I grew up on Air Force Bases in the continental US and moved around fairly frequently (though not as frequently as some!) in my childhood. My parents had met in their small Louisiana town, and started dating when they were in college at LSU. I get to thank a hurricane–I think it was Betsy– for them spending a weekend on the phone together that made them realize they wanted to spend their lives together. Once they had left their small town for Baton Rouge, they began building relationships that are still strong, friendships with my mom’s roommates (a woman who was sent from Cuba by her relatives, a Cajun woman after whom I am named) and their boyfriends (now husbands)–they remained close with those people, after leaving Louisiana, and we see them when we can, they are present in my mom’s life and mine.
They moved to Arizona for Daddy’s first posting and had me, and their social network grew to include the friends they made in Tucson, as well as their family and friends back in Louisiana. That core group of friends knew me before I was born, and even though we knew we would not be in Tucson forever, those friends stayed a part of my parents’ (and my) life even after we were sent to Minot, ND, and then to Vandenberg AFB CA. We sent letters, traveled to see them for Thanksgiving or Easter. My parents had local connections, too, made friends (and kept many) where they found themselves, but also kept the connections they had made before.
When things were hard where they were, if they were lonely, their local network was not the only one they had to draw upon.
Local circumstances were not their entire circumstances , they were only a part, and the larger entirety of their lives, their scattered network of friends, made it easier to deal when tough times happened in other parts of their lives.
When I moved from school to school, it was hard, but also gave me practice in connecting with new people. My mother helped me in this because she knew I was a person who craved other people; she sought out kids for me to meet when we moved somewhere new, made sure I had chances to find at least one friend in a new place.
When we left for a new base, I was sad to leave friends behind but because of my parents’ habits of keeping connections, I never really felt that they were gone forever. We got Xmas letters, sometimes we would get to visit them, we were in touch and real to each other (even before the internet, which did eventually make that kind of thing easier).
When I was in high school I had a small group of very close friends but they were not all in the same place all the time at school. I had swim team friends and speech and debate friends and in-class-with-me-friends and they were not all part of the same network. So when (inevitably) there were fallings-out or misunderstandings or breakups in one group I still had the other groups. It was never terrible all the time.
I realize that my circumstances were lucky, but also think that my parents were very deliberate in building that capacity in me, in modeling for me a way to have a kind of resilience (I know, I know) in my own personal life, so that when there were struggles in one place it wasn’t everywhere and didn’t make my entire life hard. I had refuges, other places and people I could turn to for relief and respite and support.
I almost made the mistake of shrinking my entire undergraduate university experience down to one group, the anthropology department. I knew I wanted to major in that from the beginning, and threw myself into everything anthropology my first year. My friends, (including romantic partners) were in the department. My social life was in the department and when it was going well it was great.
When it did not go well I had nowhere else to go.
Almost on a whim, I decided my second year to live in an International dorm on campus, one where every room had one American student and one exchange student from a different country. I roomed with a Korean woman, my suite-mate from LA had a roommate from Japan. In addition to Japanese and Korean students there were Italian and British and French and Australian students.
I had a fantastic year. And when I had a hard time with my studies, or with relationships (yeah, still with anthropology students), I had this part of my life that was my dorm hall, and the friends I made there (and who I still have).
Living in that dorm meant that I decided to study abroad. I went to Ireland for the following year and it changed my trajectory through anthropology, because up until that point I was studying archaeology, and I realized in Ireland that if I went to grad school I wanted to study living people.
So when I did apply to graduate school it was to study folklore and anthropology and also as a newly married person (because living apart from my boyfriend for the year helped me to figure out that it would be nice to have him in my life all the time). And I arrived in grad school ready to be a grad student but also not entirely dependent on graduate school to be my entire life.
The friends I made, the network I built in graduate school was almost entirely independent of my studies. I hung out with archaeologists (they are much better at being constructively social than socio-cultural anthropologists…) and so when I had a hard time in any given seminar, or conflicts with professors, I had somewhere else to go, other connections to draw upon. And, not just there in the town where I was in grad school, but the connections I had built and my parents had built were still there, and I had multiple places and sets of people to ask for support when I needed it. I had a partner (also an academic, so not completely out of the world I was in) and was an entire person independent of my graduate studies.
This helped me survive graduate school. I would not have, if my entire world had been my studies.
When we moved to Charlotte, with our two young kids, we moved to be a part of the department of anthropology here, and that helped us have a local network right away. But we were also moving to the state where my partner grew up, and so we had a personal network, too. We had brothers and sisters and in-laws and cousins to be with, our life was not reduced just to the university, we had other options. With kids in school we made friends with some of the parents of their friends, and that was good and also sometimes complicated, so it was (again) good that when that was hard we had other networks to rely on.
I am repeating myself. I am working through to see a pattern.
When I started working in libraries I did not leave my anthropology network behind, it was still right there with me. When I was working in libraries I also built connections with ed tech and instructional design people, because it made sense and also because I made friends. When I had to stop working in libraries, those co-existing networks helped me not to despair, or think that there was nothing else I could do.
I was more than my job. I was (and am) part of more than one network. I am so lucky, I have so many kinds of people in my life.
I worry about my students who seem to only have university-based networks, or who are isolated from their non-university networks in some way. I am more confident for my students who already show up with strong connections to a supportive community, with connections independent of the university. I worry about colleagues who are deeply embedded in one organization, or attached to one conference, who don’t have a different place to go when things go wrong. Things always go wrong, at some point.
When I hear people in a variety of contexts talking about “building community” for students or colleagues (or, customers), I worry about that, too. Is the motivation an additive one? “Let’s give them more people to connect with and rely on?” Or is it intended to be a kind of capture? I think in situations where money is concerned (conferences. tuition) it can too often be the latter.
I wonder if one of the differences, in professional networks, is if we are people or products? Maybe that was the difference in grad school, too. I connected with and kept people in my networks who were people to me, and who treated me as more than what my degree or career would or could be.
When I returned to the anthropology department of my graduate program after the death of my child, the people who saw me as a person hugged me and asked me how I was. The people for whom I was a (failed) product did not see or speak to me at all, even as I passed them in the hallway.
I have witnessed a lot of extractive networking. I’ve probably done my fair share, too. Extractive practices do not build the kind of networks that endure and support. I have long been wary of organizations or events that claim to “build community.” All we can do is make space, and do things we think might be useful (for ourselves, for each other). Whether a community emerges from any given organization or event or series of events isn’t up to us.
I am looking at 2022, when I get to start working as a Professor of Practice for a new MA on Climate Science Leadership at Virginia Tech, thanks to a grade school friend who is still in my life. I get to work with Munster Technological University thanks to connections that have come to me via edtech circles but also my insistence on keeping connected to people in Ireland. My daughter is getting married this year and my best friend, who I have known since I was 13 years old, will attend the wedding along with my mom who taught me over and over again the importance of keeping good people in your life, even across long distances and gaps in time.
I remain here with questions, at the end of this ramble. How are we people to each other, in our (ideally) various networks, offline and online alike? How are we treated as (how do we treat others as) products? What does that difference mean for our experience of our networks?
I was so pleased to be invited to the University of Guelph library by Karen Nicholson and Ali Versluis to give a talk and also to talk with people in the library about user experience and ethnographic research in library and education contexts. This was the last talk that I gave during my November Tour, and I think it came together the most solidly of the four (there’s something to be said for the repetition of experiences in getting things right, note to self). I would also like to thank Chris Gilliard for reading early drafts of this, and helping me clarify some of my argument. Thanks to Jason Davies for the Mary Douglas citation. And credit as well to Andrew Asher, who was my research partner in some of the work I talk about here.
I wrote this talk at my home, in what is now called North Carolina, in the settler-occupied land of the Catawba and Cherokee people. I am a Cajun woman, and my people are a settler people from the Bayou Teche, on Chitimacha land in what is now called Louisiana.
I want to acknowledge here the Attawandaron people on whose traditional territory the University of Guelph stands and offer my respect to the neighboring Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Métis.
A few years ago, Andrew Asher and I were hired to do a project for an international non-profit that provides electronic resources to libraries in less well resourced countries. The organization was aware that there were low use and high use institutions that they were providing resources for, and wanted to know why that difference was there.
