Tag Archives: work

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


@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.


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?


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.  


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.


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?



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.


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.

Interested in 2014

So several conversations with people in my professional and personal circles have led me to the conclusion that it’s not terrifically important or effective to try to be interesting.  Either as an individual, or as an institution, it’s just too subjective and hard to figure out how to be interesting, and who on earth can define for sure what “interesting” means in a given context?

Working in an academic library since 2009 means I’ve been witness to ongoing low- (and occasionally high-) level anxiety about how to get people interested in libraries, which I usually interpret to mean a concern with levels of engagement with us as institutions.  How do we get people on campus to come to us?  How do we make sure they know we are important?  How can we convince them we are interesting?

Well, telling people we are important doesn’t work (showing them, OTOH…).  And I am skeptical of the “hey, we’re interesting!” tack as well.  What we can to is be interestED.  We can reach out to people doing cool work on and off campus and ask questions, find things out, and then connect what they are doing with stuff that we are doing.  Expressing interest in other people is, not incidentally, a great way to make friends as well.

Basically, Be Interested.  Interesting things will follow.

Playing with Cognitive Mapping

I am messing around with cognitive mapping instruments, stolen with Andrew Asher’s blessing from the ERIAL toolkit (I know, I know, I don’t need anyone’s blessing because hey, that’s what toolkits are for!  Especially those posted on the web).  I am doing this in part because photo diaries, while useful and capable of yielding rich information, are really really time consuming and difficult to get students to do.    I am still very much hoping to get back to University College, London, to continue the work I started there in 2011, and when I am there I’d like to use cognitive maps as well as structured interviews and immersive observations to get a sense of how and why various learning spaces are being used by UCL students and faculty.

So, I’m doing some here at UNC Charlotte.  At the very least, such an exploratory exercise can give us a sense of what our undergraduate and graduate students’ spatial networks look like when they are written down.  The data I’m collecting can also begin to serve as a comparative set for the data that I hope to be able to collect in the UK.

I just want to put some of the maps here because I think they are really interesting.  I am of course far from the only one doing this–Lesley Gourlay at the IOE and her colleagues have done some mapping exercises, and of course there is the aformentioned ERIAL work, among other ethnographic projects in the US.  The students were given 6 minutes to complete each map, and were asked to map all of the places that they go to/inhabit in some way for their academic work.   I was specific in saying that the spaces could be on- or off-campus.    The maps posted here are undergraduate maps–I have maps from graduate students that we are still processing.  In general, undergraduate space maps indicate the need for them to be in places that make it easy for them to get to the other places they need to go to.  If they have class in a particular building, they are more likely to study in the Student Union than the library, because the former is closer.  If they live away from campus, they might be likely to have off-campus cafes, etc. on their maps as work spaces.  The choices they make about where to settle in to study are not made in a vacuum.  There is a similar diversity to the spaces they find themselves in, however, in part because undergraduate classes occur in a variety of buildings in different parts of campus, and are not necessarily taught in the building that house their major programs.  Graduate student maps (in process) have less diversity of spaces, because they are much more tied to the departmental labs and spaces of their degree programs.

The students worked for 2 minutes in each pen color, beginning with blue, moving to red, and then ending with black.  Some students finished before the 6 minute mark, resulting in some maps in just 2 colors (such as #7 shown here).

This undergraduate lives on campus, and has drawn straight lines connecting all of the places he needs to go.  The library is one place in a larger network, of course.  Several of these building are classroom spaces.  This senior lives in an on-campus dorm.  There are no off-campus spaces shown here.
This sophomore lives in an off-campus apartment relatively far from campus, but her boyfriend’s apartment (the building in the upper left corner) is closer in.  She has mapped campus buildings such as the Student Union and various classroom buildings, but also included important spaces such as where her youth group meets, and the 24-hour cafe Amelie’s.  The library does not figure in her mental map of learning spaces.
This student lives close to the South Carolina border, nearly a half an hour from campus.  She has included several cafe or bookstore spaces, all of which have free wi-fi, but not all of which are open 24 hours.  “School” is the university campus, and she has not differentiated places within the campus, because she has so many other places she inhabits.  The library on this map is the public library closest to the university.
This junior has sketched only the places within the library he inhabits on the left hand side of the drawing.  He has put in study rooms, and indicated where the study rooms are in the building by their proximity to round tables with computers on them (these are on the 1st floor).  His other learning spaces are in his close-to-campus apartment, on the right hand side.  He has sketched his living room furniture (comfortable chairs as well as desks), and his bedroom.

