Hampshire College thoughts

On Tuesday, January 15, I received a message from Hampshire College president Miriam (Mim) Nelson with the subject line “Important Message from Hampshire College.” In it, Mim wrote of “our intent to find a long-term partner that can help us achieve a thriving and sustainable future for Hampshire” and said “As we embark on this process we’re also carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall.” (See additional FAQ.) [Edited to add, new FAQ, 1/21/19]

1923470_504686557158_5679_nWhat? I was aware, of course, that Hampshire’s endowment is paltry compared to the other schools in the Five College consortium (Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and UMass), and that Hampshire tends to produce alumni with strong dedication to social justice causes; we’re more likely to become scientists, teachers, or documentarians than investment bankers. Thus, in addition to having a much smaller alumni base than many other liberal arts schools (Hampshire was founded in 1970), the alumni it does have don’t have the deepest pockets.

I forwarded the e-mail to some fellow alums, two of whom immediately and independently made the same joke(?) about Hampshire being acquired by Amazon. More likely, we thought, we’d be folded into UMass somehow, but there hasn’t been any indication of that. (Amherst’s president Biddy Martin released a statement saying, “I hope it will be possible for Hampshire to identify a positive way forward for its community and the greater good. The college has a valuable history of experimentation in teaching and learning and a longstanding relationship with our college.” ‘K, thanks. Smith’s president, Kathleen McCarthy, released a statement that said even less.)

News outlets picked up the story quickly; I saw it in Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. The Globe ran a more detailed piece about the history of the college on January 19, “Protests, Frisbees, and Deep Thinking – Hampshire College Has Carved an Offbeat Path.”

Sunset at HampshireThe news also galvanized discussion in the Hampshire Alumni Facebook group, which also includes some current Hampshire staff (they graduated from Hampshire and now work there). No one has much more information, except that enrollment has been falling slightly – a problem many small liberal arts colleges are facing, as demographics change and high school graduating classes are smaller – and tuition is expensive. This is also true of many other schools, but Hampshire is particularly sensitive to even small fluctuations because its endowment can’t provide much of a cushion.

There are complaints about the PR, and how the announcement was made, but there have also been sensible responses to those complaints: chiefly, that the president and the board are being honest about Hampshire’s financial situation and are being proactive in seeking out a “strategic partner” now. Also, accepting an incoming class when it’s uncertain that Hampshire will be the same in four years necessities consideration from an ethics standpoint. (It’s true there have also been personal remarks and conspiracy theories. I don’t see a reason not to take Mim and the board at face value; the idea that anyone is working to bring down the college from within is ludicrous.)

First snow, Hampshire treesI don’t believe there is one single perfect college for anyone; if you’re college-bound, there are probably plenty of places, or at least more than one, where you can learn and thrive and be happy. There are a lot of things that I learned and experienced at Hampshire that I would have found elsewhere too: meeting people from different places and backgrounds, discovering new music, exploring a different area of the country, maybe even frisbee (yes, I played ultimate) and slam poetry.

Any good education introduces you to new ideas and encourages you to remain open-minded enough to accept them; any good education should prod you to think critically, dig deeper, do your own research, question the answers, question authority. I don’t know the extent to which other schools do this, as I didn’t go to them (except, I did take classes at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and UMass; all Five College students can take classes at any of the other colleges, and I definitely took advantage of this. Those classes were academically rigorous – mostly – but more straightforward, more like high school).

4pm sunset at HampshireHere’s what I got at Hampshire that I don’t think I would have gotten elsewhere: I learned to take the initiative and be persistent – good qualities to have in a job search or when doing a job. I learned to make connections where there didn’t at first appear to be any, and that I didn’t necessarily have to narrow my field of study if I could just make these connections; my thesis combined literature, history, and photography. I learned that I could write a thesis over 100 pages long, guided by a committee chair who mostly listened, then asked the crucial one or two questions that guided my next week’s worth of work (thank you, Aaron Berman).

I also met such interesting people who were incredibly passionate about what they were studying. No one had to jump through hoops for two years before they got to learn about what they were really interested in; you started right away. In high school, lunch conversation might be about the homework for this class or that, but at Hampshire, no one was ever doing the same thing: one person was studying math so far beyond my comprehension that now I just remember it had something to do with shapes (maybe?); someone else was welding metal in the shop; someone was building bicycles (and that wasn’t a class, that was just on the side); someone was taking a trip to the desert to study some kind of lichen(?) that grew on the rocks there; someone was writing, directing, and starring in a play; someone was studying the history of the AIDS crisis; someone built a telescope.

