April is poetry month, so the local morning radio show had a poet on to read some of her poetry. I’m not going to mention any names, but the poems and the discussion of them annoyed me so much that I had to shout at my radio and then get out of bed to rant about it here.
First thing on tap on the radio program this morning: the presumption that real poetry, real art, comes from some sort of unconscious muse, not from any rational purpose or thought. Why is it that we believe (somehow) that beauty can’t be rational, or rationally created? Fractals are beautiful and are incredibly rational, after all. Aren’t the best forms and most beautiful shapes in the world mathematically perfect? I’m tired of the idea that somehow the real writer is buried inside you, underneath everything you’ve learned to be and say in an ordered society, and that if you just step back and unburthen yourself in some kind of “uncivilized” and “pure” way you’ll find true art spewing forth. Art is craft as much as anything else is, it’s a skill you learn and have to hone. Most honest writers will tell you this. Those who suggest otherwise remind me of anxious 19th century Englishmen getting taken in by the savage nobility of E. Pauline Johnson and mourning their own tamed inner beasts. If you’re writing for your own joy and self-expression, please, don’t let me stop you, but if (like the poet on the radio this morning) you intend to make your living at it, ie, you expect me to give you money and read what you’re written, you damn well better have thought of something valuable to say to me. This is an argument I’ve had with my artist sister for years; you have my attention now: say something! Say something interesting! Tell me a story, tell me a moral, tell me to do something for the good of humanity or make me feel sorry for something, provoke me, but dear god please make me think. And don’t say something trite. Cripes.
Paraphrasal from the radio: “Yeah, when I first wrote that it just dropped out onto the screen and I was like, omg, what’s going on here? But then after a bit I realized that it’s genius.” NO ITS NOT. IT’S VERBAL SELF-STIMULATION. IT’S JUST SOME VERY LAME WORD ASSOCIATION GAMES. But thanks for playing.
The second poem had this as a basic thrust: nature is pure and good, and non-competitive, and gentle, and wonderful, and we’re part of nature, so this whole digital communication thing is just unnatural. And cold. And too fast. And inhuman. We should remember who we really are, pure beings made of moonlight and sea water.
You know what else is human-created, fabricated, not springing directly from sunshine and sea salt? Language. GOD FORBID language take on new forms, and woe betide the day when difficult concepts become digital visuals, because that would be a real departure from our TRUE SELVES and would only CUT US OFF from our SAVAGE, ARTISTIC, NATURAL, GENTLE and WONDERFUL inner artists. Bleh. Poetry needs a big smack in the face from postcolonialism if you ask me.
In honour of poetry month, however, I give you my favourite poem by Dorothy Livesay, and the sexiest poem in the history of the world, The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje. Now there’s some art for you.
The person who built this is my kind of relaxer; a hedonist’s patio! You can’t see this from the snapshot, but I love how the translucent curtains around it billow in the wind. Really beautiful. You can see Jeremy hunched over idle in the background, poor thing.
One of the morbid conversations we have online, those of us who have enough of a life that’s lived digitally to wonder these things: what would happen if we died suddenly? Who would make sure that our friends online find out about it? Would they imagine that we just stopped logging on, or blocked them on AIM, or just got too busy to check in? Would they ever know that we didn’t mean to just disappear?
Well, tonight I found out how it goes, or got a taste of it, at least. A wonderful woman I never met in person but felt close to all the same died last week, and I found out about it today through a strange collusion of real life and digital networks. The world really isn’t that big after all; even if you don’t set it up that way on purpose, it seems that news can still travel pretty fast.
Suzanne Klerks was one of the warmest, most intelligent and witty women I ever knew. She was a fascinating, multi-faceted academic, exactly the type I love most. I’m just devastated that someone so vibrant with so much to give the world is gone. And in the horrible unfairness of it, I’m also glad that I got the time that I had with her. She was an amazing person, I was challenged and touched by her writing over the last few years, and I’m going to miss her so much.
