Author Archives: dlanclos

Listening to Refusal: Opening Keynote for #APTconf 2019

Me delivering this talk , thanks to notes printed out at the last minute by Steve Rowett (thank you, Steve!) (photo by Lawrie Phipps)

On July 1st I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote address to the APT Conference.  Before I try to represent my talk here, I need to thank the conference team, and especially Jason Davies, who contacted me last year to see if I would be interested in speaking at the event.  And I was, and I did, and I was glad to be there. When I got up to give this talk, I thanked the people in the room, and said “I hope I make you very uncomfortable.” I suppose the conference feedback will indicate whether or not I was successful.  (by the way, the slides and speaking notes for this talk are here. )

 In April 2019, right about the same time that I was thinking about what I wanted to say at APT, a report from the UK Department of Education came out, titled “Realising the Potential of Technology in Education:  a strategy for education providers and the technology industry”. 

This government document is to set the vision for the use of technology in education (specifically in England, but with implications for the rest of the UK).  So I wondered at its approach, but did not do so for long, as its emphasis was clear from the table of contents.  

This report centers the needs and desires of the tech industry.  It trades in deficit models, starts from the assumption that there’s not enough technology in educational contexts, and that more tech is the answer to “drive change”  

Words with the root “innov” (innovate, innovation, innovating, innovative) show up 43 times in this 48 page document.  Section 6 in particular gives the game away, with quite detailed concerns about the health and well-being of the edtech business sector in England, and the need for the industry to have streamlined access to education and educators. 

 The word “procurement” shows up 13 times, but “pedagogy” is nowhere in this report.  

The DfE report came out just after Lawrie Phipps and I had presented on findings from work we had carried out in 2018-19, on the teaching practices of lecturers in HE and FE.  We released this report at Jisc’s Digifest in March, the same month that our article on this same work was published in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning.  I’ve discussed the broad outlines of this research elsewhere in the blog (and if you like you can watch our presentation on our approach and methods here)–for the purposes of this talk, I wanted to focus on the way we framed the work, and contrast it to the DfE report, because the research that Lawrie and I did seems to me the antithesis of that government document.  While that report started with technology, and assumed that there wasn’t enough of it, Our assumptions were as follows:

  • People who teach have practices that involve digital.  
  • People have expertise, and make reasoned decisions around what to do and not do. 

In our approach to our project we did not start off asking about technology (even though our research questions definitely were about technology in teaching and learning contexts).  We started off asking about teaching.

Among the themes that emerged in our interviewees’ discussions about technology were the barriers and enablers to the uses of of that tech.  Nowhere in these barriers were “lack of access to education technology markets.” There were plenty of barriers that were human, and organizational.  Time, priorities, values, relationships, and trust (or lack thereof) all informed the extent to which people did or did not engage with technology, both institutionally provided, and otherwise.  

It was also made clear over the course of our research that there were things being done with technology that  were not particularly “innovative” (e.g., lectures, grading, depositing materials for consumption). During our analysis, when thinking about barriers to technology use and in particular to “innovation” we found that practitioners were struggling with the disconnect between what they need to do in the spaces their institution provides, and what is possible–before they ever get to what they want to do, or what they might not know about yet.  

In institutional contexts where people do not have the time, organizational support, or access to resources that would allow for exploration around new tech, or using old tech in new ways, it’s not hard to see why “innovation” is hard to come by.  And also easy to see that “more tech” or “use the tech more” or even “create a market more friendly to vendors” isn’t going to produce more innovation. Or, more effective teaching and learning contexts.

We have encountered, over the course of this research and also in the other work we do in the sector, a distinct lack of compliance around certain kinds of education technology.

For example:

Lecture Capture

We witnessed and heard about a lack of participation in lecture capture, in people not wanting to do it, citing concerns about labor exploitation and picket-line crossing, and even expressing fears of the wholesale replacement of lecturers with captured content.

VLE/LMS

We spoke to and also heard about academic staff who keep a minimal presence in the learning management system (course content, syllabi, calendars), but who engage in their actual teaching practices in digital contexts outside of institutional control.

Card Swipes

For this example, I told the story (shared with her permission) of a student who studied abroad as a part of her degree.  This experience led to a full time job before she had finished her time at university, and that job also made it financially possible for her to complete her university degree.  In her final year there was a conflict between (required) attendance in class and the times she needed to be on site at work. Her department had recently instituted card-swipes to track student attendance in class.  She worked with her head of department to get permission to not always be in class, and with that permission was “swiped in” by a classmate to satisfy institutional requirements.  

I have told elsewhere the story of students engaging in an elaborate ID card charade to get a non-student into the library space they wanted to study together in–in the end, four students went into the library, and the ID system only recorded three of their own students, not the fourth unaffiliated one.

