Tag Archives: #VandR

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

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

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

Zoe Fisher 

Jeanine Finn

Kevin Seeber

Jessica Schomberg

Eamonn Teawell

Margy MacMillan

Jason Davies

Cameron Neylon

Elder Teen

Lawrie Phipps

Kerry Pinny

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

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

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

She does very well on tests.  

That is not the point.

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

We are surrounded by tests.

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

and

 

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

 

Or maybe this one?

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ENTJ”

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

“I’m a funfetti cheese sandwich”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be education, right?

Because the other thing is sorting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, let’s not profile people.

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

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

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

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

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

They all need help.  They all deserve an education.

 

Beyond Metaphor: New Iterations of #JiscDigLead

co-authored by Lawrie Phipps, James Clay, and Chris Thomson

It’s been three years since we ran the the first Jisc Digital Leaders Program. During the program we have have emphasized the need for leaders in education to model the behavioral change that they wish to see in digital. “Be more digital”, “Write a digital strategy”, “Go do Twitter” are things we have heard many times, and these are sometimes the reasons that delegates attend the course.  We hoped to give leaders contexts beyond tasks within digital, to provide a way to discuss the implications of digital tools and places that were not just to-do or top-ten lists.

We built the individual digital practice elements of that first course around what delegates gained from doing the Visitor and Resident mapping process.  At the time, we were intent on getting people away from assumptions that digital capability was defined by their identities (especially not their “generational identity”), and thought that the V&R model gave them a new place from which to orient the conversations we wanted people to have about their practices.

For the most part, we were correct. We did have and facilitate conversations that went beyond both top-ten tech lists and “I am X identity,” and brought people together for conversations about what they want and need to do, and what their motivations are.  In the setting up of the V&R model we were careful to discuss them as modes of behavior, not identity types. However, we have continued to see, through three years of iterations of the course, an impulse to pigeonhole, to identify themselves and others as “visitors” or “residents”; creating a barrier to freeing ourselves up to having new conversations around digital.

As much as the metaphor freed us from the tyranny of generational stereotypes, it opened up a debate around the nature of what it means to be “resident” or “visitor”, with participants asking what is “right”, what is best, and how to become more of one or the other.  This was never our intention. Substituting the stereotype with a metaphor still, to some extent, obfuscated the real aim – to discuss practice in context. It is difficult to move people away from value judgments around practice, and harder still when they are couched in language that seem to involve personal identity.

On the course we want our leaders and future leaders to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to practice in a time of ubiquitous digital.

We have arrived at the point where we need to go beyond metaphor. Rather than annotating a metaphorical model with allusions to practice and motivation, we will start with the practices, the behaviors, and motivations we want people to reflect upon.

The use of tension pairs to surface behaviors and practices has proven effective as a baseline for change; a visual tool for identifying where both individuals and organisations are in their digital practice and their motivations, and importantly for the digital leaders program, where they want to move their practice to. The new iteration of this element of  the workshop will be more tailored to support delegates in identifying what the most appropriate tension pairs are for their context.

Rather than using the visitor-resident continuum as one axis we intend to provide a range of continua composed of actions and behaviors, instead of identities. For example, we might suggest that leaders map themselves against a broadcast – engagement axis.  We might even solicit tension pairs from the room. We think this small modification to the leadership course format will make it easier to dig into the important content that has always been a core part of the program:  an engagement with practice, with current behaviors, such that people are more capable of strategic thinking about the ways they want or need to change what they are doing, and what if any role digital tools and places can play in those changes.  We think it’s time in our work to give people opportunities to visualize and develop their approaches to and within digital, to center what people want to do, first.  Identity is always an important part of why and how people do what they do, but it doesn’t have to over-determine their practices.  Our intention is to open doors, not close them by making people think that certain paths are closed because of who they are.

 

Connect : Disconnect

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, do social media practices connect or disconnect?  

Yes.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

These are the questions I continue to have.

 

Being a Leader isn’t about You

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

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

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

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

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

Even as I recognize they are people.

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

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

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

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

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

Both motivational images courtesy of Lawrie Phipps.

