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Research & Scholarship

Reflecting on Networks

March 7th, 2016 by Patrick Williams

This semester, the Libraries co-sponsored a number of events under the banner of this year’s Syracuse Symposium on the theme of Networks. The goal of that series is to explore the theme through a variety of multidisciplinary events, and to consider the ways networks “make it necessary to think through conventional ideas about authorship, power, privacy, collective action, and cultural production.”

I was thrilled to work with faculty and staff at the Humanities Center and in several academic departments to bring three exciting scholars to SU for lectures and workshops. Each of these events had, I believe, an interesting link to what we do in libraries, and here I’d like to share a little of what I took away from each event.

On February 10, Clay Spinuzzi, Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, presented a talk entitled “Three networks walk into a bar…” in which he described and compared three types of networks at play in social sciences research: social networks, sociotechnical networks, and organizational networks. Spinuzzi’s research is focused on the changing landscape of work and how technologies and knowledge work accommodate and cause shifts in how we communicate in workplaces. His attention often falls on the artifacts—both physical and digital—of work: the emails, the post it-notes, the files, and other documents through which problems are solved, skills are developed, and projects are completed.

Spinuzzi led a seminar on the day after the lecture to guide students and faculty through approaches of modeling the qualitative data they encounter and collect in their research—in the form of these artifacts and other types of evidence like interviews, videos, and ethnographic field notes. As we worked through some of the issues in making sense of the data, I began to consider the ways that library space and collections are artifacts of the work that happens in the SU Libraries—both by researchers and by library staff. Our attention in libraries is focused on what users do in our spaces, and taking cues from Spinuzzi’s ideas about networks, we might be able to gain a more nuanced understanding of what can and does happen in our spaces.

If you would like to read more of Spinuzzi’s work, you can check out his books All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks, Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations, Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications, and Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design.

On February 25, we welcomed Lori Emerson, Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is also the founding director of the Media Archaeology Lab, “a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using still functioning media from the past.” Her lecture, entitled “Other Networks: Hands-on History in the Media Archaeology Lab” detailed the development of the lab and provided examples of how the lab’s technologies are put to use in student work. She stresses that the Media Archeology Lab is not a museum relics, but an active, collaborative space for learning about the past in a way that is only available through tactile, playful exploration.

Emerson’s workshop, “Internet, Darknet, Alternet // The Past, Present, and Future of Cooperatively Run Networks” engaged participants in a discussion of the history of our contemporary dominant networks, and in imagining what other networks could be possible. She also presented a variety of alternate networks, disconnected networks, and tools that operate outside and in opposition the dominant networks we collectively inhabit. One thing that struck me as a librarian in these discussion, is the importance of attention to materiality—both physical and digital materiality—and how it impacts our experiences with media. Across the broad array of media we maintain in our library collections, we experience just as broad a range of experiences in using them; think reading or searching a catalog or reading an e-book versus browsing the stacks or flipping pages in a printed book, or listening to a cylinder recording the Belfer studio versus an mp3 online. These media experiences demand their own contexts, technologies, approaches and even timeframes. As librarians, we are in a good position to help researcher be attentive to these differences and make appropriate decisions about what media they use and how.

You can read more of Emerson’s work in her 2014 book Reading Writing Interfaces : From the Digital to the Bookbound, and be on the lookout for her two forthcoming books, Other Networks and The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies (with Jussi Parikka and Darren Wershler).

Finally on March 3, Jentery Sayers, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, visited to present a lecture entitled “Making Things, Writing Things: Prototyping as a Compositional Strategy,” in which he detailed the theory and practice of critical making in the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab in the Humanities (which he directs). Sayers linked work in Media Studies, Composition Studies, Digital Humanities, Human Computer Interaction, and other disciplines to present an argument for prototyping as a fruitful form of critical exploration. Projects like the Lab’s Kits for Cultural History engage researchers in inquiry around technology and history—often following and generating questions that can only be approached via tactile, embodied practice. Much like the projects at the Media Archaeology Lab, these projects emphasize hands-on learning, investigating questions that might arise out of texts, but that require physical interaction and play to truly investigate. Students in the lab employ multimodal; methods to investigate the historical roots and implications of our technological heritage and our contemporary technological concerns.

Following the lecture, Sayers presented “Scalar for Beginners: An Introduction to Media-Rich Scholarly Communication,” providing an overview and hands-on training for Scalar, a tool for born-digital, open source, multi-modal authoring designed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. During Sayers’s visit, I was struck by the degree to which accommodating the alternate ways which researchers might take through a particular topic is a very big concern for libraries. Beyond the ways libraries organize and provide access to information, the linkages, juxtapositions, points of interaction, and missed opportunities that occur across all of the work that happens “in” libraries are all opportunities for rethinking how things work, and how they can work.

If you are interested in learning more about Sayers’s work, you can read his work in Kairos, Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies and Literature Compass, and there is a listing of his projects, past and present, at his website. For more information on the Kits for Cultural History, see Sayers’s articles in Hyperrhiz ’13 and Visible Language.

Each of these visiting speakers drew attention to the different forms networks may take in organizations, on campuses, within disciplines, and offered insights into what happens external to these networks. As a member of an organization deeply seated in a number of overlapping networks, I think I’ve come away from these events with an increased attentiveness to the ways our networks might be working together, or in opposition, with one another. Furthermore, the importance of considering time and space, even when thinking about the digital, will be something I’ll continuously foreground as I think about my work in the Libraries.

Along with the Humanities Center and the Libraries, I’d like to thank the other co-sponsors of these events: Syracuse University Writing Program, Syracuse University, Syracuse University Writing Program Student Organization, Syracuse University English Department, The Department of Art and Music Histories, the Digital Humanities Working Group at Syracuse University, the Office of Research, and the Syracuse University Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Grad Circle.

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