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What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital Capabilities: Keynote for #udigcap

I was invited by Kerry Pinny to be one of the keynotes at the UCISA Digital Capabilities event this past week at Warwick University.  Here is my best attempt to make the talk I gave into prose form.

I think with people (I say this most times I give a talk, but it’s worth repeating and pointing out), and on the occasion of this talk, I have thought either directly or indirectly with these people in particular.  

Zoe Fisher 

Jeanine Finn

Kevin Seeber

Jessica Schomberg

Eamonn Teawell

Margy MacMillan

Jason Davies

Cameron Neylon

Elder Teen

Lawrie Phipps

Kerry Pinny

Some of them via conversations online, some face to face. I want in particular to point to Lawrie Phipps, with whom I have been partnering this year in a variety of work, and whose thoughts are shot through much of my thinking here.  And Kerry Pinny, who was brave enough to invite me to speak to you today. And I also want to single out my daughter, referred to here as Elder Teen.

Elder Teen, walking along the Flaggy Shore near Galway. Photo by Catherine Cronin.

My daughter is 17 years old.  She is going to university next year.  She grew up in the American school system, one where standardized testing rules.  She has been tested beyond an inch of her life, labeled a variety of things, and had her notions of success tied to particular kind of tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT) and classes associated with tests (AP, IB) for a very long time.

She does very well on tests.  

That is not the point.

I see time and again the experiences she has in classes reduced to “how she will do on a test.”  And I witness the joy it sucks out of her educational experiences, and the terror it inspires, in the chance she might get things wrong, or not do well enough.

We are surrounded by tests.

They are used in the workplace, in professional development situations.  For example:

and

 

I often wonder how different it would be, in staff development workshops, if we had people test themselves with these kinds of tools:

 

Or maybe this one?

 

 

My daughter helped me find the Cosmo and the Buzzfeed quizzes.  She was particularly excited about this one:

 

and so she insisted that I take it.  Here’s my result:

 

I have no idea what that result means.  I suspect I could spin something about my personal or professional life around “Funfetti Grilled Cheese” (YUCK) if I had to.

My daughter plays with these quizzes all the time, and I asked her, given how much angst tests give her in academic contexts, why she would bother taking these kinds of tests.  She told me, “Sometimes it’s fun to think about what kind of grilled cheese sandwich I would be!”

And yeah.  It can be fun to play with these kinds of things.

Where it ceases to be fun is when decisions get made on your behalf based on the results.

Frameworks, quizzes, and diagnostics (what I like to call the “Cosmo Quiz” school of professional development) that encourage people to decide what “type” they are to explain why they are doing things give an easy end-run around organizational, structural, cultural circumstances that might also be the reasons for people’s behaviors.  The danger with attributing actions just to individual motivations or “tendencies” is that when there are problems, then it’s entirely up to the individual to “fix it.”

Checklists find their way into a lot of the work we do.  My colleagues in libraries introduced me to this checklist, used in some instructional contexts:

 

I appreciate very much the critique of the CRAAP checklist approach to information literacy that Kevin Seeber offers, and share his skepticism around the idea that if you give student a list they can figure out what is good information and what is “bad.”  This kind of skills approach to critical thinking isn’t effective, and is a dangerous approach in these political times when we need (“now more than ever”)  to provide people with practices and processes that allow them to effectively navigate the current landscape of information and disinformation.

There are structurally similar arguments being made around academic literacies generally, including student writing–there is a concern across the sector around the risks of reducing the notion of what we need people to do during and after their time in educational institutions to “skills.”

The following list is a tiny literature review that reflects the thinking and reading I did for this part of the talk.  