An inordinate managerial focus on Compliance makes it hard to see actual practices.  The examples I list above show us that if we mistake what is reflected in the VLE/LMS, card-swipe systems, and only the lectures that are recorded for the holistic reality of teaching and learning practices, we are terribly wrong.  

Our “precision bias” means that the numbers given to us via card swipes and attendance records feel far more accurate than they actually are.  Knowing the behaviors that give us these numbers means we cannot trust them as proxies for what we want them to be. Attendance numbers don’t actually tell us much about the engagement of students with their courses of study.  Course content placed in institutional online places doesn’t necessarily reflect actual teaching practices. Card swipes in libraries that don’t represent who is actually in the building at any given time.  

One overarching message in these stories, and in the research project overall, was that lack of trust can be corrosive.  Not being able to trust your institution with your actual practices means that you don’t share, and they don’t know, what you are doing.

I gave a brief presentation earlier this year about our research findings around non-classroom digital spaces and practices.  After talking about the ways that instructors engaged with students in non-classroom non-LMS/VLE digital places, the main question I was asked was “How can we make them use the LMS?”

Too often the institutional response is concerned with compliance, and furthermore assumes that if people are not complying, perhaps it’s because they don’t know how to do the “thing.”  So then we end up with lots of workshops and webinars about How To X. How to embed your gradebook into Canvas. How to upload captured lectures into Moodle. How to take attendance using clickers or card swipes.  

I have been reading Dr. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters:  on the Surveillance of Blackness.  In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies.  I was familiar with surveillance (being closely observed, especially by an institutional power such as police or military, but increasingly by corporations, and any entity with access to the stream of data we leave in our wake these days), but unfamiliar with Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which he describes as a way of “enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance (61)”

So, an example of surveillance tech would  be CCTV. An example of sousveillance would be using cameras in your smart phones to film the police during a protest.  

Dr. Simone Browne introduced me to the idea of dark sousveillance:  a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight (Dark Matters p. 21 in the Kindle Edition.)  In particular she is theorizing and describing the means by which racialized people avoid being seen, so that they cannot be victimized by the structures and practices of surveillance.  An example of such behavior would be publicizing where the cameras are, so that you can avoid them.

Central to the idea of dark sousveillance is the fact that the surveilling gaze is institutionally White, and furthermore, as Browne demonstrates in her book, that the technologies and practices of surveillance have a deep history in the colonization and enslavement of Black and indigenous people.  The history of current surveillance practices involves the production and policing of racialized categories of people, in particular blackness and black people, so that they can be controlled and exploited.  

Dark sousveillance is a refusal of the power structures of surveillance.  I am helped in making this connection with the work of Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan, who define refusal as “what we conceive of as disruptions to the vicious dialectic of assimilation and resistance” 

So in thinking again about surveillance, we can see that  assimilation would be having an Alexa in your house. Resistance would be hacking Alexa to observe only when you want it to.  Refusal is not having any such device in your house at all.  

The options of assimilation vs. opposition are still in reference to a given system, such as systems of gender relations, racial identity, and economic class.  Think of the revels of Mardi Gras, that serve to strengthen the message that you should observe Lent. The presence of The Fool requires that of a Monarch. There are fundamental assumptions and premises, hegemonies that are shot through these systems.  

Refusal is not participating in those systems, not accepting the authority of their underlying premises.  Refusal happens among people who don’t have access to structural power. Refusal is a rejection of framing premises.  Recognizing refusal requires attention, and credit to tactics such as obfuscation, or deliberate misinterpretation.  

“The tactics of refusal include:  illegibility, opacity, and inaction” (Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan 2019)

In making this argument about refusal, I want to point to some examples of what I mean.

Ethnographic refusal has been defined by Dr. Audra Simpson (an anthropologist and member of the Kahnawake Mohawk–Haudenosaunee people)  as “a willful distancing from state-driven forms of recognition and sociability” (2014)  (cited in L. G. Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan p. 3). In her discussion of doing work within her own community, she describes moments where the person she was talking to simply did not share what they knew.  Even if it was something “everyone knew”–it remained unspoken. And she, as an ethnographer and a Mohawk, joined in that refusal and did not write that information down, rejecting the assumption that anthropological knowledge requires the right to know everything.   

Think of any people among whom anthropologists want to do work, or on whose land archaeologists want to dig.  They have the right to refuse. They have the right to say No. And anthropologists historically have a difficult time with that, and continue to need to work on recognizing and respecting ethnographic refusal. 

Simpson suggests that there is a great deal that is generative about refusal, and theories of refusal–what we can learn from the limits that are indicated by refusal?

