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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


@slamteacher  @bonstewart

@jessifer  @AprilHathcock


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.


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?


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.  


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.


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?



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:

Visitors, Residents, Learners, Academics: ALA2013 and Communities of Practice

I was at ALA to help conduct participatory design sessions on behalf of the Visitors and Residents Project.  We are at the point in our long-term project that we’re conducting expert sessions on modes of engagement with technology and information, where we’d like to produce resources that can help others think about and configure the things they are doing with a focus on what their patrons/users/constituencies need and want to do.

V and R map of a library professional, showing lots
of Visitor mode and Institutional contexts (in these maps, the P-I axis is

To that end, we (where “we” = Lynn Sillipigni Connaway and Erin Hood from OCLC, David White, and myself) convened 2 different sessions with library experts–leaders in their fields, in their libraries, in their departments.  We asked them to map themselves on the Visitors and Residents polechart that we’ve developed and have been using with librarians and educators (in the US and the UK) to discuss how individuals get information and engage with technology for their personal and professional/academic needs.

We then asked the participants to map their constituents.

The same professional who produced the above map chose to map their perception
of Undergraduate engagement, with heavy emphasis on Resident-mode and Personal context.

And then we talked.

There was a lot of talk, and it was fantastic and constructive.  So now, we’ve got a great deal to process.  I have blogged before about where things like Facebook show up on V&R maps, and I have the persistent sense that what tool/digital space people are using/inhabiting is less important than what they are doing in that space/with that tool.  That is, as Dave pointed out during the session, it’s not enough to count how many students are on Twitter, or FB, or whatever.  You have to do the qualitative work that tells you just what they are doing in these environments.  Some use FB to connect with people, but some connect with people only via direct messages, others post everything to their wall.  Some use FB as a clearinghouse for all of the events and organizations they want to track.  And so on.  Our analysis of what people are doing to engage with resources should ideally be tool-agnostic.  It is the same way that IT support should be device-agnostic; you should be able to do your work whether you walk into academic spaces carrying a Mac or a PC, a netbook or a phone, etc.

So, a media strategy that identifies FB as important, but fails to grasp the details of why, is not going to be a terribly successful one.

One of the other things I’m processing is something we’ve been talking about amongst ourselves in the V&R group for a while, because it’s coming out of our data loud and clear.

This will surprise very few of you, I think:  There is a difference between Participating in Academia, and Learning.

Our interviewees reflect the tension between learning and academic practices every time some of the participants apologetically talk about how they use Wikipedia as a starting point to get themselves ready to dig deeper (or not) for the work they are doing.  Lower division undergraduates describe a process familiar to many a college instructor when they talk about constructing an argument for their essay first, and then going in to do quick searches so they can insert relevant references.  They are producing something for the academic process, but are not necessarily learning.

We do see them talking about learning, when they are engaged with the material, or with the person teaching the material, or if there is so much at stake for them to learn it that they do it even if they are not really interested.

This disconnect makes me think of the reading I’ve been doing in the Community of Practice literature, especially the work of Wenger and Lave and Rogoff (cites below).  My take away from reading this literature is that C of P theory is a really nice way of framing what happens when people learn how to be members of groups.  The literature describes a wide variety of groups, including vocational, educational, and recovery.   Central to Lave and Wenger’s 1991 discussion of Cs of P is the idea of Legitimate Peripheral Participation.  I’m going to quote here:

“We intend for the concept to be taken as a whole.  Each of the aspects is indispensable in defining the others and cannot be considered in isolation…Thus, in the terms proposed here there may very well be no such thing as an ‘illegitimate peripheral participant.’  The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content.  Similarly, with regard to ‘peripherality’ there may well be no such simple thing as ‘central participation’ in a community of practice.  Peripherality suggests that there are multiple, varied, more- or less- engaged and -inclusive ways of being located in the fields of participation defined by a community.  Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world.  Changing locations and perspectives are part of actors’ learning trajectories, developing identities, and forms of membership (35-36).”

They further make the point that legitimate peripheral participation occurs within social structures, involving relations of power.  So, different power relations can serve as barriers to participation, or facilitate it.  There is no inevitable progress towards a “center” in this structure, but an attempt to give theoretical structure to a malleable manifestation in society.

They emphasize that it is not “itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique.  It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. (40)”

I find it tremendously useful to have this in my head when I am thinking about the interview data we are collecting in the V&R project.  The practices they engage in are acquired in social matrices of friends, family, peers, teachers, co-workers, and supervisors.  The relationship our research participants have with the people from whom they learn practices, in turn, informs the relationship they have to the practices they acquire, the resources they choose to consult, or reject.

