I was fortunate to get to spend 2 weeks in Ireland in June. I was fortunate to get to give the final Gasta talk of the EDEN 2023 conference, and I am finally getting to share it in blogpost form here. Many thanks to the TEL team at Munster Technological University for the work we got to do together before EDEN, and to Tom Farrelly for being an excellent (as usual) Gasta-master.
The theme of the conference was “Digital Education for Better Futures” and as you can see I was coming at that theme somewhat contrariwise. Gasta (Irish for “lightning talk) is an extemporaneous event for me, so this blogpost is me making prose of my notes and slides, likely not an exact representation of the talk live. If you want to know what that was like, I’ve linked to the recording at the end of this post.
“The Future” is Bullshit
Let’s start with some basic folkloristic definitions. Folklorists (at least, the ones I was trained by) divide narrative folklore into three broad genres;
Folktales: fiction, told as fiction
Legend: fiction, told as true
Myth: told to communicate sacred truths
Each of these genres are defined with the notion of truth embedded in them. Within each of these genres is also embedded a sense of the roles of tellers and audiences. These genres are not simply one-way narrative experiences, but require a back and forth between teller and told. Suspension of disbelief, on the part of the audience, is key in particular to the definition of legends.
Paul Bunyan and his Big Ox, Blue https://www.flickr.com/photos/65172294@N00/4285626001/in/photostream/
In the US we have the sub-genre of legends called a “tall tale”—outrageous narratives, sometimes called “yarns”or even more clearly, “lies”—it is a settler colonial North American spin on narrative conventions surely influenced by all of the Irish people who participated in the European occupation of these lands. There is more than “a bit of the Blarney” involved in tall tales (note I made this point primarily because I was delivering this talk in Dublin, Ireland…)
Tall tales, in the telling and the listening, are fun, suspension of disbelief by the audience as the tale is being told is part of the fun. When you participate in Tall Tales, either as a teller or as a listener you are operating within the frame of play. You know about the frame of play, children point to it explicitly on playgrounds when asking each other “are you playing??” or shouting at each other “time out!” (to suspend the frame of play when trying to pause the game, to argue about rules, or because they are hurt…) or declaring “I’m not playing!” to make sure they are not within the frame while their peers play tag, or make believe.
The key to the frame of play is consent. The key to participating in a fun way with tall tales and other legends (remember, fiction told as true) is consent: “I agree to hear you tell me lies.”What is that participation worth? What can the frame of play bring us, as people? Joy, laughter, connection.
Consent. Let’s sit with the idea that futures should be things that we consent to, that we mutually create, not that are handed to us by people trying to sell us things.
I am using as my working definition of bullshit that offered by philosopher Harry Frankfurt: “Persuasive without regard for the truth (2005)”
Related to that is David Graeber’s definition of bullshit jobs: collections of tasks that are done without regard for what matters (that is my paraphrase of Graeber 2018).
These definitions underlie much of my reactions to Large Language Models (LLM) tools such as Chat GPT (Bender, Gebru, McMillan-Major, and Shmitchell 2021; Bergstrom and West 2021). These tools are bullshit generators, producing content without regard for either truth or worth.
LLM tools are not minds, they cannot “know” a lie, and are not capable of engaging in the human relationships required for constructing and recognizing the frame of play.
We need to fight in education to be able to focus on processes, not products.
We need to recognize the reason that people have or don’t have jobs has nothing to do with robots and everything to do with capitalism
We need to realize that the bullshit future that Venture Capitalists are peddling justifies the harm they are doing in the present (Perrigo 2023)
If people are already using LLM tools for work they have to do, we might consider that as evidence that they are surrounded by tasks without merit and this is how they are coping. So, we are looking at a tool that seems perfect to meet the bullshit demands of bullshit jobs we’re being told is our future by the people peddling the bullshit.
If some people think these tools are good for helping them deal with (for example) professional development and social justice work, that might be evidence that those people think that non-bullshit things (professional development, social justice work) are bullshit.
We should pay attention when people mistake worthwhile and necessary service work for bullshit.
Who decides what matters? The “bullshit generators will help us take care of bullshit tasks” formulation doesn’t entirely work. We can observe people using LLM tools in part to give us evidence of what they think does not matter (and we can learn from that, or at least think about the implications of that).
What does it mean that we can find evidence that some people think that all of the following are bullshit tasks suitable for being completed by a bullshit generator:
Filling out bureaucratic forms
Completing DEI statements
Writing letters of recommendation
Wait, what? Maybe it’s not that these tasks don’t matter at all. Maybe it’s that the value of these is not visible to everyone. And that a case needs to be made for these tasks.
Some of these tasks are “service work”(who has to do that? Who gets to not do that and call it “bullshit?”)Image byTumisu fromPixabay
Venture capitalists and tech bro billionaires (especially those who call LLM tools “AI”) spin Heinleinian fever dream visions of a future to sell their products. That vision has no regard for what is happening in the present.
That future has no regard for the worth of the present, the agency of people to create their own futures, or any regard for the people in the present who are not the wealthy white men trying to dictate the future. Their actions now are happening outside of any frame of consent
The rhetorical churn around LLM and the future is bad bullshit.
Let’s think about who we want to bring along into the future. Not just who we are being told will be there (AI? Robots? White billionaires?) but who is in the present, and how the communities that surround us in the present need to see themselves as having a future, and be seen as deserving of a future by those with the power to facilitate it.
Even better, we need to make sure that people have the power to make their own futures, not just be handed one by people with more money than sense (Gilliard 2023; Feisler 2022; Forlano 2021)
I want to take back bullshit, keep the good fun stuff of sitting around and “telling lies” to our friends.
And I want to remind us that with consent, and the lodestones of what is true, and what matters, we can do better than the bullshit future that venture capitalists want to sell us.
(if you want to see me give this talk in 5 minutes the link is below)
Bender, Emily M., Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major, and Shmargaret Shmitchell. “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?🦜.” In Proceedings of the 2021 ACM conference on fairness, accountability, and transparency, pp. 610-623. 2021.
Bergstrom, Carl T., and Jevin D. West. Calling bullshit: The art of skepticism in a data-driven world. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2021.
Gilliard, Chris. “Challenging Tech’s Imagined Future.” Just Tech. Social Science Research Council. March 2, 2023. DOI: doi.org/10.35650/JT.3050.d.2023.
Graeber, David. (2018). Bullshit jobs: A theory. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Frankfurt, Harry G. On bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.
Kohn, Alfie (2023) “I’ve never been able to improve on the management theorist Frederick Herzberg’s timeless 10-word maxim: “Idleness, indifference, and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.” (Teachers/parents: Feel free to substitute “worksheets” for “absurd work.”). (2023, March 25). https://sciences.social/@alfiekohn/110083807127046096.
Perrigo, Billy (2023) “Exclusive: OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers on Less Than $2 Per Hour to Make ChatGPT Less Toxic” Time Magazine, January 18, 2023, https://time.com/6247678/openai-chatgpt-kenya-workers/
Quintarelli, Stefano (2019) “Let’s forget the term AI. Let’s call them Systematic Approaches to Learning Algorithms and Machine Inferences (SALAMI). Nov 24, 2019,
I attended Digifest 2023, in Birmingham UK, and once again spent most of my time in the exhibit hall. In years past (I’ve been attending Digifest since the first one, in 2014 when it was called the “Jisc Digital Festival”), it was because I was exhausted from presenting (either a workshop, a plenary address, or a research paper). But this year it was because I arrived the day before the event and was straight into work mode with jetlag. And, as always, while I enjoy some of the presentations, the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones is my priority. When I go to the same event over several years (as I did at anthropology meetings, and then in library contexts, and now in edtech ones), the time I can spend talking to people is the most precious part. And what I have missed the most, over the last few years.
I want to capture just a couple of themes that I took away from the event this year.
In the main hall on Day 2, there was a graduate panel–recent graduates working at Jisc in rotations across the organization discussed their experiences and their expectations about working with the organization. Each graduate expressed surprise at all of the different roles in Jisc, and also all of the various roles in universities beyond just lecturers. The invisibility of the work should be concerning. If we are going to be in a situation (as we are now) where students are told that their fees are paying for what they get at university, they should know about how all of the sausage is made. Transparency is key to getting student awareness of the work that goes into their experiences. And the work that might not be directly about students, but nonetheless is still part and parcel of the university. Jisc provides and maintains crucial infrastructure (Janet, eduroam, content licensing). Why is that a secret? Is it that students “don’t need to know?” Or, something else? Are they worried that when something goes wrong, Jisc might get blamed instead of the university? Couldn’t that be an incentive to improve on the work being done, rather than hide altogether?
