The schizo structure of research

I should be posting on the Sherry Turkle essay, since that is what we’re reading this week and I’m even presenting on it with Blaine today. But as I sat down yesterday morning and scanned through Twitter, a post by @wedaman caught my eye, about reading Engelbart to kindergarteners. (Which… fascinating, yes?) So I clicked through to his Twitter account and then to his blog to read a bit more and came across the post called “The Conduit Metaphor.”

In this post he mentions that in education, the metaphor of learning being a “conduit” (via which knowledge passes from the learned one to the unlearned students) is defunct. But that it too often is still in place in the Library/IT world. He says…

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

That passage hit me strongly, because as a librarian, I actively self-identify as a person whose passion is connecting people with the information they need. Have I been an unconscious guardian of the conduit? Am I one of Ted Nelson’s Priesthood, this time not of the computer, but of the information?

I reflected on this a bit and on how I interact with patrons both at the desk (in person and virtually) and with students in the classroom, and I thought back to my grad school days. In grad school I taught library instruction classes to English composition students and I had a very planned out and rigid way of doing so. I chose the topic with which I would demo the search. Then I did a whole lot of pre-searching so as to be able to show the students the perfect search with the perfect list of results that had exactly all the characteristics I wanted to be able to demonstrate.

I don’t do that now. I get students to volunteer their topics and we go off on a research rollercoaster – sometimes we start off on a search and it doesn’t net us many results, so we talk about how to broaden your search terms. Sometimes (actually, most of the time) the topic the student offers is really broad, so we think up strategies for narrowing the search. There are rabbit trails, there are dead ends. I always give time for students to do their own searching, because they will hit invariably hit these dead ends and I want to be there to walk them out of it.

I think some of the change in the way I interact with students in the classroom has come from experience and confidence in my teaching ability. But some of it has come with being willing to reveal to students that the research process most definitely can have the “schizo structure” that Bill Viola describes, and to walk with the students through the confusing maze of resources and in the end, hopefully, to see them get excited by the possibilities of research that today’s computer mediated has opened up to them.

A fuzzy picture of me teaching a class. But that's ok. Research is a fuzzy process.

In conclusion, here are a few tweets I received later yesterday morning from @wedaman about this topic:


One Comment

Gardner November 10, 2010 Reply


Have you read Paulo Freire’s classic “Banking Concept of Education”? It critiques the conduit model from a slightly different angle or metaphor, but with much the same resonance: I’m also a huge fan of Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature” along these lines. And oh, here’s a fascinating exchange between Seymour Papert (whose “Mindstorms” is essential reading, even if I had to eliminate it from our syllabus for time) and Paulo Freire:

Next week’s encounter with Illich will be Firework City, I’m thinking.

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