Every breath you take

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched when you’re studying in the library?  

This is a question I’ve been asking a number of students lately as part of my research study- which has resulted in some interesting points for consideration.  It’s a question that often needs a bit of unpacking, because what I really mean when I ask this question is whether they experience Foucauldian concepts of surveillance as a result of the power structures related to the library and university, as a whole, including the formation of docile bodies with regard to hierarchies of social control and disciplinary powers.

Yes.  Him again. 


Image by Juan Nahuel Novelletto

If we start by looking at Foucault’s Discipline and punish: the birth of the prisonwe begin to understand how the education system is entwined with power and how it relates to the development of ‘docile bodies,’ surveillance, and  the ascent of social discipline by imagining how universities, considered disciplinary powers, have become political sources of compliance and utility, ‘making’ individuals through procedures of hierarchical observation, normalising judgement, and examination (Deacon, 2002, p.448).  In addition, the organisation of physical space and prescriptive control of time, as demonstrated through activities including supervision appointments and 24/7 access to libraries, further substantiate the power of universities to shape behaviour over a number of parameters and create docile bodies (Deacon, 2006, p.122; Foucault, 1991; Marshall, 1990, p.15).

The Foucauldian concept of docile bodies refers to the notion that the body is an object of target and power, which can be manipulated, shaped, and trained so that it obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces through disciplinary powers, such as the university (Foucault, 1991, p.136).  The constraining nature of a system producing a kind of Man-Machine will likely develop resistance over time (Foucault, 1991).  Therefore, in an attempt to reduce the risk of facing resistance from individuals seeking to challenge the perceived and/or real constraints imposed on them by disciplinary powers, universities assert a kind of control on bodies that produces not only an individual, but individuality consisting of an amalgam of qualities that render an individual distinct from others (Hoffman, 2014, p.27).  

Foucault proposed four individuality characteristics, including: cellular, organic, genetic, and combinatory in Discipline and punish.  If we think of cellular individuality as the spatial distribution and its influence on discipline, we can understand how the university library space provides an example of this characteristic.  Libraries, especially those only accessible to students at the university, and often requiring forms of keys or passes to enter into, are at once architectural, functional, and hierarchical (Foucault, 1991, p. 148).  These spaces separate those who are ‘allowed’ to learn from those who are not.  Quite often, within these spaces, students are further separated hierarchically where physical spaces accessible to post-graduates or academics only exist.  

Libraries are also spaces in which the coding and control of activities related to organic individuality are expressed.  Although the use of timetables is not particularly prevalent in library settings, students often demonstrate a sort of anatomo-chronological schema of behaviour whilst using the library space (Foucault, 1991, p.152).  There are certain activities and behaviours deemed appropriate to engage in within library spaces, including acts of whispering, gestures associated with thinking, reading, or analysis, and bodily postures related to how students sit on furniture and spread materials out across desks and table space.  On a larger scale, the activity of studying in the library is occurring within an overarching timetable students establish as part of how they spend their time during academic terms.  

It is the accumulation of time as a student that best describes how genetic individuality is materialised.  The disciplinary time spent within university that is gradually imposed on students through pedagogical practice whereby specialised time spent on training and learning is detached from personal or social time (Foucault, 1991, p.159).  It is in this time, where mastery is achieved, that stages are separated by examinations and exercises of increased difficulty, and progress is determined through the achievement of repetitive, routine, and graduated practices.  Within the context of my study, the library provides a space in which students spend portions of their accumulated time at university preparing for examinations and creating work that will contribute to demonstrating their mastery of a subject.  

Finally, through combinatory individuality, the student is constructed into a machine whose effect will be maximised  by the concerted articulation of the elementary parts (his/her gained skills, abilities, and knowledge) of which it is composed (Foucault, 1991, p.164).  Within library spaces, students have the opportunity to combine all characteristic elements of individuality, often manifested through institutionalised systems of internalised policing, and apply them in future environments and situations (Nikolaeva, 2013).  