Spring Tour 2017

My front yard this Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Donna Lanclos and Dave White: ALT-C 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ta Dah! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Doing a Visitors and Residents Workshop

Photo by Steve Rowett @srowett

Me, Lawrie and Dave at Digifest 2015. See how well we work together?  Photo by Steve Rowett @srowett

 

It’s well past time we got these resources available for anyone to use, and I’m glad we’re managing it now.  The intention is to give not just a sense of what activities go into a Visitors and Residents workshop, but also what the motivations for such a workshop might be, and what kinds of larger context and conversations surround and emerge from the workshop activities.

What I’d like to talk about here, in addition to participating in announcing the availability of the workshop guide, is what the maps are for.  Anyone who’s seen me or Dave or Lawrie talk about Visitors and Residents might be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of the exercise is the map.  We use the maps in our talks, in publications, we show them and point to them and talk around them.  We have people produce maps in conference presentations, workshops and professional development events, in student orientations/inductions.  Dave has written a nice review of various ways the mapping has been used and developed, here.  

We spend a lot of time with these maps.  

The maps are not the point.

I’ve been thinking about the mapping process, and what sort of thing it is to me.  In my practice, it’s been a way of helping me visualize the practices of the individuals we were interviewing as a part of the original Visitors and Residents research project.  The interviews we conducted yielded a rich amount of information, and it was occasionally necessary, especially when talking about our research results, to have a relatively easily accessible way of representing practice, while talking about the complexities of people’s engagements with technology and the web.

I use other sorts of mapping processes in my research–the other one that looms large in my practice is cognitive mapping.  In each case, whether V and R mapping or cognitive, the map is the starting point, a way to begin a conversation or anchor an interview around something concrete, a challenge to find in something as hard to materially capture sometimes as digital practice.

Any of these maps are not themselves the participants’ practices, but are representations of a recollection of practice.  They make sense once they are talked about, once the larger context is revealed.  This is why they are particularly useful in workshop contexts, they can stimulate reflection and conversation that can lead to determinations to transform practice, given what participants learn about themselves, and also the practices and motivations of others.

So as with any instrument used in research or in applied contexts, the mapping process needs to be engaged in and analyzed with a broader sense of what else is going on–the interviews or conversations that happen after the mapping are at least as (if not more) important than the maps themselves.  They should not be mistaken for holistic representations of practice–how can they be?  They are snapshots of remembrances, people forget things on their maps that they call out in subsequent conversations.  To mistake the maps for the result is to misconstrue the point of a workshop, a reflective exercise, an interview prompt.

This is a major reason why the guide is more than just activities, but contains long stretches of reflections that Dave, Lawrie and I have written about what might emerge, what it might mean, and how to explore what comes out of the initial mapping process.  

Those explorations are the point.  The maps never have been.

I hope those of you who take up this guide and run your own workshops have fun with it–I have always enjoyed doing them, even as they are exhausting (do it with a partner!  You can take turns and not die at the end!).  

Please let us know how you get on.

Teaching, Learning, and Vulnerability in Digital Places: Library Instruction West 2016 keynote

I just got back from Salt Lake City yesterday.  I was and still am so pleased and flattered to have this invitation to speak to another group of librarians, another room of my colleagues inspired and challenged by the nature of instruction in and around libraries.  This was my third (out of four) big talk of the Spring, and it was also the one I wrote the last, the one I struggled with the most.  I knew I wanted to say something about vulnerability, but kept coming up against how to frame it, what was the point I wanted to make?  I think in the end I came up with a point, but I confess that it was mostly in the improv around my notes,  in that room this past Thursday morning, that it all came together (you can also see from the Storify ).  Those who were in the room with me may reasonably disagree, of course.

I should also thank before I continue the people who helped me think this through, whether they realized it or not:

@edrabinski  @davecormier

@tressiemcphd  

@slamteacher  @bonstewart

@jessifer  @AprilHathcock

***************************

As an anthropologist who works in libraries, my fieldwork takes me beyond libraries into a wide variety of learning places.  And those learning places are classrooms, cafes, parks, Moodle, Facebook, and Twitter.  I spend a lot of time online and talking about being online, not just in my fieldwork, but in my academic practice.  