Lewis Elton (2010) Academic writing and tacit knowledge, Teaching in Higher Education, 15:2, 151-160, DOI: 10.1080/13562511003619979

Mary R. Lea & Brian V. Street (2006) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23:2, 157-172, DOI: 10.1080/03075079812331380364

Eamonn Teawell.  “The Problem with Grit:  Dismantling Deficit Models in Information Literacy Instruction, LOEX, May 5, 2018. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1rYott7k-_WYi_fPmgqqr36THefKJGljcBichqv4U4OY/present?includes_info_params=1&slide=id.p5

John C. Besley and Andrea H. Tanner.  (2011) What Science Communication Scholars Think About Training Scientists to Communicate.  Science Communication Vol 33, Issue 2, pp. 239 – 263. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547010386972

Douglas, Mary. How institutions think. Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Chris Gilliard and Hugh Kulik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy

Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Primarily this is to say that what I’ve been critiquing thus far are “deficit models”–wherein people are framed as lacking, from the beginning, and where the “fix” is “more” of something–more information, more skills, etc.  And you can see from these references that such critiques predate this talk by a long shot. This isn’t even the earliest reference, but the Elton source was brought to me via the second reference, Lea and Street, who wanted educators to be “concerned with the processes of meaning-making and contestation around meaning rather than as skills or deficits. “ (Lea and Street 2006, p. 159).  Their article is specifically about academic writing, but the points they make cross-cut many pedagogical discussions in higher and further education, and like  Eamonn Teawell in his recent talk at LOEX, argues for a model of education that is about the social acquisition of academic practices, rather than the accumulation of skills off a checklist, or a certain amount of content.

My colleague at UCL, Jason Davies alerted me to the anthropologist Mary Douglas’ short book, based on a series of lectures, called How Institutions Work, and in particular to her points that institutions are socially and culturally constructed, and that they themselves structure knowledge and identity.  Universities are institutions, shot through with the structures of society, social inequality, racism, sexism, and classism. Douglas notes that analogies and labels used in institutional contexts are representations of “patterns of authority.”

So when we, in institutional contexts, sit our students or staff down and ask them to take a test or go through a diagnostic tool that gives them a profile, we think we are just trying to make things clear.  Douglas’s analysis gives us a way to frame these activities as actually reinforcing current structural inequalities, and therefore assigning categories that limit people and their potential. When institutions do the classifying, they de-emphasizes individual agency and furthermore suggests that the institutional take on identity is the important one that determines future “success” (which again, is defined institutionally).

I want to draw a line from quiz-type testing that offers people an opportunity to profile themselves and the problems inherent in reducing knowledge work to a list of skills.  And I also want to draw attention to the risks to which we expose our students and staff, if we use these “profiles” to predict, limit, or otherwise determine what might be possible for them in the future.  

Chris Gilliard and Safiya Noble’s works are there for me as cautions about the ways in which digital structures reproduce and amplify inequality.  Technology is not neutral, and the digital tools, platforms, and places with which we engage, online or off, are made by people, and informed by our societies, and all of the biases therein.

What are the connotations of the word “profile?”  If you have a “profile” that is something that suggests that people know who you are and are predicting your behavior.  We “profile” criminals. We “profile” suspects. People are unjustly “profiled” at border crossings because of the color of their skin, their accent, their dress.  “Profiles” are the bread and butter of what Chris Gillard has called “digital redlining:” ”a set of education policies, investment decisions, and IT practices that actively create and maintain class boundaries through strictures that discriminate against specific groups (Gilliard and Kulik 2016). “

The definitions of identity that emerge from institutions homogenize, they erase difference, they gatekeep.  This is the nature of institutions. Our role as educators should be to remove barriers for our students, staff, and ourselves, not provide more of them.  

Teaching and learning is not a problem to be solved.  They are processes in which we engage.

So when you talk about “digital capability” you may not intend that term to imply switches that are either on and off.  But the opposite of digitally capable is digitally incapable. The opposite of digital literacy is digital illiteracy.  They are binary states. That’s built into the language we use, when we say these things.

