I attended (online) the latest Munster Technological University digital transformation (Dx) event a week or so ago. You can catch up with this recording of it. The idea was to facilitate a conversation about the regional impact of digital connection, in the context of education and non-profit organizations. Speakers Keith Smyth and Frank Rennie, from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland, joined Grainne O’Keefe, CEO of the Ludgate Digital Hub in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, on a discussion panel moderated by Gearoid O Suillebhain and Tom Farrelly, both of MTU.
These events at MTU (I was physically present in Cork for the previous one, along with my colleague Lawrie Phipps, to talk about digital transformation in HE contexts) are designed to provoke thought and provide information about what is happening with digital places and tools, and also what we would like to happen with digital places and tools in the larger context of our professional and educational and personal practices. I see these conversations as a way to step around the futurecasting that continues to dominate much of the discourse (“What will education look like post-pandemic??” as if we are out of the pandemic, and as if we have a good handle on what it looks like now, let alone in the future…). Grounding discussions in the practices of people now, and recognizing the continuity with what has happened in the past, feels like a more constructive way of going about trying to create a future, rather than have one handed to us.
The GrowDx conversation centered on the relationship between communities and the educational and other institutions embedded within those communities. UHI is scattered across a wide physical area, much of it remote and isolated from major population centers, and has historically had to figure out ways to connect students and staff at a distance, well before pandemic concerns made that a priority for everyone involved. Keith Smyth talked about the “co-located and dislocated campus,” referring to the ways that physical distance and digital proximity combine to produce a multiplicity of ways to participate. The new MTU is similarly scattered across a wide area (“from Ballyferriter to Youghal” as Tom Farrelly pointed out), and has as one of its primary remits a responsibility to conserve, develop, and curate connections at a distance. Digital places and platforms provide crucial ways for those connections to happen.
Grainne O’ Keefe pointed out early in her discussion of the development of the Ludgate Digital Hub, now a model for the rest of Ireland for how to provide a place for rural communities to connect with educational and professional services and networks beyond their immediate physical environment, that none of those connections are possible without investing in digital infrastructure. The first step was getting strong broadband installed down to Skibbereen, in West Cork. The idea is to give people a chance to study and work where they want to live, rather than having to leave their communities for opportunities. Leaving Ireland has a long and devastating history for Irish people; colonization and the post-colonial experience has long made it necessary for them to go elsewhere to make a living (or simply, to live). Creating places, with the help of digital affordances, that make it possible not just to stay but to stay and thrive, feels to me like a radical act.
Both Ludgate and UHI share the model of “hubs” as a way of bringing digital to people, and also bringing people to each other, in the same physical location as well as connected to each other digitally. Students can attend classes without having to leave their immediate area, but also can connect with other local people doing the same thing, via these hubs. People working in Skibbereen don’t have to rely on their household set up to do their work online, or to study for their degrees, and also do not have to do any of it in isolation if it does not suit them. Grainne O’Keefe also made the point that spaces without programming, without intentional planning around what will happen in those spaces, will fail. Connecting people to possibilities and each other takes more than “a physical location, filled with tech.” She described Ludgate as a “community informed social asset” and I think that description also fits the new MTU.
I always wish for more time for discussion in events like these, and attending online meant I did not have access to the chats over tea and coffee when some of these discussions take place. Those of us in the chat did manage to ask some questions about what places like UHI and Ludgate can offer, in helping us think about possibilities.
My primary question after the discussion was about how to protect those possibilities, especially in countries like the US and the UK, where there are fewer resources being offered to us in the educational sector. Ireland has the advantage of being in the EU, and also of a government that sees the value in investing in the public sector.
What is the role of institutions in keeping “doors open” for people who could benefit from multiple modes of engagement (I feel like this is all of us)? Flexibility like that requires more resources, including people who need to be paid to do the work of setting up the spaces, the tech, and social and educational programming. More resources requires more money.
There’s something here about the importance of carrying forward the good things that being online brings us while also keeping up with the good things that physically embodied experiences can yield. What these hubs do is expand and support the choices that people can make around how and where they want and need to work and study. The hub model provides more open doors to people, rather than presenting with a “do it all online, or do it all on campus/in the office” binary.
Note: Additional commentary about this event can be found at Lawrie’s site.
Last week the TEL team at Munster Technological University hosted an event that they called “Digital Transformation and Digital Practice,” at MTU’s location in Cork city. Lawrie Phipps and I both got to be there in person, in the physical room, the first such room I’ve been in since around this date in 2020.
I keep saying the year is 2020, when I try to remember the date aloud.
This was a hybrid event, and we had more people in the Zoom room than we did in our seminar room. The idea, when Gearoid O Suilleabhain and Tom Farrelly were planning things, was that we have a facilitated conversation about what has been happening around education in digital places because of the pandemic, what were the things that MTU had already been doing before the emergency, and what we hoped would happen next. We wanted for the people in the rooms to ask us questions and also to talk amongst themselves, so there were MTU TEL team members in the Zoom room to facilitate that conversation, and we had a coffee/tea break after our initial panel discussion to allow time for reflection and follow ups. We were grateful for all of the people who showed up in each mode, it was an excellent crowd.
What I hoped to come out of the discussion was not any facile sense that we were “moving on” from the pandemic, but rather an opportunity to recognize and sit with the facts that 1) this pandemic (thanks to our governments and capitalism) isn’t going anywhere and 2) people have needed us to pay attention to what digital tools and places can bring to education and other public services for a very long time. In addition, it was a chance for us to talk publicly about the research that Gearoid, Tom, and I have done at MTU around academic teaching practices in 2020-21, and for Lawrie and I to draw connections between that work and the research he and I have been doing on student and staff emergency remote teaching (and learning) practices.
There is an edited recording of the event on YouTube, and I’m placing it in this post for you to have a look/listen if you like.
I want here to draw out the central themes we tried to address in the time we had,
Teaching staff at MTU were already well-supported in exploring and developing digital practices in their work, and told us that while they didn’t feel like they really knew what they were doing all the time, they also felt it was OK to try whatever was necessary because they already knew who to talk to and go to for help. Sometimes the people staff said they worked with were the TEL and EDSU teams at MTU, sometimes they were colleagues who they already knew were confident and capable with a range of digital tools and places. The important part was not necessarily being confident with digital per se, but being confident that someone (or more than one someones) would help and support them doing what needs to be done.
Supporting teaching staff means that you are also supporting students. Staff who are not worried about their contracts, compensation, and precarity can spend their energy on their work, on teaching, on connecting with their students, on recognizing when their students are struggling and getting help in figuring out how to make things better for students. The staff experience is the student experience.
The most precarious students, those who are from marginalized populations due to race, gender, and economic circumstances, tend to look for help from staff members who they recognize and trust as being “like them” (or at least, not the cis white men for whom the power structures of institutions like universities are traditionally aligned). That often means that the most vulnerable staff members, staff who are Black, staff who are women, staff who represent “non traditional” populations in academia, are being asked to do more work on behalf of students. When we interviewed white men senior academics in the UK about their students in the pandemic emergency, we heard “I haven’t seen/heard much from them, they are probably OK.” When we interviewed early career white women we heard, “I haven’t seen many students, I hope they are OK.” And we also heard from an early career Asian woman “I keep hearing from students, my inbox is full of one-on-one conversations, it never stops.”
Digital Transformation is not about technology. The technology that is deployed at a university is a necessary first step to potentially transforming practice, but it’s only one thing, and might not actually be transformative if all you are doing is “digitizing” (s/o to Jim Nottingham for helping make that distinction clear to me–it’s a distinction I hear from library workers, too, pointing out that there’s nothing inherently transformative about digitization). Transformation also cannot simply be “digital by default”–not everything needs to be done digitally, and thought and care need to be put into where digital affordances can help, and where they can actually do harm (as is the case for surveillance, predictive analytics, and relying on the chance-y promises of AI as a substitute for human labor and care). Gearoid, in the conversation, offered MTU’s idea of “digital by design”–thoughtful attention to where their work as a teaching and research institution aligns with what digital tools, places, and platforms make possible. It’s an approach that doesn’t just value the things they know they need to do with digital, but provides sandbox-y opportunities for staff and students alike to make connections between technology and their practices, to come up with emergent possibilities that no one expected. When any organisation starts on a process of digital transformation, they need the technology in place, but they need to make sure that the people are both resourced and supported, and only when we have alignment between the transformation we want, and people being supported and resourced do we see a culture change, a genuine transformation. This should always be an iterative process that centers people, not tech.
