Tag Archives: fieldwork

Who Gets to Have Agency?

Trinity College, Hartford CT

I was pleased to have the chance to visit Trinity College, thanks to the invitation of Jason Jones.  I was asked to talk about “Agency” which I something I’ve been writing about and around most of this year, I think.  As usual this is my attempt to represent in writing what I said in the room.

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Trinity College is located just west of the Kwinitekw River, within Wangunk homelands. The colonial city of Hartford occupies lands that were called Suckiaug, or black fertile earth in Algonquian. The river valley has sustained countless generations of Wangunk people, joined by indigenous communities from across the globe, including within Hartford’s Andean, Central American, and Caribbean communities. The land currently known as Connecticut is the territory of the Mohegan , Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett and Nipmuc Peoples,

I want to begin by telling the story of Bryan Short.  You should read his own account of his experiences with submitting and FOI request for his data as collected by the learning management system (LMS) at the University of British Columbia.  If you do nothing else, watch this video he produced on the collection of student data.  Bryan was kind enough to talk to me earlier this year about what happened in his final year at UBC. 

He was working at Digital Tattoo, which is a learning resource for students to teach about digital identity, and how what they do online might impact in the face to face world.  He had a supervisor who encouraged him to look at the LMS, asking questions specifically about what data gets collected, and how it might be used

Bryan was funded through the center for teaching, learning and technology (the part of the university responsible for the LMS).  He encountered people in the CLT who were encouraging a critical take, as well as people (in particular those managing the LMS directly) who clearly felt a bit defensive about his line of inquiry.  He also recalls people in central IT services who, while worried about speaking out themselves, encouraged Bryan to be critical.  

Bryan looked into the Terms of Use, and figured that the only way to learn comprehensively what was going on with his data was to submit an FOI request.  And this turned out to be a big hassle because they his University didn’t actually have a process in place–suggesting to him that the expectation was that no student would actually ask about their data in the first place.

Bryan suggested that the lack of process, what seems to be a lack of caring about students and their data, was actually a lack of disclosure and transparency.  

Over the course of trying to get his university to share what was happening with the data their systems were collecting on him, Bryan never felt comprehensively supported in his interrogation of the process.  He encountered people who saw learning analytics as a way to help students. When “more forthright” instructors helped him ask questions by showing him the LMS dashboard that instructors could use for participation, he took that information to administrators, who were dismissive about whether the data collected would be actually be used (which does suggest we should be asking why collect data that is unlikely to be used…)

Bryan’s experience was that UBC was pushing back against his requests.  They blew through a few deadlines, implying that his requests were unreasonable.  Their pushing away of him made him angry, and motivated him to continue. He was invited to speak to grad students at the iSchool, and he encouraged people in the class to fill out the forms and ask for the data because he wanted to see if multiple requests would really break the university’s ability to comply.  

As he spoke to me about this, he remembered feeling tenuous about the project.  He even received emails from supporters that suggested that they were being pressured about what he was doing, and that he might get pulled into meetings about it.

At the end of his time at UBC, the university switched their LMS from Blackboard to Canvas.  For his final online-only class, he chose not to agree to the terms of use for Canvas. That created tension between him and his instructors, who then had to email materials to him individually.  He also couldn’t engage in class discussions with his classmates, and in the end of course this impacted his ability to be successful in classes, and he didn’t get same experience that others were getting.

Bryan filed another FOI for UBC and Instructure, and didn’t get information on time to do anything with it as a Digital Tattoo employee.  The day he received the information was his last day at Digital Tattoo, and there could be no followup on his part.  

Bryan remembers hearing instructors and administrators say that the data collected would “help us help you!” but when he asked for evidence that the data collection actually helped struggling students, there was nothing.  There were, however, clear benefits for administrators wanting to manage and report on student activities.  

So let’s think about this, and ask the question:

Who gets to say no?

I read and hear versions of “We have all this data we should do something with it”  and “Help us help you” with no stories at all about students who were actually helped by massive data collection.  When questioned, many suggest they want this data because they are coming from a place of care.

At Trinity, there is a merged unit–IT and Library, and as such is a unit in charge of multiple systems that collect and store student and faculty data, 

And historically libraries didn’t keep all this data, because of concern about patron privacy and protection

The potential of the systems we have now to collect and surveill makes it easy to do market- imperative-driven things such as offer suggestions, create profiles, and there is plenty of pressure to do so.

How much agency gets surrendered to these systems, to the predictive algorithm?

Chris Gilliard (2016)  and Safiya Noble’s (2018) works provide two important cautions about the ways in which digital structures reproduce and amplify inequality.  Technology is not neutral, and the digital tools, platforms, and places with which we engage, online or off, are made by people, and informed by our societies, and all of the biases therein.

This, then  is an important educational consideration:  the tension between a “market forces” argument to use the data to predict and prescribe actions, vs. an approach that centers pedagogy, process, and potential, and resists prediction in favor of providing opportunities to see what might happen.

In my work as an anthropologist in libraries and universities I have contributed to physical space and web redesigns.  There’s been an interesting tension between “find problems and fix them” and “explore how people study/do research/teach/write”  I write about it with Andrew Asher in our article “Ethnographish.”  In particular, we point to the culture of libraries (and the nature of institutions generally) as resistant to open-ended work that doesn’t have a concrete problem to solve:

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

Lanclos and Asher (2016)

I think these are related, the tensions I am identifying here. The contrast between treating students as problems to be solved (via predictive analytics) and treating students as people engaging in complex processes within education, emerges from a similar place that generates the contrast between “problem-solving” and open-ended exploration of behavior.  These are different parts of the same conversation around “What is the role of education?”

“A college education, whether it is a night class in auto mechanics or a graduate degree in physics, has become an individual good.  This is in contrast to the way we once thought of higher (or post-secondary) education as a collective good, one that benefits society when people have the opportunity to develop their highest abilities through formal learning.” 

(Tressie McMillan Cottom, LowerEd 2017, p. 13)

Whether you think education is about people acquiring credentials (a commodity) or if it’s a collective good, important to society as a whole, will likely play a part in whether you think that people working in institutions should primarily problem-solve, or work in less transactional ways to gain insight.  

In a lot of design work I see the use of Personas, and there are some interesting issues around the use of personas and the extent to which they do or do not get directly reflected in designs.

What I have also  found in my own more recent work, as someone brought in to various higher and further education contexts to help people reflect on and develop their personal and professional practices, is that identity categories are quickly taken up by people.  

We are primed in a variety of ways by diagnostic tests and also “fun” internet quizzes to label themselves.  “I’m ENTJ” “I’m 40 but my social media age is 16” I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops trying to manage people’s anxieties around what they think these categories say about them as people.  They apologise for their practice, because they can read the judgements embedded in the labels–”capable” “novice” “1st year” “1st gen”

 We have people deciding that they were more or less capable depending on the label they felt fit them. 