In 1997 I was still doing my own anthropological fieldwork in Northern Ireland, and this book by Begoña Arextaga came out.  The blanket protests in the H-blocks of Northern Ireland from 1976-1981) were an example of refusal.  Republican and Nationalist men who were “on the blanket” were refusing their assigned (by the British State) status of criminals, and asserting their status of political prisoners, protesting the removal of the Special Status that defined them differently from criminals by refusing and rejecting regular prison uniforms.  These protests ended when Thatcher’s government reinstated Special Status but only after the deaths of the hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, in 1981. Arextaga’s focus on the political tactics of Nationalist women in Northern Ireland, including those who themselves participated in blanket protests, reveals not just their refusal of the status of common criminals, but a further rejection of the idea that as women they could not be political prisoners, or active participants in Nationalist/Republican struggles at all.

Refusal is an action, not just a lack of action.  It is exercising agency, not just “non compliance.”  So, faculty/academic staff refuse to use systems, such as an LMS/VLE, or lecture capture, refusing and rejecting the premise that they and their expertise can be reduced to a piece of content like a lecture, or a cache of powerpoint slides.

These choices are not about inability, or digital skills or capability.  These choices are made because of people’s concerns about how their labor can be exploited, taken advantage of, made invisible or redundant.  They are refusing in a context of lack of trust, precarious labor, and a de-valuing of academia and academic work.

This is the point where I remind you that the Luddites were not anti-machine, and I would point particularly to Audrey Watters’ discussion of the Luddites and their frequently misrepresented agenda here.  The act of the Luddite “isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation (Watters 2014).”  Luddites broke machines in protest against factory practices that devalued and erased their labor.

To what extent is edtech a “Captivating Technology “ (to quote Dr. Ruha Benjamin in her introduction to her 2019 edited volume)–a technology of domination that embeds and fossilizes and perpetuates racial, economic, and other inequalities in the name of technosolutionist “neutral” fixes.  Benjamin argues we need “ethical engagement with technoscience, where the zeal for making new things is tempered by an ability to listen to the sounds and stories of people and things already made.(9)” 

Benjamin asks, “How, then, might we craft a justice-oriented approach to technoscience? It starts with questioning breathless claims of techno-utopianism, rethinking what counts as innovation, remaining alert to the ways that race and other hierarchies of difference get embedded in the creation of new designs, and ultimately refashioning the relationship between technology and society by prioritizing justice and equity.” (11)

Education technology is still technology.  People generate systems of classification to contain and control, and we need to ask, what racialized logics are embedded in the ways we point systems at students with concerns for their “success?”  Or that require staff compliance with edtech systems in the name of consistency, or quality control? Do we assume there aren’t any such logics? 

Do we assume or insist that “they can trust us?”  We do that at our peril, and theirs too, especially in a larger context where vulnerable students and staff are already under surveillance, where technology is implicated and embedded in the ways that race, gender, and class are produced and reinforced.  What reasons do students have to trust, given that context? Representatives of institutions cannot simply say “trust me” and have that come to pass.

We can find examples of refusal in specifically educational contexts, too.  The recent UIC graduate student strike is a refusal to work until the material conditions and their labor contracts (especially their pay, and health care provisions) were improved, in an overwhelming context of lack of trust in institutions, and overall economic and political precarity.

An archivist at Hollins University, in Virginia, USA, refused to withdraw examples of students in blackface in yearbook pictures in the university archives.  They did not trust the motives of their institution in removing those images, and called it out publicly on social media.

A group of faculty members at Yale withdraw their labor from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program because of a historical lack of resources and other structural support, as well as insufficient institutional recognition of their labor.  Dr. Tricia Matthew, at the time, highlighted that the problem was in part one of classifying labor as a “service,” something antithetical to robust program-building at universities.  Recently Yale seems to have made assurances that new structural support will be made available to ER&M, and faculty members have “recommitted” to the program.

When we pay attention to the refusals of students and faculty, we learn more about what is at stake, and what is actually happening.  We also need to ask, if people cannot refuse, what does it mean? 

Do we want to define education as control and compliance, rather than growth?

What are the limits of refusal?  What does that tell us about power and the structures we have to navigate?  

And there are many things we should be refusing:

  •  Quantification
  •  Employability narratives
  •  Tracking and Surveillance
  •  Technocentrism
  •  “More with Less”

Those things are emerging from the wrong way to frame education, if we value it as a form of social justice (and we should).

The framing of education as a place to sell more tech, as a potential market for a home-grown edtech silicon valley, rather than a common good to be opened up to as many people and practices as possible, this framing is a political act

The narrowing of education to a credential that gets you a job is a political act

I have mentioned the tactics of refusal–in discussions of agency, and notions of what people can do in their given contexts, it’s useful to remember and incorporate deCerteau’s definitions of tactic vs. strategy

Tactical refusal comes from a position of no power.  People will be exerting what agency they can, and we can learn from tactical refusals, seeing them as ways of communicating as well as trying to survive

So then strategic refusal would come from a position of power, but one that acts to dismantle current structures of power on behalf of powerless people.  Those of you who have power, what refusals can you make on behalf of the people who work for you, or for your students? How can we create situations where it’s possible for more people to refuse strategically (as in a strike, as in collective action?)