Conversations in the exhibit hall were never about the tech, but were about the human work of education. The human work isn’t quantifiable, doesn’t show up in rubrics or strategic plans or work plans or whatever, and Isn’t accounted for in teaching hours, or meeting minutes. For example:
Assessment–that’s what ChatGPT made many of us think about again. All the things that many of us have been saying about assessment since before the pandemic (needs to be more authentic and flexible) and then during the pandemic (needs to be more authentic and flexible) and now that the moral panic over “AI” is happening (NEEDS TO BE MORE AUTHENTIC AND FLEXIBLE)…If we seem repetitive perhaps it’s because there still hasn’t been a widespread and resource-rich attempt to actually tackle assessment in ways that are not proctoring or standardization.
Labor–once again there were strikes during Digifest, and still not enough discussion about labor issues in education and the impact that labor conditions (underpaid, precarious, pension-poor) has on the sector as a whole: research quality, student experience, teaching practices. The theme this year was “Innovation” and what can innovation possibly look like on the backs of people who barely have time and resources to keep their heads above water? (see our 2019 article Trust Innovation and Risk…it’s still relevant!) Back to the theme of not being listened to I guess. And to the previous point–rethinking assessment takes time and labor that is currently not being funded.
So I have questions about how the work that has been addressing things like assessment and labor get buried and ignored, in favor of talking about shiny tools and tech. And I think it’s notable that recent students were unaware of both the labor that goes into Jisc’s work AND the shiny tools and tech that they are responsible for maintaining/connecting with their labor and funding.
In terms of plenary content, Jisc did good work here: The opening keynote, Inma Martinez,talked about both the shiny tech (machine learning, natural language processing, and AI research) AND about the human responsibilities we have around the development of tech (ethics, transparency, deliberate decision-making independent of the venture capitalists who are trying to sell us this tech). On the second day, Professor Sue Black OBE delivered her own personal narrative, where tech was present but not the most important part of her powerful story. The keynote panel for International Women’s Day highlighted the need to talk about who is working with technology in education just as much as (perhaps more than) the work itself.
But I was left wondering what the impact of these human-centric presentations was, when I witnessed in the Q and A that so many of the questions that were read aloud were about “how do we get people to use this tech?” Insert heavy sigh here. I don’t understand the utility of encouraging people to use tech that was 1) unethically designed 2) not designed for educators or students or vulnerable people of any kind or 3) actually very good at anything but bullshit.
As ever, the human content and concerns were present at Digifest, but were not the message of the event (Innovation!). The noise around ChatGPT in particular sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room, and makes me wonder what things people might have talked and learned about during sessions and keynotes had their attention not been captured by the AI hype.
Education is a process full of other processes. When we are sold products by people who make claims, we should reorient ourselves to processes. Education isn’t the degree at the end. Writing isn’t the essay at the end. Learning isn’t the test at the end. We need more places and spaces to focus on processes not products. I’d like to see Digifest and other events spending more time discussing and illuminating processes,and the people navigating them.
My family moved to Southern California (Inland Empire, represent) in 1982. The Frank Zappa tune “Valley Girl” (featuring his daughter Moon Unit) came out in 1982. “Valley Girl” the movie came out in 1983. I was in high school from 1984 until 1988.
The San Bernardino-Riverside-Redlands-Highland area of California is notoriously hot in the summer (June through October…). When we were living there it had such polluted air that you could not see across the valley except in the height of our winter, when the December-March rains would wash the air and reveal the snow-capped mountains around us (my high school was named after one of those peaks). Deep breaths (while swimming, while running, while being outside at all) were rewarded with knife-like sensations in my lungs.
My birthday is in August, and I would usually celebrate my birthday by getting to spend the money my grandparents gave me at a special mall. My mother would drive me and one or two friends to South Coast Plaza, and we’d spend the day shopping and in the food court. During the school year, if I wanted to hang out with my friends, the best place was the local malls: Central City Mall, the Inland Center, and in a pinch, the Redlands Mall (which wasn’t nearly as big as the other two). My mom would drop me off, and I’d have to meet her back where she dropped me off at a specific time. I would meet my friends at an agreed upon landmark, sometimes the Orange Julius, sometimes Sam Goody’s, sometimes the Wet Seal (where my best friend worked).
Why didn’t we meet at a park? Well, the local government was working on not supporting parks, because they thought that public spaces encouraged homelessness and crime (they are apparently doing better around that now). Also did I mention it got really hot? And the air pollution?
I have just finished reading (and enjoying) a book called Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, by Alexandra Lange. It’s a history of the mall, as an architectural phenomenon, but more importantly, as a social one. Lange traces the history of malls from the moment in the 1950s when (mostly white) people were moving to suburbs, away from city centers, and were ripe for a new (climate controlled, also privately owned) shopping location and experience. These “temples of commerce” were of course far more than places for people to buy things. They were designed to get people to linger (and also buy more things) and so became places for social interactions, not just transactional commerce.
It will not surprise anyone to read that malls were also shot through with all of the inequalities of our society; certain people were welcome there, others were not. The experiences of Black people in privately owned shopping malls was distinctly different (in a bad way) from those of white shoppers. The implications of private spaces providing “public square” experiences, but only for some, reflected the lack of concern for the need for people who were not white middle class people with a lot of disposable income to also have places to gather safely and comfortably (and yes, to shop).
So, I recommend the book. It’s a fantastic discussion of malls, and also about what happens when people’s need to meet up and be together in spaces that are not their homes are met primarily by the private sector.
I am most personally familiar with the California phenomenon, as I lived that, but those of you who were also American teens in the 80s might remember the Mall as a place not just in pop culture but in your own life where you could meet with friends, hang out without your parents around (ideally), and maybe spend a few dollars if you had them. The latter point is part of what made teens less welcome than adults in the Mall. We might have been there to shop, but rarely to buy. Mostly we were there to see and be seen, flirt when we could, and generally try out being a person in the world.
Lange also documents the hollowing out of Malls, the fall of big department stores with the rise of Big Box and discount stores, and, e-commerce. Malls fought back by building in Experiences, and that might have been a long-term solution except in March 2020 the pandemic emergency came and sent everyone home. At least, home from the Mall.
I am writing this in November of 2022 and those of us who have been using Twitter as a kind of public space might recognize the processes that Lange describes happening in and across Malls. How they promised (and actually provided) access to goods, services, and an environment for meeting up more readily than some publicly held spaces. How, once more than just white middle class adults claimed space at the mall, increased surveillance, rules about who could congregate, and how (age limits, insistence on parental supervision, curfews) swiftly followed. Malls, as privately held spaces, were fragile locations for the public sphere.
Privately held social media spaces have provided a space for the development of multiple public spheres, places and networks that are present not because of the priorities of the private company, but because of the people who constitute those networks. The genuine and justified upset that people in #DisabilityTwitter, and #BlackTwitter (among others) are experiencing while facing the gutting of Twitter by its new owner was in part made possible by the vacuum of publicly-held options that gave the same reach, the same possibility for connection and communication, that Twitter has provided (at a price! We were always the product being sold..).
“Be less online” isn’t the answer for people for whom online experiences are truly transformative, without which they would not have the community to support them, without which some would not have their current livelihoods. The internet as a whole is still not a public utility, which is also part of the problem–how can we build publicly held spaces on a private infrastructure? We can try (and I think we did within Twitter) but we see how precarious it is (many had seen the precarity a long way off…).
It’s been interesting to see journalists and disaster communication specialists talk about the speed with which Twitter allowed them to find information and do their job. Twitter providing that kind of space also happened concurrently with the decimation of local news networks, and a lack of robust and consistent government spending on disaster preparedness (choosing instead to be reactive once a disaster is underway). Twitter was important, and became ever more so, because public infrastructure has been neglected for a very very long time.
I started this particular story of me in the 1980s. In California. I think the success of Twitter is in part a story of the rise of government austerity, and what the private sector did to take advantage of that situation. And I am reminded that the governor of California when I was in elementary school was Ronald Reagan. And that while I was in high school, Reagan was President.
