Wednesday, November 14, 2012

EDUCAUSE 2012, Part the Second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2012

Optical Fabrication and Testing, Ethnography, and Poster Sessions

I presented my first ever poster at a session at the Optical Fabrication and Testing conference at the end of last month.  We were the only presentation in the entire conference that had anything to do with social science.

We were apparently the best-attended poster at the meeting, which was both surprising and gratifying.  There is a lot of interest among optical science practitioners in how to train effectively the future practitioners they need for their field to continue to thrive.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conference (not just because it was in Monterey, CA!) as an anthropological experience--it was a fascinating combination of intellectual exchange, commercial marketing, and networking.

The conference was also an opportunity to kick off the survey part of the project, where we try to gather information from a much wider audience of optical science and engineering academics and professionals.  If you know any of these people, please direct them to the survey link, I'd really appreciate it.

Click here to download a readable copy of the poster--it presents our initial impressions of the research we did in labs and classrooms at UNC Charlotte, as well as interview conducted among UNC Charlotte optical science and engineering community members (current and former).  I'd be interested in your thoughts.

D. M. Lanclos, A. M. Ferrara, M. A. Davies, C. J. Evans, and T. J. Suleski, "Collaborative work within Optical Engineering: Ethnography and curricular development," in Applied Industrial Optics: Spectroscopy, Imaging and Metrology, OSA Technical Digest (online) (Optical Society of America, 2012), paper JTu5A.1.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Space Hacking and Student Engagement

Outside learning spaces at UNC Charlotte.
So I went to THATCamp Piedmont in Davidson, NC in early May, and attended  Mark Sample's Spacehacking panel.  The panel was full of faculty whose concerns were largely classroom based, and whose desires seemed to centered around how to shake things up physically in classrooms, so students are engaged, while at the same time meeting expectations that materials are presented by professor to students.  We brainstormed about furniture, digital tools, sitting and standing, taking the professor out of the front of the room (and the pedagogical challenges therein), expressed concerns about accessibility, and speculated about non-classroom-based work environments (like, the great outdoors!).

Calling something like a classroom a "learning space" implies that they are also "teaching spaces"--the direction of that teaching has traditionally been from professor to student, but increasingly we are asking students to teach each other, and occasionally to teach us about the materials we wish them to be engaged with.  Classrooms in university environments are frequently locked into particular configurations, especially the auditorium-style rooms with bolted-down chairs, immovable tables, and a very fixed focal point at the front of the room.  The room we were in during the panel (in the Center for Teaching and Learning in the E.H. Little Library at Davidson College) was very configurable, with desk-height tables on wheels, comfortable task chairs, and whiteboards along the entire perimeter of the room.  It still had a smart podium at one end of the room, requiring whoever was needing to present materials to treat that side of the room as the "front" (there was also a smartboard there).  It was also, apparently, not a terribly typical learning space at Davidson (though it was a very in-demand space!).

During the panel and after I was thinking about Atkins library spaces, and the changes we've already made that have resulted in big differences in student engagement in learning spaces.  For example, my colleague Heather McCullough, the head of our Digital Scholarship Lab, came across a group of students studying in our ground floor collaborative spaces during finals week.  There was one student at a whiteboard, outlining principles of Economics, being listened to by a group of his classmates.  The student's classmates asked him,"how do you know this stuff??" He told them, "I did the practice problems in the back of the textbook." And his classmates said, "Can you tell us how to do that?"  And so he did.  They were not doing this in a classroom, they were doing this in the library, sitting on couches and comfortable chairs, facing a whiteboard, feet up on the glass coffee table they were circled around.
Students teaching each other during finals week 2012

Now, faculty can choose to despair at the image of students at the end of the semester just figuring out the utility of the practice problems in the back of the textbook.  Or, they can choose (as I do) to be struck by the tableau of students teaching students not just the course material, but techniques for success in class, techniques that they can then take out of the current class they are enrolled in and apply to future situations.  Student engagement is happening in the library--they are engaged with their course materials, they are engaged with each other (and not just in a social way), they are engaged with the stuff of intellectual work, one of the most important reasons for them to come to university.