That last point chimed nicely with the message offered by Audrey Watters in her Digifest 22 keynote this week. In the Q&A she advocated and hoped simultaneously for a future that was about people, not “the algorithm.” In her talk she said directly: “Hope is not in technology. Hope is in our humanity.”
In our discussion at MTU, we also tried to center people, their lives, and their needs, in a context when that can be alarmingly challenging. And the work is far from complete.
I grew up on Air Force Bases in the continental US and moved around fairly frequently (though not as frequently as some!) in my childhood. My parents had met in their small Louisiana town, and started dating when they were in college at LSU. I get to thank a hurricane–I think it was Betsy– for them spending a weekend on the phone together that made them realize they wanted to spend their lives together. Once they had left their small town for Baton Rouge, they began building relationships that are still strong, friendships with my mom’s roommates (a woman who was sent from Cuba by her relatives, a Cajun woman after whom I am named) and their boyfriends (now husbands)–they remained close with those people, after leaving Louisiana, and we see them when we can, they are present in my mom’s life and mine.
They moved to Arizona for Daddy’s first posting and had me, and their social network grew to include the friends they made in Tucson, as well as their family and friends back in Louisiana. That core group of friends knew me before I was born, and even though we knew we would not be in Tucson forever, those friends stayed a part of my parents’ (and my) life even after we were sent to Minot, ND, and then to Vandenberg AFB CA. We sent letters, traveled to see them for Thanksgiving or Easter. My parents had local connections, too, made friends (and kept many) where they found themselves, but also kept the connections they had made before.
When things were hard where they were, if they were lonely, their local network was not the only one they had to draw upon.
Local circumstances were not their entire circumstances , they were only a part, and the larger entirety of their lives, their scattered network of friends, made it easier to deal when tough times happened in other parts of their lives.
When I moved from school to school, it was hard, but also gave me practice in connecting with new people. My mother helped me in this because she knew I was a person who craved other people; she sought out kids for me to meet when we moved somewhere new, made sure I had chances to find at least one friend in a new place.
When we left for a new base, I was sad to leave friends behind but because of my parents’ habits of keeping connections, I never really felt that they were gone forever. We got Xmas letters, sometimes we would get to visit them, we were in touch and real to each other (even before the internet, which did eventually make that kind of thing easier).
When I was in high school I had a small group of very close friends but they were not all in the same place all the time at school. I had swim team friends and speech and debate friends and in-class-with-me-friends and they were not all part of the same network. So when (inevitably) there were fallings-out or misunderstandings or breakups in one group I still had the other groups. It was never terrible all the time.
I realize that my circumstances were lucky, but also think that my parents were very deliberate in building that capacity in me, in modeling for me a way to have a kind of resilience (I know, I know) in my own personal life, so that when there were struggles in one place it wasn’t everywhere and didn’t make my entire life hard. I had refuges, other places and people I could turn to for relief and respite and support.
I almost made the mistake of shrinking my entire undergraduate university experience down to one group, the anthropology department. I knew I wanted to major in that from the beginning, and threw myself into everything anthropology my first year. My friends, (including romantic partners) were in the department. My social life was in the department and when it was going well it was great.
When it did not go well I had nowhere else to go.
Almost on a whim, I decided my second year to live in an International dorm on campus, one where every room had one American student and one exchange student from a different country. I roomed with a Korean woman, my suite-mate from LA had a roommate from Japan. In addition to Japanese and Korean students there were Italian and British and French and Australian students.
I had a fantastic year. And when I had a hard time with my studies, or with relationships (yeah, still with anthropology students), I had this part of my life that was my dorm hall, and the friends I made there (and who I still have).
Living in that dorm meant that I decided to study abroad. I went to Ireland for the following year and it changed my trajectory through anthropology, because up until that point I was studying archaeology, and I realized in Ireland that if I went to grad school I wanted to study living people.
So when I did apply to graduate school it was to study folklore and anthropology and also as a newly married person (because living apart from my boyfriend for the year helped me to figure out that it would be nice to have him in my life all the time). And I arrived in grad school ready to be a grad student but also not entirely dependent on graduate school to be my entire life.
The friends I made, the network I built in graduate school was almost entirely independent of my studies. I hung out with archaeologists (they are much better at being constructively social than socio-cultural anthropologists…) and so when I had a hard time in any given seminar, or conflicts with professors, I had somewhere else to go, other connections to draw upon. And, not just there in the town where I was in grad school, but the connections I had built and my parents had built were still there, and I had multiple places and sets of people to ask for support when I needed it. I had a partner (also an academic, so not completely out of the world I was in) and was an entire person independent of my graduate studies.
This helped me survive graduate school. I would not have, if my entire world had been my studies.
When we moved to Charlotte, with our two young kids, we moved to be a part of the department of anthropology here, and that helped us have a local network right away. But we were also moving to the state where my partner grew up, and so we had a personal network, too. We had brothers and sisters and in-laws and cousins to be with, our life was not reduced just to the university, we had other options. With kids in school we made friends with some of the parents of their friends, and that was good and also sometimes complicated, so it was (again) good that when that was hard we had other networks to rely on.
I am repeating myself. I am working through to see a pattern.
When I started working in libraries I did not leave my anthropology network behind, it was still right there with me. When I was working in libraries I also built connections with ed tech and instructional design people, because it made sense and also because I made friends. When I had to stop working in libraries, those co-existing networks helped me not to despair, or think that there was nothing else I could do.
I was more than my job. I was (and am) part of more than one network. I am so lucky, I have so many kinds of people in my life.
I worry about my students who seem to only have university-based networks, or who are isolated from their non-university networks in some way. I am more confident for my students who already show up with strong connections to a supportive community, with connections independent of the university. I worry about colleagues who are deeply embedded in one organization, or attached to one conference, who don’t have a different place to go when things go wrong. Things always go wrong, at some point.
When I hear people in a variety of contexts talking about “building community” for students or colleagues (or, customers), I worry about that, too. Is the motivation an additive one? “Let’s give them more people to connect with and rely on?” Or is it intended to be a kind of capture? I think in situations where money is concerned (conferences. tuition) it can too often be the latter.
I wonder if one of the differences, in professional networks, is if we are people or products? Maybe that was the difference in grad school, too. I connected with and kept people in my networks who were people to me, and who treated me as more than what my degree or career would or could be.
When I returned to the anthropology department of my graduate program after the death of my child, the people who saw me as a person hugged me and asked me how I was. The people for whom I was a (failed) product did not see or speak to me at all, even as I passed them in the hallway.
I have witnessed a lot of extractive networking. I’ve probably done my fair share, too. Extractive practices do not build the kind of networks that endure and support. I have long been wary of organizations or events that claim to “build community.” All we can do is make space, and do things we think might be useful (for ourselves, for each other). Whether a community emerges from any given organization or event or series of events isn’t up to us.
I am looking at 2022, when I get to start working as a Professor of Practice for a new MA on Climate Science Leadership at Virginia Tech, thanks to a grade school friend who is still in my life. I get to work with Munster Technological University thanks to connections that have come to me via edtech circles but also my insistence on keeping connected to people in Ireland. My daughter is getting married this year and my best friend, who I have known since I was 13 years old, will attend the wedding along with my mom who taught me over and over again the importance of keeping good people in your life, even across long distances and gaps in time.
