In Which I Encourage Students to Make Research Boxes

It is the height of teaching season! Fortunately, it is also fall break; I wanted to take advantage of this pause in my schedule to share my how research education sessions have evolved since beginning to incorporate lessons learned from reading  The Creative Habit.

Lower Lake at Sunswet

Can you tell it’s fall in New England?

Writing research papers is CREATIVE

When students feel empowered to call themselves creators and feel empowered to believe that their work is situated in a larger scholarly conversation, they tend to rise to the occasion. I also believe that connecting creativity, research, and writing gives students unique ownership over the entire process. Framing research as part of the creative process makes my classes more exciting for both the students and myself. It’s easy to think that the creative process starts with writing, but Tharp helps us understand that the research is equally important.

The research box is a winning metaphor

Tharp writes about the research box; the place (physical or metaphorical) where material, inspiration, and planning resides. Tharp does not believe that the box must only be reserved for actionable research, but also for pieces of inspiration and possible directions for a particular project. In my classes, the box becomes a compelling frame for students to consider using a citation management system like Zotero to collect their research as they work towards outlining and writing their papers. Tharp also cautions against conflating research with creation, a warning I also share with students. Research, while critical to every project, is just a step in the larger process.

Rituals build better habits

Tharp wrote about the importance of routines and rituals in her work; daily rituals sustain her and prepare her to do work effectively every day. Creative genius is not a burst of brilliance, but sustained, consistent effort over time. Creative practice is as much about work ethnic and dedication as it is bursts of energy or ideas. Sustained effort helps translate ideas into projects and performances. I like to encourage students to think about how they do their work, to break it down into parts and understand that investing time into understanding how their process actually works and to refine their research rituals and routines will help them evolve. Research is a craft that requires dedication to refine over time; no one is a ‘born researcher.’ Tharp’s book does an excellent job of modeling that mindset; your research paper won’t get written when inspiration strikes in the course of one night, but through meticulous research, iteration, outlining, writing, editing, and refining over a period of time.



Best Back to School Accessory

I have the best school accessory ever: a tote gifted to me by the amiable and generous Simon Beattie. I saw the lovely tote with its orange text at RBMS slung on Beattie’s shoulder. After the amazing professional development seminar, I saw Beattie give them to the panelists as tokens of thanks. I wondered: ARE THERE MORE?


Orange is my favorite color and librarians seem genetically determined to acquire tote bags, so I remarked to a colleague that I wondered where these bags were available for sale. He suggested I tweet Simon to inquire. Communications were exchanged and Simon graciously sent me a bag from England with a lovely note. I appreciate the gesture, but also to represent the campaign the tote represented by using this bag.

I am a huge fan of digital reading for a variety of reasons, but note that the analog book allows friends, colleagues, lovers, and family to freely exchange books. The books on my shelves at work represent far more than the content between covers, but relationships, projects, aspirations, and memories. Books are definitely my bag.

My Creative Autobiography

In December, I read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. She presents readers with a prompts to construct their creative autobiographies. Below is my (slightly) edited creative autobiography. Readers, I let this rip Beatnik style. This stream of consciouness is the result of several hours at Northampton Coffee and a few more sitting cross-legged on my bed.

Your Creative Autobiography:

  1. What is the first creative moment you remember?

When I invented my first imaginary friend.

  1. Was anyone there to whiteness or appreciate it?

I felt creative when I describing this invisible friend in rich detail to my mother who gave me the impression that my thick description of this fake person was actually real. It fed my imagination in a profound way as if there was suddenly real space to explore my mind.

  1. What is the best idea you’ve ever had?

I think that the best idea I’ve ever had was when I connected creative destruction (a principle in economics) to shifts in librarianship. I felt wild with imagination, the feelings that I imaged that the Beats had when I was reading those types of books when I was a teenager when they experienced satori. I shared this idea about creative destruction in libraries during a panel at ACRL 2013 in Indianapolis that sparked an inspiriting conversation with one of the Lead Pipe editors that jump started my writing process.