We had malls instead of parks. We had tuition instead of free university, We had low property taxes instead of funding for education and other public services. We had increasing numbers of homeless people instead of mental health care and affordable housing. We had “welfare reform” instead of universal basic income.
And eventually, we had Twitter. For a while anyway.
I am lucky this year in that I get to work with the Munster Technological University’s TEL team. Last term we had a series of Shut Up and Write sessions, so that we could collectively protect time for writing and also support each other in the kinds of things we were trying to write (blogposts, articles, conference presentations, etc). This term, realizing that some of our struggle with writing is that we don’t always have enough time to read things that inspire us to write, we are doing Shut Up and Read sessions. I wanted to take some time here to describe how we’re doing it in terms of tech, and also highlight some of the themes that emerged from our conversation.
Because we are a team working from a variety of physical places (various places in Ireland, as well as with me usually in North Carolina) we needed asynchronous ways of sharing and commenting on the thing we are reading, to give us starting points for our synchronous discussion on Zoom. Team member Roisin Garvey set up a private Zotero group for us, and when using the desktop application (and setting up the synch option), we can collectively annotate and highlight what we are reading. I’ve been really pleased with how the annotation worked out, we were well underway in our conversation before we got to meet in our video call. There are several color choices for highlighting and notes, so each person can choose a distinct color, and the comments and highlights also indicate who left the comment/highlight. The only drawback that we’ve seen so far is that we can’t directly respond within a comment (like you can in Google Docs), but we dealt with that by locating our comments that were responses close to the original comment. If there’s a thing we want to read that isn’t in pdf form, we will likely have to find another option, but at this early point in our reading group experiment, Zotero seems to be a good solution. It also helps that it’s open source, with free user accounts. We are also going to use the private Zotero group to collect suggestions on what to read next, and some team members have suggested that they can use it to share things they come across that might be relevant to other team members’ work, whether we discuss them collectively or not.
This past week we read together the Educause Horizon Report (Teaching and Learning) for 2022.
We were struck first of all by how optimistically framed the narrative about technology in education was. The report authors started with this statement: “As this year’s teaching and Learning Horizon panelists gathered to reflect on current trends and the future of higher education, many of their discussions and nominations suggest that change may be here to stay and that there will be no return to “normal” for many institutions.”
In contrast “Back to normal” is definitely the message that we, the discussants, are constantly encountering. University leaders in Ireland, the UK, and the US are pushing this narrative, along with the “back to campus” impetus, and many are actively discouraging online options. This “snap-back” state of affairs wasn’t inevitable, but was something that many people were concerned would come to pass. It does not feel as though the sector as a whole shares the Educause report’s techno-optimism.
The attention the Educause report paid to microcredentials was also striking to us. One team member had been on the job market recently, and she put her concerns like this “No one reading my resume wanted to see microcredentials, they wanted to know if I had a Master’s degree.” We wondered who was pushing the microcredentials narrative, who is this perceived to benefit? The discussion was framed as being concerned for students, but that framing was belied by referring to the desires of companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google (the latter two in particular not known for their excellent treatment of their workers) for particular kinds of skills training for their workers.
Is the discussion of microcredentials just a reskinning of the employability narrative? To what extent is the attention being paid to microcredentials another way of trying to get universities to do the kind of skills training that people used to get to do once they were already in jobs? Is concern for microcredentials another way of pixilating undergraduate degrees into vocational training? Much of our skepticism was not in the absolute utility of skills training, or even some kind of official recognition for that, but rather for the idea that such credentials could or should usefully and entirely replace the idea of 2, 3, or 4 year degrees. Billionaires with microcredentials are going to be fine. The rest of us? Not so much.
It’s also odd to see the discussion of microcredentials in a so-called Horizon report. Discussions of microcredentials are at least as old as the conversation about badges, starting in the 2010s. This is an old conversation, not a new trend.
In discussion we also agreed that it was nice to see how much money the Educause report writers assumed would be spent on more staffing and resources for the everyone-agrees-necessary hybridity in teaching and learning, going forward. The section on hybrid models of education (again, not a new trend, but one that gained new attention in the pandemic) seems terribly optimistic about institutions being willing to hire and retain people, and give them what they need for successful blended delivery of teaching and learning. This, too, is counter to our experiences in the sector, where there are increased expectations from many tech teams, but little in the way of more money or resource for people to meet those expectations.
The (ubiquitous in sector reports, alas) AI/machine learning section was suffused with the “we are gathering so much data on students in the systems we make them use so we should figure out how to use that data” narrative, which again is not new. We did discuss as a group ways that students being given ownership of their data might be truly transformative, but collectively remained skeptical that the data was or could be used for student benefit. More likely the data would be used, as much of it is now, to benefit the institution, in allowing it to try to make arguments to accrediting bodies and funding agencies about what they are doing (or claiming to do) for students. I would point here to the important work of the Data Doubles team in breaking down the justification for such wholesale data capture from students, and their cogent arguments against collecting data because “we might figure out a way to use it.” Even if AI could give the same kind of advising support to students as a well trained human advisor (it can’t), there’s very little coherent justification for gathering and hanging onto as many data points as the LMS, library, and advising systems can collect.
I want to highlight is how desperately timid the politics of this report are. There are references to political contexts throughout, especially in the sense that political contexts are not friendly to education right now, and have decreased and continue to threaten funding. There are no explicit references to which political forces are primarily responsible for those threats, ie the Republican party in the US, and the Tories in the UK. Educause is a US-based organization, and it being deliberately vague about where the threats to public education are coming from is disingenuous at best.
One bright, and useful area in the report are the vignettes about the different types of institutions. This section is written from a variety of perspectives and situates the findings from the report into a range of specific, though not exhaustive, contexts. This section, written by individual authors who also contributed to the “modified” delphi process that informed the content of the first sections, reveals how much better writing about teaching and learning and technology is when there are specific contexts, rather than generalizations.
As a reader and a practitioner I don’t want publications to generalize for me, but to give me information I can evaluate and decide whether it’s useful because I know where it’s coming from, who wrote it, and why. These three questions are hard to answer for the Educause teaching and learning report as a whole. Who is it for? Education technologists? CIOs? Faculty? Why is it being written? To sell tech? “Thought-leadership?” It’s called a Horizon report but isn’t doing much in the way of horizon scanning, it’s very occupied in what is happening now and what has been happening for a while.
This post wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive deep dive into the report, but a way for me to mark the kind of conversations we had around it, and also to document our process for facilitating the conversation across time zones and locations. I am sure it’s clear we didn’t always agree with the content of the report, but reading something like this was a great way for us to start conversations about local conditions at MTU, and ways we want to try to get to contribute to and shape the narratives around technology, teaching, and learning going forward.
I attended (online) the latest Munster Technological University digital transformation (Dx) event a week or so ago. You can catch up with this recording of it. The idea was to facilitate a conversation about the regional impact of digital connection, in the context of education and non-profit organizations. Speakers Keith Smyth and Frank Rennie, from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland, joined Grainne O’Keefe, CEO of the Ludgate Digital Hub in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, on a discussion panel moderated by Gearoid O Suillebhain and Tom Farrelly, both of MTU.
These events at MTU (I was physically present in Cork for the previous one, along with my colleague Lawrie Phipps, to talk about digital transformation in HE contexts) are designed to provoke thought and provide information about what is happening with digital places and tools, and also what we would like to happen with digital places and tools in the larger context of our professional and educational and personal practices. I see these conversations as a way to step around the futurecasting that continues to dominate much of the discourse (“What will education look like post-pandemic??” as if we are out of the pandemic, and as if we have a good handle on what it looks like now, let alone in the future…). Grounding discussions in the practices of people now, and recognizing the continuity with what has happened in the past, feels like a more constructive way of going about trying to create a future, rather than have one handed to us.
The GrowDx conversation centered on the relationship between communities and the educational and other institutions embedded within those communities. UHI is scattered across a wide physical area, much of it remote and isolated from major population centers, and has historically had to figure out ways to connect students and staff at a distance, well before pandemic concerns made that a priority for everyone involved. Keith Smyth talked about the “co-located and dislocated campus,” referring to the ways that physical distance and digital proximity combine to produce a multiplicity of ways to participate. The new MTU is similarly scattered across a wide area (“from Ballyferriter to Youghal” as Tom Farrelly pointed out), and has as one of its primary remits a responsibility to conserve, develop, and curate connections at a distance. Digital places and platforms provide crucial ways for those connections to happen.
