Tag Archives: presentations

Where is your place? Keynote for Social Science Librarians Boot Camp–RVA

Me n my buddy Dr. Mead.  Thank you to Nina Exner for permission to use her tweet as a header for this post

Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking to a roomful of enthusiastic folks wanting to learn more about social science, social science methods, and social scientists so that they would work more effectively for and with them.  Sojourna Cunningham and her colleagues Sam Guss and Ryan Brazell organized this event, and I thank them, and in particular Sojourna for thinking of and inviting me to speak.  

It was my first time in Richmond, VA, and also the first talk I gave after spending a year in the UK.  I wanted to acknowledge (as did conference organizers) that the event was taking place on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Arrohattoc, Monacan, and Powhatan peoples.  It also felt important to remind myself and attendees that Richmond, even before it was the capital of the Confederacy was, along with New Orleans, one of the primary hubs for the domestic trade in enslaved people.  The current construction of the new stadium has literally dug up more of this history, this time the sites of slave jails in Shockoe Bottom, in stark contrast to the monuments to the Confederacy on Monument avenue.  

  As my talk concerned place, and the meaning of “place” I wanted us too to keep in mind where we were, and the colonial and pre-colonial history of this specific place.

As it was also less than 2 weeks ago that I arrived back in the US from living abroad, place and the meaning of place was much on my mind, as I transition (still) back to living in the US again.

* links and allusions herein to works or thoughts of people who make me think, including Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, Chris Bourg, Maura Smale, Emily Drabinksi, Audrey Watters, Andrew Preater, Simon Barron, Binni Brynholf, and Ian Clark *

I was asked to talk to this crowd because I am a social scientist who also works in libraries.  So, I started my talk telling the story (again) of how I ended up in libraries in the first place.  While elsewhere I have discussed the content of my work, I wanted here to point to the structural position of myself in the organization into which I was hired.  I was hired, in 2009, into a library faculty position, without really understanding what that meant in my particular institution.

I was surprised by a couple of things.  First, the organizational culture was much more managerial, much more, in terms of organizational charts, what I consider to be “private sector,” in part because of my personal history as an academic who went straight from undergrad to grad school to adjuncting to my job in the library with very few other workplace cultures (unless you want to count lifeguarding in high school) along the way.

Second I was caught off guard (though I should not have been) by the precarity of faculty status among library faculty in my institution.  Tenure lines were removed from library faculty at UNC Charlotte in 2003 (they were grandfathered in for those who already had tenure), and while that initially alarmed some “regular” faculty, who thought they might be next to experience the loss of tenure (thus far, they have not been) there was no successful fight for library faculty to retain tenure.  I also saw a tension between the 9-5 operational notion of a job and the flexible, not necessarily library-centered work that emerges from faculty.

Was I faculty?  I was “library faculty”

And the question of whether or not I was faculty was tied up in a narrative I inherited from grad school, the one that says that once you get a PhD then you should go for a faculty position, full time, tenure track.

Since I have been an undergraduate I have been hearing about all of these people who are going to retire, and make room for those of us coming up to get “good jobs.” (that is:  jobs that our professors recognized as being “good jobs” AKA tenure-track) We all know what actually happened–the market is flooded with people who have degrees, but the jobs that used to be tenure-track were not replaced.  We are now met with a vast array of part time, non-TT positions, thanks to the defunding of university systems nationwide. The part-time-ification of university staffing means that even those who are continuing to teach in their subject aren’t necessarily living the assumptions that many of our professors (especially in research-centered institutions) set for us when we were getting our degrees.

So, when I got a job that had a “faculty” label I took it and ran with it.

I wasn’t always in my office

I struggled with the culture of meetings, and in particular the notion that all meetings were perceived as work.

I was confronted with the idea that if I wasn’t in the library, perhaps I wasn’t doing work that was relevant to the library

What I did do was act like an anthropologist.  I was not hired into the library to be a librarian, my position was one of an applied practitioner, and I was hired to do research that could inspire and affect policy and practice in the library.


I conducted fieldwork

I reported on the fieldwork.

I also treated the university as my field site, not just the library.

In going about my work, it became apparent that as “library faculty” I had none of the protections of the state staff contract, and none of the flexibility of the tenured or tenure-track faculty contract.  None of my colleagues with faculty status in the library did.

But, I also saw that faculty status was cherished.  It was talked about as a primary way that we in the library could “get to talk to people” outside of the library (where “people” were faculty members).

