Posted by: char booth | 1 December 2014

on information privilege.

bookchain_flashThe concept of information privilege situates information literacy in a sociocultural context of justice and access. Information as the media and messages that underlie individual and collective awareness and knowledge building; privilege as the advantages, opportunities, rights, and affordances granted by status and positionality via class, race, gender, culture, sexuality, occupation, institutional affiliation, and political perspective.

In an extended period of relative disengagement with writing I have started and stopped and restarted this post so many times that it’s become a bit ridiculous, but based on the interest generated by discussions of information privilege in my teaching and speaking contexts it’s clearly time to finish. An approach that’s guided my own work for some time, I explored this framing of information literacy in depth in a closing keynote address (see video and slides) at the 2013 Digital Library Federation Forum in Austin – easily one of the most satisfying talks I’ve given to date. Grounding my argument was the idea that information (and all) privilege must be recognized and challenged by those working in libraries and allied fields as problematic, and used as a guiding principle in the design of resources and methods that combat the division between those who can and cannot access what we create and curate.

information privilege in practice

A powerful example of the importance of circumventing information underprivilege in my own career came in the form of a friend of friends who made an avocation of traveling around the country leading workshops on fermentation, with a profoundly evidence-based orientation to the work. He lived in an isolated rural location without recourse to the research base he needed to inform an ongoing writing project, and so reached out to librarians and others with the necessary credentials to help him secure obscure articles from back issues of scientific journals. This content would have translated to untold thousands of dollars if he had followed the traditional routes available to him, and if those contacted for off-the-grid support had not taken the time to do him a series of modest solids he would not have been able to produce this amazing, best-selling fermentation bible.

For the institutionally unaffiliated and indefatigably curious this is a commonplace scenario, and librarians and other information professionals are best equipped to shift the dynamic towards a freer flow of knowledge unattached to markers of access privilege. Who among us has not had a similar experience and responded in kind? Our responses take institutional as well as individual forms – consider Radical Reference, Creative Commons, the Open Access movement, and countless acts of community support and defiance that attempt to liberate constraints to informed inquiry in spite of the potential consequences.

Any type of information worker can examine this phenomenon and develop strategies to counter it. Based on my educational orientation to librarianship I most often approach information privilege in teaching and learning scenarios, and in practice it is the most effective framework I have identified to engage learners and collaborators with a wide range of skills and perspectives that constitute (critical) information literacy. Presenting information literacy through a lens of privilege problematizes and connects individuals with what can easily become a worn, procedural, and overly didactic series of concepts (worse: tools). More importantly, it exposes the fallibility of assumptions about information and its ecology, identifies hidden injustices, encourages more open forms of participation in a knowledge polity, critiques the information-for-profit imperative, and demands the examination of personal and institutional privilege within scholarly (and not so scholarly) communication.

information privilege as pedagogy

A growing focus on critical and feminist pedagogies[1] in libraryland combined with the prevalence of threshold concepts in ACRL’s information literacy framework revision[2] creates the potential to connect our conceptual base to powerful dialogues across other fields of inquiry. Challenging unquestioned and entrenched social and structural systems through information privilege thus becomes a library application of feminist and critical pedagogy, and an on-the-ground means of encouraging IL threshold experiences among our learners, educators, and colleagues. Considering inquiry, evaluation, attribution, communication, and authority and other facets of information literacy through a critical lens has the potential to build important connections to larger frames of understanding.

It is important to share additional background on underlying ideas that can inform an educational orientation to information privilege. Feminist pedagogy attempts to expose, critique, and flatten power-based learning, gender, and social hierarchies, while the closely related construct of critical pedagogy seeks to disestablish ideological systems that oppress and repress. Critical and feminist positions play out directly in learning interactions by challenging behaviorist and cognitivist assumptions of authority in teaching, extending their critiques of social and power dynamics to learning spaces. This results in a far more revolutionary classroom ‘flip’ than its oft-discussed technological counterpart: learners become facilitators in the sense that they are challenged to enrich educational spaces in pursuit of critical insight into the systems that surround them.

In the simplest terms, we are critical educators when we compel ourselves and others to think about power and privilege, and we are feminist educators when we dig beneath the status quo of our content and identify justice-focused approaches to engaging learners in a process of safe/radical self- and system-examination. These are beautiful ideas, but like any theory they can feel detached from immediate practice. Rather than adopting a completely new set of beliefs and approaches, implementing information privilege as an element of library discourse can be as simple as examining how you understand and approach information literacy, and identifying ways to explore underlying assumptions in dialogue with learners and/or colleagues in order to encourage this process of questioning more broadly. A few examples from my own experience follow.

scaling the paywall

This semester I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with a fabulous Pomona mathematics professor, Gizem Karaali, on a new first-year seminar course called Education and its Discontents. My role in this course ranged from contributing to the development of the syllabus to co-facilitating discussions as well as workshops related to specific research-based writing assignments.

I am not often able to embed with a group of students to this depth, and combined with the subject matter this context offered an opportunity to examine information privilege as a process of inquiry informed by social justice and as an applied critical pedagogy. Several early weeks of course readings were devoted to critical/feminist/progressive theorists such as bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and John Dewey, which provided a foundation of questioning privilege and the role of education in liberation, anti-racism, and fostering functional democracies. Listening to students grapple with education from perspectives in conflict with their personal experience as learners has been fascinating, especially so in a seminar environment that encouraged all contributions as valid to discourse by a professor likewise engaged in a process of self-education about the subject matter (embodying critical and feminist pedagogy, in other words).

hooks and Freire provided a perfect segue to our first IL-related workshop, which I opened by challenging the fallacy that information is free by diagramming the library’s multi-million dollar materials budget against the “open web,” then facilitated a discussion about the implications of a system in which significant areas of knowledge are available to a privileged few (e.g., them). This may seem like a counterintuitive approach, but among my students it was a literally jaw-dropping illustration of a paywall that none of them knew existed. Choice responses (mirrored in other classrooms where I’ve used this approach) included:

“Why in the world does it cost so much?”

“It doesn’t make sense!”

“You mean all libraries have to pay like this?”

“Why can’t we use this stuff after we graduate?”

And so forth – this is a perfect illustration of a threshold concept at work. Problematizing assumptions about information access isn’t really possible without examining the profit drivers that exist beneath the mechanism of scholarship, which opens topics ranging from open access to privacy to intellectual freedom to the digital divide – all easily identifiable incarnations of information privilege in lived experience. From this point in the workshop, discovering and evaluating scholarship in support of an assignment took a very different tone, undergirded by a sense of responsibility afforded to students by their own institutional privilege. Call it information gravitas.

wikipedia as participatory action

I have long held the opinion that far too much student work disappears into a sort of curricular black box; learners in higher education are typically asked to create isolated products meant not to inform but to mimic a scholarly conversation going on somewhere just above their heads. One facet of challenging information privilege is involving students in a process of leveraging institutional resources to create products that contribute to a broader public discourse (as opposed to ending up in recycling bins and/or behind closed institutional doors). In its dual role as public knowledgebase and lightning rod for skeptical scholars, Wikipedia provides a touchstone for conversations about accuracy and authority and a means to engage students with these questions in their own work.

In Spring of 2014 I had the pleasure of watching the most recent crop of student-created Wikipedia articles come to fruition in a long-running course collaboration with my Claremont Colleges Library colleague Sara Lowe and Prof. Amanda Hollis-Brusky of Pomona College. The articles, all expanded “stubs” from the Wikipedia Politics portal, were painstakingly crafted through multiple rounds of feedback in the most intensive and effective information literacy assignment I have ever had a hand in designing. The LA Times did a wonderful student-focused write-up of this and similar projects this summer, and I’ve discussed the Wikipedia collaboration several times before as well. I encourage you to take a look at the assignment structure via our Wikipedia Education Program course page. These articles have been viewed hundreds to thousands of times since their completion:

1 – FairVote

2 – Clean Diamond Trade Act

3 – Federalist No. 70

4 – Consent decree

5 – Bob Jones University v. Simon

6 – First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti

The reality of a reading public predominantly without institutional entrées makes Wikipedia-based assignments excellent fodder for engaging information privilege, not to mention strong motivators for the production of quality work. The power of this process is the mind-bending leaps students must master to do it well, including “neutral” and non-argumentative writing, rigorous and impartial substantiation, coding, OA sourcing where and whenever possible, and group content creation. To get a sense of the rigor that we expect of these first and second-year students, review the reference list on any of the articles, where you’ll see a breadth and depth of sourcing unusual even for advanced undergraduate research.

The Wiki Education Foundation is supporting these course collaborations to improve Wikipedia through student brainpower and institutional knowledge access, a smart move in a concerted effort to sharpen and deepen Wikipedia’s collective knowledgebase. Wikipedia editing is only one way to encourage students and faculty to produce participatory work that leverages paywalled information resources for the public good – encouraging capstone and other student project uploads to OA repositories is another (see 1 and 2 for more on this).

working through information privilege

Questioning underlying assumptions takes effort, but effort is far more compelling than internalizing and reproducing obligatory tasks. Due to prevailing cultural and media narratives, information is far too easily seen as universally accessible until its nuances are critically examined. By encouraging learners to wrap their minds around information imbalances from personal and relative perspectives, I have observed a greater sense of responsibility toward the effective application of IL concepts, as well as increased insight into the importance of open access.

At their best, libraries are an institutional form of social justice that equalize information availability and provide safe public space for learning and doing. At their worst, they perpetuate inequities and apportion resources among the intellectually sanctioned. In an increasingly activist profession, working with a recognition of information privilege can motivate those of us who labor to preserve access to information to take steps such as challenging draconian licensing agreements, moving accessible and usable design to the forefront of development processes, and supporting students, scholars, and all others identify strategies to circumvent their barriers (known and unknown) that keep certain ideas trapped behind paywalls or impenetrable design. It’s my belief that this ethic can and should support libraries in our fight to remain relevant at one of many pivotal moments in our trajectory.

Perhaps the best way to confront information privilege is to work from an understanding that it undergirds the efforts of libraries and wider knowledge production. If you seek to address structural information inequities, it is essential to develop a professional value system that perceives and opposes injustices not only within our institutions, but beyond them. In this sense information privilege is not just about asking our students to examine themselves and their position behind the paywall, it is about informing the way we collaborate, design, manage, lead, and advocate. For most of us, this will mean examining our own privilege and how we have been teaching and working in information contexts thus far. We can begin by asking ourselves simple questions – how do I approach access and authority in my practice? Do I broach subjects like inequity or justice? What can I do to develop a more open sense of access?

As always, onward and upward.

[1] See Accardi, Drabinski, & Kumbier (2010); Elmborg (2006); and Accardi (2013).

[2] See

Many thanks to Lia Friedman for her limitless editorial acumen.

char booth google glass grimaceFirst confession: my library bought Google Glass about six months ago. Second confession: I have, shall we say, a conflicted relationship with Glass. Third confession: although my intrepid colleague and collaborator Dani Brecher and I just published a piece on the program we’ve developed at Claremont, I have strenuously avoided writing about it in this more personal venue. Fourth confession (more like revelation): our user community is seriously into the technology. This post is my attempt to reconcile these confessions.

fraught process

Google Glass has gotten a ton of press spanning from rhapsodic to horrified to hilarious, so I won’t rehash beyond a few basics: it’s a wearable smart device that sits on your face and projects a tiny screen slightly above the horizon-line of your right eye. It’s controlled by voice, touch, and gesture, and desperately requires a data connection to function properly due to the extent that it relies upon the cloud. Its inherent memory capacity is limited (12 GB), and its core uses are documentation (photo/video/audio), navigation, communication, and modest augmentation of reality. This infographic sums it up well.