Early in my time doing work in libraries, I was tasked with some web usability testing.  It was clear to me in the work that people didn’t sit down to a website and say “I’m a first year, and I’m using this website”  They sat down and said “i’m writing a paper, I need to find sources.” So I was perplexed at the use of personas in web UX, because in the course of my research I saw people making meaning of their encounters with the webs based on what they wanted and needed to do, first and foremost–not who they were.  What I was told, when I asked, was that personas are useful to have in meetings where you need to prove that “users are people.”

When UX workers use personas to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The utility of personas is a symptom of the lack of control that libraries and librarians have over the systems they use.  How absurd to have to make the argument that these websites and databases will be used by people.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary loans?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians? Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them. It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

What I have also  found in my own more recent work, as someone brought in to various HE and FE contexts to help people reflect on and develop their personal and professional practices, is that metaphors slide easily into labels, into ways that people identify themselves in the metaphor.  People have been primed by those quizzes, those diagnostics, to label themselves.

“I’m ENTJ”

“I’m 40 but my social media age is 16”

“I’m a funfetti cheese sandwich”

I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops trying to manage people’s anxieties around what they think these metaphors say about them as people.  They apologize for their practice, because they can read the judgments embedded in the metaphors.  No matter how hard we worked, in particular with the Visitors and Residents metaphor, to make it free from judgement, to make it clear that these are modes of engagement, not types of people, it never quite worked.  

We still had people deciding that they were more or less capable depending on the label they felt fit them.  “I can’t do that online conference because i’m not Resident on Twitter.”

We need to move away from deficit models of digital capabilities that start with pigeonholing people based on questionnaire results

What are we doing when we encourage people to diagnose themselves, categorize themselves with these tools?  The underlying message is that they are a problem needing to be fixed, and those fixes will be determined after the results of the questionnaire are in.

The message is that who they are determines how capable they are.  The message is that there might be limits on their capabilities, based on who they are.

The message is that we need to spend labor determining who people are before we offer them help.  That we need to categorize people and build typologies of personas rather than making it easy for people to access the resources they need, and allow themselves to define themselves, for their identity to emerge from their practice, from their own definitions of self, rather than our imposed notions

Anthropology has many flaws and also jargon that I occasionally still find useful in thinking about academia and why we do what we do.  In this case I return to the notions of emic, interpretations that emerge from within a particular cultural group, and etic, those interpretations that are imposed from the outside.  What all of these “who are you, here’s what we have for you” setups do is emerge from etic categories, those imposed from the outside:  You are a transfer student you are a first-gen student you are a BAME student you are a digital native.

What if we valued more the emic categories, the ways that students and staff identify themselves?  What if we allowed their definition of self to emerge from the circumstances that we provide for them while at University, for the processes they engage in to be self-directed but also scaffolded with the help, resources, mentoring, guidance of the people who make up their University?

That would be education, right?

Because the other thing is sorting.

The history of Anthropology tells us that categorizing people is lesser than understanding them.  Colonial practices were all about the describing and categorizing, and ultimately, controlling and exploiting. It was in service of empire, and anthropology facilitated that work.

It shouldn’t any more, and it doesn’t have to now.

You don’t need to compile a typology of students or staff.  You need to engage with them.

For more discussion of this digital mapping tool, see the preprint by Lawrie Phipps and myself here.

In the digital practice mapping workshops that I have been doing this year, many of them with Lawrie Phipps, we have started using this tool, which allows us to focus straight away on what people are doing, so we can then have a conversation about their motivations.

I think this might be one possible way of getting out of the classification game.  When we use this tool, we have found we didn’t have to have those “who am I , am I doing it right?” conversations.  People are far less concerned about labels, and rarely if ever apologetic about their practices.

We need to start with people’s practices, and recognize their practice as as effective for them in certain contexts.  

And then ask them questions.  Ask them what they want to do.  Don’t give them categories, labels are barriers.  Who they are isn’t what they can do.