I want to emphasize again the importance of power structures in definitions of  refusal–we need to recognize that those with less power are the ones who are doing the refusing, the rejecting of the structures that disempower, misrepresent, and potentially victimize them.  

As Dr. Sara Ahmed notes:

“A struggle against power is a struggle for a right to no, a right not to agree with what you are asked to do or to be.”

What does any of this have to do with Education technology?

When people refuse (for example) to use the VLE/LMS, capture their lectures, or take attendance with digital tools, very often the institutional response is 1)  “they aren’t capable, we should do more training” or 2) “We need to make them comply, or some combination of 1 and 2.

The lens of refusal gives us option 3)  “they have reasons for saying no.”

This appeals to me, an anthropologist, as I am a big fan of my discipline’s conviction that there is an underlying logic to the behavior of people.  Even if it’s not immediately apparent to the observer.

The correct response therefore isn’t “How can we make them comply” but “Why are they refusing?  Have we done something wrong?”

And then you FIND OUT.

I gave a talk once where I cautioned libraries not to invite anthropologists into their midst if the reasons they wanted to learn about people was to make them do the “right thing” in the library.  The right way to go is to invite anthropologists to help libraries think critically about their practices, and change those practices so that people’s myriad needs can be more effectively met.

Not prediction.

Not persuasion.

Recognition.

Recognize the refusal.  Recognize it as evidence that something is wrong with what you are doing, as an institution.  Possibly the wrong is outside of your institution, but erupting within it (like student homelessness.  Like lack of access to mental health care. Like lack of funding for higher and further education). Take heed in Dr. Sara Ahmed’s reminder that the person who says no, the person who registers a complaint, is far too often framed as the problem, rather than seeing the thing they point to or refuse as the problem

Then your actions cannot just be about pedagogy and systems, but must be about politics and policy.

We, the people in the (APT) room, are trying to enhance, improve, change the practices we see. We use lots of change management approaches, we use technology and there is a tendency to see resistance and refusal as a way of disengaging, or as evidence of incapability. But most of the people I have worked with, and interviewed, or taught with, when they get to the point of refusal it is because of none of these things.

I would point to the example of the government (in particular the Prime Minister) of New Zealand trying to define the value of their economy not around growth, but around well-being.  What if, instead of caring so much about growth of tech sector, or compliance with uses of technology within institutions, we cared about well-being of our students and staff?  What would that look like?

We need to stop seeing refusal as evidence that there’s something wrong with the people doing the refusing.  We need to see refusal as evidence that there is something wrong that they are communicating about, something wrong with the systems they are being presented with, with the structures in which they are placed.  And then we need to take responsibility for changing things. Value the people who refuse, because it is from those people that you can learn, and then work to build a more effective, more powerful set of practices within your institution.

Further Reading:

WOC Faculty (2018) “A Collective Response to Racism in Academia” Medium, May 8, https://medium.com/@wocfaculty/a-collective-response-to-racism-in-academia-35dc725415c1

Ahmed, Sara, (2017) “No” feministkilljoys, June 30, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/06/30/no/

Browne, Simone. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/791931/DfE-Education_Technology_Strategy.pdf

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85.  https://journal.ilta.ie/index.php/telji/article/view/53

Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance & society, 1(3), 331-355.

Matthew, P. A. (Ed.). (2016). Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. UNC Press Books.

Mengesha, L., & Padmanabhan, L. (2019). Introduction to Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 1-8.

Rahman, Zara, (2019) “Can data ever know who we really are?” Deep Dives, Medium, May 15.  https://deepdives.in/can-data-ever-know-who-we-really-are-a0dbfb5a87a0

Benjamin, R. (Ed.). (2019). Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. Duke University Press.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: indigeneity,‘voice’ and colonial citizenship. Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, (9).

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3, http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014

View of the Pride Flag flying from Senate House, with my favorite Apologetic Building on Russell Square in the foreground, also the view from post-conference drinks July 1st (photo by me)

They Have a Fight, Triangle Wins

Image by Lawrie Phipps

(this blogpost co-authored by Lawrie Phipps)

The last time that Lawrie Phipps and I ran a digital mapping session at the Jisc digital leadership course, early in 2018, we had just finished answering all of the questions we usually fielded once we ran a digital mapping session.  The method we were using was still premised on pole graphs, on tension pairs, and even though we had moved away from what we thought were identity-focused pairs towards more practice-centered ones like “broadcast” and “engagement”  we once again got the questions: “Which one is better?” “Should we all be somewhere in the middle?”

We had been weary for a while, on our own behalf as well as on behalf of our workshop participants, of the push to self-categorize, and in particular the drive to figure out which category was better than the other.  So after all of the delegates had gone for the day, we started sketching on one of the ubiquitous flip charts that we always had for the course.

