Tag Archives: IT

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.

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Things-in-Use-by-People

11 Jan

Gardner Campbell talked at our school recently, and a comment he made resonated with me. “See those books,” he said, pointing to shelves of books nearby (it was in the library), “we see that as a conversation.” By “we” he meant the teachers, staff, grown-ups, etc., listening to him talk. His point: that it is our job to get students to do the same–to see the wall of books–learning, scholarship, life–as a conversation. As a multi-dimensional interchange that’s part information and part relationship. As an interaction between people, vibrant, living, committed, engaged people. As something they can and ought to be involved in. As something that can benefit from their involvement. Not as some limited, flat, inscrutable, mysterious, dusty, impenetrable, boring facade of emptiness.

This might be part of the idea behind the slow sea change we sense in undergraduate education–shifting toward student-centered learning, active learning, engaged students, “authentic” learning, experiential learning, experiments, on-site activities, road trips, real research–all things that help students see the world of learning and research as a place they can engage with people.

David Lewis, on a recent visit, said something similar. Students aren’t that motivated to understand research as a complex social activity, when our assignments call for finding, say, five credible sources. That’s an assignment that calls for a list of discrete things. (I.e. a flat wall of book spines). But we need students to enter into the world of information sharing and learning that generated those five items. Into the conversation. Some other kind of assignment is needed.

And some other kind of representation. Fortunately the ways computers can represent complex stuff may come to our rescue. For example, Daniel McFarland and Eric Klopfer in a recent article in Teachers College Record suggest we need a new interface for searching the scholarly literature. Unlike the existing search tools, which return flat and impenetrable (my words) lists of information resources, McFarland and Klopfer call for something that shows the information resource in the context of the people using it, representing relationships and networks and thought-structures. Some cross between the information object we know so well and a map of people talking to each other. With rankings and trends.

The future looks very interesting.

By way of concluding on a random thought: this substitution of discrete things for the more complex idea of things-in-use-by-people might help explain why IT shops and Libraries have always seemed to be a tad isolated from the communities they serve. We’ve focused on the thing, the list, the tool, and we haven’t really taken the time to understand the thing as an integrated part of a community in conversation. We just might need to get our own selves into the conversation along with the students.