Activism Libraries

“The Internet’s Own Boy” Viewing and Panel with Director

I recently had the opportunity to attend a viewing of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” presented by Sundance Film Forward and the University of Michigan Library. I had already viewed the film online, but was drawn to this particular viewing at the Michigan Theatre for the opportunity to discuss the film with director Brian Knappenberger after the showing. The viewing was well-attended and I did not get a chance to speak during discussion, but I would get my opportunity later.

If you are not familiar with “The Internet’s Own Boy”, it is a film about the life and death of Aaron Swartz, a young tech advocate and activist who had a hand in creating RSS technology, Creative Commons, Demand Progress, and Reddit. Swartz‘s story had always stuck with me because of his work with technology and activism, which has become one of my passions within the last few years, and also because I have had my own struggles with suicide and self-harm. Watching this film never fails to leave me in an emotional state, but it also provides deep inspiration for me. Swartz’s story continues to inspire me to take a stand for things that are important to me. To use my skills to better the world. To be the thorn in the side of all my naysayers. To be unapologetic for being young.

A colleague who helped organize the event, stopped my partner and I as we were leaving the theater. She informed us that they had a cancellation and were looking for people to join the Sundance Crew and Brian Knappenberger for dinner. Thirty minutes later and I am sitting beside Knappenberger in one of Ann Arbor’s fine Main Street restaurants. Among us were a mix of University of Michigan and Sundance folks. This included myself, my partner, and his friend as well as a couple students from the University of Michigan(U-M). Both my partner and his friend work in IT at U-M while I work at the library. The two students were studying Mathematics and Screen Arts and Culture respectively. It was an excellent blend of backgrounds and knowledge which helped facilitate some interesting discussion later that evening, including intense discussions about encryption and how to make it stronger and better. The Mathematician and IT individuals certainly had a great time with that one!

The dinner discussion with Knappenberger was a truly incredible opportunity and rarely does one have the chance to speak directly to the creator of their favorite works. I have interests in both filmmaking and activism, and I had wanted to know the type of impact a film such as this had on audiences, especially those who were uninformed on the topic.Knappenberger said that overall he described that the feedback he had received from the film had been positive and even the impromptu discussion about encryption between recent strangers had even helped illustrate this.

I enjoyed listening to Knappenberger speak on the process of making the film and how it sort of happened naturally because he was connected to several people who knew Swartz at the time of his suicide and began filming their reactions and stories. One of the more interesting points was the barriers of getting the film to be released openly and free online. They used an interesting model of having a theatrical release and making money off the film for the first 1-2 years before releasing it openly. Knappenberger made a great point about how movies make less money past their release and how it’s not impossible to make a full-length film available for free and still recoup film and production costs.

As the night wrapped up, there was buzz about a the “Open Access Activism” panel happening the following afternoon at the Hatcher Graduate Library. The panel would featuring Brian Knappenberger, director if “The Internet’s Own Boy”; Jack Bernard, U-M lawyer and associate general counsel; and Melissa Levine, director of UM Library’s Copyright office. Of course, we went.


The panel was titled “Open Access Activism”, but was more focused on Swartz’s story and how it related to the University of Michigan. I thought there were some incredible questions that were brought up during this discussion and also learned some surprising things.

The panel was led with a question in regard to Swartz’s JSTOR downloads, “why didn’t Swartz talk to a librarian?”. This is was an excellent way to start off the panel and the answers were quite interesting. Many folks felt that if Swartz had just asked a librarian about collecting articles for JSTOR, then he may not have been in the situation that he was, which is definitely a possibility. I think this is a great point, but perhaps simplifying things a bit. It may be easy for a room full of librarians to say “why not ask a librarian”, but perhaps should ask themselves that questions first. What usually prompts someone to ask a librarian?  I work in a library where librarians are accessible and abundant and I still don’t ask a librarian anything unless I need help or run into an issue. When downloading the JSTOR articles, I’m not sure if Swartz ran into anything he saw as an issue or something that he that he felt he alone could not handle. He was a tech wiz and already had his own methods of accessing those articles. I would argue that Swartz’s methods, although they fell within this legal gray area, were probably faster and more effective than any option a librarian could provide. In hindsight, I wish the question was open to audience because I am curious to hear what librarians would say to someone’s request to download thousands of JSTOR articles in a short period of time.

The conversation moved to Jack Benard, U-M lawyer and associate general counsel, when he was asked, “would the University of Michigan have acted any differently in this situation than MIT?”. The short answer was no. Bernard went on to explain that in these situations, the University of Michigan would have likely – and have done before – set up stings like this to catch the perpetrator. A follow up question from a network security professional asked if U-M would ever knowingly allow unknown and potentially harmful device, like Swartz’s laptop, to remain connected to the university’s network for investigations. Bernard illustrated that U-M looks at these situations case-by-case to determine risks, and that yes they would leave an unknown device connected to the university’s network if it is not deemed a high risk. Another great follow-up I would have liked to heard more about was how U-M determines whether devices are a risk.