We’ve published some of our thoughts on the Triangle in our book chapter here, written just after we had tried using it in workshops.  What we came up with was 3 basic categories of practices: Creation, Consumption, and Conversation.  Each “C” is a line on the triangle, and we described the process in that chapter as follows:

“The interior of the triangle is where people map the practices that are bounded by their institution and the work they do in institutional digital platforms and places. The exterior of the triangle is where they can map everything else–what they do that is not bounded by the institution. This can be their personal lives, or their work that does not take place in official channels, but rather on the open web, in self-hosted or commercial platforms.”

We wanted, in this triangle exercise, to give ourselves and our workshop participants a way of talking about their digital practice without having to already have theories of digital in their heads, and also without feeling like they should then come to judgemental conclusions about what their practices meant about themselves as people.  We wanted to start with the practices, and then have the conversations be informed by people’s already existing (and already quite complex) identities.

That was our motivations for coming up with the Digital Practice Triangle.  So then we had to look for chances to deploy it in a workshop setting. The first time we tried it was at an internal staff development event in Lancaster.  Once people plotted their practices on their triangles, we then encouraged them to use emoji stickers to annotate their practice maps (much as we used to do when we were still using the tension-pairs mapping techniques).  We only had 45 minutes to do the workshop. We initially thought that would never be enough time, remembering how much conversation people required around the tension pairs–for example, the very first iteration of the Jisc digital leadership course, we spent an entire day going over the theoretical models of digital identity that informed the mapping practices.  What we found with the triangle exercise was that people immediately got stuck into the mapping. There were very few questions about what people “should” be doing, but there was discussion about where what they did “fit” among the categories of Creation, Consumption, and Conversation (and some cases where people said their practice did not “fit” the instrument and so they drew around and outside of the triangle).  By the end not only had we gotten everyone to represent their digital practices, but we had also had time to discuss how people felt about those practices, and start to think about what if anything they might want to do differently.

So then we did the Digital Practice Triangle exercise again, next at UCISA in the Spring of 2018, and then at an internal OU event in the Fall, later that year.

It was the OU event that provided Jo Parker with the framework she’d been looking for in her own digital capabilities work.  We knew that Jo had been using it, but didn’t have the details until recently, when she shared with us the following:

“I have been using it [the Triangle] extensively in digital capabilities (DiSC) face to face workshops with our Als (associate lecturers), as part of our annual staff development programme 2018-19. Hour long sessions run at various locations up and down the country; participants are self-selecting, signing up for what interests them from a range of topics and I reckon we will have seen about 200 people in 10 locations by the end of July … There’s likely to be an online equivalent session at some point as well.”

Jo told us she’s used the Digital Practice Triangle in outside events (such as a keynote address at Cambridge Libraries) as well as internal ones, with a range of participants including academic staff, support staff, and students.  She went on (to our great delight) to say:

“It’s been an absolute lifesaver to me in terms of the digital capability work because it’s an easy way of starting potentially difficult conversations: it means I can talk to people who are wary of what the university is trying ‘to do to them’ as result of our experiences over the last couple of years. “

And then, in April 2019, and the reason we’re writing this blogpost now as opposed to any other particular time, the DigPins folks (particular shout-out to Autumm Caines and Sundi Richard) offered the Triangle as an option for digital practice mapping, and Sarah Lohnes Watulak took them up on it, and wrote this.  We particularly value her feeling that “I think that the triangle map could be a useful conversation starter for connecting actions and tools to beliefs and values and how those are taken up in digital social identity enactment.”  This was our intention. We are so pleased that came through.

In the course of witnessing people using the Digital Practice Triangle “in the wild” and our own uses of it in workshop settings, we are continuing to think about what constructive sort of “Now What” activities can follow on from visualizing digital practices.  We have written in the past about the Digital Perceptions tool, and have proposed that people use it as a way to reflect on their practices in a trusted network, and a context of care.  

“Who are the people who are already in your network, how can you open a door to the people you want to hear from about your practice, what it means, what it means to you, what it means to them.  How do we create the moments of reflection that come from a place of care, rather than from an abstracted notion of visibility and importance? How can we create places of reflection that feel like home?”

We hope to continue to develop this work further, and of course would also  love to hear if you choose to use any of these instruments in your own work.  Please let us know.

Lawrie also made this video of the history-to-date and rationale for the Digital Practice Triangle–enjoy!

Listening to Teachers and Students

Panel discussion view on March 13, 2019, Digifest19, Birmingham. Photo by Steve Rowett.

This is one of those weeks where I’m going to do the inadviseable thing and blog at least twice, because I’ve got stuff to say.  Remember when there were rules about when you were “supposed” to blog so that people could find and read your stuff? I guess I never paid much attention, in part because blogging swiftly became a means for me to sort through my own thoughts (and if people read along, that was great, but not always necessary for it to be useful..).

ANYWAY.