My subjective reaction to Glass when it was released was similar to what I experience with most proto-technologies: interest in implications and functionality mixed with skeptical vexation about various design and implementation factors. In this case, the latter was directed toward Glass’ corrective vision incompatibility (since addressed with the release of prescription-ready frames), cost (circa $1600 retail and perhaps a tenth that much to make), the limited scope of its availability (not to the hoi polloi until just yesterday), and the disconcerting sociocultural, physiological, and privacy connotations of face-bound wearable technology (legion). Wrap this up with the inevitable mental projection to the time in which we will all look back on this particular model as though it was an Atari 64 (relatively soon), I did not feel the slightest bit of desire to own a pair[1] of Glass. Despite these compunctions, I also recognized the practical affordances of a device that allows for hands-free and connected visual engagement with experience – from the perspective of an educator, applications in teaching, learning, coaching, tutoring, exploring, and reflective practice are most interesting.

Needless to say, I found myself pulled in several directions late in 2013 when I received an Explorer invite from a librarian who had created a Glass program at the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries, which has provided much of the inspiration for our own. Because of my complicated feelings toward the device and memories of ill-fated technology programs past, I chewed on a strong sense of distaste at joining the hordes that either covet or flaunt Glass. While I certainly didn’t want Glass for myself, I had to consider whether my organization could figure out a way to make it useful and used. Pressured by a two-week window in which to make the purchase (a brilliant hard sell technique), after some lightning processing and community polling Dani and I proposed a Glass lending and demo program. We were met with an organizational mixture of enthusiastic support and (mostly) reasonable resistance focused on cost and dubious local use cases, including the most thorough mansplanation I have ever received on the intricacies of the hype cycle-nee-curve, which, of course, I had never heard of.

not so much, but maybe a bit more.

I well understand caution, but I also believe that the partialities of myself and others should not guide decisions about what to make available to those who use our libraries. Rather, our decisions should be directed by a balance of informed and democratic pragmatism. My institution is privileged enough to be able to give our community the ability to imagine/test academic applications of this particular wearable technology. I am a believer in the notion that with privilege comes responsibility, so creating an open environment in which my community could test Glass while engaging in critical discourse about its broader implications was an important component of this decision. Ultimately the powers that be supported this notion (thanks, powers!)

Our Glass program is simple. We had about two months of hands-on demo/discussion workshops followed by short loans to IT departments around the Colleges and in-class uses by faculty, and have now opened Glass to 5-day lending to students, staff, and faculty via an online application form. There have been a couple of awesome stories in student (1 and 2 in particular!) and also campus venues, and so much demand has resulted that we justified buying a second unit on Google’s recent limited Glass public release day. The C&RL News article has more details on program specifics, if you’re interested.

Judging from workshop discussion and borrower feedback, user reactions to Glass are wildly varied. There is a shared perception that the technology is a true innovation, but also one that it falls short of expectations and has a number of design flaws. There is also a phenomenon of rampant Glass selfieism – people seem to really want to take photos of themselves wearing it. Here are my own impressions of Glass through experience largely in testing and teaching contexts:

1  The physical experience of this design is unpleasant for me, as in uncomfortable. Plus, I see a pronounced retinal afterimage of the screen and my eyes feel pulled a little crossways after I take it off.

2  I don’t love the various control methods, as in talking to myself, whapping/stroking at my face, and whiplashing my head up and down – additional ocular and voice control would be more graceful and far less embarrassing. As opposed to gesture control, which, as demonstrated in this app developer’s video (which is most definitely not a parody), could lead to forceful interventions.

3 I wish it did more. From the perspective of people developing apps for Glass and those making it useful in their own contexts I can see tantalizing potential radness, but it’s still limited for the majority.

4  Glass doesn’t let you log into dual-authentication wireless networks, as in the things most campuses have. Duly reported.

5  Battery life barely lasts through a hands-on workshop, and Glass gets very hot when heavily used.

6  When I started testing Glass, unbeknownst to me it began uploading all of the random pictures and videos I was (accidentally) taking to my Google+ account, which had very open (default) privacy settings enabled. I don’t really use Google+, which meant that this unknown Glass activity led to hilarity and embarrassment (thanks for the heads-up, Jenny). You intensely sign in to all things Google when you wear Glass, and there’s no avoiding it unless you closely manage settings and/or apply obvious workarounds (as in, creating a ‘mothership’ Google identity for an institution or another Google ID).

7  Extreme sports might sell, but Glass is by no means indestructible. I’m hard on things and I obviously can’t take it in the ocean like I might other capture tools. Then there’s this: “Oh, you broke it skydiving/mountainbiking/stuntflying/basejumping/pythonhandling like in our promo videos? Well, you can buy another for $1600 via our special one-chance replacement offer.”

"daddy" email via google glass

8  Glass’s voice recognition technology is generally impressive in terms of its accuracy. That said, it picks up environmental noise – as in EVERYONE’s voice – and sometimes doesn’t work so well with heavily accented or slurred English. This leads to more hilarity and belies the assumption that Glass is trained to recognize a specific individual. Here’s a choice example of Glass garbling from one of our workshops, in which I sent Dani (or should I say daddy) a test email…

Of course, you should douse these opinions with plenty of salt: our campus users tend to be most enthusiastic, even when they pan Glass’ lack of current utility and social awkwardness. Loan applications have been super interesting and varied – for example, Tracy Seipser of CGU went on an epic Glass testing adventure, complete with a documentary of her woodwind group and guided gallery tours – take a look at the Prezi she developed to chronicle her process.

interest trumps aversion.

I have a bit of a history with developing tech-based programs that end up crashing and burning, which is fine by me in the end: one learns a great deal from sifting through the wreckage. When you accumulate experience with emerging tools, a layer of scar tissue (otherwise known as ‘character’) cannot help but build, making one cautious about the equation wherein Library X immediately buys/develops/subscribes to Shiny Gadget Y and attempts to reactively justify the decision rather than apply it to the greater good. With this caveat in mind I truly believe that fortune can favor the brave, especially when the brave are mindful of their impact on others.

Despite initial concerns that we might have purchased an expensive nose-weight, user reception has totally allayed those fears. Interest in our community is clearly based on a powerful confluence of scarcity and curiosity. Our workshops have been packed and highly engaged, and have worked well with a respective good-cop/bad-cop dynamic between Dani and myself that has allowed for an honest critical exploration of Glass’ (dys)functionality. Practical ideas for use in an academic context have flourished through user applications and discussions – everything from a reflective teaching tool (capture your teaching experience and review later, or ask a student to do the same) to reducing documentary discomfort that consenting subjects (particularly children) in educational, psychological, anthropological, and sociological research scenarios feel when they are aware of being filmed. And on and on.steve martin in the opti-grab

The lending and discourse aspects are key here – instead of reserving the tool for our own explorations, we’re attempting to make access to and discussions about Glass meaningful beyond a fad sense. What is clear is that in a limited access or high expense scenario, creating a program that engages both the critical and applied nature of a tool like Glass has the potential to be successful.

anomie v. engagement.

Glassholeism is a thing, and I personally don’t want to go there. I have friends battling the creeping gentrification effects of Silicon Valley on communities losing the purchasing power to pay their rent, let alone walk around carrying on a public/private conversation with a tool of dubious current practicality. And I very much support them.

That said, providing access to a technology is not the same as advocating for it (an important lesson for alpha cynics like myself to remember, particularly in a library context). I don’t personally support everything we offer on our physical and digital shelves, so why should I expect to feel the same way about the tools we provide to our community? Through our inherent ingenuity, humans translate the objects in their environments to nefarious and glorious ends. And the interpretation of those ends is entirely dependent on another human capacity: perspective.

To fulfill their missions, libraries inevitably give their money to questionable sources depending on your particular POV. Like many other expensive things in this world, Glass is limited to a very, very few. As I see it, when libraries purchase and distribute Glass we’re helping make access more egalitarian, which is what libraries are all about. And most importantly, we’re trying to making sure the libary is reflecting its core responsibility as a consumer and purveyor of technology: enabling others to access and understand what they might not otherwise, whether due to cost factors or the fine line of interest that, when uninformed by direct engagement, usually tips toward -dis.

in sum

When we ask classes and workshop participants, “is Glass worth it?”, we get a resounding chorus of “not yet, not for that much” – a few have said they’d buy Glass it for about the same price as an iPad, about a third of what it now goes for. But when we ask, “are you glad we bought it?”, there is an equally resounding chorus of “totally.” Without exception, people have been appreciative of the opportunity to, for lack of a less puntastic phrase, see Glass for themselves.

I don’t love Glass, but I get it. Many in the profession are doing amazing things with Glass, and I stand behind our and other libraries’ plans for helping people explore emerging tools in the way we have for millennia with more conventional materials: by offering the fairest and most clear-eyed access possible and leaving the interpretation to the user. Interest in Glass will inevitably wane and our version of the technology will obsolesce, leading to a reevaluation of the utility of the program in its current form. But that’s the nature of the curve.

[1] Unit? Device? Pair? Contraption? For the sake of avoiding repetition, I will use the first three interchangeably.

Endless gratitude to Dani Brecher and Lia Friedman, who helped kick this post into shape: I’m picking out a Thermos for each of you.

Posted by: char booth | 18 February 2014

no more, no less.

I try not to write simply in order to make excuses for the fact that I haven’t written in a while, but in this case I have a very good reason for doing so. Like virtually everyone else in the universe I’ve been super busy of late, and only a habit of compulsive list-making is keeping my head above water. To be sure there are multitudes of useful productivity tools, apps etc., out there, but for all who appreciate a solidly analog box-checking/item-crossing experience I recommend downloading and printing the following template to 8.5×11:

four-panel to do list

Lovely, no? Clean, clear, and comfortably confining. Not only that, but a satisfying legitimate excuse to use a papercutter or other sharp object. Have at it!

PS Many thanks to my colleague Natalie Tagge for finding the original full page version somewhere in the depths of our office suite and passing it along.

PPS More writing soon, I promise.

Posted by: char booth | 16 December 2013

on facilitation.