Early in my time doing work in libraries, I was tasked with some web usability testing.  We generated tasklists, reported on the efficacy of web environments, etc. It was clear to me in the work that people didn’t sit down to a website and say “I’m a first year, and I’m using this website”  They sat down and said “I’m writing a paper, I need to find sources.” So I was perplexed at the use of personas in web UX, because in the course of my research I saw people making meaning of their encounters with the web environment based on what they wanted and needed to do, first and foremost–not who they were.  What I was told, when I asked, was that personas are useful to have in meetings where you need to prove that “users are people.”

(Sidenote–I’d rather start with “people” than “users” especially in a library context because your community includes  people who aren’t necessarily visible “users” of any of your spaces)

When UX workers use personas, to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The utility of personas is a symptom of the lack of control that libraries and librarians have over the systems they use. How absurd to have to make the argument that these websites and databases will be used by people.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians? Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them. It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

So I have a problem, clearly, with using personas as a design principle for organizing your spaces around identity

I think it’s important to consider:   what are your systems and structures communicating to the people in your library about what is possible?  Is it organized around who you think they are?  

Or about what they can do?

One of those provides more room for choice and agency than the other

This is not to say that identity doesn’t matter–but what we want is for identity to come from, and inform how the students wants to work and what their work means.  We should not want for identity to be a controlling category that limits what is possible.

Who is to say that undergraduates don’t need similar kinds of access to website space that faculty do?  At some point both of them are writing, both of them are researching. The difference is in how deep a dive they do, not in the basic activities.

So, my advocacy would be for practice-based personas, if you are going to use them.  Why?

Because it provides space for agency.  

All year I have been giving talks that revolve around deCerteau’s distinction between kinds of agency, in particular tactical vs. strategic agency.  

I have mentioned refusal and we can use deCerteau’s framing to distinguish between tactical refusal, which comes from from a position of no power, and strategic refusal, which can be engaged in by people with power.    

Let’s think about our community members.–and here I will be indulging in a bit of personas

What does student agency look like? They can make choices.  But there are often constraints around those choices. It’s worth asking, for example, in the case of learning analytics, the extent to which a student could actually choose not to participate in the systems that harvest data, and still successfully navigate to their degree.  

Faculty have more institutional power than students, and sometimes more than non-faculty staff at universities and colleges, but they are themselves embedded in their own webs of power and influence, and don’t always get to be strategic.  For example, they technically have choices about when and where to publish, but there are tenure and promotion requirements that constrain their choices. Even if faculty value Open Access and all it stands for, if they want tenure might have to submit their work to journals that are closed and paywalled, because that is what success looks like in their discipline.

Faculty can also be limited in what and how they teach, as I witnessed when a junior faculty member at a university was discouraged from teaching in active learning classrooms because they “can’t teach as much content that way.” Regardless of that faculty member’s own perspective on teaching and effectiveness, they only had so much power to engage.  It’s also worth remembering that any faculty member who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man is even more vulnerable, and in need of care.

This is all about power and culture as well as practice.  

So, what are people working in education, in IT and libraries,  to do?

Let’s think again about orienting to practice, rather than identity.  I find this useful not just as an anthropologist, but as someone concerned with social justice, and the ways that institutions can use identity to constrain and cap the potential that people have to do unexpected things.

Approaches to digital literacy can be similarly constraining–when we test people and put them in categories, that offers fewer options (and far less imagination) than assuming that everyone has a practice, but also everyone (faculty and students alike) upon arrival into an institution could use some information and help with How Things Are Done Here and What Is Possible.

So in an ideal world, libraries and educational IT (and the universities and colleges in which they are embedded) would recognize the range of practices involved in scholarship (reading, writing, processing, communicating, researching, testing, etc) and then also have the resources to configure places (digital and physical) where these things are not only possible, but those possibilities are signaled to their community members.

This is not the same thing as “freshmen go here”

This is about flexibility, and communication, and also the ability to let go of what people “should” be doing when they do scholarship.  While there are wrong ways to do it, there is also a spectrum of right ways, and much of that has to do with accommodating the ways that people need to fit being a scholar into the rest of their lives.

I want to point here to the work I got to do on the lives of commuter students.  In that project, we interviewed student-parents about their academic practices, and where they studied (and why) to gain insight into their lives.  We got to use this work to make an argument for a family-friendly study room in the library, and then evaluate the initial impact that room might have on the lives of students.  This wasn’t a project that was reacting to a “demand” for it–there wasn’t a sense among students before we started this project that this was work the library could do. In connecting with students, and listening to the stories of trying to carve time out to study in the course of their complex lives, we worked towards giving our students more choices.  This was the library Facilitating strategic agency : using the power that the library and education technology can have to create spaces for students to discover and engage in the kinds of practices that work well for them.

Open-ended ethnography can be a way to create space for us to imagine ways to allow agency in educational spaces.  Exploratory work that isn’t just about “solving problems” can lead to insight, and allow library and IT workers agency too, to go beyond instrumental approaches, to move away from purely tactical, reactive approaches, and to gain access to more strategic levels of iterative planning and decision making

Resources and Further Reading

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. The New Press,  2017.

Chris Gilliard and Hugh Kulik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/weave/12535642.0001.503?view=text;rgn=main

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

Lanclos, Donna and Winterling, Rachael “Making Space in the Library for Student Parents” in  Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-Based Strategies, Mariana Regalado and Maura A. Smale, eds. (33-51).  (Chicago: American Library Association) 2018. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-EwMBW4DXF1WUVrZEtYeUp0Y1BZbE5RTDBKakpzdWFqQ0Rn/view

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

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

November sunset in Guelph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The implications we drew out were as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(sound familiar?)

Read the damn thing yourself too, it’s terrifying to me: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/22/school-student-surveillance-bark-gaggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Gilliard, Chris “Digital Redlining”  featured session, EDUCAUSE conference, Chicago, October 16, 2019.  https://events.educause.edu/annual-conference/2019/agenda/digital-redlining

Gilliard, Chris and Hugh Culik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).  https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/weave/12535642.0001.503?view=text;rgn=main

Obermeyer, Ziad, and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Dissecting Racial Bias in an Algorithm that Guides Health Decisions for 70 Million People.” Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, 2019. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6464/447 

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

Seamster, Louise, and Raphaël Charron-Chénier. “Predatory inclusion and education debt: Rethinking the racial wealth gap.” Social Currents 4.3 (2017): 199-207. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2329496516686620?journalCode=scua

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

Listening to Teachers and Students

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

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

ANYWAY.

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

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

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

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

Terra nullius

https://pixabay.com/en/desert-dirt-dry-cracked-mud-terry-1803878/

Part of the work I do now is going into organizations and working with people on the ways they would like to change both their own and their institution’s collective practices around research,  teaching and learning within digital contexts.  I facilitate workshops, collaborate on research, and deliver talks wherein I try to center the practices and priorities of people, rather than the technology they are using.