Those of you who have been following along at home might recall that Lawrie Phipps and I conducted research last year on teaching practices in HE and FE in the UK, and we presented on the project last Fall, and just recently have published one Journal article and one white paper based on that work.  We handed out a very nicely Jisc-produced executive summary of our work earlier this month in Birmingham, and there’s a  pdf here for anyone who wants to see it.  

The reason we had a chance to distribute the executive summary was because #Digifest19 was going on, and during that event Lawrie and I had a chance to facilitate a panel discussion based on our work.  We are extremely grateful to our panelists, Sarah Davies (recently of Jisc, and now Director of Education Innovation at the University of Bristol), Nikki Rivers (Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Gloucestershire), and Sara Berkai (research assistant at UCL and former student in the School of Management there), for offering their insights from their particular positions in the sector.  We are also grateful to Steve Rowett of UCL who recorded the discussion for us, which is available for viewing or listening to here.  (We are working on getting a transcript for this thank you for your patience). Lawrie and I additionally owe our thanks to the people in HE and FE whom we interviewed, we are grateful that they gave us their time and thoughts for the sake of this project.

I was so pleased not just in the engagement with our work by our panel, but also from the people in the room.  We were rightfully called on the lack of FE representation in our panel, even though we had FE representation in our research, and really needed that perspective.  In a context where speakers are not offered travel expenses or other compensation, getting folks from FE (or less well provisioned parts of HE) to any event is going to continue to be a challenge, and we definitely need to do better, and demand better of organizations who sponsor and put on such events.  We were asked about what we were going to do next, now that this particular piece of the work is done, and I’m pleased we have an answer for that: we’re going to do more research on teaching AND LEARNING practices, this time with UCL.

UCL are embarking on a Digital Learning Environment review and as a part of that work they have brought me in to train a team to conduct in-depth interviews with students about their learning practices, and staff about their teaching, and then to assist with the analysis and write up of that data.  The preliminary work we have done composing and refining our interview instruments promises a great deal of rich information that will build nicely on the work that Lawrie and I have already published. It is my fervent hope that the insights from qualitative work such as this can start to answer questions that surveys are never going to answer, will start to illuminate why people are interacting with systems (or not) and how choices around analog or digital practices are situated in larger material and organization contexts.  University policies that emerge from a grounding in genuine insight into behavior are exciting to contemplate. I have always admired UCL’s intentions around teaching and learning work (and have happily had UCL as a field site not once but twice before), and am grateful (once again, that is the real theme of this blogpost) to Steve Rowett for bringing me in to do the work as well as to Sara Berkai for being a key part of the research team.(as well as an ace panel discussant).  I am pleased and excited about this new work, and look forward to reporting on what happens once we’re further along into the process.

Announcing: Anodyne Anthropology, LLC

an·o·dyne

/ˈanəˌdīn/

adjective

adjective: anodyne

  1. not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, often deliberately so.

“anodyne New Age music”

noun

noun: anodyne; plural noun: anodynes

  1. a painkilling drug or medicine.

Way back last Spring I wrote about being terrified about all the things that were to come after I and my family moved back to North Carolina from our year of living in Kingston, UK.   I have not entirely gotten rid of the fear that now that I no longer have an institutional affiliation, no one will want to work with me.

An antidote to that perspective is currently having not one but two sets of people who have actually hired and want to work with me as a consultant, as well as previous work that is still unfolding. And one thing that I am doing to make this sort of thing more likely is making official my long-time partnership-in-crime with Andrew Asher, in a venture we are calling Anodyne Anthropology LLC.  You can decide which of the dictionary definitions we will actually resemble, if at all.  

We are excited about what this means for our future work–a chance to connect ourselves and our collective expertise with those who are curious, who need us, who would find us interesting and useful.  We are anthropologists who also have considerable experience at this point in our careers doing applied research and assessment work in libraries and higher education. Our field sites have included several locations in the US, the UK, Europe, Africa, and Central Asia, and a variety of kinds of institutions (large, small, well-resourced and not, those with a research emphasis and those who are teaching focused).  Our network includes librarians, anthropologists, instructional designers, educational technologists, user experience researchers, and others. We want to bring all of those experiences, skills, and connections to bear on behalf of our clients.

What are we offering?  Here’s our first stab at a menu:

  • Original research:  interviews, observations, practice mapping, and multi-modal ethnographic research for insights into behavior, motivations, and next steps including assessment, time allocation, and space design.
  • Qualitative data collection coordination:  facilitate fieldwork conducted by in-house people, supervise and support.
  • Qualitative data analysis:  taking already collected data, identifying themes, writing report and recommendations, including possible next steps.  
  • Mixed-methods research and assessment:  how to use qualitative data to contextualize and better inform the use of quantitative data.
  • Workshops:  qualitative methods training and exploration, practice mapping and reflection for strategic planning, instruction, space planning, and digital development

Interested?  There are a few places online to find me, and Andrew.  You can find our CVs here and here. We are working on getting a separate web presence for Anodyne Anthropology, but in the meantime we’ll be communicating with potential clients via our individual presences on Twitter and our emails.  We look forward to working with you!