New Learning Spaces and the role of Ongoing Research

This is going to be one in a series of posts, because I’ve got fun maps to share, and if I share them all at once, the post will be entirely tl;dr (if it isn’t already…)

Atkins Library recently renovated our “basement,” that is, we took space that had been inhabited by staff doing the work of the library, gutted it (having found new places for our staff to work in), and turned it into  an array of spaces in which students can do collaborative work.  Here is what it looked like before there were people in it (photos by Cheryl Lansford, Interior Designer for UNC Charlotte):


We have created configurable furniture arrangements in some areas, and more fixed arrangements in others.  This picture shows the T1 touch screen tables (which also have screens at the head of the table, so students can plug in and share from their laptops. 
This is a view into one of our new group study rooms, with tables that are wheeled as well as wheeled task chairs.  Surfaces near the digital screens allow students to share from their laptops, and there is also a dedicated computer for them to work from if they do not have their own device with them.  Whiteboards and the glass walls are meant to be written on (and are).
The space just outside of the library cafe has been set up to be more cafe-type seating, but with larger low tables, to accommodate the need to spread out with laptops, books, notebooks, and even more than one person’s “stuff” that they are working with.  There are outlets in the wood-paneled pillars, to allow for student to plug in wherever they want to work.
The most configurable part of the open space (that is, the space not contained in the study rooms), has more of the wheeled tables and task chairs, as well as some soft seating (relatively lightweight, so it can be moved around), rolling whiteboards, and movable privacy screens.  

I think it’s all pretty cool.  Our students seem pretty happy with it so far.  We had a fancy grand opening for the space, and are grateful to all of the work that went into the design and building of it.  Some of the work was done by me, and students under my supervision, in the form of studying the kinds of behaviors that go into collaborative work, and thinking experimentally about how to reveal the best configuration of space and technology to facilitate effective student learning.

In many learning space design scenarios, the opening is the ending.  Universities continue to build new spaces, open them, and then walk away without thinking about what comes next.  What did they get right about the new spaces?  What did we get wrong?  How can we improve it?  When can we make changes?

I wonder sometimes if there is a fear of looking bad, somehow, if one goes in and makes changes to brand new spaces.  As if the planning wasn’t good enough, and that’s why we need to change things so soon after the opening.  I hope that is not the case, because we are already looking at the new spaces and thinking about things we need to change, to better respond to how people are actually using the space, rather than assuming that they are using the space as we imagined they would.

Sometimes, people just do their own thing.

To that end, I am enlisting the help of my graduate assistants this semester, Allison Schaefer (an MA student in Architecture), and Carrie Vass (an MA student in Communications), to systematically observe what is going on in our new spaces, and report back.  At this early point in the semester (the spaces have only been officially open since January 23rd), we already have several days’ worth of observations, and some nice visualizations of that observation data.  We are interested not just in how people are using the spaces and the furniture

Allison created maps of our ground floor using Revit, and then added color for movement or activity using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  She mapped the kinds of activities people were doing, and also where people walked when they moved through the space, over the course of her observations.  First up:  the activity maps.

This shows where people were eating in the course of her observations (about 8 hours altogether).  The heavily blue areas are adjacent to the library cafe.  But eating is clearly happening near the nice windows overlooking the Student Activity center (on the right, in this diagram), and in the central parts of the spaces.

This is where studying is happening in the new space.  All over.

This is where talking in happening in the space.  Also, all over.

When we overlap the maps for eating and studying, we see that they are not mutually exclusive areas.  These maps were created from afternoon observations–if they included evening hours, we know that there would be even more overlap.  Atkins library has allowed food and drink in its spaces (except in Special Collections) for several years, now, and this shows that we are right to not treat these activities (eating and studying) as mutually exclusive.

Can you study and talk at the same time?  Our students can and do.  While some areas clearly show one thing or the other happening, the overlap is significant.

Just because students have a laptop open does not mean they are studying.  Likewise, just because they don’t have a laptop, doesn’t mean they are not studying.

These maps are beautiful and informative, and of course are only part of the picture.  Next post, I will talk about the maps Allison created that show how the density of occupation varies, as well as length of stay, and the maps that show circulation patterns through the space.  I will also have pictures of what the spaces look like when they are occupied!