The confidence they have in the practices they acquire appears to be directly related to how connected they feel to the community they are participating in.  And that has less to do with abstract notions of best practices than it does with the familiar (not to be confused with convenient, although that comes into it as well), that which is engaged in by people whom they trust, with whom they already have relationships.

So, if we in libraries want to transform the ways that people are engaging in academic work, or at least, actively participate in the changes that are happening around us, we need to be fully embedded as community members.  Students will come to us and work with us when they recognize us as part of their network.  As faculty members, and/or people who work with faculty members, we in the library need not just to engage in the practices of academia, but advertise widely that we are engaged in such work, so that we are visible members of the community.  And when we recognize barriers to that participation, we need to work collectively to overcome them–such problems cannot be solved by individuals.

The beauty of the Legitimate Peripheral Participation idea is that there is no one “right” way to do any of this.  There are potentially many effective ways.

We also need to think about which community we are preparing our students to participate in as members.  Are we preparing them to be Academics?  Is that the best overall approach?  Or should we think about what to do to prepare an informed citizenry?  I really appreciate Barbara Fister’s blogpost from today on this last point.  Our responsibility, in libraries and in education generally, is not, I think, to merely reproduce another generation of academics, but to send people out into the world better equipped than they were before for participating in civil society.



Lave, Jean, & Wenger, Etienne. (1991). Situated Learning:  Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Learning in Doing:  Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Rogoff, Barbara.  (1990).  Apprenticeship in Thinking:  Cognitive Development in Social Context.    Oxford:  Oxford University Press.
Wenger, Etienne. (1998).  Communities of Practice:  Learning, Meaning, and Identity.  Learning in Doing:  Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives.  Cambridge:  University of Cambridge Press.

[with thanks to Lynn S. Connaway for editing suggestions, and Erin Hood for the V&R scans, and Dave White for saying things that I wanted to write down in this blogpost]

EDUCAUSE 2012, Part the Second

I went to my first ever EDUCAUSE convention in Denver this past week.  I Storified it already, and that was a good way to give a general feel for what it was like for me to be there (other people have given good general run-downs as well, about the three keynotes,  the range of vendors and products in the Exhibit Hall,  some aspects of the never-ending MOOC discussion,  and the CIO’s perspective via Twitter, and also in panel discussions.

It was really something.  I call it a “convention” rather than a “conference,” because there was a huge trade-show element to it that, while not completely unexpected, was pretty unfamiliar to me.  Probably because I’m never the one who companies are trying to sell things to (unless you count books).   I’ll tell you what, you don’t see people in outfits like the one pictured to the right every day, not even at anthropology conferences.

EDUCAUSE appears to me to be structured to expose CIOs to a variety of products, and in particular to sell them on those products (its being described as a “prestigious conference for IT and CIOs in higher education” in one of the blogposts linked to above pretty much supports that impression).  Educause (the organization) also appears to use EDUCAUSE (the convention) to provide a space for CIOs to talk to each other about what is happening on their campuses.  There’s a CIO track that is clearly marked in the EDUCAUSE program, and it’s interesting to think about the bubble that CIOs (and other high-in-the-management-structure academic IT professionals) move through in EDUCAUSE, and what that means about how they do or don’t get exposed to the more academic presentations that are also a part of the program.

I was tremendously worried about our 8AM on Friday session time, but it turns out for a variety of reasons that our Visitors and Residents presentation was well-attended by really engaged EDUCAUSE-goers. I was co-presenting with my colleagues Lynn Connaway, from OCLC, and Dave White, from Oxford University.

We benefited in part from a lack of competition–the trade show was over as of the night before, and the keynote speaker was yet to come.   But people really wanted to hear what we had to say about how people interact with the web, and in particular really wanted to talk about how the ways they and their constituencies uses of the web could map to this pole-chart (given as an example by Dave, who was walking them through the exercises):

We managed to capture (via a variety of GoogleDocs, and cell phone pictures of whiteboards and notepads) about 20 maps of individuals.  They are a delightful variable bunch.  For example:

This is a digital collage of four of the maps that our session-goers generated about their own modes of engagement.  The top pole is Personal, the bottom pole is Institutional, the far left is Visitor-mode, and the far right is Resident (if you’re forgetting what those terms mean, I’ve blogged about our project more here , and here, and you can always read about it on Dave’s blog here.).  Essentially, we were trying to get them to think not just about the digital tools they used and places they visit, but what they really did with those things, and how that mapped to the V and R continuum in relation to the spheres of their personal and institutional lives.