Faculty status, however precarious, was our means to getting on campus committees.  It was how we qualified to apply for on-campus grants to do research and pedagogical projects.

The ways that faculty status was used at my institution was as an antidote of sorts to the problems of status and inequality between people in the library and academics.

I see that inequality play out in a number of ways; for example, when it becomes clear that while some faculty are happy to invite people from the library to teach their students, they do not necessarily issue the same invitation when they themselves need to learn things.

The faculty status problem also clearly reified inequality within the library, between “staff” and “librarians;” sometimes this is “people without an ML(I)S degree” and “people with an ML(I)S degree” but not always.  How can we work together as a team, from out of the library, or even within the library when there are different power dynamics? When not everyone has the license or the flexibility to do some of the work that is on offer, where job descriptions box in what people think they are allowed to do?

I want to think about the “invitation culture” that impacts whether or not people can do particular work– for example, when do you get to do instruction work within departments?  Often, it’s when you are invited.

Maura Smale, in response to yet another recent bullshit take on libraries and archives, wrote a column in the ACRL blog where she wonders:  

“What is it about librarianship that leads otherwise smart people to assume that expertise is not required for our jobs?”

Not everyone who works in libraries is perceived as valued, and it requires being valued to be invited.  The hierarchies of academia facilitate this dismissal of expertise

Library workers are not the only ones who struggle with this.  I just finished a research project on teaching practices in higher and further ed in the UK (Lawrie Phipps and I will be talking about our results at the ALT conference this year in Manchester), and it was by no means a given that any particular faculty member we spoke to would talk to people in their Center for Teaching and Learning about pedagogy.

The CTL folks were the people who “run the Moodle,” what would they know about teaching?  Their expertise as instructional designers, as pedagogues, was lost in the picture of them as IT folks who do nothing but wrangle systems.

So, too, does the imaginary library, the one in the heads of some faculty and administrators, remain limited to a bucket of content, rather than a hive of myriad expertise to be tapped.

The internet (where I spend entirely too much time) has brought me the phrase “Stay in your Lane.”  I think library workers hear that a lot. I heard it, too.

I have been told in some institutional contexts that, if I am working from within the library, I should not directly contact faculty members.  The University of California is right now in the middle of telling their librarians that “Academic freedom is not a good fit for your unit.”

“This is your place”–what is the place of the library?  What is the place of library workers? Who tells them that?  When is it important to listen? When can you ignore that and make your own place?

I want to think here again about what Fobazi Ettarh theorizes as Vocational Awe, “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.”   

I want to ask what it means in the larger history of a profession that has a history of whiteness, of conventions of “nice” or “professional” that emerge from a particular feminized work, of privilege born of being a profession women could go into because it was “appropriate” and that men could go into to take charge.  

Library workers are placed, often involuntarily, in a particular relationship with the rest of the university.  People think they know what libraries are capable of. Sometimes (too often) the expectations they have of libraries and library workers are low.  If all libraries do is work to satisfy expectations, people in libraries won’t get to do much that’s interesting.

And the weaponization of vocational awe can be linked to the disappearance of expertise, because asking for recognition of expertise gets treated a bit like asking for more money, or opportunities:  ”why are you asking for more? Aren’t you just pleased to be doing the work? Why are you asking about that? Why do you want to talk to them? You should be grateful.” I worry a bit when I hear the phrase, “Oh we love the library” because it’s frequently followed by “but we can’t do THAT.”  All the nostalgic affection for libraries in the world doesn’t help, and often gets in the way of seeing all that is possible from the people who work there.

When I talk about librarianship I say “profession” advisedly because while the work that happens within libraries can be identified as a set of practices, protocols, and a particular history, I don’t see it necessarily as a discipline in the same way that, say, I see anthropology (this is of course arguable, and I’d love to discuss this with folks who disagree.  I think disciplines are interesting, and limiting, and find the desire for a body of work to be a discipline worth thinking around.)

I should also trouble here the word “librarian” because not all people who work in libraries have an ML(I)S degree, or identify as librarians.  While in the UK I had conversations with colleagues who work in libraries and they offered the term “library worker,” which I like very much.  It signals where, organizationally, the work is happening, but doesn’t make assumptions about degrees held, or expertise.  Programmers work in libraries. Historians work in libraries. A sociologist is the head of MIT libraries.  Some anthropologists still work in libraries.  The library is a container for expertise that isn’t necessarily just librarianship.   The people who work in libraries are part of larger networks that may or may not emerge from LIS, or remain embedded in libraries.