I recently attended a workshop at which one of two facilitators introduced themselves as anti-facilitation. “Because intelligent people don’t like being facilitated,” was their exact reasoning. At that moment I had the odd sensation of feeling compelled to distrust a belief I knew very well why I held, largely because I was sitting and listening while someone else was standing and talking. Put another way, an individual in a position of relative power delivered a message fundamentally critical of my own experience, and I, as recipient, was left (attention fully diverted from task) to mull over my own exclusion from the ranks of the smart. I describe the sensation as odd because it rarely happens to me as an adult. It is however one I remember well from childhood through my mid twenties, the period in my life before I solidified a sense of personal identity and basic confidence in my own capabilities. The dynamic in question was (and is) one in which greater authority compels lesser authority toward self-doubt by revealing knowledge that is inherently correct and/or obvious. An insecure experience to be sure, usually followed by the lesser authority side-eyeing others for a herd signal of appropriate reaction. This scenario is common in communities and situations in which explicit or implicit hierarchies exist, which is to say all communities and situations. Despite the anti-facilitation facilitator’s unfortunate opening, they were actually quite skilled at facilitation. They led an active experience, inviting a range of participant voices and raising productive questions for the group to consider. What they lacked, however momentarily, was a sensitivity that resulted in alienation and mistrust. Upon reflection, I think what this individual intended to convey is that most intelligent people (whatever that means) don’t like being patronized, herded, ignored, and/or silenced by people running meetings, and that intended not to do any of these things to us over the next few hours. Unfortunately and however briefly, their introduction was both patronizing and silencing. At the time, I found myself looking around, gauging reactions, confirming that I no longer want to be facilitated because I am indeed intelligent. Moral + rule one of facilitation: don’t tell people (why) they’re stupid and/or wrong. I am as frequent a meeting, workshop, etc. casualty as the rest of us who work in organizations. Luckily I have general confidence in my own intelligence, and while I don’t love being facilitated poorly, I do love being facilitated skillfully. Which is to say, I relish witnessing the respectful wrangling of a group gathered for a common purpose to a productive end. I appreciate it more for what it prevents than what it represents: facilitation at its most basic is the line between function and dysfunction, productivity and frustration, self-doubt and self-confidence. The conscious attempt to reduce exclusionary tactics can moderate the likelihood of silencing and uncertainty-induction, and it is eminently possible to urge people to reconsider assumptions without simultaneously disbelieving their own aptitudes. I increasingly find myself in the position of facilitator, be it in meetings, workshops, or projects (which have similar but by no means identical demands). No matter the context it is a challenge, particularly for those of us who have issues with organizational and interpersonal hierarchies and/or varying degrees of impostor syndrome. As I work on my own skillset, I try to actively observe others in this position and glean the effective (and not so) strategies they apply. The more I witness and engage, the more I am convinced that facilitation is not about privileging one opinion over another simply because it is convincing or moves things forward, it is about creating an equilibrium of voices and ideas and discouraging implicit and explicit structures that can so easily thwart consensus. It’s about clarifying the tasks at hand and cultivating positive working dynamics among individuals gathered for whatever reason, be they strangers or long-time collaborators. The greatest challenge of “running” meetings and other group interactions is that there are subtle communication and power dynamics underlying them all. Once you realize this, you begin to see that whether you like it or not agency is distributed well beyond the facilitator, and that participants have the ability to run in their own directions – over and away and everything in between. One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I was recently responsible for a meeting that veered toward negativity, and I failed to do as much as I could have to create a less venting-oriented dynamic. A participant withdrew engagement out of a need to protect their own positivity, and not only did I neglect to adequately see this in the moment, I added to the scenario with my own less-than-awesome contributions. Moral + rule two of facilitation: it is very easy to shut people down (or keep them from starting up in the first place). Once I realized my error I went about the process of acknowledging that the situation had not been ideal and that I would work to correct it – a bit of residue will remain, however, as it does in my own memory of the anti-facilitation facilitator. Moral + rule three of facilitation: if things trend negative, do your best to recenter the conversation. If you fail, try to make reparations. It’s not that I blame myself entirely for the outcome in question, mind you. Because organizational/group dynamics are inherently difficult, we all at times feel tired, unheard, or undervalued, or back off from a sense of engagement out of self-protective ennui. A singed or smoldering collective can easily lead to burnt-out meetings, so one of the most important tasks of the facilitator is recognizing where and how these fires are asserting themselves and re-channeling their energy toward a desirable end. The channeling process is well supported by inserting equilibrium into the ownership dynamic by creating community expectations and shared responsibility for work and outcomes. Moral + rule four of facilitation: it consists of skillful means, and they can be learned. It is essential to develop skills to simultaneously promote productive work and cultivate a positive and inclusive dynamic within the time and space container that you are allocated, as well as to avoid the unfortunately byproduct of adrenaline that so often leads to privileging the loudest voices because at least they are speaking in the first place and you can count on them to move things forward. You as facilitator owe it to those who have gathered to not waste their time or disparage their contributions, and to notice any undercurrents that threaten to divide and conquer the task(s) at hand. Meetings and workshops should not feel pointless, oppressive, or frustrating, and preventing any of the above from developing is what I consider the main job of facilitation. While I suppose facilitation prodigies exist in the wild, for the vast majority of us we improve as we go, particularly if we have values that are shared and practiced diligently. Luckily, support exists. Roan Boucher, a dear friend and fabulous artist slash activist, is part of an anti-oppression collective called AORTA that recently shared a foundational list of facilitation strategies. They are pure gold, particularly if you are committed to social justice and anti-authoritarian practices within the spaces you work and collaborate. Here’s an excerpt from their section on setting “community agendas” (aka agreed-upon conduct to keep things moving respectfully), and you can download the full publication and others here:

“ONE DIVA, ONE MIC Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave space in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable fighting for airtime in a conversation.) NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT This means we all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room. It also means we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our question, so that others may learn from us. MOVE UP, MOVE UP If you’re someone who tends to not speak a lot, please move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, please move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the on the more commonly heard “step up, step back.” The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can step. WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME As much as we’d like, we just can’t. Often people feel hesitant to participate in a workshop or meeting for fear of “messing up” or stumbling over their words. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating, even if you can’t be as articulate as you’d like. BE AWARE OF TIME This is helpful for your facilitator, and helps to respect everyone’s time and commitment. Please come back on time from breaks, and refrain from speaking in long monologues… BE CURIOUS We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. Allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking.”

Among other things, they share strategies for not letting non-inclusive practices creep into meeting spaces. Most, if not all, of this content can be directly translated to teaching spaces, wherein elevating the learner voice to the same plane as the educator’s is central to a more critical and feminist pedagogy. Similarly, I find that many strategies that enable strong public speaking can support facilitation, as in all of these it is important to remember that the focus should be on the collective, not the individual. Case in point, you’ll notice that AORTA’s list puts equal emphasis/responsibility on participants. Moral + rule five of facilitation: it’s everyone’s job. For the introverted among us, it can be easy to withdraw and over rely on the person nominally in charge (who can without exception use our support in making things run smoothly). Dissociating, working excessively on a device, basking smugly in the relief of not being on deck, and/or withdrawing into nervousness are tendencies to be challenged. Moreover, if they are an passive or active protest measure against an individual, initiative, or organization (betting we’re all guilty of this from time to time), the underlying issues behind this unproductive behavior can and should be examined and confronted with skillful and intentional means. Thanks again to AORTA for developing this toolkit, and I encourage you to avail yourself of their services as a measure of gratitude. Similarly, Roan’s beautiful artwork is available on Etsy. As always, onward and upward. — Post-script: Did you make it through this post? Claim your bitter end badge. And gratitude to Lia Friedman for her endless editorial acumen.

Posted by: char booth | 22 November 2013

yet another post on public speaking.

Virtually any conversation about speaking in public will include a nod to the axiom that people fear it more than death (case in point). While recent research has shown this claim to be only partially accurate, for most the abject unpleasantness of participating in live communication forums is a foregone conclusion.

soapboxI am in the position of talking at people in formal settings far more frequently than I ever expected, as a teacher, facilitator, panelist, and/or speaker. One thing I have come to know is that just as one can cultivate a healthier relationship to the certainty that life ends, so can one develop an easier co-existence with the complex (and not altogether unpleasant) sensations of being in front of an audience of one or one thousand.

I won’t downplay the anxiety that attends public address, nor its incredible array of physical and psychological symptoms: hyperventilation, nausea, panic, compulsive movements, speech fillers, rapid heartbeat, mania, and dissociation (or all of the above, for the very unlucky). I have experienced each in my turn, often in diabolically unpredictable combinations. I have also discovered (adage alert) that their severity decreases as experience increases.

Unfortunately, alleviation does not often lead to eradication. Managing the manifestations of fear is crucial to becoming a decent public speaker, but it is only one aspect of a much larger enterprise: communication skill and information design are just as important. You have to work at all of these things, as well psychologically reorient youself to being the subject of an audience’s attention.


I’ve benefited hugely from the suggestions of others (solicited and unsolicited, anonymous and identified). I tend to ask people to write down takeaways or suggestions after my talks, and I once received a scrap of paper that said simply “bigger is better, less is more.” This cut directly to my two most persistent challenges in presentations: far too much content, and migraine-inducing font sizes. Since reading the note I’ve used it as a mantra… belated gratitude to this unknown benefactor of priceless advice.

In this tradition, I offer you exactly 38 accumulated observations that may ease discomfort and augment effectiveness in public speaking scenarios. Disclaimer: Not all apply in every context, and some readers may disagree based on contrary experience… which is all well and good, as this is a very personal process. Please add your own adviceorisms as comments if I’ve left anything out, or if your experience dictates otherwise.

1. Believe (in) yourself. First and foremost, accept that you have something worthwhile to say. This phrase in its entirety is an acknowledged cliche, but remove the (in) and consider whether you have any faith in your ability to contribute to the forum at hand. Next, think about how you tend to judge the words coming out of your mouth during presentations: complete bullshit, half-baked conjecture, or fascinating genius? A notch below fascinating genius is a good target.

2. Have faith in your (hard-earned) knowledge. This follows directly from #1. Yes, you actually do know what you’re talking about. Because you prepared, right? Your mind will tell you repeatedly that you don’t/didn’t, but reject this thought out of hand as universally experienced and ridiculous, and justify its rejection by knowing your content well.

3. What you are saying has been said before, but not quite this way. Very few things are new under the sun, but each of us has the ability to foster a unique angle, message, story, interpretation, dedication. The latter will guide you much better than the former.

4. Overpreparation is sabotage. As important as preparation can be, sleep is actually a presenter’s best friend. So are meditation and exercise. Practicing too many times can lead to confusion about what you have and haven’t said during the actual event, and writing out every syllable can make you sound robotic or lead to panic when you think you’ve forgotten something (which always happens, but you’re the only one who notices. How could someone anticipate what you haven’t said?)

5. Create structure. Outlining is an excellent habit when giving presentations, as it helps with time management, narrative flow, argumentative purpose, and succinctness. Sharing this structure with your audience will help ground them in the content to come. However, try to resist the impulse to share your outline in a bulleted list – there are more compelling ways to convey this information.

6. Have a point. Try to be able to sum up the purpose of a presentation in a sentence or two. If you can’t, it’s likely too complicated. Telling your audience the point is a great strategy up front, in the middle, and again at the end.

7. Participants will absorb your (prevailing) energy. If you’re nervous, an audience will feel nervous. If you’re stoked, an audience will feel stoked. If you are both nervous and stoked, rest assured that no one prefers to feel unpleasant sensations so an audience is far likelier to experience the positives you are giving off. Of course, participants will have unique emotional experiences at the same time, but there is a certain amount of conscious or unconscious empathy at work.

8. Don’t apologize for your content, your slides, your self-perceived ignorance, your anything. Ever. You have far less to apologize for than you think you do – this is your impostor talking, yet again. Unless, that is, you inadvertently offer insult or say something generally effed up. Graciously acknowledging when you’ve offended someone without escalating a confrontation is a priceless skill, but unnecessary self-deprecation makes you look like you lack confidence. It also makes the audience uncomfortable, which kicks their negative energy osmosis into overdrive.