These students stacked tables to make the furniture work better for them
 If such engagement is not happening regularly in the classroom, or, if the kinds of engagement that faculty are experiencing in classrooms are not satisfying (either to faculty or to students), then how can we bring the engagement we see happening in the library into other parts of campus?  Could one part of the solution be a reconfiguration of space?

I've been trying to think about space in the library here at UNCC in terms of a concepts I've borrowed from my colleagues:   in environmental psychology, "behavior settings", from architecture, "affordances," and from my own field, anthropology, the idea of "places" as cultural constructs.  "Behavior settings" refer to the cluster of assumptions that particular environments suggest to people upon entering the space (think of those velvet ropes that lead up to service desks--we know we're being set up to wait in line).   "Affordance" is a related concept (also used by people in Human-Computer Interaction), describing the range of possible activities/functions suggested by a particular space/piece of furniture/object.  For example, a chair suggests a limited range of options (sitting), where a staircase wide enough to accommodate seating as well as walking (as in this example at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke) can suggest a larger set of possibilities (sitting, walking, meeting, talking, etc).   Anthropologists approach "place" as the set of cultural meanings that are imposed by people onto physical spaces.  I think it's useful to keep all three of these concepts in mind when contemplating creating spaces that meet the needs of both students and their instructors, at universities and elsewhere.

With our reconfiguration of our ground floor spaces (and I swear, we're going to start reconfiguring other spaces as soon as we have the resources to do so!), we have been consistently paying attention to what students were trying to do, both on the ground floor as well as in other parts of the library.  We saw them trying to work in pairs or threes at traditional library carrels, we saw how overbooked our group study rooms were, we saw the syllabi requiring that students work in groups as a part of their coursework.  Those observations helped inform the decisions we made to dedicate most of the ground floor to collaborative work spaces.

In the same vein, paying attention to what faculty are trying to do when they are teaching should inform classroom design.  Faculty are already (as evidenced by the roomful of concerned professionals at THATCamp Piedmont) thinking about novel ways to reach their students in the classroom.  They should be partners with classroom support and facilities departments on campuses in planning classroom spaces, and experimenting with operationalizing those ideas with the help of different furniture, digital tools, and open minds.  I know that some faculty (I'm thinking of @georgeonline here) are already doing this at their respective institutions.

What's happening on your campus to transform learning and teaching spaces?  What works and what doesn't?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Thanks to the generosity (via Twitter) of my colleague Andrew Asher (@aasher), I was alerted to the existence of Pierre Bourdieu's 1965 ethnography of French undergraduate university student behavior, Academic Discourses, including an essay entitled, "The Users of Lille University Library" (co-authored with Monique de Saint Martin).  In 1964, over 800 questionnaires were distributed to and filled out by students "from the sociology group in the Faculty of Arts at Lilles (p.132)," and the answers were then tallied and analyzed by Bordieu and his co-author.

What is most amazing to me (after the discovery that library ethnography has its roots not just in design ethnography, but also in the work of such a practitioner as Bourdieu!) is that the concerns expressed about undergraduate academic behavior appear to have changed not at all, not after over 40 years have passed, not in the transition from French academia to that of the US.  Bourdieu and his colleague asked questions about where the students lived, whether or not they were employed, where they prefer to study, what their favorite part of the library is--all of these questions are familiar to those of us doing library ethnography today.  He worries about their lack of attention to librarians:  "Students reject working through a librarian, rarely asking for assistance. 'It is very difficult,' a librarian says; 'there is a door to go through, they don't know, they dare not.' (p.132)"

 He says that students don't work in the library, because it does not suit their needs:  "Students in their great majority do nothing at the Library which they cannot do as well or better at home because, by unanimous consent, the Library is an unfavourable site for scholarly reflection (p.123)"  He goes on to say that "...most users of the Library only appear to be working rather than actually getting anything done (p.123)."  He does acknowledge that "students ...seem to want something from the Library which they cannot find at home, whether this is the real or imaginary encouragement to study induced by the 'atmosphere' of the Library or the psychological gratifications of contact with their peers, known or unknown, or a vague expectation of making these contacts (p.123)."

