Gaining insight over fixing problems: how open ended research can teach us what we need to know

November sunset in Guelph

I was so pleased to be invited to the University of Guelph library by Karen Nicholson and Ali Versluis to give a talk and also to talk with people in the library about user experience and ethnographic research in library and education contexts. This was the last talk that I gave during my November Tour, and I think it came together the most solidly of the four (there’s something to be said for the repetition of experiences in getting things right, note to self). I would also like to thank Chris Gilliard for reading early drafts of this, and helping me clarify some of my argument. Thanks to Jason Davies for the Mary Douglas citation. And credit as well to Andrew Asher, who was my research partner in some of the work I talk about here.

I wrote this talk at my home, in what is now called North Carolina, in the settler-occupied land of the Catawba and Cherokee people.   I am a Cajun woman, and my people are a settler people from the Bayou Teche, on Chitimacha land in what is now called Louisiana.  

I want to  acknowledge here the Attawandaron people on whose traditional territory the University of Guelph stands and offer my respect to the neighboring Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Métis.  


A few years ago, Andrew Asher and I were hired to do a project for an international non-profit that provides electronic resources to libraries in less well resourced countries.  The organization was aware that there were low use and high use institutions that they were providing resources for, and wanted to know why that difference was there.

So we interviewed people in Zambia, and in Kyrgyzstan, in places that this organization told us didn’t have connectivity issues.  While there might not have been connectivity issues on the university campuses, the practical experience of connectivity was not consistent, as people were not always on campus.  As researchers, we encountered this as a problem early on, for example not being able to use Skype for interviews because of connectivity problems. We ended up doing a mix of Skype to call mobile phones, and WhatsApp to conduct interviews in locations where the internet was not reliable for our participants. 

Among the things we found out, in the course of our research, was things like in Zambia,  people who wanted to have faster internet bought ISP “rabbits,” to gain access off campus. We interviewed a  PhD candidate in Engineering who made the point that unless you were on the university network (Eduroam), you could not use university materials (such as library resources).  Therefore, using the faster, more reliable (but more expensive) rabbit modems in Zambia locked students and staff out of their institutional resources.  

We interviewed a Lecturer in Education with similar issues, even though he was at a “high-use” institution.  It wasn’t that the subscriptions weren’t there, or the resources not theoretically available, but that connectivity made those resources less useful, as they were difficult to get to:

“Yes, like I was telling you, either you subscribe to some journal publisher and because of poor connectivity, you may not get access to those services.  So it’s basically attributed to poor connectivity. Not that the institution does not have the information, the information could be there but the connectivity limits us from getting access.  Cause the system gets to be slow.”

This scholar did point out that doesn’t happen too frequently, so he wasn’t going to complain too much about access.  But he highlighted what’s at stake when those failures happen: he can’t do his work.  

“Basically, I can just say that is it poor connectivity and when there’s poor connectivity and there’s something that I urgently need to confirm because like when I’m reading a journal article where somebody has cited somebody.  There are times when I actually need to read the other article or if it’s a book which they refer to so I’ll probably have to go online to download and if there is not connectivity then that becomes a problem.”

Our research revealed that use of resources (or lack thereof) wasn’t just about connectivity, it was also about culture, and the separation that scholars experienced from the people working in the library.  One librarian we spoke to made it clear that the levels of authentication that scholars found burdensome were there on purpose to make sure that only the right people could have access to them. That, however, translated to even the “right people” using those resources less, or not at all, preferring to spend their precious internet time on getting to resources that were more easily accessible, even if not institutionally provided.

In Kyrgyzstan, one scholar assumed that because the physical collection in the library was out of date and inadequate, the electronic resources would be, too.

So, scholars in these two countries, in both “high” and “low” use institutions according to the non-profit, acquired and shared resources via printing, email, and thumb drives more often (and more reliably) than getting resources online via the resources paid for and provided by the organization.  

The implications we drew out were as follows:

  • Providing materials “online” is not the same as providing “access” when the internet is not a sure thing.  Also, having a connection is not the same thing as being connected enough to make using online resources a feasible option. There are many barriers to accessing library materials that are outside of the library’s own systems and infrastructure.  
  • Scholars find what they need, and what is accessible–if they Google something and it’s closed-access, they move on until they find something they can use.  The existence of the materials does not necessarily translate into its use.  
  • The disconnect of the library from the research workflow of the scholars interviewed here was striking, especially in the context of their awareness for the need for training, and knowledge about how to better navigate useful resources.  For example, one Lecturer in Education was at her current institution for 4 years before she knew about electronic resources, and then it wasn’t until she had started her PhD studies at another institution.

And our recommendations were things like:  pay attention to physical infrastructure when you offer online resources to institutions.  Consider offering resources in digital forms that aren’t just online. Think about facilitating more networking and connections between the people in the library and their surrounding community of scholars.  Basically, we told them context matters, and that the non-profit, in providing online resources, was operating as if they were in a vacuum.