So I’m not surprised that “two-thirds of our graduates earn advanced degrees. And even as the world knows us by the success of our distinguished alums in the arts, the National Science Foundation ranks us among the top fifty schools whose graduates receive a PhD in science or engineering.” Hampshire students are intelligent, determined, fierce, funny, political, passionate. We’re curious in more than one sense of the word. (Yes, we also play frisbee and wear tie-dye and have all the hippie bumper stickers. I can always recognize a Hampshire car). But as Sig Roos, Hampshire alum and past board chairman, said in the Globe piece, “It seems like a time politically when people should be beating Hampshire’s door down to get in.”

Hampshire turns out problem solvers, free thinkers, people who have found their voices; in other words, precisely what the world needs right now.

View from the notch

All photos in this post were taken by me during my years as a student at Hampshire, 2003-2007.

Updated 1/27/19: See also “Cost Disease, the Demographic Cliff, and Hampshire College

Reviving the lost art of repair

In early September, the article “Libraries and the Art of Everything Maintenance” (Megan Cottrell, American Libraries, 9/1/2017) was the Library Link of the Day. The article featured a few public libraries that partnered with organizations such as Repair Cafe  and Fixit Clinic to encourage the repair of broken items, and teach people how to repair their own things.

There is so much to love about this idea. Together, libraries and Repair Cafe/Fixit Clinic:

  • help build a more sustainable world
  • fight the “throwaway” culture of obsolescence
  • encourage an interest in how things work
  • teach useful skills

For the past several years, libraries have been talking about Makerspaces – and in some cases, carving out space and buying 3D printers. While I think that 3D printers are amazing for specific purposes (like making teeth), I’m afraid a lot of them are used for churning out cheap plastic junk. They may serve as an introduction to design and robotics, which is not to be discounted…but I think the repair cafe/fixit clinic idea is so much more useful. After all, learning a skill comes easier when you have a purpose: learning a coding language, for example, will probably be a wasted effort unless there’s something you want to make with it.

In this scenario, a broken item – lamp, toaster, necklace, scooter – provides motivation for learning, the library provides space and coordinates the event, and the Repair Cafe or Fixit Clinic provides the volunteers (who may bring the tools of their trade with them). In the AL article, Cottrell writes, “The goal of the U-Fix-It Clinic [is] allowing people to repair broken items instead of throwing them away, but also inspiring them to learn more about the products they consume and how they work. The event is part of a larger movement across the globe working to help keep broken items out of landfills and revive the lost art of repair.”

Knowing how things work – and how to go about fixing them – is empowering; it’s useful knowledge.  In a piece for WGBH, “‘Fixit Clinics’ Help People Revive Their Broken Items,” Tina Martin interviewed the founder of Fixit Clinics, MIT grad Peter Mui, who said, “There’s a sense that [people] don’t have a choice when something breaks, there’s no repair people left anymore to fix this stuff.”

Mui wrote a guest blog post on ifixit.org, saying, “Once people start repairing, they start asking questions like ‘What went wrong?’, ‘Can it be fixed?’, and ‘How might it have been designed differently to avoid breaking in the first place?’ That last question is where we’re ultimately going with Fixit Clinic: to encourage products designed with maintenance, serviceability, and repairability in mind.”

As the things we use on a daily basis have become more complex (sometimes by necessity, sometimes not), design has become more opaque. I often think of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things while I’m working at the reference desk, explaining the “hamburger menu” to a patron, or helping them locate the miniscule, hidden power button on our new laptops. They often apologize, and I tell them it’s not their fault – it’s poor design. But as more and more of our things have microchips inside them, instead of parts we can see and tinker with, we’ve forgotten how to open things up and explore; we’ve given up on figuring out how things work – or why they stop working.

The mentality behind the Repair Cafe and the Fixit Clinic addresses these problems in a tremendously useful way. The Repair Cafe “About” page explains, “We throw away vast amounts of stuff….The trouble is, lots of people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves or they no longer know how. Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for the people who still have this practical knowledge, and against their will they are often left standing on the sidelines.”