I remain here with questions, at the end of this ramble. How are we people to each other, in our (ideally) various networks, offline and online alike? How are we treated as (how do we treat others as) products? What does that difference mean for our experience of our networks?
Many thanks to the colleagues who have collectively worked to compose this letter.
This letter is being posted here and also on Lawrie Phipps’ site
The recent surge in long-standing prejudice against trans people in the UK (some of which we are also seeing in the US and Canada) is worrying and infuriating in equal measure. We the undersigned are stating our unequivocal support for the trans community, including our trans colleagues in instructional design, academic development, and education technology, with whom we work, from whom we learn, and without whom we could not be as strong across the sector as we are.
There is no room in our field for trans-exclusionary thinking. There is no room in our world for framing trans people as anyone other than who they declare themselves to be.
Trans men are men.
Trans women are women.
Non-binary people are people.
Their presence in this world is no threat to any cisgender people at all.
We reject the attempt by anti-trans activists and academics to frame their trans-exclusionary language and actions as anything other than abuse. Trans-exclusionary views in learning and research environments, whether expressed openly or not, can and do cause profound harm to students and staff. This is not a matter of “academic freedom” or “sex-based rights.” This is a question of equity, dignity, and basic human rights.
We want to make it clear that so-called “gender-critical” stances actively harm trans people. An alarming amount of cis people seem to believe that these stances represent a moral good and an important defense against misogyny. This is not the case. The gender critical movement plays on people’s fears to position trans people as the enemy and as acceptable collateral damage in the protection of cis women’s rights. The trans community, and especially trans women and femmes who encounter and deal with misogyny every day, fiercely oppose anyone being assaulted, shamed for who they feel attracted to, or coerced into sexual activity. Suggesting otherwise frames trans people as enemies, and as such is anti trans.
Those who want to publish trans-exclusionary pieces as a part of their academic work can of course do so. When they are called out and directed to the harm those words cause, they need to recognise that these are appropriate consequences, not “cancellation.”
We sign and publish this letter as a signal to our trans colleagues that we value and support you. We stand with you against prejudice, bigotry, and hate.
In May I gave a talk to the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges group for an information literacy seminar. I was asked by the organizers to design and deliver an interactive piece for the talk. Given my theme on the importance of relationships and human connections that take into account power and position, I wanted to give participants a way to reflect on their own information practices, as a way to thinking about not just what they do around information, and where they get their information from, but also with whom do they think about/process/evaluate/criticize/decide to reject various kinds of information?
In the workshops I have facilitated, it becomes clear quite quickly that it is difficult to think about our digital practices without eventually arriving at a necessary conversation about which people we are interacting with in digital places and on digital platforms. It is likewise difficult to think about the information we seek and trust (or distrust) without involving the people we associate with that information. Who wrote the article? Who is the story about? Who is upset about that book? Whose interests are threatened by that exposé? Whose priorities are being ignored? Who do you talk to about the articles you read? Whose social media feeds do you get trusted information from? Whose do you avoid?
So, I tried to adapt the idea of triangle digital practice mapping to help people think about their information practices.
It looks like this (the image is also available here):
While the alliteration is fun, the domains Political, Personal, and Professional could be other things. If you are working with students, you could have them map information they use for Studies, for Work, and for Private Life. If you are working with faculty, you could have them map information they use for Research, for Private Life, and for Teaching. As with digital practice mapping, the domains themselves matter less than the conversation and reflection that you are trying to provoke.
When the LVAIC folks did this mapping, they went into breakout rooms and then came back into the main conference room to feed back on how it went. Some were surprised at how few people there were in their information network. Many had never taken the time to really think about the role that people played in their information practices. They only had less than 10 minutes to do the exercise, so there was a lot left that we could have discussed that we just didn’t have time for.
I think there are many conversations that can emerge from this kind of mapping. I’d be interested to see what it looks like when people get to be in a room together (physical or digital) and really spend time with their information practice maps, and comparing their practices and networks to those of other people. What differences will they find? What similarities?
I’d welcome feedback from people who try out this mapping for themselves, or in a group. I’m also trying to find places where we can experiment with this mapping in workshop contexts, so if you have ideas please let me know.
“It might well be that at this point it is a cliche to point to what our experiences with COVID are teaching us and say ‘this was always the case, it is just even more apparent now.’ The struggles we encounter as teachers, students, and library workers confined to online environments are versions of struggles that existed already in those environments (but might not have been so widely felt), and also that were always the case in physical environments. When we talk about the need for engagement, when we wonder what that looks like in Zoom, it bears remembering that those questions were relevant in classrooms and lecture halls. This extremely online time in education is forcing us to ask, what is a teaching environment? What is learning? What is a library? Where are the people? Too often the easy “solution” offered to those concerned about engagement and interactivity are those of edtech surveillance, and the alleged promises of AI. I want to talk about those promises, and the problems of reducing teaching, learning, and research to the numbers offered by edtech and library systems.”
That is the abstract I shared several months ago with the fine and kind people–Kelly Cannon, Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle, and Jess Denke– who invited me to speak with the Lehigh Valley Association for Independent Colleges group, for their symposium for library workers and faculty about information literacy. The talk I ended up giving–and try to capture here– had some distance from that abstract, but I did end up talking at least a bit about surveillance, care, and our responsibilities to our colleagues and students that well pre-dates the pandemic emergency.
In the interest of care I want to position myself: I am a white woman, I am Cajun, I am of a settler people, and have spent my entire life in the US living on unceded occupied land of many different Indigenous people. I am living and writing while on Cherokee and Catawba land, in what is now called North Carolina. I would like to point you all to https://landback.org/donate/ and encourage you to contribute to efforts to get land back into Indigenous people’s hands. I am donating part of my speaking fee to this organization.
It’s been a long time since March 2020 and since that time, that pandemic time kicked in, I have joined a large (and I think still growing) group of people who found it hard to get anything done beyond what had to be done. I was privileged to be able to stay home, work from home, arrange for my kid to attend his last year of high school from home, and for my husband to also be able to work from our home. So it might sound like whining when I say how difficult everything has been with this pall of death and neglect. More than half a million Americans have died so far, and more will die still, and so many of these deaths were avoidable, if not for the neglect of our government in 2020, and the capitalist impulses now that continue to keep vaccines away from people who need them, and continue to put people at risk, nationally and globally.
So I’ve turned to podcasts to motivate and distract myself. Sometimes it works. I manage to clean the kitchen, or fold the laundry, or back when the only thing I could do to leave the house was go for a walk, I would listen while walking. I get to thank my daughter for introducing me to Not Another D&D podcast, a performance and Dungeons & Dragons play podcast that I’m still listening to and is responsible for me getting back into playing the game, which I last played when I was about 12. Playing a lyncanthropic elf ranger has been an important part of my pandemic coping.
Podcasts were a way for me to engage with something without doomscrolling, and also without reading, because my ability to sit with a text and focus was destroyed, and is only slowly coming back. In addition to D&D podcasts I’ve also been listening to You’re Wrong About, which started off as a “debunking” podcast about media coverage and misconceptions about things like the Satanic Panic, serial killers, and the so-called “obesity epidemic.”
It was You’re Wrong About that reminded me about Jonestown, in Guyana and the massacre of just over 900 people there in November 1978. Their cult leader, Jim Jones, gathered vulnerable people, including drug addicts and sex workers, and also idealists and activists who believed in the end to racial segregation. In 1977 (and here I am quoting from the article Escape from Jonestown by Julia Scheeres) “New West magazine was about to publish an exposé portraying Jim Jones—by now a celebrated California powerbroker—as a charlatan who faked healings, swindled money from his followers, and fathered a son with an attractive acolyte. It was all true.”
“Few folks know that Jim Jones was a civil rights leader in Indianapolis—integrating lunch counters and churches—and that the majority of his victims were African Americans who heeded his message of social equality. How terribly they were betrayed for believing in this dream.”
Once in Guyana members of the People’s Temple had their passports and money taken away, and they were stuck. Jones had been talking about “revolutionary suicide” to his followers for years, but the visit of members of the media and a member of congress spurred him to finally follow through on those plans to kill his followers (and himself).