Please, let’s not profile people.

When you are asking your students and staff questions, perhaps it should not be in a survey.  When you are trying to figure out how to help people, why not assume that the resources you provide should be seen as available to all, not just the ones with “identifiable need?”

The reason deficit models persist is not a pedagogical one, it’s a political one.

The reason why we are trying to figure out who “really needs help” (rather than assuming we can and should help everyone) is that resources are decreasing overall.  The political climate is one that is de-funding universities, state money no longer supports higher education the way it used to, and widening participation is slowing down because we are asking individual students to fund their educations rather than taking on the education of our citizens as a collective responsibility that will yield collective benefits.

These diagnostic digital capability tools are in service of facilitating that de-funding. We “target” resources when there are not enough of them.  We talk about “efficiency” when we cannot speak of “effectiveness.”

We think we can do a short-cut to effectiveness by identifying which students need help, guidance, and chances to explore what they don’t know.

They all need help.  They all deserve an education.

 

The Anthropologist’s Tale: Lianza #open17

My first view of Aotearoa.

I was invited.  This time I got invited to Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.  I had never been to that part of the world, and this part of library-land was also new to me (even as I had been following some library folks there via Twitter).

The Lianza conference was full of amazing people, it’s a fantastic community, I am so pleased I got to spend time in that room, filled with enthusiasm and criticality, public as well as academic librarians.  You can watch keynotes and sessions recorded at Lianza and I recommend you watch them via their site, here.  If you want to watch mine (including the Q and A, as well as the song they sang to me after I was finished!), that’s here (you’ll be asked to register for the site).

Thank you to Viv Fox of PiCS for sponsoring me, to Kim Tairi and David Clover for excellent advice while writing my talk, and to the scholars whose work I consulted in the course of putting this together (I tried to link within the blog, but have also put together references at the end of this).   Thank you to Paula Eskett, and to the entire conference program committee and team for working hard to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

This is, as best I can recreate, the text of my talk.

Tēnā koutou katoa

(Greetings to you all)

I am from California, near the Pacific Ocean, and also near the high desert in the south.  I lived in Chumash, Ohlone, and Yuhaviatam land.

I live in North Carolina, in the piedmont, between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic ocean.  It is Catawba and Cherokee land.

My father’s family is from Louisiana, along the Bayou Teche, we are Cajun.  We were settler people, on Chitimacha land.  My PaPa was beaten for speaking French in school.  My MonMon never learned to read.

My father is Harold John Lanclos

My mother is Judith Cameron Lanclos

I am Donna Michelle Lanclos, named after a Beatles song and my mother’s college roommate

Tēnā koutou

Tēnā koutou

Tēnā koutou katoa

Kia Ora

Thank you for inviting me, thank you for bringing me here.  I am so grateful.

I am at the mercy of people’s invitations, personally and professionally, I get to be where I am because someone, at some point, let me in.

This is true for anthropologists generally–we get to be where we are, to do the work we do, because someone lets us in.

(I talked about my work at UNC Charlotte here in the talk, you can read more about it elsewhere on my blog here.  I made the basic point to the Lianza audience that my work is an anthropology of academia, my responsibility is to research and analyze the logic, the motivations, and practices of academics)

Once anthropologists are let in, then, we do the work of stories.

We collect stories.

We listen to stories

We interpret stories

We put different stories together.

And then we tell stories.  We tell our own, as a way in, we tell the stories of other people, because it is our work, the work of making the “exotic familiar” (and, the familiar exotic). When people talk about qualitative work, especially in contrast to quantitative work, they often invoke stories, they talk about the work of stories.  Some people use story as an epithet, synonymous with anecdote (also meant as an epithet).  But, stories are data, stories are information, stories are ways of representing and interpreting reality.