Bourdieu points out (with not a little dismay, I think) that "students misrecognize the particular function of the Library and more often treat it as a meeting-place or at best a study area. (p.123)."

He says that like it's a bad thing.

The work of academia that Bourdieu clearly hoped to see in the Library (reading, thinking) was actually, according to students, being done in spaces such as cafes, bedrooms, even on walks, "in circumstances where other, non-studious activities can be fit in (124)."

There are some interesting gendered observations he makes at the end--young women at the university saw the Library as a "beehive," whose activity both fostered and also got in the way of their getting work done, while men saw it as more of a "monastary," quiet and occasionally oppressively quiet.  Those differing views of the library are no longer easily assigned to particular gender identities, but do represent different poles of perspective on problematic spaces in the library.

In short, Bourdieu was confronted with students who were uncomfortable working in the library, who preferred to do their academic work where they were comfortable.  The students went to the library if their professors insisted (frequently to check out or refer to a book).  Their presence in the library had as much social as it did academic purpose.  Some students who did go to the library got things done, but also struggled to achieve balance between academic work and leisure time.

We have worked hard at UNC Charlotte to make the library a welcoming space that meets a wide variety of student needs, but there is still much work to be done.  Anxieties about whether or not students are getting to all of the resources they need to be successful also persist.

On the face of it, we are still grappling with much the same issues that Bourdieu and his colleagues described in the mid-1960s.

Bourdieu, P. (1994[1964]). Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The ephemera of academic work.

Last week I went to hear Mary Flanagan speak about play, creativity, games, and how to think about social change in the context of game design and production.   And this weekend, I'll be attending another THATCamp, this one THATCamp Piedmont, at Davidson College just up the road.  The prospect of going to another unconference, the content of Flanagan's talk, plus the recent experience of opening our new north entrance spaces at Atkins library, have been making me think a great deal (even if I haven't been blogging that amount) about the material nature of our thought processes--or, frequently, the lack thereof.

What I mean is, there are times when students walk into the library with nothing in their hands but ideas in their heads, with a need to share those ideas (and get inspired by new ones) with colleagues.  The physical environment they need for idea sharing is one that we've provided in the library:  furniture near whiteboards.

They can sit on couches, chairs, or at tables, and either use the whiteboards we've provided that can be moved around, or settle in spaces where you can write on the walls.  Sometimes (many times) they bring laptops in with them, sometimes they bring books and notes with them.  They work in groups, or they work alone.  

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards needs to go with them when they leave--if they are sketching out a work plan for a group project, if they are outlining a rough draft for a paper, if they are taking a problem set and solutions home.  They often take pictures of the whiteboard (and the information they intend to curate) with their smartphones.  This (on the right) is a good example of an elaborate study guide, using not just a whiteboard but also post-its.  This diagram of the heart stayed on this whiteboard for several days during final exams last semester.  We are actually thinking hard about what it would look like to have smart whiteboards, that could allow for the saving and sending of the stuff that students write down.

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards is not the important product of the study session.  When they need whiteboards to help them think, when the product is greater understanding that they can take with them in immaterial ways, there is no need to save the ephemera of their academic work.  What they write down will not be transformed immediately into another thing, does not need to be curated in the same way that a rough draft or a presentation outline would be.  We don't need to always assume that they need to take it with them

The hard part is that we in the library don't know which kind of work a student is engaging in at any given time--that's why it is terribly important to build flexible spaces, that allow for patrons to have real choices about the work they need to do.

It is in thinking about the ephemera of academic work that I was confronted by a design flaw in our new T1 Vision tables, in our north entrance study spaces.  These tables (shows upper left) have a touch-screen embedded in the table that can be divided into four, as well as a large sharing screen on the adjacent partition.  The large screen for sharing is only activated when a device is plugged in (or, in only a few cases in the touch-table applications).  So, in this photo, the student has plugged in her laptop, and what is on the laptop is shown large on the screen for her study partners to see.  If one of her study partners found something while browsing the web on the touch-table that she wanted to share, that's currently not possible. And that does not fit with the way students work--they need to be able to share and think about things that come up during the session, not just what they have with them when they arrive at the library.  The T1 tables dole out sharing capability as if the stuff that is savable/curatable is more worth sharing than the ephemera, and that is not true.