This is different

Sunset in Kailua, photo by me

The ceramic pelican soap dispenser is in the wrong place.  When my parents lived in California, it was in the hall bathroom, along with the watercolor paintings of the central coast, and terra-cotta paint on the walls.  Now I find it at the kitchen sink, as I overlook the nascent hibiscus hedge that my mother has planted along their new house, in Hawaii.

The painting over their fireplace is right, that was over the fireplace too.  The red stools on the lanai used to be at the bar in the kitchen. The bookshelf doesn’t exist anymore that held the small “El Camino Real” bell that we have had (it seems to me) since we first moved to California in the late 70s.

The tools in the garage are still in the huge red tool cabinet, but no longer next to my father’s tool bench, or backed by the pegboard where the tools that wouldn’t fit in the cabinet went.  My mom has gotten rid of a lot of the tools, she didn’t know what some of them did, and at this point it’s coming on at least a couple of years since my father has used them.

My father has his own bed, one that we can raise and lower to help get him in and out, into his chair, which is not the one he used to sit in.  He used to sit in a leather easy chair, one of those vaguely Scandinavian looking ones with a footstool and a curved back. The chair is still there, in his room, but now my mom sits in it while she waits for him to fall asleep, while watching something soothing or occasionally football.

The chair he sits in now is a wheelchair, we have to use a lift to get him in and out of it.  We have to move him from room to room because his arms are stiff and not-strong and his legs cannot hold him up.  This is different.

My father’s voice was vigorous and for some reason I am especially remembering his sneeze.  It would thunder in from the other room, my mom would occasionally ask “Are you going to live?” at the noise.  He talked and cheered and shouted at football games. He would wear his LSU hoodie, or t-shirt.

He has three “Geaux” shirts now, Mom realized the other day.  She didn’t remember getting him a third one but there it was on the shelf, in the closet with the hanging bags that used to be in the master bedroom in California.  He wore it on Sunday, and the Tigers had the good grace to beat Georgia, but it was only my mom’s voice I heard cheering when the quarterback faked the other team out for a long run downfield, and got a touchdown on the next play.

My father’s voice now is an eerie vocalization that we can’t tell the meaning of but we can guess.  He might be worried about sudden movement, a noise that startles him. He might want a drink, or not want the medicine we are trying to give him.  He might want the music on, or want it to turn off. He might be trying to say something, but we have no idea what, and he might be frustrated at not being able to communicate anymore, my amazing vibrant vocal father, and so he makes that noise because it’s all he’s got left he can say,

My mother loves the ocean, and now she can drive to it within 15 minutes at the very most, but she mostly goes without Daddy these days because it’s so difficult to get him in the car (and she certainly can’t do it alone).  And she goes to the coast, or to a rain forest, or to a botanical garden, and can sometimes talk about the time she was there with him, but increasingly it’s about how it would be nice to bring him, but not being sure if it’s possible anymore.

My parents traveled together it was one of the things they did and loved, Daddy drove and Mom drove and they saw friends and relatives and scenery and always each other.  They still see each other. Daddy looks for Mom when she’s not there, he has a hard time going to sleep if she hasn’t checked on him, or isn’t sitting there while he drifts off.   And she sees him, she looks at him and holds his gaze and tells him he is okay.

One of the last times I remember Daddy said a full sentence to me, we were sitting in a UPS store, not quite two years ago.  We were working on getting some signatures on some of the documents that my parents needed so they could move, they had a window of opportunity, when they could sell their house, buy another one, and get one-way tickets to live closer to my brother and his family, before Daddy lost any more function.  I was in California to hold hands, pour wine, listen, recruit high school friends to clean out the garage, and to reassure my mom that she was not doing anything wrong, whatever she decided was just fine. We were waiting, in the UPS store, and I looked at my dad, and into his eyes. He was looking so intently at me.  I started thinking about everything I felt about him, his illness, the way we were losing him, how much I already missed him. I held his gaze, and thought about how brown his eyes are, and how my mom always said he didn’t like his brown eyes (he called her “Blue Eyes” and would smile his love to her). I wondered what he was thinking.  And then he said to me, very carefully:

“Your eyes are red.”

My eyes are red.  I miss my father. He is right here, right there in the other room in his house in Hawaii, in the the room with the photos that used to be in the house in California.  He is not drinking coffee, he is not upset at the news, he is not teasing me, he is not kissing his wife. This is different.

 

A haon, a do, a trí, a ceathair, a cúig….GASTA

The annual conference for ALT was last week in Manchester, and I was there (among other more social reasons) to 1) see Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom deliver the opening keynote, 2) to present on the recent research project that Lawrie Phipps and I are wrapping up for Jisc, and 3) to participate in a Gasta round, the lightning talks imported from the ILTA conference courtesy of Tom Farrelly of IT Tralee.  When Dr. Maren Deepwell invited me to deliver a Gasta talk, I was reminded of the perfectly crafted Pecha Kucha talks I witnessed at the EPIC conference in 2014, and knew I wasn’t going to be able to swing that.