In this work, I have encountered a troubling pattern.  I’ve started thinking of it as the terra nullius framework for digital.  I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because I don’t want to say that justifications for digital change initiatives are the same as the justification for colonization, dispossession, and genocide.  What I am struck by is the number of times I’ve been asked into a room, or encountered people within a particular room, and heard “we need to become digital”  “People don’t do digital around here.”  “No one here is engaged with [insert digital thingy here.]”  And then in the course of the workshop/conversation/research project it becomes obvious early on that people are engaging in and within digital platforms, places, and tools.  Just, perhaps not in the way that institutional leaders assume they should be, or that marketing folks recognize as valuable practice, or that lecturers recognize as legitimate educational behaviors.  

When leaders, managers, lecturers, or consultants (who are becoming more common in higher ed, she said, advisedly) or indeed anyone suggests that there are no valuable digital practices in their particular context, they set the stage for the wholesale import of a set of practices.  They ignore what is actually there because it’s more convenient, or more politically useful, to suggest that there is no pre-existing landscape of behaviors that deserves attention.  The political reasons for such an approach are clear–people brought in to effect and manage change want to be able to point to massive “progress”–”See, there was nothing here, and now LOOK WHAT THEY ARE DOING it’s all down to me.”  And then they can move on to the next post, on the back of their record of “effective change.”  

The terra nullius approach to digital takes away at least two things:  1) the ability to recognize and encourage good practices, and 2)  the ability to recognize and change practices that do not currently serve anyone particularly well.  

Making the assumption that there is “no useful existing state of affairs,” means that during any change process you will be leaving people behind; and whatever emerges from the process will also have meant leaving any pre-existing effective practice and culture behind too. A terra nullius approach does not recognize or value people.  

I see mapping practice, and then communicating the content of those maps, facilitating conversations that emerge from the mapping, as one antidote to the problematic assumptions of a digital wasteland, empty of good things.  It’s an approach that values the people in those workshops, that recognizes their presence in their organizations, and the value of their work.

All of the metaphors in my head are colonizing, are military, are brutal.  Any “leaders” or “change agents” who assume that the people in their organization are lacking, and have been until the moment the new leader showed up with their all-new plan, are acting in violent ways towards the people who work for them.  Why assume people aren’t doing anything that works?  Why assume there is no reason for practice to look the way it does?  Why assume people don’t know things?

It’s also worth asking who might get to continue doing what they are doing, after the change initiatives take place.  Whose practice gets valued?  Is it only one kind of person?  What structures of power, of racism, of sexism, of other discriminations, are shot through organizational assumptions around what people are doing, and whether or not it is worthwhile?

How about asking:

What are you doing?

What works for you?

What would you like to be doing?

How can I help?

 

How about saying:

I see you.

 

Welcome! Where do you Belong?

Well!

For those of you catching up (that, er, would include me), my family and I are living in the UK for a year.  The fact that we were already in the UK at the end of July meant that I actually got to attend the International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries conference (formerly known as “the Northumbria conference,” apparently), held in Oxford this year.

I was presenting along with Andrew Asher on our project (along with many other partners in crime) on a Day in the Life of our students.  There’s a version of our paper here, from what we as a group presented at LAC in 2016 , and the paper we presented in Oxford will be in the forthcoming conference proceedings.

We also, Andrew and I, were invited to run a workshop on ethnographic observations.  It was (it always is) great fun, and I enjoyed being reminded again about the power of qualitative research, and the insights and rich data even just 15 minutes of observing can yield.

The last time I was in Oxford was in 2014, and I was just a tourist, up for a day of wandering about.  I wrote about part of my experience at the time–I found Oxford lovely, but distanced.  It was a place I could never see myself being comfortable in, full of gates and doors that were closed, and walls with no entrances at all.

It was in stark contrast to my experience of Cambridge in the following Spring, which is weird when you think about it, because Cambridge too has walls and gates and closed doors.  The two places are often mentioned in the same breath, the same word, “Oxbridge.”  The difference to me (this will not surprise you) is that I was invited to Cambridge.  

I felt welcome in Cambridge because I’d been invited.  I am still leery of Oxford because that initial feeling that I didn’t belong there has never really worn off.  So, Cambridge probably isn’t actually more welcoming.  I was just invited.  

And the fact is I get invited.  I am a white middle class academic woman and I am a category of person by whom very few people feel threatened and to whom an inordinate amount of privilege accumulates.  My subjective experience of the world is generally:  I get invited.  I therefore have serious responsibilities to those who do not.

There have been events in the last few months that have generated discussions online and f2f that are shaping the ways I am thinking about inclusivity, welcoming, belonging.  How do we as people who work within institutions achieve the “inclusive,”what does “welcoming” actually mean, how do people come to feel they “belong?”

Fobazi Ettarh, Chris Bourg, April Hathcock, and several people within the #DigPed community, especially Maha Bali and Sherri Spelic, have been writing in and around these themes.  Who is welcome?  How is it signaled (or not)? What does it mean for those positioned outside?  

There are far too few people who feel welcome in our public spaces, in our gatherings, in our discussions, in our institutions, in our cities, in our countries.

If we have to explicitly call out people as welcome, then we leave other people out. So, how do we create inclusive spaces without the “welcome” problem?  I am thinking of a student I interviewed in the Spring–we were talking about belonging, and how he identified spaces where he belonged.  He was an international student, a graduate student from Pakistan, and he said that in North Carolina, for him, comfortable spaces were ones where he could look around and see lots of different kinds of people. Homogeneous spaces in North Carolina were usually people “not like him,” and a visible mix of a wide range of people signaled to him that he might have a chance to belong.

The places we create need to have “welcome” baked into them, and they need to be collectively created, not made by one category for another, but held across a range of perspectives, as a community.  This process requires letting go of ownership by the people who have power, influence, invitations.  It requires thinking about who has license to create and occupy places, and what history, what power relations are behind that license.  Places like Cambridge and Oxford were never built to be welcoming, they epitomize the architecture of exclusion and privilege.  But, such architecture, such structures do not have to be so obvious to be effective.   

Labeling ourselves as “welcoming” and “nice” is part of the problem.  We need, as April Hathcock has said in more than one context, to do the work, to sit with the more than occasionally uncomfortable realities of power and privilege.  Lorraine Chuen points this out in regard to conference codes of conduct:  we cannot simply assert that we are “nice”and think that means something to people who have been excluded and defined as “outside.”

So, in the short-to-medium term, in the work that I do, I want to turn to ways that students are finding and building places that they belong, the barriers they encounter, the help they find, and what success and failure in those endeavors might look like.  The conversations I had in the Spring are, I hope, a start towards informing institutional practices that can give students and faculty the space and the tools to make the places of the university (including the library) truly collectively held.