In addition to the four characteristics of individuality, the Foucauldian concept of surveillance is important with regard to discussing how power and control are exerted on students within university library settings.  It is through surveillance that we see how students are induced in a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of university power within library environments.  If we consider Foucault’s account of Bentham’s panopticon, architecturally described as::

an annular building at the periphery, with a tower in the center, pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.  All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in the central tower and to shut up in each cell a…schoolboy.  The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognise immediately. (Foucault, 1991, p.200-201)

Bentham’s plan of the Panopticon, 1843, public domain image

we see how the library serves as a kind of Panopticon in which, depending on the space and availability of seating, students, especially those at elite universities, become acutely aware of their visibility to others, and therefore begin to exercise behaviours of self-restriction and confinement, such as surrounding themselves with numerous books and notes or never be seen viewing material on their personal devices or laptops that could be considered non-academic or distracting to study.  

Due to the assumption that all persons entering the space will likely be affiliated with the institution, whether as fellow students, academics, or stakeholders, and therefore considered symbolic representations of the university’s reputation, image, and expectations (‘supervisors’ in the central tower), students studying within the elite university library continually experience the invisible function of power through perceived observation.  These perceptions of surveillance therefore serve as a means of normalising what behaviour is deemed acceptable within the library, as they are centred around the concept of an inspecting gaze, a gaze which ‘each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, thus exercising surveillance over, and against, himself’ (Foucault, 1980, p.155). 

So when I think about how students feel like they are being watched in the library- and almost all of them, so far, have confirmed that they do, I also think about how the library and institution itself play a large role in perpetuating these feelings.  However, I don’t consider the influence to be a negative one- especially when that power helps drive student participation and engagement with their course of study.  Then again, maybe I’ve gone mad with power, sitting alone in a central watch tower, seen by all, and yet, seen by none.

Bentham, J. (1843) Plan of the Panopticon. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon.jpg (Accessed 6 April 2016).
Deacon, R. (2002) ‘Truth, power, and pedagogy: Michel Foucault on the rise of the disciplines’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 34(4), pp. 435-458.
Deacon, R. (2006) ‘From confinement to attachment: Michel Foucault on the rise of the school’, The European Legacy, 11(2), pp.121-138.
doi: 10.1080/10848770600587896.
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin.
Hoffman, M. (2014) Foucault and power: the influence of political engagement on theories of power. London: Bloomsbury.
Marshall, J.D. (1990) ‘Foucault and educational research’ in Ball, S.J. (ed.) Foucault and education: discipline and knowledge. London: Routledge, pp. 11-28.
Nikolaeva, N. (2013) Foucault: docile bodies. Available at: https://prezi.com/kcgpmuzmlyo-/foucault-docile-bodies/ (Accessed 14 April 2016).
Novelletto, J.N. (2009) Foucault. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/juanonymous/3410962676 (Accessed 15 April 2016).



What we talk about when we talk about love

I keep forgetting that the movie, Birdman, features Raymond Carver’s story, “What we talk about when we talk about love”.  I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky when I was first introduced to contemporary American literature like Carver, Bukowski, Robbins- the entire hipster lineup, as it were.  I remember feeling as though, in reading those stories, I understood the world better, as well as myself.  It really hasn’t been until recently, as my life has been in a seemingly ungraspable tailspin – with our inevitable move back to the US -that I’ve started reflecting on who I was when I left, who I’ve become, and just who I’m meant to be next.  When I think about the Carver story now, it seems so apt to how my love for what I do as a profession has become who I am as a person.  