9. Mind your tics. Become familiar with your verbal and physical delivery symptoms – we all have them, and they wax and wane given the day and venue. For example, the DLF keynote I gave recently involved a bizarre amount of compulsive computer and microphone touching, which I was dimly aware of but didn’t control as well as I would have liked. Not my typical habit, but there you go – back to the drawing board. Suppress powerful impulses to fidget and ‘um’ by developing tricks like clutching the podium, holding a pen, keeping your hands behind your back, and slowing down and pausing your speech to avoid excessive fillers.

10. A congregation is preferable to a firing squad. I come from a long line of preachers and no matter your belief system I highly recommend cultivating of a sense of stage as pulpit or soapbox rather than as gallows. These are not your last words, nor is the audience silently administering last rites.

11. Find your friendlies. Locate two to three people in the audience who are paying active attention (there will almost always be at least one) and have pleasant resting facial expressions. Focus on them. Make periodic eye contact with these people and watch more broadly for nods of agreement and/or fatigue – both are important cues. Equally important to this point is to not let unfriendlies throw you, as unlikely as they are to actually exist – if someone is nonverbally disrespectful or rolling their eyes around, get their attention to make sure they know you’re aware of their attitude and not afraid of them. If someone is verbally disrespectful, use patience, seek allies to help manage the situation, don’t be intimidated, and try not to escalate an argument from a podium.

12. Limit screen staring. As in, your device screen AND the projection screen. This is almost impossible to stop yourself from doing completely, but is oddly distracting to the audience. Glancing, gesturing, and inclining your head are perfectly serviceable substitutes.

13. Engage through interaction. Ask questions and wait for real answers. Build in back and forth communication during the presentation and/or at the end if at all possible, whether between participants or between you and the audience. It livens things up, but you should also be prepared to handle unexpected responses.

14. Curb reflexive criticism. People mask perceived self-ignorance with arrogance and position themselves ahead by pointing out weakness. Confidence and creative/intelligent critique are very different things.

15. Conversation is cubed. Think of it like this: you are simply having a conversation on a bigger scale and talking to every person in the audience as singular individuals writ large. This can lessen the sensation of an unknown and unknowable horde.

16. Reverse roles. Unless they’re evil, people generally want speakers to succeed. Imagine you are watching yourself as though you were watching your BFF. Encourage your inner BFF.

17. If you stumble, recover with humor. This usually works like a charm be your stumble verbal, technological, and/or physical. People like to forget unpleasant gaffes (remember the empathy thing), and humor is the best way to help them forget and dissipate their (and your) tension.

18. Try not to assume prior knowledge in the audience, but don’t patronize people by rehashing common knowledge. There is a fine line between the two, but one that can be tread wisely, particularly if you know your audience and their general level of likely understanding. Above all else, define unfamiliar terms and acronyms and give examples of further reading, etc. that people can follow up with as you go.

19. Take pains with design. People universally love nice graphics and interesting fonts. If this isn’t a strength of yours, teach yourself about universal design principles and download some free fonts from the thousands that are available. Break out of suggested presentation hegemonies (i.e., templates) that have become overly predictable and start from a blankish slate. Clean and clear are great rules to follow, while loud, whirling, and/or busy are wonderful things to avoid. Last word on this: color palettes are immensely helpful.

20. Customize to context. Respect your audience and the venue by connecting your content and messages with their purpose and meaning. People will appreciate your understanding of why they are there in the first place.

21. Know your privilege. You don’t speak for everyone, you speak for yourself. Know yourself and how who you are affects your interaction with the world and its interaction with you. This helps you avoid classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and all sorts of un/intentional expressions of oppression. And, as a personal favor to me any everyone else on the planet, never tell someone they are being ‘too sensitive’ if you get called out on any of the above.

22. Tell stories. About yourself. About other people (with their consent). About real life and lived experience. Successes and failures, or preferably both. This is humanizing and cuts down on the boredom factor by changing the flow and focus of your talk and gives practical application insight into your content.

23. Be real(istic). You have a personality, and things have happened to you in your life – see #22. To suppress this completely makes you come off as an automoton. It’s far easier to relate and listen to another person than a machine. That said, TMI is not good.

24. Talk about things you have actually worked on and contributed to. As in, do good things in your life/career and talk about them from experience. It’s great to showcase the contributions of others and acknowledge them soundly, but don’t inadvertently take credit or show yourself as a non-doer by focusing on all the things others have done.

25. Give shout outs. This goes back to #24, reinforces good working and personal relationships, makes people feel proud of themselves, and grounds you in a reality well beyond your presentation. Also, let them know you’re planning to do so.

26. Use evidence. Multiple layers of proof or justification are good things.

27. Have (visible) conviction. This goes back to believing you have something to say and knowing what you are talking about (1 and 2). Why the hell are you giving a presentation? Because you want to, and because you care about what you’re saying. This makes other people care too.

28. Don’t assume accessibility. Some people have limited sight and/or hearing, among other disabilities that could affect how they encounter your content. Make sure you are serving these people as well as those without disabilities. Do this by creating strong visual cues as well as giving a clear narrative. Subtitle and translate presentations when you share them afterwards if you can. Interpreters are great – see if the venue can provide one.

29. Control your own technology. If at all possible, negotiate to use a personal computer, tablet, etc. so that you know how to predict it. Not to mention that those amazing free fonts you just downloaded almost certainly aren’t installed on the provided computer, and you really don’t want to see what your presentation will look like without them. If you’re a Mac user, BRING A DONGLE.

30. Back everything up three ways. Online, PDF and presentation platform. Always.

31. Recycle intelligently. Use your own templates and images, etc. judiciously to save time and effort, but don’t give canned talks over and over again. People will notice and will not be amused.

32. Share your slides, prezi, whatever. Beforehand, preferably. Participants will appreciate being able to follow along, particularly if lighting is bad and screens are too small (which there is an excellent chance of). Same goes with hashtags: at the beginning is the useful moment.

33. Test slide and screen visibility. Do so well beforehand, from the absolute back of the space if possible or using the online presentation platform. If your text and graphics are challenging, make tweaks to improve legibility.

34. Please, please, please list your photo credits at the end. Full image URLs on slides are simply bad design, and unnecessary – I promise you that no one in the audience is rushing directly to the source and slight delay is not tantamount to stealing. Share photo acknowledgements in a final credits slide you will clean things up immensely.

35. Don’t drink kombucha immediately before or during. For obvious gastrointestinal reasons. Same goes for fizzy water, soda, beer, mead, tej, framboise, and so forth.

36. Dress the part. Look good in whatever way suits you, and you will feel better. That said, don’t wear overly tight clothes (sweat factor), crazy/unfamiliar shoes (trip factor) or things that will ride up/fall strangely when you move (failure to suppress your physical tics factor).

37. If it’s flat, barrel through. Sometimes it’s simply destined not to go well, and all you can do in this scenario is grit your teeth with a light heart and get on with it.

38. Don’t nitpick your performance in hindsight. Try with all of your might not to dwell on or regret things you (think) you didn’t do well – that presentation is over and done, so move on to better things in the present and future. Seek feedback and focus on improving what you can. Also, learn to distinguish between positive feedback and platitudes. Same goes for constructive criticism and calculated gouging… internally and externally.

In sum: You are definitely going to die, but it’s highly unlikely that you will die giving your next presentation. Onward and upward.

Posted by: char booth | 3 October 2013

banishing your impostor: metacognition and myths of self.

Lately I’ve noticed an alarming number of people in my personal/work orbit discussing the severity of their respective cases of impostor syndrome. I’ve struggled with this well-documented phenomenon for as long as I can remember, due as much to deference-oriented gender socialization as to the wiring I received while reared in the Texan cult of independence that holds self-sufficiency preeminent above all things. This conditioning was only augmented by the attainment-obsessed environment of higher education in which I have operated as a worker, making career-as-proving-ground the only formal professional metaphor I know.

My experience is not unique, and is far from exclusive to academic careers. Instead, it is the tip of a polluted cultural iceberg. Impostor syndrome is one of many manifestations of the submerged self-doubt that plagues (the vast majority of) people in hyperindustrialized societies, particularly the US. The experience varies among subgroups and individuals, but IMO our most universal collective insecurity is rooted in persistent terror of “failure” and the object/alleviation of its anxiety: subcultural aggrandizements of prestige. As a result, disturbing default narratives of self vacillate between success/arrogance and unworthiness/apologia.

Our existential performance apprehension is a form of violence that does little for collective or individual physical/mental/spiritual health. Directed outward it creates judgment and envy, which I have experienced everywhere from queer culture to surfing to sangha. Directed inward, it leads to the unconscious cultivation of highly specific negative myths of self, internally-spun stories reinforced by external feedback and an ongoing, conditioned interpretation of experience. Simply slot in your own narratives (“I can’t _______,” “I’m not great at _______,” “I suck at _______”) in any personal or professional context, and you have identified these self-myths. More often than not they become the lenses through which we see, and they distort far more than they correct.

The difference between clearly understanding our own strengths/weaknesses and acquiescing to a stunted sense of self is as vast as the distance between healthy fear and gnawing anxiety, and I’m writing this post in recognition of the importance of cultivating the former at the expense of the latter.

myth and metacognition

As intractable as they seem, our myths are eminently revisable. It is my experience that negative internal narratives can be deconstructed (or at least acknowledged and understood) by identifying the anxieties upon which they are based and learning to abide in the discomfort the myths are created to evade. I recently (and totally unexpectedly) managed to unlearn two of my own most persistent myths of self: the first that I can’t swim very well or hold my breath under water for more than a few seconds, the second a generalized sense of professional fraud that has haunted my entire career.

It is common knowledge that the learning process is shaped by a multitude of factors – culture, context, community, motivation, physiology, and psychology. When we learn our brains are automatic as well as intentional; cognition (thinking) during learning is largely reflexive, whereas metacognition (thinking about thinking) is volitional awareness of the process of learning. So what is at work when we unlearn? My recent experience points to a metacognitive emphasis – conscious insight into what I thought I knew/feared, how I came to know/fear it, and strategies for coming to know something new/not fear.

The fact that I ‘knew’ I wasn’t a strong swimmer and feared being held underwater since childhood might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me even slightly, because I spend about a quarter of my waking life (and about half of my dreaming life) in water or as close to it as possible… preferably the ocean. Which is actually quite odd, because ever since I can remember I’ve been terrified of it. I find that most people are to some degree no matter how inexorably they are drawn to the sea, for varied and personal reasons. The two most common fears I have observed are that the ocean cannot provide us with the element we most need to survive (oxygen), and that it cannot be controlled. We can achieve degrees of relative symbiosis with it, we can exploit it, we can disregard it, we can worship it, but all our efforts are eventually met with the magnificent indifference of that which spat us out and will swallow us again.

In other words, we are temporary and flailing and the ocean is massive and eternal. However transformative, my past maritime activities were always tinged by a miasma of associated anxiety. It decreased over the years, but core aspects remained intact: while snorkeling, I wondered more about what I couldn’t see than what I could. Swimming past the breaking waves would raise irrational sensations of undertow and current, even though I knew perfectly well what to do in those cases (relax, breathe, and move perpendicular to shore). After a wipeout, I’d expel all my breath as I hit water and fight spasmodically to the surface.

increasing capacity

This last instinct combined with a relentless drive to improve could have killed me several times in my earliest days of surfing. Eight-foot walls of winter whitewater are no place for a beginner, and after a bicep cut in two, some broken toes, countless bruises, and a terrible ragdoll holdunder I learned a few limits. Almost two years and a lot of hard-earned skills later, however, an intractable reactivity was still causing needless injuries. A few months ago it earned me a broken nose, when, after committing the cardinal sin of hesitating at the top of a wave, I surfaced so recklessly after being tossed that the first thing I saw was the tail of my board hurtling into my right eye socket. A predictable jet of blood raised an entirely different and utterly justified set of ocean fears, and I hightailed it to shore.