Grainne O’ Keefe pointed out early in her discussion of the development of the Ludgate Digital Hub, now a model for the rest of Ireland for how to provide a place for rural communities to connect with educational and professional services and networks beyond their immediate physical environment, that none of those connections are possible without investing in digital infrastructure. The first step was getting strong broadband installed down to Skibbereen, in West Cork. The idea is to give people a chance to study and work where they want to live, rather than having to leave their communities for opportunities. Leaving Ireland has a long and devastating history for Irish people; colonization and the post-colonial experience has long made it necessary for them to go elsewhere to make a living (or simply, to live). Creating places, with the help of digital affordances, that make it possible not just to stay but to stay and thrive, feels to me like a radical act.
Both Ludgate and UHI share the model of “hubs” as a way of bringing digital to people, and also bringing people to each other, in the same physical location as well as connected to each other digitally. Students can attend classes without having to leave their immediate area, but also can connect with other local people doing the same thing, via these hubs. People working in Skibbereen don’t have to rely on their household set up to do their work online, or to study for their degrees, and also do not have to do any of it in isolation if it does not suit them. Grainne O’Keefe also made the point that spaces without programming, without intentional planning around what will happen in those spaces, will fail. Connecting people to possibilities and each other takes more than “a physical location, filled with tech.” She described Ludgate as a “community informed social asset” and I think that description also fits the new MTU.
I always wish for more time for discussion in events like these, and attending online meant I did not have access to the chats over tea and coffee when some of these discussions take place. Those of us in the chat did manage to ask some questions about what places like UHI and Ludgate can offer, in helping us think about possibilities.
My primary question after the discussion was about how to protect those possibilities, especially in countries like the US and the UK, where there are fewer resources being offered to us in the educational sector. Ireland has the advantage of being in the EU, and also of a government that sees the value in investing in the public sector.
What is the role of institutions in keeping “doors open” for people who could benefit from multiple modes of engagement (I feel like this is all of us)? Flexibility like that requires more resources, including people who need to be paid to do the work of setting up the spaces, the tech, and social and educational programming. More resources requires more money.
There’s something here about the importance of carrying forward the good things that being online brings us while also keeping up with the good things that physically embodied experiences can yield. What these hubs do is expand and support the choices that people can make around how and where they want and need to work and study. The hub model provides more open doors to people, rather than presenting with a “do it all online, or do it all on campus/in the office” binary.
Note: Additional commentary about this event can be found at Lawrie’s site.
Last week the TEL team at Munster Technological University hosted an event that they called “Digital Transformation and Digital Practice,” at MTU’s location in Cork city. Lawrie Phipps and I both got to be there in person, in the physical room, the first such room I’ve been in since around this date in 2020.
I keep saying the year is 2020, when I try to remember the date aloud.
This was a hybrid event, and we had more people in the Zoom room than we did in our seminar room. The idea, when Gearoid O Suilleabhain and Tom Farrelly were planning things, was that we have a facilitated conversation about what has been happening around education in digital places because of the pandemic, what were the things that MTU had already been doing before the emergency, and what we hoped would happen next. We wanted for the people in the rooms to ask us questions and also to talk amongst themselves, so there were MTU TEL team members in the Zoom room to facilitate that conversation, and we had a coffee/tea break after our initial panel discussion to allow time for reflection and follow ups. We were grateful for all of the people who showed up in each mode, it was an excellent crowd.
What I hoped to come out of the discussion was not any facile sense that we were “moving on” from the pandemic, but rather an opportunity to recognize and sit with the facts that 1) this pandemic (thanks to our governments and capitalism) isn’t going anywhere and 2) people have needed us to pay attention to what digital tools and places can bring to education and other public services for a very long time. In addition, it was a chance for us to talk publicly about the research that Gearoid, Tom, and I have done at MTU around academic teaching practices in 2020-21, and for Lawrie and I to draw connections between that work and the research he and I have been doing on student and staff emergency remote teaching (and learning) practices.
There is an edited recording of the event on YouTube, and I’m placing it in this post for you to have a look/listen if you like.
I want here to draw out the central themes we tried to address in the time we had,
Teaching staff at MTU were already well-supported in exploring and developing digital practices in their work, and told us that while they didn’t feel like they really knew what they were doing all the time, they also felt it was OK to try whatever was necessary because they already knew who to talk to and go to for help. Sometimes the people staff said they worked with were the TEL and EDSU teams at MTU, sometimes they were colleagues who they already knew were confident and capable with a range of digital tools and places. The important part was not necessarily being confident with digital per se, but being confident that someone (or more than one someones) would help and support them doing what needs to be done.
Supporting teaching staff means that you are also supporting students. Staff who are not worried about their contracts, compensation, and precarity can spend their energy on their work, on teaching, on connecting with their students, on recognizing when their students are struggling and getting help in figuring out how to make things better for students. The staff experience is the student experience.
The most precarious students, those who are from marginalized populations due to race, gender, and economic circumstances, tend to look for help from staff members who they recognize and trust as being “like them” (or at least, not the cis white men for whom the power structures of institutions like universities are traditionally aligned). That often means that the most vulnerable staff members, staff who are Black, staff who are women, staff who represent “non traditional” populations in academia, are being asked to do more work on behalf of students. When we interviewed white men senior academics in the UK about their students in the pandemic emergency, we heard “I haven’t seen/heard much from them, they are probably OK.” When we interviewed early career white women we heard, “I haven’t seen many students, I hope they are OK.” And we also heard from an early career Asian woman “I keep hearing from students, my inbox is full of one-on-one conversations, it never stops.”
Digital Transformation is not about technology. The technology that is deployed at a university is a necessary first step to potentially transforming practice, but it’s only one thing, and might not actually be transformative if all you are doing is “digitizing” (s/o to Jim Nottingham for helping make that distinction clear to me–it’s a distinction I hear from library workers, too, pointing out that there’s nothing inherently transformative about digitization). Transformation also cannot simply be “digital by default”–not everything needs to be done digitally, and thought and care need to be put into where digital affordances can help, and where they can actually do harm (as is the case for surveillance, predictive analytics, and relying on the chance-y promises of AI as a substitute for human labor and care). Gearoid, in the conversation, offered MTU’s idea of “digital by design”–thoughtful attention to where their work as a teaching and research institution aligns with what digital tools, places, and platforms make possible. It’s an approach that doesn’t just value the things they know they need to do with digital, but provides sandbox-y opportunities for staff and students alike to make connections between technology and their practices, to come up with emergent possibilities that no one expected. When any organisation starts on a process of digital transformation, they need the technology in place, but they need to make sure that the people are both resourced and supported, and only when we have alignment between the transformation we want, and people being supported and resourced do we see a culture change, a genuine transformation. This should always be an iterative process that centers people, not tech.
That last point chimed nicely with the message offered by Audrey Watters in her Digifest 22 keynote this week. In the Q&A she advocated and hoped simultaneously for a future that was about people, not “the algorithm.” In her talk she said directly: “Hope is not in technology. Hope is in our humanity.”
In our discussion at MTU, we also tried to center people, their lives, and their needs, in a context when that can be alarmingly challenging. And the work is far from complete.
I grew up on Air Force Bases in the continental US and moved around fairly frequently (though not as frequently as some!) in my childhood. My parents had met in their small Louisiana town, and started dating when they were in college at LSU. I get to thank a hurricane–I think it was Betsy– for them spending a weekend on the phone together that made them realize they wanted to spend their lives together. Once they had left their small town for Baton Rouge, they began building relationships that are still strong, friendships with my mom’s roommates (a woman who was sent from Cuba by her relatives, a Cajun woman after whom I am named) and their boyfriends (now husbands)–they remained close with those people, after leaving Louisiana, and we see them when we can, they are present in my mom’s life and mine.
They moved to Arizona for Daddy’s first posting and had me, and their social network grew to include the friends they made in Tucson, as well as their family and friends back in Louisiana. That core group of friends knew me before I was born, and even though we knew we would not be in Tucson forever, those friends stayed a part of my parents’ (and my) life even after we were sent to Minot, ND, and then to Vandenberg AFB CA. We sent letters, traveled to see them for Thanksgiving or Easter. My parents had local connections, too, made friends (and kept many) where they found themselves, but also kept the connections they had made before.
When things were hard where they were, if they were lonely, their local network was not the only one they had to draw upon.