I love my job.  I love being a librarian.  Aside from the incredible opportunities I’ve been afforded with regard to working with students, academics, and members of the public, it’s served to motivate and challenge me intellectually and served as an outlet for my not-so-creative creativity.  That being said, it has also hurt me.  In addition to every bursary, job, or award rejection, it has left me with a specialised set of skills in a highly competitive market.  I currently find myself scrambling to appraise and reorganise every training course I’ve taken or hours of student support I’ve provided in order to reconfigure the whole of my body of work over the last four years in order to present to strangers who’ve never heard of me and can’t even be sure I’m even returning to the United States.  How do you tell someone in a cover letter or resume that your support and guidance helped someone successfully write a dissertation?  How do you explain the hours of preparation you happily endured to fit in a few relevant jokes into a referencing session so students wouldn’t fall asleep?  How do I demonstrate how every project I lead, broken link I fixed, article I sourced for an academic, or overdue fine I waived for a student (just because they took the time to actually talk to me about their situation) helped shape me into someone I actually believed in?  

Put simply, you don’t.  At least not on paper.

For the past month I’ve been lamenting about the inevitable truth I’ll have to face when I leave this country.  And whilst the coasts are beautiful, options for traveling is boundless, and gravy granules are plenty, it’s not the geographical space of the UK I will miss.  In addition to a few wonderful friends I’ve met over the last five years here, what seems so tragic of a loss when thinking about departing, is preparing for the loss of myself.  Not only have I spent nearly 85% (yes, I calculated) of motherhood in the UK, this is the place where I became a librarian.  To be more specific, this is the first place I became a proper librarian in practice.  From touching marvellous Sotheby’s auction catalogs in the basement of an art museum, to implementing (with help) Lego Serious Play and explaining the need for embedding information literacy sessions to the assessment board at my institution, to sharing research progress with other Cambridge librarians in room dating back  to 1590, I somehow found myself and my professional passion- which makes it so difficult to let go.  It seems wholly inadequate to merely say “thank you” or “good-bye” to something that has made such a momentous impression on you to which you’ve appeared to reap so many rewards.

But perhaps that, in itself, is how I shall thank this country when I return to my own.  Whilst it may take time for me to find my way back into academic librarianship in the U.S., where I can plan weeks of skills workshops, make jokes with students when showing them around the library, spend hours with individuals talking about database searching, or construct a graffiti wall to encourage engagement- I will get there…because we all do.  And when I do, everything that I’ve learned here will immediately rush back – because it’s what I love.  It’s what I talk about when I talk about love.

Nailed it! Or, how my study turned into a #pinterestfail

UX update

We’ve all seen them- examples of perfectly good intentions of recreating something amazing on Pinterest that went oh-so terribly wrong…well, when I was asked to update other Cambridge librarians on my dissertation project looking at student study spaces, #pinterestfails were there first thing that popped into my head.  However, as you’ll (hopefully) see, a fail doesn’t necessarily transfer into a failURE, and when it comes to incorporating UX into librarianship, flexibility becomes the name of the game.

If you remember (of course you do), back in October, I waffled on about wanting to use FDA to analyse photographs of study spaces posted to social media by university students in order to talk about the power of higher education institutions being exerted onto students, influencing the ways they study- or at least PRESENT themselves as studying.  It’s all coming back to you now, yes?  Well, I ran into a couple of challenges.

UX update (1)

First of all, I finally realised that the collection of student photographs was already a ‘thing.’  They are referred to as #studyblrs (especially when using Tumblr) and are supposedly meant to be a source of inspiration and motivation for students.  By posting images of study spaces and captioning them describing what exam or paper the space is being used to read/write/analyse, the person posting feels validated as a learner and – now this is theoretical- serves as source for subjecting others into replicating the performative, thus proving to everyone how ‘good’ of a student they are.  Here are some examples…

UX update (2)Oh yes, what a good student you are!

UX update (3)

And look at you!  You appear to be studying multiple subjects and understand the importance of having dozens of pens in case there’s an emergency!