So here’s the situation: I dropped into the Info Island Reference Desk because someone asked me what librarians in Second Life look like. A neat question, I thought. How do librarians represent themselves when they can look like anything they want? Do they look like traditional librarians, with glasses and buns and sensible shoes, or do they mix it up and look more radical? So I thought I’d drop in and see if I could take some pictures of people to show the variety of looks librarians sport. But this is what I found instead: a librarian sitting in a chair with text over his head saying he’s just listening in to reference questions. (click the picture to see it bigger; the key parts are the hovering text over him, and probably also the two lines of chat in the bottom right corner. That tells you how people were reacting to the fellow!)
Does this seem appropriate to you? I mean, would we let someone just hover around the reference desk and record to the kinds of questions people ask us? This guy is sitting there completely mute. He’s probably away from his computer, so the joy for him will be in reading the transcript. I make no secret whatsoever about my issues with transcripts; I found this guy entirely creepy. He’s sitting in his chair, staring blankly out at us, recording everything we say. We apparently give our permission by merely being in the space. Since this is a reference point, this basically says, if you want to ask a question, you have to let this guy record it. And newbies may not realize that that’s what’s going on. I have a bad feeling about this.
He didn’t mean anything by it, I know it. He just wanted to get a sense of the kinds of questions that are asked at a SL reference point. He’s trying to learn. I understand that, but I think this approach is a classic example of misundertsanding the nature of a virtual environment. While it might look like it’s just another form of virtual reference software, it’s important to remember that you have a body in Second Life. You have presence and you can intimidate people. Someone plonking down in your living room and staring into space, with a tape recorder in their hands, is going to be saying something to the occupants, even if he says nothing at all. While body language is a null issue in traditional virtual reference software (I didn’t think it was time to attach the word “traditional” to vref, but there you go), body language has real meaning in a virtual space, and we need to be conscious of that. It would have been wiser to ask to shadow a reference librarian in action in SL rather than to just sit around and listen while afk. Actually participate in the process, like reference librarians in training tend to do. Watch and learn, participate and learn, interact and learn. The things we do in real life often work pretty well in an immersive digital world.
Is it respectful to record people’s conversations at the reference desk in real life? Why would we do it here? It’s possible here, of course; you can always record the conversations around you. It’s just transcripts, it’s just text. But in SL it’s not just text; it’s more personal than that. While it’s possible to record and study every word that’s said in SL, I expect librarians to be more thoughtful and more careful about patron privacy. We live by it in our work lives, so why shouldn’t it carry over? Why is it so difficult to bring the rules of real life social engagement into a digital world? Is it because, in the end, it’s hard to believe in the place and the people inside it? Is it too easy to dehumanize the virtual?
I used to run into that in text based environments. It was just too difficult to read closely and feel the three dimensions in text. But this is a three dimensional world, with human-like avatars. I would think it would be easier to humanize our presence there. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
This is pretty cool, there’s a group of us hanging out in a Second Life cafe, listening to live music. The quality is pretty great, too; no lag, no skipping.
I really love the way we can listen to one stream all together, and still be all in the same room virtually, interacting and reacting to what we’re hearing. We’re able to communicate with the musician and everything!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about service-learning. A variety of things from all different directions have merged in my brain to force me in this direction, and that’s handy, because I’m presenting about this in about a month at WILU. The presentation there is called “Making Coursework Matter”, and had more to do with two or three specific projects and had no particular theoretical underpinning that I was aware of. I had an idea about rescuing student work from the shedder and putting out into the world, and I wanted librarianship to a leadership role in implementing that kind of project. What I was planning to present was, in essence, a call to action. I still want that, but I’ve realized lately that what I intending to propose has far deeper implications and wider-reaching possibilities, and was already rooted in some established ideas.
The basic gist of my presentation (I’m totally scooping myself here) is this: at my institution, and at most others, students have a wealth of resources available to them, and then time and requirement to process them into something new. In other parts of the world (not to mention other parts of the country), this is not the case, and rather than encourage and support assignments that work out to busywork for students, why don’t we create spaces for students to contribute their work, so that students in other places can benefit from it? When you’re creating a document to help someone else form an idea or use a theory, that citation being properly constructed matters a lot more. I have two personal experiences this year with watching student engagement rise to unbelievable levels as soon as their work matters to someone other than their instructors; I have a few ideas for how to form these kinds of assignments, and that’s what I wanted to talk about. I know others will surely have ideas of their own to share, and I’d really like to talk about the role of librarianship is archiving this kind of information and making it globally available. That’s our expertise, right?