Here’s what happens when you highlight just the Facebook part of their maps:

Facebook is literally all over the map(s)!
Some people use the private messaging part of FB more than wall-messages and other public forms of Facebooking, so that puts FB on the V side of things.  Some people only use FB for personal things, which puts it way at the top of their maps.  Some people use it nearly exclusively in Resident mode, with lots of wall  posts and other activities that leave persistent digital traces.  The number of long rectangles, indicating FB use that spans personal and institutional lives, as well as movement along the V and R continuum, are lovely demonstrations of just how wide the range of types of engagement with Facebook can be.  And, that’s just one example.

A couple of things crystallized about the V and R analysis we’ve been working with as I talked it through in the session, especially in relation to thinking about how people engage (or don’t) with the services and tools provided by their institutions.  I think about, for example, the struggle to get students to communicate within Learning Management Systems, when we know that they’re communicating all over the place on Twitter, on Facebook, and via text.  One problem may well be that people expect to be able to hang onto the content that they generate in these systems (perhaps a problematic assumption, but a powerful motivator nevertheless).  So, if they build a social network (and all of the attendant content and relationships) within an institutionally-based system, they will not be able to take it with them when they leave the institution.  With Facebook, on the other hand, just because an individual changes jobs, schools, what have you, doesn’t mean they will have to migrate all of their digital content to another system–they can just friend or unfriend, change their security settings, etc. (*I KNOW these are problematic assumptions.  I’m making an argument here that people are motivated at least in part by these problematic assumptions about how this stuff is Theirs).

Another thing that was just made more clear to me (although I was already fairly convinced of it before) is that it’s important for institutions (and the people who work for them) not to confuse particular digital tools or places with specific modes of engagement or behavior.  There is no universe in which Facebook ALWAYS = Goofing Off, however much people may use Facebook as an equivalent to time-wasting.  There is no universal mode of engagement with Twitter.  Some people use it as a news feed.  Some people use it to connect with friends.  Some people use it as a clearinghouse for all of their professional contacts and relevant content.  “Being on Twitter” is a meaningless statement without knowledge of the content of that presence.  In the same way that a person can be in a cafe to meet and be with friends, or to be alone to get work done on an article they are writing, or just to be in a place to get a cup of coffee and then leave, the places/tools on the internet like Twitter and Facebook are given meaning by the intentions of the people who use and inhabit them.

NPR, Social Media, and Changing Human Behavior for the Better.


NPR is once again doing me a great service, in broadcasting just the right stories to help me think about all of the things in my head.

Recently, researchers collaborating with Facebook released this report on how people’s FB networks affect their behavior in terms of registering to vote.  One conclusion that caught my attention was that people’s closest friends (in particular, those FB friends with whom they interact a great deal, and who are likely to also be in their face-to-face network) were particularly influential in people’s decisions to register to vote.

On Science Friday, our friend Ira Flatow brought in Todd Rodgers, a social psychologist who has experimented with the phenomenon of politicians dodging questions.  His intent was not to prevent the dodge (that would be amazing, if hard to imagine), but rather to investigate people’s reactions to the dodge, and to try to figure out ways that people could think critically about the content of what candidates were saying.  He pointed to two strategies in particular:  in a television context, having the original question displayed on the screen allowed viewers to keep the original question in mind (and therefore more effectively judge whether or not the question was ever answered), and using SMS like Twitter as a way of calling out the dodges (this has been done by Fox news, with the #dodge hashtag).  The point is to allow for people to not just evaluate what is a dodge (and therefore have more information about how candidates approach issues that voters might consider to be important), but to be able to communicate with other people in one’s network about that dodginess, and therefore disseminate the critical thinking process across a wider range of the potential electorate.

Ira brought James Fowler, one of the authors of the Facebook study, into the conversation, and what resulted was a very interesting discussion of the reasons that people would or would not change their behavior.  Central to the discussion was the idea that people are most affected by the people they are surrounded by and connected to.  People are, apparently, most likely to change their minds or behavior because of what someone they know and care about does or thinks.  They are far less likely to be affected by distant friends of friends.