Nonetheless, libraries can contain a culture and people who work in libraries can share a worldview, even if they are not always clear what that is, either to themselves, or to others.  And there are subcultures–that of academic librarians, that of public librarians, systems folks and people who work in archives (and who may or may not be archivists). The subcultures shape and are shaped by location, both organizationally and professionally–what kind of library are you working within?  Is it a library? With whom are you working? For whom? The “culture of libraries” is multiple. And also, I think, malleable. There is room for change.

I want to think too about the culture of academia that produced some of the scholars with whom library workers wish to partner, in social sciences and other disciplines.  Academics are socialized in many cases to do their work alone, socialized to be able to do things themselves, and assume that they are supposed to know things. So asking for help can be read as a weakness.  Faculty members don’t always collaborate for reasons similar to why some library workers think they need to learn all the things, to do the work they want to do (rather than collaborate with people who know the things they don’t).

When it is hard to change things, it’s worth remembering that there are reasons for it being hard that have nothing to do with how much you are trying.  There are structural power imbalances. There are histories of organizational practice. There are habits that are difficult to break.

Social sciences (especially, and I am biased here, anthropology and sociology) are good at helping us see why things are the way they are, and that grounding in What Is the Case can be a prelude to change.  I’d argue that it’s difficult to effect change without a good handle on how and why things are the way they are.

I also want to sound a cautionary note on placing too much importance on methodology training to effect change–I don’t want to discourage people from learning new things, far from it.  But methodology will not save you from the culture of universities, or libraries.  

Events like this one here tell me that you all are not waiting for an invitation.  The structure of Social Science Librarian Boot Camps assumes that expertise in addition to library expertise is valued and in many ways assumed to be the norm.  To what extent do boot camps and other events that position library workers as peers and partners, create more space to not wait for an invitation? To simply do the work, to invite others, rather than hope to be included?  

The distinction between “inviting”/ “being invited” /“engaging in outreach” and “collaborating with” is worth emphasizing.  I think the latter is what we should be working towards. I want collaboration to be the goal in many contexts.

That requires a space to have been created by leadership.  Who makes it possible for library workers to not have to worry about their “place” about “staying in their lane?”  What labor protections are in place, what structural support makes something like this possible?  How can people do this work without worrying about losing their job? What don’t you have to worry about, if you feel free to do this work?  

The ability to exceed expectations of library work can only really come from collective action, and collaboration.  I don’t think it comes from assuming that you who work in libraries have to do all the things.  It comes from finding and connecting with people who are doing work you want to connect with, amplify, learn from, and teach to.

Library workers think they don’t have power.  You might not have authority, but you have power.  You do have agency.  This can be your place.


So, what are you going to do next?  




Around this time last year my family and I were getting ready to move ourselves to the UK for the year.  We have, since end of July 2017, been physically based in Kingston-on-Thames, just southish from central London.

It’s been great.

It’s been hectic.

It’s been challenging.

I am so glad we did this.

Over the course of this year I have facilitated workshops, delivered talks, keynoted at conferences, conducted research, and spent a lot of time on UK (and occasionally other) trains going from place to place.   I have published two book chapters, and two articles in the 2017-18 academic year.

I have worked in, visited, or otherwise found myself in:  Oxford, Edinburgh, Leicester, Cambridge, Belfast, Lancaster, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham, Warwick, Milton Keynes, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Galway, Coventry, and London London London.  Oh and there was also that detour in the Fall where I had the great good pleasure of visiting New Zealand, far too briefly.  I have given presentations to the following organizations: the International Conference on Performance Measurement in LibrariesALT-C, Lianza, UCISA Digital Capabilities Group, CPD25, and the Forum for Interlending.  I have worked and talked with people at UEL, UWL, Kingston University, the LSE, UAL, Goldsmiths, King’s, UCL, and that’s just in London.  I have been working closely with colleagues at Jisc on their Digital Leadership Course as well as on a year-long project about teaching practices, and have done other small research projects here and there that have helped me think in constructive ways about how people approach academic work, especially but not exclusively in terms of digital tools, places, and platforms.

If I’ve lost track of you I’m sorry I will remember I know I will.  I believe my point is:  I have been busy, people have been generous, I have been invited, and I am grateful for the work I’ve gotten to do this year.