Our report had to do with infrastructure, economics, and the lives of the scholars (faculty and students)–The non-profit wanted a problem to fix, and in many ways that was reasonable–it cost money for them to provide these resources, and wanted to avoid wasting resources.  What we as researchers presented them with was an exploration of the contexts in which the people they were trying to help (via libraries) were restricted in what was or wasn’t possible.  

We did not provide them with a quick-fix solution.  In many ways, the questions they wanted to ask were inevitably going to have disappointing answers.  

And well, the qualitative work we did wasn’t satisfying, short-term, but I think it’s important nonetheless.

Why was our research unsatisfying? Well, to some extent, the reason is the culture of libraries.  

I will point again to the article “Ethnographish” that Andrew and I wrote.   We wrote it in a moment, several years into our collective work as anthropologists working in libraries, where we wanted to try to think critically about why the work we were doing looked the way it did.  And also why particular kinds of work (especially open-ended exploratory ethnography) was so hard for us to do.  

Our argument is:  open-ended exploratory research is a hard sell in libraries.  We see UX research not just because it’s useful, but because it’s finite, and in particular because it’s proposing to solve specific problems.

“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“ (Lanclos and Asher 2016)

I think that in positioning themselves as problem-solvers, libraries and library workers are positioning themselves in a tactical way.  DeCerteau’s distinction here between kinds of agency (tactical vs. strategy) is useful here, helping us think about the kinds of actors who are allowed choices given their structural position.  To what extend to libraries and library workers get to make decisions that aren’t just tactical, not just reactions to situations? How and when do libraries and library workers get to make strategic decisions?  Because that has to be more than just responding to demands and solving problems.  

A while ago I gave a talk at a CUNY event that advocated for the mixed-methods library.  Lots of assessment departments talk about (and some do) both qualitative and quantitative (though I still stand by my impression that a lot of qualitative stuff is UX-style “what is the problem” approaches.).  I gave that talk in 2014, and at the time, part of what I was pointing to was the need to get insights that numbers would not give us.  

For example, I worked with a university that participated in the Measuring Information Service Outcomes survey.  Some of the bar charts we can generate from this data look like this:

 We have all of these numbers, what do they mean?  What does “satisfied with the library” mean, anyway?  Can graphs like these tell us anything?  

In that talk 2014 I actually said “I don’t[ want to get rid of quantitative measures in libraries” but now in 2019 (and actually, way earlier than that) I decided it wasn’t my job to advocate for quantitative anything, and not just because lots of other people are already advocating for that.

Because now in 2019,  quantification and problem fixing orientations have landed us with learning analytics, and library analytics, and I think there’s a lot more at stake than “these bar charts don’t tell us enough” (which was bad enough).  We have arrived here in part because somewhere along the way arguments accompanied by numbers were interpreted as Most Persuasive (I think we get to thank Economists, as a discipline, for this, given their infiltration into popular news media as commentators).  

Being able to categorize people also feels like a constructive action, a first step towards knowing how to “help” people (and categories are certainly central to particular practices in librarianship, and yeah they come with their own troubled history, as anyone who’s read critical work on LOC or Dewey systems will attest).  

So let’s think about the impact of categorizing and quantifying academic work, including the work of libraries.  Let’s think about what we are doing when we put people into categories, and then make decisions about capability based on that.  And yeah. Pop culture quizzes, and even sometimes those management personality tests can be fun.

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

Frameworks and quizzes and diagnostics (what I like to call the “Cosmo Quiz” school of professional development) are often deployed with the result that people decide what “type” they are to explain why they are doing things.  Pointing to individual “types” and motivations provides an easy end-run around organizational, structural, cultural circumstances that might also be the reasons for practice. Because then when there are problems, it is up to the individual to “fix it”

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

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

The message is that we need to spend labor determining who people are before we offer them help.  Such messages work to limit and contain people, rather than making it easy for people to access the resources they need, and allow themselves to define themselves, for their identity to emerge from their practice, from their own definitions of self.

When UX workers use personas (another way of categorizing people) to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians?  Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them.  It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

I am informed in this part of my argument by  anthropologist Mary Douglas on How Institutions Think, and in particular that institutions are socially and culturally constructed, and that they themselves structure knowledge and identity.  Douglas’ work allows us to think of personas and other kinds of personality test-categories as “patterns of authority”, not just ways of trying to make things clear, but as ways of reifying current structural inequalities, and categories that limit people and their potential. When institutions do the classifying the resulting patterns are authoritative ones, the profiles that suggest plans of action come at the expense of  individual agency, and implies that the institutional take on identity is the definitive one that determines future “success.” 

What are the connotations of the word “profile?”  If you have a “profile” that is something that suggests that people know who you are and are predicting your behavior.  We “profile” criminals. We “profile” suspects. People are unjustly “profiled” at border crossings because of the color of their skin, their accent, their dress. 