“They drank the Kool-aid”
If you listen to You’re Wrong About, or drill down into their source materials, you know that what the Jonestown people were offered to mask the taste of cyanide was grape flavor Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid brand. But that’s not the point. The phrase “Drank the Kool Aid” suggests the beginning of a journey into misinformation. But for Jonestown people, it was the end. It was their death.
“They drank the Kool-aid” is a phrase I heard a lot during the Trump administration and continue to hear with regard to QAnon during the Biden administration, and anti-vaxx, anti-science during COVID paranoia. But that phrase, as Julia Scheeres points out in her article, is an act of erasure and injustice.
Jonestown was not a mass suicide but a mass murder, perpetuated by Jim Jones, who lied to and manipulated people based on his public vision for racial harmony, for the sake of his private vision of “a revolutionary suicide”
Once people were in Jonestown, they knew they were trapped, and no information was going to save them. This was not an information literacy problem
Jim Jones’ victims drank the cyanide laced Flavor-aid, and many of them were forced to. About a third of the victims were minors, and they were poisoned before the adults were. And that was their end. More information was not going to save them. Protecting them from predators like Jim Jones would have. Structural changes that would provide health and mental health care and civil rights–which were being fought for in the 1970s–would have.
Using “drank the Kool-aid” as the beginning suggests that the important story is that of Jim Jones, of our learning about him and how he victimized people in the aftermath of the mass murder at Jonestown. But the people Jim Jones victimized, and isolated from their families, and took down to Guyana with lies and then trapped there, they had stories, they were part of other people’s stories, and they cried, and drank, and died, and their stories ended.
What that phrase “Drank the Kool-aid” signals neatly is the extent to which the speaker thinks the person in question is at fault for what they believe, and what happens to them because of it. It signals the belief that people are rational, and that we might, if we give people enough of the “right kind” of information, prevent them from drinking the Kool-aid.
Information alone cannot save us from the problems of QAnon, or science denialism. Exposure to peer-reviewed articles will not necessarily debunk conspiracy theories about vaccines, because people do not encounter information in a vacuum. They encounter information via their networks of trusted people–of family, of friends, of perceived experts who were recommended by people in that network.
The lies that are told by cult leaders and propagandists benefit someone. Who benefits from the lies, even when they are told knowing they are lies? Who suffers when the lies are told? Who isn’t harmed enough by the lies to work to change things? Whiteness, white supremacy, is implicated in the lies being told now about voter fraud, the lies that led to anti-voter legislation in (for example) the state of Georgia and that are being advanced by legislatures in several more states across the country. The stories of voter fraud are told because they are useful for the political agenda of people interested in suppressing votes, especially the votes of Black people in the US.
People are not rational. This is a problem anthropologists have long had with economics, the extent to which that field treats people as “rational actors:” predictable, subject to particular laws of behavior, and responding identically to circumstances as and when they change. People are not rational.
“At the heart of relational ethics is the need to ground key concepts such as ethics, justice, knowledge, bias, and fairness in context, history, and an engaging epistemology. Fundamental to this is the need to shift over from prioritizing rationality as of primary importance to the supremacy of relationality.”
Libraries have a long and troubled history with rationality at the core of its practices. What I think that phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid” also demands in terms of what I’m thinking about rational approaches to information literacy, and what it can and can’t do, is the importance of relationships. People and relationships are vital to how and why people move through the information landscape, which is always changing. And the extent to which people have agency in any given information landscape is down to who they are, what kind of power they have, and the structures that surround them that constrain their ability to make decisions on their own behalf.
Tressie McMillan Cottom said at ACRL 2021 that we value particular information because we value the people from whom that information came. I would extend that, or add to it, or put along sideways the point that we also tend to value the stories of the people who we value. Whose stories we value informs the way that the Jonestown massacre is remembered, in the disconnected turn of phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid.” Whose stories we value helps explain why throughout the Trump administration we kept hearing the stories of his voters, of “anxious whites” and why they voted the way they did, why the dapper white supremacist was a character in new stories not exclusively, but especially after 2016. Whose stories we value informs the current (as of May 19 2021) coverage of the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, current US policy on that occupation, and who we decide to listen to.
I appreciate this commentary on Twitter from Shea Swauger: “to be clear, information literacy will NOT fix racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism, islamophobia, capitalism, colonialism, structural oppression, or white supremacy”
This definitely reflects my own thinking about information literacy.
Attempting any classification of sources into “reliable” or “unreliable” cannot be the substitute for building relationships with people. And this line of thinking is not new, the one that says we cannot rely on checklists to save us from misinformation and lies. Kevin Seeber was writing about this in 2017, and this by Carrie Wade is from 2018.
“Beyond the nouns and the verbs of “fact-checking” and “media literacy” and all of the advertisements and marketing materials we have at our disposal, what this discourse fails to acknowledge is the ways that knowledge is socially constructed. As libraries we cannot rely on better websites to solve political problems.”
Mike Caulfield, in his work around disinformation, suggests that we help students decide who deserves their time before “going down a rabbit hole” —the more time you give misinformation, the more it distracts you from constructive and productive work/life/play. I think we should spend less time debunking and more time shunning. Information is surrounded by and embedded in the relationships people have with each other, and their intent towards each other in sharing information. Even people we do not know personally are in relationships with us, structurally. It’s worth asking, if my relationship with that piece of information is via the white supremacist organization that shared it, what obligation do I have to break that information down, or can I disengage from that particular stream, because I recognize the toxicity of the organization sharing it?
I would point here to the work emerging from UNC’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, in particular the critical disinformation studies syllabus, which offers us a way of structuring our approach to information that centers people, structures, and power.
If you think you can be and should be useful to people in terms of helping them navigate information and misinformation, you need to be a person to them first. So cultivating presence is central to that relationship building.
Relationship building is difficult in any circumstance, and it can be especially difficult when trying to engage entirely online when you are accustomed to doing it in physical spaces. There are many ways of being human online, and very few of them involve lists of dos and don’t, and questionnaires about information provenance. Being human, in a library context, is challenging when the library worker presence is predominantly in one-shot instruction sessions, or online tutorials about how to use the library web sites to get to “reliable” sources (I know you know this).
Nicole Pagowsky notes that, in fact, doing one-shots can contribute to misunderstanding how to navigate information, and also misunderstand the library.
“The way we engage in teaching within one-shot models, and the associated expectations for measurement, both keep us in a holding pattern of reactionary yes-people unable to enact our own agency within campus power structures.”
One-shots happen in the absence of a meaningful relationship between library workers and teaching faculty, in situations where valuing how many students you are “in contact” with, or who encounter the library in those sessions, is prioritized over embedding work and selves into the processes of education, and building relationships, trusted connections that students can then call on as they navigate their education. Transactional library experiences, reducing information evaluation to a list of tasks, obscure the larger work that we should be responsible for.
Being extremely online can make it hard to literally see people in the internet (think about all the anxiety about cameras on/off in Zoom-based teaching)–it requires a new definition of “presence” that those privileged enough to get to be in rooms and buildings have assumed meant “in the same physical place”–engagement never was a guarantee. Think about newspapers, naps, distracted gazing out of windows in class. Lack of engagement is not new. What it looks like might be.
Covid and the pandemic emergency has led to a massive and not entirely voluntary movement to online teaching and learning practices. Those who were not already “extremely online” were confronted with the reality of digital as a place, not just a tool or a distraction or a repository for content.
If digital is a place where we teach, and we hope that students learn, what kind of place are we in? What is a classroom? Is it Zoom? Is it Moodle, or Canvas? What is a learning space? What is a library?
Libraries have been confronting “what is a library” for a while now–it has never been just a building, or a collection of databases, but also a network of people, a collection of expertise, a node for a college or university community to connect with in the course of doing, analyzing, and disseminating academic work.