So I already had that idea in my head (and I feel it pressing against me with a certain amount of urgency). At the same time, I’ve been doing my research on the ins and outs of Second Life. As I’ve said, I’m spending time with Second Life to get a sense of what it offers (a lot) and how we can best take advantage of it to foster more engaged learning experiences. I’ve got some ideas at the moment, but I’m still new to the space, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions just yet. There’s been way too much jumping to conclusions in Second Life by educators and librarians of all varieties, seeing the fast, immediate use of the thing before really digging in the dirt a bit to see how far it can go. Heck, we’re still in the stage where everyone thinks this kind of space is Brand! New!, which is simply not even close to the case. We’re great at getting excited about things, but there’s far more work to be done. I want to be a little bit slower about this, get to know the natives and see what it is they’re trying to accomplish, see what actually works and what doesn’t, get into the scripting, read up on the theories and the experiences of others, and try to propose something thoughtful; if you look around in there, you’ll find a lot of flashy educational spaces, but I’m not convinced they’re nearly as rich as they could be. And I’m still a newbie. Do we build a space where we provide service to students, or do we provide space for students to provide service themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense within their curriculum?
I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades. For librarians, if the work you’re doing with a class results in students getting grades for paying attention, then you’ve succeeded. This argument has never sat well with me, but as a deeply political person, with grand ideas about the human condition and the responsibility of each of us to each other, surely I’m biased. However: students at my school put on a production of The Vagina Monologues on their own, without urging or organization from the administration or the departments, and donated the entirety of their proceeds to a local women’s shelter. There were about 20 students involved, only one of them from the drama program. 20 students dedicated their time and effort to this production, and for no grades at all, because they wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the treatment and perceptions of women’s bodies and the process of war. How can I possibly sit there in the audience, watching these amazing, talented, committed women on the stage, and keep thinking that they only thing that motivates them is grades?
Last week I attended a workshop where fourth year students in an “Information Preparedness” course presented their proposed curriculum for fostering the kind of learning they felt they needed but didn’t recieve. They did a great job, and lots of interesting discussion ensued. The pieces that really stuck with me, and kept coming back at me afterward, were the parts where the talked about how they came to learn the skills we talk about when we talk about Information Literacy; not in class, not in a library instruction session, not in the process of trying to write a paper. They learned things when they were out on co-ops or internships, and where the learning of these skills mattered to someone. If our goal is to equip students with the skills they need for just these situations, should we pay attention to these kinds of results? If the purpose provides some of the engagement required to learn, should we be looking for and providing that kind of purpose?
And then this weekend, while perusing the blog of my (prolific) friend Jeremy Hunsinger, I followed his link to a post about how schools and museums aren’t about learning, they’re about making (and playing). What on earth does learning mean when someone can say something like that? Today I recieved an email from a local teacher Jason Nolan and I have been working with to do some socially-relevant coursework with high school students; he told us that his students are having such a great time with it that he has a hard time pulling them away from the project to work on other things. Everyone presumes the cool part is the technology (that’s certainly part of it). But what about the social action part? What causes and creates engagement? And how can we use that knowledge to encourage real learning?
service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.
I’ve seen service-learning in action before, but it’s only now that I see how it could blend nicely with library instruction, and with my particular role as a collaborator with faculty. Service-learning generally implies a large project, but what I’m thinking now is that it could also be scaled down; why shouldn’t we propose micro serivce-learning projects that have an impact, not necessarily or only on the local community, but on the global community? Creating information sources for others, with the right citations, in order to improve the lives of people who don’t have the same level of access as we do, is a form of service-learning too. Even traditional coursework can become part of a service-learning project. The moment things became digital, we entered a world where our community can span the entire globe; maybe one way we engage students and show them the relevance of information literacy skills is by getting them on side to start making that global community a better place.
In a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the libraryâ€™s auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.
This is exactly the kind of thing I needed to read in this moment when I’m seriously considering how best to understand the term “Information Professional”. [via Jeremy]