Fortunately Tom has envisioned Gasta (“lightning” in Irish) talks as somewhat more loose than Pecha Kucha.  So, I thought I would start from a series of 5 images (one for each minute I had to talk), to ground me in what I wanted to say without scripting it out.  I was remembering my extemporaneous speaking experiences in high school, on a speech and debate team, and what a fun challenge it was to know what I wanted to say without having completely planned how to say it.

So, that was my Gasta.  A largely improvised 5 minute talk on what I want to see happen around reflections on digital practice and presence.

The entire Gasta session was recorded and is available for you to view here.  My 5 minute piece starts at about the 29 minute mark.

This post is my attempt to capture what I said.  Or, what I tried to say.

GASTA

I am not a learning technologist, I am an anthropologist.  In the work that I get to do in the sector (while I am not of the sector) I am occasionally tasked to go in and talk to people about what they do when they go online, and why.  
And early on, I was working within the framework of Visitors and Residents, in part because we thought it would give people a way to push back against the problematic framework of Natives and Immigrants, give them different ways of talking about themselves and their practice that were less damaging.  What we found, though, was that people started to pigeonhole themselves in the different framework that we gave them, because they were still talking about identity, about who they were, rather than what they did.  So, this triangle is our attempt to give people a way to center themselves within their practice, to map themselves within a framework that does not try to pigeonhole them.

One thing that comes up when people talk about what they do online is that they very swiftly move to talking about the people among whom they do these things.  We start off with practice, and all of a sudden we are talking about people.  They talk about places they go online because there are certain people there, they talk about places they avoid online because there are certain people there.  They are talking about networks, the networks they have, the networks they want to have, and the networks they avoid because they are toxic and do not serve them well.    People don’t get enough of an opportunity to talk about this kind of thing.  There’s too much emphasis on “What are you going to do?  Where are you going to do it?”  and not enough emphasis on “With whom are you going to do it, and why?”

The other thing that happens when we have people map their practices is that they talk a lot about visibility, they talk a lot about people who are “stars” on social media, the people they see all the time.   “They shine so brightly, I see them all the time, so surely I know who that person is.”  And, you might know some things, but you don’t know everything.  You know what they show you, that doesn’t mean you know them.  They make choices, and you see what they choose to show, but that is not the same thing as knowing.  So when we talk about people’s practices, and when we talk about what people want to do, I think too often we get bogged down in concerns about “but who can see me”  and “look at that person over there, aren’t they amazing.”

I want people to think about the intimacy of their practices, to think with people who care for them.

One of the things my mother and I do together, when we have the chance, is to walk together at dusk, and we can peer in other people’s windows, because they haven’t put their blinds down yet, and the lights are on, and we can see in, and be opinionated about whether we like their choice of sofa, or wall color, or furniture arrangements.

One of the exercises I have started doing with Lawrie Phipps (online thus far, not yet in workshops) is based on an idea of a window, but instead of peering into the windows of strangers as my mother and I occasionally do, the idea here is that you invite people to your window, you open it so that others may see in.  You invite people to talk to you about what they see of your practice, and not just what is visible, but what they are aware of because they know you.  And you, in turn, can listen and learn from these people because you trust them to share with you what they really think, not just what you want to hear, because they care about you and will be kind even when they are disagreeing with you.

I don’t actually think a window is an adequate metaphor for what I’m trying to encourage people to do here.  I’m trying to encourage people to leverage their intimate networks of people who care about them, not random workshops of people you have just met, who can google you and think they know you if you are visible.  I want for you to talk with the people who you would want to invite into your home.  Who are the people who are already in your network, how can you open a door to the people you want to hear from about your practice, what it means, what it means to you, what it means to them.  How do we create the moments of reflection that come from a place of care, rather than from an abstracted notion of visibility and importance?  How can we create places of reflection that feel like home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was I faculty?  I was “library faculty”

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

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

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

I wasn’t always in my office

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

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

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

So:

I conducted fieldwork

I reported on the fieldwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, what are you going to do next?  

 

 

Terrified

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

It’s been great.

It’s been hectic.

It’s been challenging.

I am so glad we did this.

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

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

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

So, what do I do now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

With whom can I build whatever it will be?

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

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

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

And I hope to see you all again soon.

 

 

Who Gets to Use ILL: Keynote for #Interlend18

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all institutions make that assumption.

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

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

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

I know of institutions that charge people for ILL services.

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

Who gets to use ILL?

What does it mean for those who don’t?

I think these are important questions,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore

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

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

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“Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore”

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

This is one of those times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you going to do?

Start with not talking about “diversity” anymore.