Tag Archives: library ethnography

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.

 

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.

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.”

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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.

The immediacy of context, initial reflections on UXLibs

 

I flew home from Manchester over the weekend, and this is not the first blogpost on UXLibs II to be written (and surely not the last). Before I get down my keynote in blog form I wanted to work through some thoughts that of course were inspired by the awful vote results on Friday June 24th.

When I helped open UXLibs II on July 23rd the energy in the room was high, and when I talked about larger contexts, I really had in mind (for the purposes of the room) the larger context of Higher Education, in my usual push to get people who work in libraries to stop thinking of themselves (and their Libraries) in isolation, but to see themselves as connected to broader networks of institutions and people (in similar ways to how users perceive and experience them).

I managed to forget for the moment that other argument that I and others have made about how academia exists in the larger context of society, and the world.  We are not living in a bubble, the world we live in is shot through our more local educational contexts.  In our very international room at UXLibs, on Friday morning, we were all reminded forcefully of the presence of the world and all of its troubles.

Brexit, should it come to pass, will be a tragedy.  The vote that has already happened has hurt and frightened and angered so many people, including people I love.  The vote has apparently encouraged racists to take license and assault their fellow citizens, and the vote has also apparently caught even those who campaigned for the Leave result off guard, so that there are no plans for execution, and leadership on all sides have gone home in shock and confusion.

If xenophobia + outward-facing = colonialism, then I think xenophobia + inward-facing = isolationism.

I had no standing on Friday to speak to what I wished to happen around the Referendum vote, it’s not my country as fond as I am of many of its inhabitants.  I can offer hugs and sympathy and hopes that should our vote in the US in November go similarly wrong, I might call on my friends for the same.   I have never had a chance to be a European, I am locked into my US passport and cannot offer my children alternative citizenships.  It has seemed to me a marvelous thing, this European experiment, that connected people across borders even as it was messy and imperfect.   I hope, I hope, it is not over.

I was reminded, on Friday, not just of the ever-present world in our conversations about libraries and academia, but also in the fundamental lack of importance of me as an individual.  UXLibs as a phenomenon has always, to my mind, been about the importance of the community, of collective action.  No one speaker, no one presentation, no one individual is important. But together, we all are.  As collectives of individuals, we matter in positive and negative ways.  Collective and connected action can be the antidote to isolationism, which does not serve people, libraries, or countries very well at all.

I will fight the impulse (in my country as well as elsewhere) for isolationism, because that is not what keeps us safe, that is not an interesting or constructive way to move through the world.

I want to live in hope, so I will choose to do so.

 

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

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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?

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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

 

 

Cognitive Mapping at ACRL2015

2015-03-28 12.22.54

Columbia River Valley. Awesome.

At the end of March I had the great fortune to attend the ACRL meetings in Portland, OR.  I was presenting once again with my drinking buddies colleagues Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado, and Lesley Gourlay on our ethnographic work in libraries and universities.  We have all been working with cognitive mapping techniques in a variety of contexts, and we thought it would be fun to not just talk about them but to have people attending our session do their own mapping, and think about how the technique would be relevant to the work they are doing in their own libraries.  I suppose I could have blogged about this under “workshops” but it was a funny hybrid of conference presentation and workshop, one that I thought really worked.

You can see from the Storify that people were really enthusiastic and engaged.  After Andrew introduced the concept of cognitive mapping (I riff off of a version pulled straight from his ERIAL project here), we had the people in the room draw their own maps of their own practices.  People smiled as soon as we asked them to draw, but the room *really* erupted (in a good way!) when we asked them to discuss their map with their neighbors.

CogMaps discussion

People talking to other people about #cogmaps Photo by Maura Smale @mauraweb

 

We then had people report out to the entire room about what surprised them about their maps, either the ones they drew themselves, or the ones that had been shared with them.  As was the case in the workshops I ran in the UK and Ireland in March, I witnessed epiphanies, clear moments when people, simply because they had visualized their practices in a relatively simple way, gained a new understanding of what they do and why–and, more importantly, what they might want to change.

