September 28, 2018 · Navelgazing

The Work, and The Talk

It has been nearly one year since I submitted An Annotated Bibliography of Digital Scholarship to the LIS Preprint Archive. I will start by saying I do not, nor have I ever, care for the hand-wringing around defining the field. As I wrote in the Annotated Bibliography, the critical approach and theory that defines "Digital Scholarship" as a field has its roots in Critical & Progressive Librarianship; one might say what we call Digital Scholarship is in fact the Critical & Progressive Librarianship lens informing the role of technology in civil society, public discourse, and academia.

For my part, I see myself as a critical librarian currently in the world of technology. Those are the frameworks that inform my service to my community and that will continue to remain true regardless of my realm of work. For this reason I resent existential discussions about the field, preferring to do the work for the people who need it here, now. But in light of some reflection on what we have achieved in the past year at Vassar, I am curious what Carolyn-the-author-of-an-annotated-bibliography would prioritize out of current-Carolyn's work.

This preprint is rough in its unfinished, unpolished, mid-conversational state and I share it as an example of practicing what we preach: That our work is a process and publication is not a binary of undone/done. I had been with Vassar for a little over a month after I submitted it, and was already beginning to readjust my approach and focus. For this reason I chose to wait, mulling over the guidance offered from the editors of the Journal of New Librarianship and considering how I would frame that discussion in light of my current work.

The immediacy of a smaller campus community provides us with ample opportunity to explore the pedagogical component of our work. Our major projects this past year focused on facilitating (and democratizing) the means to extend learning through practice, and we spent a great deal of time researching the psychologies and modes of experiential learning, of creative reasoning, of ludic (play-oriented) work and education. I have become deeply interested in pinning down the before-and-after of that moment an abstract concept "clicks" for a student in physical reality; that rewarding "a ha!" moment in workshops and instruction sessions where a light (figuratively and sometimes literally) comes on.

Internally, too, our work is extremely action-oriented. Our small team upholds a broad and complex infrastructure stack whose needs span from maintenance and repair to migrations, expansions, and totally new intitiatives. I continue to walk the tightrope between prioritizing a holistic systems analysis, and deconstructing as much of my work as possible in such a way that others can take, replicate, experiment, (break), and learn from what I am doing. I have turned around various components of this infrastructure work into lessons that translate to student, librarian, and practitioner needs.

It is not that I do not agree, when I lurk behind the shadows of an argument between theoretical purists, that this work is most meaningfully accomplished with insight, context, and systemic analysis. It is rather that in both my studies on learning and in my own experience, this deeper understanding requires the physical act of "doing" and that breaking down barriers to accomplish work in the first place readily lends itself to a broader education.

Colleagues and I were called to discuss and consult with a student-led group. Our students led an initiative to design a summer technology and multimedia class for junior high and high school students in Poughkeepsie. Vassar students led the discussion with a number of questions of a similar theme: how did they critically enter the world of technology education for young and developing minds? What part of that work involves having the experience to say when the application of technology is not necessary, or meaningful, or neutral? What is the normative approach to teaching and using technology? What does that conversation look like from the perspective of the students up, rather than prescribed from the top down?

Danah Boyd's monograph It's Complicated informed my part in this discussion, as did my own practitioner's experience inside the deliberate intentions of those developing what is called Persuasive Technology.

When I review the Ten Theses of the De-Centering and Re-Centering Digital Scholarship in Libraries Manifesto, the collaborative thought experiment at Florida State University that led to my own annotated bibliography, I find my student- and learning- centered drive refocuses my practice on the middle of that document. What does my team, and the Vassar College Libraries at large, try to do?

  • Thesis Four: "... produce research outputs for consumption beyond the academy."
  • Thesis Five: "... build communities."
  • Thesis Six: "... break down interdisciplinary silos."
  • Thesis Seven: "... advocate for sustainable labor models." (Not illustrated above; that is an entirely different blog post.)
  • Thesis Eight: "... redefine the relationship between research and teaching."

I return to my original paragraph by emphasizing that I see these goals reflected in all of my colleagues across VCL. Where we differ is in how we work, moreso than what it is we try to accomplish. My ending question to myself is how my own team would define a Ten Theses about their work: what would the conversation gain from Joanna DiPasquale's insight on leadership, Arianna Schlegel's enthusiasm for normalizing the love of exploration, Sharyn Cadogan's commitment to pragmatism and ensuring day-in day-out demands are not overlooked in the fray?

Back to the work. There are only so many of us to do so many things, after all.

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