“Profiles” are the bread and butter of what Chris Gillard has called “digital redlining:” ”a set of education policies, investment decisions, and IT practices that actively create and maintain class boundaries through strictures that discriminate against specific groups.“  His work is at “the intersections of algorithmic filtering, broadband access, privacy, and surveillance, and how choices made at these intersections often combine to wall off information and limit opportunities for students.”

“Now, the task is to recognize how digital redlining is integrated into technologies, and especially education technologies, to produce the same kinds of discriminatory results. (Gilliard and Culik 2016) “

Chris gave in his recent Educause talk some examples of what he calls “EdTech WTF moments”

  • “Facemetrics tracks kids’ tablet use. Through the camera, patented technologies follow the kids’ eyes and determine if the child is reading, how carefully they are reading, and if they are tired. “You missed some paragraphs,” the application might suggest.
  • In a promotional video from BrainCo, Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’s narrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate (Gilliard 2019).”

One problem is that it’s possible to extract quantified behavioural data from systems, in a context (e.g., libraries) where quantified data is perceived as most persuasive 

What gets lost in quantification is not just the Why and How (quantification is really good with the What, and occasionally Where), but also the privacy, safety, and dignity of the people whose data you are extracting.  This is a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” situation, especially when we consider our responsibility to people who are already over-surveilled, hypervisible, and structurally vulnerable (i.e., Black, brown, and Indigenous people)

Let’s look at this Guardian article, on student surveillance, and here I’m guided again by Chris Gilliard’s deep dive on this article

Basically, companies like Bark and Gaggle are using school worries about liability around school shootings and student suicides and bullying as a lever by which they gain access to the schools.  They sell “security” when what they are actually peddling is “surveillance.”  

In this article none of the concerned parties are talking about gun control, or human systems of care that can deal with mental health issues, address discrimination against LGBTQ+ kids, racial bias, and so on.  The companies are selling results that are not borne out by the research they hand wave towards. They are counting on people being too scared not to engage with these systems, because they feel helpless

(sound familiar?)

Read the damn thing yourself too, it’s terrifying to me:

And of course It gets worse–as I was writing this talk a bill was introduced by US Republican senators to make school engagement with this tech (and these tech companies) MANDATORY.

Thanks to Chris Gilliard and his work, I am also aware of Simone Browne’s work Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness.  In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies.  She points particularly to the history of surveillance technology as being one that emerges from the white supremacist  need to police black people, black bodies. Her examples include enslavement trading practices of the 1800s, the tracking and control of enslaved people via paper permits and laws about carrying lanterns after dark, and she makes it clear that this history is relevant to current discussions of how we make people visible, in what circumstances, and why.  We cannot disentangle race and inequality from our discussions of these technologies, nor should we try to in a quest for “neutrality” or “objectivity.”

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

We need to think too about the racist context in which data is generated and collected, as in the case with health care data used to generate algorithms intended to guide health care decisions.   In Ruha Benjamin’s perspective piece in that same issue of Science, she notes that researchers “found that because the tool was designed to predict the cost of care as a proxy for health needs, Black patients with the same risk score as White patients tend to be much sicker, because providers spend much less on their care overall. “

While surveillance and tracking are clearly forms of control, and the use of algorithms is a problem, their use is often framed as care (again, see the people interviewed and quoted in the Guardian article, and this is an argument I hear in library contexts too, “we need the data to care for students and faculty.”)

Insisting that people have to participate in systems that harvest their data to have access to education or health care is a kind of predatory inclusion.  

“Predatory inclusion refers to a process whereby members of a marginalized group are provided with access to a good, service, or opportunity from which they have historically been excluded but under conditions that jeopardize the benefits of access. Indeed, processes of predatory inclusion are often presented as providing marginalized individuals with opportunities for social and economic progress. In the long term, however, predatory inclusion reproduces inequality and insecurity for some while allowing already dominant social actors to derive significant profits (Seamster 2017).”

When people become aware that they are under surveillance, there can be a ”chilling effect” where they do not engage with the system at all.  This is refusal, not engaging with the system because of wariness of what might happen if they do.  We need to consider carefully the disparate effect some of these methods of surveillance may have on trans students, undocumented students, and other vulnerable populations.  

Our role as educators, as workers within education, should be to remove barriers for our students and faculty (and ourselves), not give them more.

We also need to think critically about whether the systems we are extracting data from accurately reflect the behaviors we are interested in.  For example, borrowing histories, swipe card activity records, and attendance tracking are all proxies for behaviors, not direct observations, and not necessarily accurate representations of behaviors (even as they might seem precise, and make us feel good about our precision biases).

And if you are worried about “How will we know…X” please do not assume that these systems are the only way.  Because the vendors selling these systems that collect this problematic data want you to THINK that it’s the best and only way to find things out.  But that is not true.  