I started thinking about this talk with the framing of stories in part because I realized early on the link between colonial New Zealand (especially ChristChurch and Canterbury) and Chaucer.  Maybe it’s only a link in my mind, it made me think immediately of my mother, who was an English major at university, and who kept her copy of Canterbury Tales in our house when I was growing up.

Photo by Jim Forest cc-by on flickr https://flic.kr/p/5QqRuR

When I was in my last year of High School, my teacher taught us about Chaucer, and his Canterbury Tales.  We had a textbook that excerpted several of the tales–the Miller’s tale, for example.   But also, and this was formative for me:  The tale of the Wife of Bath.  I had my mother’s book, and I could see that the tale of the Wife of Bath was very very different from the one we were presented in our textbook.  There were words in the college version that did not show up in the high school version.

I was the kind of student who wanted to ask questions about that.

So I did.

I brought my mother’s book to school, and as my teacher was having us read the bowdlerized story of this woman who had many husbands and a lot of sex, I was raising my hand on a regular basis.

“Mr Taylor, that’s NOT what it says in MY book.”

I was not my teacher’s favorite student in that moment, but the story was different!  I wanted what I thought was the “real” story, not the one packaged as appropriate for children.  Chaucer told a story about storytelling, the way my teacher was using it taught me a great deal about the power of who controls stories, and what different versions can do to your sense of reality.

I am also a folklorist, and this awareness of multiple versions of the same story, this is part of what defines something as folklore.  And folklore materials are another kind of data, there is meaning in the stories.  There are always versions, and meaning within that variation.  Think of Cinderella, of  Little Red Riding Hood; who tells the tale informs what tale is told.  Sometimes the huntsman rescues Little Red Riding Hood.  Sometimes she rescues herself.  Sometimes the stepsisters live happily ever after with Cinderella.  Sometimes they lose their eyes to birds as well as parts of their feet to the knife.

I am an anthropologist.

I study people.

I am located in a discipline with a troubled history, and a collusion with colonialism that we can never shake, and we have to acknowledge.  

Social Anthropology in the UK in the early 20th century was literally tool of the man.

Cover of E.E Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography of the Nuer.

After his initial fieldwork in the 1920s among the Azande in the Sudan, E.E. Evans Pritchard was hired by the  Anglo-Egyptian government–the context for this hire was the conflict that the colonial government had with the Nuer people in the 1920s.  

Colonial officials thought if they had more information about the people they wanted to control, they would be able to do so more effectively, and wanted anthropological knowledge to be a part of this mechanism of control.  Control did not necessarily happen, but this was certainly the intent.

 

 

Smithsonian Archives, ” Franz Boas posing for figure in USNM exhibit entitled “Hamats’a coming out of secret room” 1895 or before”

 

Franz Boas took up anthropology as his life’s work after his previous academic life as a physicist, who wrote a dissertation on the color of seawater. He is known as the Father of American Anthropology, and a champion of anti-scientific racism.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, the “extinction narrative” had already quite caught hold, and Native American and First Nations groups were the object of study at least in part because they were framed as “disappearing”

19th century anthropology co-occurred with the systematic dispossession, persecution, and killing of indigenous peoples, the “salvage anthropology” that followed in the 20th century referred to “disappearing” people as if they were fading, not being colonized and displaced by white settlers.

 

 

 

First edition cover for Ruth Benedict’s ethnographic treatment of Japanese culture. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/90/TheChrysanthemumAndTheSword.jpg

In the mid-20th century, during the second World War, anthropological knowledge was leveraged as a way to better understand (and, it was presumed) and so control our conquered enemies, the Japanese.  Ruth Benedict did “armchair anthropology” during WWII, and her resulting work, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, informed the occupation strategies by the US of Japan after the war.

These are not the only examples of anthropological knowledge being taken by governments and other policy makers as part of their toolkits for control.  The debate within anthropology over the role of the knowledge it accesses, communicates, and creates in the military, and in government, erupted strongly during the Vietnam War, and again with the US war in Afghanistan since 2001.  