  1. What made it great in your mind?

I think what made it great in my mind was this sensation that I struck upon a complicated idea that begged to be unpacked, that demanded more attention and brain power. I felt excited about the idea and felt committed to seeing it through. I never felt that way before.

  1. What is the dumbest idea?

I can’t think of the dumbest idea that I’ve ever had, more this sense that I have thought a lot of half baked ideas, or half formed ideas that idled in my mind long enough to become thoughts that sustained some amount of attention before I realized that there wasn’t anything sustainable about them. That disappointed me, like I didn’t have the brain power to think of something worth pondering for more than five or ten minutes at a time.

  1. What made it stupid?

Those ideas were stupid because they didn’t demand more attention, that they could not be extended or developed in any meaningful way.

  1. Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?

I read a lot of books that would lead to random thoughts. Sometimes I would write them down wondering if these particles would eventually lead to bigger, better ideas. I would later reflect back on those ideas in journals or on pieces of paper or in Evernote to see if they could lead to anything. Generally speaking, they didn’t lead to anything.

  1. What is your creative ambition?

Until I started doing more sustained writing on my blog and finished my first peer reviewed article, I did not think of myself as a creative person. In many ways I dismissed the idea it was even possible since I’m a librarian/archivist/higher ed nerd. I did not think that writing about libraries or higher education or archives was creative at all. I did not think of myself as a writer since I did not finish a ph.d and would never have occasion to spend years on a sustained topic or idea. In the last few months, however, I began to realize that I am creative; that my ideas and writing are not rote observations, but meaningful contributions to important conversations happening in libraries and higher ed at a time of dizzying change and transition. We are the future we want to be, or as my grad school advisor said, if you don’t like the center of a social circle or department, become the new center, or really, be the change you want to see. When I began to value my own voice and appreciate my own opinions, I began to make the connection that my ideas grounded in reality were no less creative than the ideas fiction writers have. I started reading Brain Pickings and found that my own struggle to write, shift through ideas, and trust my voice and practice were now in the context of creative habit, routine, and practice. My creative ambition is to follow my voice and share my opinions widely, openly, and honestly hopefully in the form more more peer reviewed articles, books, and an engaging blog.

  1. What are the obstacles to this ambition?

My fear is that I will run out of ideas; I am profoundly afraid of loosing my voice, loosing my power of observation and synthesis, of my ability to make unique connections between far fledged ideas. I think time and energy are also obstacles to this ambition. I also have ambitions to lead an organization; to teach credit bearing courses, and serve in professional organizations more systematically. There is also the challenge of being an adult human who has to feed herself, do laundry, pay bills, and clean her space. Time is a constant challenge for me, how to meaningfully spend it, how not to waste it, and how to get all my needs and wants met. Do I trade home-cooked dinners for more writing time? I don’t exactly know.

  1. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?

I need to have a job that continues to inspire and challenge me. I gain a lot of inspiration from my day to day work, seeing how it connects or disconnects from larger trends in librarianship and higher education, gaining inspiration from my students and faculty, and working with professionals who push and challenge me in a number of different ways. I need additional opportunities to step up and lead at work; managing projects or initiatives always pushes me towards better, more robust ideas. I also need to establish routines that will give me time to write, to reflect. I also need to have better systems for brainstorming ideas, giving myself permission to waste money by buying beautiful paper and pens to scribble gibberish or concept map ideas or dreams I have. Perhaps I should just call it day-dreaming for a professional adult? I also need to have a creative practice board of directions, in the same vein that I have a professional board of directors who can serve as references, dispense advice, and offer support. I am lucky to be a part of an amazing writing group at Mount Holyoke College where I share drafts, spin ideas, and do the same for my colleagues.

  1. How do you begin your day?

Generally, I begin my day rushing to get ready for work. Once I arrive at work, if I have a meeting first thing, I go to the meeting and then feel behind for the rest of the day. Perhaps in an idea world, I would wake up earlier to have some reflective time to write or jot down thoughts, but that feels indulgent. I like to settle into my workspace before diving into email or projects, but I don’t have an established routine for my start of days.

  1. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?

