Tag Archives: travel

Introducing Donna Lanclos and Dave White: ALT-C 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Absence Presence DigPed

Last week, the DigPed train came to Prince Edward Island, and I couldn’t be there to greet it.  I knew about the Digital Pedagogy Lab’s plans to descend on Bon Stewart and Dave Cormier’s demesne, and for about a week in the Spring thought I could make it.

But my Indiana Jones needed to go to Peru and Ecuador for a research trip (and a treat for our elder teen) and I couldn’t make the logistics of parking my younger teen kid anywhere without me work.  So I could not get up to Canada for a Great Pedagogy Adventure.  Last week I was here at home in Charlotte, going to work, hanging out with my younger teen, and snuggling with the cats.

 

 

Last week, I went to DigPed PEI, and it was marvelous.

I was there, I saw new connections made, I saw new work being considered, I engaged with workshops, and I saw old friends meet face to face for the first time.

I was there and I attended Audrey Watter’s marvelous keynote talk and got to discuss it at length afterwards with my fellow attendees (as well as comment on the Twitter #DigPed backchannel #obvs).

 

I was there, I talked in the hallways with Cindy Jennings and Lawrie Phipps and Autumn Caines and Jesse Stommel and Audrey Watters and Maha Bali and so many others. I loved the conversations, I was greedy for the connection and was rewarded with thoughtful challenging ideas not just about what we want for education but how we might actually achieve it.

 

I was there, I got to make fun of Dave Cormier’s hat.

 

I was there, this is what I looked like sometimes.

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Data visualization of a moment in my Twitter, my presence at PEI, courtesy of Daniel Lynds. For more see here

I got to see my new friends and colleagues play with data visualization under the tutelage of Daniel Lynds.   I got to see that I was, on day 1, one of the more active people in the Twitter stream.  I had #digped up on Tweetdeck all day Wednesday and Thursday.

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Again, thanks Daniel Lynds.

I was there, I had a marvelous time talking to people about their shoes, and smiling as we played:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was there, and on the last night, I got to sit by the fire, hear Dave and Bon’s son sing sweetly while staying up just a bit past his bedtime, and also heard the slightly less sweet (but no less enthusiastic) singing of my new friends:

I got to have a final drink by the campfire/Bonfire/Davefire with Dave, Daniel, and Lawrie:

 

I noticed, btw, their shoes were awful.  I really did.

 

I went to DigPed PEI, and I was never there.

It was fantastic.

“Digital” Doesn’t Do Anything: #digifest16

 

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

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

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

 

“The power of digital for change”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

September Tour

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It doesn’t look like this in Charlotte yet, but it’s time for my Fall Tour anyway.

Well it’s been a while since I’ve traveled (NO IT HASN’T I JUST GOT HOME WHAT IT’S SEPTEMBER?).  This month I’ve got some fun stuff lined up, and I’m excited to get to do so many things.

First up, I’ll be presenting in two different sessions at the Association for Learning Technology Conference,  in Manchester.   One will be a debate, co-led by Lawrie Phipps, continuing our discussion started in March around the value of (and values embedded in) ed-tech.    The other will be a conversation co-led by Dave White, where we frame approaches to ed-tech via discussions of failures, as well as our by now well-known opposition to the assumptions that underlie the notion of “Digital Natives.”  I’ve never been to ALT before and am going to finally get to see in person large chunks of my Twitter feed, which makes me smile.

Next I will be spending the week in London, first stop visiting my colleagues at Kingston University again, talking more about libraries and learning spaces.  This time around some of the discussion will be very much informed by the work I’ve been doing in collaboration with the Active Learning Academy in UNC Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

And then I am pleased to have been invited to give the first talk this year in the NetworkED seminar series at the London School of Economics.

And finally I will be working for the first time ever in the Wellcome Library, running workshops very similar to the ones I got to do for Imperial and Kingston in March of this year.  I’ve been hearing about the Wellcome since I started doing library ethnography work in London in 2011, and am appalled it’s taken me this long to get there, but pleased it’s finally happening.

So, if you see me flying by in Manchester or London, please give a shout and wave.

 

People, Places and Things: Why do Visitors and Residents Workshops?