There was nice Twitter participation, Andrew and Maura and I were managing to live-tweet, because we took turns talking (always present in groups you guys IT IS THE BEST PEOPLE ARE FUN).  When we asked people to tweet their maps many did.  I appreciate not just the participation, but also the content of the maps, which reveals just as wide a range of practices as those found among students and faculty in the US and the UK.  Some people mapped multiple locations.

 

Some mapped just a single desk.

Some mapped not just locations, but tools and companions:

The content of all of these maps echo findings collected in our own fieldwork (I have blogged about my own mapping projects already here, here, and here).  What I love about that is that we didn’t discuss our cognitive map examples until after we had gotten people to draw their own.  So the discussion was not esoteric, but grounded in their very recent experience of trying the method , and the things they saw in student and faculty maps could be immediately connected to the things participants mapped for themselves.  You can see the Prezi that we used to illustrate the discussion here.  I believe the slidecast will eventually be made available on the ACRL conference site.

I am a big fan of conference events that require participation, “lean forward” kinds of things that don’t allow for slouching in the back and glazed eyes to set in.    I think if more conference sessions were workshops, roundtables, actual exchanges of ideas, encouraging people to think about or actually do something concrete with the ideas in play, there would be far less of a sense of wasting people’s time, or rehashing old debates.   I was so pleased at the interest in the room, at the specific things that our session made people consider, at the plans for their own libraries that people took away with them.

So, thank you to those who attended, and please keep us all posted on where you take this instrument, and how it affects you and your library going forward!

And keep taking pictures of your shoes, obviously.

 

A March of Workshops

Well I am back in Charlotte, after nearly a month away from home, and am realizing that I can divide my time in March chronologically, spatially, or in terms of genre. I think I’ll try the last one, as it occurs to me that I really did to several different kinds of things in my travels this past month.

So I’ll post briefly (or, uh, not so briefly) here about the workshops I got to facilitate, not in the least because I want to have a centralized place to collect the links to all of the blogposts other people have written considering the content of those workshops.  If I’ve missed any, please let me know!  I will edit.

Visitors and Residents

In Galway, thanks to the generous invitation of Catherine Cronin (and the sponsorship of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education in Ireland), Dave White and I got to pilot a version of the Visitors and Residents workshop we’ve been working on for a while. We blogged about it beforehand here.  And Catherine interviewed us about the V&R workshop process the day before we did the pilot.  

Catherine blogged about it afterwards here .  And Sharon Flynn Storifyed it here.

What I’d like to emphasize here is how pleased I am with the steps Dave and I took to make sure that the people attending the workshop (who were so enthusiastic!  Thank you!) came away with something concrete  (we call it the “So What” part, see the entire workshop template in the .pdf here).  We not only discussed the V&R concept, but consistently connected it with practice.  People were encouraged to reflect on their own practices, recognize the differences in the practices of their colleagues, and last but not least, think about (and articulate) ways they wanted to move their own practices going forward.  They did this by first mapping what they did on the V&R pole chart.

Then they “toured” the maps of their colleagues, and eventually annotated their own maps with the meaning/content of what they originally mapped, as well as their aspirations for the new or different.

2015-03-13 Galway V&R

Map from one of our participants. Arrows show direction in which they want to move their practices–FB more Resident, for example.

Some people wanted to engage in new digital platforms.  Some wanted to stop engaging in some places so as to have more room to develop elsewhere.  Some people saw how much their practices reflected their work, but not their personal lives, and resolved to think more carefully about the time they were spending online in all aspects of their lives.

The power in workshops like these is in providing moments people would not otherwise have to really see, and think about, what they are doing.  Too often we engage with digital tools or platforms because they are there, or recommended, or because people are there, but don’t have the space to think about why.  When people put a presence into a platform but then never really use it, why should they have that presence at all?  Being deliberate about motivations to engage can provide people with important chances to make careful choices about the limited time they have for f2f and digital interactions.