The past few months have been a huge personal transition for me so I think that I am starting to separate lazy habits from intentional ones. I repeat patterns of checking my finances daily, I drink coffee every morning. I read The New York Times every day; I aim to have zero emails in my inbox every day; I aspire to write SOMETHING every day; I revise my to do lists daily. Accountability to my work is a deeply ingrained habit; I beat myself up when I miss a self imposed deadline, so I do have a habit of revising my own sets of expectations for how often I will publish a blog post, or what my goals for the year should be.

  1. Describe your first successful creative act.

I think that my first successful creative act was when I was in the eighth grade. Middle school was hard for me; kids bullied me and I didn’t have many friends. I loved school and I loved to learn. Art was a requirement; while I enjoyed it very much, I wasn’t always successful at making unique pieces or capturing my point of view in drawings or sculpture. I tended to make literal things in spite of my desire to work in abstractions. I loved looking at art even as a middle schooler; I begged my parents to take me to MoMA when we were in New York City and wanted to believe that I too could create in spite of my limitations. Anyways, in grade 8, I began drawing on this black paper that when scraped off with a wooden pencil, color would be revealed. I doodled and doodled and finally working in these intricate patterns. I finally made a really tight drawing design that eventually won a nominal art prize from The Boston Globe. I stumbled upon this technique and medium accidentally while trying to make abstractions that I saw in some of the art books I read in the library. I was really proud of myself; my parents still have the piece in their house.

  1. Describe your second successful creative act.

Grade 8 was an artistic year for me; following my award, the art teacher, who was such an amazing influence and emotional support for me in middle school, invited me a few other students to paint a mural in the school over the course of a few months. It was humbling and exciting to paint a public mural, work with my hands, and get lost in my visions.

  1. Compare them.

My first successful creative act was a confluence of happenstance (neat medium!) and discipline (I will make an abstraction) and they came together to make a unique piece of art with limited encouragement. The support and encouragement my art teacher offered fueled my discipline to complete the project. The first project was entirely mine; I collaborated with other students on the second project. The mediums were different; the first was a drawing and the second was a large scale, painted mural.

  1. What is your attitude toward: money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?

My attitude towards money is complicated; on the one hand, I never had ambitions to earn a considerable salary and on the other hand, I really want to have a healthy emergency fund, retirement savings, and the ability to travel where I want when I want. My day to day life doesn’t demand a considerable salary. I don’t have a family nor have the aspirations for have one in the future and I live relatively simply. That said, $10k would change my life considerably right now, considerably for the better. I am not sure how I feel about power; I don’t necessarily have designs to be powerful, but I am aware of power dynamics and organizational change. And influence. I want to have enough power to make changes I know need to be made in my field and ‘wield’ power enough to be an effective mentor and manager in the future. Like may people, I enjoy a certain amount of praise, but I don’t need pats on the back for everything I do. Praise doesn’t drive me; challenges do. I used to be really into rivals and assume that certain individuals were rivals when they turned out not to be at all. Rivals turned my energy away from myself. I try not to focus too much on competition and rather focus on my personal best now. It’s hard, but I find that when I focus on my own projects and goals, I get more done. I love to work and consider myself to have a strong work ethic and enjoy working, but I also realize I hit walls when I can’t work on concentrate very well and I need to recharge. I used to think that I was bad at ‘play,’ but I really enjoy watching sports, reading for fun, taking walks, and cooking for friends. A balanced approach to both is essential, I am not sure I know how to achieve that balance all of the time, but I am experimenting with what works for me.

  1. Which artists do you admire the most?

Zadie Smith. Jumpha Lahiri

  1. Why are they your role models?

They are my role models because they don’t seem take themselves too seriously, they work hard at their craft, and write with an authentic voice. I think they are both incredibly smart and productive. They don’t attribute magic to their work and I appreciate that no nonsense approach.

  1. What do you and your role models have in common?

A strong work ethic and a unique voice.

  1. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?

My mentor is a constant inspiration; she is always able to to see the whole board so to speak and make meaningful connections in her work, she’s an amainzg teacher. I admire her intelligence, keen wit, and strategic mind. My colleague and co-conspirator at Mount Holyoke has amazing enthusiasm, energy, and creativity; she is an excellent storyteller.