 

 

 

 

I keep coming back to the example of the work of Margaret Mead when I talk about the potential of anthropological work.  There are problems with whose stories she told, and for what purpose, but her purposes shifted from those of institutional control to one of understanding, and it is for this that I value her work, in Samoa and also in Papua New Guinea.

Margaret Mead. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Margaret_Mead_NYWTS.jpg

Her intention, as a student of Boas and Benedict (among others), was to make the unfamiliar familiar.  And also, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to question the practices of her own culture with regard to, for instance,  adolescence and childrearing.  She brought what she learned from other cultures back to her own, as a way of advocating for change, as she considered many practices in the US to be toxic.  She used other cultural practices to feed her imagination, for what else might be possible.

Why am I telling you this?  Many of you probably know the colonial history of anthropology, the problems and pitfalls baked into its disciplinary history.

 

So let’s talk about Libraries—This is Andrew Carnegie, founding the Carnegie library in Waterford, Ireland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Foundation_stone_of_Waterford_Free_Library.jpg

These libraries (in the US, the UK, and also in New Zealand, among other places)  were ways for Carnegie to impose his idea of what communities “should have” as expressed in a particular structure of knowledge and respectability.  The leaders who petitioned Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th century to have these libraries built in their communities were buying into that particular kind of respectability.  They wanted to be associated with that respectability, and the power associated with it.

This is Libraries as colonizing structures, structures shot through with orientalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.  

The problem with these, with any colonizing impulse (OK, one problem among many) is the assumption that if you don’t put a library there, if you don’t establish a colonial government, there won’t be anything.  It ignores what is there.

Aotearoa pre-dates New Zealand.  There were people, long before there were libraries.

In my own work, I see the colonizing impulse in libraries in two specific ways.

The first is the reaction I occasionally get when I present on the logic behind student or faculty behavior that might be confounding to library professionals (eg, using SciHub, citing Wikipedia, not putting their materials in the Institutional Repository).

I talk about motivations, about the competing and conflicting messages that people get around information, and the ways that some things (using ResearchGate, for example) make sense to individuals even if those choices, from a library perspective, are less than ideal.  And I am asked:

“So how do we get them to change their behavior?”

Fortunately, that’s not my job.  But if that’s the end point, I’ve failed a bit in what is my job, that is, generating understanding of the underlying logics behind human behavior such that the thought of what might be “best” can fall away, to allow for a wider range of possibilities.

The second reaction is one that I sometimes get when I propose open-ended investigations of human behavior in universities.  Projects such as the Day in the Life study, which was pitched as broadly exploratory, without particular questions beyond, “what is student everyday life like at universities in the United States?”  And I am asked:

“How will this help me solve X problem?”

In this case, I don’t mean to be dismissive of a particular problem, but problem-solving is rarely the point of exploratory research.  Gaining insight, creating a sense of a bigger picture, revealing context that helps with understanding, these are all things that such research can generate, but those things are not aligned with the metrics that libraries are beholden to, the quantified existence that higher education and other municipal entities are increasingly made to endure.   What value?  How much?  What is the ROI?

I cannot answer that.  I don’t want to.

You don’t do anthropology among students and faculty so that you can manipulate them do to library-style things

You do it so that the library can more effectively shift its practices.

The impetus for change should come from libraries, not from “users”  How do you listen?  How do you change what you’re doing?  How do you create inclusive spaces?  Spaces that welcome whether someone has been invited or not?

How do you find out the stories behind the people in your library?  How do you find out stories about your community, whether they are in the library or not?  Anthropology can be one way.  In particular, the anthropology that invites you to de-center yourself, your perspectives, your biases, and take on the priorities and perspectives of the people you are interested in learning from.

I want to contrast the “understanding people to control them” anthropological heritage from the “understanding people to connect with them” piece that I think should actually be the goal.   Trying to get libraries to understand the difference is crucial–we don’t want to be the colonizing library. No matter how much power librarians don’t think they have, you have so much more power than the people who are in there using the library.  So, you have a responsibility to be careful.