But NPR didn’t stop there–they broadcast another report, this one about the role of teachers’ expectations of students in student success.  The research discussed looked at how teachers responded to training around expectations of students (in a context where it is clear that high expectations can lead to greater student success).  The most effective training, that is, the training that changed teacher expectations of students for the better, was that which emphasized behavior.  Teachers who were given behavioral strategies for dealing with disruptive students that allowed them to communicate high expectations fared far better than those teachers who were simply told that they should have high expectations of their students.

For me, the common thread in all of these discussions is the continuing importance of face-to-face interactions and relationships, and the role of behavior in shaping the thoughts and motives of people who are making judgement calls about people and information.  This is important to me not just because I am an anthropologist, but because I am an anthropologist who works in an academic library, and who is doing research on, among other things, how it is that people make decisions about what information is reliable, and which is not.

Amanda French tweeted the other day, “email is made of people.”  Which is funny, obvious, and brilliant all at once.  We cannot forget that SMS are also made of people–Twitter is people, Facebook is people.  Therefore, understanding how and why people behave the way that they do must be central to any analysis of the impact of social media and other digital tools/environments.

What I am getting out of some of our findings in the Visitors and Residents project is that people are primarily influenced by those who are firmly embedded in their own social network (whether that network is a digitally-facilitated one, or not).  This helps us answer questions like, Why do undergraduates (in particular, freshmen) ask their friends about their research papers rather than their professors?  Answer:  they are drawing upon their social network.  They frequently try to ask friends who have taken the relevant classes for help, but their professors are not a part of the first line of inquiry, despite frequently being the “best” ones to go to for answers.  As they go through the higher education system, and acquire more experts in their close social network, the ability to ask experts for advice nicely overlaps with the content of their social network (this is particularly true of those who go on to graduate school in a particular field).

The importance (and authority) of people’s face-to-face social networks is shot through all of the reports above.  It needs to be in the front of our minds when we try to analyze the behavior of students and faculty in the current information environment with which they (and we) are confronted.   And it cannot be enough for those of us who work in higher education to simply tell students what is best for them.  That clearly doesn’t work.  They need to be shown, they need to be embedded in the social networks that comprise the university community so that they can engage in the behaviors that result in success.  Abstract discussions about what is successful and effective will never be enough.

SOPA Protest Outcomes, Activism vs. Everyday Life

Several high-traffic sites were down yesterday, on a kind of a strike in protest of the so-called anti-piracy legislation that was working its way through congress (SOPA in the House, PIPA in the Senate).  The momentum of the legislation has significantly slowed, thanks to the counter-lobbying carried on  yesterday by users of the internet, and people who produce some of the content that ends up on the web.  Up until yesterday, apparently, the voices being heard by Congress were primarily those of publishers and other people who profit from the content of the internet.

At any rate, it was something I was curious about–to what extent would the website strikes actually affect the everyday lives of people who use the internet?  So I sent out an email, I blogged, and tweeted.  I got the most responses via email, from people I know face to face (my collaborators in the V&R project would have something to say about that, I’ll bet).  For the most part, there was very little impact–I heard back primarily from faculty, who said that they could, for the most part, do the things they’d intended to do online yesterday.  Those things included using their university email, Google, Google Scholar, and Google Books, Twitter, and university library websites and databases.  A couple of professors occasionally use Wikipedia to help clarify terms for their lecture prep, and they had to google for alternate sources.  A couple of colleagues were stymied in non-academic activities by the lack of Craigslist and Wikipedia, but for the most part, the academic work of the experts in their respective fields was relatively uninterrupted.

One faculty member reported that her graduate students who rely on Wikipedia for clarification of technical terms were suffering a bit yesterday.  The most suffering probably was experienced by undergraduates and high school students, if this twitter stream is any indication. 

But many people took time out of their day yesterday to call their legislators in protest against SOPA/PIPA.  Even though sites like Google were up, they included links to information and petition sites.  I initially wondered what the impact of the strike might have been if Google had shut down, or Twitter, or (*gasp*) Facebook.   Why not really take things down, scare the hell out of people, make them feel what they’d be missing where it would be really obvious (in a way that copyright concerns seldom are in everyday life)?

Here’s what I think:  the content that flooded Twitter, Google, and FB yesterday was largely about SOPA, PIPA, what was at stake, and how to fight it.  If those sites had also been down, a powerful platform for activism would also have been unavailable.  I don’t know if this was by design, but leaving the big SMS and Google up was a really effective way to both show a little bit of what the internet would be like under the proposed legislation, and to really flex the internet’s ability to facilitate activism on a grand scale.

For now, it looks like it worked.