The fight against quantification, pigeonholing, surveillance and tracking should include qualitative research engagement –like the stuff that I do, like the stuff I try to write about and train people to do, and encourage them to try–engagement with the people from whom we want to learn, and with whom we want to work.  I would even suggest that the lack of “scalability” of qualitative methods is a benefit, if what we want is to be able to push back against surveillance and automated systems.

It’s about more than being able to be strategic on behalf of libraries and library workers, but also being able to create space for students and faculty to be strategic, to exercise power and agency in a context that increasingly wants to remove that, and put people at the mercy of algorithms.  This is particularly dangerous for already vulnerable people–Black and brown, Indigenous, women, LGBTQ+ people. Exploratory ethnographic approaches, engaging with people as people (not as data points) gives us not just more access to the whys and hows of what they are doing, but can work to connect us with them, to build relationships, so that we don’t have to wonder for long “why are they doing that.”  Then we won’t have to listen to people who rely on machines and their broken proxies for human behavior and motivations.  

Further Reading and Resources

LIBRARY TRENDS, Vol. 68, No. 1, 2019 (“Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Critical Questions about Real and Possible Futures,” edited by Kyle M. L. Jones), © 2019 The Board of Trustees, University of Illinois

Benjamin, Ruha, “Assessing risk, automating racism,”  Science 25 Oct 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 421-422.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz3873

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

de Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2011.

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

Gilliard, Chris “Digital Redlining”  featured session, EDUCAUSE conference, Chicago, October 16, 2019.

Gilliard, Chris and Hugh Culik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).;rgn=main

Obermeyer, Ziad, and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Dissecting Racial Bias in an Algorithm that Guides Health Decisions for 70 Million People.” Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, 2019. 

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

Seamster, Louise, and Raphaël Charron-Chénier. “Predatory inclusion and education debt: Rethinking the racial wealth gap.” Social Currents 4.3 (2017): 199-207.

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3,

The Anthropologist in the Machine: Opening Plenary for #TESS2019

The view from #TESS2019

I gave four talks in the span of two weeks this November, and this talk was the third one.  I had the great pleasure of being invited by eCampusOntario to speak to the TESS conference, attended by a group of educators from across Ontario who teach and work in digital environments.  It was my first time in Toronto, my first time with this particular group of people, and I was so glad I was invited.  

The talk I proposed to give is the one that I will now try to represent as a blogpost.   Some of this is chunks of other talks that I have given, but ultimately put together to make (I hope) a different set of points. It’s also pretty long.

I need to thank here not just the eCampusOntario folks for inviting me, but also Benjamin Doxtdator, who read and commented on earlier versions of this talk, and also Lawrie Phipps, who recommended me to the TESS organizing committee as a speaker.  Thank you.


I am an anthropologist, and the machines I find myself within are multiple.  The relevant ones today are the digital machines that create the online places in which (some of) education and scholarship take place, and also the machine of education itself, in which I have been a participant nearly my entire life, and which I currently make my field site as an anthropologist.

I spend a lot of time online, not just for work (alas?), and so I witness and participate in conversations, both as a part of my anthropological approach–“deep hanging out” borrowing from Geertz (1998)–and also just as one of the ways that I am in the world.  

So when this story in the Atlantic came across my feed I engaged with it with a fair amount of anger.  

I am tired of discussions of libraries and education that are  zero sum games. In this article, the ignorance of practice in libraries leads the author to suggest that anything other than offering the “basics” is “fancy”

This is the false dichotomy of the traditional-looking past (and present) vs. the whiz-bang “innovative” future.  And suggests that to serve students well, libraries need to choose one over the other–and furthermore, the article suggests that students do not think that libraries are choosing wisely.

My argument is that this framing is all wrong.  You cannot have basics or innovation without fully funding education (including libraries).

Barbara Fister joined the conversation via one of her Library Babel Fish columns, in which she said:  “Let’s give ourselves room to try new things while also maintaining things that have enduring value and stop thinking about it as a competitive zero-sum game.”  

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick pointed out further 

Kaetrena’s point about creativity, not innovation as it has been packaged and sold to us by vendors, is key here.  How can educators have access to free range experimentation without creativity?

What we tend to see in education these days is a concern with “innovation” and so we need to talk about the relationship that it has with technology.  

In April 2019 a report came out from the Department of Education in England. This government document set out a vision for the use of technology in education.  And even though not all of us are in the UK, the approach this report takes is instructive for its emphasis on markets rather than educational practice.    