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View from the High Line, NYC

I have just completed a week away that contained two different Visitors and Residents workshops.  The first I conducted with Dave White at Parsons, the New School for Design, at the invitation of Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, with a group of Parsons faculty.  The second was a two-day event at the invitation of Keith Webster at Carnegie Mellon, with a group that included librarians and library staff from CMU as well as the University of Pittsburgh, and Dave and I were joined by Lynn Connaway to run the workshop.  Dave blogged his views on the different workshops here.

I am struck by how little the basic mapping format has changed since we started doing these workshops in conference settings, as a way of getting people to think about the V&R concept without lecturing.

When we have people map themselves, the range of practice remains striking.  We get “sparse” maps

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and we get “filled in” maps.

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We get people whose Resident practice is largely in their personal lives,

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and others who primarily engage in the Resident spaces of the web (such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) because of what they need to do in their professional lives, or for their volunteering obligations, or as a part of their artistic practice.

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The point we have to make over and over again at these events  is that no mode of practice is inherently better than the other.  I can see the tension run out of people when we tell them that no one is going to be judged for their maps.  The intent of our work, and the workshop, is not to identify those who are “More Resident” so as to claim that their practices are Best and then send their largely Visitor-centric colleagues over to Learn How To Do the Web Better.

Because the V&R workshop is not about Doing the Web Better.  The workshop is a way of visualizing practice, and in particular about making clear all the different ways in which the Web is a Place, a location for people to meet and interact and learn and leave and come back to.  A place where, as with any place that has people in it, individuals can do the social work that results in relationships, where intimacy can flourish even in the absence of face to face interaction.

Engaging with digital places is not a substitute for engagement face to face, rather it proliferates the possible locations where connections can be made.

In libraries, in higher education generally, the work of institutions is embedded in relationships.  Students, faculty, and staff rely on each other (or don’t) because of webs of trust and credibility that are not just about institutional authority ( they are seldom just about that) but because of the meaningful connection that grow when people interact with each other in common places like:  Student Unions, Library Buildings, Cafes, Classrooms.  But also:   Twitter,  Facebook, YikYak (!) and Instagram.  The Digital can be (among other things) a tool, or a resource full of content, but its existence as a Place is what can be hard to see, at the same time it is so terrifically important to grasp.

We seldom have time to be reflective about our own practices, what they are as well as what they mean.  In offering the workshop format as an open resource, and also in coming in to run the workshops ourselves, as we did this last week at Parsons and at CMU/Pitt, the Visitors and Residents team is helping provide space for such reflection to take place.  Further thoughts from Lawrie Phipps about where we can take the V&R framework from here can be found here.

 

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Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Memorial Chapel, Pittsburgh.

 

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

 

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

 

I have never been to a conference like UXLibs.

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

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

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

 

In which I thank people, bear with me:

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

UX Keynote

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

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

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

So.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Let’s begin.

Libraries are artifacts

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

 

Universities are artifacts

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

 Libraries are cultures.

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

 

Universities are cultures.

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

 

Libraries are places

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Photo of UNC Charlotte Atkins Library ATRIUM by Donna Lanclos

 

Universities are places

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Think about the difference between this picture of  a university

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

 

 

the map that Google gives us

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the map the Institution provides

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And this.

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

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

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

That sounds amazing to me.

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

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

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

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

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

The monsters of assessment.

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

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

 Particularly with regard to learning.

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

In practice.

In places like these.

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

 

 

How does one measure practice?

One does not.

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

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

 UX is a motive

Why do we care about usability?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we are not educating, we are sorting.

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

Libraries are made of people

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

 

Universities are made of  people

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

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

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

 How then do we study people?

Ethnography.

Ethnography is a practice

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

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

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

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

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

 Libraries have voices.

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

 

Libraries have lost their voice.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Anthropology is a Worldview

We need more than methods and practices, we need anthropologists

 

We need ethnographic practices, informed by anthropological perspectives.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Photos by Donna Lanclos

 

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

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

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 Can you understand that?  What does it mean?

What is it asking?

How can you know?

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

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

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

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

An anthropological perspective is one that generates questions.

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

 

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

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

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

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Image by Maggie Ngo, UNC Charlotte Atkins Library.