The Fixit Clinic’s mission has similar themes: “Fixit Clinic conveys basic disassembly, troubleshooting, and repair skills using peoples’ own broken things as the vehicle. By sharing these skills while transferring them to others we teach critical thinking through the lens of our relationship to consumption and sustainability. We strive to demystify science and technology so that we can ultimately make better policy choices as a society.”

A community learning experience that brings people together to share skills and tools, and repair items that would otherwise end up in landfills and be replaced with new things: this is a perfect program for libraries to host. The Cambridge Public Library has partnered with the Repair Cafe in Cambridge already; I’d love for our library to do this as well, and I’m keeping the idea on the back burner. (The front burners are already occupied: I’ve just launched a cookbook club this fall, which is wonderful but a lot of work. If only we had more staff…)

Related:

The end of repair? 3/11/2013

The extinction timeline, 12/29/2014?)

 

Reading Passport: Book a Trip Around the World

Reading Passport
Reading Passport, 1994-1995

During the 1994-1995 school year, the school librarian (we had those, back then) issued the students a Reading Passport, which entitled (pun intended?) the owner to Book a Trip Around the World (pun definitely intended)! Because I am a highly organized pack rat whose mother had storage space in her garage until recently, I still have mine.

Like many of today’s popular reading challenges, students chose books in various categories (and got stickers for each book read. Who doesn’t love stickers?). Categories included classics, mystery, “true to life” (i.e. realistic), fantasy, humorous, adventure, historical fiction, animal, sports, and biography.

Some of these books I have entirely forgotten; others I remember vividly from re-reading them so often, and still adore – The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop, Matilda and The BFG by Roald Dahl, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Though it’s not on the Reading Passport, 1994-1995 was also the year I read Buffalo Brenda by Jill Pinkwater. I think it was the following school year when I first read Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and the year after that when I first read The Giver by Lois Lowry.

reading passport with stickers

Since 2007* when I first joined Goodreads and LibraryThing, I’ve kept a record of all my reading, but I’ve often wished for a lifelong record. I’m pleased to have unearthed this piece of my elementary school reading history, and grateful to the librarian who made it a fun experience worth documenting.

*TEN YEARS AGO.

 

 

Why the IMLS and LSTA grants are important

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and its Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants are vitally important to museums and libraries in every state. If you’re hazy on what IMLS does, please read my fellow librarian blogger’s post, “Save IMLS because libraries are essential,” in which she gives examples of many LSTA grants and argues eloquently for saving the IMLS.

Why does the IMLS need saving? It is one of the agencies that would be entirely cut under Trump’s budget proposal, along with PBS. (In case you aren’t already fervently in favor of preserving Sesame Street, read retired general Stanley McChrystal’s op-ed in favor of PBS in The New York Times.) For a quick analysis of the federal budget, current and proposed, check out Hank Green’s five-minute video, “Trump’s Budget Explained.”

 

Libraries in a Post-Truth World

On Thursday, January 26, I attended a one-day conference hosted by Phillips Academy in Andover called “Libraries in a Post-Truth World.” There was some helpful pre-conference reading about fake news and hoaxes, information overload, and media literacy:

Why America is Self-Segregating” and “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” by danah boyd, January 9 & 10, 2017

Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion,” Pew Research Center, December 15, 2016

The Real History of Fake News,” Columbia Journalism Review, December 15, 2016

At Sea in a Deluge of Data,” Alison J. Head and John Wihbey, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 7, 2014

Mike Barker, Director of Academy Research and Library Services at Phillips Academy, introduced the morning’s panelists:

John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy, and author
Mary Robb, Teacher, Media Literacy and Democracy, Andover High School
Adam Schrader, Former Facebook editor and news fact checker
Damaso Reyes, Program Coordinator, The News Literacy Project
Melissa Zimdars, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication at Merrimack College
Catherine Tousignant, English Instructor, Phillips Academy
Alison Head, PhD, Project Information Literacy
John Wihbey, Assistant Professor of Journalism and New Media at Northeastern University
Claire Wardle, First Draft News
Ben Sobel, Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University

The panelists were all informed and articulate, experts in their fields; they could have spoken for much longer, but we used the rest of the day for two presentation sessions (Damaso Reyes on The News Literacy Project and Checkology, Alison J. Head on Project Information Literacy), identifying areas of focus for the afternoon discussion, reforming into discussion topic groups, and reporting our results to the other participants.