In the long history of colonialism and anthropology, there is a thread of interrogating practice without valuing it, and for the purposes of control.  We should rather be engaging with communities via research, exploring in ways that are about generating big picture insights, not “action research” problem solving and repetitive projects.

What are the stories we need to hear, and retell, from the people in our libraries, in our communities, whether they are in the libraries or not?

Anthropological fieldwork can’t help you if you’re still only interested in telling the library’s story.

So what can we do?  How can we reframe?  I’d like to suggest a couple of things.  

First:  Syncretisim, a concept which might be one way around the solutionism that I see so much in libraries.  In my experience I have encountered syncretism most in anthropology of religion, to refer to that cobbling together that people do around beliefs and practices, especially in colonial situations, but also in contexts of migration.  Population movement and contact brings people together from different places, and the power relations that also inform that context result in not a seamless blending of religious practices, but a seaming together, a picking and stitching so that you can see the original component parts in the something new that emerges.

I think syncretism emerges in the ways that people approach libraries these days.  They come to libraries, public and academic, with an already formed set of practices around digital and information.  When they come into contact with library practices, their own don’t suddenly disappear–they make room for new practices if they serve them, and incorporate them into their own.

As educators in libraries we have a reasonable expectation that we can teach people in our communities new and useful things about information, about research, about reading and interacting with all of the resources that libraries can serve as a portal to.  We should also expect to be taught by the people in our communities what libraries (and the content and expertise within libraries) are for to them.  

Second:  Decolonizing. Breaking down the power structures that are barriers to inclusion in institutions such as libraries.  Libraries, like anthropology, emerge from and reproduce colonizing structures.  They “other” in defining who belongs and who doesn’t, what “fits” and what doesn’t.  And here I am particularly indebted to the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, nina de jesus, April Hathcock, and Fobazi Ettarh

I also want to recognize that this is not a new idea to New Zealand, even as there is still clearly work to do.

If we acknowledge that libraries are colonizing structures, we should ask what it would mean to not have the library define itself, but to listen to the people who are in the library, but not of the library?  How can we make space, fight for space so that the definition of library emerges from the community in which the library sits, so that the library becomes indelibly the community?

We need to move away from the language of “user” because that privileges the buildings and structures of libraries.  I want to follow Chris Bourg here in emphasizing that what our responsibility is, is to our community.  This word “community” does an end-run around “users”–because the construction of user suggests that the significant people to libraries are only those who are in their buildings or in their systems.  But our responsibility is to our community, whether they are “in the library” or not..

I want us to think of and speak about and emphasize Libraries as a social place, with a mission that is beyond content.  

Who is in your library?  Who is of your library?  

Public libraries have a much better handle on this than academic libraries.  There’s far less “how do we get them to library the way we want them to” in the air in public libraries, and we in academic libraries would do well to pay more attention.  This, too, anthropological approaches can help with.  But only if we follow the line of anthropology that moves away from colonizing structures.

He aha te mea nui o te ao?

(What is the most important thing in the world?)

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

(It is the people, it is the people, it is the people)

 

 

 

References:

Bourg, Chris  “Feral Librarian” (blog) https://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/

de jesus, nina. “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.” (2014). http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

Ettarh, Fobazi “WTF is a Radical Librarian Anyway?” (blog) https://fobaziettarh.wordpress.com/

Hathcock, April “At the Intersection” (blog) https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/

Johnson, D. (1982). Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service. African Affairs, 81(323), 231-246. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/721729

Leonard, Wesley. “Challenging” Extinction” through Modern Miami Language Practices.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35, no. 2 (2011): 135-160.http://uclajournals.org/doi/abs/10.17953/aicr.35.2.f3r173r46m261844?code=ucla-site

Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (2001). Handbook of ethnography (pp. 1-7). P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, & S. Delamont (Eds.). London: Sage.pp.66-67

Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda “Making Meaning of ‘Decolonizing’” Medium, Feb 20, 2017 https://medium.com/@chanda/making-meaning-of-decolonising-35f1b5162509

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd., 2013.