So, what do I do now?

We have to go back.  There is work to be done in the US that has nothing to do with HE, FE, digital leadership, or libraries.

I have quit my job in the library at UNC Charlotte.  It is time for new things, and I am also not entirely sure what they will be now.

I had wanted to write a sort of “I’m hanging out  my shingle” post here, something where I plant a flag or wave my hands and say “I’m here and I’d love to work with you.”  Maybe that’s what I am doing, but I am profoundly aware that I don’t actually know what is going to happen next.

I have worked so much this year.  Will anyone want me to work with or for them next year?

What will my network in the UK look like when I am no longer a relatively easy train ride away?  How will my US network respond to my being back?

What can I build, now that I have done what I have done this year?

With whom can I build whatever it will be?

I don’t know.  I have some ideas but I don’t really know.

In the meantime, I will be back in Charlotte NC but also already making plans to be back in the UK in the autumn.

It is hard to have hope.  I will try to hope anyway.

And I hope to see you all again soon.



Who Gets to Use ILL: Keynote for #Interlend18



I’m intrigued that there is an entire conference for Interlibrary Lending.  I asked Nigel Buckley, who was kind enough to invite me (and who could not be present on the actual day of the Forum for Interlending conference in Birmingham this year), about who goes to this event, he made the point that while the conference is organized around ILL, that all of the people in the room have other duties as a part of their job, and that very few these days do ILL full time. (I wondered in the room aloud if that were true, and found a few folks in the room who do it full-time, but it was indeed true that many had it as part of a wider set of job descriptions.)

I think that ILL is potentially a useful lens through which we can examine the role of library policy and systems in defining and limiting people’s access to particular scholarly identities.  So I’d like to explore that a bit, and then end (as I usually do) with some questions. I was told, when I was invited, that the Forum for Interlending attendees were interested in more user experience discussions. What I would like to do here is move to a point where the “user” is less the point than the community of scholars among which libraries are located, and with whom library workers need to connect.

When I was an undergraduate, I was at the University of California.  There are now nine campuses in that system, at the time I was there (in the late 80s/early 90s) there were eight.  At the time, each campus had two different library systems. A local one, and a system-wide one. The system-wide was called Melvyl. And when you were in Melvyl, you could see what the holdings were for the entire system.  I was in Santa Barbara, and I could see what books were at UCLA, UC Riverside, and also in the storage facilities called SRLF and NRLF.

I was allowed to request and borrow materials from anywhere.  But I was usually advised to check the local catalog

So by the time I got to graduate school, I already had a lot of experience requesting books from other libraries.  Sure, they were all in the UC system. But I knew what it felt like to need something, request it, and have it delivered.

As a graduate student I used ILL outside of the UC system, because at some point the work I needed to do, either for my coursework, or for my dissertation, required that i get things that even the library at UC Berkeley did not have.  And in this I was encouraged by my advising professor, a folklorist, who was on a first-name basis with the interlibrary lending folks at the library, because he always needed something from someone else’s collections. They brought in materials from Europe, from Asia, from wherever he needed them.  So again, it was visible to me what was possible, and I was never told not to request, only occasionally, that they could not get something.

[an aside:  the Jitney bus was also an easy way to get from campus to campus, incidentally–a nice way of getting to other campuses if you were a starving grad student who occasionally needed to talk to people in Santa Cruz, or Davis, or somewhere relatively close by, or if you just wanted to work with their collections in person.  ]

What I see of interlibrary lending in other institutions looks different to me than my experiences with it as a student and a scholar.  

The University of California at the time I was attending had lots of resources.  And used them for the benefit of researchers, and assumed that their students would also be doing research, and so supported them in that.

Not all institutions make that assumption.

I know, for instance of institutions that limit how many ILL books people can request.

I know of institutions that do not allow undergraduates access to ILL.

I know of institutions that put on screen how much it costs them to get ILL materials, when they are being requested by someone.

I know of institutions that charge people for ILL services.

I know of an institution that tells students there is an official limit to ILL, but who allow for more if requested.  The reason there is a limit? Their LMS requires a number. The limit is built into the systems they use.

Who gets to use ILL?

What does it mean for those who don’t?

I think these are important questions,

If the option to get a book from another library isn’t very visible or obvious, either in the building or in the web environment, how does ILL being difficult to see affect what people can do, in terms of getting access to rare or unusual (or, relevant) materials?  