So we interviewed people in Zambia, and in Kyrgyzstan, in places that this organization told us didn’t have connectivity issues. While there might not have been connectivity issues on the university campuses, the practical experience of connectivity was not consistent, as people were not always on campus. As researchers, we encountered this as a problem early on, for example not being able to use Skype for interviews because of connectivity problems. We ended up doing a mix of Skype to call mobile phones, and WhatsApp to conduct interviews in locations where the internet was not reliable for our participants.
Among the things we found out, in the course of our research, was things like in Zambia, people who wanted to have faster internet bought ISP “rabbits,” to gain access off campus. We interviewed a PhD candidate in Engineering who made the point that unless you were on the university network (Eduroam), you could not use university materials (such as library resources). Therefore, using the faster, more reliable (but more expensive) rabbit modems in Zambia locked students and staff out of their institutional resources.
We interviewed a Lecturer in Education with similar issues, even though he was at a “high-use” institution. It wasn’t that the subscriptions weren’t there, or the resources not theoretically available, but that connectivity made those resources less useful, as they were difficult to get to:
“Yes, like I was telling you, either you subscribe to some journal publisher and because of poor connectivity, you may not get access to those services. So it’s basically attributed to poor connectivity. Not that the institution does not have the information, the information could be there but the connectivity limits us from getting access. Cause the system gets to be slow.”
This scholar did point out that doesn’t happen too frequently, so he wasn’t going to complain too much about access. But he highlighted what’s at stake when those failures happen: he can’t do his work.
“Basically, I can just say that is it poor connectivity and when there’s poor connectivity and there’s something that I urgently need to confirm because like when I’m reading a journal article where somebody has cited somebody. There are times when I actually need to read the other article or if it’s a book which they refer to so I’ll probably have to go online to download and if there is not connectivity then that becomes a problem.”
Our research revealed that use of resources (or lack thereof) wasn’t just about connectivity, it was also about culture, and the separation that scholars experienced from the people working in the library. One librarian we spoke to made it clear that the levels of authentication that scholars found burdensome were there on purpose to make sure that only the right people could have access to them. That, however, translated to even the “right people” using those resources less, or not at all, preferring to spend their precious internet time on getting to resources that were more easily accessible, even if not institutionally provided.
In Kyrgyzstan, one scholar assumed that because the physical collection in the library was out of date and inadequate, the electronic resources would be, too.
So, scholars in these two countries, in both “high” and “low” use institutions according to the non-profit, acquired and shared resources via printing, email, and thumb drives more often (and more reliably) than getting resources online via the resources paid for and provided by the organization.
The implications we drew out were as follows:
Providing materials “online” is not the same as providing “access” when the internet is not a sure thing. Also, having a connection is not the same thing as being connected enough to make using online resources a feasible option. There are many barriers to accessing library materials that are outside of the library’s own systems and infrastructure.
Scholars find what they need, and what is accessible–if they Google something and it’s closed-access, they move on until they find something they can use. The existence of the materials does not necessarily translate into its use.
The disconnect of the library from the research workflow of the scholars interviewed here was striking, especially in the context of their awareness for the need for training, and knowledge about how to better navigate useful resources. For example, one Lecturer in Education was at her current institution for 4 years before she knew about electronic resources, and then it wasn’t until she had started her PhD studies at another institution.
And our recommendations were things like: pay attention to physical infrastructure when you offer online resources to institutions. Consider offering resources in digital forms that aren’t just online. Think about facilitating more networking and connections between the people in the library and their surrounding community of scholars. Basically, we told them context matters, and that the non-profit, in providing online resources, was operating as if they were in a vacuum.
Our report had to do with infrastructure, economics, and the lives of the scholars (faculty and students)–The non-profit wanted a problem to fix, and in many ways that was reasonable–it cost money for them to provide these resources, and wanted to avoid wasting resources. What we as researchers presented them with was an exploration of the contexts in which the people they were trying to help (via libraries) were restricted in what was or wasn’t possible.
We did not provide them with a quick-fix solution. In many ways, the questions they wanted to ask were inevitably going to have disappointing answers.
And well, the qualitative work we did wasn’t satisfying, short-term, but I think it’s important nonetheless.
Why was our research unsatisfying? Well, to some extent, the reason is the culture of libraries.
I will point again to the article “Ethnographish” that Andrew and I wrote. We wrote it in a moment, several years into our collective work as anthropologists working in libraries, where we wanted to try to think critically about why the work we were doing looked the way it did. And also why particular kinds of work (especially open-ended exploratory ethnography) was so hard for us to do.
Our argument is: open-ended exploratory research is a hard sell in libraries. We see UX research not just because it’s useful, but because it’s finite, and in particular because it’s proposing to solve specific problems.
“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“ (Lanclos and Asher 2016)
I think that in positioning themselves as problem-solvers, libraries and library workers are positioning themselves in a tactical way. DeCerteau’s distinction here between kinds of agency (tactical vs. strategy) is useful here, helping us think about the kinds of actors who are allowed choices given their structural position. To what extend to libraries and library workers get to make decisions that aren’t just tactical, not just reactions to situations? How and when do libraries and library workers get to make strategic decisions? Because that has to be more than just responding to demands and solving problems.
A while ago I gave a talk at a CUNY event that advocated for the mixed-methods library. Lots of assessment departments talk about (and some do) both qualitative and quantitative (though I still stand by my impression that a lot of qualitative stuff is UX-style “what is the problem” approaches.). I gave that talk in 2014, and at the time, part of what I was pointing to was the need to get insights that numbers would not give us.
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) “
“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
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.
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.
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.
Me n my buddy Dr. Mead. Thank you to Nina Exner for permission to use her tweet as a header for this post
Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking to a roomful of enthusiastic folks wanting to learn more about social science, social science methods, and social scientists so that they would work more effectively for and with them. Sojourna Cunningham and her colleagues Sam Guss and Ryan Brazell organized this event, and I thank them, and in particular Sojourna for thinking of and inviting me to speak.
It was my first time in Richmond, VA, and also the first talk I gave after spending a year in the UK. I wanted to acknowledge (as did conference organizers) that the event was taking place on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Arrohattoc, Monacan, and Powhatan peoples. It also felt important to remind myself and attendees that Richmond, even before it was the capital of the Confederacy was, along with New Orleans, one of the primary hubs for the domestic trade in enslaved people. The current construction of the new stadium has literally dug up more of this history, this time the sites of slave jails in Shockoe Bottom, in stark contrast to the monuments to the Confederacy on Monument avenue.
As my talk concerned place, and the meaning of “place” I wanted us too to keep in mind where we were, and the colonial and pre-colonial history of this specific place.
As it was also less than 2 weeks ago that I arrived back in the US from living abroad, place and the meaning of place was much on my mind, as I transition (still) back to living in the US again.
* links and allusions herein to works or thoughts of people who make me think, including Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, Chris Bourg, Maura Smale, Emily Drabinksi, Audrey Watters, Andrew Preater, Simon Barron, Binni Brynholf, and Ian Clark *
I was asked to talk to this crowd because I am a social scientist who also works in libraries. So, I started my talk telling the story (again) of how I ended up in libraries in the first place. While elsewhere I have discussed the content of my work, I wanted here to point to the structural position of myself in the organization into which I was hired. I was hired, in 2009, into a library faculty position, without really understanding what that meant in my particular institution.
I was surprised by a couple of things. First, the organizational culture was much more managerial, much more, in terms of organizational charts, what I consider to be “private sector,” in part because of my personal history as an academic who went straight from undergrad to grad school to adjuncting to my job in the library with very few other workplace cultures (unless you want to count lifeguarding in high school) along the way.
Second I was caught off guard (though I should not have been) by the precarity of faculty status among library faculty in my institution. Tenure lines were removed from library faculty at UNC Charlotte in 2003 (they were grandfathered in for those who already had tenure), and while that initially alarmed some “regular” faculty, who thought they might be next to experience the loss of tenure (thus far, they have not been) there was no successful fight for library faculty to retain tenure. I also saw a tension between the 9-5 operational notion of a job and the flexible, not necessarily library-centered work that emerges from faculty.
Was I faculty? I was “library faculty”
And the question of whether or not I was faculty was tied up in a narrative I inherited from grad school, the one that says that once you get a PhD then you should go for a faculty position, full time, tenure track.