 

Three Stories: UXLibs II Keynote

20160628_135015

Last year’s tote, this year’s badge.

UXLibs II, with hindsight, feels like it was always inevitable , but right after the exhaustion set in last year after UXLibs The First, there was no sense from anyone (outside perhaps of Matt Borg and Andy Priestner) that it was of course going to take place.  We even thought that if it did happen, it might be in two years (and possibly in Moncton).  I was really really pleased to find out that they were going to take the plunge, have a second event, and see what else could emerge from the UXLibs community this time.  A different event, with some of the same people, and with some new people, and with more things to talk about and explore.  

I was thrilled to be invited back to participate in any way.  I love the UXLibs team, the community they are building.  I want to hang onto the hope, drive, and positive energy they are bringing to our practices.  So I’ll put these words here, and look forward to hearing when and where we all get to be together again for UXLibs III.

Last summer, Ned Potter tweeted this to me:

When Ned introduced me to the UXLibs II group this year, and said out loud what he tweeted last summer, I smiled and was grateful to be in such a friendly room.

There are those who measure their success as an anthropologist by whether or not they are kicked out of the place they do their fieldwork.  I prefer to measure mine by whether or not I am invited back–I am so pleased to have been invited back.

I’d like to tell some stories.  And then we can think together about what they might mean.

Picture1

My mother’s back garden.

My parents live in Southern California, and they have been in this house since 1983. My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew flowers and fruit in his yard in Louisiana, where she grew up.  I remember visiting him and eating satsuma and kumquats off of his trees, admiring his tulip tree, taller than his house, and eating the marigolds (well, when I was very small) from around the lamp post not far from the swing set.  My family moved into the Southern California house when I was 13, to citrus trees, plum trees, one white nectarine tree (that fruit tasted like heaven) and a whole lot of other things my mother didn’t really like very much.  Since then she has been planting, digging, replanting, and this is what we have to show for it.

Picture2

These amaryllis came from my grandfather’s yard in Louisiana.

My mother’s gardening philosophy:   plant what you think might work.

Picture3

If it dies, there are two lessons to learn:

1) don’t plant that again

2)  PLANT SOMETHING ELSE

Picture4

 

Far too often, organizations just don’t plant anything else.  There needs to be an additional step–the reason they tried something in the first place was that they knew something needed to be done.  That situation hasn’t changed, even if the plant they tried is dead.  Plant something else!

One hazard of being in organizations within Higher Education such as libraries is there are people who’ve been around for so long that they remember all of the plants that have died–some of them keep lists!  And that list of dead plants can seem like reason enough to never plant anything new again.

An addendum from my mom:  sometimes, the plants die and it is your fault.  You didn’t water them enough, you put them in too much sun, or not enough.  The things you do always take place within a larger context–provide yourself with enough space to reflect so that you have a fighting chance of figuring out why things didn’t work.  And then still, try something else.

Ethnography can give people a window onto possibility, not just onto what has been done, or what people say they want, but what can be done, and how useful it would be.  Having a sense of the larger context in which you try stuff is crucial–this is what I keep talking about in libraries, not existing in isolation, but in a network.

The tracks of UXLibs II are Nailed, Failed, and Derailed.

Here is where I am a bit cross with you, UXLibs darlings:  I happen to know that there were far fewer Failed and Derailed submissions.  

I think I might know why, I think it’s  because of that word, fail, and even the sense that you got derailed, it’s hard to talk about that, it’s easier to talk about our successes, (that’s what I’m asked to talk about in my work, in my day job–what are we doing well?)  It’s easy and satisfying to get to stand up and say “We did a thing!  It’s great!  Yay us!”

And we should have those opportunities.  But I find conferences these days, especially library conferences, full of these kinds of self-congratulatory presentations.  But failure and derailment have the power to reveal processes, structures, possibilities.

 I’m so much more drawn to the Failed and Derailed parts of UXLibs II, because while it’s great to hear success stories–they are necessary beacons to our ambitions– it is to me more interesting and useful to hear the things that didn’t work out, or didn’t go quite as things planned.

For instance, my entire career, the whole string of reasons that I am here today, are because at a very important part of my life, I was utterly derailed.

To even get to the point where you fail, you have to have gotten the chance to try. So when your subjective experience of trying to effect change is not successful, what do you do?

What does “doing things” mean?  What do we mean by “action?”

Picture5

Portrait of the anthropologist in the field (far right, back turned).

Once upon a time I did fieldwork in Northern Ireland.  

I was doing cross-community work, and working in schools because I wanted to collect children’s folklore, and being embedded in schools was a safe way (for the kids and for me) for me to be in touch with them and talk to them and observe what they were doing when not in the classroom.  One school in particular was small, so small they did not have regular recess times, but just went out on the playgrounds when their teachers felt it worked with their schedule.  I sat with those kids over school dinners to maximize my time with them.   

One small boy in particular would tell me jokes;

“What do you call a man made out of cement?” 

“A wee hard man.” 

That punch line, which made my 8 year old friend laugh like a drain, was also real. This was a school that had a paramilitary mural painted on its side.  The “hard men” were these kids’ fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandfathers.  

So there was a time when there were very few kids at school that day, for several days, and the reason that the kids were absent was because of a feud.  Not sectarian violence–that’s Protestant-Catholic.  Just violence.  Kids whose family members were involved in Loyalist paramilitary groups were staying away from town, everyone was hunkered down at home.

And I felt more useless than I had in my entire life (Note:  I’ve since felt more useless than that, but not by much).

So I took my feelings to the pub, to my friend Noel–a former social worker.  And he shared that the same feeling of uselessness had dogged him while doing social work.  And had in fact informed his move into doing an anthropology degree.  So he re-framed things for me.  While I had the sense that I “wasn’t doing anything,” my friend suggested rather that anthropology is not just doing something, but providing a platform from which to effect more change than direct action sometimes yields.  You can’t fix things.  But that doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything.  

People who work in libraries want to FIX THINGS.  I see this, they want to find problems to solve, and solve them.

But there are other things to be done once you gather this kind of information, the insights yielded by ethnography.  You can report, observe more, collaborate–there are so many different ways of approaching results, and not all of them involve coming up with a Fix for a Problem.  I wonder how we can effectively move away from that sort of solutionism.

Ethnography is not just about identifying problems to solve.  It’s about gathering different understandings.   We need to be up front about how qualitative approaches fundamentally change the ways we approach Doing Libraries. Centering our practice around qualitative data and analysis flies in the face not just of LIS, which is still deeply embedded in the quantitative, but also current entrenched practices in Higher Education.

This shift, it’s bigger than Libraries.  Libraries exist (as I have said before) in a larger context.

So it’s important to have a sense of what qualitative approaches such as ethnographic methods and perspectives can do in terms of informing new approaches and developing new practices.  