Sometimes, academic work does not produce a material artifact.  Sometimes, play does not take place in a score-keeping game, sometimes, play is open-ended, sometimes there are no winners or losers.  But thinking is important, creativity is important, and it's crucial for the library to produce and equip spaces that don't just allow our students to write papers and pass exams, but also for them to think, to share ideas, to brainstorm, to bounce ridiculous notions off of each other that may go nowhere.

That's a "knowledge cloud," according to the student who drew that.  Thanks, Daniel W.

Monday, March 12, 2012

THATCamp, Digital Humanities, Hammers and Nails

Hey, y'all, I went to THATCampSE in Athens GA this weekend, and it was very cool.

In addition to getting the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues, I had the opportunity to meet entirely new people and think about unfamiliar things--or at least, about familiar things that I really need to think about in new ways.  While in Athens, I got to engage in conversations about pedagogy, human interaction, graduate training, and digital libraries.  I learned about tools I can use in teaching (and other contexts), and connected with a set of scholars I hope will be collaborators and co-conspirators in projects I haven't even come up with yet.

I was struck by the history of THATCamp (as presented by @amandafrench in her opening remarks at the start of the meeting) as an oppositional un-conference that would be all of the things that traditional conferences like MLA are NOT:  fun, informal, unstructured, unhierarchical.  THATCamp schedules are made the day of the conference.  THATCampers come from many different fields and disciplines.  THATCampers are academics, applied practitioners, veterans in their respective fields, and novices.  THATCampers are humanists, programmers, hackers, and luddites.

THATCamps have also been happening for a while, so there is an increasing number of THATCampers who are "repeat offenders."   The intense feeling of being new-to-it-all (where "it" could be Digital Humanities, THATCamp, or just the particular group of people who arrived at THATCamp SE) was palpable, and fun.  How long can it last?  And is it what THATCamps of the future will look like?   How could some of that energy be transferred to more traditional conferences in the humanities?  How could traditional conferences learn from some of the things that are already happening around them, or in other fields, to give practitioners the opportunities for fun and connection that they are clearly craving in inventing things like THATCamp.  There are things that get built during THATCamps now--what more can THATCampers do to build on what has gone before, so it's not just about the new and novel, but about building something that can inform future endeavors?

It makes me think of the big AAA conferences, and how people's experiences transform through time.  It's almost developmental:  graduate students present formal papers, young scholars finishing grad school attend job placement events and network like crazy.  Established scholars only go into panels as discussants, and senior scholars attend discussions and business meetings.  The ones who've really made it in the field (or, those who figure things out before the rest of us do) never leave the bar, cafe, or book room, and spend the conference doing the real scholarly work of reconnecting with colleagues over a meal, a drink, the enjoyable experience of seeing each other face to face after years/months/decades and diving back into a relationship that has been sustained via email, Facebook, Twitter, or even phone calls.   People tweet in concert with panels and other discussions at conferences (the "backchannel")--even at MLA.  These things are not just possible but in practice in many corners of academia.   So, it will be interesting to see what the future of THATCamp holds, when the relatively fragile oppositional identity of THATCampers transforms into something more robust and defined on its own terms.

At the risk of sounding like I really like my hammer and see nothing but nails, I was struck again by the utility of the Visitors and Residents paradigm.  Where V&R helps me is in thinking of the variety of ways people engaged with the "digital" part of the DH umbrella we were all playing under this weekend.  Many people, especially those with previous THATCamp experience, had already put profiles on the website, started following fellow THATCampers on Twitter, proposed sessions for the Camp, in Athens, etc.  Those people were already THATCamp residents--they were Campers in a way that was visible on the internet not just to the people they would be sharing physical space with in Athens, but also with (potentially) anyone following the #thatcamp hashtag on twitter.  At least one of the "residents" has already blogged about the experience.

