Tag Archives: engagement

Teaching, Learning, and Vulnerability in Digital Places: Library Instruction West 2016 keynote

I just got back from Salt Lake City yesterday.  I was and still am so pleased and flattered to have this invitation to speak to another group of librarians, another room of my colleagues inspired and challenged by the nature of instruction in and around libraries.  This was my third (out of four) big talk of the Spring, and it was also the one I wrote the last, the one I struggled with the most.  I knew I wanted to say something about vulnerability, but kept coming up against how to frame it, what was the point I wanted to make?  I think in the end I came up with a point, but I confess that it was mostly in the improv around my notes,  in that room this past Thursday morning, that it all came together (you can also see from the Storify ).  Those who were in the room with me may reasonably disagree, of course.

I should also thank before I continue the people who helped me think this through, whether they realized it or not:

@edrabinski  @davecormier

@tressiemcphd  

@slamteacher  @bonstewart

@jessifer  @AprilHathcock

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As an anthropologist who works in libraries, my fieldwork takes me beyond libraries into a wide variety of learning places.  And those learning places are classrooms, cafes, parks, Moodle, Facebook, and Twitter.  I spend a lot of time online and talking about being online, not just in my fieldwork, but in my academic practice.  

Online is a place.  It is not just a kind of tool, or a bucket of content, but a location where people go to encounter and experience other people.  Places, online and otherwise, are made things, they are cultural constructs.  Technology, and the places technology helps create, are likewise cultural constructs, and therefore:  Not Neutral.  They are human, they are made, they contain values.

I am not telling people anything that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth repeating.

Libraries and Librarians aren’t neutral either.  

I see some Librarians try to position themselves as neutral, supportive nurturing helpers, and those who try this are not always good at conveying it.  I think the reason for that is that such neutrality cannot possibly be real–we are all human, we all have biases, we are not “objective” and pretending to be just allows us to deny our subjectivity rather than working through it.  

[at this point I asked the room:]

How many of you have ever been told,

“I have a really stupid question?”

[lots of hands went up.  Seemed like the entire room]

When people walk up and say, “I have a really stupid question,” It’s because they are preemptively signaling they are not comfortable yet.  They don’t feel safe.  So I’m wondering, how do we build, within libraries, and within education generally, places for people to feel safe?

And in thinking about places, I want to ask, where are librarians?  Where do you want to be?  Why do you want to be there? I am making an assumption here that If you are in online spaces, it is to connect, with each other, with students, (not because “it would be cool” please no not that). 

I think presence in those places signals that you care, and value connection, and want to create safe spaces.  How, then, does that affect practice?  How do we think critically about practices such that we can make places feel safe?

How do you become trustworthy?  Not as individuals, but structurally?  What makes it make sense for students or faculty to come to you?  To the Library?  Where else is the library?  Does the persistent question, “why don’t they come to us?” make sense if we are all supposed to be part of the same community?

What do you do to become part of your community?  What do you do that is trustworthy?

And, also, how do you come to trust the people whom you are trying to reach?

How do you find them?  How do you find out about what they are doing and why?  Because it can be difficult to trust people you do not understand.

And this, actually, is part of the problem I have with these notions of empathy as some sort of prerequisite to action, to connection.  I am troubled by the suggestion that you need to muster up empathy first before reaching out to students or faculty.  (Not that I am opposed to empathy, I’m a fan of it in my life and work)  Our students and colleagues are worthy of our respect, they have an inherent human dignity that means it is our responsibility to reach out, to try to connect, whether we have achieved empathetic understanding beforehand or not.

Perhaps, perhaps that empathy actually comes most effectively post-connection.  Empathy is not a prerequisite, but an outcome.

Some of the work I do in my research and practice might point a way towards understanding the motivations behind practices online.

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Visitors and Residents map, collected from one of the workshops we’ve conducted over the years. Visualizing practices, and online places, is a first important step towards understanding motivations to engage.

I have spoken and blogged before about mapping practices.  In research and in workshops we can get people to talk about where they are online and also how it makes them feel.  People feel about digital places in similar ways to feeling about physical ones–I’ve interviewed students who sigh deeply in dismay at the thought of their Facebook account, full of troublesome family members, or who smile in thinking about their Twitter community, configured carefully so that they can be who they want to be, feel how they want to feel, while in that place. 

Online behaviors are not determined by the venue.  Facebook is not always about what you had for breakfast, and Twitter is not always about politics.  Each of these places, all of the new and old online places, are about people, and choices.  So, mapping, as with the V&R maps, can show us where people are, but the important part is the conversations that are generated, about why they are there (or not).

I think about the emotional associations of institutional spaces, for example in usability studies of library websites revealing the embarrassment and frustration students can feel at not being able to wrangle the website.  In fact, they frequently blame themselves for the tech failure, apologize to us for our crappy websites.  They say they will try again, but when they are away from us, why would they go back?  Who voluntarily goes back to some place that makes them feel stupid?

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During the Twitter-based #digped discussion in mid-May, there was a discussion about how to make ed tech more human.  This tweet I’ve captured points to some of what I have been turning over in my head about digital and presence.

When thinking about instructional online spaces, I’d like to ask (and I’m far from the only one) how to make them human as well as positive?  How do we build in access to other people, and not just provide buckets of content?  Where are the people in your online learning environment?  Are they connected to each other?  In my experience, students find their human connections outside of the institutional learning environment–they are on Snapchat, on Instagram, in Facebook and Twitter.  So we should continue to think about the role of digital places, outside of institutions as  where connections happen.  

We need to continue to think about identity, and how it plays out online.  Where and how do we develop voices online?

I have been thinking the role of vulnerability–it troubles me lately, because I often see it approached in terms of personal vulnerability, of some sense that sharing your personal life at work is necessary, so as to give people a “way in.”

In my own practice, I’ve made deliberate decisions to share parts of my personal life, on Twitter, in my blog. I approach it as a political decision as much as anything, a result of what I think needs to happen around the representation of women as professionals and academics.  And things I’ve written can indeed be interpreted as a wider call for more people to be “personal” online, so as to be human, and therefore accrue  a different kind of credibility in the new academic spaces of the Resident web.

“Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human”…rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.”

Lanclos and White, “The Resident Web and Its Impact on the Academy,” Hybrid Pedagogy, 08 October, 2015

Who is a scholar?  Who is a professor?  Who is a teacher?  The many paths we take now didn’t always exist, and there are indeed political as well as pedagogical reasons for revealing those narratives (as I have, in talking about mine).

But I wonder, how do you reconcile that with the narrative of “risky” online environments, and how faculty and students need to be “cautious?”  How do you balance the need for a kind of vulnerability with desire for “safety”–how is that possible?  What does “safe” mean?

What constitutes vulnerability online, and for whom?

Who gets to be vulnerable?  What does that mean?

Who is already vulnerable?  

“Risk-taking” is so often framed as a positive thing, especially when people in a position of privilege engage in it.  But when the intersections of our identity place us in more vulnerable categories, ones other than white, straight, male, cisgendered, middle (or upper)-class when does “risk-taking” segue into “risky?”  When do our human vulnerabilities get held against us?  This is about context–who is classed as positive risk-takers when they make themselves vulnerable, who is classed as “risky” and perhaps necessary to avoid, someone who makes people uncomfortable.

So, what price “approachable?”  How much do we strip ourselves of ourselves so that people are comfortable, so that we are not “risky?”

This, I think is the tyranny of NICE–I see this especially in libraries, wherein “approachability”  can be shorthand for “seems enough like me to be safe”  How do we create environments where unfamiliarity doesn’t have to feel risky?  Where “discomfort” isn’t a barrier to engagement or thinking?

How do we get a diversity of “safe” people into our networks, who do not discount us as “risky” in our vulnerabilities?

In particular i want to ask this question:

What does it mean when we ask Students to be vulnerable online?  How is it different if they are women?   Black?  White?  Brown?  LGBT+?   Fill in the category of your choice here.  

Because some of us show up more vulnerable than others.  Our identity is not just the categories and characteristics we self-identify with, it’s the boxes people try to place us in.  it’s involuntary vulnerability, the people we are perceived to be become a way to dismiss us, our expertise, our content.  Structural and personal vulnerability can’t be shaken off, and maybe we don’t owe anyone our personal vulnerability.  Maybe our students don’t owe us personal vulnerability.

Vulnerability doesn’t have to be personal.

I think about professors giving phone numbers out to students, back before social media ubiquity.  Choosing to give out home phone numbers, or even cell phone numbers wasn’t something everyone did, it signaled a particular approach to boundaries and the role of professors in student lives.  What is the online equivalent?  Is it friending or following on social media?  

I wonder what are other ways of being present and human to students without violating important boundaries yourself?  

I don’t think that kind of putting yourself personally out there is mandatory.  Personal narratives don’t have to be the default.  You don’t owe anyone your personal story.  And sometimes just your existence is story enough.

We do owe them professional vulnerability.  That way lies inclusion–for our colleagues and our students.  Professional vulnerability can model the kind of society that we want them to have.  We need them to be flexible, transparent, and to expect that from their professional and civic networks going forward.  

So what would that kind of professional vulnerability look like?

Libraries have traditionally expressed “service” in terms of seamlessness–systems that don’t need explaining, for example.  And from a UX perspective, that’s one thing. But in an instruction context, that’s problematic.  Seamlessness doesn’t signal a way in.   iPhones don’t tell you how they are made, they just expect you to use them.  How do we build educational environments, both digital and physical, that give people a way in?  In to the course,  to the library, to the discipline, to the University?

One answer might be in engaging with seam-y (“see me”)  practices and pedagogies.  Showing the seams, being open about how educational experiences and scholarly content are produced.  Academia is a made thing, we can show students the seams, and allow them to find their way in.  

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Seams showing how the locomotive cylinder is put together. Image from page 180 of “The Locomotive” (1867) Internet Archive Book Image Flickr Stream: https://flic.kr/p/ovuPbj

I see examples in many places.  Including the rhizomatic learning work coming from Dave Cormier. In his connectivist approach to education, he argues that:

“What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions.”

Teaching a class where you admit that you aren’t quite sure where things are going, where you are clear in not knowing everything, that is professional vulnerability.  Instructors who construct their authority in the classroom around knowing everything, or at least knowing Way More Than Their Students about Everything, are at risk of #authoritysofragile, of that moment when it is revealed that of course we don’t know everything, and the authority is shattered.  We can avoid those shattering moments by never pretending in the first place to know it all.  Positioning ourselves confidently alongside our students as we explore things without being sure of outcomes, that’s powerful, that is seam-y, that is professional vulnerability.

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If you read this blog you’ve seen this map before. This workshop participant annotated her V&R map with arrows indicating where she wanted to move her practice, mapping the trajectory of the changes she wanted.

In the V&R workshops we conduct we ask people to annotate their maps, to show where they are willing to move and change, and even discontinue what they are doing.  The epiphanies that happen when people realize this thing they have been doing doesn’t serve them especially well can feel like admitting a mistake. These conversations reveal emotions that these places and practices engender, and those revelations are a form of professional vulnerability.  

Open practice is a kind of vulnerability that reveals the seams of academic work.  I am open in my own practice, in sharing rough drafts via Google Docs, in blogging half-formed ideas, in Tweeting even less formed ideas.  If you look at my blog from when it first started my voice was very different than what it is now.  I am never finished, my work is never seamless and complete.

What can we do in our own practices to create spaces where the seams of academia are visible?  Create places where our students can see how and where they fit?  The possibilities for our students finding where they can get in are contained in the spaces we do not fill with content, or cover over with seamless interfaces

The work of teaching and learning is challenging, and when we talk about seamlessness we are lying about what education is supposed to be.  The challenge is in doing the things we don’t know yet, and how will our students learn that if we do not?  If we do not model our own unformed and unfinished practices, how can they even know that is what happens?  How can they imagine themselves doing it?