I’d like you to think about the rooms you’ve been in where they talk statistics, talk about all the things they don’t know, and cannot know from the numbers.  THERE ARE THESE OTHER WAYS OF KNOWING THINGS, they can help us get at the “whys” to figure out, that numbers cannot show.  

I recall a poster session at ACRL, where there was a librarian who had carried out a qualitative (interview-based) study, and had results, but was uncomfortable with her study’s “low N” and so she made meaningless bar charts to put on her poster. She told me this made her feel better about talking about qualitative results that she didn’t trust.  I see this so much, people being unsure about this unfamiliar approach and running back into the warm embrace of their bar charts and figures.

How do we get leadership to trust qualitative approaches?

How do we get our colleagues to trust us, as qualitative practitioners?

Your Methodology will not save you from the Culture of Libraries.  

This project, here within UXLibs, is not just about telling people how to do this work. It’s about getting people clear about why you would do this sort of thing in the first place.

This a core problem:  how do libraries, how do people in higher and further education make the argument for using these techniques instead of quantitative ones?  Or just as much as?  I’ve made arguments for mixed-methods libraries, but I think it’s actually more important to make an argument for qualitative libraries, because the default is still quantitative.  “Data” is still often in terms of how much, how many, with credibility expressed in terms of quantity.  “Let’s do a survey” feels safe.  That feels like communicating effectively with the Powers that Be, and with our users and communities.

It’s important to be clear that when we are asking libraries and higher education to take qualitative methods and data seriously, it’s going to be challenging.  Because it’s asking for:

–time

–resources

–risk-taking

–vulnerability

— and the de-centering of all-powerful quantitative data that SOUNDS SO AUTHORITATIVE.

It can feel like we are taking people’s numbers away from them when we insist that they should be talking to people about motivations and meaning.  We need to now make the argument that this isn’t simply “more” data or somehow window dressing for the “real” data that is still numbersnumbersnumbers.  We need to make the argument that what we learn from qualitative approaches is the stuff that can drive and sustain the kinds of changes that academia and Libraries need to make to be truly responsive and effective.

This is also not just about knowing particular research methods, but in being willing to try, to risk, to ask how to move from status A to situation B.

Picture6

Photo of my own copy of this book. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/308290.Interpreting_Folklore

My PhD advisor, Alan Dundes, was a folklorist, one of the “young turks” of American Folkloristics in the 1960s, and he started off as a structuralist.  He was taught that the collecting and classifying of folklore materials (jokes, tales, songs, and all other manner of folk genres) was the core work of folklorists.  He swiftly grew weary of all of the collecting and classifying, the piling up of material in the absence of interpretation.  He became a Freudian, and remained so the rest of his career, alarming and annoying and infuriating as wide a range of people as possible with article such as “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown:  A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.”

Picture7

 

He really didn’t care if you agreed with him or not.

Picture9

He wanted you to take a risk, make a case, say something interesting.   And if you were wrong, particularly if you were his student, he expected you to make a new case with other interesting things.  

Picture11

Hanging out in front of Inka cut stonework at Q’uenko, Peru. Photo by the Elder Teen.

I have been with archaeologists in some form or another most of my adult life.  My best friend in graduate school was an archaeologist (and she still is).  I am married to Indiana Jones.

And I witnessed this thing where people would go into the field over and over again, constantly collecting data.  Their presentations were full of counts and pictures and maps.  They would spend their entire time talking about their methods and data and leave no time for interpretation and meaning.  

But:

At some point, in applied work (like we are doing here at UXLibs, like I have to do in my work), it becomes necessary to stop collecting data, engage in interpretation, and start doing.  Changing. To become an active organization, not just a reactive one.  To do more than what is simply being asked of us, and gather and build a firm sense of who we are based on what we do, know,  and understand.

 

So, what does “action” mean?  It has to be more than band-aids, more than “the printer is broken/out of paper, fix it and put it back”  

Action can be:

–describing and interrogating organizational structures (a necessary first step to change)

–representing missing points of view (which can then have an impact on what happens next)

These are things that are not traditionally “actions” but that do have an impact. To be truly transformative, you need to point these techniques towards big picture holistic shit.  If this work is only ever about how you figured out what kind of furniture to buy, it’s not transformative.

Ethnographic techniques are doomed to produce just another bucket of data if we do not use them to their fullest extent.  I am therefore making a cultural argument, one that requires leadership.  Leaders need to be on board, and in the room (some of you were in the room with us at UXLibs, that’s so great).

Without the space provided by leadership, those transformations cannot happen.

What organizations allow for risk?

What organizations allow for change?

What does leadership look like in those organizations?

Is it only top-down?

[I asked the question]

Who in the room is on their library leadership team as reflected in the organizational chart?

[some hands]

Who in the room is a leader?  

[some hands]

It’s the whole damn room, that’s why you are participating in UXLibs!

What is important here is not leadership, but NETWORKED leadership–if we are collectively working we are more powerful at effecting change.  None of the work we are doing now with UXLibs II exists in a vacuum–much of it came out of UXLibs last year, but some pre-dated it, and there’s more stuff that’s not in this room right now.  I would remind you here that the unit of analysis in anthropology is not the individual person, but groups of people.  What UXLibs did last year was reveal the community of people working with these techniques and perspectives to each other.  We are stronger as the network.

Leading change isn’t going it alone, it’s finding and building your team and then changing things together.  Regardless of the organizational chart, regardless of institutional boundaries.

The most important kind of leadership is about creating space for change

Maybe leadership is also about creating space where “risk” is irrelevant–making it all about possibility.  It’s about having a much wider space to feel comfortable talking about where we failed, where we got derailed.  And to actually do the things that might fail, might not go quite as planned.

I am so proud of you.

Now there is more work to do.

Let’s do it together.

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My front garden, 2016.

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

***************************

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.  

Picture4

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?

 

 

When the Active Learning Agenda Comes to Town: #TILC2016

River in Radford

It was a lovely day to visit VIrginia, thank you TILC organizing committee for inviting me.

 

I had the great pleasure of getting to speak to a roomful of library colleagues at the Innovative Library Classroom conference in Radford, VA this past week.  It’s one of those nice small-room conferences that facilitates deep dives, long conversations, and chatty interactions that can inspire and lead to future work that you would never have otherwise been able to consider.

I have been presenting on the work my UNC Charlotte colleagues and I are doing in our Active Learning Classrooms  in a few different contexts.  This is the first time I’ve gotten to speak about what I think the implications are for libraries and librarians.  Several people helped me with the content and the framing of this talk, and I will thank them at the beginning of this blogpost (rather than at the end of the talk).  If I am coherent at all when I give talks it is thanks to the processing that my friends and colleagues allow me to do in their presence, in conversation, on Twitter and email and elsewhere.  They are not of course culpable, any mistakes or disagreements should settle safely on my shoulders alone.