Te Ahi Kaa, Whakatuki for 26 May 2013, Radio New Zealand http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/teahikaa/audio/2556269/whakatuki-for-26-may-201

Unsettling America (blog) https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/

 

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.

 

Being a Leader isn’t about You

Look, I am aware of the ego it takes to get up in front of people and hold forth about things, I’ve been doing that for just a little while now and I’m a Leo so it works for me (and, I hope, for the people who invite me).  And I likewise think it probably takes a fair amount of ego these days to think to oneself, “You know, I really would like to lead X”  where X might be a department, a trade union, a library, a university, a town, a country, or your very own piece of the interwebs.

The thing is, for it to be a good move for more than just you, the desire to lead cannot end with “I’d like to be in charge.”  It really shouldn’t start there, either.  I am living in a country where ‘I’d Like to be in Charge” is currently in the White House, my State Legislature, and also occupying the majority of both national Houses of Congress.  ‘‘I’d Like to be in Charge” with an added dollop of “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” is currently riding roughshod over the social contract in the UK as well as in the US, deciding that coalitions are for losers and that caring for the welfare of other people is a sucker’s game.

There are likely several ways to be a toxic leader but this highly- visible -at- this- particular- moment model of “Leadership for the Sake of Me and Screw You Guys” (even as the rhetoric of these leaders is about countries, groups, people, institutions) is to my mind one of the most toxic.  Leadership for personal gain serves no one but the person in the leadership position.

That’s not the kind of leadership we need, if we are concerned about our society.   Or any other collection of people.

So when I and my ego get up in front of people in leadership positions in education next week, I want very much to swiftly reach a point where we are NOT talking about them as individuals.

Even as I recognize they are people.

Even as I emphasize that their humanity is a crucial part of their leadership potential.

In the Jisc Digital Leaders course I will be resisting any requests for to-do lists, or top-tips around practice.  I will be attempting, even as I get people to talk and think about themselves, to center other people in the minds of the participants.  Many of them will show up already with this orientation.  We start people off with examining their individual practices because that’s an important way in to thinking about the logics of those practices, and the logics of other people.  We move from mapping their individual digital and physical practices to a broader consideration of their organizational practices and priorities because that should be the point when you are in a leadership position:  everything except yourself.

Who you are as a leader is to some extent about you as a person, but effective constructive leadership is also about what you would like to do, and for whom you would like to do these things.  Leaders should value the voices of others, and de-center themselves as much as possible because collective action is effective action, and requires many, not few, or one person’s priorities.  Leaders should give more credit than they take, because they are confident enough in themselves and the strengths of their team to allow others to shine and pull their weight, and be seen and heard.

When I think about effective leadership, I recognize the importance of leaders bringing their own particular set of expertise to their work.  I also want leaders who don’t know everything, but are willing to learn.  I want leaders who don’t have to do everything, and who trust enough to delegate.  I want leaders who know enough to let go of control, because none of us really have it anyway.  We need, collectively, leaders who can see the places where they can and should work towards change in their organizations, in their communities, and recognize the need to do so collectively, and decidedly not from a place of “Good Thing I’m in Charge.”

I am looking forward to the work and conversations we engage in next week.  And hope the work continues beyond the confines of the course itself.  The course is ostensibly about “Digital Leadership” but our need to create and sustain effective, constructive leadership models is about more than digital places and practices.  We need them as a counter to the toxic leaders we have facilitated in the past, and which threaten us now.

Both motivational images courtesy of Lawrie Phipps.

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.

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.”

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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.

A Typology of Keynotes

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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?