Some universities and colleges have had the luxury of not examining what a classroom or a lecture hall is in physical spaces. Private universities in the US have had the particular privilege of making central to their student experiences the physical, the co-location of students and faculty and facilities in a way that assumes connection and engagement. Oxford and Cambridge in the UK have a similar advantage, and make similar assumptions.
Large state institutions, and community colleges have not always had that luxury. That doesn’t mean that their physical campuses were critically examined, but that they have had to be more online, or in other ways more attuned to the distanced needs of (for example) commuter students, or students who cannot, because of life circumstances (the needs of their families, the needs of their bodies) prioritize physical presence on campus as a part of their educational experience. This is similar to the situation that individual people experience when they need to turn to online/distanced relationships to make up for what they cannot or are not experiencing in their own face to face/physical spaces: queer kids growing up in politically conservative contexts; Black, brown, and Indigenous people teaching in predominantly white institutions. To assume that it is impossible to build relationships in online only spaces is to be operating under assumptions generated in contexts where it’s easy to build relationships in physical spaces, because you are surrounded by people who recognize you as part of their community.
We have always needed to do the work of recognizing that co-location is not the same thing as engagement.
And it is a concern for engagement, for evidence of student participation that drives the market for edtech surveillance and learning analytics. Educators and administrators are being sold the idea that if you count the clicks, if you track the eye movements, if you swipe in with cards at instructional library sessions, that you get a meaningful number that tells you something about engagement, about learning.
Think about what counts as Engagement on Facebook: clicks and controversy.
“The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by.”
That is not the kind of engagement we are going for instructionally, but the number of clicks and time spent “on task” is the kind that Learning Management Systems collect. Collecting and counting clicks is collecting proxy data for learning, much like checklists serve as problematic proxies for the work of information literacy. It’s not effective, and not representative of the work we or our students need to do.
What is the work of the library for, and is it information literacy?
What is the work of the university for, and is it information literacy?
What about knowledge, its production, its navigation, its analysis?
This Spring I taught an ethnographic methods class, and we approached the topic with the lens of the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in particular her Decolonizing Methodologies book. She notes throughout the book the importance of relationships, and the ways that indigenous researchers are responsible to their own networks even before they begin researching. Smith wants Indigenous researchers to ask the following questions about any given research project, and I think they are good practice for any researcher:
“Who defined the research problem
For whom is this study worthy and relevant? Who says so?
What knowledge will the community gain from this study?
What knowledge will the researcher gain from this study?
What are some likely positive outcomes from this study?
What are some possible negative outcomes?
How can the negative outcomes be eliminated?
To whom is the researcher accountable?”
I also had my students read Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis on library cataloging practices and Indigenous knowledge, and they have very similar things to say about the importance of building and maintaining relationships to indigenous scholars with each other, and to the people who they are hoping to learn from.
I interviewed several of my anthropologist colleagues as guest lectures (in soundfile/podcast form) for this class, so that my students could hear the voices of anthropologists who are not me–it’s a practice I’ll continue even if I ever teach in physical classrooms again. More than one of them made the point that to be able to do the work that you find important and interesting, you need to start with what is important to the people you hope to learn from. You might end up realizing that the project you wanted to do isn’t the one you should do. You might find that you are stuck organizing the broom closet for a month before anyone will have an unguarded conversation with you. You do this work to build relationships, because your goal should not be extractive, for people to give you information, but for your work to have meaning to them, and for you to be humans to each other, not just potential transactions.
Smith, Duarte, and Belarde-Lewis all write about knowledges, the importance of knowing whose knowledge, and in relation to whose other knowledges. Indigenous knowledge and its production is historically erased or bounded within Western interpretation of that knowledge–those processes are social, and require social analysis (and a power analysis), not just fact checking.
In their respective works, Smith, and Duarte and Belarde-Lewis highlight the importance of relationships, of trust, of creating places where Indigenous people can connect with each other, with their own priorities, and produce knowledge by and for and of themselves, not just in relation to the knowledges and structures imposed on them by colonization and the controlling processes of them. There is a lot that non-Indigenous people need to learn from Indigenous people and traditions, there’s a lot of listening we need to do, but today I want to point to this as one thing we need to pay much more attention to when we worry about things like “information literacy.”
Sam Popovich notes that in LIS, the opposite of knowledge is defined as error, which then might theoretically be “fixed” with more information.
“Library leadership view the opposite of knowledge to be error (correctable by more knowledge), and so ideology—knowledge in the service of power—is automatically excluded. By excluding the concept of ideology from any consideration of intellectual freedom, people can be wrong but they can never be collectively implicated in structures of false knowledge. The result is that intellectual freedom remains understood solely as an individual concern, and the role of libraries at most to correct error, but never to engage in the relationships between knowledge, false ideas, and power.”
Knowledges are created from many places, and generated in the context of information being produced by and passed on by people. And our reactions to information, and navigation of various kinds of knowledge, are informed by our relationships to the people we associate with the information. So in our current situation where misinformation is rampant and putting public health at risk, we need to sit with the likelihood that more information is not going to fix things.
Several years ago I participated in the Visitors and Residents project, researching student info seeking behavior. We interviewed first year students who often cited their parents, their friends, roommates, as people they talked to while doing their class papers. It wasn’t until their second or third year that they started citing professors, and occasionally library workers. Why?
Because those people were no longer strangers to them
My current research during the pandemic involves interviewing students as a part of a Jisc project in the UK, and what they are telling me they miss in the pandemic is interactivity. They say they want to be on campus in lecture halls, so they can talk to their lecturers before and after class, So that their professors can see their faces and maybe tell when they are confused and pause, or explain, or repeat themselves. They want to be able to meet with classmates in the library, or in cafes, to talk, and connect, and “have fun” as a part of their going to university. They talk about how hard it is to feel engaged online if all there is is content delivery/recorded lectures or uploaded articles in the course management system.
And they clearly assume that the interactivity would be happening more in physical spaces, because they have experienced how hard it is for interactivity to be programmed into university experiences that still prioritize content delivery in digital contexts. This is not to say such interactivity is impossible (think about online gaming, messageboards, dating sites–online interactivity is everywhere!)–just that universities are clearly experiencing barriers to providing it. One of those might be their failure to fund full-time expertise in online environments.
It’s possible to do this work, of building connections online–one example of people with expertise trying to help can be found in the work of Mia Zamora, Maha Bali, and Autumm Caines at Equity Unbound.
Attendance alone has never been evidence that your students were learning. It was all the other things that happen in classrooms, and out of classrooms. It was always stuff you couldn’t see. We have never been able to bear witness to all of the processes that contribute to students’ learning. So, why should we try now?
We are coping, poorly, with what is out of our control (the pandemic, our labor situation, our students’ attention) with the idea that we could control and capture some of what is going on, via surveillance and analytics.
But: control is not care.
Control is not teaching.
And active learning and teaching practice shows us that it is in the letting go of our control that we can effectively curate environments for learning that are generative, just, and caring.
So we need to not mistake student engagement with systems (like presence in the LMS, or library catalogs) for student engagement with processes. And need to think about what we could be offering students instead of what Jeffrey Moro has called “cop shit:”
“Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We might express that problem like this: the work of managing a classroom, at all its levels, is increasingly complex and fraught, full of poorly defined standards, distractions to our students’ attentions, and new opportunities for grift. Cop shit, so cop shit argues, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom. Cop shit defines parameters. Cop shit ensures compliance. Cop shit gives students and teachers alike instant feedback in the form of legible metrics.”
You need to be human to students and colleagues, and they need to be human to you. That means no dehumanizing practices in already challenging spaces. No proctoring, No AI, no predictive analytics, no “engagement metrics.” These numbers and metrics give the illusion of knowledge.
The work of our classrooms, and our libraries, digital and otherwise, needs to be at least as much around relationship building as it is around information wrangling. And in building those relationships we can move towards collaborative models of scholarship and teaching, where no one person is the Star of the Show, but where we as a team can provide the kind of environments our students need, and that we need too, for critical and effective scholarly practices.