For this talk, I get to thank Dave Cormier, Rich Preville, Kurt Richter, Stephanie Otis, and Susan Harden for talking with, working with, and otherwise indulging me processing aloud in some way.

(Usual caveats about how I am far more Improv Theater than Scripted–here is my best attempt at capturing this particular talk. )

I have been asked to talk to you today about the agenda of active learning classrooms, active learning practices, and active learning places.
I am an anthropologist employed by my library to do research around academic practices, defined very broadly.  I am responsible to the Dean of the Library to bring relevant information around digital and physical spaces and practices, so that our library can make better, more effective decisions about policy, spaces, collections, and agendas.  

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Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte.  Photo Wade Bruton, UNC Charlotte: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stakeyourclaim/6254440195

It has become clear over the last several years that my work is about more than the library, it’s about academia generally, and therefore I have to be present, in my research and in my policy discussions, outside of the library.  So I am collaborating with people in the US, UK, and of course at UNCC who are in centers of teaching and learning, who are in leadership positions around digital pedagogy, as well as in libraries.  

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You’ve seen this cognitive map before. I love these visualizations of how wide-ranging and messy academic practice is, the nice representation of the connected network of learning spaces including but also beyond the library.

So when we talk about Active Learning, I like, as with my library work, to take a broad view.  I am defining active learning for the purposes of this talk as the cluster of pedagogical approaches that center student participation in teaching and learning, and de-center the role of the instructor as Imparter of Knowledge.  It tends to take place in a wide variety of environments, including purpose-built ones like we have at UNC Charlotte.

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UNC Charlotte’s active learning classroom in Kennedy Hall, photo from the Center for Teaching and Learning. Dr. Coral Wayland teaches and learns from her students.

I think it’s useful to ask, when talking about Active Learning Agendas, questions like:  whose agenda?  Is there more than one?  Where are those agendas located?

I see multiple sites for discussions around active learning, and many possible participants.

Another question I have is:  are the agendas embedded in the practices of a university or school?  Or are they accessories that mask the dominant presence of less innovative practice?

I think about the difference between integrated Information Literacy education vs. One-shot library instruction, and what those very different approaches can signal about how the library is situated on campus as a whole.   When one-shot instruction is the only option, what does that mean with regard to the culture of teaching, and the possible library role in it, as a whole?  Conversations I have with instruction librarian colleagues (and indeed, the content of much of the TILC program) indicate that no one thinks it’s a particularly marvelous way to teach people.  But it persists, sometimes as the only game in town.

Likewise we know that lectures are a less effective way of teaching and learning than active pedagogies, but they are still around because…?

There are a number of reasons, but I wonder in particular , where is the time to plan and do otherwise?

How do we create organizational space?  Time?  Priorities? Communities for people to come together and teach as a process?

And I struggle with this a great deal in part because while I’m increasingly witnessing relatively high-level policy discussions around the intentions of our administration, faculty, and community with regard to teaching and learning, and am also getting access to grass-roots practice via fieldwork (observations and interviews mostly, and also some MA-student led work on the anthropology of collaboration among undergraduates), I don’t have a good sense of what the in-between bureaucratic procedures we need at UNCC (or elsewhere) for a sustainable, pervasive active learning agenda.

I am confident that all of the people in the room at TILC are doing as much active teaching and learning as they can, it’s part of why they were at the conference.  I want to explore a bit what my experience around active learning has been at UNC Charlotte, and ask some questions about the role of libraries in the larger educational agenda of universities.

I see active learning as an opportunity for libraries and librarians to partner with teaching faculty–and so as always the question is how do you get buy-in?  How can you get faculty informed, and also informing each other about those opportunities?  How, in the course of engaging in active practices, can we get people to go along with de-centering content, transmission of knowledge, and focus instead on process, on connection, on learning?  Here is where I turn to the work of Dave Cormier and his #rhizo experiments in online learning.

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Image source David L. Van Tassel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Helianthus_maximilianii_rhizomes.jpg

I quote shamelessly from Dave’s blog here:

“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.”

To borrow a phrase from libraries and archives, how do we get to a point where we curate connections rather than curating content?  This has always been the work of the library, but is now more than ever at the center of what we do.  And we are not alone, clearly that shift is happening in the classroom as well as other teaching and learning spaces in universities.

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UNC Charlotte’s active learning classroom in Kennedy Hall, before they started being used. Photo from Center for Teaching and Learning.

UNC Charlotte’s active learning classrooms are the newest teaching spaces on campus, constructed in our oldest building.  We have this agenda and these spaces in part because of our Senior Associate Provost, Dr. Jay Raja, and his commitment to fund and facilitate these classrooms.  The roll out of these spaces was accompanied by a programmatic attention to them in the form of the Active Learning Academy, the leadership team of which is comprised of people from the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Classroom Support, and the Library.  My role is assessment but also in participating in conversations about the role of teaching and pedagogy at UNC Charlotte generally.

In the fieldwork I conducted and facilitated I did observations not just of the classrooms but also of the sessions where faculty teaching in these rooms came together to talk about what they were doing around active learning, and why.  We approached the Active Learning Academy as a community of practice, an opportunity for faculty to share with and learn from each other, far more than another place for faculty to be told what to do by outside experts.

I was most struck by what was anxiety-provoking.  One faculty member, on walking into the space, wanted to know how to turn off the internet.  We heard from another faculty member they had been warned not to teach in classrooms like these, because they would not be able to deliver the content they needed to.  We had another faculty member stop teaching in the classroom after an academic year (we are now at the end of our second full year of these classrooms being open), because he could not lecture effectively in that space.  There was too big a gap between what the room was encouraging him to do, and what he was still comfortable doing.  He was unable to put much distance between himself and the model of authority which required that he know everything, and try to communicate it all in person to his students.

There was some anxiety around what if the tech fails?   Persistent narratives, either around tech or students or content delivery, centered on lack of control.  Lack of control of classroom tech, of students, of their own time as instructors to be able to pay attention to their syllabus and their pedagogy to really effectively use the potential in a room like this.

Students pushed back as well, against a notion of teaching that was unfamiliar to those used to lecture-based content delivery, of standardized testing.  “I thought you were supposed to be teaching me!”  is what some faculty heard.

Student are not immune from the same cliches of teaching and learning that can trap instructors.  

The role of the Center for Teaching and Learning was to attempt to provide a space where faculty could start to feel comfortable engaging in teaching practices that didn’t require them to know everything.  Active learning is approached as a continuum of practice, where there are lots of ways to get stuck in, and many opportunities for faculty to realize where their existing practice is already quite active, as well as discover places for them to take apart and put back together their classes.  