The ephemera of academic work.

Last week I went to hear Mary Flanagan speak about play, creativity, games, and how to think about social change in the context of game design and production.   And this weekend, I’ll be attending another THATCamp, this one THATCamp Piedmont, at Davidson College just up the road.  The prospect of going to another unconference, the content of Flanagan’s talk, plus the recent experience of opening our new north entrance spaces at Atkins library, have been making me think a great deal (even if I haven’t been blogging that amount) about the material nature of our thought processes–or, frequently, the lack thereof.

What I mean is, there are times when students walk into the library with nothing in their hands but ideas in their heads, with a need to share those ideas (and get inspired by new ones) with colleagues.  The physical environment they need for idea sharing is one that we’ve provided in the library:  furniture near whiteboards.

They can sit on couches, chairs, or at tables, and either use the whiteboards we’ve provided that can be moved around, or settle in spaces where you can write on the walls.  Sometimes (many times) they bring laptops in with them, sometimes they bring books and notes with them.  They work in groups, or they work alone.  

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards needs to go with them when they leave–if they are sketching out a work plan for a group project, if they are outlining a rough draft for a paper, if they are taking a problem set and solutions home.  They often take pictures of the whiteboard (and the information they intend to curate) with their smartphones.  This (on the right) is a good example of an elaborate study guide, using not just a whiteboard but also post-its.  This diagram of the heart stayed on this whiteboard for several days during final exams last semester.  We are actually thinking hard about what it would look like to have smart whiteboards, that could allow for the saving and sending of the stuff that students write down.

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards is not the important product of the study session.  When they need whiteboards to help them think, when the product is greater understanding that they can take with them in immaterial ways, there is no need to save the ephemera of their academic work.  What they write down will not be transformed immediately into another thing, does not need to be curated in the same way that a rough draft or a presentation outline would be.  We don’t need to always assume that they need to take it with them

The hard part is that we in the library don’t know which kind of work a student is engaging in at any given time–that’s why it is terribly important to build flexible spaces, that allow for patrons to have real choices about the work they need to do.

It is in thinking about the ephemera of academic work that I was confronted by a design flaw in our new T1 Vision tables, in our north entrance study spaces.  These tables (shows upper left) have a touch-screen embedded in the table that can be divided into four, as well as a large sharing screen on the adjacent partition.  The large screen for sharing is only activated when a device is plugged in (or, in only a few cases in the touch-table applications).  So, in this photo, the student has plugged in her laptop, and what is on the laptop is shown large on the screen for her study partners to see.  If one of her study partners found something while browsing the web on the touch-table that she wanted to share, that’s currently not possible. And that does not fit with the way students work–they need to be able to share and think about things that come up during the session, not just what they have with them when they arrive at the library.  The T1 tables dole out sharing capability as if the stuff that is savable/curatable is more worth sharing than the ephemera, and that is not true.

Sometimes, academic work does not produce a material artifact.  Sometimes, play does not take place in a score-keeping game, sometimes, play is open-ended, sometimes there are no winners or losers.  But thinking is important, creativity is important, and it’s crucial for the library to produce and equip spaces that don’t just allow our students to write papers and pass exams, but also for them to think, to share ideas, to brainstorm, to bounce ridiculous notions off of each other that may go nowhere.

That’s a “knowledge cloud,” according to the student who drew that.  Thanks, Daniel W.

24/5, so it begins!

Well this is what many of you begged and pleaded for. It’s happening– a 24 hour library. It will be 5 days/week up until reading day, and then 24/7 for the rest of Finals.

So, what are you doing in the 24 hour library?
Group study?
Paper writing?

What are the advantages to you?
What problems are you encountering?

Please, do tell.

Spring Break OVER

…and so now what do you have to do?

Are you writing papers? Studying for another test? Are you applying for graduate schools, and preparing for GREs? Are you getting ready for the job market?

UNCC’s Spring Break is scheduled to fall exactly in the middle of the semester (which is why, apparently, our break doesn’t realiably synch up with any other schools, colleges or universities in the area). When I was teaching, this was the time of the semester when I would assign writing that would be due at the end of the semester. I figured that, even if I assigned it at the beginning, most students wouldn’t work on it until after Spring Break. I wonder if I was correct.

What does your schedule look like from now until May? How are you going to fit it all in?