I joke, but I do see some underlying importance in the way these students have arranged their study tools, took time to photograph them AND post the images to social media.  Not to get technical, but I feel like, especially for females, as they tend to be the majority of people posting these types of images, these images are being posted in order to demonstrate normative feminine learning identities related to ‘compliance’ and ‘diligence’ that have been subjectivated onto them by educational power.  If you’re lost, this might help:

UX update (4)

Better?  Let’s move on though, as this is supposed to be about where my study went wrong. So I saw all of these beautiful examples of #studyblrs and couldn’t wait for the students here to start posting theirs.  I made flyers and offered a prize for the best image submitted then sat back and waited for the library’s Twitter feed to become flooded with entries…

Oh how wrong I was.  The students at my college were not interested (and to be fair, I didn’t heavily promote the contest other than hanging posters) because they were far too busy studying for supervision or revising papers.  After two weeks of zero participation, I realised I needed to change my strategy.

UX update (5)

So, strike one- but was it?  After observing their behaviour and reluctance to participate in the study the way I wanted them to, I decided to go back to the drawing board and start looking at what would work best with them.  So now, instead of trying to force them to use a platform they aren’t interested in, I’m going to conduct semi-structured interviews with them and then ask that they either send me a photo of their study space or allow me to take one myself.

You may be asking- well, don’t you need, like, proper permission for that?

Yes.  Yes, I do.

But that isn’t always the case- which brings me to my next point- er-challenge.  Trying to decide whether to go it ‘proper’ or ‘practical.’


In my case, I don’t have a choice.  I have to go through an ethics approval process.  In fact, I have to go through two since I’m trying to incorporate students from another university into my study.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some serious advantages to going through this process, including having experienced researchers help you sort out sticking issues or encourage you to be more clear about your objectives, but man oh man is it BRUTAL.  The thing is, it should be.  Also, when you do all of the time-consuming legwork beforehand, you’ll end up with plenty of documented work that you can refer to or use in the future if you decide to attempt to do anything like, oh, I don’t know, publish your research in a journal.

The thing is- not everyone has time to go through the ethics approval process, and not all studies are necessarily appropriate for it.  For most of the projects implemented within libraries, ethics approval just wouldn’t make sense.  It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t of as high of quality as research that was done ‘properly,’ either.  Oftentimes, going the practical route involves just as much preparation and forethought- and it’s more flexible!  In addition, throwing off more informal vibes might result in the students you involve in the study feeling more comfortable telling you what they think – which has deeper ethnographic implications with regard to methodology.

Speaking of students, they are the last challenge I’m going to talk about with regard to my study.

A few weeks ago, a colleague and myself held some ad-hoc, pop-up, in-your-face, impromptu interviews with students using the Moore Library basement.


UX update (6)

Mathematicians are some of the most interesting students to watch study.  Unlike most students utilising laptops, textbooks, or literature, maths students seem to get by just fine with a stack of paper and pens (you remember those things, right?  You use them to write things down to communicate thoughts, ideas, etc.).  They also appear to be highly susceptible to intense study.  I can honestly say I’ve never been more afraid to approach people in my whole life.

But I was completely wrong.

After the initial fear of interrupting someone from unlocking the secret to time travel or deciphering an equation to solve where the dress is blue and black or white and gold (it’s blue and black, by the way), asking students to participate in answering a few questions became a lot easier.  Of course, I’ve got to give credit to working within a team, as I’ve come to realise everyone needs their own data collection wing man (or woman).  Talking to students in this fast and furious kind of way was also important, as it all owed me to practice talking to students for when I (finally) start to talk to them for my own study.  Even though the students at the Moore weren’t my students, although many were because our college is right across the road, I was so happy to hear what they had to say about the space they were using.  It’s incredible the kind of information, as insignificant as it may seem, people will offer you when you give them an opportunity to be amplified.

So even though I’ve yet to actually interview students for my study (technically I can’t because I don’t have the ethical approval to do so!), I feel like I’m more prepared than I would be- even with my consent forms, interview schedule and information sheet.

So what’s next?

UX update (7)

Whilst I know my study is very specialised and may not particularly resonate with other UX library work that is more, shall we say, practical, there are definitely generalised implications that easily transfer and can be appreciated.