There can also can be a huge role for the Center for Teaching and Learning (and other locations on campus) to provide ways for faculty to share strategies on framing active teaching and learning for students as “What Education Looks Like.”  We are in some ways responsible for deconstructing the model of education handed to our students by the public K-12 system.  Standardized-testing-centric teaching (mandated by the state) provides fewer and fewer opportunities for students to engage in the collaborative active generative (and messy) learning that the Active Learning Agenda encourages and facilitates.

The Active Learning payoffs discussed by faculty included:

“Inquiry assignments work great!”

“Spontaneous “write-think” exercises”

“Discussions are more productive.”

“I get their full attention.  They are very engaged.”

“They interact with each other & build a stronger relationship/friendship.”

“I feel more connected to the students.  A reward for me as the instructor.”

Who doesn’t want those things? And who notices that these are not easily measured, but are definitely observable and describable phenomena, another argument for including qualitative assessment work in institutional projects such as these.

It seems to me that libraries are super-well-positioned to take advantage of the active learning moment because IL has always had to be more about process, evaluation, sifting, and then critically using than the essential container of content.  This is why we are ideally positioned, in theory, to articulate our instructional agenda coming from libraries with the larger educational mission of the university.

What is library instruction in an active-learning environment (i.e., one that de-emphasizes content) ?

It is, really, same as it ever was, but now we can explicitly link it to the kind of teaching and learning happening at our universities.

This feels like an opportunity for librarians serve as consultants, partners, and leaders on campus with faculty.  So, we continue to have conversation with faculty, and about what they do.

A nice example of this is the work of my colleagues Stephanie Otis (in the library) and Joyce Dalsheim (in Global, Area, and International Studies).  They are partners in a now four-year long project called Reading is Research, and co-teach.  Their model is library and librarians as colleagues, not helpers–this is not “how can I help you?” but is expertise, and embedded practice.  I quote from a description of a workshop they co-delivered this Spring at UNC Charlotte:

This collaboration between anthropologist Dr. Joyce Dalsheim and Atkins’ teaching librarian Stephanie Otis has been tested and improved and is now inspiring new First Year Writing assignments and course design. It has also informed changes to the Senior Seminar approach in Global, Area, and International Studies (GAIS)…By initiating this collaboration, Joyce has advocated for research instruction that goes beyond scheduling a session in the library to involve faculty and librarians planning the syllabus, class meetings, and assignments/activities together. This approach helps establish the library as an academic and curricular partner rather than an optional service. In addition, the idea of deep collaboration and rethinking the emphasis of research can inform many other partnerships with the library.”

They delivered this workshop to attendees from across the university–for example, Anthropology, the Honors College, Biology, and Engineering.

As with the Active Learning Academy, the interest in these practices has not been limited, at UNC Charlotte, to just one corner of the university.  It is a pervasive agenda from many locations.  We are therefore forging an Active Learning, Community of Practice.

What does this mean for each of you, in your institutional spaces?

Of course there are questions of bandwidth–if you are a small library, how do you get time to do that?  If you are doing instruction and outreach, maybe you can’t do that.

New Spaces aren’t always going to happen.

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And there is an inevitable contrast between old spaces and new spaces when we do have them.

Think about faculty who get into the new spaces, how do they go back to the old classrooms?  What happens when the possibilities  are limited to certain spaces on campus?   We need to ask questions about how people have access to these kinds of spaces.  If they don’t exist on your campus, to what extent can you engage in the pedagogies anyway?  My colleague Susan Harden (pictured above teaching in our smaller active classroom) has come up with a kit.

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Susan carries the kit around in a bag like this. Active Learning To-Go.

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The Active Learning Agenda can mean using whatever space you have, it’s not always going to be about building shiny new spaces.    And space is just a starting point, not the be-all-end-all.  “Building classrooms is the least expensive part of this”–I have said this in a variety of contexts.  We are lucky, at UNC Charlotte, we got to build the classrooms,  but the strength of the agenda is in the human labor, the staff development, the money required to give time and opportunity for faculty and students to try, and regroup, and try again.

At UNC Charlotte this is not an agenda that is possible if it only emerges from one location. This is a cross-university partnership among our CTL, Classroom Support, the Library, Academic Affairs, and key champions in each of our Colleges.

This cannot happen on an institutional basis by practitioners engaging in isolation from each other.  We are banding together with like-minded faculty but then also finding ways to disseminate these practices.  I find it frustrating (I am not the only one) that we’ve got 25 years of research backing up these techniques as more effective on nearly every measure than traditional lecture, but there is still push-back and demands for proof before space is allowed.  Who is interrogating the efficacy of lecture-based classes?   Too often the familiar and the tidy (and the numerically significant–“butts in seats”) win out over the messy and the unfamiliar (but, more effective!)  We are still coming from a defensive position, and current political climate that is fundamentally suspicious of the expertise of educators is not helping.

The UNC Charlotte Active Learning model is trying to approach the sweet spot of harnessing grass roots practices and having administration on-board with the overarching agenda.  Space was created for us by high-level policy decisions, the practices existed on our campus, and we need to do the (occasionally boring) work of putting in place procedures so that this agenda can spread and thrive in a sustained way.

So I end, as I usually do, with questions rather than conclusions.

What is the role of the library?  What is your position in your university now?  How does that status reflect what voice is possible?

What does your agenda look like?  

What are the implications?  What is at stake?

One of our faculty members said to me in an interview:  “now that we know how much more effective teaching and learning are in these active environments, it’s a social justice issue that we continue to do so.”

Who do you talk to?  Who do you influence?  How do you find the rooms where practice can start to be moved?

What are the leadership contexts in which a tolerance for risk and mess can be created and maintained?

The Active Learning Agenda can provide a space for the library to become a place that facilitates access, not just to information (never just to information), but to possibility.

How can the library, and those of us who work from within the library, be part of the team removing the obstacles to active learning?    Can we curate a path to change?

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Ganesha, “Lord of Success, Destroyer of Evils, and Remover of Obstacles.”

 

Cognitive Mapping at ACRL2015

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Columbia River Valley. Awesome.

At the end of March I had the great fortune to attend the ACRL meetings in Portland, OR.  I was presenting once again with my drinking buddies colleagues Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado, and Lesley Gourlay on our ethnographic work in libraries and universities.  We have all been working with cognitive mapping techniques in a variety of contexts, and we thought it would be fun to not just talk about them but to have people attending our session do their own mapping, and think about how the technique would be relevant to the work they are doing in their own libraries.  I suppose I could have blogged about this under “workshops” but it was a funny hybrid of conference presentation and workshop, one that I thought really worked.

You can see from the Storify that people were really enthusiastic and engaged.  After Andrew introduced the concept of cognitive mapping (I riff off of a version pulled straight from his ERIAL project here), we had the people in the room draw their own maps of their own practices.  People smiled as soon as we asked them to draw, but the room *really* erupted (in a good way!) when we asked them to discuss their map with their neighbors.