Since I have been an undergraduate I have been hearing about all of these people who are going to retire, and make room for those of us coming up to get “good jobs.” (that is: jobs that our professors recognized as being “good jobs” AKA tenure-track) We all know what actually happened–the market is flooded with people who have degrees, but the jobs that used to be tenure-track were not replaced. We are now met with a vast array of part time, non-TT positions, thanks to the defunding of university systems nationwide. The part-time-ification of university staffing means that even those who are continuing to teach in their subject aren’t necessarily living the assumptions that many of our professors (especially in research-centered institutions) set for us when we were getting our degrees.
So, when I got a job that had a “faculty” label I took it and ran with it.
I wasn’t always in my office
I struggled with the culture of meetings, and in particular the notion that all meetings were perceived as work.
I was confronted with the idea that if I wasn’t in the library, perhaps I wasn’t doing work that was relevant to the library
What I did do was act like an anthropologist. I was not hired into the library to be a librarian, my position was one of an applied practitioner, and I was hired to do research that could inspire and affect policy and practice in the library.
In going about my work, it became apparent that as “library faculty” I had none of the protections of the state staff contract, and none of the flexibility of the tenured or tenure-track faculty contract. None of my colleagues with faculty status in the library did.
But, I also saw that faculty status was cherished. It was talked about as a primary way that we in the library could “get to talk to people” outside of the library (where “people” were faculty members).
Faculty status, however precarious, was our means to getting on campus committees. It was how we qualified to apply for on-campus grants to do research and pedagogical projects.
The ways that faculty status was used at my institution was as an antidote of sorts to the problems of status and inequality between people in the library and academics.
I see that inequality play out in a number of ways; for example, when it becomes clear that while some faculty are happy to invite people from the library to teach their students, they do not necessarily issue the same invitation when they themselves need to learn things.
The faculty status problem also clearly reified inequality within the library, between “staff” and “librarians;” sometimes this is “people without an ML(I)S degree” and “people with an ML(I)S degree” but not always. How can we work together as a team, from out of the library, or even within the library when there are different power dynamics? When not everyone has the license or the flexibility to do some of the work that is on offer, where job descriptions box in what people think they are allowed to do?
I want to think about the “invitation culture” that impacts whether or not people can do particular work– for example, when do you get to do instruction work within departments? Often, it’s when you are invited.
The CTL folks were the people who “run the Moodle,” what would they know about teaching? Their expertise as instructional designers, as pedagogues, was lost in the picture of them as IT folks who do nothing but wrangle systems.
So, too, does the imaginary library, the one in the heads of some faculty and administrators, remain limited to a bucket of content, rather than a hive of myriad expertise to be tapped.
The internet (where I spend entirely too much time) has brought me the phrase “Stay in your Lane.” I think library workers hear that a lot. I heard it, too.
I have been told in some institutional contexts that, if I am working from within the library, I should not directly contact faculty members. The University of California is right now in the middle of telling their librarians that “Academic freedom is not a good fit for your unit.”
“This is your place”–what is the place of the library? What is the place of library workers? Who tells them that? When is it important to listen? When can you ignore that and make your own place?
I want to think here again about what Fobazi Ettarh theorizes as Vocational Awe, “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.”
I want to ask what it means in the larger history of a profession that has a history of whiteness, of conventions of “nice” or “professional” that emerge from a particular feminized work, of privilege born of being a profession women could go into because it was “appropriate” and that men could go into to take charge.
Library workers are placed, often involuntarily, in a particular relationship with the rest of the university. People think they know what libraries are capable of. Sometimes (too often) the expectations they have of libraries and library workers are low. If all libraries do is work to satisfy expectations, people in libraries won’t get to do much that’s interesting.
And the weaponization of vocational awe can be linked to the disappearance of expertise, because asking for recognition of expertise gets treated a bit like asking for more money, or opportunities: ”why are you asking for more? Aren’t you just pleased to be doing the work? Why are you asking about that? Why do you want to talk to them? You should be grateful.” I worry a bit when I hear the phrase, “Oh we love the library” because it’s frequently followed by “but we can’t do THAT.” All the nostalgic affection for libraries in the world doesn’t help, and often gets in the way of seeing all that is possible from the people who work there.
When I talk about librarianship I say “profession” advisedly because while the work that happens within libraries can be identified as a set of practices, protocols, and a particular history, I don’t see it necessarily as a discipline in the same way that, say, I see anthropology (this is of course arguable, and I’d love to discuss this with folks who disagree. I think disciplines are interesting, and limiting, and find the desire for a body of work to be a discipline worth thinking around.)
I should also trouble here the word “librarian” because not all people who work in libraries have an ML(I)S degree, or identify as librarians. While in the UK I had conversations with colleagues who work in libraries and they offered the term “library worker,” which I like very much. It signals where, organizationally, the work is happening, but doesn’t make assumptions about degrees held, or expertise. Programmers work in libraries. Historians work in libraries. A sociologist is the head of MIT libraries. Some anthropologists still work in libraries. The library is a container for expertise that isn’t necessarily just librarianship. The people who work in libraries are part of larger networks that may or may not emerge from LIS, or remain embedded in libraries.
Nonetheless, libraries can contain a culture and people who work in libraries can share a worldview, even if they are not always clear what that is, either to themselves, or to others. And there are subcultures–that of academic librarians, that of public librarians, systems folks and people who work in archives (and who may or may not be archivists). The subcultures shape and are shaped by location, both organizationally and professionally–what kind of library are you working within? Is it a library? With whom are you working? For whom? The “culture of libraries” is multiple. And also, I think, malleable. There is room for change.
I want to think too about the culture of academia that produced some of the scholars with whom library workers wish to partner, in social sciences and other disciplines. Academics are socialized in many cases to do their work alone, socialized to be able to do things themselves, and assume that they are supposed to know things. So asking for help can be read as a weakness. Faculty members don’t always collaborate for reasons similar to why some library workers think they need to learn all the things, to do the work they want to do (rather than collaborate with people who know the things they don’t).
When it is hard to change things, it’s worth remembering that there are reasons for it being hard that have nothing to do with how much you are trying. There are structural power imbalances. There are histories of organizational practice. There are habits that are difficult to break.
Social sciences (especially, and I am biased here, anthropology and sociology) are good at helping us see why things are the way they are, and that grounding in What Is the Case can be a prelude to change. I’d argue that it’s difficult to effect change without a good handle on how and why things are the way they are.
I also want to sound a cautionary note on placing too much importance on methodology training to effect change–I don’t want to discourage people from learning new things, far from it. But methodology will not save you from the culture of universities, or libraries.
Events like this one here tell me that you all are not waiting for an invitation. The structure of Social Science Librarian Boot Camps assumes that expertise in addition to library expertise is valued and in many ways assumed to be the norm. To what extent do boot camps and other events that position library workers as peers and partners, create more space to not wait for an invitation? To simply do the work, to invite others, rather than hope to be included?
The distinction between “inviting”/ “being invited” /“engaging in outreach” and “collaborating with” is worth emphasizing. I think the latter is what we should be working towards. I want collaboration to be the goal in many contexts.
That requires a space to have been created by leadership. Who makes it possible for library workers to not have to worry about their “place” about “staying in their lane?” What labor protections are in place, what structural support makes something like this possible? How can people do this work without worrying about losing their job? What don’t you have to worry about, if you feel free to do this work?
The ability to exceed expectations of library work can only really come from collective action, and collaboration. I don’t think it comes from assuming that you who work in libraries have to do all the things. It comes from finding and connecting with people who are doing work you want to connect with, amplify, learn from, and teach to.
Library workers think they don’t have power. You might not have authority, but you have power. You do have agency. This can be your place.
I’m intrigued that there is an entire conference for Interlibrary Lending. I asked Nigel Buckley, who was kind enough to invite me (and who could not be present on the actual day of the Forum for Interlending conference in Birmingham this year), about who goes to this event, he made the point that while the conference is organized around ILL, that all of the people in the room have other duties as a part of their job, and that very few these days do ILL full time. (I wondered in the room aloud if that were true, and found a few folks in the room who do it full-time, but it was indeed true that many had it as part of a wider set of job descriptions.)
