This is a media related blog of a guy that runs media labs for Hampshire College, a cool liberal arts college in New England. It's about making media at the college level and about my day as college staff.
As we struggle with multiple concepts and assorted directions for library growth and development I keep coming back to the concept of the iterative, entrepreneurial research incubator. These would be spaces for students and collections of students and faculty (classes?) to camp out and develop, over time, experimenting approaches to original research in all areas of the academic program. That, I think, is what a library in the new age should spend its resources of time, effort, space and dollars promoting.
It’s a shot of industrial strength research skills and techniques both for finding data and turning it into analytic information for further testing and hypothesizing, the results of which are presented through compelling stories, images and sounds that capture and enthrall our attention and promote and deepen our understanding of the world, our history and our future.
If you buy into my concept of the new research or are at least modestly intrigued let’s just stop a moment and step sideways. This will be the easy part of the project. It’s also going to be the fun part, but there’s an associated hard part.
The hard part is the space between walking in the front door and signing up for the new research carrel. (Oh, did you notice that easy sliding in of the term research carrel? In my mind it’s more of a Silicon Valley corporate team space (of various sizes) decked out with advanced media devices and capabilities that a team could “rent out” for long/short time intervals. Well, that’s my concept at the moment.)
Back to the hard part. So much time and energy is lost to a student in that limbo time between the front door and starting an advanced project in research. We treat the building much as a department store used to do. There are “areas” that serve differing types of products (LC numbers) or experiences and we let the customer wander through the racks perhaps librarians answering questions about color, size and where the dressing rooms are – maybe really technical questions about the ice maker in the door – until they drift over to the checkout counter and make a purchase, then leave.
The new library environment should be aggressively interactive, we should approach and confer, advise and direct, discuss and evaluate and most of all collect data about the experience, the process and the outcome. We’re a service organization, but deliver that service at only a few touch-points none of which we track deeply enough. It’s that concept of tracking a customer as they turn into a user and what makes (promotes) that happen most effectively and can you polish that experience to be more enjoyable and productive.
I wonder if we utilize the data we already have? We know who checks out a book, but I would suspect we treat that as privileged data. Or the printers? No one gets to see it. Wouldn’t it be useful to let a professor or advisor know that some of their students have never used the library and who they are. That’s the power of big data, oddly it can be quite personal, yet used responsibly.
As for the entrepreneurial research spaces? Well that’s the easy/fun part isn’t it. We’ll have a good time deciding what’s in those spaces, how it’s arranged, how big or small they are and how do you get to use them – useful, useable, affordable, sustainable.
We’re (well the Summer Media Institute actually) about to buy 15 DSLR cameras with money from an outside donor. Wow, that’s a big deal for us. We almost never get to make that large a purchase and certainly not that many of any one thing that expensive. This will be a decision we will live with for some time, affect the style of work students make and commit us to spending more money in the future to maintain that equipment. Is it the right decision and how do we know that?
One of the most important math equations that we can rely on to help us make good decisions shows us the distribution effects of camera life over both a long and short time span: from 3 years to 13 years. Our worry is that we might purchase the wrong cameras and then later we’ll have a lot of items we regret.
The question: is it smarter to buy a lot of less expensive cameras or fewer higher-end more expensive cameras and more importantly how does that play out over time as cameras break and have to be replaced. Additionally is it better to buy it all at once or spread it out over a period of a year and buy different models of cameras.
There will inevitably develop over time a drift between the original camera models and the ones that we buy to replace the ones that die. For a short period of time we can just buy the same ones for replacement, but at some point they’ll no longer be manufactured and only new/different models will be available. It’s inevitable.
A second part to the equation is how long before that happens, how fast does it take to tip the balance, at what point are all the cameras completely replaced and finally how much money have we spent as we reach the end of the complete cycle. Oh, yes, one more important question - are we happy about the whole outcome or will we wish we had played out a different scenario.
So here’s the equation: (oh wait, there isn’t any).
If any of us could figure that out we’d be working for some investment bank instead, right? The reality is no one knows how it’s going to play out, what to buy, what’s going to break, in the end was it all affordable and did we have a good time. Just stop back in in a few years and then we’ll know. Until then, think hard, read up, try stuff out, think about what’s happened in the past and then go for it.
However. This is a great test case and we should track the hell out of it for data and user satisfaction. Indeed, is it better to buy low or high? How long will it take before we have to replace a camera with a different model and how does that affect everyone? Are we now obliged to keep that many cameras in the pool and what will be the cost of doing that? Will we notice a shift in the style of work and how might that affect a programs direction? All good questions and I’ll bet there’s a ton more that we’ll come up with over time. We should embrace this as a great experiment and formally track the data and share the results quite formally.