Online is a place.  It is not just a kind of tool, or a bucket of content, but a location where people go to encounter and experience other people.  Places, online and otherwise, are made things, they are cultural constructs.  Technology, and the places technology helps create, are likewise cultural constructs, and therefore:  Not Neutral.  They are human, they are made, they contain values.

I am not telling people anything that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth repeating.

Libraries and Librarians aren’t neutral either.  

I see some Librarians try to position themselves as neutral, supportive nurturing helpers, and those who try this are not always good at conveying it.  I think the reason for that is that such neutrality cannot possibly be real–we are all human, we all have biases, we are not “objective” and pretending to be just allows us to deny our subjectivity rather than working through it.  

[at this point I asked the room:]

How many of you have ever been told,

“I have a really stupid question?”

[lots of hands went up.  Seemed like the entire room]

When people walk up and say, “I have a really stupid question,” It’s because they are preemptively signaling they are not comfortable yet.  They don’t feel safe.  So I’m wondering, how do we build, within libraries, and within education generally, places for people to feel safe?

And in thinking about places, I want to ask, where are librarians?  Where do you want to be?  Why do you want to be there? I am making an assumption here that If you are in online spaces, it is to connect, with each other, with students, (not because “it would be cool” please no not that). 

I think presence in those places signals that you care, and value connection, and want to create safe spaces.  How, then, does that affect practice?  How do we think critically about practices such that we can make places feel safe?

How do you become trustworthy?  Not as individuals, but structurally?  What makes it make sense for students or faculty to come to you?  To the Library?  Where else is the library?  Does the persistent question, “why don’t they come to us?” make sense if we are all supposed to be part of the same community?

What do you do to become part of your community?  What do you do that is trustworthy?

And, also, how do you come to trust the people whom you are trying to reach?

How do you find them?  How do you find out about what they are doing and why?  Because it can be difficult to trust people you do not understand.

And this, actually, is part of the problem I have with these notions of empathy as some sort of prerequisite to action, to connection.  I am troubled by the suggestion that you need to muster up empathy first before reaching out to students or faculty.  (Not that I am opposed to empathy, I’m a fan of it in my life and work)  Our students and colleagues are worthy of our respect, they have an inherent human dignity that means it is our responsibility to reach out, to try to connect, whether we have achieved empathetic understanding beforehand or not.

Perhaps, perhaps that empathy actually comes most effectively post-connection.  Empathy is not a prerequisite, but an outcome.

Some of the work I do in my research and practice might point a way towards understanding the motivations behind practices online.

Picture1

Visitors and Residents map, collected from one of the workshops we’ve conducted over the years. Visualizing practices, and online places, is a first important step towards understanding motivations to engage.

I have spoken and blogged before about mapping practices.  In research and in workshops we can get people to talk about where they are online and also how it makes them feel.  People feel about digital places in similar ways to feeling about physical ones–I’ve interviewed students who sigh deeply in dismay at the thought of their Facebook account, full of troublesome family members, or who smile in thinking about their Twitter community, configured carefully so that they can be who they want to be, feel how they want to feel, while in that place. 

Online behaviors are not determined by the venue.  Facebook is not always about what you had for breakfast, and Twitter is not always about politics.  Each of these places, all of the new and old online places, are about people, and choices.  So, mapping, as with the V&R maps, can show us where people are, but the important part is the conversations that are generated, about why they are there (or not).

I think about the emotional associations of institutional spaces, for example in usability studies of library websites revealing the embarrassment and frustration students can feel at not being able to wrangle the website.  In fact, they frequently blame themselves for the tech failure, apologize to us for our crappy websites.  They say they will try again, but when they are away from us, why would they go back?  Who voluntarily goes back to some place that makes them feel stupid?

Picture2

During the Twitter-based #digped discussion in mid-May, there was a discussion about how to make ed tech more human.  This tweet I’ve captured points to some of what I have been turning over in my head about digital and presence.

When thinking about instructional online spaces, I’d like to ask (and I’m far from the only one) how to make them human as well as positive?  How do we build in access to other people, and not just provide buckets of content?  Where are the people in your online learning environment?  Are they connected to each other?  In my experience, students find their human connections outside of the institutional learning environment–they are on Snapchat, on Instagram, in Facebook and Twitter.  So we should continue to think about the role of digital places, outside of institutions as  where connections happen.  