That DfE report came out just after Lawrie Phipps and I had presented on findings from work we had carried out in 2018-19, on the teaching practices of lecturers in HE and FE.  We released this report at Jisc’s Digifest in March, the same month that our article on this same work was published in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning.  The report and the article describe and discuss the results of our in-depth qualitative research project

The research that Lawrie and I did seems to me the antithesis of that DfE report.  While that report started with technology, and assumed that there wasn’t enough of it, Our assumptions were:

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

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

And in talking about teaching practices, we learned a lot about the contexts in which people are engaged in teaching.  And the nature of support.  

“The opportunities in which innovation can happen are largely invisible to staff who are struggling with institutionally provided technology and teaching environments that are barriers to their teaching.”  L. Phipps & D. Lanclos (2018) p. 81

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

In asking about teaching, we also learned a great deal about the networks, about the relationships in which people learn about and develop their teaching practices.  

“We also wish to draw attention to the discussion of how important and occasionally fugitive networks are in developing, maintaining, and growing teaching practices.  It is striking how difficult networks are to build and maintain without institutional support for the time and other resources such networking requires. Even as the UK has a number of national frameworks and organizations dedicated to HE and FE teaching, there remains an uneven sense of access to such structures, and the development that they might offer to people teaching in the sector. The distance between the networks people wish they had and the extra-institutional structures available for development of teachng is something that needs attention.  “ L. Phipps & D. Lanclos (2018) p. 83

This speaks to the importance of networks for impact, and also the importance of digital in maintaining networks, especially for people who are far away from the “center” (and all the problems that the center-periphery setup hold)  

In the UK, London sucks the energy out of the rest of the country, and educators outside of London often struggle to see and be seen by peers, and to learn from them (and to teach them about their own practice).  This is not unique, and I’m willing to bet that’s also the case with Greater Toronto Area in relation to Ontario, or even within Toronto, as there will be pockets in any big city that are better resourced and more visible within networks than others.

The notion of “hinterlands” is a colonial one, and certainly one that bears scrutiny and breakdown.  Anyone’s center is relative to where they are. So, part of what digital connection can do is provide a chance to de-center the place with the most gravity in terms of funding, and power, and boost the voices and practices of folks who would otherwise have to struggle to be seen and heard.

For example, I look to practices on Twitter that de-centering historic power structures (doesn’t make them go away, just gives another channel for building outside of pre-existing hierarchies)–a way to find and make an impact that hasn’t historically been available to everyone.  I have been on Twitter since 2011, and still see a big chunk of it as a conference that you can actually go to without airfare, hotels, travel. It is, for all of its problems as a commercial platform, also a digital place that can enable the connections that people can make to each other.

In my work in libraries and education technology  I am and always have been an anthropologist–and that comes with its own intense colonizing baggage, and a responsibility on my part to be better than my discipline has historically been

For example, the Nuer’s encounter with anthropology was one in which the colonial government was learning about them to try to control them   After his initial fieldwork among the Azande in the Sudan, EE Evans Pritchard was hired by the Anglo-Egyptian government because of their conflict with the Nuer in 1920s.  Colonial governors thought if they had more information about the people they wanted to control, they would be able to do so more effectively, so they brought in Evans-Pritchard to do anthropological work.  Their desire for control was not met, but they tried, and with the help of anthropologists.  

Franz Boas took up anthropology as his life’s work after his previous academic life as a physicist, who wrote a dissertation on the color of seawater. He is known as the Father of American Anthropology, and a champion of anti-scientific racism.  In the late 19th and early 20th century–the “extinction narrative” had already quite caught hold, and Indigenous people in North America were the object of study at least in part because they were framed as “disappearing.”  19th century anthropology co-occurred with the systematic dispossession, persecution, and killing of indigenous peoples, the “salvage anthropology” that followed in the 20th century referred to “disappearing” people as if they were fading, not being colonized and displaced by white settlers.  This is what Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández call “replacement”–the systematic and violent substituting of white settler people for Indigenous people.   Anthropology is complicit in this process, freezing people in a particular ethnographic present, facilitating their erasure from any future, and their invisibility in the present.

In the mid-20th century, during the second World War, anthropological knowledge was leveraged as a way to better understand and so (it was presumed) control the US’s conquered enemies, the Japanese.  Ruth Benedict did “armchair anthropology” during WWII, and her resulting work informed the occupation strategies by the US of Japan after the war.  Benedict’s anthropological work was complicit in the military mission of controlling occupied Japan.

I turn in many of my talks and presentations to Margaret Mead.  There are problems with whose stories she told, and for what purpose, and I do not want to leave those out of her legacy.  In this context, I also want to point to the way her anthropological purposes shifted from those of institutional control to one of understanding, and it is for this that I value her work, in Samoa and also in Papua New Guinea.

Her intentions, and she was a student of Benedict, were to make the unfamiliar familiar.  And also, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to question the practices of her own culture (especially with regard to sexuality, adolescence, and childrearing).  She brought what she learned from other cultures back to her own, as a way of advocating for change. She used other cultural practices to feed her imagination, for what else might be possible.  This is Anthropology as a (potentially) transformative project

Why am I telling you this?  Many of you probably know the colonial history of anthropology.

