I’ve been thinking about academic support professionals. Library and IT folks who spend their time helping teachers and students learn and do research. Mostly, it seems, by giving them stuff, or helping them use stuff, to wit, Learning Management Systems, online full-text search engines, overhead projectors, hand-held audio recorders, HTML, PowerPoint, citation guides, chalkboards, research guides, plagiarism detection software, the Library of Congress subject headings, the WordPerfect 3.0 reveal codes function, books, the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, etc.
Helping people get and use stuff is the kind of task that works if everyone knows what the big picture is. If, that is, you know enough about the overarching idea of teaching and learning that you can divide all the work to produce learning into chunks and you can focus on your chunk (the support chunk) because you know that other people will focus on the other chunks (the teaching part, say) and you know what it is they will be doing, and they you. But if you don’t know what teaching and learning is, say, or what teachers are doing and needing, or how learners are learning, how can you get them the right stuff? You can’t. You can only randomly throw some things at the wall to see if they stick.
We in the academic support profession can probably be accused of desperately trying not to have to think about the overarching idea of teaching and learning. “That’s for faculty to figure out,” we might say. “Not our business.” Maybe that worked for a while.
Now, however, we find ourselves in an age where all members of the learning apparatus are rethinking what it means to teach and learn. And nobody is sure what’s going on.
We can continue picking random stuff to offer and advise on, and organize workshops around, without really knowing whether it’s what our community needs, or we can join the community and help figure out what it needs. I say random stuff because there are at this point WAY too many possible tools and information sources and new formats and new software burgeoning up for us to be able to sift and evaluate and prioritize. Even if we had the criteria of selection and evaluation agreed upon with our community, which we don’t.
How does the community figure out what it needs? By learning, I suggest. You create a learning group, a team, a research collective, a conversation space, to figure it out. As a learning group doing something meaningful and challenging, it will obey some rules, and those rules are wonderfully humane. In exchange for learning together, you will be vulnerable. But everyone else will be, too. You will also have to read and observe and structure and reflect and talk and test things out and adapt endlessly and adjust and listen, and all of this in a group. You will have a voice, and what you say will be evaluated. You’ll be challenged and provoked and reinforced and confused and enlightened; you won’t know where you’re headed exactly when you set out; you’ll get more clarity about the world around you; and you’ll build relationships with everyone else in the group that will last. Your community will learn its way forward.
It’s people stuff, it’s faith, it’s risk, it’s scary, it’s trust, it’s vulnerability, it’s Negative Capability, it’s relationship-building, it’s engagement on an ideas plane, it’s meaningful personal and community development. It’s perhaps the opposite of everything we’ve ever done. It’s perhaps everything we’ve consciously and subconsciously veered away from and protected ourselves from and eschewed and avoided and bemoaned.
But it’s the best way we, the big we, the institution, can figure out what’s next and what our own niche role in that next will be. If we do it right, we’ll know afterwards what stuff to provide. Though I note that after we participate in the thing I’m talking about here, I’m not sure we’ll want to return to a bit role, providing necessary if kind of uninspiring coal, if you will, to the furnace of learning and becoming. I think we’ll instead want to continue to learn and become, being a part of the fire that consumes the coal. That would be good, too. That would be development.
So I enjoin us to drop our stuff and take up our learning teams.
You might say, but if we recreate ourselves as peers to users in learning about things and defining needs and testing solutions and adapting together we lose all control, and with loss of control we have to deal with anxieties we’ve successfully suppressed heretofore. Yes. And you might say, but if we stop helping people use stuff they might get mad. Maybe. But they might also figure out they don’t really need our help with the stuff, which would be good for everyone. I predict they’ll like the new us.