I think that ILL is potentially a useful lens through which we can examine the role of library policy and systems in defining and limiting people’s access to particular scholarly identities. So I’d like to explore that a bit, and then end (as I usually do) with some questions. I was told, when I was invited, that the Forum for Interlending attendees were interested in more user experience discussions. What I would like to do here is move to a point where the “user” is less the point than the community of scholars among which libraries are located, and with whom library workers need to connect.
When I was an undergraduate, I was at the University of California. There are now nine campuses in that system, at the time I was there (in the late 80s/early 90s) there were eight. At the time, each campus had two different library systems. A local one, and a system-wide one. The system-wide was called Melvyl. And when you were in Melvyl, you could see what the holdings were for the entire system. I was in Santa Barbara, and I could see what books were at UCLA, UC Riverside, and also in the storage facilities called SRLF and NRLF.
I was allowed to request and borrow materials from anywhere. But I was usually advised to check the local catalog
So by the time I got to graduate school, I already had a lot of experience requesting books from other libraries. Sure, they were all in the UC system. But I knew what it felt like to need something, request it, and have it delivered.
As a graduate student I used ILL outside of the UC system, because at some point the work I needed to do, either for my coursework, or for my dissertation, required that i get things that even the library at UC Berkeley did not have. And in this I was encouraged by my advising professor, a folklorist, who was on a first-name basis with the interlibrary lending folks at the library, because he always needed something from someone else’s collections. They brought in materials from Europe, from Asia, from wherever he needed them. So again, it was visible to me what was possible, and I was never told not to request, only occasionally, that they could not get something.
[an aside: the Jitney bus was also an easy way to get from campus to campus, incidentally–a nice way of getting to other campuses if you were a starving grad student who occasionally needed to talk to people in Santa Cruz, or Davis, or somewhere relatively close by, or if you just wanted to work with their collections in person. ]
What I see of interlibrary lending in other institutions looks different to me than my experiences with it as a student and a scholar.
The University of California at the time I was attending had lots of resources. And used them for the benefit of researchers, and assumed that their students would also be doing research, and so supported them in that.
Not all institutions make that assumption.
I know, for instance of institutions that limit how many ILL books people can request.
I know of institutions that do not allow undergraduates access to ILL.
I know of institutions that put on screen how much it costs them to get ILL materials, when they are being requested by someone.
I know of institutions that charge people for ILL services.
I know of an institution that tells students there is an official limit to ILL, but who allow for more if requested. The reason there is a limit? Their LMS requires a number. The limit is built into the systems they use.
Who gets to use ILL?
What does it mean for those who don’t?
I think these are important questions,
If the option to get a book from another library isn’t very visible or obvious, either in the building or in the web environment, how does ILL being difficult to see affect what people can do, in terms of getting access to rare or unusual (or, relevant) materials?
I think here about work I did with web UX at UNC Charlotte, one of the task list items was “request a book [that we knew we did not have].” The idea was that students would request the book from ILL, that we were testing how easy it was to get from a Zero result page to “please find the book for me.”
That’s not what happened. What happened was the students said “Well, we don’t have it” and then they would go to Amazon to see if they could purchase it.
They did not know what ILL was. It was not visible to them in their everyday academic practices. Many students at my institution were only familiar with it if they were 3rd or 4th year History or English majors, and had been schooled in the wonders of ILL by their enthusiastic faculty members.
So if the people who are important to our students don’t tell them about what’s possible in the library, and they don’t have a relationship with people in the library, there’s going to be a gap between what they think is possible, and what is actually there.
I also wonder about what the impact is of some materials being available soon (especially electronically) but not immediately, in perceptions about what is and isn’t possible in the library.
The kinds of scholars who can afford to be patient with interlending are the ones who are doing work that takes a long time anyway (dissertations, theses, books, articles), not the ones who are writing essays for their modules or courses (and even long-form scholarship occasionally requires quick results).
The use and knowledge about interlending signals an engagement with the in-depth experiences of scholarship. That first-years don’t know about ILL tells you what we expect of first-years, not that they are incapable.
In considering interlibrary lending systems through the lens of user experience, we need to ask, UX and ILL for whom?
Who is the “user?”–there are internal and external systems, and scholars usually only see the latter. But the ways the former works have an impact on the work that’s done. The limits of the internal systems can be passed on in the form of policies, even if those limits are not inherent to the practices of scholarship per se.
When there is a policy in place of telling people how much it costs the institution to get an item, I would ask why? In some cases it’s to slow folks down, to make people think about the cost of scholarship. But that’s an interesting choice.
Libraries have choices in making the work they do visible, and how.
I continue to hear in library and edtech circles about the value of “seamlessness””–But the “seamless” delivery of material, regardless of how you get it, has its own cost, of invisibility and–devalued labor. I think again of the web-based work we did at UNC Charlotte, and one of the most effective ways we made the library visible was to brand the links that came up for people in Google searches, so they would know that those links they clicked on were made possible by the library. We made it less “seamless” to communicate more of the context of what was going on.
So I think that getting people to value labor has to be more than “are you willing to make us pay for it?”
Showing them the seams, inviting them in as scholars–making the work of interlibrary lending, or really any part of library labor, visible by embedding it into notion of scholarship, as it was when I was becoming a scholar. It was about relationships. It was about visibility.
I know of an institution where you get paper tokens for ILL, you need to justify your request to the department, walk it over, give it to library, and maybe you’ll hear from them.
Does this kind of process communicating value? Or make it seem inaccessible?
And why do we need to limit access to materials in this way? Should we in the library be making decisions about who “should” get access to services such as ILL?
The reasons we need to limit it are not actually to do with the requirements of scholarship.
The limitations have to do with budgets, which are political documents, which are evidence of priorities. And I am aware that no one has a limitless budget.
The work we do trying to make “transparent” the costs of doing this kind of work to the people who need the library is a kind of passing the buck. It’s evidence that we don’t have as much power as we’d like in the current system.
ILL is so many things. It’s a system that connects libraries to each other. It is a system that makes more possible for the people who use libraries, regardless of their physical starting point. a part of the way that libraries fill in the gaps of their own collection, some libraries I know use ILL stats to inform the ways that they build their collections, the work of ILL has implications for the work of the library generally.
Donald Urquhart’s work on ILL in the UK in the 1950s and beyond came from his convictions about the roles of libraries. ILL and the ways it can be useful (and also can be a barrier) to the work that people want to do via the library is in many ways a microcosm of library work generally. Urquharts’ eighteen principles are true not just for the service he imagined, but for libraries as a whole.
Here are some of them, from his 1981 booklet “”The Principles of Librarianship.”
“libraries are for users”
“no library is an island.”
“the failures of an information supply system to satisfy its users are, as a rule, not obvious”
“information cannot be valued as a rule in monetary terms”
“the best is the enemy of the good”
“librarianship is an experimental science”
“libraries can be valuable to society.”
The ways that ILL is and isn’t visible, the ways it can and cannot fix the limitations of the current financial and political climate, it is reflective of libraries overall. And we are in a precarious position, one that cannot be fixed with a new system, or a better web interface (although, sometimes those are nice too), no matter how much user experience work we do.
What might “fix it” are relationships–and the collective work that emerges from those relationships. Of embedding ourselves, those of us who work within libraries, in the larger system of academic work. Of political and labor organizing, and of dedicating our work to access, participation, and justice.
Of continuing to make libraries about more than just content delivery.
I have been lucky and been invited to give two talks this week, and I’m blogging the second one first, in part because it’s mostly text and no images this time around. Leo Appleton invited me to be one of the speakers at Goldsmith’s library staff development day, where the theme was “What does diversity mean for Goldsmiths and how can Library Services contribute?”
As usual, this is an imperfect representation of what I said in the room.
“Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore”
I want to thank Leo for asking me to talk to you all. I’m afraid this isn’t gonna be a fun talk. I’d apologize, but I think really it’s not a fun time, and we’re all tired, and it’s useful sometimes to acknowledge that things are hard, and that there’s more hard work to do.
This is one of those times.
This title is cranky, and it’s cranky in part because I’m generally upset with the state of the world, which is not quite literally on fire, but it’s damn close.