Had I stayed calm, held my breath as the wave took me under, and come up hands first when the boil ended, there is no chance this would have happened. Screaming from pure, nature/adrenaline-fueled joy while rocketing over water is not a habit I wanted to lose, and two black eyes helped me see that it would take work to transform persistent, myth-fueled anxieties into positive self-preservation. Which is precisely why I enrolled a “surprise apnea” workshop with an incredibly gifted teacher named Hanlii Prinsloo a few weekends ago, a record-holding freediver who helps professional athletes from big wave surfers to rugby players change what their bodies are capable of under extreme carbon dioxide duress. Which, of course, regular make-out sessions with the ocean provide the opportunity to experience first-hand.

Hanli’s pedagogy was flawless, and led me to a 360 degree reconceptualization of my own (lung) capacity and swimming ability. Believe me when I say that it’s amazing how long the average person can learn to handle the discomfort of sustaining a single breath by simply relaxing, understanding what’s happening to their body, and challenging its reactions. In the days before the session I timed myself to see how long I could go without breathing: one extremely uncomfortable minute. After five hours of training, I was up to two and a half minutes. Through a combination of yoga, stretching, physiological insight, freediving history/technique, meditative insight, dry land and underwater breathholds, and swim interval training, my myth of self as overly vulnerable in the water began to unravel.

Early ocean scares/injuries had resulted in more post-traumatic scar tissue than I realized, and once I recognized the narratives underlying my anxieties a fundamental relaxation began. Fearing the ocean is advisable, because it keeps you alive. Harboring anxiety about it isn’t, because it kills you faster than ignorance. Fear is a cognitive/instinctive reaction to danger; anxiety is a psychological/learned reaction to fear. My perception of poor swimming and an inability to keep my shit together when being chewed by a wave were mere symptoms of an anxiety manifested in physical and psychological contractions that hurt me every chance they could. What I had been describing to myself as “fear” was simple anxiety about loss of control.

contextual effects

Substitute ‘job/working for ‘wave/ocean’ in the previous paragraph and it still makes perfect sense – in fact, madlib any of your myths of self for the same effect. Enter impostor syndrome (IS).

I made this connection in a recent interview with Alison J. Head of Project Information Literacy, an individual and research project I respect a great deal. Interviewing in the company of Lee Rainie and Barbara Fister is both an honor and terrifying: predictably, at the outset of the process my impostor was very active. The thing is, as I developed my responses I realized that I had much to say about collaboration, advocacy, and the projects I’ve been involved in over the years. Far from self-aggrandizement, it felt like a genuinely enthusiastic narrative of initiatives, colleagues, and values.

That I’ve contributed positively to my profession is something I’ve doubted systematically since I started being a librarian back in 2006, so it was fabulous to finally experience a moment of reflective contentment. The unanticipated alleviation of my own fraud myth made me realize how incessantly I have tried to drive away self-doubt by scaling the walls of workaholism toward an unattainable zenith. The impostor delivers an ad nauseam internal critique that creates a protective counterimpulse to mask deficiencies, which leads to all sorts of related negatives such as posturing, positioning, loss of motivation, defensiveness, unease, despair, and outright panic. It holds you back from taking risks and sharing opinions to avoid being perceived as that which you are fear you actually are, in some cases a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my experience, IS is like a professional Saturn return… you might think you’re through it, but it always seems to come back with a vengeance. It is far from an early career phenomenon, although a self ‘unproven’ is arguably likelier to experience lower work-oriented perceptions of worth/confidence. Any significant event like a new (or lost) position, presentation, class, meeting, project, promotion, interview, etc. become fodder for self-doubt and the most prevalent characteristic of IS, a sense of underqualification, incapability, and fraudulence. This is often expressed as “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Maybe you don’t, but that’s the nature of (the sea of) work. You learn, and you unlearn.

Although it is an internal vulnerability, one’s working environment has a tremendous effect on the experience of IS and can aggravate it immeasurably. My own darkest period of professional self-doubt was in a high-stakes context in which I received negative feedback to an extent that it led me to question the fundamental value of my own efforts, something I had not experienced in more positive environments. I developed a shell of defensiveness wholly contrary to the values I wanted to embody as a worker. Moreover, I started to exhibit depressive and coping behaviors in my wider life. When I changed my situation I recognized that it can take a significant move to turn one’s contextual IS tide, and that intentionality in community of practice building is essential to forming a positive conception of (professional) self.

accepting your impostor(s)

The beauty of any fear is that your relationship to it (and the anxieties it radiates) are eminently changeable. For me, what was once a near total aversion to the ocean has become a deep love and profound respect. While I still experience varying levels of fear every time I engage with it, the anxiety is in a period of reflective decline. Same with professional apprehension. My insides twist when I teach or speak, and any new undertaking or transition in my working life is a certain struggle with a rearing impostor. That said, by observing and questioning the “truth” of these experiences and understanding their origins they no longer stab quite so deeply. Moreover, they help me be more sensitive to the internal lives of those around me, just as challenging and just as real as my own. Everyone struggles with their own myths: a liberating realization.

Perhaps the most effective way to challenge negative internal narratives (be they visceral or work related) is to stop pushing them away. Step back and observe your wider experience and impact – tunnel vision is limited and far easier to foment a critical view. I have personally learned to do this through meditation (a scaffolded form of metacognition), observing my mind and emotions at work and the effect they have on my body and behavior. The fact that I have a daily practice in this regard means that, no matter what goes on in my life, there is a period of time in which I cannot evade the darker forms of what I experience. Rather, I make peace with them as they parade through my head.

Where your impostor is concerned, be collaborative. Value your colleagues even when they are difficult – we all have lives and emotions, and they too easily drag us into depths out of which we can no longer see our own behavior and/or effect on others. Lead with relentless positivity. Take courage in your career. Where your deeper negative narratives exist, cultivate experiences that rip you out of your comfort zone while still providing support. Build a community of allies and ditch out on negatrons (but take pains not to burn bridges). Be mentored and seek mentees. Understand your privilege. Labor with your heart as well as your head/hands. Challenge your perceived limitations or they will become more calcified than you could ever have imagined (and far better at masking their potential for remediation). Above all else never stop working on your shit, because only some of it – particularly the anxiety-based – is real. When left unexamined, our imagined issues far too easily prevent us from addressing actual ones.

— Many thanks to Lia Friedman for invaluable editorial advice on this essay.

Also, for making it this far feel free to create a account and nominate yourself to automatically claim a bitter end badge.

Posted by: char booth | 19 August 2013

wait for it… new buttonmaker templates.

A while back I shared a ton of 1” ‘love your library’ and other buttonmaker templates created for outreach/marketing purposes at the Claremont Colleges Library – all are available to download and use with a CC attrib-sharealike license on my Slideshare account. Tons of people out in libraryland and elsewhere have used them, about which I’m ecstatic – a panel I co-presented on at ACRL this spring shares customization ideas on this front and other applications in context.

local button by char booth

Based on the success of locally produced pins/magnets as promotional items and as fodder for “maker breaks” events, we’ve since purchased a 2.25’’ press from American Button Machines – both circulate pretty much constantly to student groups when not in active Library use, and the addition of a large format option has been useful in particular for promotion/advocacy purposes.

There’s been interest in large-format templates so I’m sharing new designs for a 2.25” press, also all CC sharealike so feel free to have at them. The most basic is a blank 2.25’’ double ring design template that outlines where center images should line up – edit this PDF in Illustrator, etc. to superimpose graphics over each inner circle, and (protip alert) NEVER fit when printing: print to true size for best effect.

I translated the love your library design to the 2.25’’ format, which looks great and works particularly well as a magnet. There are blank (no stamps), white stamped/scanned you can print on any type of paper, and a ton of patterned options for a quality color printer. Here’s one example:

Finally, a recent favorite I designed for Allegra Swyfte and the USEDTA Conference (to pin on local staff for ID purposes) – more useful/understandable near coasts, perhaps, but still a good strategy to identify home folks:

Use/enjoy, and as always feel free to create and share templates in return.

Posted by: char booth | 29 July 2013

open access as pedagogy.

I’ve long preached the message of open access publication/sharing of student work via platforms like OA institutional repositories and Wikipedia as an unparalleled means to engage students and turn the “banking” model of higher education on its head. I do so because have witnessed firsthand in many learning scenarios the effect that public readership can have on the research/writing process particularly among undergraduates, and I advocate for this practice whenever possible as an application of critical and feminist pedagogy in information literacy (IL).

open access logo via

As many in libraryland well know, OA publication of student work can be a hard sell among some faculty and administrators – case in point the recent (misguided and retrogressive, IMO) American Historical Association recommendation that History PhDs embargo their dissertations for a staggering six years. AHA’s decision is largely tenure-based, claiming damaging effects of OA dissertations on subsequent monographic publication through university or other presses – I’m not going to go into the AHA issue in depth in this venue, but a recent NYT article provides a good overview of AHA’s rationale and reactions from SPARC and others who argue against restrictive ETD sharing.

OA and undergrads

When applied to undergraduate work, the OA conversation is subtly different, and often settles on issues of questionable rigor and the validity of ‘expertise’ contributed publicly before an advanced degree is sought. I do not mean to downplay legitimate quality issues in some student output and/or concerns about premature publication of ongoing labwork, nor fail to acknowledge (largely exaggerated) fears about diminished potential of post publication that many faculty raise. In fact, these are all necessary and important conversations to have when seeking movement on the issue – the AHA decision and other reactive stances to OA as a legitimate and desirable form of  practice (let alone pedagogy) in higher education are the only way we will have a conversation large enough to shift the tide scholarship irrevocably toward open.

Moreover, reasoned and well-informed debate on OA issues is the best means to make invaluable faculty allies in the effort to open scholarship, which sets the background for the real purpose of this post – to share the most ringing faculty endorsement of the pedagogical value of OA student work I have ever heard. This comes in the form of a recent keynote address I had the privilege of attending at the USETDA conference by Char Miller, W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and a close collaborator. Char, myself, and CCL colleagues Sean Stone and Allegra Swift have worked together over the past three years to tweak and re-develop Pomona’s senior EA thesis seminar to become focused around mandatory inclusion of theses in Scholarship @ Claremont as a backdrop for IL instruction. Char’s talk in its entirety follows at the end of this post, but first a bit more background on our OA/IL collaboration.


In the EA thesis seminar and in our interactions with EA seniors, we approach OA-as-pedagogy from multiple angles, such as using the concept of ‘information privilege’ (the best conceptual phrasing I’ve come up with to make clear the distinction between working behind and outside the institutional paywall), encouraging appropriate attribution and permissions practices, and exhorting students to understand their own voices as valuable contributions to an ongoing interdisciplinary discourse. I will share more on this collaboration in the future, but suffice to say that the quality of student work has improved so noticeably in the EA seminar that grades have actually gone down (Char’s speech gives insight into this apparent paradox).