I think here about work I did with web UX at UNC Charlotte, one of the task list items was “request a book [that we knew we did not have].”  The idea was that students would request the book from ILL, that we were testing how easy it was to get from a Zero result page to “please find the book for me.”

That’s not what happened. What happened was the students said “Well, we don’t have it”  and then they would go to Amazon to see if they could purchase it.

They did not know what ILL was.  It was not visible to them in their everyday academic practices.  Many students at my institution were only familiar with it if they were 3rd or 4th year History or English majors, and had been schooled in the wonders of ILL by their enthusiastic faculty members.

So if the people who are important to our students don’t tell them about what’s possible in the library, and they don’t have a relationship with people in the library, there’s going to be a gap between what they think is possible, and what is actually there.

I also wonder about what the impact is of some materials being available soon (especially electronically) but not immediately, in perceptions about what is and isn’t possible in the library.

The kinds of scholars who can afford to be patient with interlending are the ones who are doing work that takes a long time anyway (dissertations, theses, books, articles), not the ones who are writing essays for their modules or courses (and even long-form scholarship occasionally requires quick results).

The use and knowledge about interlending signals an engagement with the in-depth experiences of scholarship.  That first-years don’t know about ILL tells you what we expect of first-years, not that they are incapable.

In considering interlibrary lending systems through the lens of user experience, we need to ask, UX and ILL for whom?

Who is the “user?”–there are internal and external systems, and scholars usually only see the latter.  But the ways the former works have an impact on the work that’s done. The limits of the internal systems can be passed on in the form of policies, even if those limits are not inherent to the practices of scholarship per se.

When there is a policy in place of telling people how much it costs the institution to get an item, I would ask why?  In some cases it’s to slow folks down, to make people think about the cost of scholarship. But that’s an interesting choice.

Libraries have choices in making the work they do visible, and how.

I continue to hear in library and edtech circles about the value of “seamlessness””–But the “seamless” delivery of material, regardless of how you get it, has its own cost, of invisibility and–devalued labor.  I think again of the web-based work we did at UNC Charlotte, and one of the most effective ways we made the library visible was to brand the links that came up for people in Google searches, so they would know that those links they clicked on were made possible by the library.  We made it less “seamless” to communicate more of the context of what was going on.

So I think that getting people to value labor has to be more than “are you willing to make us pay for it?”

Showing them the seams, inviting them in as scholars–making the work of interlibrary lending, or really any part of library labor, visible by embedding it into notion of scholarship, as it was when I was becoming a scholar.  It was about relationships. It was about visibility.

I know of an institution where you get paper tokens for ILL, you need to justify your request to the department, walk it over, give it to library, and maybe you’ll hear from them.

Does this kind of process communicating value?  Or make it seem inaccessible?

And why do we need to limit access to materials in this way?  Should we in the library be making decisions about who “should” get access to services such as ILL?

The reasons we need to limit it are not actually to do with the requirements of scholarship.

The limitations have to do with budgets, which are political documents, which are evidence of priorities.  And I am aware that no one has a limitless budget.

And yet.

The work we do trying to make “transparent” the costs of doing this kind of work to the people who need the library is a kind of passing the buck.  It’s evidence that we don’t have as much power as we’d like in the current system.

ILL is so many things.  It’s a system that connects libraries to each  other. It is a system that makes more possible for the people who use libraries, regardless of their physical starting point.  a part of the way that libraries fill in the gaps of their own collection, some libraries I know use ILL stats to inform the ways that they build their collections, the work of ILL has implications for the work of the library generally.

Donald Urquhart’s work on ILL in the UK in the 1950s and beyond came from his convictions about the roles of libraries.  ILL and the ways it can be useful (and also can be a barrier) to the work that people want to do via the library is in many ways a microcosm of library work generally. Urquharts’ eighteen principles are true not just for the service he imagined, but for libraries as a whole.

Here are some of them, from his 1981 booklet “”The Principles of Librarianship.”

  • “libraries are for users”
  • “no library is an island.”
  • “the failures of an information supply system to satisfy its users are, as a rule, not obvious”  
  • “information cannot be valued as a rule in monetary terms”
  • “the best is the enemy of the good”
  • “librarianship is an experimental science”
  • “libraries can be valuable to society.”

The ways that ILL is and isn’t visible, the ways it can and cannot fix the limitations of the current financial and political climate, it is reflective of libraries overall.  And we are in a precarious position, one that cannot be fixed with a new system, or a better web interface (although, sometimes those are nice too), no matter how much user experience work we do.