Digital affords us different ways of revealing the seams, the mess of our academic projects.  We can, without revealing ourselves totally, still reveal process in a way that makes it clear that academia is a cultural construct, made by people not entirely unlike our students.  Tools and places are out there such as Hypothes.is ,GoogleDocs, Twitter, blogging platforms. Facebook groups, Instagram, Pinterest, ephemeral contexts such as Snapchat. The point is not the specific environment or tools, but in the possibilities to connect, and capability of revealing process along the way.  

We can highlight the importance of engaging in unfinished thoughts, in exploration.  Where a .pdf is seamless and a finished product, an invited GoogleDoc is seam-y and in process, perhaps never entirely done.

Libraries have a history of engaging with process, not just content.  Libraries are good at this, their particular area of expertise is in navigating, framing, and evaluating content (in its myriad forms). Open practice, professional vulnerability around the processes of academia, this is an opportunity for Libraries and Information Literacy and Library Instruction to shine. 

My friend and colleague Emily Drabinski writes marvelous things, and one of her latest, a co-authored piece with Scott Walter, “Asking Questions that Matterchallenges us to articulate not the value of libraries, but the values within libraries, coming out of libraries, of library instruction.  

So I want to end, as I usually do, with questions.  

What values are you expressing with your instructional approaches? How can you express them digital places?

What is the role of vulnerability for you?  How can you protect yourself, model protection for your students, and still achieve seam-y pedagogy?

What would that look like?

 

 

“Digital” Doesn’t Do Anything: #digifest16

 

I got to attend my third Jisc Digifest (out of three) last week in Birmingham, because I was invited to participate in the plenary keynote panel at the beginning of the event.

Jisc invited all of us in the plenaries to write something ahead of the event to get people thinking, and you can find what I wrote on the Jisc blog.  I was also interviewed for the DIgifest podcast, you can hear me speaking starting about 1.30.

So here is roughly what I said (those of you who know me will realize that not all of the adlibs are captured here, but I try).    Nicola Osborne of Jisc did a nice job of live-blogging both days, and she captured the keynote Q and A (as well as other things) here.   I also Storified it so you can get some sense of what the content of the room while I was speaking was like.  I had no slide deck, just paper notes, and the #digifest16 Twitterstream behind me.   It’s my understanding Jisc will be posting video highlights soon.

 

“The power of digital for change”

The power of digital is not contained in nor limited to, the kinds of tools it can offer.  Tools change, and how people use them does too.

More than this, as we discussed recently with the Jisc digital leaders programme, education leaders should now think of “Digital” as place.  The implications of society as we experience it face to face also erupting within the digital are wide-ranging and profound.  Have we really thought about what that means in terms of education?  

What does it mean for the human experience of teaching, learning and research to know that it is possible to carry these places around in our pockets?  

Digital is not just about attention, and where people put it, but about where people are themselves.

This means that (those endless circular) debates we have about tools being “fit” really miss the point.  In fact, they are symptoms of a flawed system wherein we hand people tools and insist that they use them regardless of their practice.  The point is actually the people, and the practices in which they are engaging.  And our work should be to facilitate the exploration of all the different ways they can do that.

What are the implications for research?  What are the implications for teaching?  What are the implications for pedagogy?  What does it mean for the design of learning spaces, when, with digital places, nearly any physical place can have a learning space nested within?

And furthermore what does it mean for those who don’t have access to those spaces?  What is lost when those spaces exist but not everyone can get to them?  More than just a digital divide, it’s segregation, lack of access to the places where power and influence can accrue.

It’s crucial that we move the conversation from “tools” and even sometimes from “practice.”  Let’s talk about place, let’s talk about presence.  Let’s talk about (says the anthropologist) people.  Where are we?  Where are our students?  They can be scattered, or they can be layered in their presence–for example, in a room, on Twitter talking publicly about the content of the room, and in DMs snarking about the content.  

This is multi-modal engagement.  What does the presence of these places mean for engagement?  We have never been able to take engagement for granted–disassociation happens in face to face spaces all the time.  What’s happening in this room right now?  How does that make you more here?  How does that take you away? Who else is here?

“The power of the digital for change.”  That’s the theme for the next two days.

In thinking about change I am less interested in what we are changing than how change can happen?  And also thinking about–change for whom?  Why?  I am never interested in change for change’s sake.

At the end of the Visitors and Residents workshops we do, that we’ve done for Jisc and for other orgs,  where we talk about practice, we do end up talking about tools, but then we always, always end up talking about people.  Who are the people with whom you connect?  What does engagement look like?  

And, when you want to change things, who are the people you need to influence, not just the things you need to do?  And if you don’t want to change things, make that argument.  Make the argument for change, too, not just saying the word change over and over again.

More than that–we need to think about what the role of leaders is in making space for these questions to be asked, and explored.  Institutional acceptance of risk, change, failure, this is all crucial.  Accepting change means accepting a certain lack of control.

We on this stage have been asked to help frame what Digifest can be for you, and of course I would recommend that you go to the mapping sessions, explore your own  practices, and engage in discussions around the implications of digital practices for individuals and institutions

But beyond specifics,   I would encourage you to explore the parts of the Digifest that are not someone handing you a tool or a piece of tech, but are about people talking about their educational agendas, their practices, and the people with whom they are working, and why.

Eventually tech will come into it.  But not starting there is a much more interesting conversation

 

 

 

 

 

“Intelligent” Campus?

Photo by Phil Whitehouse https://flic.kr/p/ntu9dA CC with some rights reserved

Photo by Phil Whitehouse https://flic.kr/p/ntu9dA
CC with some rights reserved

 

I’d like to kick back today against the persistent idea that knowledge and information necessarily transform behavior.  I was made to think about this while perusing the Jisc HE learning and teaching vision document (now open for comments), and in particular the “Intelligent Campus” item at the end.