We need to continue to think about identity, and how it plays out online.  Where and how do we develop voices online?

I have been thinking the role of vulnerability–it troubles me lately, because I often see it approached in terms of personal vulnerability, of some sense that sharing your personal life at work is necessary, so as to give people a “way in.”

In my own practice, I’ve made deliberate decisions to share parts of my personal life, on Twitter, in my blog. I approach it as a political decision as much as anything, a result of what I think needs to happen around the representation of women as professionals and academics.  And things I’ve written can indeed be interpreted as a wider call for more people to be “personal” online, so as to be human, and therefore accrue  a different kind of credibility in the new academic spaces of the Resident web.

“Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human”…rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.”

Lanclos and White, “The Resident Web and Its Impact on the Academy,” Hybrid Pedagogy, 08 October, 2015

Who is a scholar?  Who is a professor?  Who is a teacher?  The many paths we take now didn’t always exist, and there are indeed political as well as pedagogical reasons for revealing those narratives (as I have, in talking about mine).

But I wonder, how do you reconcile that with the narrative of “risky” online environments, and how faculty and students need to be “cautious?”  How do you balance the need for a kind of vulnerability with desire for “safety”–how is that possible?  What does “safe” mean?

What constitutes vulnerability online, and for whom?

Who gets to be vulnerable?  What does that mean?

Who is already vulnerable?  

“Risk-taking” is so often framed as a positive thing, especially when people in a position of privilege engage in it.  But when the intersections of our identity place us in more vulnerable categories, ones other than white, straight, male, cisgendered, middle (or upper)-class when does “risk-taking” segue into “risky?”  When do our human vulnerabilities get held against us?  This is about context–who is classed as positive risk-takers when they make themselves vulnerable, who is classed as “risky” and perhaps necessary to avoid, someone who makes people uncomfortable.

So, what price “approachable?”  How much do we strip ourselves of ourselves so that people are comfortable, so that we are not “risky?”

This, I think is the tyranny of NICE–I see this especially in libraries, wherein “approachability”  can be shorthand for “seems enough like me to be safe”  How do we create environments where unfamiliarity doesn’t have to feel risky?  Where “discomfort” isn’t a barrier to engagement or thinking?

How do we get a diversity of “safe” people into our networks, who do not discount us as “risky” in our vulnerabilities?

In particular i want to ask this question:

What does it mean when we ask Students to be vulnerable online?  How is it different if they are women?   Black?  White?  Brown?  LGBT+?   Fill in the category of your choice here.  

Because some of us show up more vulnerable than others.  Our identity is not just the categories and characteristics we self-identify with, it’s the boxes people try to place us in.  it’s involuntary vulnerability, the people we are perceived to be become a way to dismiss us, our expertise, our content.  Structural and personal vulnerability can’t be shaken off, and maybe we don’t owe anyone our personal vulnerability.  Maybe our students don’t owe us personal vulnerability.

Vulnerability doesn’t have to be personal.

I think about professors giving phone numbers out to students, back before social media ubiquity.  Choosing to give out home phone numbers, or even cell phone numbers wasn’t something everyone did, it signaled a particular approach to boundaries and the role of professors in student lives.  What is the online equivalent?  Is it friending or following on social media?  

I wonder what are other ways of being present and human to students without violating important boundaries yourself?  

I don’t think that kind of putting yourself personally out there is mandatory.  Personal narratives don’t have to be the default.  You don’t owe anyone your personal story.  And sometimes just your existence is story enough.

We do owe them professional vulnerability.  That way lies inclusion–for our colleagues and our students.  Professional vulnerability can model the kind of society that we want them to have.  We need them to be flexible, transparent, and to expect that from their professional and civic networks going forward.  

So what would that kind of professional vulnerability look like?