What might “fix it” are relationships–and the collective work that emerges from those relationships.  Of embedding ourselves, those of us who work within libraries, in the larger system of academic work. Of political and labor organizing, and of dedicating our work to access, participation, and justice.  

Of continuing to make libraries about more than just content delivery.


Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore

I have been lucky and been invited to give two talks this week, and I’m blogging the second one first, in part because it’s mostly text and no images this time around.  Leo Appleton invited me to be one of the speakers at Goldsmith’s library staff development day, where the theme was “What does diversity mean for Goldsmiths and how can Library Services contribute?”

As usual, this is an imperfect representation of what I said in the room.


“Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore”

I want to thank Leo for asking me to talk to you all.  I’m afraid this isn’t gonna be a fun talk. I’d apologize, but I think really it’s not a fun time, and we’re all tired, and it’s useful sometimes to acknowledge that things are hard, and that there’s more hard work to do.

This is one of those times.

This title is cranky, and it’s cranky in part because I’m generally upset with the state of the world, which is not quite literally on fire, but it’s damn close.

We are in a political moment where no one is safe, but those who have not been safe for a long time–the poor, people of color, LGBT+ folks, in many ways anyone who is not a reasonably well off white man–are feeling it the worst.

My country is putting asylum seekers in prison.  Children in cages (but now, along with their families, too).  We will be losing another Supreme Court Justice (the previous one was stolen) and we face the loss of voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and much more.  Lies and propaganda fly out of the mouthpieces of our political “leaders” and those who seek to bring truth to power are accused of “incivility” when they are not ignored, or told that things would have been just as bad with the “other side” in power.

I’m not here to give a talk about politics, but it’s impossible to avoid because it suffuses every aspect of how we have to live our lives.  And that includes in libraries, public and academic. And it has implications for what we talk about when we talk about “diversity.”

There’s a lot of talk about “diversity” in library staff these days, which is why I find this flow chart so important and so useful.  

Far too often “diverse” and “diversity” are the words used when actually we should be talking about “difference” or “race” or “gender.”  It becomes a euphemism, a signal that people don’t want to have difficult conversations, that they are comfortable, and they are signaling in their willingness to talk about “diversity” their unwillingness to actually talk about what needs to be done to create an environment where a wide range of people are not just comfortable in organizations but have access to power.

So I think it would be better for us to be concerned about the unrelenting whiteness of libraries, and the ways that the composition of the library profession reproduces race, gender, and other power inequalities that exist in our society.  

I was inspired to see this sentiment coming out of part of the ALA tweetstream not long ago.  These tweets particularly caught me, from the panel on Topographies of Whiteness, in the context of preparing these remarks.

(see Kristyn Caragher’s work with Anti-Oppression workshops for more on this)

How can we be inclusive if our very structures oppress the people who might work in these spaces, who occupy them as students, if these spaces were not really built for them? If the ways they can “belong” are to change themselves, rather than for these spaces and institutions to change.  Think about how many times you’ve heard the term “professional”–what does that mean? Who does it leave out?

We should think about the role of gatekeeping in libraries.  What role has credentialism played in the landscape of academic libraries that we see now?  What role have assumptions about who is a part of libraries, and who, in particular, is the keeper of “proper” library behaviors, played in keeping people out of the profession, or driving them away when they do try?  Or even the divisions within libraries, between “librarian” and other people who work in libraries–why are they not all called library workers? Why is the MLIS weaponized against people who have their own expertise within libraries?

I have worked in libraries since 2009.   I do not have library worker credentials.  And yet, I am qualified.  I have also been told too many times that the work I do outside of the building is not relevant to the work inside the building.  

How many of you have heard that?  Been told that? Said that to someone else?  How may have heard or said “that’s not in your job description?”  

I want to point here to the work of these three women,  Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, and Chris Bourg.  Since I have been working in libraries, they have formed part of my lodestone, my guiding principles in library work, and really my work in academia generally.  If you haven’t read their work, or followed them on social media, you should, because they are doing important work that deserves wide attention. I don’t want to appropriate their voices, I want to boost them, point to them, listen to them.  

From Fobazi Ettarh’s article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship:  The Lies we Tell Ourselves,”  I want to highlight two quotes in particular.  First, her definition of “vocational awe”  

“Vocational awe” refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.   