We are in a political moment where no one is safe, but those who have not been safe for a long time–the poor, people of color, LGBT+ folks, in many ways anyone who is not a reasonably well off white man–are feeling it the worst.
My country is putting asylum seekers in prison. Children in cages (but now, along with their families, too). We will be losing another Supreme Court Justice (the previous one was stolen) and we face the loss of voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and much more. Lies and propaganda fly out of the mouthpieces of our political “leaders” and those who seek to bring truth to power are accused of “incivility” when they are not ignored, or told that things would have been just as bad with the “other side” in power.
I’m not here to give a talk about politics, but it’s impossible to avoid because it suffuses every aspect of how we have to live our lives. And that includes in libraries, public and academic. And it has implications for what we talk about when we talk about “diversity.”
There’s a lot of talk about “diversity” in library staff these days, which is why I find this flow chart so important and so useful.
Far too often “diverse” and “diversity” are the words used when actually we should be talking about “difference” or “race” or “gender.” It becomes a euphemism, a signal that people don’t want to have difficult conversations, that they are comfortable, and they are signaling in their willingness to talk about “diversity” their unwillingness to actually talk about what needs to be done to create an environment where a wide range of people are not just comfortable in organizations but have access to power.
So I think it would be better for us to be concerned about the unrelenting whiteness of libraries, and the ways that the composition of the library profession reproduces race, gender, and other power inequalities that exist in our society.
I was inspired to see this sentiment coming out of part of the ALA tweetstream not long ago. These tweets particularly caught me, from the panel on Topographies of Whiteness, in the context of preparing these remarks.
How can we be inclusive if our very structures oppress the people who might work in these spaces, who occupy them as students, if these spaces were not really built for them? If the ways they can “belong” are to change themselves, rather than for these spaces and institutions to change. Think about how many times you’ve heard the term “professional”–what does that mean? Who does it leave out?
We should think about the role of gatekeeping in libraries. What role has credentialism played in the landscape of academic libraries that we see now? What role have assumptions about who is a part of libraries, and who, in particular, is the keeper of “proper” library behaviors, played in keeping people out of the profession, or driving them away when they do try? Or even the divisions within libraries, between “librarian” and other people who work in libraries–why are they not all called library workers? Why is the MLIS weaponized against people who have their own expertise within libraries?
I have worked in libraries since 2009. I do not have library worker credentials. And yet, I am qualified. I have also been told too many times that the work I do outside of the building is not relevant to the work inside the building.
How many of you have heard that? Been told that? Said that to someone else? How may have heard or said “that’s not in your job description?”
I want to point here to the work of these three women, Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, and Chris Bourg. Since I have been working in libraries, they have formed part of my lodestone, my guiding principles in library work, and really my work in academia generally. If you haven’t read their work, or followed them on social media, you should, because they are doing important work that deserves wide attention. I don’t want to appropriate their voices, I want to boost them, point to them, listen to them.
“Vocational awe” refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.
She lays out the implications of a “professionalism” that valorizes self-sacrifice and the homogenization of self to a white, middle-class, physically able, “comfortable” norm.
But creating professional norms around self-sacrifice and underpay self-selects those who can become librarians. If the expectation built into entry-level library jobs includes experience, often voluntary, in a library, then there are class barriers built into the profession. Those who are unable to work for free due to financial instability are then forced to either take out loans to cover expenses accrued or switch careers entirely. Librarians with a lot of family responsibilities are unable to work long nights and weekends. Librarians with disabilities are unable to make librarianship a whole-self career.
…as much as we want to throw our hands up and claim diversity is a pipeline problem, the retention data tells us that we have problems with toxic work cultures and unfair practices driving women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks out of tech as well.
The tech leavers report that Chris cited surely has a companion piece yet to be written about library leavers. This is not just about who doesn’t come to the library,but also about who came, and then had to leave. What role did credentialism play? What about presentist policies where if people are not visible in the building, it’s assumed they are not doing the work of the library? (ridiculous, in these times of digital places and affordances). What about notions of “neutrality” and “nice” that talk about the importance of “all voices” when we really should be protecting voices that historically have no platform. Let’s end false equivalencies, and recognize that people who have traditionally had power and influence (especially white men) don’t ever really lose their opportunity to participate just because we make sure that people and especially women of color get to take up space and have their say.
We cannot continue to ask the people who are directly victimized by whiteness, heteronormative assumptions, and ableism to do this work on their own behalf. White people need to be on search committees and commit to hiring people of color. Cisgendered people need to fight for gender-inclusive bathrooms. People with full time contracts need to work on behalf of those on contingent or part time contracts. People who work in libraries need to model the social changes that are necessary to create truly inclusive workplaces, academic places, communities. This is not a matter of “inviting” people. This is about co-creation. For some of us (she said, ironically) it will be about speaking less, and taking up less space.
What are the explicit policies in your library that are barriers? What does a working day look like? Does it have to be in the building? Do you pay your interns? What do you pay your entry level workers? Do you rely on their “passion” for the profession to smooth over the fact that you can’t pay them enough? Do people starting out have to have a particular credential (that they would have to pay for, that they would have to have done before they even have a job?) Why?
Does your working day have to have certain fixed hours? How is the need for flexibility interpreted? Is it seen as a disadvantage, or a lack of dedication to the job?
What are the unspoken assumptions? Is there an idea of “professional” that doesn’t look like a “nice white lady” in a cardigan or a white man (they don’t have to be nice, remember) in a suit? Do the people you work with know what a microaggression is? Do you hire for “fit” instead of thinking about how to make your workplace fit the people you need to hire? Do you say “we should hire more black people?” “We should hire more people who are Muslim?” Do you talk about race? Do you talk about oppression?
I was invited. This time I got invited to Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I am so grateful for the opportunity. I had never been to that part of the world, and this part of library-land was also new to me (even as I had been following some library folks there via Twitter).
The Lianza conference was full of amazing people, it’s a fantastic community, I am so pleased I got to spend time in that room, filled with enthusiasm and criticality, public as well as academic librarians. You can watch keynotes and sessions recorded at Lianza and I recommend you watch them via their site, here. If you want to watch mine (including the Q and A, as well as the song they sang to me after I was finished!), that’s here (you’ll be asked to register for the site).
Thank you to Viv Fox of PiCS for sponsoring me, to Kim Tairi and David Clover for excellent advice while writing my talk, and to the scholars whose work I consulted in the course of putting this together (I tried to link within the blog, but have also put together references at the end of this). Thank you to Paula Eskett, and to the entire conference program committee and team for working hard to make me feel comfortable and welcome.
This is, as best I can recreate, the text of my talk.
Tēnā koutou katoa
(Greetings to you all)
I am from California, near the Pacific Ocean, and also near the high desert in the south. I lived in Chumash, Ohlone, and Yuhaviatam land.
I live in North Carolina, in the piedmont, between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic ocean. It is Catawba and Cherokee land.
My father’s family is from Louisiana, along the Bayou Teche, we are Cajun. We were settler people, on Chitimacha land. My PaPa was beaten for speaking French in school. My MonMon never learned to read.
My father is Harold John Lanclos
My mother is Judith Cameron Lanclos
I am Donna Michelle Lanclos, named after a Beatles song and my mother’s college roommate
Tēnā koutou katoa
Thank you for inviting me, thank you for bringing me here. I am so grateful.
I am at the mercy of people’s invitations, personally and professionally, I get to be where I am because someone, at some point, let me in.
This is true for anthropologists generally–we get to be where we are, to do the work we do, because someone lets us in.
(I talked about my work at UNC Charlotte here in the talk, you can read more about it elsewhere on my blog here. I made the basic point to the Lianza audience that my work is an anthropology of academia, my responsibility is to research and analyze the logic, the motivations, and practices of academics)
Once anthropologists are let in, then, we do the work of stories.
We collect stories.
We listen to stories
We interpret stories
We put different stories together.
And then we tell stories. We tell our own, as a way in, we tell the stories of other people, because it is our work, the work of making the “exotic familiar” (and, the familiar exotic). When people talk about qualitative work, especially in contrast to quantitative work, they often invoke stories, they talk about the work of stories. Some people use story as an epithet, synonymous with anecdote (also meant as an epithet). But, stories are data, stories are information, stories are ways of representing and interpreting reality.
