Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Entangled Technology and AAA2013, or, What I did on Friday

My AAA 2013 partners in crime this year were some people I have presented with before (and was delighted to have a chance to again: Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado), and some new-to-me colleagues I look forward to working with some more (Lori Jahnke and Lesley Gourlay).

Andrew brought the donuts. We managed to wait until after our session before eating them. That is some seriously professional self-control. Yes, that is bacon on four of the donuts, from Do-Rite Donuts. The other two were pistachio.

Never let it be said I don't blog about important things like donuts.

Our session, Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology, (here's the link to the Prezi we used as a visual aid for the discussion) was a roundtable, where we presented and then connected the work we are engaged in, picking up on four main threads of discussion.

1) How institutional disconnect from student behavior and expectations affects access to education, to information, to what they need to engage with resources they need for their academic work, but also for the life they will build post-college.

Maura and Mariana's work at CUNY spoke most powerfully to the everyday details of this, but I think Lori's work text-mining IT and University strategic plans was equally important. The content of those strategic plans is just so strikingly distant from the priorities and realities of students and faculty members in higher education. We need to pay more attention to those sorts of documents, and in particular the urgency with which they need to be informed by social science research results.

2) How cultural, political, and social values are embedded not just in search, but in Higher Ed institutions generally. And again, the impact that has on #1

Andrew is doing such important work with this. Search is a cultural construction. Higher education is a cultural construction. Libraries are cultural constructions. They are not free from the values of wider society, and need to be observed critically if we are to truly concern ourselves with access to higher education, and the benefits, privileges, and problems inherent in the system.

3) The use of anthropological research to ground higher education policy (macro and micro) in the behavior of people, and the potential of the applied anthropological approach to improve outcomes of educational agendas broadly written, where ultimate goal of education is an engaged and informed citizenry.

I think this second theme is also linked to the underlying themes of the Liminality session that NAPA sponsored the previous day. My own work at UNC Charlotte is a nice example of what can happen when administrators are on board with a social science-informed policy perspective. Lesley is also trying through her work to effect change at the University of London.  But not all administrators are sympathetic. It can be challenging to inform policy beyond quantitative metrics, if qualitative approaches are not valued. Our challenge as anthropologists is to insert ourselves into institutional conversations, to become part of organizations that need more qualitative approaches, to provide perspectives that are currently all-too-scarce.

4) Our positions as professional outsiders in higher education contexts, but also as sort of native ethnographers, as we are all products of and participants in the kinds of systems we are studying.

My boss told me today that he values me at least in part because I am an outsider to the library. On the panel, our positions as people both within our institutions and tasked with thinking critically about those institutions can be personally and professionally challenging. And also, terrifically worthwhile.

Andrew, Maura and I live-tweeted this session, and I Storified it rather than put it here, because it's kind of long.

I also quite liked our session abstract, and since you can't see it without being a registered AAA member, I am going to reproduce it here:

Abstract:  Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology

"In this roundtable we propose to explore our status, research, and findings as we work as interdisciplinary collaborators with non-anthropologists in academic settings. Our projects initiate and facilitate scholarly as well as policy discussions about the nature of information, the configuration of digital and physical spaces in academia, and the changing state of academic work and scholarly communication in the 21st century. Some of us, employed in academic libraries, are positioned as native ethnographers, as we are tasked with observing and analyzing the thoughts and behaviors of our own communities: the students, faculty, and staff in the practical, everyday spaces of academia. Our outside eye is valuable in pinpointing not just ways that academic institutions and libraries can reshape themselves for the 21st century, but also in illuminating the nature of scholarly work among our peers and the relationship of that work to the world outside of academia. This roundtable provides a forum for sharing our work and our perspectives on anthropology in higher education settings.

The panelists represent a variety of ways that anthropological knowledge and research are presented and conducted. Through a range of methods, including mapping, time logs, drawings, photo diaries, and research process interviews, we have examined how students and faculty engage with and are constrained by technology as they navigate the spaces and systems of academe. As researchers we are diversely engaged, bringing not only anthropological methods and theories to our projects but also the methods and theories of library and information science, science and technology studies, education, sociology, and user experience research.

Our research actively explores the role of technology for students in their academic work at colleges and universities. At this moment when educational technologies are very much a part of the broader, global conversation about the cost and value of higher education, we examine how these technologies constrain and enable students, and how they fit with the essential learning mission of college, especially in the academic library, a traditional locus of student use of information technology. As social scientists embedded in academia, we leverage our research to bring student voices to these discussions. Our studies produce data which may be brought to bear on policy decisions at the college and university, and which has the potential to positively impact student academic success.