I work with groups of people at UNC Charlotte who are excited about advising systems and learning analytics that can push information out to students about how they are doing, what they are doing, and what it might mean for their time to degree.  These people are administrators, teaching faculty, and advisors who are already engaged with students within networks of care, who provide service and support.  

So, to call the “new” vision of a university campus that Jisc is considering “Intelligent” is an insult to the people who currently provide the human labor that goes into educating people.  Students need to learn how to do higher education, and university campuses are full of people whose job that is.  And they are doing it.  

So, I’d suggest that we might usefully talk about how to be a more “Responsive” campus.  How we might leverage these tools to be more agile in our responses to student needs, more timely, and yes, to involve students more in the labor of their own education.  I’m not suggesting that pushing information out to students is useless, but rather that it cannot be enough to effect behavioral change.  

I think about people and their fitbits.  And how the information they get from their fitbit isn’t what effects change (if it does).  It’s about the other things that happen around fitbits, the network they build around that fitbit, the people with whom they share that information, the social connections and relationships, and social media sharing that build around paying attention to the information.  Just wearing the fitbit is not what makes them more active.

Handing people a piece of tech, or a piece of information, is not inherently transformative.

Behavioral change is about networks, trust, motivations to engage, about being able to understand the implications of the information being received.  That is the role of advising and teaching staff, and should not be seen as anything that learning analytics systems can replace.  “Dashboards” may make certain sorts of information visible.  They are not a substitute for teaching and advising, both in the classroom and beyond.

These systems are tools.  The important focus is on the people within our universities, the work they do, and whether these tools will help them do that work more effectively.  

The potential and the peril of student expectations

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A scene from the Active Learning Classrooms at UNC Charlotte.

I have been low-level upset at recent discussion about the need for higher education institutions to respond to student expectations.  I had a bit of a rant about it on Twitter, for instance.

 

 

I was tweeting in an apprehensive way about “Student expectations” on the same day that there was a great deal of conversation going on about the death of tenure at Wisconsin universities, and the implications for higher education labor conditions and teaching and learning in that context.

 

 

And then the next day I started thinking about the problem of tying perceptions of effective education to “comfort” or “satisfaction” (other ways of talking about meeting student expectations).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am seeing the connection between concern about “Student experience” and “Student expectations” as driven by these capitalistic, marketing framed approaches to education and how we decide what we should be doing for our students.  And I am distressed that “experience” and “expectation” seem to be edging out “education” as what we want Universities to be focusing on.

But, what about University expectations for their students?  What about educator-driven desires for their students?  What is our responsibility, given what we know students should be doing to become constructive citizens?  To what extent should we limit ourselves to or be driven by what is “expected” to be “experienced” by our students?  And what about linking the larger “experience” of others at university, of faculty and staff, of researchers and teachers–how can we make visible those experiences, and make it clear that those people and their work are crucial parts of educating students.

Student expectations are informed by their pre-university experiences.  And those are not uniform.  We have students with a variety of levels of experience and preparedness for what university education requires.  And we do not, as educators, have to buy the argument that the purpose of our work is to prepare students for “jobs.”  Our work, collectively, in higher and further education, is to provide students with experiences and support within those experiences to learn, to grow, to find and shape their voice, to be prepared to exercise citizenship, to live engaged lives, to shape their world in constructive ways.

I see people around me writing around this sort of concern, for example most recently Dave White, Peter Bryant, and Lindsay Jordan.  So, I’m glad I’m not alone.    But these concerns need to filter up, to become more a part of the conversation happening in policy and political areas around education.  We cannot continue to allow operational, transactional assumptions about “expectations” and “experience” to rule the day, and ruin the processes of “education.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Institutional Ephemera

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This librarian hangs out on YikYak to “hear” what students are saying about the library and the university. She mapped it as Visitor because she does not leave a social trace or participate actively, rather she “lurks” (elegantly or otherwise).

 

I’ve thought and written about this before, but the popping up of YikYak in a V&R map at Carnegie Mellon last week, and a flutter of interest in it in HE contexts in the UK this week have made me think again about why it’s important for people to have spaces where their words and thoughts can be encountered and interacted with but not captured or curated.

Sam Ladner laid out the landscape of concerns about privacy and freedom of expression really nicely in 2013,  the platform in question then was Snapchat, and I think her points are relevant for any discussion around platforms that facilitate the disappearance of content.  There are reasons, excellent reasons, why people might want their words or images to not be remembered.   Simon Thomson summarizes them briefly here.

The hazard in instructional contexts is when ephemerality is combined with anonymity.  Trolling and bad behavior is as much a part of the internet as it is in real life.  it’s particularly visible to me on Twitter, but the fact is that the Internet is Made of People and we are not beyond the worst of our potential in digital or physical places.  Racism, sexism, bullying behavior and worse are among the hazards of our society, and anonymity makes it much much easier to attack people and then slink away.   In a digital instruction situation, anonymity is inappropriate.  If we want for our students to take chances and speak to each other about concepts that they are unsure about or uncomfortable with, we also need to make sure those spaces are safe and that people are held accountable for their words.  Anonymity makes that nearly impossible.  Students in physical classrooms can be encouraged to speak, and we know who they are.  Students in ephemeral digital classrooms should be identifiable to each other as the people who they are, to foster community as well as responsibility.

So, I can see (much to my chagrin, as I am historically opposed to making arguments for things to be built in institutional systems) an argument for institutions creating (non-anonymous) YikYak type spaces in their LMS/VLEs, because currently those spaces track and keep content.  Designing a digital institutional spaces that deliberately forget content would be injecting into digital learning spaces an affordance easily achieved in physical spaces.

The trick (there’s always a trick) would be in convincing the students that conversations and interactions in such spaces are in fact safely ephemeral.

Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come.

Control

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Corridor in UCL’s Main Library.

So I’m thinking a great deal about control in libraries, and have been for a while.  It is sending me back to the point, late in my graduate career, when Laura Nader’s Controlling Processes essay came out, and when some of my classmates were working with Nader’s paradigms in their own research.   Her argument is, in part, that tracing, describing, and analyzing the flow of power within systems is crucial to illuminating the potential to transform cultural ideas.  The redistribution of control in the law, in medicine, and in museums was the focus of her 1997 essay, but of course many institutions are fair game, and libraries are no exception.