So join me again soon when I’ll (hopefully) be waxing on about all of the wonderful data I’ve collected from students.  Until then, remember that for every study ‘fail’ you encounter, you’re afforded an opportunity to reflect on your process and study objectives- which, by the way, are allowed to evolve.  Studies aren’t meant to come out perfectly formed, and for every #pinterestfail moment you have, you can at least revel in the fact that you’re not afraid to explore!

All images in this presentation are available CC-BY-2.0
Brooks, J. (2008) Indecision. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremybrooks/2933703966 (Accessed 10 March 2016).
First world problems (2016) Available at: https://imgflip.com/memegenerator/First-World-Problems (Accessed 08 March 2016).
Haghighi, N. (2012) Red leaf. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nina_pix/8127643821 (Accessed 08 March 2016).
Haven’t the slightest (2009) DO NOT DISTURB. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lazylikewally/4094347748 (Accessed 9 March 2016).
Ragusa, D. (no date) Leaves. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/4jcFu1byopQ/download (Accessed 08 March 2016).
Study and Starbucks (2016) Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BCtLWD3g9ZC/?tagged=studyspace (Accessed 9 March 2016).
Study paradise. (2016) Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BCrpbEJieg5/?tagged=studyspace (Accessed 9 March 2016).
Youdell, D. (2006) ‘Subjectivation and performative politics: Butler thinking Althusser and Foucault: intelligibility, agency and the raced-nationed-religioned subjects of education’, British Journal of Sociology, 27(4), pp.511-528.

Christmas cognitions


The last week of work before the holidays may seem torturous and never-ending- like that episode of The Simpsons when Bart is stuck at school waiting to go home and the second hand on the clock starts to move backwards, but the way I see it, the last week is a great opportunity, not only to clear off your desk and complete those small tasks that have been piling up all term, but to take time to do something fun- well, “work” fun.  

This morning, as I walked around my deserted library space, looking for a place to hang a gigantic whiteboard, I was reminded of how I felt my first day- back when I was going to try to really shake things up here.  I mentally moved furniture back and forth across the room, visualised where I could add potted plants and hang artwork, and thought about all of the people I should be emailing to help me get these things done.  About twenty minutes later, after scouring both my cozy and austere spaces (the library here is divided into two separate spaces), I decided I needed to take action…which, although slightly undramatic, lead me to scraping a large sticker-like sign off of the door.  I’ve hated that sign since the day of my interview when they gave me a tour around the library.  NO EATING.  NO DRINKING.  NO SMOKI- okay, that one was fine.  Like a crotchety old clerk at the post office barking orders.  Ugh.  I’d had enough- so the sign had to go.

But that is not even the point I’m trying to make because although each chip of the sign that came flying off the door as I scraped away was satisfying in the way that cracking eggs or hearing bottles break into glass bins is, removing it was step one in a process that was sure to take me into the afternoon.

Job interviewers will often ask you how other people you work with would describe you.  Of course, in those situations, most of us search our brains for an answer we think they want to hear, which, in my case, is often quite modest.  I thought about that today when I decided I needed to make a new poster to hang on the library door because I had a vision in my mind about what it should look like, but had no idea how I was going to create it.  I didn’t have the necessary skills or knowledge to make, in my opinion, something appealing and professional looking, but I knew I could figure out where to start.   So for the rest of the day, I taught myself how to perform some basic tasks in Photoshop.  You may be asking yourself what the big deal is- shouldn’t I already know how to use Photoshop?  Maybe.  I didn’t though- and THAT’S where the interview question comes in.  I’m someone who’s not afraid to discover.  Rather than settling with making a quick sign devoid of any aesthetically pleasing characteristics, I devoted the next three hours into learning something that, although pretty much meaningless with regard to actual output at the time, will help me become better at what I do and express myself in a more professionally fulfilling way.  Not only was it fun and offered a break from the normal tasks scattered throughout my day, it made me feel good about myself- which is something I think I often downplay at work.  