CogMaps discussion

People talking to other people about #cogmaps Photo by Maura Smale @mauraweb

 

We then had people report out to the entire room about what surprised them about their maps, either the ones they drew themselves, or the ones that had been shared with them.  As was the case in the workshops I ran in the UK and Ireland in March, I witnessed epiphanies, clear moments when people, simply because they had visualized their practices in a relatively simple way, gained a new understanding of what they do and why–and, more importantly, what they might want to change.

There was nice Twitter participation, Andrew and Maura and I were managing to live-tweet, because we took turns talking (always present in groups you guys IT IS THE BEST PEOPLE ARE FUN).  When we asked people to tweet their maps many did.  I appreciate not just the participation, but also the content of the maps, which reveals just as wide a range of practices as those found among students and faculty in the US and the UK.  Some people mapped multiple locations.

 

Some mapped just a single desk.

Some mapped not just locations, but tools and companions:

The content of all of these maps echo findings collected in our own fieldwork (I have blogged about my own mapping projects already here, here, and here).  What I love about that is that we didn’t discuss our cognitive map examples until after we had gotten people to draw their own.  So the discussion was not esoteric, but grounded in their very recent experience of trying the method , and the things they saw in student and faculty maps could be immediately connected to the things participants mapped for themselves.  You can see the Prezi that we used to illustrate the discussion here.  I believe the slidecast will eventually be made available on the ACRL conference site.

I am a big fan of conference events that require participation, “lean forward” kinds of things that don’t allow for slouching in the back and glazed eyes to set in.    I think if more conference sessions were workshops, roundtables, actual exchanges of ideas, encouraging people to think about or actually do something concrete with the ideas in play, there would be far less of a sense of wasting people’s time, or rehashing old debates.   I was so pleased at the interest in the room, at the specific things that our session made people consider, at the plans for their own libraries that people took away with them.

So, thank you to those who attended, and please keep us all posted on where you take this instrument, and how it affects you and your library going forward!

And keep taking pictures of your shoes, obviously.

 

The Cartography of Learning

So, I’ve been thinking about mapping, not just because I have these maps I collected at UCL in March, but also because I’ve been thinking more about the utility of processes such as the V&R mapping that we have been using in our research.  What Dave White has said to me is that mapping exercises like V&R give us processes to offer people, but no answers, that in fact people use the processes to find their own answers.  It’s not our job as researchers to provide answers, in this framing, but to ask effective questions that prompt people to find their own way.  As usual, my first instinct was to be annoyed by this. My annoyance stems now from thinking that Dave is probably correct.

I am often asked for Answers when I give talks about what is going on with faculty and students and libraries and education generally.  While it’s tempting to try to provide Answers,  I think that I’m much better at coming up with more questions.  And ultimately, that might be more useful, as I think I’m probably not the one who should be Answering.

Cognitive mapping exercises at UNCC and UCL reveal people’s learning landscapes.  Thinking about cognitive mapping in the larger context of mapping exercises  made me consider the possibility of a discussion around the cartography of learning, that is, all the different ways we try to capture and visualize what people are doing when they are learning.  We are mapping (or having people map for themselves) what they perceive to be there, and in the mapping we receive a revelation, not something predictable, or predicting.  We also do not have a precise rendering of actual practices, but an interpretation of practice.  How can we use the maps to build more deeply observed pictures of behavior?  How do we deal with the fact that maps are only ever representations of a lived reality?  “The map is not the territory.”

If the Google Earth of Bloomsbury looks like this:

And the Google Map looks like this:

And the Tube map, itself a concept map of sorts, looks like this:

Then we have a map like this one I collected in March:

For this first year archaeology student, UCL is a series of spaces isolated from each other, but connected by the fact that he needs to do things, different academic tasks,  in each space (my favorite is the professor’s office in the lower left, filled with clutter except for a small clearing in which professor and students can sit to talk).  I can see that these spaces are connected, but he does not represent them that way.

This PhD student has drawn lines indicating how connected her spaces are, the ones in Bloomsbury, and the ones that are not.  She annotated the map with notes about the technology and particulars of the work she does in each space, which places have particular resources (content and people) she cannot get anywhere else, and marks cafes with the cups of tea or coffee that she goes there for.  She has glossed her own map–I can bring my own spin to things (and I will), but there is already interpretation here.

Cognitive maps, the V&R maps, these are all contributing to a kind of cartography of practice.  In the case of the cognitive maps I’ve been collecting from faculty and students, the mapping is an emic process, where the the practitioners themselves represent their own practices as best they can.

In V&R mapping workshops,  people map their own practices, but they are also asked to think about the practices of others.  We’ve done that in the V&R research project as well,  for example in this map, where we took practices invoked by the interviewee and plotted it in the V&R continuua:

map by Dave White and Erin Hood.

Here we engaged in the mapping of the traces of practices of others as an analytical tool, engaging in an etic process, imposing our interpretation of meaning from the outside looking in.

They map, we map, and possible meanings and definite questions can emerge from the process of mapping.

I have been working my way through Latour’s Reassembling the Social with a Twitter group of colleagues, and am only part way through.  Latour invokes the “cartographies of the social” (p.34) when discussing the need for researchers to pay attention to actual practices, to the lay of the networks in play, and to de-emphasize the interpretive leap while still in the process of figuring out what it is we are looking at.  I am also struck by Latour’s insistence that the best social science cannot privilege the perspective of the researcher, but must be embedded in the meanings and practices generated by the people being studied.  This, to me, is a plea for anthropology, but also for the sort of  lack of privileging that mapping exercises like these can inspire–these maps get their meaning from the intentions of the people drawing them as much if not more than from the interpretations we researchers later layer onto them.

Anthropologists are not always fantastic at not-privileging their interpretations of meaning, and I’ve been helped in this regard by the neo-Boasian appeal of Bunzl.  I frequently talk about being a sort of “native ethnographer,” as an academic studying academia, but Bunzl’s critique of the necessity of outsider status to anthropology is making me rethink that.  Our position as “outside” or “inside” is not as important as paying attention to what is present, and describing it as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible.  It is not that interpretation is impossible, but that what we think things mean can and should be informed by a variety of perspectives, including that of the people among whom we are doing our work.

What is important about the maps, and I think about research generally, is the process, the questions and the discussions they inspire, not the end result.  Thoughts about meaning should emerge from the discussion, from the process, and should never be framed as The Answer.

References:

Bunzl, Matti (2004), Boas, Foucault, and the “Native Anthropologist”: Notes toward a Neo-Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 106: 435–442. 

 
Latour, Bruno (2007) Reassembling the Social:  An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford (Oxford University Press). Page numbers refer to Kindle edition.
 

Images:
Google Maps, Google Earth screen shots
Tube map is a crop of:  http://www.tfl.gov.uk/cdn/static/cms/documents/large-print-tube-map.pdf