“Librarians are good at ferreting out what exists and good at making partnerships. Librarians are in the right position to make an impact.” -Alison Head

I attended Damaso Reyes’ presentation on Checkology (“how to know what to believe”), a news literacy program designed for 6th-12th grade students. Reyes showed us videos created for the program (Peter Sagal was in one!) and guided us briefly through the four modules: (1) Filtering news and information; (2) exercising civic freedoms; (3) navigating today’s information landscape; and (4) how to know what to believe. Some key takeaways:

  • “Information literacy is not what it should be in our society, and that’s a threat to our democracy.”
  • When reading/listening to/watching news, ask: What is the primary purpose of this information? (To inform, to entertain, to convince, to provoke, etc.)
  • Consider the role of algorithms and personalization. The information you’re getting is filtered – think about how and why.
  • Trying to teach students to be skeptical, not cynical.
  • Critical thinking & skepticism is an important skill, and should not be outsourced to technology even if it could be (e.g. plugins). “We shouldn’t depend too much on technology to save us.”
  • What you share online has your credibility attached to it.
  • We are all susceptible to confirmation bias.
  • Society stops functioning if we can’t agree on some things (i.e. facts). A fact is something we can all agree on but it is also something we can independently verify.

After the presentation, we talked in small groups to come up with discussion topics for the afternoon. Two of the Phillips Academy librarians sorted our ideas into loose categories:

Partnerships & Collaboration with Faculty
Partnerships & Collaboration with Community
Professional Development
Fact, Truth, & Trust (I was in this group)
Access to Information
Lesson Plans
Teaching Approach
“Other”

I will be writing another blog post (or two) soon about the morning panel and the afternoon discussion. In the meantime, I’d like to share a handout I made for my library to accompany our display on media literacy. Here is the PDF of the tri-fold pamphlet: updated 2/16/17, 3/1/2017 – I have made a new version without the Robbins Library logo, with a Creative Commons license. Please feel free to use and share: 2017-01-fakenewsbrochure-update-2017-03

Designing Interactive Library Spaces and Collections

During the month of March, I took an online workshop called “Designing Interactive Library Spaces and Collections” through the Simmons School of Library and Information Science Continuing Education (SLIS CE) program. The brief course description was:

“Modern library practices and strategies are driving many libraries to rethink and redesign their spaces and their collections. This workshop will focus on how to design and deliver spaces and collections which facilitate and grow user interaction and engagement.”

I was torn between this one and “Graphic Design for Librarians,” but ultimately chose this one in case the other was too basic. (Did anyone take that one, or have any tips or great resources along those lines? Please share in the comments!)

The course requirements included some reading, posting to the discussion board each week, responding to other participants’ posts, and completing a final assignment. In the past, I’ve found that online discussion boards really enhanced a class experience, whether the class was blended or entirely online; in this case, however, only about four of us posted, and by chance our libraries were all different: academic, school, special, and public. Of course, some ideas work just as well in any of these settings, but with such specific cases, there were fewer transferable ideas than I had hoped. I was also disappointed that the workshop instructor did not participate or offer feedback.

She did, however, pull together some interesting reading (and video) and an overwhelming number of food-for-thought questions; the discussion board prompts (below) are only the tip of the iceberg. As usual with online learning, you get out of it what you put into it; anyone who answered every prompt and question would have produced a pretty thorough long-range plan for their library, at least in terms of designing the space and collection to promote interaction.

The first week’s discussion board, Designing for Engagement, asked participants:

Please discuss your current approach to user engagement. Include:

  • An overview of your current user engagement strategy and model, as well as your library’s definition of successful user engagement
  • The strengths and weaknesses of your spaces and physical layout
  • Your vision and goals for the future

The second week’s discussion board, Designing for Participation and Discovery, asked:

Discuss how you develop valuable and compelling opportunities for participation and discovery at your library:

  • What is the desired participatory experience?
  • What are your goals? What do you promote?
  • How would you like people to create, share, connect, etc. around your content?
  • Do you trust your users?
  • Are you comfortable with messy?