Of course, I’m no expert at Photoshop, as can been seen from the example below, but again, that’s not really what matters- it’s about taking time to challenge yourself and taking opportunities to improve your skills.  The next time I try using Photoshop, I’ll probably still be lagging and will need to watch a tutorial, but the time after that, I’ll get better, and then better, and better still- and that feeling, especially within your job, is utterly sublime.


‘can’t hold me back anymore…

trashSometimes it feels good to just let go and admit that you’re wrong- that all the energy you put into something can sometimes lead to nothing and that all the steps you made forward have just taken you back to the beginning.  It’s cathartic- because there’s a certain release in “failure” that you don’t get from anything else- because even success doesn’t always free you from self-doubt, dead ends or the realisation that there’s a certain amount of conviction missing from something you don’t wholly believe or believe in.

This isn’t some kind of personal diatribe or call to arms for self-pity- well, okay, for those of you who know me, it’s always personal- but hear me out.

As a follow on from my last post, I’ve been struggling for months to make the pieces fit with regard to my dissertation.  I thought I ironed everything out and knew where I wanted to go- what my approach was going to be and how I planned to move forward.  But there was still this unrelenting weight I felt tugging at me, like a strand of hair caught on the inside of a shirt that you can feel tickling your skin but impossible to find.  I’ve just been looking forward, trying to shape the end of the research and talking to other people about what I wanted to do rather than producing any work.  It’s one thing to be interested and excited about the concepts you plan to investigate and another to actually start mapping out how you will progress- and I’ve been stuck doing the latter for far too long.  Tracing stencils doesn’t make someone an artist, and planning research without structure doesn’t make me a researcher.

So I’m scrapping everything.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think military children and their learning experiences are largely ignored and under-researched (see, even I’m ignoring them now) and could provide a wealth of data to be used within that specific field of education- but it’s beyond me at this point to dive in and feel confident that the information I seek and the results I analyse will be able to provide anything meaningful.  In short, I suppose I’m trying to say that I know I don’t have enough clarity to do it well, so I’m not doing it at all- but I think someone with the right vision and understanding should.

There IS something I think I can do well, though, and that’s getting back to my own area of expertise- students utilising library spaces and resources.  I’m using that term loosely because, in case you’re not aware, much like the word, “catholic,” the library comes in big “L” and little “L” form.  I like to focus on the little “L” form- where any space students use to access, interact and engage with information becomes part of the realm with which I exist in as a professional.  Much like my previous proposal, I still plan to include a bit of discourse analysis because I think it’s important- and because I love educational theory, but I can better compartmentalise my ideas and objectives by observing and engaging with the kinds of participants I’m already well-versed on.  Perhaps that’s a cop-out- bringing my professional life into my academic pursuits, but I’m fairly certain most students write their dissertations on topics that hit, in some way, close to home.

So stay tuned because I might just be on to something…and no, it doesn’t involve Lego.

image available CC-BY-2.0 from Flickr by psyberartist

deadlines…always with the deadlines


I recently remembered, between starting my new job, going on holiday, and all the other things that bring summer to a close, that I signed myself up to complete my MA in Learning and Teaching by June 2016.  After a failed attempt at “starting early” back in July when Christmas seemed nowhere in sight, I’ve finally started getting myself back together and, more importantly, thinking about just what my dissertation will be about.  A few people have enquired about it on the odd chance that it comes up in conversation and try as I might to make my ideas seem glamorous or worthwhile, I must say that I’ve very much struggled to really ACTUALLY pin down a title.  I know the title is not the important thing- it’s conception and proposal and execution…but I feel like I’m driving myself mad attempting to finalise my topic- because otherwise, I don’t even know where to start.