 

Questions such as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Upending, challenging, questioning.

 Observations are not the same thing as insight

Answers are not the same thing as solutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thank You. (for reading, for listening)

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

@audreywatters    @davecormier    @lorcanD

@jessifer   @daveowhite   @aasher     @librarygirlknit

@mauraweb   @PriestLib     @mattjborg

 

 

Debate at Jisc Digifest 2015

2015-03-10 09.55.44

Beautiful Birmingham Library.

 

So the second kind of thing I did this past month was not exactly new to me–I argue with people all the time, and I argue with Dave White rather more than I argue with most other people.  But Lawrie Phipps invited myself and Dave to argue with each other about something in particular–whether or not education technology is “fit for purpose.”  We were on a central stage in Birmingham, at Jisc’s second ever Digifest, and I had a marvelous time.  It was theatrical, occasionally shouty, and I think an engaging provocation.

Lawrie has already blogged about the debate here.

Photo by Steve Rowett @srowett

No bias in the room at all, BTW. Photo by Steve Rowett @srowett

I should say that Dave and I deliberately chose polarized positions that were not necessarily reflective of our own beliefs about edtech.  I should also say that what I was arguing (NO THEY ARE NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE) was a lot closer to what I actually believe, with Dave taking on the techno-brutalist end of the stick for the sake of inspiring people to think about what they actually believed to be true.  The audience reaction to Dave’s argument fascinated me–we were, it should be said, in a room full of edtech professionals (It was a Jisc event, after all), and it should not have surprised me that there were many voices in favor of VLEs and ePortfolios in the (substantial, and nicely engaged) audience.  I was surprised at the arguments made for VLEs that were less about education and more about administration, scale, and the tracking of student information.

So I don’t object to those reasons, but dispute that they are educational ones.  I’d rather institutions be transparent about what they actually use these systems for–education as I defined it in the debate isn’t necessarily central to the institutional argument for edtech.

The central tenet of my argument is that centralized institutional tech isn’t as educational as you think it is.  What do we mean by fit for Purpose?  I argued that our purpose is education, not in the indoctrination sense, but in the broad cultural sense of equipping the people within the educational system for an effective productive life outside of the system

Technology in the service of a broadly-defined education should be more open, more flexible, less locked in to institutional priorities, because that is what we are intending to send our students out into, an open world with open systems.  Digital citizenship, practiced responsibly, can start in university settings, and does not have to be within “walled gardens.”  I made the argument (and I do believe this) that such protected systems can actually be failures on institutions’ parts, failures to scaffold students within the systems on the open web they will need to evaluate and navigate in their post-university future (and in their present, for that matter).

What if they money we spend on contracts to companies that manufacture these systems was spent on staff and training and time to become true bricoleurs of the web, and facilitate the skills of our students, too?

They need to be fluent and savvy in the ways of the open web, see the ways that current and future digital places can be relevant to their scholarly and professional futures, as well as their personal futures.  Institutions who do not facilitate and mentor students through the open exploration possible on the web not only look like idiots, but are actually getting in the way of processes their students need to engage with to become effective, informed citizens.

We can talk about what that might look like, but my point is it can and should look a wide variety of ways, ways that are only discoverable once we break free from the institutional edtech model, and move out onto the open web.  A Domain of One’s Own is one of the best models I am aware of, but we’ll never know what else we can do if we don’t stop relying on one-stop solutions.

In the end, I was quite pleased that, given the venue, I managed to have the support of half the room in person, and 45% of the vote overall.

You can find the recording of the debate here, on Day 1, at about 5 hrs 29 minutes (you will have to register with the site to view, sorry).

Lego Rehearsal

The best arguments are among friends.

 

A March of Workshops

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

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

Visitors and Residents

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

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

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

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

2015-03-13 Galway V&R

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnography

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

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

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

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

Ethnography (with a side of V&R)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnography at Kingston

This should have been a #shoetweet tagging @SaraBurnett

This should have been a #shoetweet tagging @SaraBurnett

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

Real Outcomes for Real People

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

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

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

The Cam

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

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

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

Digifest LEGO

Image by Lawrie Phipps, not to scale

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

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

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

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

ACRL speaker

London Travelogue, Part the Second: Mostly not London, the Pitt-Rivers Museum (with a bit of the Soane at the end)

My favorite thing about Oxford (once I figured out that DS Hathaway was not in fact waiting for me in a pub alongside the Thames) was the Pitt-Rivers Museum.  You have to walk through the Oxford Museum of Natural History to get to it.