The third week’s discussion board, Evolving Services and Interactive Collections, asked:

Consider and discuss your collections and services:

  • Do your collections offer any avenues for fluid experimentation, open exploration, or immediate feedback on new ideas?
  • Do you offer people tools and supports to pursue their interests and passions? Could you expand your offerings?
  • Are you more engaging or more transactional?
  • What are your short and longer term goals for your collections?

Finally, the course project:

Develop a strategy to increase user engagement, participation, or discovery within/with your library. Focus on any aspect of your collections, services, partnerships, programming, and/or spaces at your library or institution which you wish to adapt. This can be a simple, or more complex, strategy according to your needs and time available. Establish a timeline and a schedule for implementation, and determine and state specific and measurable objectives. What are you focusing on? User engagement, participation, discovery? Who are you trying to reach? What outcomes are you trying to achieve? What actions will you be taking?

The “strategy” I developed for this assignment was simple: I would like to install a Welcome Board that all visitors to the library see upon entering the building. We have just one main entrance/exit, so the Welcome Board would be visible to all foot traffic, no matter the visitor’s ultimate destination within the library. The Welcome Board would (a) communicate a welcoming message (ideally in concert with an overhaul of library signage), and (b) promote events and programs happening in the library that day (as well as upcoming programs that week, space permitting). [Note: I’m borrowing this idea from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, PA.]

Most events and programs at our library take place in one of two rooms: one is up on the fourth floor, and the other is on the basement level, accessible by elevator or by walking through the Children’s Department. Thus, it’s likely that most library visitors may be entirely unaware of what’s happening at the library, even as it’s happening! Of course, there are many other ways to learn about library events – flyers, our e-newsletter, the website calendar – but a Welcome Board is a simple, high-visibility way to promote things that are already happening at the library. Even if visitors don’t have time to attend or aren’t interested in that day’s offerings, the Welcome Board sends the message that the library is more than just a place to get books and movies – it’s a place where things happen and people come together.

An easel whiteboard with CLP events written on it in different colors
Like this! “Today @ the library…”

As for a timeline, this one should be easy to implement. We already have the information about library events on the calendar and the monthly press release, so it’s just a matter of presentation. The fancy, high-tech option would be a screen, either freestanding or wall-mounted, but the simpler, less expensive, and more personal option would be a whiteboard or a chalkboard (again, freestanding, wall-mounted, or easel-style). We could get two, so Tuesday’s events could be prepared on Monday without taking the board down early Monday night or requiring any staff to come in early Tuesday morning. And we could even do a program on chalkboard art and lettering, for staff and patrons alike.

What do you say, boss?

What are your favorite interactive/engaging elements you’ve seen at a library? Please share!

 

Learning from novels

Here, now, in the future – ever since 2010 it has seemed like the future – we are flooded with information, bombarded with it. It used to be that a significant part of a librarian’s job was finding information; now, much of it is sifting the good from the bad, the reliable from the slanted, biased, agenda-powered, and outright made-up.

The Internet, unlike books, does not come with a neat copyright page; it can be difficult to tell when something was written, let alone who by, and what that person’s affiliations and qualifications are. Much “information” is actually opinion – and then there is advertising or “sponsored posts,” and it’s enough to start calling the Information Age the Misinformation Age instead (sounds Orwellian, doesn’t it?).

This is just to say – and you can keep your plums, William Carlos Williams – that where you get your information is of crucial importance, and that it can be very hard to remember. Was it an article from The New Yorker or The Atlantic? Was it on Slate, Salon, or – please no – Buzzfeed?

Or was it, perhaps, from a novel? Over a lifetime of reading, I’ve acquired many facts from fiction. Ask me to cite my sources, and I’m as likely to mention a Dick Francis mystery novel or a Cory Doctorow YA novel as I am to mention long-form journalism from a reputable source.

Cover image of Life After LifeAbout two years ago, as I was immersed in Kate Atkinson’s mind-bendingly good Life After Life, I came across this sentence:

“[Her knowledge] was random yet far-ranging, the sign that one has acquired one’s learning from novels, rather than an education.”

I recognized the sentiment immediately. Fortunately, I’ve acquired my learning from novels in addition to a formal education, but I find that more often than not, it’s the facts from novels that stick in my mind, and I can more easily recall a specific novel than a particular article. (Another quote, from Jenny Offill’s marvelous Dept. of Speculation: “These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.”) Then, of course, there’s always the Internet to fact-check the fiction.

What facts have you learned from fiction?