Libraries have traditionally expressed “service” in terms of seamlessness–systems that don’t need explaining, for example.  And from a UX perspective, that’s one thing. But in an instruction context, that’s problematic.  Seamlessness doesn’t signal a way in.   iPhones don’t tell you how they are made, they just expect you to use them.  How do we build educational environments, both digital and physical, that give people a way in?  In to the course,  to the library, to the discipline, to the University?

One answer might be in engaging with seam-y (“see me”)  practices and pedagogies.  Showing the seams, being open about how educational experiences and scholarly content are produced.  Academia is a made thing, we can show students the seams, and allow them to find their way in.  

Picture4

Seams showing how the locomotive cylinder is put together. Image from page 180 of “The Locomotive” (1867) Internet Archive Book Image Flickr Stream: https://flic.kr/p/ovuPbj

I see examples in many places.  Including the rhizomatic learning work coming from Dave Cormier. In his connectivist approach to education, he argues that:

“What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions.”

Teaching a class where you admit that you aren’t quite sure where things are going, where you are clear in not knowing everything, that is professional vulnerability.  Instructors who construct their authority in the classroom around knowing everything, or at least knowing Way More Than Their Students about Everything, are at risk of #authoritysofragile, of that moment when it is revealed that of course we don’t know everything, and the authority is shattered.  We can avoid those shattering moments by never pretending in the first place to know it all.  Positioning ourselves confidently alongside our students as we explore things without being sure of outcomes, that’s powerful, that is seam-y, that is professional vulnerability.

Picture6

If you read this blog you’ve seen this map before. This workshop participant annotated her V&R map with arrows indicating where she wanted to move her practice, mapping the trajectory of the changes she wanted.

In the V&R workshops we conduct we ask people to annotate their maps, to show where they are willing to move and change, and even discontinue what they are doing.  The epiphanies that happen when people realize this thing they have been doing doesn’t serve them especially well can feel like admitting a mistake. These conversations reveal emotions that these places and practices engender, and those revelations are a form of professional vulnerability.  

Open practice is a kind of vulnerability that reveals the seams of academic work.  I am open in my own practice, in sharing rough drafts via Google Docs, in blogging half-formed ideas, in Tweeting even less formed ideas.  If you look at my blog from when it first started my voice was very different than what it is now.  I am never finished, my work is never seamless and complete.

What can we do in our own practices to create spaces where the seams of academia are visible?  Create places where our students can see how and where they fit?  The possibilities for our students finding where they can get in are contained in the spaces we do not fill with content, or cover over with seamless interfaces

The work of teaching and learning is challenging, and when we talk about seamlessness we are lying about what education is supposed to be.  The challenge is in doing the things we don’t know yet, and how will our students learn that if we do not?  If we do not model our own unformed and unfinished practices, how can they even know that is what happens?  How can they imagine themselves doing it?

Digital affords us different ways of revealing the seams, the mess of our academic projects.  We can, without revealing ourselves totally, still reveal process in a way that makes it clear that academia is a cultural construct, made by people not entirely unlike our students.  Tools and places are out there such as Hypothes.is ,GoogleDocs, Twitter, blogging platforms. Facebook groups, Instagram, Pinterest, ephemeral contexts such as Snapchat. The point is not the specific environment or tools, but in the possibilities to connect, and capability of revealing process along the way.  

We can highlight the importance of engaging in unfinished thoughts, in exploration.  Where a .pdf is seamless and a finished product, an invited GoogleDoc is seam-y and in process, perhaps never entirely done.

Libraries have a history of engaging with process, not just content.  Libraries are good at this, their particular area of expertise is in navigating, framing, and evaluating content (in its myriad forms). Open practice, professional vulnerability around the processes of academia, this is an opportunity for Libraries and Information Literacy and Library Instruction to shine. 

My friend and colleague Emily Drabinski writes marvelous things, and one of her latest, a co-authored piece with Scott Walter, “Asking Questions that Matterchallenges us to articulate not the value of libraries, but the values within libraries, coming out of libraries, of library instruction.  

So I want to end, as I usually do, with questions.  

What values are you expressing with your instructional approaches? How can you express them digital places?

What is the role of vulnerability for you?  How can you protect yourself, model protection for your students, and still achieve seam-y pedagogy?

What would that look like?