Libraries are rife with controlling processes–they are cultural institutions infused with very particular senses of what scholarship and studying looks and sounds like, what the proper material environments are for such activities, what resources should be provided by institutions (and what should not be).  Rules around noise and quiet, consumption of food and drink, occupancy of space (when is the library closed?  Does it close?  Who is allowed in?  Who is prevented?) are all performances of library institutional control of library spaces.    These rules are shot through with power–who determines what is quiet?  What is noise?  Who makes the decision about who is allowed in the library?

Signs are great evidence of the attempts to control spaces in libraries.  “Quiet Zone.”  “No Phones.”  “No eating or drinking.”  “Silent Zone.”

LSE Saving Space Crop

The LSE is trying to address student demand for space with a “ticketing” system.

A lot of the conversations I participate in around configurations of library space involve me, at some point, advocating letting go of control.  Is there a noisy space in your library?  Why is that?  Maybe you don’t need to “fix” that?  Maybe just label it as such and move on?  Where are there “naturally” quiet areas?  Do they need policing to be that way?  Maybe they are not so “natural?”  Why are you trying to make atriums Quiet Zones?  Where do students go who need to talk to each other about their work?  Do you want them in your library?  Why or why not?

Are you sure about all of that?

This is a big part of my work.  Asking annoying questions.  But it’s also my job to pay attention to more than my personal theory that less policing in libraries is a good thing.

Because the thing is, that students are also asking the library for controlled spaces.  Tomorrow is the Last Day of Classes (#LDOC!) for students this Fall semester at UNC Charlotte.  The library is already full of people, and will only get more full.  This is the time of year when we get the most requests for protected spaces, reserveable spaces, for quiet spaces.  This is the time of year when requests for control are most acute:  make them quiet, make these computers available, give me space to think, give me space to talk, make them move so I can do my work, make this print.  The student sense that there is so much they don’t have control over spills out into the demands they make of their institutional spaces (I’m willing to bet they have demands for their living spaces this time of year, too, with regard to noise and quiet, access, technology, clutter).

If we think carefully about the nature of controlling processes in the library, what they do and who they are for, we need to remember that one of the defining characteristics of libraries is, in fact, control.

Libraries are constructed in part in contrast to the perception that everything outside of their spaces is uncontrolled.  The environment of the library is physical spaces, resources, and the people within the library.  Some of these things are easier to control than others.  The implications of controlling people are myriad, and not entirely benign.  Who is perceived as out of control?  Under what circumstances?  Is there another interpretation of their behavior?  One person’s “out of control” is another person’s “engaged conversation.”  These differences need to be navigated, negotiated, explored, not enshrined in rules.

Libraries in popular discussions of public spaces are often described as “oases” (for example, most recently and visibly, but not unproblematically, the public library in Ferguson).   Discussions around public libraries are of course infused with the same complicating factors of race, class, privilege, and politics that are present in any discussion of the public sphere, in the US and elsewhere.  One person’s “riot” is another person’s “protest.”

Of course non-library spaces are controlled, too.  And holding the library up in contrast to “chaos” is often an unnecessarily antagonistic way of framing the rest of reality.

I find myself sympathetic to the desire to find one place in the world where you can feel that things are controlled, if not by yourself, then by someone you trust.  Students trust libraries to control their environment, as students frequently feel they themselves cannot.

So while we listen to that desire for control, we need to not abuse that trust, and we need to listen deeply and carefully to what is behind it.  We need to trace the requests, listen to who is asking, consider what the mechanisms for effective control might be.  There are many models–they do not have to all be top-down.  I think about community self-policing.  I think about wide and varied student engagement in library spaces so that they are part of the solutions they want to see, not just demanding that someone else execute policies on their behalf.

What does control look like?  When is it strictly necessary?  When can it be let go?  What happens then?

 

 

 

 

Webinars, Graduate Students, Visitors and Residents

So the Visitors and Residents research team (myself, Dave White, and Lynn S. Connaway) conducted a Jisc/OCLC webinar (with the generous and effective chairing of Lorcan Dempsey) yesterday.  The purpose was to introduce people to our InfoKit, and also to have a chance to talk a bit more about research results and practical implications for transforming HE (and other) approaches to digital tools and places.

In my part of the webinar I focused on graduate students, and the story that I think is emerging from our data about the potential impact that digital places and communities can have on the relative isolation of graduate students from their peers.  I’m reproducing part of what I said here, and a link to the webinar and full powerpoint are available here. (scroll to the bottom, thanks to the capable skills of our colleagues at Netskills for making this available).  I Storified the session here.  The GoogleDoc with links to project outputs, etc. is here

I started off talking about sources and authority, actually, going over some of the findings that we cover in the People Trust People , Convenient Doesn’t Always Mean Simple, and Assessing Non-Traditional Sources part of the InfoKit.  These pieces are important background to thinking about the experience of graduate students, because they are at a moment of transition, from being those who are expected to learn about authoritative sources and use them effectively, to those who are expected to become and produce authoritative sources of information themselves, as practitioners in their fields.  

This transition used to take place almost entirely in physical places, in seminar rooms, laboratories, academic libraries, and at face-to-face conferences.  But the Internet is a now a place where things happen, things that used to only happen face to face.  A holistic picture of academic behavior, of information seeking behavior, therefore has to include these digital places, and should pay attention to resident practices as we define them in the Visitors and Residents project.

People use social media tools and spaces like Twitter and Facebook to connect.  This is not a surprising or new thing, but needs to be kept in mind, as it’s a phenomenon that is certainly not going away.  We also need to collectively keep in mind that just because these digital places exist, not everyone is excited by Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.  Awareness of these social media environments and the communities within them is not dependent on a generational identity, but is about personal preferences and individual motivations to engage.  We cannot, should not assume monolithic attitudes towards these places and tools. Digital places like YouTube and Facebook and Twitter are not easily classed as only “entertainment” or “academic” in character or purpose, because of the wide range of activities that now occur in those spaces.  Knowing that someone goes to YouTube doesn’t tell you why they are there, or what they might do, or who they might seek out there.
 