I think one of the best things we did in this workshop was make sure there was someone in the room (in this case it was Sharon Flynn) who could make concrete suggestions to people in the room about where they could go for institutional help in learning more about the things they wanted to change and develop.  Too often when we do this workshop at conferences we are reduced to hand-waving and “I hope you can find someone to help you!”  Being able to hand participants off to specific next steps was indeed Marvelous.

If you want to see what it was like, a recording of the session is available here.

Ethnography

photo by Jamie Tilley, see full Flickr photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/132033164@N06/with/16842774026/

photo by Jamie Tilley, see full Flickr photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/132033164@N06/with/16842774026/

I think the most important thing I needed to get right at UXLibs was my workshop on ethnographic methods.  It was planned and conducted in conjunction with my colleagues Andrew Asher and Georgina Cronin, and the intention was to equip all of the teams (read more about the overall picture of UXLibs here , here and also here.  Ned Potter blogged specifically about the ethnography day here) with a range of instruments and approaches to use for their project in the Cambridge libraries.    My workshop was on observations, and while I gave them a basic handout about domains, etc., I really wanted them to just pay attention and note what they saw, and then mindfully write it up.  Participants worked in pairs (or teams of 3) and had to pool their observations into a coherent narrative at the end.  In Cambridge I sent them out to the Market Square, which bustled with people.  Some teams went inside to a bookshop, which bustled less, but they all had plenty to write up.  Our discussion post write-up was less about what they observed, and more about the process.  Without much prompting on my part we got to discuss the observer effect, ethical obligations for researchers working in public spaces, hazards of interpretation, and the limits of observation as a method (i.e., what else do you  have to do to get to a better understanding of what is going on?).   I was terrifically pleased–after the rush and bustle of observations, the discussion was fairly low-key, but I felt like everyone dug into the issues and came away with the things in their heads they needed for the afternoon’s fieldwork.

(I will blog more about UXLibs #obvs just not right now!)

Ethnography (with a side of V&R)

My colleague Andrew Preater invited me back to Imperial College to work with library staff members with regard to both ethnographic techniques and V&R mapping.  Eleni Zazani blogged (very kindly!) about it both parts of the day here. Most of the participants had done the V&R mapping before, but I had not had a chance to try the “So What” part with them, yet.  They really came through, annotating maps and talking with each other and with me about what they wanted to change.  It’s such a powerful moment to me, to see when people become clear about what they would like to have happen.

After a short break I had them do a mini-version of the ethnography workshop I conducted at #UXLibs.  Karine Larose had been with us in Cambridge, as had Angus Brown in the Imperial leadership team.  So Imperial is well-equipped with people to take ethnographic techniques forward into the work of the library.

This time the observations were distributed throughout the library building, and because I wanted them to be able to apply the workshop to the specific Imperial Library context, we did spend time talking about what they saw, and what they thought it might mean.  Once again 15 minutes of observations required far more than that of write-up time (let alone time for reflection, analysis, interpretation, and planning of next steps!).

I think I’d like to have a workshop full of library leadership sometime, to have the people who need to make decisions about how staff spend time and resources experience the powerful potential of ethnography, as well as subjectively experience just how much time it takes to do effectively.

Inspired by the concrete suggestions that people had taken away from the V&R workshop in Galway, and the morning at Imperial, I wanted the ethnography piece to have specific outcomes, too.  So at the end we collectively thought about the questions that participants wanted to start to try to explore via ethnographic techniques at Imperial.

And there was a definite impact, with staff members actively seeking out material to help them take ethnography further in their own work.