I am telling this story of the different agendas of anthropologists because as an anthropologist, I take the mission of critique and change to heart.  For all of her flaws, Margaret Mead wanted to use her disciplinary practices to understand and transform her own culture, and change it–not to transform the cultures of the people from whom she was learning, and also not to control them.  

I do not want to facilitate erasure of people or practices, or to, with my work or my engagement with the work of educators, to suggest that I am “discovering” anything (as settler people have a terrible history of doing). I am concerned in my work with making practices visible, so that they can be recognized, and not always changed or “improved.”

I also want, via recognition of current practice and critique of institutions, to remind people that education, schools, and libraries are built things, are cultural artifacts, and are therefore not neutral.  Participation in schools is also a colonial practice

One of the 94 calls to action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report resulted in the recent launch of a digital monument to 2800 Indigenous children who died in the residential schools.

Schools have a deadly and damaging history for Indigenous people globally, and very specifically locally as well.  This is the present, not the past, and we cannot build education futures without paying attention to the harms that settler education practices have done, and listen to people when they are (rightfully) skeptical of the place of schools in their lives and history.   The legacy of colonialism means that white people in particular have a responsibility to listen to Indigenous and black people when they do not engage, or only engage with each other in places that do not include settler whites.

I am under the impression that attending TESS are people who facilitate and support the work of teaching and learning–librarians, education technologists, instructional designers–as well as teachers and professors of education.  All of you, to my mind, are also students.

As people in the field of education, you (we) are often talked to about the “Future” of education.  That “Future” is too often couched in language that betrays that the people speaking don’t know much about what’s going on in education.  Sometimes, as we saw from the UK DfE report I mentioned earlier, they speak much more about markets than they do about education.

And I often see folks ostensibly concerned about the “Future” pointing to what they perceive as a deficit in digital capability, a lack of practice, to justify the change programs they are selling.

And, again, as an anthropologist, I find this interesting.  Because I have been brought in as a consultant into situations where the powers that be assumed that the people working for them “didn’t do digital.”  And then it turned out, once I ran the workshop, that there was plenty of digital practice, they just weren’t doing any of it in official channels at work because they did not feel valued, or safe.

This assumption that there is no practice is what I have called a “Terra Nullius” approach.  I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because I don’t want to say that justifications for change initiatives are the same as the justification for colonization, dispossession, and genocide.

The terra nullius approach to digital (or any practice, really) takes away at least two things:  

1) the ability to recognize and encourage good practices, and 

2)  the ability to recognize and change practices that do not currently serve anyone particularly well.  

I know that the people attending TESS are already engaged in digital practices.  It is the core of the work you do, if you are not yourself teaching online, you are supporting folks who are, and students who are learning online.  So, already, no one gets to suggest that you have a deficit.  

There are likely choices you make about what you do and don’t engage with.  This is something I see in my own work, again not just with teachers but also with students These choices are not coming from a place of incapability, or ignorance, but from knowing what you do and don’t want to do.

Creativity cannot happen if people are having to fight the systems in which they work to do basic, baseline stuff, or if they are being punished for their informed choices by using systems that are in opposition to the ways they want to teach (for example:  Turnitin)

Perceived lack of “innovation” isn’t about digital capability or incapability, but about systems that get in the way of practice.  I agree with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick that we should be talking about creativity here

Current systems of inequality, of racism and colonization and sexism are also baked into current practice.  So it’s not ever going to be enough to identify effective practice, but to ask questions about what is not effective, and why.

So, when thinking about practice, and fit, and transformation, and innovation, we need to think about for whom? And at whose expense? 

I want us to work towards building a future grounded in present practice, informed by what should change as well as what is already effective.

Center and Periphery aren’t exclusively results of colonial practices, but they are characteristically so,  What if we try to dispense with the notion of center as primary practice, and pay attention to the local wherever we find it?  If we listen to the people in our respective communities, and be guided by them.

Eve Tuck and Rubén  A. Gaztambide-Fernández write of “settler futurity” where the future is imagined much like the colonized past and present, which has replaced Indigenous people with settler whites, and requires all people to assimilate to structures and behaviors that center whiteness, what they call “the whitestream”.  

An important antidote to the “whitestream” is the work of people who insist that they and their people are a part of the present, and will be in the future.  I offer the example of Africanfuturist Nnedi Okorafor, insisting through her work in SF that African people will also be in the future.

With The Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Indigenous people are making and imagining their futures, not consigned to a past, or erased from the present.  This is a refusal of settler futurity, an insistence that Indigenous people will create their own future with themselves in it.  And supporting Indigenous and Black futurity will require of white people that they not-act, and not-speak, and occasionally not-know what is going on.  