Hampshire needs a story. A story that allows others to more easily comprehend what the Hampshire experience will be. It’s definitely not a mission statement. It’s not a list of buzz words on the level of collaboration or entrepreneurial. It’s not about feminist politics nor sustainable agriculture. It’s not a listing of what the best students are doing this year, though you might use some examples. It’s a story that explains what will happen, what good that will do you, and why you should care.
It should be easily tellable not convoluted or have complex sentence structure. You shouldn’t have to look down at a piece of paper to remember some important point or where you are in the story. While it’s not really an academic story it should explain our academic process while honestly reflecting what really happens, not just what we say happens. It should have warmth, insight and drama. It should be fun, open and believable. We should be proud to tell it and believe it ourselves.
It needs to be long enough to not feel rushed or have topics crammed in though there’s no need to mention every program or department and it definitely shouldn’t have any Hampshire jargon or acronyms. The story should be about people working together and the pleasures and problems we all have, how we approach those problems and how they are resolved. It should be about how we engage personal and social issues and how growth, personal and intellectual, occurs through experiences, actions and interactions.
It should honor the philosophy of the liberal arts, but from a modern view point. It should be about what happens in and outside of classes from the perspective of a student. It should describe and reveal the differences between the three divisional levels and what each experience feels like over time. It should illustrate the benefits of a division contract and it’s accompanying narrative evaluation for both faculty and students.
Finally, it should provide examples of what life after college could be like and some possibilities for living a meaningful life in the future.
How much is 5 + 6 ? Ask three different people that question. If that
question was a job you needed to fill who would you hire and how
much would you pay them. It doesn’t matter does it, the answer is
always going to be the same. There’s no differentiation from one person
to another so you’d pay the least possible to get that job done.
Next, what does each number represent and how did you find that out.
Ah, that’s slightly deeper work that requires some important skills and
analytics. You’d hire the person with the best track record for delving
into the analysis of the field and pay them the market rate.
Finally, tell me the real story behind the 5 and 6 and deliver it as a 20
minute movie on a Blu-ray disk. That’s even deeper, combining an
historical reference of some depth, an analyst’s insight into the
relevance of the past and the direction for future action with a
storytellers skill in organizing that information and conveying it back to
us. Who to hire would be based on the total quality experience and its
usefulness. We might pay quite a lot to get it right because not only can
we benefit directly from the information about the numbers we can also
use the story itself. It’s no longer just analytics, it’s also an experience
and one that everyone can understand.
You don’t want to be one of the three people back at the beginning just
building the same answer. They’re in a race to the bottom, undercutting
each other selling the exact same product.
The middle group is just that, they’re analytic middlemen stuck in a
marketplace economy in competition with each other over reputations,
referrals and analytic speed.
The final group are independent contractors that may be singular
entities or collections of people working toward the same goal. The
quality or valuation of the product is based on both their insights about
data and their artistic skills at storytelling and presentations; it’s an
artistic entrepreneurial skill set – the art of producing the insightful
We want to be in that last group. It’s a more intricate job, but much
more interesting and we think, much more sustainable into the future as
everything around us changes. We would prefer to be in the business of
telling stories about the meaning of the numbers, not shuffling them. If
you’re not in a high-value-added job, one with creativity as a significant
part of the process, then you’re in a race to the bottom or maybe even
in competition with a digital version of yourself.
We understand that you would have to at least understand the analytic
process, though not necessarily run the numbers yourself. In fact that
final value-added group would probably hire both of the other two
groups to work for them, but end up keeping most of the profits. It’s the
business side of the new liberal arts media education and that sound
you hear is the future knocking on your door. Remember, just a few time
zones away it’s already tomorrow. gunther November 10, 2013
I frequently ask prospective students what area of study they’re interested in. There are all
kinds of responses back as you might imagine, but sometimes there seems to be more
anguish than necessary, more uncertainty, more worry or a nervous blank look and no answer
at all. Here’s a small hypothetical "welcome speech" to first-years to help them think about how to stake out personal and intellectual
turf. It posses a simple question that they will eventually confront.
Some time from now you will be asked a question. It may be eight years or fourteen
months or two decades, but it will come. It will be the most important question you will ever
answer. You may not have studied it in school. You may never have thought about it at all.
You'll think, why are they asking me, but they are and you'll need to answer, because there'll
be no one else.
Your response will save the life of your friend, your lover, your next door neighbor, the person
at work you hate. Your answer will save the company you work for, the neighborhood you live
in, your daughters school, the little park just down the street, New England.