I started thinking about this talk with the framing of stories in part because I realized early on the link between colonial New Zealand (especially ChristChurch and Canterbury) and Chaucer. Maybe it’s only a link in my mind, it made me think immediately of my mother, who was an English major at university, and who kept her copy of Canterbury Tales in our house when I was growing up.
Photo by Jim Forest cc-by on flickr https://flic.kr/p/5QqRuR
When I was in my last year of High School, my teacher taught us about Chaucer, and his Canterbury Tales. We had a textbook that excerpted several of the tales–the Miller’s tale, for example. But also, and this was formative for me: The tale of the Wife of Bath. I had my mother’s book, and I could see that the tale of the Wife of Bath was very very different from the one we were presented in our textbook. There were words in the college version that did not show up in the high school version.
I was the kind of student who wanted to ask questions about that.
So I did.
I brought my mother’s book to school, and as my teacher was having us read the bowdlerized story of this woman who had many husbands and a lot of sex, I was raising my hand on a regular basis.
“Mr Taylor, that’s NOT what it says in MY book.”
I was not my teacher’s favorite student in that moment, but the story was different! I wanted what I thought was the “real” story, not the one packaged as appropriate for children. Chaucer told a story about storytelling, the way my teacher was using it taught me a great deal about the power of who controls stories, and what different versions can do to your sense of reality.
I am also a folklorist, and this awareness of multiple versions of the same story, this is part of what defines something as folklore. And folklore materials are another kind of data, there is meaning in the stories. There are always versions, and meaning within that variation. Think of Cinderella, of Little Red Riding Hood; who tells the tale informs what tale is told. Sometimes the huntsman rescues Little Red Riding Hood. Sometimes she rescues herself. Sometimes the stepsisters live happily ever after with Cinderella. Sometimes they lose their eyes to birds as well as parts of their feet to the knife.
I am an anthropologist.
I study people.
I am located in a discipline with a troubled history, and a collusion with colonialism that we can never shake, and we have to acknowledge.
Social Anthropology in the UK in the early 20th century was literally tool of the man.
Cover of E.E Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography of the Nuer.
After his initial fieldwork in the 1920s among the Azande in the Sudan, E.E. Evans Pritchard was hired by the Anglo-Egyptian government–the context for this hire was the conflict that the colonial government had with the Nuer people in the 1920s.
Colonial officials thought if they had more information about the people they wanted to control, they would be able to do so more effectively, and wanted anthropological knowledge to be a part of this mechanism of control. Control did not necessarily happen, but this was certainly the intent.
Smithsonian Archives, ” Franz Boas posing for figure in USNM exhibit entitled “Hamats’a coming out of secret room” 1895 or before”
Franz Boas took up anthropology as his life’s work after his previous academic life as a physicist, who wrote a dissertation on the color of seawater. He is known as the Father of American Anthropology, and a champion of anti-scientific racism. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the “extinction narrative” had already quite caught hold, and Native American and First Nations groups were the object of study at least in part because they were framed as “disappearing”
19th century anthropology co-occurred with the systematic dispossession, persecution, and killing of indigenous peoples, the “salvage anthropology” that followed in the 20th century referred to “disappearing” people as if they were fading, not being colonized and displaced by white settlers.
First edition cover for Ruth Benedict’s ethnographic treatment of Japanese culture. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/90/TheChrysanthemumAndTheSword.jpg
In the mid-20th century, during the second World War, anthropological knowledge was leveraged as a way to better understand (and, it was presumed) and so control our conquered enemies, the Japanese. Ruth Benedict did “armchair anthropology” during WWII, and her resulting work, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, informed the occupation strategies by the US of Japan after the war.
These are not the only examples of anthropological knowledge being taken by governments and other policy makers as part of their toolkits for control. The debate within anthropology over the role of the knowledge it accesses, communicates, and creates in the military, and in government, erupted strongly during the Vietnam War, and again with the US war in Afghanistan since 2001.
I keep coming back to the example of the work of Margaret Mead when I talk about the potential of anthropological work. There are problems with whose stories she told, and for what purpose, but her purposes shifted from those of institutional control to one of understanding, and it is for this that I value her work, in Samoa and also in Papua New Guinea.
Margaret Mead. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Margaret_Mead_NYWTS.jpg
Her intention, as a student of Boas and Benedict (among others), was to make the unfamiliar familiar. And also, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to question the practices of her own culture with regard to, for instance, adolescence and childrearing. She brought what she learned from other cultures back to her own, as a way of advocating for change, as she considered many practices in the US to be toxic. She used other cultural practices to feed her imagination, for what else might be possible.
Why am I telling you this? Many of you probably know the colonial history of anthropology, the problems and pitfalls baked into its disciplinary history.
So let’s talk about Libraries—This is Andrew Carnegie, founding the Carnegie library in Waterford, Ireland.
These libraries (in the US, the UK, and also in New Zealand, among other places) were ways for Carnegie to impose his idea of what communities “should have” as expressed in a particular structure of knowledge and respectability. The leaders who petitioned Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th century to have these libraries built in their communities were buying into that particular kind of respectability. They wanted to be associated with that respectability, and the power associated with it.
This is Libraries as colonizing structures, structures shot through with orientalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.
The problem with these, with any colonizing impulse (OK, one problem among many) is the assumption that if you don’t put a library there, if you don’t establish a colonial government, there won’t be anything. It ignores what is there.
Aotearoa pre-dates New Zealand. There were people, long before there were libraries.
In my own work, I see the colonizing impulse in libraries in two specific ways.
The first is the reaction I occasionally get when I present on the logic behind student or faculty behavior that might be confounding to library professionals (eg, using SciHub, citing Wikipedia, not putting their materials in the Institutional Repository).
I talk about motivations, about the competing and conflicting messages that people get around information, and the ways that some things (using ResearchGate, for example) make sense to individuals even if those choices, from a library perspective, are less than ideal. And I am asked:
“So how do we get them to change their behavior?”
Fortunately, that’s not my job. But if that’s the end point, I’ve failed a bit in what is my job, that is, generating understanding of the underlying logics behind human behavior such that the thought of what might be “best” can fall away, to allow for a wider range of possibilities.
The second reaction is one that I sometimes get when I propose open-ended investigations of human behavior in universities. Projects such as the Day in the Life study, which was pitched as broadly exploratory, without particular questions beyond, “what is student everyday life like at universities in the United States?” And I am asked:
“How will this help me solve X problem?”
In this case, I don’t mean to be dismissive of a particular problem, but problem-solving is rarely the point of exploratory research. Gaining insight, creating a sense of a bigger picture, revealing context that helps with understanding, these are all things that such research can generate, but those things are not aligned with the metrics that libraries are beholden to, the quantified existence that higher education and other municipal entities are increasingly made to endure. What value? How much? What is the ROI?
I cannot answer that. I don’t want to.
You don’t do anthropology among students and faculty so that you can manipulate them do to library-style things
You do it so that the library can more effectively shift its practices.
The impetus for change should come from libraries, not from “users” How do you listen? How do you change what you’re doing? How do you create inclusive spaces? Spaces that welcome whether someone has been invited or not?
How do you find out the stories behind the people in your library? How do you find out stories about your community, whether they are in the library or not? Anthropology can be one way. In particular, the anthropology that invites you to de-center yourself, your perspectives, your biases, and take on the priorities and perspectives of the people you are interested in learning from.
I want to contrast the “understanding people to control them” anthropological heritage from the “understanding people to connect with them” piece that I think should actually be the goal. Trying to get libraries to understand the difference is crucial–we don’t want to be the colonizing library. No matter how much power librarians don’t think they have, you have so much more power than the people who are in there using the library. So, you have a responsibility to be careful.
In the long history of colonialism and anthropology, there is a thread of interrogating practice without valuing it, and for the purposes of control. We should rather be engaging with communities via research, exploring in ways that are about generating big picture insights, not “action research” problem solving and repetitive projects.
What are the stories we need to hear, and retell, from the people in our libraries, in our communities, whether they are in the libraries or not?
Anthropological fieldwork can’t help you if you’re still only interested in telling the library’s story.
So what can we do? How can we reframe? I’d like to suggest a couple of things.