Local circumstances were not their entire circumstances , they were only a part, and the larger entirety of their lives, their scattered network of friends, made it easier to deal when tough times happened in other parts of their lives.
When I moved from school to school, it was hard, but also gave me practice in connecting with new people. My mother helped me in this because she knew I was a person who craved other people; she sought out kids for me to meet when we moved somewhere new, made sure I had chances to find at least one friend in a new place.
When we left for a new base, I was sad to leave friends behind but because of my parents’ habits of keeping connections, I never really felt that they were gone forever. We got Xmas letters, sometimes we would get to visit them, we were in touch and real to each other (even before the internet, which did eventually make that kind of thing easier).
When I was in high school I had a small group of very close friends but they were not all in the same place all the time at school. I had swim team friends and speech and debate friends and in-class-with-me-friends and they were not all part of the same network. So when (inevitably) there were fallings-out or misunderstandings or breakups in one group I still had the other groups. It was never terrible all the time.
I realize that my circumstances were lucky, but also think that my parents were very deliberate in building that capacity in me, in modeling for me a way to have a kind of resilience (I know, I know) in my own personal life, so that when there were struggles in one place it wasn’t everywhere and didn’t make my entire life hard. I had refuges, other places and people I could turn to for relief and respite and support.
I almost made the mistake of shrinking my entire undergraduate university experience down to one group, the anthropology department. I knew I wanted to major in that from the beginning, and threw myself into everything anthropology my first year. My friends, (including romantic partners) were in the department. My social life was in the department and when it was going well it was great.
When it did not go well I had nowhere else to go.
Almost on a whim, I decided my second year to live in an International dorm on campus, one where every room had one American student and one exchange student from a different country. I roomed with a Korean woman, my suite-mate from LA had a roommate from Japan. In addition to Japanese and Korean students there were Italian and British and French and Australian students.
I had a fantastic year. And when I had a hard time with my studies, or with relationships (yeah, still with anthropology students), I had this part of my life that was my dorm hall, and the friends I made there (and who I still have).
Living in that dorm meant that I decided to study abroad. I went to Ireland for the following year and it changed my trajectory through anthropology, because up until that point I was studying archaeology, and I realized in Ireland that if I went to grad school I wanted to study living people.
So when I did apply to graduate school it was to study folklore and anthropology and also as a newly married person (because living apart from my boyfriend for the year helped me to figure out that it would be nice to have him in my life all the time). And I arrived in grad school ready to be a grad student but also not entirely dependent on graduate school to be my entire life.
The friends I made, the network I built in graduate school was almost entirely independent of my studies. I hung out with archaeologists (they are much better at being constructively social than socio-cultural anthropologists…) and so when I had a hard time in any given seminar, or conflicts with professors, I had somewhere else to go, other connections to draw upon. And, not just there in the town where I was in grad school, but the connections I had built and my parents had built were still there, and I had multiple places and sets of people to ask for support when I needed it. I had a partner (also an academic, so not completely out of the world I was in) and was an entire person independent of my graduate studies.
This helped me survive graduate school. I would not have, if my entire world had been my studies.
When we moved to Charlotte, with our two young kids, we moved to be a part of the department of anthropology here, and that helped us have a local network right away. But we were also moving to the state where my partner grew up, and so we had a personal network, too. We had brothers and sisters and in-laws and cousins to be with, our life was not reduced just to the university, we had other options. With kids in school we made friends with some of the parents of their friends, and that was good and also sometimes complicated, so it was (again) good that when that was hard we had other networks to rely on.
I am repeating myself. I am working through to see a pattern.
When I started working in libraries I did not leave my anthropology network behind, it was still right there with me. When I was working in libraries I also built connections with ed tech and instructional design people, because it made sense and also because I made friends. When I had to stop working in libraries, those co-existing networks helped me not to despair, or think that there was nothing else I could do.
I was more than my job. I was (and am) part of more than one network. I am so lucky, I have so many kinds of people in my life.
I worry about my students who seem to only have university-based networks, or who are isolated from their non-university networks in some way. I am more confident for my students who already show up with strong connections to a supportive community, with connections independent of the university. I worry about colleagues who are deeply embedded in one organization, or attached to one conference, who don’t have a different place to go when things go wrong. Things always go wrong, at some point.
When I hear people in a variety of contexts talking about “building community” for students or colleagues (or, customers), I worry about that, too. Is the motivation an additive one? “Let’s give them more people to connect with and rely on?” Or is it intended to be a kind of capture? I think in situations where money is concerned (conferences. tuition) it can too often be the latter.
I wonder if one of the differences, in professional networks, is if we are people or products? Maybe that was the difference in grad school, too. I connected with and kept people in my networks who were people to me, and who treated me as more than what my degree or career would or could be.
When I returned to the anthropology department of my graduate program after the death of my child, the people who saw me as a person hugged me and asked me how I was. The people for whom I was a (failed) product did not see or speak to me at all, even as I passed them in the hallway.
I have witnessed a lot of extractive networking. I’ve probably done my fair share, too. Extractive practices do not build the kind of networks that endure and support. I have long been wary of organizations or events that claim to “build community.” All we can do is make space, and do things we think might be useful (for ourselves, for each other). Whether a community emerges from any given organization or event or series of events isn’t up to us.
I am looking at 2022, when I get to start working as a Professor of Practice for a new MA on Climate Science Leadership at Virginia Tech, thanks to a grade school friend who is still in my life. I get to work with Munster Technological University thanks to connections that have come to me via edtech circles but also my insistence on keeping connected to people in Ireland. My daughter is getting married this year and my best friend, who I have known since I was 13 years old, will attend the wedding along with my mom who taught me over and over again the importance of keeping good people in your life, even across long distances and gaps in time.
I remain here with questions, at the end of this ramble. How are we people to each other, in our (ideally) various networks, offline and online alike? How are we treated as (how do we treat others as) products? What does that difference mean for our experience of our networks?
Many thanks to the colleagues who have collectively worked to compose this letter.
This letter is being posted here and also on Lawrie Phipps’ site
The recent surge in long-standing prejudice against trans people in the UK (some of which we are also seeing in the US and Canada) is worrying and infuriating in equal measure. We the undersigned are stating our unequivocal support for the trans community, including our trans colleagues in instructional design, academic development, and education technology, with whom we work, from whom we learn, and without whom we could not be as strong across the sector as we are.
There is no room in our field for trans-exclusionary thinking. There is no room in our world for framing trans people as anyone other than who they declare themselves to be.
Trans men are men.
Trans women are women.
Non-binary people are people.
Their presence in this world is no threat to any cisgender people at all.
We reject the attempt by anti-trans activists and academics to frame their trans-exclusionary language and actions as anything other than abuse. Trans-exclusionary views in learning and research environments, whether expressed openly or not, can and do cause profound harm to students and staff. This is not a matter of “academic freedom” or “sex-based rights.” This is a question of equity, dignity, and basic human rights.
We want to make it clear that so-called “gender-critical” stances actively harm trans people. An alarming amount of cis people seem to believe that these stances represent a moral good and an important defense against misogyny. This is not the case. The gender critical movement plays on people’s fears to position trans people as the enemy and as acceptable collateral damage in the protection of cis women’s rights. The trans community, and especially trans women and femmes who encounter and deal with misogyny every day, fiercely oppose anyone being assaulted, shamed for who they feel attracted to, or coerced into sexual activity. Suggesting otherwise frames trans people as enemies, and as such is anti trans.
Those who want to publish trans-exclusionary pieces as a part of their academic work can of course do so. When they are called out and directed to the harm those words cause, they need to recognise that these are appropriate consequences, not “cancellation.”
We sign and publish this letter as a signal to our trans colleagues that we value and support you. We stand with you against prejudice, bigotry, and hate.
In May I gave a talk to the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges group for an information literacy seminar. I was asked by the organizers to design and deliver an interactive piece for the talk. Given my theme on the importance of relationships and human connections that take into account power and position, I wanted to give participants a way to reflect on their own information practices, as a way to thinking about not just what they do around information, and where they get their information from, but also with whom do they think about/process/evaluate/criticize/decide to reject various kinds of information?
In the workshops I have facilitated, it becomes clear quite quickly that it is difficult to think about our digital practices without eventually arriving at a necessary conversation about which people we are interacting with in digital places and on digital platforms. It is likewise difficult to think about the information we seek and trust (or distrust) without involving the people we associate with that information. Who wrote the article? Who is the story about? Who is upset about that book? Whose interests are threatened by that exposé? Whose priorities are being ignored? Who do you talk to about the articles you read? Whose social media feeds do you get trusted information from? Whose do you avoid?