The person who asks you the question will be your younger sister, the guy in the elevator,
your best friend, the CEO of the company you work for, the woman in the car across the
street, the governor of Massachusetts. They'll be depressed, crying, fearful, in pain,
desperate, stoic, angry, or simply have a blank look on their face. You won't have time to look
it up, ask someone else, talk it over, think it through or read about it on-line. Everything will
stop. People will turn to hear your answer. Faces will lift. It will get a little quiet. Suddenly it
will be now.
The question you will be asked is, "what should we do?" Your answer will change the course of
your life and the lives of others for better or for worse. Will you be able to give that answer?
Is this actually going to happen? Maybe. But here's the "really scary" version – perhaps more
likely is that no one will ask at all. People will just stand there frozen, uncertain, bewildered,
baffled, trapped in the middle of a horrible, desperate situation – physical, emotional,
economic – and simply wait for something to happen. That's when you need to lead.
Unasked, you have to step forward and say what you think we should do. Answering the
unasked desperate question is the hardest thing in the world to do and the most important,
but to be able to do it you have to prepare – starting now.
So that's why we're really here, to get you to a point later in life, where you could answer that
question or even more importantly the unasked desperate question. If you want to change
the world you need to get ready. You may not think you're up to it, but everyone here is.
However, if you're just here to have a good time, later you're not going to be much help to
anyone because you won't be able to answer the question – you didn't prepare, you didn’t
learn enough, you didn’t grow, you didn’t gain enough confidence. You'll have small ideas
and that great desperate question will just hang there – unanswered.
So what is it that you’ll have to learn to be able to answer that question? What is it that you’ll
have to develop in yourself to be able to stand and respond? Who will you have to become
to be able to do all of it? There’s your curriculum. There are your learning goals. Find the
questions that you want to be responsible for in the future. Don’t pick something trivial,
choose to be responsible for ideas and actions that are truly important.
But wait, there’s one more thing. Not only do you have to be able to answer the question, you
also have to be there, don’t you. Step forward. Get on the front line. Always be at the head of
the crowd. Not only is it a better view, but you’ll understand more and have more influence.
One day in the future, right there, right then, it could, you know, all come down to just you. gunther October 14, 2013
I just survived one of those well meaning, but off-target how to group-think about priorities and get (more) stuff done workshops. Now, in retrospect, I think it simply needed a better preface, focusing discussion and progressive lead-in. Instead we jumped into solving the problem. Wait, I said, what problem? How do I come up with a solution if I don’t even know what the problem is? I showed up just to discover what the problem is, not solve it. I don’t need a prescription, I need a diagnosis.
The methodological approach of todays technique was to write down the problem, post it on a wall, notice other people’s problems then draw on possible resources, develop actions and feel good about having solved the problem in less time than talking about it. Well some hits and some misses I think.
I’ve come to value the “talk about it” model more and more. Not actually for solving problems, I agree it’s way too slow, but for discovering them. That always seems to me the more important and less examined area. We’re all too quick to come up with solutions, but less interested in the taxonomy of how problems relate or separate. Are they perceived or actual? Are they tactical or strategic? Are they engineered to happen or are they accidental? It reflects my Hampshire philosophy that I think the power is in the question, not the answer.
This isn’t the only workshop of it’s kind. Bob Crowley and folks in IT are doing similar kinds of trainings that offer a small range of approaches and methods for feeling better about your workload. Well, at least feeling better about the method of approaching your workload, but Bob’s current method – service design – is much more introspective while being analytic at the same time. Nice house blend.
This also meshes well with the frequent and on-going strategic planing discussions that we’re all invited to. The end result is an increased awareness of how to think about problems at work, of work and how to approach their solutions. That’s good regardless of how modest or off-center it is.
What this really shows, I think, is what I’m calling The New Implementation. It’s the next fast approaching version of Hampshire now that so many of the first generation faculty are retiring and the new folk are looking around and re-examining the lay of the land.
The New Implementation isn’t about new buildings or a bigger budget, but simply refining the way and the why of what we do all day (also perhaps slightly into the night), though there’s going to be nothing simple about it. What we’re going to experience is a fissure of procedural behaviors. As we think through and work differently what we end up doing will slowly reveal the next iteration of what we call Hampshire, the college. There’ll be a lot of congruity in some areas, but less in others.
It’s all to be expected and embraced as long as we build a common and agreed upon story that captures the spirit, drive and excitement of what education needs to become to be both effective and sustainable and still wear the name Hampshire. Everyone is going to play a part in The New Implementation – whether they want to or not.