First: Syncretisim, a concept which might be one way around the solutionism that I see so much in libraries. In my experience I have encountered syncretism most in anthropology of religion, to refer to that cobbling together that people do around beliefs and practices, especially in colonial situations, but also in contexts of migration. Population movement and contact brings people together from different places, and the power relations that also inform that context result in not a seamless blending of religious practices, but a seaming together, a picking and stitching so that you can see the original component parts in the something new that emerges.
I think syncretism emerges in the ways that people approach libraries these days. They come to libraries, public and academic, with an already formed set of practices around digital and information. When they come into contact with library practices, their own don’t suddenly disappear–they make room for new practices if they serve them, and incorporate them into their own.
As educators in libraries we have a reasonable expectation that we can teach people in our communities new and useful things about information, about research, about reading and interacting with all of the resources that libraries can serve as a portal to. We should also expect to be taught by the people in our communities what libraries (and the content and expertise within libraries) are for to them.
Second: Decolonizing. Breaking down the power structures that are barriers to inclusion in institutions such as libraries. Libraries, like anthropology, emerge from and reproduce colonizing structures. They “other” in defining who belongs and who doesn’t, what “fits” and what doesn’t. And here I am particularly indebted to the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith,nina de jesus, April Hathcock, and Fobazi Ettarh.
I also want to recognize that this is not a new idea to New Zealand, even as there is still clearly work to do.
If we acknowledge that libraries are colonizing structures, we should ask what it would mean to not have the library define itself, but to listen to the people who are in the library, but not of the library? How can we make space, fight for space so that the definition of library emerges from the community in which the library sits, so that the library becomes indelibly the community?
We need to move away from the language of “user” because that privileges the buildings and structures of libraries. I want to follow Chris Bourg here in emphasizing that what our responsibility is, is to our community. This word “community” does an end-run around “users”–because the construction of user suggests that the significant people to libraries are only those who are in their buildings or in their systems. But our responsibility is to our community, whether they are “in the library” or not..
I want us to think of and speak about and emphasize Libraries as a social place, with a mission that is beyond content.
Who is in your library? Who is of your library?
Public libraries have a much better handle on this than academic libraries. There’s far less “how do we get them to library the way we want them to” in the air in public libraries, and we in academic libraries would do well to pay more attention. This, too, anthropological approaches can help with. But only if we follow the line of anthropology that moves away from colonizing structures.
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.
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.
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.
These amaryllis came from my grandfather’s yard in Louisiana.
My mother’s gardening philosophy: plant what you think might work.
If it dies, there are two lessons to learn:
1) don’t plant that again
2) PLANT SOMETHING ELSE
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?”
Portrait of the anthropologist in the field (far right, back turned).
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:
— 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.
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.”
He really didn’t care if you agreed with him or not.
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.
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.
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?
Who in the room is a leader?
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 managed to forget for the moment that other argument that I and others have made about how academia exists in the larger context of society, and the world. We are not living in a bubble, the world we live in is shot through our more local educational contexts. In our very international room at UXLibs, on Friday morning, we were all reminded forcefully of the presence of the world and all of its troubles.
Brexit, should it come to pass, will be a tragedy. The vote that has already happened has hurt and frightened and angered so many people, including people I love. The vote has apparently encouraged racists to take license and assault their fellow citizens, and the vote has also apparently caught even those who campaigned for the Leave result off guard, so that there are no plans for execution, and leadership on all sides have gone home in shock and confusion.
If xenophobia + outward-facing = colonialism, then I think xenophobia + inward-facing = isolationism.
I had no standing on Friday to speak to what I wished to happen around the Referendum vote, it’s not my country as fond as I am of many of its inhabitants. I can offer hugs and sympathy and hopes that should our vote in the US in November go similarly wrong, I might call on my friends for the same. I have never had a chance to be a European, I am locked into my US passport and cannot offer my children alternative citizenships. It has seemed to me a marvelous thing, this European experiment, that connected people across borders even as it was messy and imperfect. I hope, I hope, it is not over.
I was reminded, on Friday, not just of the ever-present world in our conversations about libraries and academia, but also in the fundamental lack of importance of me as an individual. UXLibs as a phenomenon has always, to my mind, been about the importance of the community, of collective action. No one speaker, no one presentation, no one individual is important. But together, we all are. As collectives of individuals, we matter in positive and negative ways. Collective and connected action can be the antidote to isolationism, which does not serve people, libraries, or countries very well at all.
I will fight the impulse (in my country as well as elsewhere) for isolationism, because that is not what keeps us safe, that is not an interesting or constructive way to move through the world.
I want to live in hope, so I will choose to do so.
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:
As an anthropologist who works in libraries, my fieldwork takes me beyond libraries into a wide variety of learning places. And those learning places are classrooms, cafes, parks, Moodle, Facebook, and Twitter. I spend a lot of time online and talking about being online, not just in my fieldwork, but in my academic practice.
Online is a place. It is not just a kind of tool, or a bucket of content, but a location where people go to encounter and experience other people. Places, online and otherwise, are made things, they are cultural constructs. Technology, and the places technology helps create, are likewise cultural constructs, and therefore: Not Neutral. They are human, they are made, they contain values.
I am not telling people anything that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth repeating.
Libraries and Librarians aren’t neutral either.
I see some Librarians try to position themselves as neutral, supportive nurturing helpers, and those who try this are not always good at conveying it. I think the reason for that is that such neutrality cannot possibly be real–we are all human, we all have biases, we are not “objective” and pretending to be just allows us to deny our subjectivity rather than working through it.
[at this point I asked the room:]
How many of you have ever been told,
“I have a really stupid question?”
[lots of hands went up. Seemed like the entire room]
When people walk up and say, “I have a really stupid question,” It’s because they are preemptively signaling they are not comfortable yet. They don’t feel safe. So I’m wondering, how do we build, within libraries, and within education generally, places for people to feel safe?
And in thinking about places, I want to ask, where are librarians? Where do you want to be? Why do you want to be there? I am making an assumption here that If you are in online spaces, it is to connect, with each other, with students, (not because “it would be cool” please no not that).
I think presence in those places signals that you care, and value connection, and want to create safe spaces. How, then, does that affect practice? How do we think critically about practices such that we can make places feel safe?
How do you become trustworthy? Not as individuals, but structurally? What makes it make sense for students or faculty to come to you? To the Library? Where else is the library? Does the persistent question, “why don’t they come to us?” make sense if we are all supposed to be part of the same community?
What do you do to become part of your community? What do you do that is trustworthy?
And, also, how do you come to trust the people whom you are trying to reach?
How do you find them? How do you find out about what they are doing and why? Because it can be difficult to trust people you do not understand.
And this, actually, is part of the problem I have with these notions of empathy as some sort of prerequisite to action, to connection. I am troubled by the suggestion that you need to muster up empathy first before reaching out to students or faculty. (Not that I am opposed to empathy, I’m a fan of it in my life and work) Our students and colleagues are worthy of our respect, they have an inherent human dignity that means it is our responsibility to reach out, to try to connect, whether we have achieved empathetic understanding beforehand or not.
Perhaps, perhaps that empathy actually comes most effectively post-connection. Empathy is not a prerequisite, but an outcome.
Some of the work I do in my research and practice might point a way towards understanding the motivations behind practices online.
Visitors and Residents map, collected from one of the workshops we’ve conducted over the years. Visualizing practices, and online places, is a first important step towards understanding motivations to engage.
I have spoken and blogged before about mapping practices. In research and in workshops we can get people to talk about where they are online and also how it makes them feel. People feel about digital places in similar ways to feeling about physical ones–I’ve interviewed students who sigh deeply in dismay at the thought of their Facebook account, full of troublesome family members, or who smile in thinking about their Twitter community, configured carefully so that they can be who they want to be, feel how they want to feel, while in that place.
Online behaviors are not determined by the venue. Facebook is not always about what you had for breakfast, and Twitter is not always about politics. Each of these places, all of the new and old online places, are about people, and choices. So, mapping, as with the V&R maps, can show us where people are, but the important part is the conversations that are generated, about why they are there (or not).
I think about the emotional associations of institutional spaces, for example in usability studies of library websites revealing the embarrassment and frustration students can feel at not being able to wrangle the website. In fact, they frequently blame themselves for the tech failure, apologize to us for our crappy websites. They say they will try again, but when they are away from us, why would they go back? Who voluntarily goes back to some place that makes them feel stupid?
