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Libraries Big + Small

Matter Practice Little Free Library; photo by me
Matter Practice Little Free Library; photo by me

Noted British architecture/landscape writer Ken Worpole recently published a fantastic book on library design, and he was kind enough to have his publisher, Routledge, send me a copy. Contemporary Library Architecture: A Planning and Design Guide offers a pithy and helpful overview of the library’s civic and informational functions, how those functions (and others) are embodied and supported by architecture, and what libraries must take into consideration in the design process. I’m really pleased to see that Ken has cited my own work quite frequently in the book. He wrote me a couple years ago to mention how useful he found my libraries book while researching his own, and I’m stoked to be in such illustrious company.

Little Free Library / NYC from Architectural League of New York on Vimeo.

In other news, the Architectural League of New York has released a video documenting its Little Free Library | NYC competition, for which I served on the jury. You’ll see me, with my crazy windblown hair, in the video; the video’s lovely — but of course I encourage you to look away for those awkward moments when I’m on-screen. The libraries are on view at ten sites around Manhattan through September 1.

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Why Study Archives, Maps, and Infrastructures?

Skillz_-_The_World_Needs_More_Skillz_Cover

As I mentioned in my previous post, I want to do a better job of identifying what useful skills students can develop in my classes. And by “useful” I don’t mean simply “marketable” — but that is indeed part of it. I think even “critical” and “creative” skills, like “critical thinking” and “the ability to develop a solid literature review,” can be translated into competencies that a hiring director would valorize.

So here are the “applicable critical skills” and “practical skills” that students can develop in my fall classes, Archives, Libraries + Databases and Urban Media Archaeology.

Why learn about archives and libraries and databases if you have no interest in being a librarian or archivist or database manager? 

  • Well, because we’re all archivists and librarians now. This is not to discount the tremendous knowledge and expertise possessed by our trained archivists and librarians, or to ignore the invaluable contributions they make to our institutions, both big and small. Rather, I’m suggesting that the sheer volume of data that passes across our various screens requires that each of us develops an information management strategy. We have to develop filters to determine what deserves our attention; determine when and how to preserve and delete; devise strategies by which we can easily retrieve stored material, etc. And given the rate of data-flow, we usually have to make these choices instantaneously and automatically. But we really should “de-naturalize” these processes and consider what ideologies and epistemologies are built into our automated info-management systems.
  • Because all institutions and businesses face data-management challenges, and, ideally, the folks in charge will make smart, creative decisions informed by historical precedent and an appreciation of the many critical (political economic, ethical, accessibility-related, etc.) issues at stake.
  • Because there’s a database behind pretty much every transaction or movement you make. Databases let you through the transit turnstile; they turn the traffic lights green; they determine your medical bills; they allow you to orient yourself on Google Maps and buy things online; they define you as a student, a citizen, a taxpayer…
  • Because our institutions of information management play a key role in defining what is meaningful (consider what’s “meaningful” to the NSA, or to your doctor); what’s worth preserving or deleting (which, in turn, determines what constitutes tomorrow‘s historical record); what should be made accessible or inaccessible, when, where, and to whom.
Paul Otlet, Elements and Ensembles, Mundaneum Mons; via Idea Collider
Paul Otlet, Elements and Ensembles, Mundaneum Mons; via Idea Collider 

What useful skills do we develop in Archives, Libraries + Databases? Well, this is a seminar, so most of our labor involves reading and discussing and writing (although students do have the option of completing a creative project for their final). But the things we read and talk about do have plenty of potential applications in the “real world”; here’s how we might translate those applications into contemporary resume-language. We’ll learn to…

  • Assess different models of knowledge organization and data management — for government, business, education, the arts, etc. — and consider the epistemologies they embody
  • Consider the usability and intelligibility of various knowledge-management systems for a variety of user-groups
  • Investigate various collection development strategies, classification schemes, and approaches to preservation — both those that are in common use, and alternative, experimental approaches
  • Examine how our information-management institutions have to evolve to accommodate rapidly evolving media formats and uses; and new user groups
  • Appreciate the myriad uses to which archival and library material is put — in academic research, in public scholarship, in management, in governance, in media-making, in the fine arts, etc.

Now, what about Urban Media Archaeology? Why learn about mapping and urban history and infrastructure — three of our central themes in the course?

  • Because we would do well to recognize that our “new” media aren’t quite as new as we think they are — and that their patterns of development frequently follow paths laid out by older technologies. I talk more about the methodological value of historical infrastructure studies in my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” talk, which I’m currently developing into a book chapter for an edited collection.
  • Because knowing about how our infrastructures work makes us better able to serve as advocates for reliable, equitably distributed resources. I say more about this in my recent “Infrastructural Tourism” article.
  • Because mapping is used widely in the academy, throughout the “Big Data” fields, everywhere in social media, etc. We need to understand what it means to use mapping as a method in these various domains, and what it means to “spatialize” — or GIS-ify — so much of our existence.
Modeling Entity Relationships
Modeling Entity Relationships

What practical skills do we develop in Urban Media Archaeology?