  1. Who is your muse?

I don’t think I have one.

  1. Define muse.

My understanding of muse is that it is a magical force that teaches artists and inspire them to create. I’ve been unable to self-identity as an artist or writer so I don’t think the concept of a muse applies to me.

  1. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?

I want to learn from superior intelligence and talent. I try to befriend those with superior talent and intelligence.

  1. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?

My blood boils when faced with those things. I tend to withdraw or disengage. Sometimes I also engage to outwit or outmaneuver it if stupidity is in a position of power for me. In those cases, it inspires me to win.

  1. When faced with impending success or the threat of failure, how do you respond?

When faced with those experiences, I tend face it head on, embrace both for growth. I don’t celebrate success for too long; I am always focused on what’s next. I can learn profound things from both success and failure, so both are necessary for growth. I don’t dwell on either, or try not to, at least.

  1. When you work, do you love the process or the result?

When I work, I love the process. I feel a sense of loss when I complete a project. I love the result to remind me of the process, but I am more in love with the process than the result.

  1. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?

I feel that way when I haven’t done enough preparation for a project in terms of scaffolding, an outline, clear expectations of what I want to accomplish or who I am writing for. Nebulous projects or collaborations tend me make me feel that way, too. A strong clear vision is essential for me to create, write, work, and teach.

  1. What is your ideal creative activity?

Concept mapping my thoughts, outlining ideas, writing and synthesizing my thoughts while reading. Writing is my ideal creative activity.

  1. What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that I will run out of ideas to put into practice or writing.

  1. What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous to questions happening?

I invest a lot of energy in creating space and time to writing, read, and concept map. I don’t know what the likelihood of running out of ideas is, but I think it fuels me to be present and aware at all times to engage at all times.

  1. Which of the answers would you like to change?

  2. 24.

  3. What is your idea of mastery?

Mastery to me means having nothing left to say or do. I think it’s something to strive towards, but not necessarily achieve.

  1. What is your greatest dream?

To write books, articles, and blog posts while managing and taking inspiration from a team of librarians/technologists/archivists from a beautiful office at a College or University in a an East Coast city.

My Creative Habit

Over the last few months, I found myself reading Brain Pickings on the regular. I never thought of myself as a particularly creative person. I do not identify as an artist. Until recently, I did not feel comfortable labeling myself as a writer; I felt like an impostor even as I published my first peer reviewed piece and continued writing on this blog. I pushed through the impostor syndrome to continue writing  and to seeking out creative practice resources as I fell in love with editorial process that comes from writing in peer reviewed publications.

I’ve come a long way since I gave my first professional presentation in 2011 and am starting to identify as a writer. As I wrapped up a series of projects this fall, I realized I needed to think critically about my own creative process; what works, what doesn’t, what feels good, what doesn’t. There is a vast body of literature that is constructive and inspirational. This winter, I started reading and embarked on a creative practice bootcamp. Creative practice bootcamp pushed me to think about my own writing very differently. Creative practice bootcamp also inspired me to reconsider how I teach the research process in my library instruction sessions, a happy and unexpected outcome!

Over the next few weeks, I am planning to share some of my experiences, eureka moments, and lesson plans on the blog.

Instructional technology taught me about extensibility. Tools need to adapt for future uses not necessarily foreseen by their original designers. I consider extensibility in my creative practice as well. I’ve identified routines, tools, and workflows that will (hopefully) evolve with me as I grow as a writer and take on more complex projects. In any event, I have a fantastic bibliography of resources that I can revisit as my routines and habits evolve.

one of my prime working spots

one of my prime working spots

#Reading “Who Gets to Graduate?”

“Beyond the economic opportunities for the students themselves, there is the broader cost of letting so many promising students drop out, of losing so much valuable human capital. For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country. But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree. During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree. These two trends are clearly intertwined. And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them.”

