it alone, it’s finding and building your team and then changing things together.  Regardless of the organizational chart, regardless of institutional boundaries.

The most important kind of leadership is about creating space for change

Maybe leadership is also about creating space where “risk” is irrelevant–making it all about possibility.  It’s about having a much wider space to feel comfortable talking about where we failed, where we got derailed.  And to actually do the things that might fail, might not go quite as planned.

I am so proud of you.

Now there is more work to do.

Let’s do it together.

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My front garden, 2016.

A Typology of Keynotes

Keynote image

Preview of the scene in Manchester the week of June 23 2016

Co-authored by that Lawrie Phipps , who is also responsible for the header photo.

The thinking for this post started with discussions we’ve been having with each other about keynote speakers, and keynote talks, inspired in part by recent blogposts and Twitter conversations with James Clay and Martin Weller (and others).   We are both doing several (separate) keynotes this spring, and have invitations to do some in the next academic year as well, and will also be keynoting together at UXLibs 2 .  As one of us is also a folklorist, and the other a naturalist (we will leave it to you to figure out which is which), the idea of a typology of keynotes eventually came up.  Here we approach typologies as tools for classifying materials, a necessary step before engaging in content analysis and interpretation.  

Folk narratives for example, can be divided into genres, and engaging with a typology of genres can be a first step towards analyzing the meaning behind the narrative.   Folktales are narratives that are fictions, legends are fictions told as true (or with a kernel of truth), and myths are sacred narratives told as true.  There is, of course, slippage among the genres, but using them as discrete categories can allow for discussion of the motivations behind the telling of tales.  When do people use fiction to make their point?  When does invoking the sacred matter?  Why make the choice to tell a fantastic tale as if it really happened to a friend of a friend?

We think we see the following types of keynotes.   We may or may not be judging them, even as we attempt a relatively “neutral” list of categories.

The Provocateur

Sometimes speakers are invited simply to get people to sit up and notice, and, ideally, push back.  The point is not to get people to agree, but to get them thinking and talking, and for the content of the keynote to outlast the talk, and carry on into the halls and the sessions of the conference, encouraging people to speak to, or against, or in some way connect to the themes explored in the talk.

The Campaigner

In education this type of keynote is most often associated with political or policy imperatives. Sometimes, something is happening and changing that is so important that you have to get the message out there, situations where a lot of senior people in a lot of different organisations and institutions know that their staff need to have an awareness of that thing.

There is a clear message that the speaker is trying to get across, and usually it will have wide ramifications across the sector. On the “campaign trail” the speaker will have the opportunity to refine and hone their delivery, while, through necessity, keeping the integrity of the message.

The Persuader

Whether it is the speaker who wants to persuade the audience, or the person who has booked the speaker; the persuader is there with an idea and a message. It’s on the continuum with campaigner, but lacks the hard edge political or policy imperative.

The Entertainer

This is a speaker whose strengths are known, to the audience and to the organizers, and it’s that known quantity that they want to bring to the event.  This talk can make people smile, or generate emotion in some way, but isn’t designed to provoke or profoundly upset. In some ways the content of the talk is less relevant than the show put on by this speaker.  

The Reporter

This keynote is about work that has been done, and its output.  This speaker is giving a sense of the project they carried out, a situation on the ground in a particular field of study or practice.  The point is not to persuade but simply to inform, and perhaps seek feedback or validation of results.  This can also take the form of a retrospective, where the speaker is invited to narrate the arc of a project, research agenda, or perhaps their entire career.

The Guru

The expert, the source, the philosopher who generated the idea.  The speaker is synonymous with the concept in question in the keynote, so indelibly associated with an idea that it is that person that you want, and if you can’t get them, you want them referenced by your Plan B speaker.  

The Seller

This keynote has something on offer, this speaker is doing more than persuading, they are selling a concrete thing. Caveat Emptor, this particular manifestation of keynote may slip into any of the others without the conference organised realizing. There are three sub-categories:

  • Service:  The speaker has a workshop, a consultancy, something that they would like you to pay for them to come in and run.  Their speech is designed to identify the situations or problems that would make such a service necessary, and ideally for audience members to realize that they really really need to bring the speaker in to run that service for their own place of work.
  • Self:  The speaker is selling themselves, their personal brand or style is why they have been brought in to speak.  As a conference organizer are paying less for the content and more simply to have them on stage at your event and hoping they will align with the content.  
  • Artifact:  This is generally a book, DVD or even blog, the product of work the speaker has done as a researcher or other kind of practitioner (see above:  Service).  This speaker uses their keynote as an advertisement for their book, giving a preview of the content and perspective so that audience members will want to have their own copy, or make sure their institution acquires it.

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In this breakdown of keynotes into types we’ve tried to allow for the reality that many talks (and people who give them) are doing more than one of these things. And, as with folktales, sometimes the motivation of the teller is not the same as the motivations of the listeners.

For conference organizers, think about what you’d like from any speaker.  Is it always what they want to deliver?  Is it always what they are asked to do, when invited to speak? If not, whose fault is that?  Conference attendees, what do you like to listen to?  Does the kind of keynote you think is on offer affect whether or not you will attend certain events?  What does the presence of any keynote speaker do to your perception of conferences?  

Do you have types you would include in this list? Do you have a favorite type?

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

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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.

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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?

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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?