  • We practice data modeling and familiarize ourselves with basic database design
  • We take a peek into the software development process and learn about best-practices in open-source tech development
  • We look into the professional practice of cartography, explore basic GIS, and consider how map-making might serve as an important skill in various fields
  • We practice various forms of design prototyping, considering how the prototype-as-medium serves different purposes at different stages of a design process, and for different stakeholders
  • We practice design critique and iteration: we consider how to develop appropriate criteria to critique design projects-in-progress, practice effective means of providing feedback to others, and implement others’ critiques in iterations of our own work
  • We consider strategies for multimedia storytelling
  • And all throughout the semester we implement effective strategies for project management and documentation

I hope it’s apparent that these skills are applicable in a wide variety of fields and scenarios.

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Hey, Come Back! Pondering Enrollment Drops

Sasha Kurmaz: Untiltled; via  It's Nice That
Come back! Sasha Kurmaz: Untiltled; via It’s Nice That 

In the fall I’m teaching my Urban Media Archaeology studio — which focuses on mapping urban media infrastructures — for the fourth time; and my Archives, Libraries + Databases seminar — which examines the histories, politics, and aesthetics of all the systems we’ve developed to filter, classify, store, delete, and facilitate or control access to knowledge (…or information, or data) — for the third time. Both classes have traditionally been well-enrolled, and I’ve consistently received really strong evaluations for both.

But last year my enrollments began to slip. And this fall both classes are at only half-capacity — actually a little under half-capacity. Enrollments have certainly dropped across the board, but mine are especially low. I’ve posted flyers around campus and on our program’s Facebook page to drum up interest; I’ve encouraged former students to pitch the class to their classmates, etc. — to no avail. Given my tendency to blame myself for things that go wrong (which I recognize is a weird form of narcissism), I wondered if perhaps students were avoiding me for some reason. Maybe that teaching award was a fluke.

Why is this a problem? Some friends don’t see this as a cause for concern at all, and they’ve encouraged me to simply enjoy having smaller classes full of dedicated, self-selecting students. Sure, I could do that. But being a former program director, I know that it’s increasingly difficult to justify running elective courses with low enrollment. Plus, I want to make sure that what I’m teaching is relevant to students’ interests. I wouldn’t advocate that we start designing curricula by popular vote (when I asked students for course ideas a few years ago, back in my administrator days, the only recommendations I received were duplicates of the offerings at Adobe Training & Certification) — but I would prefer that my teaching inspire, and be inspired by, students’ interests.

I re-read my evaluations from 2012 to see if there was anything that required my attention. I’ll share the students’ comments below. This might feel grossly gratuitous (it sure does to me) — but it’s helpful for me to keep these comments in mind, because I’ve honestly been wondering if I need to seriously reevaluate my pedagogy and course design. Plus, at some institutions these end-of-semester student comments are part of the public record anyway, so why not share them? Academics “blurb” their publications all the time — why not their teaching?

Here’s what some students had to say about last fall’s Archives class:

  • “Design of the syllabus and readings is a really good mix of theoretical/philosophical foundations and concrete applications which really helped me to engage with the subject matter on different levels — this same theoretical/practical mix was reflected in the assignments and focusing the midterm presentations on an application was a good call in my opinion as it generated a really interesting mix of interests.”
  • “The plethora of resources, examples, explanations, and field trips were extremely helpful in conveying the various weekly topics effectively.”
  • “The readings were broad in their theoretical reach and aesthetic, coming at the subject matter from a diverse range of opinion. Always something exciting to read, and the discussions were (usually) awesome and insightful.”
  • “A great multimodal course, from reading Foucault to reading practical guides to field trips.”
  • “Feedback on my assignments has been detailed, insightful, encouraging and provided speedily, much appreciated!”

And they said some nice stuff about my effectiveness as a teacher:

  • “Shannon is an amazing teacher – she possesses an astounding roster of knowledge and is more than capable of expressing the subject matter at hand.”
  • “This was my first class with Shannon, and it was everything I dreamed it would be. Shannon is capable, highly intellectual and challenges me to push myself and do my best work. I felt that I could ask her anything and get a genuine and thoughtful response. She is an extremely gifted educator who I enjoyed learning with.”
  • “Shannon is definitely the most hardworking professor I know. She strives her students (sic) to do their best work, and encourage their field of interest.”
  • And perhaps one of my all-time favorites: “Shannon is the single best resource on the planet. She is better than Google.” Eat that, Sergey.