This is not a “silver lining” but work we have always needed to do. The responsibility for us as instructors and educators is to have and gather information about these systems on behalf of our students, so that we might refuse on their behalf. We cannot expect students to do all of the work of protecting themselves from unnecessary quantification and surveillance, from their position. Where we have power, we need to use it for them. And for our precarious and adjunct colleagues who do not have access to the power to refuse.
I’d point to this example of refusal from Dearborn, MI as inspiration for what is possible.
Think about: are you who work in the library embedded in relationships across campus that make you part of the trusted network of students and faculty?
Which people are used to and comfortable with the things we needed to change, and who want to “go back” to that place of comfort for them? Whose comfort is determinative in our choices going forward? Whose discomfort doesn’t matter? Which student voices are heard, when talking about whether we “should” be back on campus, or even what “on campus” means? Which people did we always need to listen to more?
An institutional agenda that is built on social justice and Black feminist ethics of care requires paying attention to the impact of misinformation on people’s lives, not both-sidesing things via debate or “neutral” free speech platforming.
Because who gets to speak is historically about who has the power to be speaking. And we need to start reframing our attention around who should be heard. Rodrigo Ochigame writes of liberation theology in LIS and notes:
“The remarkable innovation of the Brazilian liberation theologians is that they moved beyond a narrow focus on free speech and toward a politics of audibility. The theologians understood that the problem is not just whether one is free to speak, but whose voices one can hear and which listeners one’s voice can reach. “
One of the points I am trying to make is that even when we get to be back in physical spaces together, we need to continue to do the work of building and maintaining relationships, and recognizing and engaging with knowledges, not just information. And we need to listen to vulnerable people, we need to listen to the people for whom the systems in which we operate were not originally built. We always needed to be listening to disabled people when they told us what they needed. We historically have not, or have done the minimum to be ADA compliant. We always needed to listen to Black women, when they told us what white supremacy was doing to students, to communities, to our entire country. We historically have not, because misogynoir is a powerful force. We have always needed to listen to the “firsts” at universities, and not approach them as the ones with the deficit to be remedied. We should hear them as the ones who can tell us what universities should be doing to support students, but don’t, because universities are built for students privileged enough to be OK without that institutional support.
So many people have died since March 2020. In the US alone we have lost more than half a million people, and so many of those people should still be here, these deaths were largely preventable. And before the pandemic people were dying, especially Black people, from police violence, and medical malpractice, and the impact of racism on their health, and ability to move freely through the world. We cannot value Black people, brown people, or Indigenous people only once their story has ended, or when it contains trauma.
The information we value, and the knowledges we recognize, are generated by people we value, and also about people we value.
This is work, even with all the chaos around us, that we always should have been doing. Whatever else has changed, and will change, that work and the need for it will not.
Ochigame, Rodrigo (2020) “Informatics of the Oppressed” Logic, Issue 11 (Care), August.
Pagowsky, N. (2021). The Contested One-Shot: Deconstructing Power Structures to Imagine New Futures. College & Research Libraries, 82(3), 300. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.82.3.300
Popovich, Sam (2021) “Canadian Librarianship and the Politics of Recognition” Partnership 16(1)
Sarah, and Autumm Caines, Christopher Casey, Belen Garcia de Hurtado, Jessica Riviere, Alfonso Sintjago, Carla Vecchiola (2021) “What Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach” Volume 39, Issue 3: Educational Development in the Time of Crises, Spring.
Scheeres, Julia (2014) “Escape from Jonestown” Longreads. November 12.
Seeber, Kevin (2018) “Teaching CRAAP to Robots: Artificial Intelligence, False Binaries, and Implications for Information Literacy” Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium, University of Arizona, November.
(2017) “Wiretaps and CRAAP” (Blog post) March 18.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies, second edition. Zed Books: London and New York.
Wade, Carrie (2020) “No Answers, Only Questions: The false fight against fake news” (Blog post 576) Sept 22.
(2018) “I am not your Fake News Savior” (Blog post 150) March 8.
Tomorrow is a Friday, the Friday when my original plane ticket to come home from the UK had me scheduled to fly. I still have the “fly home” reminder on my digital calendar. And my calendar hanging in my kitchen recently looked like this.
On Monday, March 23rd, I wrote the following, trying to capture something about what was happening:
“I am writing this on a Monday, it is one week since I left my hotel in London and made my way to Heathrow, to catch the last direct flight to my home in North Carolina. I had spent the weekend trying to keep up with the news about coronavirus, and the national and international responses to the pandemic. I went from “maybe it’s safer to wait until April 10th, to use my current ticket to go back home once things are more calm” to “if I don’t leave before midnight on March 16th I might not get to fly back to the US for months.” So, I cried, changed my ticket, and went home. I was luckier than many, in having only been in England since early March, I was allowed to fly into my home airport rather than into one of the 13 airports now designated for processing of any international arrivals. I was lucky, in that I got to go home.
I was in the UK to do work, to run workshops and have meetings with people I had been doing remote work with for the previous several months. I have, for the last few years, been working as a consultant with universities, and education and library organizations. I do a great deal of my work online, because I work across locations, and with people who are not here in my home city. I have conversations, I write collaboratively, I conduct interviews, I joke and I play in various online places. I am deeply familiar and comfortable with working remotely, at a distance, online.
But my work is also designed at some point to have a face to face component. We work online after the in-person work to write a report, or we work online before the in-person work to prepare a workshop, generate interview questions, decide what the panel discussion needs to address. I had been preparing a full month’s worth of work in March 2020–six workshops for two different organizations, a panel discussion, one site visit, and an interview-based project. When the UCU strikes were announced, I made sure to schedule working days that would not violate picket lines. By the end of my first week of work, it was clear that I should also have been paying attention to the pandemic, and that it was going to change everyone’s plans, not just mine.
So I spent some time working on remote alternatives to some of the workshops, and offering to cancel or postpone others. I offered to train people to deliver what I had prepared, as if the barrier was simply going to be my presence or absence, not the wholesale absence of people from their workplaces, because they were sheltering at home from the pandemic.
In the end, all of the work was cancelled (let us say postponed, let us be hopeful there will be things to do again) because if I did not leave I would not get home. And the fact is, while I think the work I was trying to do would have been useful, it does not take precedence over people trying to weather the pandemic, manage the panic of these times, take care of their loved ones, and hold on to hope for the future. I don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s only been a week since my personal part of the world fell apart. It’s too early to have expectations. I do have hopes, and fears, as usual.
The kind of work I do is led by the organizations who bring me in–I was working on strategic plans, research into teaching and learning practices, I was helping teach people how to do research of their own to learn more about academic practices in their own organizations. I hope that there will be chances to facilitate that kind of work again, and I know that there will be a need to figure out what teaching, learning, and research needs to look like after this is all over. There was a great deal in our previous “normal” that was unhealthy and unsustainable.”
Over the last few years I have been so lucky, so privileged, and built a world of work for myself where I could travel internationally, speak to people online, and do work across a wide distribution of territory. That could all fundamentally change. There will be fundamental changes. And they all pale in comparison to the disaster that is my country’s political situation, the global crisis made far worse by political choices, racism, and inequality, and the people who are dying now because of it.
How are things? I am staying home, because I can. I am listening to a lot of podcasts. I am watching escapist TV with my people at home. I am cooking, and going for (solitary) walks on our local greenway. I am writing my representatives in Congress, and to libraries that are still open and putting their workers in danger, and staying connected to far-flung people with the internet. I am crying. I am angry. I am scared. I am holding fragile plans for the future.
It’s a terrible phrase, I think. “Back to normal.” It assumes that normal is a thing. It assumes that people who go through trauma and disasters can just “go back” to what was before. It is a phrase invoked by some in the middle of a crisis, thinking of getting on the other side of it, “when we get back to normal.”