I’ve known since my second term in the programme that I wanted to explore military children- namely military teenage females- in DODEA schools.  And before you ask, yes, of course I’m being biased because I’m a military wife with a daughter who will – eventually- be a teenager in one of these said schools, but  I’m not attempting to Back to the Future Part II her learning experience or “save” her from making any mistakes – I’m genuinely interested in studying military-specific learners because it is part of my world and, quite honestly, they are underrepresented in educational research.  The difficult part of my study plans come in because I’m also very interested in identity formation and performance.  To go even further, I am immensely interested in studying the way teenage females talk about their learning experiences- and how such talk interweaves concepts of power and meaning, as well as their identities as children of military personnel.  That’s right- I’m into Foucauldian discourse analysis.  Of course I only learned about this concept a few months ago so I guess you could say I’m an FDA poser, but we‘ve all got to start somewhere!

Needless to say, I’ve got a long road ahead of me.  In fact, I’m already quite behind, as I’ve still got to piece together a research proposal, including developing my research methods and measurements, make it through an ethics board and actually go into the field and start talking to people- which I really should be aiming to finish in early EARLY 2016, but who’s counting, right?  Of course, after that, there’s the 12k (I think) actual dissertation to write whilst trying to survive my first Lent and Easter term in Cambridge- where I’ve heard the students turn more animal than man when it comes to study space and resource availability, but what is a grad student, if not always pressed with deadlines and timetables?  

In my preliminary readings, I’ve looked at a lot of data on military families and how deployment affects school performance, as well as some philosophical pieces dissecting the ontological meaning of Foucauldian discourse analysis and the role of hermeneutics and phenomenology.  I’ve dabbled a bit in the work of Deborah Youdell and Judith Butler to build my understanding of gender identity and the politics of schools, mostly because I find the work fascinating and have made notes upon notes of pieces to further explore in order to really hit the ground running.  But that’s all just reading- there’s still all the doing that must be done.

I’m slightly concerned that I’ll spend too much time trying to understand the work and research that is already out there and feel stuck trying to carve out my own space in order to present my dissertation as a valid argument with practical applications in education- but I also know I have a deadline, so it’s time to pull my mind map canvas out, dust off my bucket of markers and get started!

Hate the Game, Not the Player

image by Pawel Kadysz, available through CC 2.0 from https://Unsplash.com

image by Pawel Kadysz, available through CC 2.0 from https://Unsplash.com

Gamification in libraries…like nails on a chalkboard every time I envisage the assumed thousand-yard stare I’ll get from students as I try to convince them that their learning, facilitated by support staff in the library, can be fun.  On top of that, let’s add the element of using technology in this fun for good measure.  Just who am I kidding or trying to impress here?

As an academic librarian, I grapple with developing effective pedagogical techniques for both engaging with and teaching students through the use of technology, and incorporating play in order to provide a strategic approach with which learning outcomes and experiences can be constructed, analysed, and shared in a more innovative and agile form.  Now wait just a minute.  Did I just try to use the word play interchangeably with gamification?  No.  I most certainly did not- because, to me, although play is an element of gamification, it provides an exceedingly more rich canvas with with to explore teaching, learning, and development.

I consider myself to be highly critical of gamification in academic libraries- not because I’m some kind of uncreative ogre not willing to change or experiment with new ways of learning within my profession (okay, I’m not terribly creative, I’ll admit), but because I don’t think gamification does enough.  I see gamification as demonstrating a misalignment between the desire to provide students with innovative library experiences and actually facilitating the development of information skills.  Where gamification has shown to be massively positive as far as challenges around engagement are concerned, the utilisation of gamified techniques in order to teach information literacy, fall short in that they often prove to be unsustainable, become outmoded, or do not effectively appeal to student learning abilities, needs, styles, or expectations.