If you work with undergrads on any and all things information literacy, if you are involved in advocating for scholarly communications, OA, and/or institutional repositories, then Char’s talk below is required reading. His effect on the crowd of OA pundits at USETDA was galvanizing – if ever a room full of librarians was electric, this was it. I could tell you more about how he approached the issue(s), but he does so masterful a job of it there is little room for embellishment. The text of his talk is also available in PDF through Scholarship @ Claremont.

Riding the Wave: Open Access, Digital Publishing, and the Undergraduate Thesis

Opening Keynote: USETDA 2013 Conference – 25 July 2013

Char Miller, Pomona College[1]

I am deeply grateful to Marisa Ramirez and the USETDA for the opportunity to speak to you today, and doubly so to my esteemed colleagues Char Booth, Sean Stone, and Allegra Swift for schooling me on the intricacies of and pedagogical opportunities embedded within contemporary information literacy and digital librarianship. Their impact –collective and individual – on me, my students, and on the five-college Environmental Analysis program in Claremont, has been transformative.

But then librarians and libraries always have been an important part of my life. My mother was a librarian, starting as a volunteer at our elementary school in Darien CT, and ultimately organizing and stewarding the school district’s library system. So these special educational places, along with the local public library, became my second home. That was in part because of the enticing riches they contained (all those Bobbs Merrill childhood biographies, rip-roaring adventure tales, National Geographics; all those words!) And in part because of what they did not allow: in the library, my caterwauling parents had to Be Quiet. That silence was golden.

Yet the world of books my mother introduced me to and the hushed sanctuaries in which they were housed are not the same environments they once appeared to be. USETD librarians know much better than I how dramatic the shift has been, how tectonic has been its jolting power. The flow of information into and out of libraries – the kinds of data now available, the varied formats in which it is delivered, who has access to it (and who does not) – is changing the way we read, study, research, and archive this material, and the physical and virtual contexts in which these activities occur.[2]

A Tale of Two Theses

It has also upended how we teach, or at least it should. As an example of this overturning, consider the context in which two undergraduate theses were researched, written, and completed – 36 years apart.

1975 – That was the year I researched and wrote my senior thesis at Pitzer College, the youngest of the Claremont Consortium. It probed the political activism of Alfred Mitchell Bingham, editor and publisher of Common Sense, a left-of-center magazine in the New Deal era that spoke to and for those who hoped to push President Franklin Roosevelt into enacting even more progressive reforms. That project was the impetus for my dissertation, “Fathers and Sons: The Bingham Family and American Reform,” an exploration of five generations of that distinguished family, which included missionaries in the Pacific, a Connecticut senator who earlier had rediscovered Machu Picchu, and Alfred Bingham’s son, Jonathan, a civil rights lawyer who had been implicated in the failed effort to free George Jackson from San Quentin prison. Luckily, Temple University Press thought it had the makings of a book, and after considerable revisions, the volume appeared in 1982.[3]

That’s a wonderful trajectory, to be sure, but what about the thesis itself? How was it written and evaluated? Who has read it and where now is it located? There was no required thesis class at Pitzer when I was a student there, no formal way by which I was introduced into the mysteries – as they then appeared – of academic scholarship. When the project was completed, I defended it in the office of my first reader, political scientist Lucian Marquis, with three historians also squeezed into that tiny space. They read my thesis, my mother and father may have done so, but I cannot imagine anyone else has because it was not – and is not – available. A colleague at Pitzer mentioned that a copy is located in that college’s archives, and I know I donated mine to Special Collections of the Honnold/Mudd Library of the Claremont Colleges; either way, it is interred.

2011 – My students’ experience with the thesis process is decidedly different. Consider another Pitzer graduate, Mary Ferguson’11, who wrote her study of “Sediment Removal from the San Gabriel Mountains” under my direction.” She enrolled in the required thesis class at Pomona College, EA 191, the syllabus of which included three class sessions with Information Literacy/Digital librarians (the aforementioned Booth, Stone, and Swift); she and her peers were required as well to set up subsequent meetings with subject-relevant reference librarians to learn more about the tools and data sets that available to them. The first in-class assignment that Mary and her compatriots completed was to read and critique earlier theses as a way to introduce them to the level of analysis their predecessors had achieved (or not), to enter into an intellectual dialog with these young scholars, and to set the baseline for their work to come. Over the semester, the students also presented their work to their peers, including a final public presentation before the campus and community. The final requirement, which I instituted in 2011, was the posting of the finished thesis on The Claremont Colleges Library’s open-access site,

It turns out that this latter requirement has proved to have pedagogic legs, that is, it is continuing to affirm the students’ evolving sense of accomplishment. “By the way,” Mary wrote me by happenstance in May 2013, “my thesis has been doing surprisingly well, at last count it had about 270 downloads and I was listed as one of the most popular authors in both the Forest Management Commons and Natural Resources Economics Commons.”[4]

Mary’s scholarship is not the most heavily downloaded by any means:

As impressive as those numbers are, deciphering their significance is difficult as it is not yet possible to determine who is downloading the theses and to what end they are putting this work. That aside, the most striking result is what this information conveys to the students. Knowing that so many people ware reading her work led Mary Ferguson to recognize its ongoing value, confirmation for why the Environmental Analysis Program decided that all senior theses must be posted on “I wish I had more time with it to add more content and polish it up a bit, but I’m thinking of writing some sort of follow up on the whole thing.” Open Access opened her up to a world to which she did not know she could contribute.[5]

Why Push Open Access for Undergraduate Research?

Open Access (OA) is largely associated with faculty scholarship. Faculty and librarians have been using OA as a way to break down for-profit publishing monopolies and the insidious barriers that this has created for the creation, transmission, distribution, and consumption of ideas and information.

SPARC – the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition – has been a powerful advocate for such openness. Because, as it notes, “Different stakeholders in the system of scholarly communications can and will benefit from no restricted access to research and data,” its list of OA’s advantages is definitive and revelatory[6]

  • Researchers as authors: immediate visibility for research output and thus increased visibility and usage of their results. Open Access may even lead to an increase of impact.
  • Researchers looking for information: access to literature everywhere, not only from a campus but also from any site with wifi access.
  • Funding agencies: increased return on investment (ROI), increased visibility.
  • Universities & research institutes: greater visibility, clearer management information.
  • Libraries: increased access for target audience, financially a more attractive model than the current subscription model.
  • Teachers & students: unrestricted access to material, enriched education, allowing equality of learning in poor as well as in rich nations.
  • Science: enhanced and accelerated research cycle.
  • Citizens & society: access to knowledge / access to the results of publicly funded research.
  • Enterprises: access to critical information.
  • Publishers: transparent business model, ultimate online article distribution, ultimate visibility for articles.

What SPARC has done, and brilliantly so, is to identify the universe of idea generation and denote who should control its meaning, flow, and accessibility. Yet this listing also creates a top-down dynamic of its own, no less inimical than that which it purports to disrupt. It privileges faculty control over the production of knowledge. These individuals, and the professional organizations to which they belong, are the experts, the key definer of what constitutes legitimate research and knowledge.

This privilege and status grants them power, power that is then revealed in the most common critiques of undergraduate (and graduate) OA publication. Some, but not all, scientific disciplines fear releasing data before the faculty is ready to publish. In the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences there is also assertion that student scholarship is immature and unpolished, drafts not-ready-for-primetime. These worries embody as well the often unstated anxiety that if the faculty’s name is associated with an undergraduate thesis posted on a digital commons, then its perceived quality may undercut the faculty’s academic standing. So concerned is the American Historical Association about OA publication that it is promoting  a six-year embargo on all history Ph.D dissertations; argued in the language of protecting junior colleagues’ intellectual property rights, its logic is specious and guild-centric and has been receiving considerable pushback from librarians and scholars.[7]

In its own small way, the senior thesis class I teach is designed to break down some of these ill-advised barriers to the dissemination of knowledge. EA 191 challenges the SPARC and AHA hierarchical dynamic through its requirement that all seniors post their theses on It grants privilege and power to student authors, gives them space to assert their intellectual agency, allows them to enter the academic conversation, and, as Mary Ferguson has come to see, maybe even alter some professorial paradigms. The class also proposes that students have the capacity to produce and distribute their ideas and arguments with the same kind of open access that many faculty profess to value in their professional lives. Open Access empowers all scholars, not just those with a Ph.D appended to their last names.

Building from the Bottom, Up

Even as it confronts some of the guild-like qualities governing the source of knowledge and information, EA 191 also offers students a real-world immersion in the complicated processes by which ideas are generated and then revised and then placed before an audience.

The students develop research proposals in the spring of their junior year, rework these over the summer even as (I hope) they are conducting relevant research into their topics to verify their subject matter and to build the requisite data they will employ to sustain their arguments. Their subjects are often drawn from a rich mix of personal fascination and academic experience (some of which are derived from initial research while on program-specific study-abroad programs), and as they wrangle this interdisciplinary array of material into manageable form and narrative focus, they are by definition learning too that their need to be accountable for their claims is part of the larger process by which they will remain active, life-long learners and engaged citizens.

That said, they are not operating in a vacuum. The students are in constant dialog with their faculty readers and their peers (and the source instructor). They are in contact with the librarians in and out of class, safety nets that support their work but which are not designed to do more than that. Indeed, the real goal is for the faculty to step back from the process, to be guides on the side that allows for a relinquishing of authority that in turn allows students to assert their agency.

With that newfound power comes responsibility; with Open Access comes exposure. That is also built into the course’s pedagogical ambitions, for OA creates a clarifying urgency that leads these already ambitious students to dig deeper into primary and secondary sources, to think harder about their meaning and value to their scholarship, and to argue more effectively and write more forcefully. Underlying this engagement is a healthy mix of pride, drive, and ambition, fear and anxiety, commitment, conviction, and uncertainty – a mixture that is no less a part of every writers experience.

Assessing Student Success

Not all success can or should be measured by grades, but one of the surprising consequences of integrating a significant library component into the class, with the added dollop of the OA requirement, is that the average grade for EA 191 has declined:

2008 – 3.93

2009 – 3.73

2010 – 3.76

2011 – 3.43

2012 – 3.50

That may seem counter-intuitive, especially in an age of grade inflation, but in fact it is a logical outcome of the course’s more robust set of interventions and requirements. Faculty readers know the training students have received from the librarians on research, information literacy, and attribution/citation – they have higher expectations for what the students can be expected to accomplish and so have toughened up their standards even as the students themselves are working at a higher level. The awarding of fewer solid As, in this case, actually means that students are writing more effectively and that faculty are utilizing tougher evaluative rubrics.

A more rigorous assessment of student outputs is also underway. In conjunction with Claremont librarians Booth, Stone, and Margaret Hogarth, the EA Program is conducting a rubric-based assessment of undergraduate theses. Starting in the spring of 2013, a group of librarians and EA-affiliated faculty meet for a norming session, discussing their reactions to a senior thesis read in common. The group then sampled a random set of six theses each year from 2010 to 2012 across the Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, & Sciences to score them relative to the Claremont Colleges Library Information Literacy Rubric. In August 2013 the group will meet to discuss results and plan responses to upgrade and/or tighten relevant elements of EA 191.

Scaling Up This Model?