 

 

“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

 

 

 

 

 

Resident Anonymity?

photography-731891_960_720

https://pixabay.com/en/photography-lifestyle-experimental-731891/

I recently gave a talk about Messy Practices, and in it, I was focused on the physical and digital practices of academics, and how and why they are unbounded by Institutions (however much Institutions might like that not to be the case).  It occurs to me (not for the first time, and yeah, I am Not The Only One) that identity is also messy.  And I’ve been thinking about that this week for a very particular reason.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with my, my work or my ubiquitous presence on Twitter that I think a lot in the presence of other people.  I believe I think more effectively in the company of others.  Alone I can only get so far.  Workshops provide me with additional opportunities to do this kind of thinking–I always show up with a very similiar powerpoint, and with a set of points I would like to arrive at, but the people in the room and the interactions we have around the ideas I am presenting, make each workshop different.

I really enjoy it.

So this past Monday I had the pleasure of working at USC Upstate, at the invitation of Cindy Jennings.  Their Quality Enhancement Program (QEP)  group wanted to spend some time thinking about digital practices, both as individuals and as members of an institution.  We did individual V and R mapping and then also using institutional maps (debuted in October in Bristol, with the Jisc Digital Leadership course).

In the process of discussing the nature of presence, and working our way towards the possibilities of Residency in academic life, one participant started wondering aloud about the role of anonymous web presence.  She began from her experience with online newspaper commentariat–so many of the anonymous comments she encountered were negative and not-productive, they ended up driving her away from participating visibly in the comments section (an experience not at all unique to this person of course).  She wondered first about whether anonymous web presence could be “Resident” because we have been defining such presences as findable in some way–either highly visible by Googling, or visible in bounded communities to those who are also members.

But if who you are is not linked to the content of what you are putting online, what then?

If Identities are performances, requiring an audience of at least one, where do we put Anonymous web presences on the Visitor-Resident continuum?

I think it’s possible that it doesn’t matter.

Because the mapping process has never really been about typologies or absolute taxonomies of practice.  It is a tool to facilitate discussions about motivation.

So rather than ask “What is Anonymous Web Presence?”  it is more useful to ask about Why.  Why anonymous?  What are the motivations to anonymity?

And if we think in terms of pseudonyms, we can begin to see some of the reasons why.  Let’s set aside for the moment the “So they can Troll and Bully and generally be Unaccountable for their Bad Behavior on the Web.”  Because:  the internet is made of people, and we can stipulate that some of them are indeed assholes.

Pseudonymous presence on the web still allows for identity to accrue.  This has been true for noms de plumes, stage names, alter egos, supervillain aliases.  Groups of people who are collectively anonymous to the outside,  but known to each other within their group, likewise accrue the “stuff” of identity, being attributed character, values, and responsibility for actions.  

These anonymous individuals, however, may not accrue that identity stuff.  Their actions may not be recognizably linked to who they are.  This lack of accrual can be the point.    What if you are black and want to see what happens to your voice when not filtered through structural and individual racism?  What if you are an artist who wants to find another part of your voice without being hampered by what people think you are already capable of?  What if you are anyone who would like to see what it’s like to be unbounded by the categories people have already put you into?

So, this is why people have multiple Twitter accounts, why they join online communities under different names, why Facebook’s insistence that you use your “real name” is such a problem.  We see the tension between Being Yourself Online and Finding Your Voice.  Holistic, “authentic” web presence isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

Students, novices, anyone trying things out and wanting to see what happens might well value the freedom that comes from anonymity, the ability to try something on and discard it without it scuffing the identity that everyone already knows them by.  Anonymity can facilitate creativity, risk-taking, a feeling of safety.

Safety is not just relevant in situations where people are trying out ideas, creating art, taking academic risks, but of course in political and social activism, where there are risks to people’s physical and legal well-being if they are easily identifiable.  

This is not news.  But in the context of talking about behavior online, the notion of “anonymous trolls” comes up often enough, I think it’s worth interrogating, and also making visible the variety of non-toxic anonymous and pseudonymous presences that people cultivate on the web.  I am not interested in unmasking people, but I am interested in having more public conversations about the motivations to be hidden while making work and words visible.