Some clearly approached THATCamp as a visitor--they were less visible on the web in their participation, but attended and proposed sessions, and did a lot of unconferencing in face-to-face ways.  Perhaps some of them are writing about it now, and it will end up in a publication (online or otherwise).   Perhaps they will simply talk about the experiences, the tools they learned about, etc with their colleagues, or share in other less-digitally visible ways.

Does that mean the residents are doing it right, and visitors wrong?  No, I don't think so.  These are ends of a continuum.  There is a range of ways to effectively engage with THATCamp, just as there is a range of effective ways to engage with the internet.  And while the community being built through the collective experiences of THATCamp is very visible online, so much of the work is done in face to face contexts augmented with online tools like social media and other collaboration facilitators (making manifest @amanda french's suggestion on Friday that "if it's only online, it only half exists.").  These digital tools do not take away the need for face to face interactions, but they can transform our starting point in those interactions.  The conference can begin before we get there, and continue long after we are gone.

I likewise wonder about this brave and increasingly less-new world of Digital Humanities.  I think there's probably a visitor-resident continuum in that community, too, with one end where the digital = the tools people engage with to enhance or go deeper into relatively traditional humanities content, and the other end of the continuum is where the digital = utterly transformative not just in what can be done in terms of analyzing content, but also in revolutionizing the very meaning of what it is to be a scholar in the humanities.

It's not just the "humanists" who are dealing with that potential transformation--these tools are turning the social sciences, arts, and STEM disciplines upside-down, too.  THATCamp-type comings-together can encourage our engagement with this (forgive me) new normal, where disciplinary boundaries are not walls but starting points, where technology gives us not just tools but new places to go with our work.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Open Access, AAA and the dilemma of scholarly communication in a digital world

So, this is happening, and lots of organizations are replying to the Request for Information (RFI, if you need an acronym) from the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy.  My own professional organization, the American Anthropological Association, submitted this reply, and it is being widely interpreted by vocal members of the discipline as towing the publishing industry's rather conservative and print-journal-centric line about Open Access, and other less centralized models of scholarly publication and communication.

I do think it's a conservative reply, and I don't really agree with the principles embedded in the letter.  I think that the publisher-defined peer-review major-journal model of academic publications is one that doesn't necessarily serve scholars particularly well anymore.  I think that some academic publishers are engaging in behavior that results in less access to scholarship rather than more (see, for instance:  Elsevier), and that there are increasing numbers of alternate models out there that we could begin to look at as a discipline (some are coming from our own subdisciplines).  I also think that we are not the only discipline struggling with trying to balance the needs of many of our members for tenure-and-review-worthy academic work (which is still largely defined as "publishing in major peer-reviewed journals, and/or publishing your work as a monograph with a major academic press").   The folks talking about Digital Humanities are among those who are actively dismantling the traditional system with an eye to something very new, vibrant, and still rigorous and scholarly (not to mention, fun).

I encourage those of you interested in this to really mine the responses to the RFI.  I'm at a UNC, so I'm not supposed to say this, but I think that the response from the Duke University Libraries is an especially good one.  It strikes me as constructive not just because I agree with its stance on OA (pro), but because it's clearly written by people (librarians!) who have an idea of what kind of information structures would allow us to get there.  And by "there," I don't necessarily mean an exclusively OA model.  Perhaps there will still be a place for journals in the future of scholarly communication.  But I think that the way forward can't actually be thought up by asking anyone (including AAA membership), "What do you want the future of scholarly publishing to look like?"  Because you can't know what you don't know.

When, in the course of my work, I ask students flat questions like "What do you want from the library?"  they  often ask for more efficient or more numerous examples of the same kinds of things we provide for them.  They are not information or academic professionals, they don't know what all is possible.  It's actually more effective for us to look at the kinds of things they are doing inside and outside of the library, and think creatively then about how we might meet those needs.  Thinking creatively means consulting and collaborating with a variety of people, not just in the library, but in educational practice, in academic disciplines, in administration, in architecture and design.