So, I tried to adapt the idea of triangle digital practice mapping to help people think about their information practices.
It looks like this (the image is also available here):
While the alliteration is fun, the domains Political, Personal, and Professional could be other things. If you are working with students, you could have them map information they use for Studies, for Work, and for Private Life. If you are working with faculty, you could have them map information they use for Research, for Private Life, and for Teaching. As with digital practice mapping, the domains themselves matter less than the conversation and reflection that you are trying to provoke.
When the LVAIC folks did this mapping, they went into breakout rooms and then came back into the main conference room to feed back on how it went. Some were surprised at how few people there were in their information network. Many had never taken the time to really think about the role that people played in their information practices. They only had less than 10 minutes to do the exercise, so there was a lot left that we could have discussed that we just didn’t have time for.
I think there are many conversations that can emerge from this kind of mapping. I’d be interested to see what it looks like when people get to be in a room together (physical or digital) and really spend time with their information practice maps, and comparing their practices and networks to those of other people. What differences will they find? What similarities?
I’d welcome feedback from people who try out this mapping for themselves, or in a group. I’m also trying to find places where we can experiment with this mapping in workshop contexts, so if you have ideas please let me know.
“It might well be that at this point it is a cliche to point to what our experiences with COVID are teaching us and say ‘this was always the case, it is just even more apparent now.’ The struggles we encounter as teachers, students, and library workers confined to online environments are versions of struggles that existed already in those environments (but might not have been so widely felt), and also that were always the case in physical environments. When we talk about the need for engagement, when we wonder what that looks like in Zoom, it bears remembering that those questions were relevant in classrooms and lecture halls. This extremely online time in education is forcing us to ask, what is a teaching environment? What is learning? What is a library? Where are the people? Too often the easy “solution” offered to those concerned about engagement and interactivity are those of edtech surveillance, and the alleged promises of AI. I want to talk about those promises, and the problems of reducing teaching, learning, and research to the numbers offered by edtech and library systems.”
That is the abstract I shared several months ago with the fine and kind people–Kelly Cannon, Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle, and Jess Denke– who invited me to speak with the Lehigh Valley Association for Independent Colleges group, for their symposium for library workers and faculty about information literacy. The talk I ended up giving–and try to capture here– had some distance from that abstract, but I did end up talking at least a bit about surveillance, care, and our responsibilities to our colleagues and students that well pre-dates the pandemic emergency.
In the interest of care I want to position myself: I am a white woman, I am Cajun, I am of a settler people, and have spent my entire life in the US living on unceded occupied land of many different Indigenous people. I am living and writing while on Cherokee and Catawba land, in what is now called North Carolina. I would like to point you all to https://landback.org/donate/ and encourage you to contribute to efforts to get land back into Indigenous people’s hands. I am donating part of my speaking fee to this organization.
It’s been a long time since March 2020 and since that time, that pandemic time kicked in, I have joined a large (and I think still growing) group of people who found it hard to get anything done beyond what had to be done. I was privileged to be able to stay home, work from home, arrange for my kid to attend his last year of high school from home, and for my husband to also be able to work from our home. So it might sound like whining when I say how difficult everything has been with this pall of death and neglect. More than half a million Americans have died so far, and more will die still, and so many of these deaths were avoidable, if not for the neglect of our government in 2020, and the capitalist impulses now that continue to keep vaccines away from people who need them, and continue to put people at risk, nationally and globally.
So I’ve turned to podcasts to motivate and distract myself. Sometimes it works. I manage to clean the kitchen, or fold the laundry, or back when the only thing I could do to leave the house was go for a walk, I would listen while walking. I get to thank my daughter for introducing me to Not Another D&D podcast, a performance and Dungeons & Dragons play podcast that I’m still listening to and is responsible for me getting back into playing the game, which I last played when I was about 12. Playing a lyncanthropic elf ranger has been an important part of my pandemic coping.
Podcasts were a way for me to engage with something without doomscrolling, and also without reading, because my ability to sit with a text and focus was destroyed, and is only slowly coming back. In addition to D&D podcasts I’ve also been listening to You’re Wrong About, which started off as a “debunking” podcast about media coverage and misconceptions about things like the Satanic Panic, serial killers, and the so-called “obesity epidemic.”
It was You’re Wrong About that reminded me about Jonestown, in Guyana and the massacre of just over 900 people there in November 1978. Their cult leader, Jim Jones, gathered vulnerable people, including drug addicts and sex workers, and also idealists and activists who believed in the end to racial segregation. In 1977 (and here I am quoting from the article Escape from Jonestown by Julia Scheeres) “New West magazine was about to publish an exposé portraying Jim Jones—by now a celebrated California powerbroker—as a charlatan who faked healings, swindled money from his followers, and fathered a son with an attractive acolyte. It was all true.”
“Few folks know that Jim Jones was a civil rights leader in Indianapolis—integrating lunch counters and churches—and that the majority of his victims were African Americans who heeded his message of social equality. How terribly they were betrayed for believing in this dream.”
Once in Guyana members of the People’s Temple had their passports and money taken away, and they were stuck. Jones had been talking about “revolutionary suicide” to his followers for years, but the visit of members of the media and a member of congress spurred him to finally follow through on those plans to kill his followers (and himself).
“They drank the Kool-aid”
If you listen to You’re Wrong About, or drill down into their source materials, you know that what the Jonestown people were offered to mask the taste of cyanide was grape flavor Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid brand. But that’s not the point. The phrase “Drank the Kool Aid” suggests the beginning of a journey into misinformation. But for Jonestown people, it was the end. It was their death.
“They drank the Kool-aid” is a phrase I heard a lot during the Trump administration and continue to hear with regard to QAnon during the Biden administration, and anti-vaxx, anti-science during COVID paranoia. But that phrase, as Julia Scheeres points out in her article, is an act of erasure and injustice.
Jonestown was not a mass suicide but a mass murder, perpetuated by Jim Jones, who lied to and manipulated people based on his public vision for racial harmony, for the sake of his private vision of “a revolutionary suicide”
Once people were in Jonestown, they knew they were trapped, and no information was going to save them. This was not an information literacy problem
Jim Jones’ victims drank the cyanide laced Flavor-aid, and many of them were forced to. About a third of the victims were minors, and they were poisoned before the adults were. And that was their end. More information was not going to save them. Protecting them from predators like Jim Jones would have. Structural changes that would provide health and mental health care and civil rights–which were being fought for in the 1970s–would have.
Using “drank the Kool-aid” as the beginning suggests that the important story is that of Jim Jones, of our learning about him and how he victimized people in the aftermath of the mass murder at Jonestown. But the people Jim Jones victimized, and isolated from their families, and took down to Guyana with lies and then trapped there, they had stories, they were part of other people’s stories, and they cried, and drank, and died, and their stories ended.
What that phrase “Drank the Kool-aid” signals neatly is the extent to which the speaker thinks the person in question is at fault for what they believe, and what happens to them because of it. It signals the belief that people are rational, and that we might, if we give people enough of the “right kind” of information, prevent them from drinking the Kool-aid.
Information alone cannot save us from the problems of QAnon, or science denialism. Exposure to peer-reviewed articles will not necessarily debunk conspiracy theories about vaccines, because people do not encounter information in a vacuum. They encounter information via their networks of trusted people–of family, of friends, of perceived experts who were recommended by people in that network.
The lies that are told by cult leaders and propagandists benefit someone. Who benefits from the lies, even when they are told knowing they are lies? Who suffers when the lies are told? Who isn’t harmed enough by the lies to work to change things? Whiteness, white supremacy, is implicated in the lies being told now about voter fraud, the lies that led to anti-voter legislation in (for example) the state of Georgia and that are being advanced by legislatures in several more states across the country. The stories of voter fraud are told because they are useful for the political agenda of people interested in suppressing votes, especially the votes of Black people in the US.
People are not rational. This is a problem anthropologists have long had with economics, the extent to which that field treats people as “rational actors:” predictable, subject to particular laws of behavior, and responding identically to circumstances as and when they change. People are not rational.
“At the heart of relational ethics is the need to ground key concepts such as ethics, justice, knowledge, bias, and fairness in context, history, and an engaging epistemology. Fundamental to this is the need to shift over from prioritizing rationality as of primary importance to the supremacy of relationality.”