As researchers who are well positioned to observe the complex interactions between digital technologies and the social organization and practices of students and faculty member, this roundtable will speak not only to how technologies are used within higher education, but also to broader cultural transformations within and outside the academy. For example, how do political and cultural values embodied in digital tools and technologies constrain or empower students? How do the social contexts of students’ communities and universities affect their technology use? By examining these questions, anthropologists working in higher education can contribute both to improving the learning environments of our universities, but also to better understandings of the meanings, effects, and lived experience of technologies and technological change. "

Liminality and Practicing Anthropology

The first session I attended at AAA2013 was the NAPA sponsored Liminality and Crossing Boundaries in Applied Anthropology.   My primary motive to attend was to see Nancy Fried Foster's paper on participatory design in libraries, but I was delighted that I had the chance to stay for all but the last 2 papers, because as a whole the panel was thought provoking and inspiring.

This is the big takeaway for me from the panel. That the work, and even just the presence of anthropologists in industry and institutional settings creates a liminal space, which in turn is an opportunity for change and innovation.  It's a powerful frame in which to see ourselves as professionals, and also one that requires responsible thought about what role anthropologists and anthropology should play in effecting institutional change.  Patricia was explicit about her hopes for social science (she was one of at least 2 panelists who pointed out "I am not an anthropologist") in institutional settings:

Maria's energetic presentation pointed even more strongly to the potential for innovation that comes out of persistent and embedded anthropological attention to technology and the processes involved in producing that technology. In particular, we can bring up to people like engineers points about technology and the digital that we, as social scientists, largely take for granted, but not everyone else does:

I single out these two papers in particular because I think the themes of the potential for change, and the importance of a consistent social science-informed perspective on the processes, technologies, and organizational structures coming from and constituting industry/institutions, is one that also resonated through my own panel.  That is post #3 (which, now that I have called it out, I hope I will actually write).

Monday, November 25, 2013

AAA 2013, Anthropology and Open Access

Just back from the American Anthropological Meetings in Chicago and I am so amazingly glad I went.  Library and IT conferences are a part of my professional rounds these days, but there is something so comforting about being surrounded by friends and colleagues to whom I don't have to explain myself.  We can just have conversations (so many conversations!) starting off from our common ground as anthropologists.  It's such a freeing feeling.  I am already looking forward to being in DC for AAA2014.

I was particularly energized by the panels I went to, and I will talk about the second one more in part because it was such a surprise to me.  When I saw the title, "The Future of Writing and Reading in The Digital and Open Access Eras," I was worried, because much of what I'd been hearing about Open Access from my colleagues in anthropology was full of worry and pessimism, not to mention themes that appeared to be straight out of some publishers' handbooks.  I had a pre-panel chat with my colleague Juliann Couture, who is the ACRL liaison to the AAAs as well as social science librarian at the University of  Colorado, Boulder.  We went over all of the things that we wished the panel would be about (but were afraid it would not be).  And then we went to the panel, and Tom Boellstorff from UC Irvine got up and said everything we had wished for.  I live-tweeted it.  I wanted to stand up at the end of his part of the panel and shout AMEN.

The above tweet gets at some of what we are starting to talk about in the Visitors and Residents 
 project, how online forms of communication, scholarly production, and community have the potential to fundamentally transform notions of where scholarly authority, trust, and value lie.  Where before it has been associated with institutions such as universities and publishers, altmetrics and social media give us the possibility of individuals as their own authoritative selves, independent of institutions.

The subsequent speakers were equally thoughtful, if a bit more cautious about some aspects of OA.  The fact that Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and  Giovanni Da Col are in university contexts outside of the US contributed a great deal to the critical eye they brought to the peculiarly market-driven narrative around OA in the US, and how problematic that is.

Discussant Alisse Waterston highlighted the questions that needed to be answered about OA for academic publishing and the production of other forms of scholarship, but also made the point that

During the discussion Juliann and I both pointed out the role that university libraries are playing in the OA discussion, and that some of the models that anthropologists and other scholars are searching for could be found collaboratively, working with people in other fields (such as Biology, which has a robust OA scholarly presence, as well as Library and Information Science), as well as elsewhere on their own campuses.

And the managing editor of Cultural Anthropology, Tim Elfenbein, contributed his thoughts from his experience in trying to figure out what OA might look like, and the energy required to think not just about publishing, but broadly about scholarship.