So these graphs are interesting to me, because they seem to point to an opportunity to help graduate students.
 
I’ve put a red oval around the post-graduate/ grad student category, that we call Embedding.
Notice here the purple line for face to face contact, and notice in particular how low (comparatively) the mentions of face to face contact are for  grad students.  They are texting with people, making phone calls, and in particular emailing far more than engaging face to face.
Notice here who graduate students are in most contact with-professors,then peers.  For Professors, it’s the reverse order—they are in touch with peers and then with experts, mentors, and librarians at similarly low rates. Think about future of graduate students, of them as future (and current) practitioners in their fields.  Contact with professors makes sense, of course, but contact with peers seems crucial.  How else are they going to build their community, find their voice, engage in the back and forth of scholarly communication with their fellow practitioners?
 
The Blue line is FB, red is Twitter, purple line is Academic Libraries (physical spaces).  Graduate students narrow contact that they have with people, and are also physically isolated, working in the library, offices or labs.  I see this in the other ethnographic work that I do as well, the maps that graduate students, particularly in the sciences, produce of their learning landscapes are restricted to one or two places, in sharp contrast to the wide-ranging maps of undergraduates and professors.
But when we look at the places they do go, in addition to being present in academic libraries’ physical spaces (wsee a radical difference in the role of academic library spaces in our interviews with graduate students, compared to other educational stages), graduate students are present in significant rates on Facebook, and Twitter. 
 
We need to think about implications of online resident practices for grad students.   Their social media presence might be an opportunity for them to facilitate contact in the isolating environment of graduate school .  This is something we need to look at further—what is happening as they transition from student to practitioner in their field?  How are their experiences in physical spaces like libraries related to the academic work they do in digital places like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, etc.?  Where are they resident, where are they visitors?  If resident practices are those that facilitate the finding of voice, and the production of scholarship (in a variety of modes), what can it look like in grad school?
 
Watch the whole webinar:

Guest Blog: Two Paths Forward, by Stanley Wilder

Big transitions happening at J. Murrey Atkins Library this summer, with the departure of my current boss Stanley Wilder for his new position as Dean of Libraries at LSU (both of my parents went to LSU, so Geaux Tigers!).  When he shared the content of the talk he gave when interviewing at LSU, I encouraged him to let me host it here.  And he agreed!  So, here is the (slightly edited) talk Stanley gave, laying out his vision for libraries.

What I appreciate about Stanley’s take on the Future of Libraries is that it’s not about specific solutions, but about relationships and processes.

Two paths forward
an edited version of Stanley Wilder’s candidate speech for the
Dean of Libraries position at Louisiana State University
March 30, 2014
 Images by Maggie Ngo, UNCC
Here are some things I hear: Everything I need to know is on Google. I’m a faculty member and I don’t use the library. I’m a senior in college and I’ve never been in the library. I’m a senior in college and still use my hometown public library. Hasn’t the Internet made libraries obsolete? I don’t need a library. I don’t read books. Information wants to be free. Librarians are scary people and I don’t trust book stacks!
Every one of these comments is easily and demonstrably wrong, and at the same time, each one is a gift of the first order.  Each one is the gift of attention, an invitation for us to explain who we are and why we’re here. We librarians ask for nothing more.
Oh, we get where these questions come from: In an age of dizzying change in the nature of academic work, and the shifting shape of the discourse that drives it forward, where should the library go from here? As I see it, the library has two paths forward, and I submit this vision as my response to the prompt you’ve given me.
The first path for the research library is its traditional role. A crucial aspect of the nature of learning and research is timeless, absolutely so. In this sense, if you want to know what research library will do in the future, well the answer is that it will do what it has always done.
If you’ll bear with me, I’ve drawn a picture of what I mean.
  
This is the scholarly record. It is the record of what is known or imagined about the world. Teaching and research consists of assimilatingthe scholarly record as it pertains to the disciplines we study, in such a way as to enable us to synthesize something new. In the case of faculty, this synthesis is the creation of new knowledge or new art that adds to the scholarly record, where the cycle starts over. This picture applies to students as well, wherein the syntheses they produce often take the form of apprenticeships for the work their faculty do.
Assimilation, synthesis, reading, writing. Here is teaching, learning, and research, as an endless, virtuous cycle around the scholarly record.
I worked for a great Dean of Libraries who came up with the beautiful aphorism:
“A library is a place where readers come to write, and writers come to read. “
I say YES to that: the core function of a research library is now and always will be to build the collections that drive this cycle. Of course it’s not enough to simply build collections, the library also has to facilitate how people interact, at both ends. For example, teaching generations of new students how to work with the literatures of their chosen disciplines. But really, all library services can be characterized in this way. They cluster at these transition points, here and here.
And with that, I’m going to stop myself because I promise you, I could go much further with this silly drawing. My point is this: the idea of the library is so embedded in the fundamental nature of learning and research that it makes no sense to ask whether you need one. The real question before us is whether you need a great library.  
That, then, is my first path. Everything about it relates to the “what” of academic work, what it is fundamentally, what it intends to do in the world.
And yet, at this very same changeless moment, we are now in a period of full-scale revolution in how academic work gets done. Students and faculty alike are using new tools, in new ways, to produce scholarship in forms that were unimaginable just ten years ago. I used the word “dizzying” a while ago, and I meant it: in this environment, uncertainty abounds.
But here’s one thing I am sure of, and if you retain nothing else from this presentation, please let it be this: this new environment is going to allow smart research libraries to perform that ancient role in ways that produce spectacular new value. This is the library’s second path: embracing, inventing the future so as to do better what we have always done.
Like what, for example. There are so many opportunities that really, our problem is choosing from among them. I’m going to just call out some, a simple list of examples that… illustrate my point, obviously, but I’ve also taken care to choose examples that I have experience with helping produce.
           