I have been thinking about the visit I got to do, at Bletchley Park last year. I knew some of the story of the code-breaking, and in particular the role that women played during World War II not just in Nazi code-breaking but in doing all manner of work that simply had to be done by women because men were at war. In the US, Rosie the Riveter represented not just the spirit of US support for the war effort, but the women who were working in factories and all the other places where men worked before the war. As I walked through Bletchley Park, seeing the artifacts representing the women who worked there–I was especially touched by the cardigans draped over the desk chairs–I was struck by how not-transformative, in terms of gender roles and work, World War II was. When the war was over, people wanted to go “back to normal”–for white middle class families, and some white working class families, women working out of the home was a wartime thing, a crisis thing, a thing not to be celebrated or to be thought about in terms of what else might be possible, but something to put aside now that things were “back to normal” (as if post-war anything could be normal).
I mean, I deeply understand and sympathize with wanting for things to be back to normal. I wish I knew what normal even was anymore, but it seems like what people say when they mean they were comfortable.
So already, in the middle of all of this we are experiencing now, a pandemic, people struggling to protect each other, educators turning to (or forced to turn to) digital tools and places and processes to try to finish off a term completely disrupted (in the traditional sense, not the edtech sense) by current events–
In the middle of all this I am hearing and seeing some people wondering aloud if the changes that people are going to have to engage in, the ways that people need to use digital in particular, might permanently change some people’s practices. Maybe people will embed new ways of digital working in their teaching practices. I keep reading the phrase “online pivot.” There’s a solidity to that that I am skeptical of.
And maybe some will. But I can’t help thinking, that digital turned to in a time of crisis is potentially indelibly associated with crisis. It feels like emergency measures, not everyday practice.
When we get on the other side of this, when we are between crises, when people want to “go back to normal” what happens to the new things they engaged with? And framing this in terms of choices is wrong, of course. Institutions will take note of what they can and can’t take advantage of. There has and continues to be a (willful?) misunderstanding of what digital means in terms of labor and time (it isn’t less of anything, if you want the work to be done well). I don’t know (none of us do) what lessons we get to learn from going through all of this.
I am just thinking, that for some people, digitally focused practice is not “normal.” And some will be happy to get “back to normal,” further away from digital and also further away from the feeling of emergency, and crisis–not because they didn’t learn anything, but because they want to be comfortable.
There’s been worry, anger, fear, snark, genuine excitement and lots of emotions in between and around those as responses to what educators need to do to interact with each other, and their students, now that we are well and truly in the throes of the global impact of COVID-19.
Conversations across education see-saw back and forth between “Here’s a list of tools you can use to put your class online” and “Here’s how I care for my students and I do when I teach online.”
Let’s be clear from the outset: needing to move your interactions with your students to an online-only environment is not the same thing as “my campus needs to buy technology x” As we, and many others have said before, Digital is People – EdTech is not the solution you are looking for; spending millions of dollars on a system is a waste of money if you are not supporting a change in the culture that empowers people to change their practice.
We know that many campuses already have tools for things like videoconferencing, document sharing, online synchronous and asynchronous discussions etc. You will not be surprised to hear one of us (Lawrie) state the obvious – if you have Office365 you already have a lot of tools that will help you support and engage with others online!
Small groups can talk on conference calls, if videoconferencing is not an option. The specific tools are much less important than knowing that firstly something is possible and secondly you are not alone in trying that something.
People have been busy in the social networks reassuring folks who have never taken their practices online that it’s not only possible to do that, but also possible to do well, with the human needs of students and faculty and staff in mind.
The resources in “Teaching in the Context of COVID-19,” gathered together by the HASTAC group and Cathy Davidson are marvelous precisely because they are not just lists of tools. Here are collected ideas about setting expectations (yours and your students’), teaching remotely in a variety of situations (not just emergencies), accessibility (concerns for which have driven many areas of digital teaching and learning practices for some time), and communities that have been working around online and digital learning for decades.
Our personal social media timelines are full of people offering their expertise in teaching online–it’s easiest in this context to point to some from Twitter, but they have been seen in Facebook and also in the form of emails to various lists.
Laura Gibbs, for instance, has been writing reassuringly and with authority about online teaching and learning since long before this crisis, and has been on Twitter offering support and advice
There are plenty of examples we could share, but what is striking to us is seeing people spend as much if not more time talking about supporting students, establishing trust, cultivating engagement, and being interactive (synchronously and asynchronously) than they do about “this is a tool I use.”
Pointing to specific tools, in particular tools that institutions do not have access to yet but could purchase a contract for, is something particular vendors have been doing since January, and it does not speak well for those companies that they see this crisis as a revenue opportunity rather than a moment for help, collaboration and sharing.
So when we were talking about writing a blogpost thinking this through, and maybe writing up a collation of the kinds of pro-social behaviors we saw being advocated for, we were scooped by the work of Peter Bryant, who has been working on a COVID-19 response plan from his position in Australia since January. As was identified in Lawrie’s last post, on how various Australian colleagues were beginning to establish a response to Covid19, they were very aware of the potential impact; and so were vendors who seem to be circling Australian senior managers like great white sharks.
This morning we (Lawrie and Donna) spent 90 minutes talking to Peter Bryant about what he is seeing from Australian universities responding to the crisis. Peter has developed a fantastic response, it is focused on the cultural change that needs to happen, but grounded in the short term needs of the staff and students, and pragmatic strategies that are in place to mitigate the impact of Covid19.
Here in the UK we (don’t be confused, reader – I, Donna, am here working for the month–good timing on my part, don’t you think?) are mindful that this health crisis is also taking place against the backdrop of labor strikes; and a problem in the US and the UK with contingent labor, overwork, and too much placed on too few full time workers.
So yes, while this might indeed be an opportunity for online teaching and learning to shine, it should not be the opportunity that some of the powers-that-be were looking for to further exploit the labor of already exploited workers in HE and FE.
Calls for people to actually have time off, sick time where they are not expected to work, room to rest and recover mentally from the stresses of so much that is going on, these calls should be listened to and met with more than just good intentions and hand waving about “all the work we need to do.”
We are also hopeful in the resource sharing we already see–it’s so important to draw and expand on the work already happening within the network, because there are too few people available to work on this complicated problem of wrangling teaching and learning across myriad institutions, at a distance and on a scale not attempted before. Sharing on social media, on blogs, in emails, is how we can give each other more capacity for this work than we would otherwise have working in isolation. Digital places and tools mean that our staff, our students, and we ourselves do not have to be alone, even if some of us are in quarantine.
I was pleased to have the chance to visit Trinity College, thanks to the invitation of Jason Jones. I was asked to talk about “Agency” which I something I’ve been writing about and around most of this year, I think. As usual this is my attempt to represent in writing what I said in the room.
Trinity College is located just west of the Kwinitekw River, within Wangunk homelands. The colonial city of Hartford occupies lands that were called Suckiaug, or black fertile earth in Algonquian. The river valley has sustained countless generations of Wangunk people, joined by indigenous communities from across the globe, including within Hartford’s Andean, Central American, and Caribbean communities. The land currently known as Connecticut is the territory of the Mohegan , Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett and Nipmuc Peoples,
He was working at Digital Tattoo, which is a learning resource for students to teach about digital identity, and how what they do online might impact in the face to face world. He had a supervisor who encouraged him to look at the LMS, asking questions specifically about what data gets collected, and how it might be used
Bryan was funded through the center for teaching, learning and technology (the part of the university responsible for the LMS). He encountered people in the CLT who were encouraging a critical take, as well as people (in particular those managing the LMS directly) who clearly felt a bit defensive about his line of inquiry. He also recalls people in central IT services who, while worried about speaking out themselves, encouraged Bryan to be critical.
Bryan suggested that the lack of process, what seems to be a lack of caring about students and their data, was actually a lack of disclosure and transparency.