This circles back around to the idea broached in the early parts of the panel by Boellstorff, that new forms of scholarly production, including OA forms, do not mean the death of the article or of the book (I wonder if it might mean the death of the journal, as we know it).  These are not mutually exclusive forms, they can co-exist and work within a more rich, complex system of scholarship.

The point about the need for us to be open and transparent in our scholarship, not just to our colleagues, but to the people among whom we do our research, is also crucial.  OA is an important tool to use in our project of making anthropological knowledge accessible to wider publics, not just the public of our fellow anthropologists, or even just other academics.

The potential OA has to transform the processes of scholarship, to make clear how people write, and what is involved in creating manuscripts for books, articles, even blogposts and other experimental writing genres, is so exciting to me.  All of my work, now that I am in an academic library, is collaborative, and I have no choice but to share awful rough drafts with my collaborators.  It is liberating and satisfying to take nascent ideas, and really work with people from the first word to get our collective ideas shaped and temporarily fixed into what we want to say.  There will always be a time and a place for working alone, but working with other scholars is, I think, the best opportunity for truly new things to arise.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Playing with Cognitive Mapping

I am messing around with cognitive mapping instruments, stolen with Andrew Asher's blessing from the ERIAL toolkit (I know, I know, I don't need anyone's blessing because hey, that's what toolkits are for!  Especially those posted on the web).  I am doing this in part because photo diaries, while useful and capable of yielding rich information, are really really time consuming and difficult to get students to do.    I am still very much hoping to get back to University College, London, to continue the work I started there in 2011, and when I am there I'd like to use cognitive maps as well as structured interviews and immersive observations to get a sense of how and why various learning spaces are being used by UCL students and faculty.

So, I'm doing some here at UNC Charlotte.  At the very least, such an exploratory exercise can give us a sense of what our undergraduate and graduate students' spatial networks look like when they are written down.  The data I'm collecting can also begin to serve as a comparative set for the data that I hope to be able to collect in the UK.

I just want to put some of the maps here because I think they are really interesting.  I am of course far from the only one doing this--Lesley Gourlay at the IOE and her colleagues have done some mapping exercises, and of course there is the aformentioned ERIAL work, among other ethnographic projects in the US.  The students were given 6 minutes to complete each map, and were asked to map all of the places that they go to/inhabit in some way for their academic work.   I was specific in saying that the spaces could be on- or off-campus.    The maps posted here are undergraduate maps--I have maps from graduate students that we are still processing.  In general, undergraduate space maps indicate the need for them to be in places that make it easy for them to get to the other places they need to go to.  If they have class in a particular building, they are more likely to study in the Student Union than the library, because the former is closer.  If they live away from campus, they might be likely to have off-campus cafes, etc. on their maps as work spaces.  The choices they make about where to settle in to study are not made in a vacuum.  There is a similar diversity to the spaces they find themselves in, however, in part because undergraduate classes occur in a variety of buildings in different parts of campus, and are not necessarily taught in the building that house their major programs.  Graduate student maps (in process) have less diversity of spaces, because they are much more tied to the departmental labs and spaces of their degree programs.

The students worked for 2 minutes in each pen color, beginning with blue, moving to red, and then ending with black.  Some students finished before the 6 minute mark, resulting in some maps in just 2 colors (such as #7 shown here).

This undergraduate lives on campus, and has drawn straight lines connecting all of the places he needs to go.  The library is one place in a larger network, of course.  Several of these building are classroom spaces.  This senior lives in an on-campus dorm.  There are no off-campus spaces shown here.

This sophomore lives in an off-campus apartment relatively far from campus, but her boyfriend's apartment (the building in the upper left corner) is closer in.  She has mapped campus buildings such as the Student Union and various classroom buildings, but also included important spaces such as where her youth group meets, and the 24-hour cafe Amelie's.  The library does not figure in her mental map of learning spaces.

This student lives close to the South Carolina border, nearly a half an hour from campus.  She has included several cafe or bookstore spaces, all of which have free wi-fi, but not all of which are open 24 hours.  "School" is the university campus, and she has not differentiated places within the campus, because she has so many other places she inhabits.  The library on this map is the public library closest to the university.

This junior has sketched only the places within the library he inhabits on the left hand side of the drawing.  He has put in study rooms, and indicated where the study rooms are in the building by their proximity to round tables with computers on them (these are on the 1st floor).  His other learning spaces are in his close-to-campus apartment, on the right hand side.  He has sketched his living room furniture (comfortable chairs as well as desks), and his bedroom.