 
Once I walked into the room, I laughed aloud.  It was 19th Century Anthropology Overload.  It’s magnificent and mad.

Every case is chock-full of artifacts.  Check out that totem pole.

 Pitt-Rivers was an amazing collector, with connections to collectors, explorers, and ethnographers who worked all over the planet.  The Pitt-Rivers Museum’s website is a great resource for visualizing the collection, and exploring as much as they have been able to reveal so far online.  All of the items collected were either given to the collectors as gifts, or purchased from the people who created the artifacts, and then donated to the museum.  The Pitt-Rivers site also describes the rationale for having all of these cases arranged as they are:

“In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the displays are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. Here they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed in groups to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. The cases appear to be very crowded, as a very large percentage of the collection is on view. In some instances the ‘displays’ are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. The small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, are very revealing. We offer more contemporary interpretative displays in our special exhibition gallery.”

Collected by E.B. Tylor!

My problem (you knew there was going to be a problem, didn’t you, I’m just having that kind of week) with these sorts of museums/collections is that they make it terrifically easy for those who are prone to think in terms of Human Universals to continue to think that way.  While a nuanced reading of these packed cases allows us to see the variety of ways that people approach similar natural phenomena, or social phenomena, there is a curious flattening effect that can occur when so much variety is put in a glass case.   It becomes “people all play music!”  “people all represent animals!”  “people do body mods!”  And in the drawing of connections, the distinctiveness of each culture can be lost.

While I value tremendously the sense of shared humanity that anthropology can bring, I think it’s dangerous to take collections of human artifacts from the 19th century, a time of tremendous cultural upheaval and colonial violence, and draw uncomplicated inferences about the shared human condition.  I should be clear here that I do NOT think that is what the Pitt-Rivers museum or their (fantastic) staff are doing.  I do think that this sort of museum is most effectively experienced with some sort of mediation.  The context in which these artifacts were collected is as important to the meaning of the museum as are the artifacts themselves.

The most striking case for me was this one:

Many of the human remains in this case (a two-sided case) were from South American and Papua New Guinea.  They are fascinating, repellent, sad, fierce.  They deserve a book (at least)  all to themselves.  How can we interpret the meaning of these remains in the isolation of the glass case?  How do we dare?

It occurs to me that the Pitt-Rivers collection is of a piece with the Regency House in London that is now Sir John Soane’s Museum .  The architect Soane (who is one of my favorite people only because he designed the TARDIS)  filled his house with furniture, bits and pieces of sculpture, architectural details from buildings, some of it copies some of it originals, from all over Europe, from Egypt, and parts of Asia, in the grand tradition of colonial Britain.  He put together disparate pieces on the same wall, in the same room, according to what he thought went together, regardless of where it came from, of the lost intentions of the people who made it.  He was a magpie, plucking attractive things from their original location, and decorating his own home with them.

Exterior of Soane’s House in London.

I think it’s worthwhile (and I know this is not an original thought on my part) asking what the purpose of such collections was, and is today.   Is it to illuminate the study of form (as was clearly the case with Soane)?  Of function?  Of meaning?  Yes, of all three.  But collections of objects disassociated from their origins,  I think say much more about the collectors of the objects than they do about the the people who created them.

 The Pitt-Rivers museum has a great deal of contemporary interpretation to overlay onto this collection, and their upper galleries take on some of the issues of representation and collections like these.  I suppose everyone can visit the museum they think they are in.  My preference would be that visitors to museums like this be directed very explicitly to the particular nature of collections like these, how situated they are in history, how important it is to approach these objects thoughtfully, as a way of thinking about the people who produced them, not just the scholars, explorers, and colonists who acquired them.

Spectacular mask collected from the NW Coast of N. America.  I am proving my own point by not having recorded which tribe this is from.  I want to say Haida or Tlingit.