I want to again point to the history of Anthropology which has a goal of understanding practice, but does not always valuing those practices.  Anthropology was traditionally about learning and gaining critical insight from the practices of “the other” but I would rather frame it as learning from “people who are not you, to try to move away from some of the essentializing problems around othering people.

Rather than “periphery” let’s say local–what are the local practices that emerge from the priorities of the communities in which you work that can guide and contextualize teaching and learning practices?

What can people who have been historically centered (white, settler, cishet) learn when they decenter their practices, step back and learn from the practices of people who are not them?  And what happens when white people accept that they don’t always know what’s happening, and that’s OK? When met with refusal, that requires recognition and respect, not an insistence that historically marginalized, racialized, and colonized people “have to listen” or “should teach us.”  We have to learn from people without insisting that they teach us. We have to do the work.

Digital gives access to networks of people who can share practice and make space for creativity

We do not need corporations for creativity.  We need community. And support. Like we can find in places like TESS.

Who gets to experiment? Who decides what is impact? This is where critical consideration of power is key

In a time of austerity we must not choose basics instead of creativity.  Our community deserves better

In times of austerity, people’s creativity ends up consumed with “making do”–this is not just “more with less” but the challenge of “the same with less.”

If you have the power to experiment, if you have the space to be creative and have it be recognized as truly extra, not just “making do,” how do you share that?

If you have the power to experiment, and have it be recognized as extra, who does not?  Why is that? Are you white? Are you male? Who are you and what kind of privilege do you have?  Who around you can you share your privilege with? Or, even better, for whom can you step aside, can you make room?

We need to advocate for centering historically marginalized voices and experiences.

(And here in the talk is where I chickened out, and under-prepared.  I planned to point out that centering marginalized voices and experiences is the opposite of what the Toronto public library was doing by welcoming anti-trans speakers in their meeting rooms.  I ended up not doing that, and I am sorry.  I will try to do better next time, and prepare more fully to say all of the things.)

How can we support people to find their own answers?  How can we encourage the centering of people who have historically been marginalized–Indigenous people, black and brown people– to make their concerns and practices the drivers of change and maintenance in educational contexts?  

We need praxis–practice in a context of critical reflection and analysis.  We also need collective action. No single individual working alone can effect lasting and constructive change.

With praxis and collective action, then we have a solid foundation for a future that learns from the present.  And a way to avoid being cogs in our respective machines.  
I want to help create spaces for building the future that I want to see.  Don’t wait around for someone to predict your future for you

The idea that we might simply be handed or sold a predetermined future is terrifying.  

The future is co-created.  
Co-creation happens in spaces like TESS, and online sharing spaces, where people find opportunities to connect and to learn, and create new work building from existing practice.  These are the places and methods for embedding our practices in our human relationships. This is where we must build, together, the future of education.  

Nighttime Toronto

Additional References and Resources 

de jesus, nina. “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.” (2014).

Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry.

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep hanging out.” The New York review of books 45.16 (1998): 69-72.

Johnson, D. (1982). Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service. African Affairs, 81(323), 231-246. Retrieved from

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85.

Morris, S. M., and J. Stommel. “A Guide for Resisting EdTech: The Case Against Turnitin. Hybrid Pedagogy, 15.” (2017).

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015.

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, replacement, and settler futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 29.1 (2013).

Unsettling America (blog)

White, David, and Donna Lanclos. “The resident Web and its impact on the academy.” Hybrid Pedagogy (2015).

November Tour 2019

RISD Photo Daniel Penfield
Toronto Image by James Wheeler from Pixabay
Carothers Library URI by Kenneth C. Zirkel Hartford Connecticut Capitol Building Image by Esteban Rodriguez from Pixabay

November is a busy month for me,  and I’ve been getting ready (and fussing about it online) for the last while by writing talks and organizing folks.  It’s been a while since I’ve been “on tour” and I’m glad to be back into it.   So this is me trying to get my head around the upcoming 2 weeks of activity, please bear with me.

First up:  The Ethnographic Practice in Industry (EPIC) conference will be in Providence, RI from November 9-12, and I’ve been invited to chair a panel for it.  I’m super pleased with our lineup of speakers, and think that our discussion on Monday is going to be fantastic. I also expect I’ll be live-tweeting as much of it as I can at #epiconference.  

After that is over I will have to make sure I’ve reserved enough energy to give 2 talks that week.  Wednesday November 13th I’ll be at the University of Rhode Island (URI), thanks to the invitation of Karim Boughida.  The title of that talk is “Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore”
“Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist and consultant in higher education and libraries, and is, as a white woman, the beneficiary the structural bias in favor of whiteness in libraries, and in academia generally.  She wants in this talk to confront the harms done in talking euphemistically about “diversity” when what we should be talking about , professionally and as educators, is about race, and social justice. “

The URI talk is open to the public, so come along if you can:

  • 12 noon Wednesday November 13th
  •  University of Rhode Island Library
  • 15 Lippitt Road Kingston, RI
  • Galanti Lounge, 3rd floor.