She lays out the implications of a “professionalism” that valorizes self-sacrifice and the homogenization of self to a white, middle-class, physically able, “comfortable” norm.

But creating professional norms around self-sacrifice and underpay self-selects those who can become librarians. If the expectation built into entry-level library jobs includes experience, often voluntary, in a library, then there are class barriers built into the profession. Those who are unable to work for free due to financial instability are then forced to either take out loans to cover expenses accrued or switch careers entirely. Librarians with a lot of family responsibilities are unable to work long nights and weekends. Librarians with disabilities are unable to make librarianship a whole-self career.  

April Hathcock, in her article “White Librarianship in Blackface:  Diversity Initiatives in LIS” makes it clear that “diversity” as a euphemism does not break down the problems of whiteness in librarianship, and in fact gets wielded to reify and further reinforce white norms in the profession.

Our diversity programs do not work because they are themselves coded to promote whiteness as the norm in the profession and unduly burden those individuals they are most intended to help.

She further makes the point that “diversity initiatives” that require people to conform to whiteness don’t actually result in diverse workplaces.

When we recruit for whiteness, we will get whiteness; but when we recruit for diversity, we will truly achieve diversity.

In her Feral Librarian blog, Chris Bourg gave us  the text for her talk “For the love of baby unicorns: My Code4Lib 2018 Keynote” (for which she later caught a tremendous amount of shit from her fellow librarians, which I think is shameful).  

She points to the tech leavers study that came out in 2017, and notes

…as much as we want to throw our hands up and claim diversity is a pipeline problem, the retention data tells us that we have problems with toxic work cultures and unfair practices driving women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks out of tech as well.

Some additional reading around the topic of libraries and the problems that people have staying in them, or getting into them can be found with the work of Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, whose article “The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians” is terrifically important (and who is now doing a follow-on project  with racial and ethnic minority academic librarians.  )

In David James Hudson’s “On Diversity as Anti-Racism in Library and Information Studies:  A Critique” there’s a wealth of good background for this entire discussion.  And he makes the point, as do the others I cite here, that this is fundamentally a structural problem.  This is not about individuals, or their good intentions, not about “meaning well” or “being nice.”

The tech leavers report that Chris cited surely has a companion piece yet to be written about library leavers.  This is not just about who doesn’t come to the library,but also about who came, and then had to leave.  What role did credentialism play? What about presentist policies where if people are not visible in the building, it’s assumed they are not doing the work of the library?  (ridiculous, in these times of digital places and affordances). What about notions of “neutrality” and “nice” that talk about the importance of “all voices” when we really should be protecting voices that historically have no platform.  Let’s end false equivalencies, and recognize that people who have traditionally had power and influence (especially white men) don’t ever really lose their opportunity to participate just because we make sure that people and especially women of color get to take up space and have their say.  

We cannot continue to ask the people who are directly victimized by whiteness, heteronormative assumptions, and ableism to do this work on their own behalf.  White people need to be on search committees and commit to hiring people of color. Cisgendered people need to fight for gender-inclusive bathrooms. People with full time contracts need to work on behalf of those on contingent or part time contracts.  People who work in libraries need to model the social changes that are necessary to create truly inclusive workplaces, academic places, communities. This is not a matter of “inviting” people. This is about co-creation. For some of us (she said, ironically) it will be about speaking less, and taking up less space.  

What are the explicit policies in your library that are barriers?  What does a working day look like? Does it have to be in the building?  Do you pay your interns? What do you pay your entry level workers? Do you rely on their “passion” for the profession to smooth over the fact that you can’t pay them enough?  Do people starting out have to have a particular credential (that they would have to pay for, that they would have to have done before they even have a job?) Why?

Does your working day have to have certain fixed hours?  How is the need for flexibility interpreted? Is it seen as a disadvantage, or a lack of dedication to the job?  

What are the unspoken assumptions? Is there an idea of “professional” that doesn’t look like a “nice white lady”  in a cardigan or a white man (they don’t have to be nice, remember) in a suit? Do the people you work with know what a microaggression is? Do you hire for “fit” instead of thinking about how to make your workplace fit the people you need to hire?  Do you say “we should hire more black people?” “We should hire more people who are Muslim?” Do you talk about race? Do you talk about oppression?

What are you going to do?

Start with not talking about “diversity” anymore.


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:



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.


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)





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?


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


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?  



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.