–Paul Tough, “Who Gets to Graduate?” via The New York Times Magazine 15 May 2014

Dispatches from Re: Humanities 2014 (#rehum14)

I had the pleasure of traveling to Haverford College this past week to attend Re: Humanities: Play, Power, Production. Re: Humanities is a conference organized by undergraduates to showcase undergraduate work in the digital humanities. Their work speaks for itself; I created a storify that encapsulates the energy and spirit of the event. I am already looking ahead to Re: Humanities 2015. Congratulations, #nextgendh!

PS: Here’s a write-up from Technically: Philly.

A quick pic from my iPhone.

Haverford College via my iPhone.

Transforming Survival Mode into Sustaining Mode

MLK Commemoration

Photo by Caro Pinto

During the fall semester, Mount Holyoke College commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s campus appearance by playing a recording of the 1964 speech. Sitting in the campus amphitheater, I contemplated how King’s vision was as much about the discipline of everyday work as much as it was about dreams. My mind wandered back to a certain text that pushed me in college.

King wrote:

We Negroes have longed reamed of freedom, but still we are confide in an oppressive person of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities…To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society. Our present suffering and our nonviolent struggle to be free may well offer to Western Civilization the kind of spiritual dynamic so desperately needed for survival.

In the book referenced above, Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelly wonders how social movements can transform the world in the face of challenging circumstances:

How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? Who do we transcend bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-conompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?

Thinking back to Kelly, I thought about how much of a struggle it can be to keep the big picture in mind in the face of “immediate ordeals.” How do we push forward when there are naysayers suggesting the work of higher education isn’t worth it, that there isn’t enough money to do x or enough time to implement y or z is too much effort?

Kelly concludes:

Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.

An innovative future demands fresh vision. It is easy to get bogged down by the emails clogging our inboxes, the administrivia eating up our time, or the petty office politics sucking our souls. It is easy to get sidetracked and forget why we work in academic libraries and why that work matters. As winter turns to spring, I’m thinking about renewal and how to translate small habits into larger patterns for growth. After all, if we don’t think about ‘go for broke’ dreams, there won’t be an opportunity to transform our work in meaningful ways.

J-Term: Team Engagement Developers

“Personalized virtual communities for teaching and research are primed to be one of the next big things for librarians and academia. It’s part of the transition we face from content providers to engagement developers.” -Brian Matthews

I thought about this post in the Chronicle excerpted above when I was organizing content for the J-Term course I co-taught this month with the awesome Shaun Trujillo.

Our course, Media Archaeology, Digital Humanities & The Archives, experimented with a humanities lab, a concept/practice I’ve long wanted to explore. As a libarchivist/instructional technologist, I work towards meaningful integration of technology into teaching contexts. Digital projects require skills and relationships not often available in traditional humanities seminars. This is not to say that the content embedded in digital projects isn’t essential; Shaun and I are not swept up by ‘pixel dust;’ we committed to thinking about media and artifacts both conceptually and practically.

The Humanities Lab is not new. In the introduction to the recently published book, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, Hayles and Pressman talk about “a major development in integrating a media framework into humanities disciplines is the advent of the Humanities Lab. Among the early pioneers was Jeffrey Schnapp. When he was at Stanford University, he envisioned the Humanities Lab as providing space for collaborative work on large project that he calls the ”Big Humanities“ (by analogy with ”Big Science“)…Humanities Labs also lead the way in offering new models of pedagogy.” (xvi)

There are many rewards and opportunities for these types of classroom experiences, extending the tradition lecture and seminar into hands-on-digital projects. Hayles and Pressman offer a wonderful example from Duke University art history course. In our case, we did hands on work appraising digital photos, took apart an iMac, used software from 2001, and ran programs on a C–64.

C-64 Fun

As librarians, working with digital forensics and new media, our role as content providers is given, but our role as engagement developers is an emerging one. In order for complex assignments and experiences to be scaled undergraduate classrooms, faculty, librarians, and technologists need to team up to make these projects sustainable realities. Librarians are primed to collaborate meaningfully in these teams not just as “content providers but as engagement developers.” I am excited to continue collaborating with Shaun as we refine and extend our work together on media archaeology and digital forensics in the future.