Ethnography at Kingston

This should have been a #shoetweet tagging @SaraBurnett

This should have been a #shoetweet tagging @SaraBurnett

Kingston University and UNC Charlotte have a formal exchange with each other, and I’m delighted to be starting to participate in conversations there around libraries and learning spaces.  Thanks again to Robert Elves for being my liaison and scheduler. The final workshop I conducted was here, and I was once again fortunate to have 2 alums from the UXLibs conference, Sara Burnett and Simon Collins.   We didn’t have time to do observations in the library sites this day, but spent good productive time having Sara and Simon go over some of the methods they learned at UXLibs.  They also described some of the issues that they observed in the Cambridge libraries, and that led into a great discussion of what they were interested in exploring at Kingston.  The outcome of this workshop was a document with a list of questions to start asking, with each question accompanied by the instruments/methods that might provide a good start in finding things out.

Real Outcomes for Real People

Overall, it was just so much fun to not just talk ideas with people, but to take the ideas towards something that everyone agreed would be worthwhile to try.  I was never in the position of telling people what they needed to do, but rather helped provide space for the conversation to happen, for people to connect with each other and with new concepts and to make new connections with things they had already heard before.  It was satisfying work in a completely different way from report- or article-writing, or presentation-making.

Thanks to all the institutions (NUI Galway, Cambridge, Imperial, Kingston) and people within them who provided me the chance for such work.  it was practical in the best sense, and I hope I get to do more of that going forward.

#LostMarch: Donna Lanclos on Tour in the UK with a stop in PDX at the end

The Cam

Punting on the Cam, which I will apparently get to do this visit to the UK.

Well, it’s not going to be lost, but it’s definitely going to be a blur.  I thought I’d put all of the things I’ll be up to the rest of this month here, in part to make it feel containable to me, and in part to inform people about where I’m going and why.

I’m delighted to be taking part, at Lawrie Phipps’ invitation, in a debate on education technology at Jisc’s second Digifest in Birmingham on March 9th.  Dave White will be arguing for the question, “Are Learning Technologies Fit for Purpose” and I will be arguing against.

Digifest LEGO

Image by Lawrie Phipps, not to scale

Then I will be off to the west of Ireland, to chat with Catherine Cronin and colleagues about things library, ethnography, and education technology, as well as to co-run a Visitors and Residents workshop at NUIG on March 13th.

And THEN I will be very excitedly keynoting at UXLib in Cambridge, as well as running one of the ethnography workshops on the first day, and participating in the rest of the 3 day conference (March 17-19) as mentor and judge.  Andy Priestner and team have been working tremendously hard on this event, and I am grateful to have been invited to participate in it all.

AND THEN I will be back in London for several days of conversations and workshops with my colleagues at the LSE, Kingston University, and Imperial College.  I am disappointed I won’t have time to revisit my colleagues at UCL.  That will have to wait for another trip.

Finally, I’ll be presenting at ACRL 2015, with Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado, and Lesley Gourlay, a workshop based on on our collective work around cognitive mapping of learning landscapes.  Our “Topography of Learning” workshop is on Friday March 27th, from 11AM to 12PM in the Portland Ballroom 253 of the Oregon Convention Center.   if you will be in PDX for the meetings, do please come and participate!

ACRL speaker

The Cartography of Learning

So, I’ve been thinking about mapping, not just because I have these maps I collected at UCL in March, but also because I’ve been thinking more about the utility of processes such as the V&R mapping that we have been using in our research.  What Dave White has said to me is that mapping exercises like V&R give us processes to offer people, but no answers, that in fact people use the processes to find their own answers.  It’s not our job as researchers to provide answers, in this framing, but to ask effective questions that prompt people to find their own way.  As usual, my first instinct was to be annoyed by this. My annoyance stems now from thinking that Dave is probably correct.

I am often asked for Answers when I give talks about what is going on with faculty and students and libraries and education generally.  While it’s tempting to try to provide Answers,  I think that I’m much better at coming up with more questions.  And ultimately, that might be more useful, as I think I’m probably not the one who should be Answering.