Every item on this list is now or should be a new part of a research library portfolio. What’s more, each one relates directly to issues that faculty and institutions are wrestling with right now. In many cases, they are wrestling, but not knowing that what their library has to offer. There’s nothing dismissive or condescending about it, they just don’t know.
Ladies and Gentlemen: the biggest threat to research libraries is low expectations. Sometimes they come in thoughtlessly dismissive ways, “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” But just as often, low expectations feel warm and fuzzy, filled with nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. To my ears, both are equally toxic.  
So no, our communities can’t be expected to just know enough, say, about the dangerous instability in the scholarly communication marketplace to understand the importance of open access, or any of the other ways we librarians can make things better. No, we have to tellthem, and we have to show them.
I think constantly about how the library positions itself vis-à-vis students and faculty. Imagine a continuum. At one end is library as simple service provider, and on the other end is library as full partner, contributing in a substantive fashion to any campus conversation relating to the institution’s core academic mission.  Yes services are crucially important. But make no mistake: real sustainable relevance on campus requires assertiveness, it requires visibility.Everything on this list is an invitation to do just that.
I have one more thing that I must say about the list. The work required for each is grounded, in one way or another, in traditional research library values and expertise. At the same time, every one of them is situated in an entirely new context. I feel a real sense of urgency on this point: this list is turf, and it is ours for the taking. But doing so means that as a profession, as a library, we must recognize that producing the transformational outcomes that are possible here also requires newskills that we must either learn for ourselves, or hire into our organizations. This is not a phase, it’s the new normal.
 
 
Let’s talk about students. The library’s student role is large and diverse, as it always has been, but here again we find watershed developments all around us, and once again, the new opportunities that come with.
Half of a research library’s student function is pedagogy. Instruction. The thing we do here is to increase the sophistication of students in interacting with the literatures of their chosen disciplines. Fine, but as you see from the list on the screen, that pedagogy isn’t just situated in terms of discipline, it’s also situated in a broad range of learning environments, which makes it subject to the same seismic change that is shaking teaching throughout higher education.
A quick story to illustrate: Recently, the head of our instruction programming discovered that faculty are very receptive to hearing about ways they can pare back on research paper assignments, in cases where doing so allows them to focus attention on the topic-choosing, question-framing, literature searching, basic-synthesis-forming skills. Library instruction can help with all of that, and this librarian and her staff have created web-based, interactive, and discipline-specific instruction modules that support that use case. And now Stephanie Otis has a fine trade in advising faculty with their course design.
That’s a small but significant example of what I mean by proper positioning of the library on campus. Stephanie puts us exactly where we want to be.
The second half of our student function is building-related, the spaces we provide for student academic work.  I have a missionary’s zeal as to the following idea:  research libraries can be instrumental in building the culture of study on campus. There is a powerful synergy here that only we can offer: the co-location of librarians with collections, and technologies, placed in appropriate spaces,with appropriate furnishings, long hours, and reliable security. No one else can do that!
I like to say that a good research library should be like a zoo. As you pass through it,you will see  students in the very act of learning:chemistry equations here, Chinese vocabulary there, marketing, biology and all the rest, live and happening right before your eyes.  You can even point at them, you can throw popcorn, they don’t mind, but the thing you’d be pointing at is the thing we all work every day to produce, it’s our professional reason for being. If you don’t walk through that zoo and feel energized, I suggest you may want to find another line of work. I would have all students socialized in this way, to where those zoos are just normal: long hours of intense group or individual study?
The title I’ve used for this section is “the world,” as shorthand for a whole range of externally-focused responsibilities that take the library far beyond the scholarly record drawing I talked about earlier. I might also have used the word “leadership.”
I’ve got a bit of show and tell to do for you now, a bit of bragging, maybe, but my intention is to give you a feel for this vision in action.
My story begins this time last year, at UNC Charlotte. Our library was presented with an exceedingly generous bit of one-time money in a more or less blank check fashion. At that moment in time, a number of very prestigious University Press book publishers suddenly made their current lists available, as a package, and in digital format. No limits on simultaneous users, no digital rights restrictions, and good preservation characteristics.
We jumped, bought everything of this sort that we could. We added 75,000 monograph titles last year, average price per ebook volume: about $10.
By June, everything’s in place, the community has full access to these books.
Now, our staff looked at those titles and recognized that there were many among them that were going to be assigned reading for students in the fall. If we could get the word out to faculty and students, we could save students lots of money.
With this insight, our staff flew into action, and just in time for fall semester, produced this web page, complete with links to the ebooks. They also prepared a social media campaign to alert students and faculty. Here’s what we learned: if you use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about free textbooks? Get out! In a PR sense, nothing we’ve ever done has been so successful, so fast.
So fall semester follows, and the use data on these new ebook packages starts to roll in. Friends, I’m here to say: the scholarly monograph is NOT dead, its use in ebook format is fantastic. Quick example: we have a huge investment in Springer journals and ebooks: our book chapter downloads, from day 1, run slightly ahead of Springer article downloads. Sure, this is a bit of apples and oranges, but on the face of it, it flies against every instinct a research librarian could ever have. Kinda mind blowing.
Spring semester comes, and this time we have had more time, we’re better prepared, and come up with this web page, and associated PR. The results have been stunning, faculty and students alike galvanizedaround our initiative, we know of a history professor teaching graduate classes for which the students have heavy reading lists, but no books they must buy.
Now we’re up to 4 weeks ago, our staff unveiled their own invention, a database that faculty can use to “shop” for ebooks appropriate for assigning for classes. The database consists of 140,000 titles, every ebook we own, plus every ebook we can get easily get from one of about a dozen University Presses.  As you can see, if you’re a faculty member, see something you want to use for class, we buy it immediately if we don’t already own it.  
Now class, let’s review: this anecdote gives us a shiny example of both paths: path number 1: exactly what is new about a research library buying books to support curriculum and research? And then once we’ve got them, what is new about making those books available for class use? It’s reserves!  OK, there’s our ancient function, but we’ve also got path number 2: everything about howwe did all this is new, not just new, it provides brilliant new value that wasn’t possible before.
One last point about that anecdote: I ask you: did the University ask the library to invent a program like this so as to lower the cost of going to college? Because that’s exactly what’s at stake here. NO! They couldn’t have, they couldn’t have known to ask! I talked about low expectations awhile back: sometimes low expectations flow from folks just not knowing what we’re capable of. But I can promise you, people will listen, and they’ll certainly notice.
At this point our staff are fielding queries from all around the country, folks wanting the code, wanting to see how we did every aspect of this. Meanwhile, back on campus, our entire community looks at the library in a different, and better way.
Here again, a well positioned library.
I should pause here to give full credit: the vision behind this anecdote owes entirely to Chuck Hamaker. Once Chuck had this idea, he had inspired help from a large number of staff across units. Oh, and here’s another point: my role in this project? I supported it. Nothing more than that!
Seeing your library also means seeing its staff. Committed professionals every single one, they possess a spectacular range of expertise.
And yet, like the books on the shelves, these people in front of us also evoke the generations of staff that preceded them.
I’d like to tell you a story from my early days at LSU. So early that I was still scrambling to remember the names of my new colleagues. One day a meeting. We were discussing the consequences of a decision made by a staff member, and, wishing to contribute, I suggested that I could meet with her to negotiate. Which prompted whoops of laughter: this person had retired sometime in the 1960s, and had long since passed.
What an epiphany in that moment, though: such a testament to the enduring quality of our work. We can only conclude that we did not build this thing. It was handed to us as a trust, a sacred trust, that through our brains and hard work, we ensure its renewal, and then hand it over in our turn. Stronger than before.