It is not clear how easy it would be to replicate this model on other campuses under different conditions. That is particularly true of the OA aspect of the class, its insistence that students participate directly and publicly in academic debates. Among the most daunting impediments is the faculty’s sense of power and privilege, the ingrained faith that their expertise grants them authority over the construction of knowledge, its production, distribution, and consumption. This resistance, conscious and unconscious, may be more likely at research universities than at teaching-centered liberal-arts colleges such as the Claremont Consortium, but here too there is often a reflexive privileging of the faculty’s primacy.

That clout is receiving scrutiny from another direction that OA librarians can make use of in their efforts to integrate OA into campus culture. Over the past decade or so, accreditation organizations have transformed how they evaluate the success of American colleges and universities, and the metrics they now impose now longer focus on what classes faculty teach (inputs) but on how they students learn and demonstrate that new knowledge (outputs). This has had the healthy consequence of decentering faculty and (re)asserting the student experience as the core of the educational enterprise. That being the case, these new rubrics offer OA librarians a handy rhetorical device for opening up a conversation with departments and programs about the possibility of advancing similarly integrative concepts in the classroom and through OA posting of student research; every download signals at least in part that others see value in a student project or thesis, a mark of how well these young authors have absorbed and reflected on their education.

This principled effort to build a more open and inclusive academic environment as part of the senior capstone process must come conjoined with a set of classroom experiences that make full use of the skills, insights, and talents of information-literacy and digital librarians. If their expertise is not built into a thesis class’ goals and objectives, if the values of OA are not inculcated into the students’ experience as they research, write, and publish their theses, the end results probably will not contribute substantively to the larger debates in the academy or the community. We will have failed to empower this rising generation of writers and critics, and as such the resulting theses might as well remain, as mine has, in a filing cabinet.

[1] Char Miller is W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, Claremont, CA. In 2013, he was a recipient of the college’s Wig Distinguished Professor Award for excellence in teaching. His recent publications include On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013); he also is co-author of Death Valley National Park: A History (2013), and co-editor of Between Ruin and Restoration: An Environmental History of Israel (2013). This essay constitutes a revised version of his keynote address to the US Electronic Theses and Dissertations Association annual convention, “Waves of Change,” Claremont, CA, July 25, 2013.

[2] See for example, Stephanie Davis-Kahl and Merinda Kaye Hensley, eds., Common Ground at the Nexus of Information Literacy and Scholarly Communication, (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2013).

[3] Char Miller, Fathers and Sons: The Bingham Family and the American Mission, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

[4] Mary Ferguson to Char Miller, May 29, 2013, email communication; her thesis has since topped 300 downloads.

[5] Ibid; for a closer look at the pedagogical implications of Open Access and student research, see Char Booth, “Project Curve, Part Seven: Open Access Publishing for Learner Engagement”; and Char Booth, “Breaking the Bank: Library Publishing for Learner Engagement,” presentation at SXSW Interactive 2012, slides and audio available at

[7] Marisa L. Ramirez, Joan T. Dalton, Gail McMillan, Max Read, and Nancy H. Seamans, “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers,” available online at; Jennifer Guiliano, “I’ll see your open access and raise you two book contracts: or why the AHA should rethink its policy,” available online at; “The historians proposed embargo on dissertations,” available online at

Posted by: char booth | 3 July 2013

MYOB (make your own badge).

general awesomeness badge, immersion twt. by char booth.

general awesomeness badge, immersion twt.

I’m joining the ranks of those increasingly interested in emerging work around digital badging as an incentivization, engagement, assessment, and credentialing tool in online and f2f instruction. This (along with MOOCs, the lumbering giant that apparently never needs a nap) was a topic of considerable interest at LITA’s Top Technology Trends panel, which I had the pleasure of participating in this year.

For those totally new to badges, an EDUCAUSE 7 Things publication gives the fundamentals, not to mention ye olde WikipediaMozilla is heavy in the game, as is the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC, who recently recommended a series of best design principles for badge creation. Also, Bohyun Kim, Nicole Pagowsky, and assorted awesome others gave a library gamification session at ALA Annual.

repeat offender punch card

repeat offender punch card, claremont colleges library.

My take is that badges are an excellent means to engage and assess learners using a game-oriented way, creating and communicating clear criteria to be metand tasks to be mastered in order to progress towards milestones one would actually want to achieve. Developing a series of opt-in as well as requisite badges in a formal (or informal) instruction context gives learners agency to determine their own interests and level of engagement: a far cry from a one-size-fits-all assignment + here’s your B- type of approach. Not that all badges are born digital or even need to exist digitally, mind you: they are as simple as gold stars, card punches, and any other way you can imagine to recognizing participation and encourage more of it: teachers and trainers in libraryland (and everywhere else, for that matter) will recognize the power and importance of such things.

A tweet from a #ala2013ttt audience member @katieum summarizes this well: “As a librarian & #girlscout leader, I’m fascinated by digital badging. Going to be fun see that develop.” I can think of no better underlying metaphor for what badges represent: a recognizable and desirable mark of achievement shared among a community of practice as evidence of merit, skill, and/or accomplishment. The shot to the right is from a simple “repeat offender” incentive card system for staff training I created at Claremont: easy and effective – attend seven times, earn a modest gift card.

girl scout

thanks to the american memory project.

what makes a badge?

From my perspective the key competencies needed to create a viable badging system are content expertise, assessment acumen, insight into learner motivation, design skill, technical savvy, and (last but not least) a decent sense of humor.

I recently created a series of eight simple badges for the new ACRL Immersion Teaching with Technology program (hereafter TwT), currently in its first active iteration and going gangbusters as far as I’m concerned. I can say without a doubt that creating these badges has brought much-needed levity into an otherwise grueling course design process, and has engaged a new perspective on how to reward and recognize work within a digital learning context.

More on the TwT badges below, but I wanted to mention right out that the best use of digital badging I have seen in libraryland (like, to a jealousy-inducing degree) comes from Andrew Battista, who developed a wonderful course called Curation Culture that used digital badges heavily throughout. I cannot really express how impressed I am with Andrew’s forward-thinking work in this area: he has a forthcoming chapter in (text title tba from McFarland Press) on badging and I can pretty much guarantee an engaging read when it’s available. This quote from Andrew sums up his approach to creating badges in the Curation Culture course:

[I developed] these badges via the WordPress/BuddyPress platform. BuddyPress has a secondary plug-in called Achievements, which allows you to create and award badges.  What I like about it is that once someone is granted an account on the blog, Buddypress automatically creates a kind of digital portfolio. To make the badges, I had a couple of photoshop-savvy colleagues help me generate some basic swatches and then start coming up with badge concepts. Once we got rolling, it was fairly easy to make multiple badges. I think in the end, we generated something like 50-60 of them.  Then, once you upload them to Buddypress, you can stipulate under which conditions a badge is awarded.  The blog admin(s) can either award badges manually by assigning them to specific users, or they can be awarded automatically (I think a good badge system must have both, to motivate participation). For instance, on my site, users automatically get a badge for uploading a profile pic, writing a blog post, etc.). You can also keep some achievements hidden, which I think is a good element (here, I basically just took cues from Foursquare; it’s always fun to earn a badge you didn’t know existed!). I assigned a point value to each badge so the leaderboard/competition factor would work. This was somewhat arbitrary, but in general I tried to keep in consideration factors like how easy/hard I thought it would be for students to earn a badge, how much creativity was required, how important a certain platform or literacy was to our class, etc.).

– via email exchange, Mar 16 2013

myob & twt

cohort awesomeness badge

cohort awesomeness badge, immersion twt.

I made the TwT badges using the lowest barrier to entry (technically speaking) open badge creation platform I have been able to find, (plus Adobe Illustrator for the graphics). In Immersion TwT participants have already received their First Day Survivor badge, a Cohort Awesomeness badge for amazing group cohesion the our f2f workshop, a few have been deemed Generally Awesome, and those who engage in good faith will be awarded a badge related to each Module as they move through the course, plus a graduation badge. All can be integrated into Mozilla’s Badge Backpack, which is a place to store and share the badges one accumulates from different courses and contexts. allows nominations, generates badge redemption codes, and allows for easy badge editing and activity tracking. What is does not offer is easy/seamless integration into more advanced aspects of badge implementation within formal course sites and learning management settings, such as the leaderboards that are key to demonstrating achievement and inserting a game learning element of competition.

One drawback to implementing a badging systems in resource poor or lo-fi contexts is the technical competency needed to create an auto-populating leaderboard and badge tracking/awarding system using a course platform and Mozilla’s Open Badge framework. Curation Culture used the WordPress plugin, for example – my TwT collaborator Tiffini Travis and I have found a few examples badge leaderboards in Canvas (the LMS we’re using for TwT), but with no ready plug-in available our own leaderboard would be a significant manual management task.

I’m starting to see the potential for learner-developed badges, where the possibilities are somewhat limitless and quite exciting: for example, in our f2f TwT workshop day that begins the five-week online portion of the #immtwt2013 course, several participants asked if they could create their own badge for the program: a brilliant request that I’m not building into the course as an open option. Very interested to see the results: our first cohort is impressive, so I have no doubt that those that come through will be awesome.

bitter end badge by char booth.

bitter end badge by char booth.

the bitter end

In this age of rubrics, dashboards, and evidence-based-everything, it is our obligation as educators to breathe as much life into the (inevitable and important) evaluation process as humanly possible – as much for our own sake as that of our learners.

The significance of digital badging and its relation to the core disruption offered by MOOCs can perhaps be easily overlooked. In a formal credentialing system as tightly controlled (e.g., accreditation) as higher education, any legitimate means of awarding evidence of competencies earned external to this system (for example, a badge in basic coding granted upon completing a massive enrollment or Khan Academy course is a significant departure from traditional practice. If digital badges developed using Mozilla’s Open Badge Framework feature rigorous and reasonable criteria, there may indeed emerge a craft accomplishment system in which formal affiliation with an institution is not necessary for recognized skills. And address the soemething-for-nothing fears held by many where badging for real skills is concerned.

A little prezzie for all of you who made it this far, create a account and nominate yourself to automatically claim a bitter end badge.

Posted by: char booth | 6 June 2013

when DIY = sigh.

Backlogging again. As time wears on I find I’m starting to rather like being late to the party: not only am I well rested, I can take my time getting ready.


This post follows a relatively recent thread on libraries and DIY (if not exactly in response to it). On the core issue of what-is-DIY-and-why the Lead Pipers, Meredith Farkas, Brian Mathews and others have provided a characteristically compelling/comprehensive spectrum of perspectives, and I’m grateful to them for scoping the issue and providing a bit of vs. dialogue. I suppose that my own meta-take is that DIYbrary is (more than anything) a discourse unto itself, one that encourages librarians and others in rapidly transitioning professions to have important conversations about productivity, power, style, hierarchy, and scrappiness.

make do badge featuring swiss army knife by char booth. In this sense I’m a big believer in doityourselfism. Making/do is a tremendously useful mindset, one that has liberated many forms of closed and credentialed expertise through the collective accumulation of know-how. Many of the projects I’ve loved working on most over my career (particularly at Claremont) have materialized from this orientation: doing for oneself/ves is an empowering recognition of the endless utility of our hands and brains, a celebration of our collective ability to auto-didact, and a practical acknowledgement that developing the wherewithal to bootstrap is often the only way to pull something off.