Over the course of trying to get his university to share what was happening with the data their systems were collecting on him, Bryan never felt comprehensively supported in his interrogation of the process. He encountered people who saw learning analytics as a way to help students. When “more forthright” instructors helped him ask questions by showing him the LMS dashboard that instructors could use for participation, he took that information to administrators, who were dismissive about whether the data collected would be actually be used (which does suggest we should be asking why collect data that is unlikely to be used…)
Bryan’s experience was that UBC was pushing back against his requests. They blew through a few deadlines, implying that his requests were unreasonable. Their pushing away of him made him angry, and motivated him to continue. He was invited to speak to grad students at the iSchool, and he encouraged people in the class to fill out the forms and ask for the data because he wanted to see if multiple requests would really break the university’s ability to comply.
As he spoke to me about this, he remembered feeling tenuous about the project. He even received emails from supporters that suggested that they were being pressured about what he was doing, and that he might get pulled into meetings about it.
Bryan filed another FOI for UBC and Instructure, and didn’t get information on time to do anything with it as a Digital Tattoo employee. The day he received the information was his last day at Digital Tattoo, and there could be no followup on his part.
Bryan remembers hearing instructors and administrators say that the data collected would “help us help you!” but when he asked for evidence that the data collection actually helped struggling students, there was nothing. There were, however, clear benefits for administrators wanting to manage and report on student activities.
So let’s think about this, and ask the question:
Who gets to say no?
I read and hear versions of “We have all this data we should do something with it” and “Help us help you” with no stories at all about students who were actually helped by massive data collection. When questioned, many suggest they want this data because they are coming from a place of care.
At Trinity, there is a merged unit–IT and Library, and as such is a unit in charge of multiple systems that collect and store student and faculty data,
And historically libraries didn’t keep all this data, because of concern about patron privacy and protection
The potential of the systems we have now to collect and surveill makes it easy to do market- imperative-driven things such as offer suggestions, create profiles, and there is plenty of pressure to do so.
How much agency gets surrendered to these systems, to the predictive algorithm?
Chris Gilliard (2016) and Safiya Noble’s (2018) works provide two important 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.
This, then is an important educational consideration: the tension between a “market forces” argument to use the data to predict and prescribe actions, vs. an approach that centers pedagogy, process, and potential, and resists prediction in favor of providing opportunities to see what might happen.
In my work as an anthropologist in libraries and universities I have contributed to physical space and web redesigns. There’s been an interesting tension between “find problems and fix them” and “explore how people study/do research/teach/write” I write about it with Andrew Asher in our article “Ethnographish.” In particular, we point to the culture of libraries (and the nature of institutions generally) as resistant to open-ended work that doesn’t have a concrete problem to solve:
“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“
Lanclos and Asher (2016)
I think these are related, the tensions I am identifying here. The contrast between treating students as problems to be solved (via predictive analytics) and treating students as people engaging in complex processes within education, emerges from a similar place that generates the contrast between “problem-solving” and open-ended exploration of behavior. These are different parts of the same conversation around “What is the role of education?”
“A college education, whether it is a night class in auto mechanics or a graduate degree in physics, has become an individual good. This is in contrast to the way we once thought of higher (or post-secondary) education as a collective good, one that benefits society when people have the opportunity to develop their highest abilities through formal learning.”
(Tressie McMillan Cottom, LowerEd 2017, p. 13)
Whether you think education is about people acquiring credentials (a commodity) or if it’s a collective good, important to society as a whole, will likely play a part in whether you think that people working in institutions should primarily problem-solve, or work in less transactional ways to gain insight.
In a lot of design work I see the use of Personas, and there are some interesting issues around the use of personas and the extent to which they do or do not get directly reflected in designs.
We are primed in a variety of ways by diagnostic tests and also “fun” internet quizzes to label themselves. “I’m ENTJ” “I’m 40 but my social media age is 16” I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops trying to manage people’s anxieties around what they think these categories say about them as people. They apologise for their practice, because they can read the judgements embedded in the labels–”capable” “novice” “1st year” “1st gen”
We have people deciding that they were more or less capable depending on the label they felt fit them.
Early in my time doing work in libraries, I was tasked with some web usability testing. We generated tasklists, reported on the efficacy of web environments, etc. 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 web environment 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.”
(Sidenote–I’d rather start with “people” than “users” especially in a library context because your community includes people who aren’t necessarily visible “users” of any of your spaces)
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 lending? 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.
So I have a problem, clearly, with using personas as a design principle for organizing your spaces around identity
I think it’s important to consider: what are your systems and structures communicating to the people in your library about what is possible? Is it organized around who you think they are?
Or about what they can do?
One of those provides more room for choice and agency than the other
This is not to say that identity doesn’t matter–but what we want is for identity to come from, and inform how the students wants to work and what their work means. We should not want for identity to be a controlling category that limits what is possible.
Who is to say that undergraduates don’t need similar kinds of access to website space that faculty do? At some point both of them are writing, both of them are researching. The difference is in how deep a dive they do, not in the basic activities.
So, my advocacy would be for practice-based personas, if you are going to use them. Why?
Because it provides space for agency.
All year I have been giving talks that revolve around deCerteau’s distinction between kinds of agency, in particular tactical vs. strategic agency.
I have mentioned refusal and we can use deCerteau’s framing to distinguish between tactical refusal, which comes from from a position of no power, and strategic refusal, which can be engaged in by people with power.
Let’s think about our community members.–and here I will be indulging in a bit of personas
What does student agency look like? They can make choices. But there are often constraints around those choices. It’s worth asking, for example, in the case of learning analytics, the extent to which a student could actually choose not to participate in the systems that harvest data, and still successfully navigate to their degree.
Faculty have more institutional power than students, and sometimes more than non-faculty staff at universities and colleges, but they are themselves embedded in their own webs of power and influence, and don’t always get to be strategic. For example, they technically have choices about when and where to publish, but there are tenure and promotion requirements that constrain their choices. Even if faculty value Open Access and all it stands for, if they want tenure might have to submit their work to journals that are closed and paywalled, because that is what success looks like in their discipline.
Faculty can also be limited in what and how they teach, as I witnessed when a junior faculty member at a university was discouraged from teaching in active learning classrooms because they “can’t teach as much content that way.” Regardless of that faculty member’s own perspective on teaching and effectiveness, they only had so much power to engage. It’s also worth remembering that any faculty member who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man is even more vulnerable, and in need of care.
This is all about power and culture as well as practice.
So, what are people working in education, in IT and libraries, to do?
Let’s think again about orienting to practice, rather than identity. I find this useful not just as an anthropologist, but as someone concerned with social justice, and the ways that institutions can use identity to constrain and cap the potential that people have to do unexpected things.
Approaches to digital literacy can be similarly constraining–when we test people and put them in categories, that offers fewer options (and far less imagination) than assuming that everyone has a practice, but also everyone (faculty and students alike) upon arrival into an institution could use some information and help with How Things Are Done Here and What Is Possible.
So in an ideal world, libraries and educational IT (and the universities and colleges in which they are embedded) would recognize the range of practices involved in scholarship (reading, writing, processing, communicating, researching, testing, etc) and then also have the resources to configure places (digital and physical) where these things are not only possible, but those possibilities are signaled to their community members.
This is not the same thing as “freshmen go here”
This is about flexibility, and communication, and also the ability to let go of what people “should” be doing when they do scholarship. While there are wrong ways to do it, there is also a spectrum of right ways, and much of that has to do with accommodating the ways that people need to fit being a scholar into the rest of their lives.
I want to point here to the work I got to do on the lives of commuter students. In that project, we interviewed student-parents about their academic practices, and where they studied (and why) to gain insight into their lives. We got to use this work to make an argument for a family-friendly study room in the library, and then evaluate the initial impact that room might have on the lives of students. This wasn’t a project that was reacting to a “demand” for it–there wasn’t a sense among students before we started this project that this was work the library could do. In connecting with students, and listening to the stories of trying to carve time out to study in the course of their complex lives, we worked towards giving our students more choices. This was the library Facilitating strategic agency : using the power that the library and education technology can have to create spaces for students to discover and engage in the kinds of practices that work well for them.