AAA just finished a long journey towards a new code of Ethics, and presented it at our annual meetings last Fall.   To do this, they gathered a committee of a variety of different anthropological practitioners, and they started not by asking "what do you want in a code of ethics," but, "what do you do to practice anthropology ethically?"  By starting (anthropologically) from a place grounded in actual practices, they could work towards a code that reflected the lived reality of anthropologists on the ground.

I think that something similar might be done with a publishing model.  How are anthropologists getting information about their field now?  What does that look like?  What kinds of scholarly communications are they producing?  What forms does that communication take, how are they disseminating the information and analysis they produce?  What parts are digital?  Which are analog?  How much takes place in face-to-face interactions?  Why?

In short, we need to be anthropological about it.  And we also should not let the request for information in two weeks badger us as an organization into producing a statement that might fall short of representing a perspective that reflects the priorities of our membership.  If we need more time to figure things out, we should say so.  If we're leery of mandates in the form of federal instructions about OA, we should say so.  But we should also be open to possibilities.  And we can be most open if we are anthropological in our approach.

Get out there and figure stuff out.  And also:  collaborate with libraries.  They really do know what they are doing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Science Friday, Digital Scholarship, and the End of the (Academic) World as we Know It (with apologies to REM)


If I didn't listen to NPR, I think I'd never come up with blogpost ideas.  This time, it was listening to Science Friday that did it.   Ira Flatow was interviewing Michael Nielsen, whose book, Reinventing Discovery:  the New Era of Networked Science appears to be something I should get my hands on.   During the interview, Nielsen discussed the Galaxy Zoo, a project that allows non-scientists to get into NASA's Hubble Space Telescope archive, and help classify galaxies by shape.   So far, more than a quarter of a million people have participated in the project.  That's scaling up something fierce, and something that would not have been possible without the kinds of digital tools we now have at our disposal.  It's also a kind of crowdsourcing. a kind of knowledge production made particularly possible and accessible by tools like wikis, blogs, etc. 

Crowdsourced knowledge is trusted by Digital Residents (so far as we can tell) far more than by Digital Visitors, who still seem to insist on institutionally produced knowledge as the authoritative standard.  Some fields, such as Bioinformatics, have scholars working with projects so novel that the peer-reviewed literature just has not been produced in enough quantity to be helpful to researchers when they are actively engaged in their research--they turn to blogs, tweets, emails, phone calls, and face to face conversations to keep up with the field--the latter two happening, I suspect, only after quite a bit of the first three take place.

My own library has launched a Digital Scholarship Lab, and while we expect that at first, there will be a large Digital Humanities component, I think it's no accident that we are naming it Digital Scholarship, and Nielsen's book makes me think my hunch is a solid one--these digital tools are, as he said in the interview I heard, fundamentally transforming the ways we construct knowledge, broadly defined.  This transformation is not limited to a particular field or discipline, it is global, and it is utter.

It is also frightening and destabilizing to many traditional academics, who see in digital tools as a way to trivialize, ignore, or fail to achieve the insights gained through traditional scholarship with old fashioned tools like books, paper,  images, and manuscripts.  Peer-reviewed journals are increasingly threatened by Open Access, blogging, and twitter, as primary ways to share and discuss scholarship.   Twitter and blogs make it possible to have a "conference" at any time, no matter where you are in the world--we do not have to wait for a national disciplinary conference to engage in scholarly exchange, nor do we want to wait anymore.

Nielsen pointed out that junior scholars and senior scholars tend to be happy to get on board with radical changes, and I can see why:  junior scholars are a part of the changes, they are fish in the water already; senior scholars are in a position to actually make change happen, and they are senior scholars, so less is at stake for them.  Scholars in the middle of their career, either trying to get tenure, or just post-tenure and now with even more work to do, may well feel that they're being told to change doing everything that, up to this point, had been working out just fine for them.  It might be like coming up to someone halfway through their dissertation and insisting that they try this new reference management system.  Or making someone who is writing a book switch word processing software just as they are writing their conclusion.

I don't have a conclusion here, just a string of thoughts that have come to an end (for now).