 The next day I’m getting to talk at Trinity College, thanks to Jason Jones.  The title of that talk is “Who gets to have Agency?”
““Universities and Colleges are increasingly able to use systems to quantify and automate administrative and educational processes.  What is at stake when they do this? What is lost? What can happen to students and faculty within these systems, and what are our responsibilities to protect them?  Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist and consultant who works with these issues as the conducts research, and helps teams within institutions think about and engage with technology in the course of their teaching, learning, and research work.  She points to some ways that qualitative research can be an antidote to some of the problems that arise when we reduce people to datapoints. “

 This is also open to the public:  Thursday November 14th, 12.15-1.15, Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut, Raether Library , room # LITC 181

And then the week after that  I’m also giving two talks.  The first one is for eCampusOntario’s Technology + Education Seminar + Showcase (TESS)  November 18-19.  eCampusOntario is a non-profit, funded by the province of Ontario, that seeks to advance technology-enabled teaching and learning in Ontario’s 45 publicly funded colleges and universities. Folks who want to learn more about eCampusOntario can sign up for its monthly newsletter

TESS is an annual event for promoting collaboration and sharing innovations across all eCampusOntario member institutions. This year, Day 1 of TESS features presentations on excellence in online teaching and learning. Day 2 involves cultivating in educators an “experimenter mindset” through some exploration of H5P and Pressbooks.

The theme For TESS this year is Experimentation and Impact.   I am pleased that eCampusOntario have invited me, to have the opportunity to finally visit Toronto, and also to be in a room with a new (to me) group of people..  This talk is called “The Anthropologist in the Machine”

“Experimentation and Impact require scrutiny and insight.  How do we build space for creativity in teaching and learning in digital contexts while maintaining and supporting current effective practices?  Anthropological approaches to digital practices in higher education can be a way to recognize what people in the field are currently doing, and more importantly, why.  It is the why that allows us access to the motivations and priorities of the communities in which we teach, the community members who want to learn, and how our practices can and should be bent to meet them, rather than insisting that communities change for educational institutions.
Dr Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist in the the machine; her field sites include education and the digital landscapes it inhabits. Her role in these machines of education and digital is to understand how they work, how people interact within the cogs and wheels of processes and ultimately to ensure that the machine is serving humanity rather than the machine itself. She argues for a move to decenter technology in discussions of teaching and learning–a challenge  in a time when colleges and universities are developing new strategies for digital at a prodigious rate. Putting staff under constant pressure to “innovate” in their practice is counterproductive if what we actually need is creativity.”

All of the tickets for this event have now been claimed, but I know the conference will be recorded, including my talk, so I will share it when I can. If you want a preview of the talk, and to hear me chatting with Terry Greene of Gettin’ Air about TESS and other things, check out the podcast site (as of this writing my particular interview is not up yet). And also listen to the other interviews, it’s quite a list.

AND THEN last but not least I get to go to the University of Guelph, (thanks to the invitation of Karen Nicholson and suggestion by Ali Verslius) and speak to folks there.  

Gaining Insight Over Fixing Problems: How Open-Ended Research Can Teach Us What We Need to Know

Donna Lanclos, researcher, speaker, writer, and anthropologist will be at U of G to deliver a talk about open-ended ethnography and relationship-building as an antidote to being “ethnographish,” surveillance, and quantification in higher education. 

Date: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Time: 1:15 to 2:30 p.m. , Location: U of Guelph LIB Room 246A 

So now “all I have to do is pack,” and remember my travel docs and passport! I hope to see many of you soon.

Listening to Refusal: Opening Keynote for #APTconf 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

Lecture Capture

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


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

Card Swipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are many things we should be refusing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Dr. Sara Ahmed notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then you FIND OUT.

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

Not prediction.

Not persuasion.


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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

WOC Faculty (2018) “A Collective Response to Racism in Academia” Medium, May 8,

Ahmed, Sara, (2017) “No” feministkilljoys, June 30,

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

Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry.

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85.

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

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

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

Rahman, Zara, (2019) “Can data ever know who we really are?” Deep Dives, Medium, May 15.

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

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

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3,

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

They Have a Fight, Triangle Wins

Image by Lawrie Phipps

(this blogpost co-authored by Lawrie Phipps)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to Teachers and Students

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

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


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

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

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

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

Announcing: Anodyne Anthropology, LLC




adjective: anodyne

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

“anodyne New Age music”


noun: anodyne; plural noun: anodynes

  1. a painkilling drug or medicine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is different

Sunset in Kailua, photo by me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your eyes are red.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was I faculty?  I was “library faculty”

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

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

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

I wasn’t always in my office

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

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

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


I conducted fieldwork

I reported on the fieldwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


So, what are you going to do next?