And now a few comments from last fall’s Urban Media Archaeology students:

  • “I think that this is one of the classes that I will return to over and over in the future for inspiration and to read and re-read the course materials. I am very pleased with the work I was able to accomplish this semester under Shannon and Rory’s guidance, not to mention that I had a great time!! Thanks for a fantastic semester.”
  • “Best class I’ve taken in the program.”

And here’s what some UMA folks had to say about me:

  • “Thorough. Enthusiastic. Open-minded. Challenging. Up-to-date. Shannon really pushes you to do your best. And you want to do your best because you know that SHE’s doing HER best.”
  • “Shannon is one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her manner of teaching and her breadth of knowledge are very inspiring.”
  • “Shannon loves to teach and her enthusiasm is infectious. The organization of UMA’s class website, blog, and syllabus is unparalleled and to be honest, no other class in the program even comes close to the level of organization available in this course. Her class is very well-designed. Shannon gave consistent, constructive, and careful feedback on everything we submitted from proposals, to blog posts, to email inquiries. Careful attention was paid to each student. Shannon is challenging and incredibly knowledgeable. I did not want to miss a class. She is an effective lecturer and sets a high academic standard. In addition, Shannon’s personal work as a scholar is inspiring and I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with her.”
  • “Shannon is exceptional. Truly a pedagogical force in the program.”

Brings a tear to my eye. It’s truly inspiring and humbling to know that these students are able to have such meaningful experiences in my classes.

So, maybe I should take comfort in the knowledge that I’m doing an okay job as a teacher. And that my classes are okay. Yes, of course there are always things I can work on (and I’m always making tweaks and updates, asking for feedback, and self-critiquing) — but there doesn’t seem to be anything so egregiously bad that would explain a student exodus.

I spoke with the School of Media Studies’ fantastic student advisor to see if she could offer any insight into my enrollment slide, or advice regarding what I could do about it. She indicated that, particularly in recent semesters, nearly all students who ask her for course recommendations are looking for practical skills and applicable knowledge. This should come as no surprise. They want things that are easily translatable to a job. (I’ve observed another trend running “perpendicular” to the instrumentalist drive: I also find that the more “theoretically inclined” students are drawn to “Dude Theory” classes because, well, they just feel really “academic.”)

Now of course I’m a strong proponent of education that serves purposes other than “practical” training (which is often equated with vocational training). In fact, when I teach our Intro to Grad Studies class, I always like to encourage students to design an education for themselves that enriches their full identities — as human beings who, yes, must work and make a living, but who also can’t be reduced to homo faber or homo economicus. (Our fabulous advisor, Alex, also tries to help students expand their understanding of what constitutes a “skill,” a she encourages them to practice translating their various critical and creative capacities into resume-appropriate skills that a prospective employer might understand and valorize.) But still, given the financial woes that many institutions are suffering, the national and global employment and economic crises, and widespread doubt over the value of a college degree, I can understand why students, parents, employers, etc., would want college teachers to be able to answer the “so what can you do with this?” question.

When I teach my classes I sometimes interject brief asides that address how our discussion topics or exercises might have relevance or utility in various fields of work or “everyday life” scenarios. But maybe I need to do a better job of explaining that applicability to prospective students. So, I’ll try to do that. In my next post I’ll list some of the “applicable critical skills” and “practical skills” that students can develop in my classes.

Maybe this little “marketing” effort will have no effect. Maybe my enrollment numbers will remain static. Maybe students just aren’t interested in buying what I’m selling anymore. Maybe I really do need to revamp my course offerings. But it wouldn’t hurt to try, first, to talk their language, and more directly explain “what’s in it for them.”

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Infrastructural Tourism Article Published in Places Journal

Tourists at the Hoover Dam, 1940; via  Wikimedia Commons
Tourists at the Hoover Dam, 1940; via Wikimedia Commons  

My article on “infrastructural tourism” — pedagogical and artistic projects for visiting, sensing, and critically engaging with infrastructure, from the interstate to the Internet — was just published in Places journal.

I’ve worked with Places on two other projects — a survey of “little libraries” and a study of South Korea’s Paju Bookcity — and have found the experience to be among the most rewarding experiences of my writing career. Unlike with traditional academic publishing, I can see the fruits of my labor within a matter of a few months, rather than years; and I have the pleasure of working with two outstanding editors, Nancy Levinson and Josh Wallaert, who are concerned not only with the soundness of my argument (which, in academia, is often equated with citing the right names), but also with the quality of my writing. I really appreciate their continued support and interest in my work.