Tag Archives: Conduit metaphor

You are an Adulterated Oyster

13 Apr

I have been thinking again about academic support staff and what they should do in a time of systemic academic change. I offer you here 3 thoughts and 2 pragmatic suggestions.

Thought 1: Let’s move beyond the “interface,” the “factory,” and “established services.”

It’s hard to be an interface between a library / IT organization and an academic community nowadays, because both of these population pools are changing so much. You need stability to be a good interface; so we need a better concept. Another concept worth replacing is this idea that you are part of an hierarchical organization, or a “factory,” of work. Work with stovepipes and managers and top-down direction and a fixed suite of long-established services–all this assumes the people at the top know best what to do and that decisions made in the past still hold true. I think increasingly important today is what the people on the ground know about the moment in the moment. A factory by its nature is not particularly adaptable to the world around it (witness the hulks of brick buildings remaining from the Industrial Revolution), and you need adaptability in a time of change. So let’s drop the factory idea, too.

Thought 2: You are the community knowing itself.

If you’re not an interface, part of a factory, or a part of the provision of fixed, prefabricated services, what are you? I think you are the means by which the community knows itself. It can’t know what it needs until it knows who it is. We can’t help it unless we know who it is and what it needs. So help it figure it out. You are an organizer, an observer, an ethnograph, an epistemological vector (to quote myself) and you reflect back to the community what you hear, learn, see, think, do, discover, create. This is legitimate work. We’re growing and changing as a society, and we’re learning how to do things differently. A key thing about learning is that you watch yourself doing it. Academic support staff can be the way that that particular kind of necessary reflexivity happens in our community. It’s hard, it’s rewarding, it’s hard to explain, it’s a calling.

Thought 3: Think of yourself as an Adulterated Oyster.

What would be a good replacement concept for the factory or the interface? Well how about this. Think of yourself as an oyster with a kind of intake and output. But you don’t take in dirty water and give back purified water, you take in information about what the community is doing and needing, you take little actions designed to test out hypotheses and model solutions, and you give back information to help people know themselves and their options better. So you’re slightly adulterated–your goal is not just to filter the estuary but to engender a feedback loop that perhaps moves the estuary towards a certain channel (the channel of learning, you might say).

Pragmatic Idea 1: Publish your plan.

Instead of secret goals on a hidden performance review, why not write your own plan for yourself, publish it to the community, report on it. Say “here’s what I see happening, here’s what I think needs doing, and here’s what I plan to do.” Invite feedback. Let it be a plan that draws like an oyster from the community and like an adulterated oyster, reflects back meaning, improves.

To do this, have knowing and reporting activities in your plan. Tell the world how you will come to know it. But also make it a priority to tell people what you learn.

Also, aspire and grow. Oh, please, please, put your dreams in your plan. It is perhaps the height of professionalism (not the opposite) to use your intuition about what you’re good at and what you like to do to inform your activities.  And, plan in your plan to grow. Remaining static should not be allowed. If you’re not changing yourself as you’re changing the world around you, there’s probably a problem.

Pragmatic Idea 2: Create your own advisory committee.

Think of yourself as the executive director of yourself and report to a board of trustees. Identify community members who will sit on your committee, listen to and confirm your view of the world and its problems, ratify your proposed interventions, and speak on your behalf when you get in trouble. Have students. Have faculty. Maybe you can invite your boss, maybe not! It’s like your personal learning community. Just thinking about doing this seems to completely change people’s perspective from a kind of head-down, trudging-along attitude to a chin-up, looking-around-yourself perspective. Imagine if we all were on each other’s advisory committees? That would be neat.

The Conduit Metaphor

13 Oct

Kurt Fischer noted (in passing, at a Mind, Brain, Education Institute) that the Conduit Metaphor of Learning is defunct. This is the idea that education is essentially a kind of pipe whereby knowledge travels from the mouth or mind of a more- to a less-learned person. That the learner is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Learning, it ends up, is actually much more complex. And knowledge is apparently not a paper package of data tied with string moving across the meat counter. Which is just as well, because the Conduit Metaphor taken to the extreme leads to students thinking of the “product” of their learning as a purchasable thing, like a refrigerator, and the instructor as a functionary, and they (the students) as having no role in the construction of the refrigerator, whereas in reality they must fabricate their own compressor.

The Conduit Metaphor also governs how IT and library staff interact with our communities. It’s ready to be replaced there, too.

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

The Conduit Metaphor might be OK in a static world. But the world is not that. If there was ever an age when people were willing to be pigeon-holed, it isn’t now. If there was ever a time you should be feverishly looking for ways to build community with your academic community, to be seen as people engaged in learning, it is now. Now is when your library and IT staff should use every opportunity they can to learn about how to be relevant and meaningful in the digital age. The conduit doesn’t help us do this, and so we must emerge from the conduit.

What does service in the post-conduit age look like? Efficient online help tickets? Artificial intelligence-based answering machines instead of staff? Probably not.

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.

There won’t be a community over there and a service organization over here and a box office window in between with the sliding door seemingly always either closed or about to close. There will just be a community.

A few thoughts by way of postscript. I suspect some base fear is behind all this desire to protect ourselves from the community. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous and pernicious slippery-slope fear of being overrun by a horde of ravenous users, checking out all the books! or asking for more help than we can give!, making us work too much! (For my part, I say let your users overrun you. It means you’re meaningful.) The great gift of the bureaucratic mentality is to milk the Conduit Metaphor of Service Provision almost infinitely to stave off users from disrupting the administrator with their needs. One can even reason oneself right into wishing for what I call the “Administrator’s Dream,” which is–a sad Holy Grail–to find a way to provide a service to no users. The other day I heard it said that library staff love more the book on the shelf than the book in the users’ hand (I really don’t think this is true, but if it were, it would be an example of the Conduit Metaphor taken to a pathological extreme–the Closed Conduit).