Which is exactly where DIY-as-movement in an institutional context gets interesting. Instead of adding to the whither-DIY discussion, I’m interested thinking about when and why self-doing does and doesn’t make sense in the context of structured day-to-day work, which (for better or worse) is the prevailing backdrop of library doing. If the root of doing it yourself is old fashioned getting shit done, in a complex bureaucratic organization (read: libraries/higher ed) this almost always requires leveraging local resources and engaging defined layers of collaboration based on some sort of hierarchical structure – or, making the conscious decision not to.  If our autonomous actions are to be intentional and successful, we need to think hard about how DIY orientations translate to individual/collective behavior within organizations that so often expect us and our colleagues to DITY (do it this way).


As Micah Vandergrift notes in a contribution to the pre-ACRL panel ITLWTLP post, the political origins of DIY are rooted in moving outside traditional zones of power/ownership in order to diminish dependence on obsolescent commodities and the overtly complicated (or impossible) means of repairing them. By circumventing that which controls media and messaging, one decreases reliance on the status quo and defines a new space of experience that resists the relentless unskilling of the general population.

Applying this ethic of self-sufficience and structural independence in a bureaucracy comprised of individuals of largely unlike mind doing work along demarcated lines of expertise is fascinatingly problematic. Workplace applications of DIY should raise critical questions about impact and intention: When is adherence to bureaucratic process the best means of doing something, and how do you discern when going it independently is the wisest/only option? Speaking from experience, it often comes down to a negotiation: what, precisely, am I circumventing, and to what end? When does a scrappily successful model project help a mired organization let go of calcified processes in favor of new working models? Perhaps most importantly, Is some part of me forbearing collaboration out of an ego-driven expectation of resistance and/or a need to micromanage outcomes?

the darker side of DIY

I fully acknowledge that in the working world doing it yourself is often the only option on the table when you need to get something done. One of the best faces of self-doism is creativity combined with clear-headed discernment that (especially in a down economy) the resources available to complete a given task may neither be adequate nor aesthetically/politically aligned with your vision of what they should be. In my own work, however, DIY has sometimes devolved into a mantra I mutter to justify my unwillingness to detach claws from every aspect of every project (most often in design and writing). In an organizational context this amounts to antisocial behavior. So ask yourself: when a task you might take on solo/extrastructurally looms, does it make more sense to consider broader engagement or even LSEDIFY (let someone else do it for you)?

The DIY ethic is very much collaborative, but can at times be overly selective in the alliances it is willing to make in workspaces. As the self-identified movement has gained momentum, I have recognized a troubling undertone in some of its (particularly professional) discourse and behaviors. Roughly, it follows that what I do myself will be inherently DISuperior. If I ask for input or permission someone is likely to DIThwart me. This may very well be the case, but part of what is going to keep libraries thriving is a conscious and ongoing effort to radically restructure not only our own attitudes and working models, but those of the institutions we represent. While a Y-focused approach (whether engaged individually or in a small team) might result in a downright awesome end product, it may also underutilize collegial expertise, inhibit skill sharing, speak in unfamiliar terms, and forestall the development of personal and/or professional community. Worst of all, it can come off as DIExclusive or downright DIArrogant.

Like any acronomized cultural gestalt DIY can result in subtle zealotries, such as giving a type-A personality license to thwart what is often the most difficult, productive, and rewarding thing one can do in a working context: reaching out to people who don’t think like you who might bring other skills to the table. This is like wearing blinders to human potential, a supremacy of vision that stunts the capacities others have labored to develop that usually serve to keep them employed. Which is, needless to say, not respectful of community expertise and rarely if ever productive. DIY is a slippery business if it risks refusing to perceive or acknowledge (human) institutional resources out of a fear of shifting, slowing, or compromising one’s vision even slightly.

when not to do it yourself

image of riding bicycle

I need to step outside of libraries for a moment to propose framework for making non-stubborn, human capital-affirming choices about collaboration and outsourcing (e.g., exercising nuance and patience in lieu of ramming something through if/when it makes more sense).

Personally, I love knowing how to do things and learning how to do things I don’t know how to do, but I also love supporting people who dedicate themselves to doing something for a living. Sometimes I know full well that I can do it myself, but I want to pay or barter or work with someone who can often (but not always) do it better because they doitallthedamntime.

An example: I ride bikes. I’ve ridden the same bike, in fact, for over ten years. it is an ugly-beautiful and scary-fast seven speed built for me back in the day by an awesome trans bike racer and mechanic in Portland, whose craft I respect every time I take it out. Because I ride so much and so fast, said bike often needs work. I could tune/fix it up myself, but aside from small maintenance tasks and flats I usually don’t. Instead, I acknowledge the fact that I have accumulated the means to take my busted ride to a shop or friend-mechanic and pay them to work on it. Affirming hard-earned expertise and supporting hard-earned livelihood with hard-earned collateral is just as awesome as getting my hands greasy at home. This does not have to be a monetary exchange, mind. Whether I fork over collard greens or cash, I still revel in the decision to pay someone skilled to DIFM.

surfboard repair

A slightly different example: I surf. I’m also relatively new to the pastime, which means I reliably bash up the boards I ride. Minor dings I have taught myself to repair, sanding and patching jagged fiberglass so it doesn’t cause a cut or waterlog. However, when I, say, knock out a glassed-in fin on the reef, I am forced to admit that I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to gut and fill foam and re-glass. I might seriously wish that I could do it myself due to the expense and turnaround time, but in this case the tools and materials required are simply so expensive/steep that I have to take the project to people covered in toxic dust (hopefully) wearing facemasks.

man repairing surfboard.

image courtesy of the ding king in encinitas, ca.

the joy of LSEDIFY

These are two relatively clean-cut examples of when DIY is not the best (or even a feasible) route. To bang one’s head against work/life projects that could benefit from support or mentorship amounts to a kind anti-inclusivity, and moreover risks damaging the craft economy. Instead of an expression of disempowerment, privilege, or sloth, the LSEDIFY approach can be a way to support a reciprocal network of skills/expertise, and, incidentally, free yourself up to do other things (some of which hopefully involve doing nothing whatsoever). Like surfing when your bike is in the shop. Or writing a post, or sleeping, or meditating… speaking yet again from experience, DIY often results in doing way too much.

Self-doism is about pushing your boundaries in order to revise your view of your own skills. The same thing can be said for outsourcing, collaborating, and co-making, only in reverse: these configurations compel us to assess and perceive the strengths of others and bring them to bear to enrich projects and products. Professionally, building/delegating support for a extra-structural project by engaging existing structural channels (or by advocating for new ones) can make a deliverable stronger while changing the system itself. In life and work, the next time you endeavor to create for yourself consider if there isn’t something about the process that would better be done with (or by) others.

There are gradations of advocating to create the work we envision within any structure or system, and craft in communication and leveraging of local resources are tremendously important habits to cultivate toward this end. The best thing those of us with radical visions for librarianship, etc. can do is understand our organizational cultures and work in smart ways to change them for the greater good. There are so many good examples of this happening in libraryland that listing them is a challenge. One well-documented tech-focused effort is an agile mobile site design project undertaken by cross-departmental staff at the UCSD Library – in essence, Lia Friedman, Matt Critchlow, and Dan Suchy convincingly advocated for their organization’s blessing to circumvent all of its stopgaps in order to create a much-needed project in record time.

starting it yourself

Another instance of DIY-in-application in very different organizational contexts. Self-doism gets a lot of productive play is in outreach and communication/marketing: the source of most of my own makery successes. This is also an area where libraries are finally starting to direct the resources and personnel needed to turn out high-quality materials. The centralized message management that often follows the latter can create the potential for conflict among those who want to self-do and those who want them to self-don’t. The same tension exists in all areas that are professionally designated yet intersect with autonomous efforts: tech, teaching, management. Formal and informal doers in these scenarios can coexist with a little clarity and mutual recognition.

For example: my sister Caroline Booth is Communications & Marketing Director at the University of North Texas Libraries, and since she started her position has led an award-winning team that’s churns out project after awesome project, many of which you can see on the UNT Lib’s FB page. She is a trained journalist and designer, and brings a ton of skills to the table that the average librarian simply does not possess. A difficult part of her job is convincing her colleagues to STOP doing everything themselves so that her organization can market itself with a consistency and style they have seen fit to prioritize by virtue of creating her position. In essence, her job is to be a professional let me do that for youer, determining what people will need to make the most of their services and events and creating into awesome materials/messages to support them. She is charged with keeping an eye on how her organization represents itself, but she will also totally back people who want to create something specialized or makery and even help them pull it off… if they simply ask.

Conversely, at my organization we homegrow most of our marketing materials because we do not have an in-house Caroline. My sister is trained in communications; most of us are not. We slap things together and make do, and also manage to win awards for our efforts (albeit soon-to-be-announced honorable mentions). Our style is a little rough around the edges, which thankfully tends to work for us. We were, however, recently lucky to score a graduate student employee with some graphic design skills, who can take a draft image or flyer and fix it up a bit, thus freeing much needed minutes for the rest of us to do everything else under the sun.

Two perfect illustrations that in a working context someone(s) else can often improve on the things we start ourselves. To achieve a good DIY/LSEDIFY balance is critical to understand the roles of the designated expertise holders and how to work with them (or as respectfully around them as humanly possible). Taking it as far as you can before delegating/inviting collaborators is often just as good (or better) than self-doing all the way.

doing it however

At one point in his startup/DIY post Brian asks “what does an ideal DIYed Library look like?” That’s a fair question and one with about 1 to the 10th answers: to attempt an reply in the abstract is to fall into the more-talking-less-doing pattern. Rather, I think that those of us who DISelfidentify should acknowledge that in the context of formal work we’re embodying more of a mindset than a movement. And if our mindsets translate to behavior in reference to organizational others, we can and should examine the motivations behind our motions to determine if DIY is helping us advocate for a new way of working and breaking down silos of expertise (instead of perpetuating them).

Librarians are by nature aware of cultural currents, and we are given to self-consciously reflecting on that through which we swim. This is a good and useful tendency, and one that helps us understand ourselves in relation to the wider world. However, I have a cautious reaction to movements that edge toward overt self-referentiality and/or oppositional definition. They run the risk of diverting energy into their own crystallization rather than into doing itself, which is a bit like instagramming food until it gets cold. Not to mention that non-inclusive identification with an emerging movement like DIY can sound like a clubhouse door locking to everyone else.

I think I wrote this post because I now find myself in the position of manager and consensus/capacity builder, whereas in the past I was hired to figuratively cowboy things out on the side. This means that beyond small testbed projects that hopefully have a broader impact, I develop initiatives that require the effort not only of myself and a fabulous core team of colleagues but staff from across the organization to succeed. Put another way, I am constantly orchestrating situations that can either feel to others like twisting arms or holding hands. And let me tell you, the latter is so very preferable (if not quite always possible).

What I have discovered is that in an organizational context the way to DIY is to encourage reasonable and collective creativity that checks ego, recognizes resources, and challenges bottlenecks. Building productive community and making smart decisions about getting shit done should mean connecting with those outside immediate political/cultural/professional positions in order to challenge our own exclusivity and broaden the base of engagement. If what DIY in libraries (or wherever) ends up looking like is a inclusive personal orientation to collaboration, autonomy, and shifting (for lack of a better term) the system, it is essential that it develops in close proximity to colleagues and coworkers that might not grammatically or philosophically feel like capitalizing any part of ‘doing.’

Thanks as always to Lia Friedman for untangling this jumble.

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