If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Pulling back the curtain: Conversations about process and information literacy

My colleague Kate Morgan and I developed a series of panel discussions this past year that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We invited campus faculty and staff to select a piece of research or creative work and discuss some aspects of its making. By sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we hoped panelists would reveal their steps and stages, as well as the skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to their processes. By increasing the transparency of their works’ component parts, we aimed to help faculty and students recognize and discuss the role of information literacy and digital literacy in research and creative experiences. We also hoped that uncovering process would make research feel more approachable for our students. This idea germinated from a seed I first explored in this post a few years ago.

In our planning meetings with panelists, we shared some questions like the following to help them prepare their remarks:

  • How did you ask questions?
  • How did you identify a path for your research?
  • How did you validate and support your ideas?
  • How did you engage with other scholars’ work?
  • How did your work change course during the process?
  • What attitudes were important to your process?
  • What skills and tools were key to your process?
  • How did you draw conclusions?
  • What were your hesitations, fears, and missteps? How did you manage/overcome them?

I find it interesting that many of the panelists chose to share stories related to their professional paths rather than discrete projects. They talked about their early and adult life experiences, their undergraduate experiences, and their transitions to graduate school. While panelists spoke less about research strategies and tools than I had originally imagined, they spoke more about choices they made, attitudes they cultivated, and about how personal and professional interests and choices cross-pollinated. In so doing, they illustrated skills, practices, and attitudes key to information literacy development such as: how they came to understand authority and develop expertise; affective aspects of their research and writing processes; how they negotiated ambiguity, formulated questions, and synthesized ideas; and how they honed mindsets for curiosity, inquiry, and reflection.

I’m excited by the success we had with this first iteration: attendance at each session was high, the audiences were engaged, and conversations buzzed in hallways and offices well after the sessions ended. I believe that by engaging students, faculty, and staff in conversations about inner workings and rough edges, this series took a productive step toward transforming our perspectives on how we participate and create. Yet, I’m left wondering if the centrality of information literacy in the series was quite so apparent to everyone as it was to me. Did we truly pull back the curtain in such a way as to build a shared understanding of those oh-so-foundational information literacy skills, behaviors, and concepts?

So as we look ahead to the next iteration of this program for the coming academic year, I’m thinking about some of the goals at the heart of this series, particularly our goal to broaden our campus community’s awareness of the scope and nature of information literacy as well as the library’s role as a partner in teaching and learning processes. I’m reflecting on how information literacy is so closely intertwined with critical thinking, metacognition, and a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. And I’m reflecting on how I can better uncover the relationship between these inherently linked strands and how to make my thinking and my process more transparent for others.

How do you talk about process and information literacy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

Telling the stories of our spaces

Space is a challenge in my library. With limited square footage, we sometimes don’t have enough seating for the number of students seeking to use our space. We can’t accommodate all the furniture types and configurations we need for students’ assorted library space uses. We’re further challenged by the competition of different space uses (read: noise levels) in such close proximity. It’s not a surprise, then, that space improvement is a topic that’s on my mind quite often. We’re working to address these issues and needs with both small enhancements and larger-scale improvements, thinking about adjustments to our existing footprint while also advocating for an expansion.

Collecting and using data effectively is vital to our ability to identify, plan, and implement improvements. Relying on our assumptions about how students use and feel about space and services won’t cut it. So we’ve been using a variety of methods, both formal and informal, to inform our understanding of students and space–and how it could better meet their needs. Quantitative data like gate counts and service transactions document foot traffic and usage patterns. Occupancy rates show how many (or how few, as the case may be) seats we have in the library in relation to how many students we have. Enrollment trends and projections for our campus provide important context. Qualitative data–gathered through informal focus group meetings with student government and clubs and through questions posted on whiteboards in the library inviting students’ comments on space use and needs–contribute important, albeit selected, student perspectives to our understanding. And there are surely more data pieces we could gather and fit together in this puzzle. All this data can help us understand our current physical constraints and usage patterns and plan improved spaces.

Of course, space is tight on our campus for many departments and needs, not just the library. And competition for money is stiff. Funding for these improvements hinges, at least significantly if not entirely, on sharing the data in a meaningful and compelling way and effectively demonstrating our students’ needs. I’ve been searching around a bit for some inspiration or insight into how I might best tell the story of our students and space and stumbled across this from Jonathan Harris at just the right moment: “I think people have begun to forget how powerful human stories are, exchanging their sense of empathy for a fetishistic fascination with data, networks, patterns, and total information… Really, the data is just part of the story. The human stuff is the main stuff, and the data should enrich it.” Right when I was drowning in all the data visualization best practices and software recommendations–helpful in their own right to be sure–this timely reminder re-focused my view on the students at the center of our space story.

What has helped you tell the story of your students and spaces? How have you made your story and advocacy most compelling? Your planning most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.