During the Twitter-based #digped discussion in mid-May, there was a discussion about how to make ed tech more human. This tweet I’ve captured points to some of what I have been turning over in my head about digital and presence.
When thinking about instructional online spaces, I’d like to ask (and I’m far from the only one) how to make them human as well as positive? How do we build in access to other people, and not just provide buckets of content? Where are the people in your online learning environment? Are they connected to each other? In my experience, students find their human connections outside of the institutional learning environment–they are on Snapchat, on Instagram, in Facebook and Twitter. So we should continue to think about the role of digital places, outside of institutions as where connections happen.
We need to continue to think about identity, and how it plays out online. Where and how do we develop voices online?
I have been thinking the role of vulnerability–it troubles me lately, because I often see it approached in terms of personal vulnerability, of some sense that sharing your personal life at work is necessary, so as to give people a “way in.”
In my own practice, I’ve made deliberate decisions to share parts of my personal life, on Twitter, in my blog. I approach it as a political decision as much as anything, a result of what I think needs to happen around the representation of women as professionals and academics. And things I’ve written can indeed be interpreted as a wider call for more people to be “personal” online, so as to be human, and therefore accrue a different kind of credibility in the new academic spaces of the Resident web.
“Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human”…rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.”
Who is a scholar? Who is a professor? Who is a teacher? The many paths we take now didn’t always exist, and there are indeed political as well as pedagogical reasons for revealing those narratives (as I have, in talking about mine).
But I wonder, how do you reconcile that with the narrative of “risky” online environments, and how faculty and students need to be “cautious?” How do you balance the need for a kind of vulnerability with desire for “safety”–how is that possible? What does “safe” mean?
What constitutes vulnerability online, and for whom?
Who gets to be vulnerable? What does that mean?
Who is already vulnerable?
“Risk-taking” is so often framed as a positive thing, especially when people in a position of privilege engage in it. But when the intersections of our identity place us in more vulnerable categories, ones other than white, straight, male, cisgendered, middle (or upper)-class when does “risk-taking” segue into “risky?” When do our human vulnerabilities get held against us? This is about context–who is classed as positive risk-takers when they make themselves vulnerable, who is classed as “risky” and perhaps necessary to avoid, someone who makes people uncomfortable.
So, what price “approachable?” How much do we strip ourselves of ourselves so that people are comfortable, so that we are not “risky?”
This, I think is the tyranny of NICE–I see this especially in libraries, wherein “approachability” can be shorthand for “seems enough like me to be safe” How do we create environments where unfamiliarity doesn’t have to feel risky? Where “discomfort” isn’t a barrier to engagement or thinking?
How do we get a diversity of “safe” people into our networks, who do not discount us as “risky” in our vulnerabilities?
In particular i want to ask this question:
What does it mean when we ask Students to be vulnerable online? How is it different if they are women? Black? White? Brown? LGBT+? Fill in the category of your choice here.
Because some of us show up more vulnerable than others. Our identity is not just the categories and characteristics we self-identify with, it’s the boxes people try to place us in. it’s involuntary vulnerability, the people we are perceived to be become a way to dismiss us, our expertise, our content. Structural and personal vulnerability can’t be shaken off, and maybe we don’t owe anyone our personal vulnerability. Maybe our students don’t owe us personal vulnerability.
Vulnerability doesn’t have to be personal.
I think about professors giving phone numbers out to students, back before social media ubiquity. Choosing to give out home phone numbers, or even cell phone numbers wasn’t something everyone did, it signaled a particular approach to boundaries and the role of professors in student lives. What is the online equivalent? Is it friending or following on social media?
I wonder what are other ways of being present and human to students without violating important boundaries yourself?
I don’t think that kind of putting yourself personally out there is mandatory. Personal narratives don’t have to be the default. You don’t owe anyone your personal story. And sometimes just your existence is story enough.
We do owe them professional vulnerability. That way lies inclusion–for our colleagues and our students. Professional vulnerability can model the kind of society that we want them to have. We need them to be flexible, transparent, and to expect that from their professional and civic networks going forward.
So what would that kind of professional vulnerability look like?
Libraries have traditionally expressed “service” in terms of seamlessness–systems that don’t need explaining, for example. And from a UX perspective, that’s one thing. But in an instruction context, that’s problematic. Seamlessness doesn’t signal a way in. iPhones don’t tell you how they are made, they just expect you to use them. How do we build educational environments, both digital and physical, that give people a way in? In to the course, to the library, to the discipline, to the University?
One answer might be in engaging with seam-y (“see me”) practices and pedagogies. Showing the seams, being open about how educational experiences and scholarly content are produced. Academia is a made thing, we can show students the seams, and allow them to find their way in.
Seams showing how the locomotive cylinder is put together. Image from page 180 of “The Locomotive” (1867) Internet Archive Book Image Flickr Stream: https://flic.kr/p/ovuPbj
I see examples in many places. Including the rhizomatic learning work coming from Dave Cormier. In his connectivist approach to education, he argues that:
“What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”
“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions.”
Teaching a class where you admit that you aren’t quite sure where things are going, where you are clear in not knowing everything, that is professional vulnerability. Instructors who construct their authority in the classroom around knowing everything, or at least knowing Way More Than Their Students about Everything, are at risk of #authoritysofragile, of that moment when it is revealed that of course we don’t know everything, and the authority is shattered. We can avoid those shattering moments by never pretending in the first place to know it all. Positioning ourselves confidently alongside our students as we explore things without being sure of outcomes, that’s powerful, that is seam-y, that is professional vulnerability.
If you read this blog you’ve seen this map before. This workshop participant annotated her V&R map with arrows indicating where she wanted to move her practice, mapping the trajectory of the changes she wanted.
In the V&R workshops we conduct we ask people to annotate their maps, to show where they are willing to move and change, and even discontinue what they are doing. The epiphanies that happen when people realize this thing they have been doing doesn’t serve them especially well can feel like admitting a mistake. These conversations reveal emotions that these places and practices engender, and those revelations are a form of professional vulnerability.
Open practice is a kind of vulnerability that reveals the seams of academic work. I am open in my own practice, in sharing rough drafts via Google Docs, in blogging half-formed ideas, in Tweeting even less formed ideas. If you look at my blog from when it first started my voice was very different than what it is now. I am never finished, my work is never seamless and complete.
What can we do in our own practices to create spaces where the seams of academia are visible? Create places where our students can see how and where they fit? The possibilities for our students finding where they can get in are contained in the spaces we do not fill with content, or cover over with seamless interfaces
The work of teaching and learning is challenging, and when we talk about seamlessness we are lying about what education is supposed to be. The challenge is in doing the things we don’t know yet, and how will our students learn that if we do not? If we do not model our own unformed and unfinished practices, how can they even know that is what happens? How can they imagine themselves doing it?
Digital affords us different ways of revealing the seams, the mess of our academic projects. We can, without revealing ourselves totally, still reveal process in a way that makes it clear that academia is a cultural construct, made by people not entirely unlike our students. Tools and places are out there such as Hypothes.is ,GoogleDocs, Twitter, blogging platforms. Facebook groups, Instagram, Pinterest, ephemeral contexts such as Snapchat. The point is not the specific environment or tools, but in the possibilities to connect, and capability of revealing process along the way.
We can highlight the importance of engaging in unfinished thoughts, in exploration. Where a .pdf is seamless and a finished product, an invited GoogleDoc is seam-y and in process, perhaps never entirely done.
Libraries have a history of engaging with process, not just content. Libraries are good at this, their particular area of expertise is in navigating, framing, and evaluating content (in its myriad forms). Open practice, professional vulnerability around the processes of academia, this is an opportunity for Libraries and Information Literacy and Library Instruction to shine.
My friend and colleague Emily Drabinski writes marvelous things, and one of her latest, a co-authored piece with Scott Walter, “Asking Questions that Matter” challenges 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?
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
Image source David L. Van Tassel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Helianthus_maximilianii_rhizomes.jpg
“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.
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.
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.
Susan carries the kit around in a bag like this. Active Learning To-Go.
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.
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?
Ganesha, “Lord of Success, Destroyer of Evils, and Remover of Obstacles.”