London Travelogue, Part The First: Not London, but Oxford and Manchester

So in addition to working in London, I had a couple of chances to do field trips to Very Special Libraries, one in Oxford, and one in Manchester.  The one in Oxford I’ve known about for a while:

The Bodleain

Oxford is lovely, old, and filled with high walls, locked gates, and closed doors.  It is a secret society, I will never know the handshake.
— Donna Lanclos (@DonnaLanclos) March 22, 2014

One of the many beautiful closed doors in Oxford

I know, I know, Oxford is not a “public” university, there should be different notions of access, I cannot expect the walls and gates and doors of Oxford to be open to all comers, because it’s just never been that way.

You have to climb up pretty high to see into the enclosures of Oxford.

But the collective experience of the closed-off feel, the tour wherein we were assured that the most important people in the building were The Scholars (and therefore, Not Us), and signs like this:

No Smoking I can get behind.  SILENCE PLEASE is different.

really hammer it home–“This is not for you.”

The Rylands Library, on the other hand, is a Special Collections library associated with the University of Manchester (a red-brick state school).

You can walk right in, no charge, even if you are not a student (which is not necessarily the case at UCL, even, where you have to swipe your bar-coded-card to enter every library, and most of the academic buildings).  The Rylands is a Gothic Cathedral to knowledge (I’ve blogged about libraries that make me think of ecclesiastical monuments before), and the reading room is open to anyone who wants to work in there, even if they are not working with the Rylands collections.   It’s a beautiful building, and a rare example of an inspiring space that is also accessible.

We talked briefly in our Spaces, Places and Practices seminar about the impact of spaces, in particular Traditional Library spaces that invoke places like the Bodleian and Rylands.  But Traditional Library spaces, while they can be used by students and faculty to get themselves into a desired state of mind (for reading, for writing, for scholarship of various kinds), can also feel exclusionary.  It’s as if some students internalize the signs that the Bodleian puts up (and sells in their gift shop!), and transfer that to all library spaces.  It’s not enough to be respectful of the space, you have to act so that they cannot tell you are there.  SILENCE.  I understand the utility of focus and quiet.  I understand less the signals that emphasize the otherworldly nature of scholarship to the point of alienating people from the traditional places of scholarship.  I am not convinced they are necessary.

They also make me want to stomp my boots and dance around in the courtyard of the Bodleian.

Probably not my dance partner, though.

A Whirlwind March, some Links

#SunnyLondon from Primrose Hill

I am just barely back in the US, I’m quite certain my brain has not arrived yet.  Already there are things on the internet that can give you ideas (because you haven’t been following my every move on Twitter, for which I commend you highly) about what I’ve been up to.  In particular, there are Storifys up of conversations I participated in at the SRHE in London on March 28th, with  Lesley Gourlay, Dave WhiteMartin Oliver, and Ibrar Bhatt. (there will be a podcast of the four talks, I’ll be sure to share the link when I have it), and of the joint UCL-IOE sponsored event, Spaces, Places and Practices, on March 31st, which involved presentations by Bryony Ramsden, Martin Reid and Anna Tuckett, and myself and Lesley Gourlay.

The #UKAnthroLib hashtag was followed by people outside of the room on March 31st, and the enthusiastic reception (and conversations that actually started long before March 31st) resulted in the swift creation (by Georgina Cronin and Andy Priestner) of the new #UKAnthroLib blog, which will involve multiple authors and I hope a great deal of interesting discussion.

Oh and of course there’s the actual research Lesley Gourlay and I did, in partnership with Lesley Pitman at UCL.  The Storifys will give you some sense of the preliminary things we are saying about the data we have collected so far, but I’ve got about 19 hours worth of interviews to get transcribed and then analyze, along with the cognitive maps we collected, and the SUMA data we gathered in each of the site libraries (Bartlett, SSEES, Institute of Archaeology at UCL, and the IOE library as well).  We should have enough analyzed to be able to say something interesting (I hope) at the HECU7 conference in Lancaster (well, Lesley will have to say it for us, as I am not Made of Money), and we have high hopes for more conference presentations (TBA!) in the Autumn.

In the meantime, we will be digging into what we’ve got, and attempting to figure out what we think it means.