Libraries have a long and troubled history with rationality at the core of its practices. What I think that phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid” also demands in terms of what I’m thinking about rational approaches to information literacy, and what it can and can’t do, is the importance of relationships. People and relationships are vital to how and why people move through the information landscape, which is always changing. And the extent to which people have agency in any given information landscape is down to who they are, what kind of power they have, and the structures that surround them that constrain their ability to make decisions on their own behalf.
Tressie McMillan Cottom said at ACRL 2021 that we value particular information because we value the people from whom that information came. I would extend that, or add to it, or put along sideways the point that we also tend to value the stories of the people who we value. Whose stories we value informs the way that the Jonestown massacre is remembered, in the disconnected turn of phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid.” Whose stories we value helps explain why throughout the Trump administration we kept hearing the stories of his voters, of “anxious whites” and why they voted the way they did, why the dapper white supremacist was a character in new stories not exclusively, but especially after 2016. Whose stories we value informs the current (as of May 19 2021) coverage of the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, current US policy on that occupation, and who we decide to listen to.
I appreciate this commentary on Twitter from Shea Swauger: “to be clear, information literacy will NOT fix racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism, islamophobia, capitalism, colonialism, structural oppression, or white supremacy”
This definitely reflects my own thinking about information literacy.
Attempting any classification of sources into “reliable” or “unreliable” cannot be the substitute for building relationships with people. And this line of thinking is not new, the one that says we cannot rely on checklists to save us from misinformation and lies. Kevin Seeber was writing about this in 2017, and this by Carrie Wade is from 2018.
“Beyond the nouns and the verbs of “fact-checking” and “media literacy” and all of the advertisements and marketing materials we have at our disposal, what this discourse fails to acknowledge is the ways that knowledge is socially constructed. As libraries we cannot rely on better websites to solve political problems.”
Mike Caulfield, in his work around disinformation, suggests that we help students decide who deserves their time before “going down a rabbit hole” —the more time you give misinformation, the more it distracts you from constructive and productive work/life/play. I think we should spend less time debunking and more time shunning. Information is surrounded by and embedded in the relationships people have with each other, and their intent towards each other in sharing information. Even people we do not know personally are in relationships with us, structurally. It’s worth asking, if my relationship with that piece of information is via the white supremacist organization that shared it, what obligation do I have to break that information down, or can I disengage from that particular stream, because I recognize the toxicity of the organization sharing it?
I would point here to the work emerging from UNC’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, in particular the critical disinformation studies syllabus, which offers us a way of structuring our approach to information that centers people, structures, and power.
If you think you can be and should be useful to people in terms of helping them navigate information and misinformation, you need to be a person to them first. So cultivating presence is central to that relationship building.
Relationship building is difficult in any circumstance, and it can be especially difficult when trying to engage entirely online when you are accustomed to doing it in physical spaces. There are many ways of being human online, and very few of them involve lists of dos and don’t, and questionnaires about information provenance. Being human, in a library context, is challenging when the library worker presence is predominantly in one-shot instruction sessions, or online tutorials about how to use the library web sites to get to “reliable” sources (I know you know this).
Nicole Pagowsky notes that, in fact, doing one-shots can contribute to misunderstanding how to navigate information, and also misunderstand the library.
“The way we engage in teaching within one-shot models, and the associated expectations for measurement, both keep us in a holding pattern of reactionary yes-people unable to enact our own agency within campus power structures.”
One-shots happen in the absence of a meaningful relationship between library workers and teaching faculty, in situations where valuing how many students you are “in contact” with, or who encounter the library in those sessions, is prioritized over embedding work and selves into the processes of education, and building relationships, trusted connections that students can then call on as they navigate their education. Transactional library experiences, reducing information evaluation to a list of tasks, obscure the larger work that we should be responsible for.
Being extremely online can make it hard to literally see people in the internet (think about all the anxiety about cameras on/off in Zoom-based teaching)–it requires a new definition of “presence” that those privileged enough to get to be in rooms and buildings have assumed meant “in the same physical place”–engagement never was a guarantee. Think about newspapers, naps, distracted gazing out of windows in class. Lack of engagement is not new. What it looks like might be.
Covid and the pandemic emergency has led to a massive and not entirely voluntary movement to online teaching and learning practices. Those who were not already “extremely online” were confronted with the reality of digital as a place, not just a tool or a distraction or a repository for content.
If digital is a place where we teach, and we hope that students learn, what kind of place are we in? What is a classroom? Is it Zoom? Is it Moodle, or Canvas? What is a learning space? What is a library?
Libraries have been confronting “what is a library” for a while now–it has never been just a building, or a collection of databases, but also a network of people, a collection of expertise, a node for a college or university community to connect with in the course of doing, analyzing, and disseminating academic work.
Some universities and colleges have had the luxury of not examining what a classroom or a lecture hall is in physical spaces. Private universities in the US have had the particular privilege of making central to their student experiences the physical, the co-location of students and faculty and facilities in a way that assumes connection and engagement. Oxford and Cambridge in the UK have a similar advantage, and make similar assumptions.
Large state institutions, and community colleges have not always had that luxury. That doesn’t mean that their physical campuses were critically examined, but that they have had to be more online, or in other ways more attuned to the distanced needs of (for example) commuter students, or students who cannot, because of life circumstances (the needs of their families, the needs of their bodies) prioritize physical presence on campus as a part of their educational experience. This is similar to the situation that individual people experience when they need to turn to online/distanced relationships to make up for what they cannot or are not experiencing in their own face to face/physical spaces: queer kids growing up in politically conservative contexts; Black, brown, and Indigenous people teaching in predominantly white institutions. To assume that it is impossible to build relationships in online only spaces is to be operating under assumptions generated in contexts where it’s easy to build relationships in physical spaces, because you are surrounded by people who recognize you as part of their community.
We have always needed to do the work of recognizing that co-location is not the same thing as engagement.
And it is a concern for engagement, for evidence of student participation that drives the market for edtech surveillance and learning analytics. Educators and administrators are being sold the idea that if you count the clicks, if you track the eye movements, if you swipe in with cards at instructional library sessions, that you get a meaningful number that tells you something about engagement, about learning.
Think about what counts as Engagement on Facebook: clicks and controversy.
“The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by.”
That is not the kind of engagement we are going for instructionally, but the number of clicks and time spent “on task” is the kind that Learning Management Systems collect. Collecting and counting clicks is collecting proxy data for learning, much like checklists serve as problematic proxies for the work of information literacy. It’s not effective, and not representative of the work we or our students need to do.
What is the work of the library for, and is it information literacy?
What is the work of the university for, and is it information literacy?
What about knowledge, its production, its navigation, its analysis?
This Spring I taught an ethnographic methods class, and we approached the topic with the lens of the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in particular her Decolonizing Methodologies book. She notes throughout the book the importance of relationships, and the ways that indigenous researchers are responsible to their own networks even before they begin researching. Smith wants Indigenous researchers to ask the following questions about any given research project, and I think they are good practice for any researcher:
“Who defined the research problem
For whom is this study worthy and relevant? Who says so?
What knowledge will the community gain from this study?
What knowledge will the researcher gain from this study?
What are some likely positive outcomes from this study?
What are some possible negative outcomes?
How can the negative outcomes be eliminated?
To whom is the researcher accountable?”
I also had my students read Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis on library cataloging practices and Indigenous knowledge, and they have very similar things to say about the importance of building and maintaining relationships to indigenous scholars with each other, and to the people who they are hoping to learn from.
I interviewed several of my anthropologist colleagues as guest lectures (in soundfile/podcast form) for this class, so that my students could hear the voices of anthropologists who are not me–it’s a practice I’ll continue even if I ever teach in physical classrooms again. More than one of them made the point that to be able to do the work that you find important and interesting, you need to start with what is important to the people you hope to learn from. You might end up realizing that the project you wanted to do isn’t the one you should do. You might find that you are stuck organizing the broom closet for a month before anyone will have an unguarded conversation with you. You do this work to build relationships, because your goal should not be extractive, for people to give you information, but for your work to have meaning to them, and for you to be humans to each other, not just potential transactions.
Smith, Duarte, and Belarde-Lewis all write about knowledges, the importance of knowing whose knowledge, and in relation to whose other knowledges. Indigenous knowledge and its production is historically erased or bounded within Western interpretation of that knowledge–those processes are social, and require social analysis (and a power analysis), not just fact checking.