Now, I know what you’re saying- Becky, you just haven’t found the right game or technique.  You could be right- which is why I’m more interested in incorporating play than committing to a long-term relationship with gamification.  Don’t get me wrong- I see how, theoretically, gamification can be advantageous in academic settings- especially within libraries where trying to engage students with information literacy is so, taboo almost, that we don’t even call it by its name (information literacy)- rather, we refer to it with cryptic epithets as though it was Lord Voldemort or Beetlejuice.  I think we’ve come to explore gamification within academic libraries because cultivating interest for the delivery of information skills through a direct, teacher-centered approach is no longer a viable pedagogical option with regard to connecting with students.  Therefore, we’re hoping that incorporating gamified techniques within library instruction holds enormous potential for inspiring motivation and engagement, which, although only causally linked, will lead to positive student outcomes and attainment.

My main beef, if you will, with these suppositions is its inability to provide measureable follow through when it comes to demonstrating how students are able to develop, understand, and apply intangible concepts, such as politics, discourse, or, in this case, information or digital literacy, that must be activated in order to be gained. Therefore, it is not enough that a student engage with gamified learning activities which could be considered as physical artefacts of cultural capital (there’s always room for Bourdieu), they must possess the appropriate skills with which to understand the learning outcomes and objectives.

In the same vein, whilst implementing technology-enhanced learning through gamification demonstrates how students engage with constructivist learning, Markey et al argue that regardless of positive theoretical benefits to implementing gamification in higher education, students involved with the concept tend to focus more on meeting their instructor’s incentives, rather than making deep connections with their learning (2009, p.311). This resonates with considerations of key game play concepts with regard to student motivation, and specifically the challenge of turning extrinsic motivation for learning into intrinsic motivation (Kapp, 2012, p.52).  Kim expands on this argument by proposing that educators care about whether their students are intrinsically motivated to participate in learning activities and should therefore be mindful about game design in order to successfully gain buy-in and encourage intrinsic motivation of learning from students (Kim, 2014, p.33)- which, in my opinion, is an entirely different can of worms that is also quite important.  This understanding of gamified TEL programme design correlates, to a lesser extent, with the challenge libraries encounter when building programs that offer learning experiences, as opposed to opportunities for engagement.

Where libraries are able to develop learning activities with gamified elements, challenges often arise with regard to usability and user experience, as many librarians are not equipped with the necessary understanding or skills related to game theory to influence the look and feel of the end product, resulting in a misalignment between content and aesthetics- which I completely understand.  My first attempt at creating online content was utterly devoid of creativity or visual appeal, but then again, I earned a degree in Library and information science, not design.  Similarly, Felker argues that educational gamers can become so preoccupied with trying to get the game to teach, they fail to devote enough time and attention to perfecting the experience of playing the game, and therefore suggests hiring a professional service to collaborate with the librarians (2014, p.21).  Oh sure, Felker, I’ll get right on that- I’ll just fire off into Funds Land where funds grow on Fund Trees.

I warned you- I’m just not that into gamification.  All is not lost though.  I’m still an advocate for play and firmly believe that it can help create connections with students that will positively affect their learning, motivation, and skills development.  At recent event, Lego in Higher Education, hosted by the always-impressive Dr. Alison James and Chrissi Nerantzi, David Gauntlett, a champion for creativity and play within academia and learning, talked about the importance of making connections with students in order to empower them and provide platforms for their creativity.  We cannot do this if we are not connecting with students, and we can’t connect with them in a meaningful way unless we are having conversations with them, sharing inspiration, and then actually figuring out how to make “things” happen.  Without play, or at least minute elements of play- achieving this does not seem possible.  So…player, play on.


Felker, K. (2014) ‘Gamification in libraries: The state of the art’, Accidental Technologist, 54(2), pp.19-23.

Kapp, K.M. (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Kim, B. (2015) Understanding gamification.  Available at: http://journals.ala.org/ltr/issue/viewIssue/502/252 (Accessed 2 June 2015).

Markey, K., Swanson, F., Jenkins, A., Jennings, B., St. Jean, B., Rosenberg, V., Yao, X. and Frost, R. (2009) ‘Will Undergraduate Students Play Games to Learn How to Conduct Library Research?’, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 35(4), pp. 303-313.