Cognitive mapping exercises at UNCC and UCL reveal people’s learning landscapes.  Thinking about cognitive mapping in the larger context of mapping exercises  made me consider the possibility of a discussion around the cartography of learning, that is, all the different ways we try to capture and visualize what people are doing when they are learning.  We are mapping (or having people map for themselves) what they perceive to be there, and in the mapping we receive a revelation, not something predictable, or predicting.  We also do not have a precise rendering of actual practices, but an interpretation of practice.  How can we use the maps to build more deeply observed pictures of behavior?  How do we deal with the fact that maps are only ever representations of a lived reality?  “The map is not the territory.”

If the Google Earth of Bloomsbury looks like this:

And the Google Map looks like this:

And the Tube map, itself a concept map of sorts, looks like this:

Then we have a map like this one I collected in March:

For this first year archaeology student, UCL is a series of spaces isolated from each other, but connected by the fact that he needs to do things, different academic tasks,  in each space (my favorite is the professor’s office in the lower left, filled with clutter except for a small clearing in which professor and students can sit to talk).  I can see that these spaces are connected, but he does not represent them that way.

This PhD student has drawn lines indicating how connected her spaces are, the ones in Bloomsbury, and the ones that are not.  She annotated the map with notes about the technology and particulars of the work she does in each space, which places have particular resources (content and people) she cannot get anywhere else, and marks cafes with the cups of tea or coffee that she goes there for.  She has glossed her own map–I can bring my own spin to things (and I will), but there is already interpretation here.

Cognitive maps, the V&R maps, these are all contributing to a kind of cartography of practice.  In the case of the cognitive maps I’ve been collecting from faculty and students, the mapping is an emic process, where the the practitioners themselves represent their own practices as best they can.

In V&R mapping workshops,  people map their own practices, but they are also asked to think about the practices of others.  We’ve done that in the V&R research project as well,  for example in this map, where we took practices invoked by the interviewee and plotted it in the V&R continuua:

map by Dave White and Erin Hood.

Here we engaged in the mapping of the traces of practices of others as an analytical tool, engaging in an etic process, imposing our interpretation of meaning from the outside looking in.

They map, we map, and possible meanings and definite questions can emerge from the process of mapping.

I have been working my way through Latour’s Reassembling the Social with a Twitter group of colleagues, and am only part way through.  Latour invokes the “cartographies of the social” (p.34) when discussing the need for researchers to pay attention to actual practices, to the lay of the networks in play, and to de-emphasize the interpretive leap while still in the process of figuring out what it is we are looking at.  I am also struck by Latour’s insistence that the best social science cannot privilege the perspective of the researcher, but must be embedded in the meanings and practices generated by the people being studied.  This, to me, is a plea for anthropology, but also for the sort of  lack of privileging that mapping exercises like these can inspire–these maps get their meaning from the intentions of the people drawing them as much if not more than from the interpretations we researchers later layer onto them.

Anthropologists are not always fantastic at not-privileging their interpretations of meaning, and I’ve been helped in this regard by the neo-Boasian appeal of Bunzl.  I frequently talk about being a sort of “native ethnographer,” as an academic studying academia, but Bunzl’s critique of the necessity of outsider status to anthropology is making me rethink that.  Our position as “outside” or “inside” is not as important as paying attention to what is present, and describing it as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible.  It is not that interpretation is impossible, but that what we think things mean can and should be informed by a variety of perspectives, including that of the people among whom we are doing our work.

What is important about the maps, and I think about research generally, is the process, the questions and the discussions they inspire, not the end result.  Thoughts about meaning should emerge from the discussion, from the process, and should never be framed as The Answer.

References:

Bunzl, Matti (2004), Boas, Foucault, and the “Native Anthropologist”: Notes toward a Neo-Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 106: 435–442. 

 
Latour, Bruno (2007) Reassembling the Social:  An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford (Oxford University Press). Page numbers refer to Kindle edition.
 

Images:
Google Maps, Google Earth screen shots
Tube map is a crop of:  http://www.tfl.gov.uk/cdn/static/cms/documents/large-print-tube-map.pdf

Post-Digital Learning Landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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