In their respective works, Smith, and Duarte and Belarde-Lewis highlight the importance of relationships, of trust, of creating places where Indigenous people can connect with each other, with their own priorities, and produce knowledge by and for and of themselves, not just in relation to the knowledges and structures imposed on them by colonization and the controlling processes of them. There is a lot that non-Indigenous people need to learn from Indigenous people and traditions, there’s a lot of listening we need to do, but today I want to point to this as one thing we need to pay much more attention to when we worry about things like “information literacy.”
Sam Popovich notes that in LIS, the opposite of knowledge is defined as error, which then might theoretically be “fixed” with more information.
“Library leadership view the opposite of knowledge to be error (correctable by more knowledge), and so ideology—knowledge in the service of power—is automatically excluded. By excluding the concept of ideology from any consideration of intellectual freedom, people can be wrong but they can never be collectively implicated in structures of false knowledge. The result is that intellectual freedom remains understood solely as an individual concern, and the role of libraries at most to correct error, but never to engage in the relationships between knowledge, false ideas, and power.”
Knowledges are created from many places, and generated in the context of information being produced by and passed on by people. And our reactions to information, and navigation of various kinds of knowledge, are informed by our relationships to the people we associate with the information. So in our current situation where misinformation is rampant and putting public health at risk, we need to sit with the likelihood that more information is not going to fix things.
Several years ago I participated in the Visitors and Residents project, researching student info seeking behavior. We interviewed first year students who often cited their parents, their friends, roommates, as people they talked to while doing their class papers. It wasn’t until their second or third year that they started citing professors, and occasionally library workers. Why?
Because those people were no longer strangers to them
My current research during the pandemic involves interviewing students as a part of a Jisc project in the UK, and what they are telling me they miss in the pandemic is interactivity. They say they want to be on campus in lecture halls, so they can talk to their lecturers before and after class, So that their professors can see their faces and maybe tell when they are confused and pause, or explain, or repeat themselves. They want to be able to meet with classmates in the library, or in cafes, to talk, and connect, and “have fun” as a part of their going to university. They talk about how hard it is to feel engaged online if all there is is content delivery/recorded lectures or uploaded articles in the course management system.
And they clearly assume that the interactivity would be happening more in physical spaces, because they have experienced how hard it is for interactivity to be programmed into university experiences that still prioritize content delivery in digital contexts. This is not to say such interactivity is impossible (think about online gaming, messageboards, dating sites–online interactivity is everywhere!)–just that universities are clearly experiencing barriers to providing it. One of those might be their failure to fund full-time expertise in online environments.
It’s possible to do this work, of building connections online–one example of people with expertise trying to help can be found in the work of Mia Zamora, Maha Bali, and Autumm Caines at Equity Unbound.
Attendance alone has never been evidence that your students were learning. It was all the other things that happen in classrooms, and out of classrooms. It was always stuff you couldn’t see. We have never been able to bear witness to all of the processes that contribute to students’ learning. So, why should we try now?
We are coping, poorly, with what is out of our control (the pandemic, our labor situation, our students’ attention) with the idea that we could control and capture some of what is going on, via surveillance and analytics.
But: control is not care.
Control is not teaching.
And active learning and teaching practice shows us that it is in the letting go of our control that we can effectively curate environments for learning that are generative, just, and caring.
So we need to not mistake student engagement with systems (like presence in the LMS, or library catalogs) for student engagement with processes. And need to think about what we could be offering students instead of what Jeffrey Moro has called “cop shit:”
“Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We might express that problem like this: the work of managing a classroom, at all its levels, is increasingly complex and fraught, full of poorly defined standards, distractions to our students’ attentions, and new opportunities for grift. Cop shit, so cop shit argues, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom. Cop shit defines parameters. Cop shit ensures compliance. Cop shit gives students and teachers alike instant feedback in the form of legible metrics.”
You need to be human to students and colleagues, and they need to be human to you. That means no dehumanizing practices in already challenging spaces. No proctoring, No AI, no predictive analytics, no “engagement metrics.” These numbers and metrics give the illusion of knowledge.
The work of our classrooms, and our libraries, digital and otherwise, needs to be at least as much around relationship building as it is around information wrangling. And in building those relationships we can move towards collaborative models of scholarship and teaching, where no one person is the Star of the Show, but where we as a team can provide the kind of environments our students need, and that we need too, for critical and effective scholarly practices.
This is not a “silver lining” but work we have always needed to do. The responsibility for us as instructors and educators is to have and gather information about these systems on behalf of our students, so that we might refuse on their behalf. We cannot expect students to do all of the work of protecting themselves from unnecessary quantification and surveillance, from their position. Where we have power, we need to use it for them. And for our precarious and adjunct colleagues who do not have access to the power to refuse.
I’d point to this example of refusal from Dearborn, MI as inspiration for what is possible.
Think about: are you who work in the library embedded in relationships across campus that make you part of the trusted network of students and faculty?
Which people are used to and comfortable with the things we needed to change, and who want to “go back” to that place of comfort for them? Whose comfort is determinative in our choices going forward? Whose discomfort doesn’t matter? Which student voices are heard, when talking about whether we “should” be back on campus, or even what “on campus” means? Which people did we always need to listen to more?
An institutional agenda that is built on social justice and Black feminist ethics of care requires paying attention to the impact of misinformation on people’s lives, not both-sidesing things via debate or “neutral” free speech platforming.
Because who gets to speak is historically about who has the power to be speaking. And we need to start reframing our attention around who should be heard. Rodrigo Ochigame writes of liberation theology in LIS and notes:
“The remarkable innovation of the Brazilian liberation theologians is that they moved beyond a narrow focus on free speech and toward a politics of audibility. The theologians understood that the problem is not just whether one is free to speak, but whose voices one can hear and which listeners one’s voice can reach. “
One of the points I am trying to make is that even when we get to be back in physical spaces together, we need to continue to do the work of building and maintaining relationships, and recognizing and engaging with knowledges, not just information. And we need to listen to vulnerable people, we need to listen to the people for whom the systems in which we operate were not originally built. We always needed to be listening to disabled people when they told us what they needed. We historically have not, or have done the minimum to be ADA compliant. We always needed to listen to Black women, when they told us what white supremacy was doing to students, to communities, to our entire country. We historically have not, because misogynoir is a powerful force. We have always needed to listen to the “firsts” at universities, and not approach them as the ones with the deficit to be remedied. We should hear them as the ones who can tell us what universities should be doing to support students, but don’t, because universities are built for students privileged enough to be OK without that institutional support.
So many people have died since March 2020. In the US alone we have lost more than half a million people, and so many of those people should still be here, these deaths were largely preventable. And before the pandemic people were dying, especially Black people, from police violence, and medical malpractice, and the impact of racism on their health, and ability to move freely through the world. We cannot value Black people, brown people, or Indigenous people only once their story has ended, or when it contains trauma.
The information we value, and the knowledges we recognize, are generated by people we value, and also about people we value.
This is work, even with all the chaos around us, that we always should have been doing. Whatever else has changed, and will change, that work and the need for it will not.
Ochigame, Rodrigo (2020) “Informatics of the Oppressed” Logic, Issue 11 (Care), August.
Pagowsky, N. (2021). The Contested One-Shot: Deconstructing Power Structures to Imagine New Futures. College & Research Libraries, 82(3), 300. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.82.3.300
Popovich, Sam (2021) “Canadian Librarianship and the Politics of Recognition” Partnership 16(1)
Sarah, and Autumm Caines, Christopher Casey, Belen Garcia de Hurtado, Jessica Riviere, Alfonso Sintjago, Carla Vecchiola (2021) “What Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach” Volume 39, Issue 3: Educational Development in the Time of Crises, Spring.
Scheeres, Julia (2014) “Escape from Jonestown” Longreads. November 12.
Seeber, Kevin (2018) “Teaching CRAAP to Robots: Artificial Intelligence, False Binaries, and Implications for Information Literacy” Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium, University of Arizona, November.
(2017) “Wiretaps and CRAAP” (Blog post) March 18.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies, second edition. Zed Books: London and New York.
Wade, Carrie (2020) “No Answers, Only Questions: The false fight against fake news” (Blog post 576) Sept 22.
(2018) “I am not your Fake News Savior” (Blog post 150) March 8.