The remainder of the talk was mostly focused on Swartz’s actions and his guilt in the JSTOR/MIT incident. The final 10-15 minutes was left to the audience to discuss with panel members and ask questions. It was an extremely interesting talk and I had learned some unexpected things about U-M’s policies, which was an added plus.

I waited until the crowd from the panel cleared out and approached Brian Knappenberger with a small bag of my handmade buttons. It was my way of thanking him for taking the time to tour with this film and to chat with people like myself. The buttons I gave him included the same anti-NSA buttons that I gave Cory Doctorow at the 2014 Penguicon conference and that I had passed out for The Day we Fight Back. (And I would be lying if I said I didn’t secretly wish Cory Doctorow and Brian Knappenberger would coordinate with each other to wear my buttons at the same time). These are the folks who motivate me to do what I do and I sure hope they realize the impact they have.


Consultations Instruction Libraries

How can we better empower learners during consultations?

In my position as an Instructional Technologist at the University of Michigan Libraries, I get to work with a diverse range of students, staff, faculty, and community members. One of my primary job roles is sitting one-on-one with leaners, also referred to as patrons within the library, to show them how to use an application such as Photoshop or Camtasia.  Since our patron community is quite diverse, so are the levels of computer, technical, and communication skills that patrons possess. I would consider a large part of my job is not providing instruction of the application or tools, but empowering my learners to believe that they can use said tools.

I provide instruction for many visual products, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Final Cut Pro, Camtasia, or WordPress. Most of these applications are technically rich and are often intimidating for beginners. The most common phrases I hear patrons say to me during these consultations are a flavor of  “I am bad with technology” or “computers hate me” or “I’m a digital immigrant”. This made me realize that these people are coming into the consultation with these beliefs about themselves or their skills before they even touch a computer. This has become a barrier in instruction and I wanted to know how could I potentially alter these beliefs.

The one statement that most sticks out to me is that so many people refer to themselves “digital immigrant”. The terms “digital immigrant” and “digital natives” were first coined by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, featured in the On the Horizon journal. Prensky uses this terminology to distinguish a technical engagement divide between those who have grown up immersed in technology and those who haven’t. In the article, he focuses on the education of digital natives and how digital immigrants – as instructors – are not meeting the needs of their digital native learners with engaging pedagogy. I believe that some learners use this language incorrectly to discredit themselves and technical skills, but it’s not the incorrect use of the term that interest me, but rather the fact that they identify with this term.

Understanding that some leaners have these personal identities and see themselves as being a person who exhibits “poor” technical skills, helped illustrate why so many of my patrons would discount themselves before touching the computer. I believe that identifying as a “digital immigrant” or other term is much more powerful than just having doubts about one’s ability. I began thinking of small ways I could alter my consultations to help empower the patron more and avoid confirming any negative doubts or identities they may have about themselves. Below is a brief list of some of the tactics I have developed.

Get to know to the patron.

Before I begin any instruction, I take a few minutes to get to know my patron, their skills, and understand their needs. I clearly outline what we will be covering in the consultation and give them an opportunity to express any concerns and fears they may have. This is a chance for me to manage their expectations and let them know exactly what to expect. I find it important to continue this dialog throughout the consultation, especially if things are not going as planned.

  • Introduce yourself with your name, title, and pronouns so that patrons know how to address you. Also provide some background of your skills and expertise, especially if it is specific to the consultation.
  • Talk to the patron and have them describe their background, goals, skill level, and any concerns they may have.
  • Do not make assumptions of anyone’s skills or background.
  • Break down the consultation process for your patron. Let them know exactly what you will be covering and have them set personal goals/objectives for the consultation.
  • Keep dialog open, especially when things do not go as planned.

Give them control.

One-on-one consultations are a fairly personal form of instruction and I try to be aware and respect boundaries and personal space during these sessions to ensure my patron is comfortable and feels in control.  I keep communication open and continue to check-in and ask how they’re feeling about the process and will adjust my instruction, personal space, or make any other necessary changes to better suit their needs. I try to encourage my patrons to acknowledge their personal learning styles or workflows and I try to provide them with choices to help them work as closely as we can within their skill-set and comfort zones.

  • State your boundaries. Let them know if they can interrupt you with questions or
  • Always ask before taking over their computer, mouse, or devices – even if it’s just to show something quick.
  • Make sure the patron sets the pace of the session and allow them them have control over their learning.
  • Encourage patrons to take notes, record the consultation, or do whatever it takes to ensure they are comfortable and confident in their learning.
  • Empower patrons of their personal learning styles and workflows and steer the consultation to fit their needs.

Make mistakes.

Back when I was a teaching assistant during graduate school, I was terrified of saying something wrong in lecture or making a mistake during a demonstration because I was worried that it would discredit me in the eyes of the learners. Years later I realized that this strive for perfection had actually alienated some of my learners. I never realized this until I had separate occasions where I would make a mistake during a consultation or workshop and a person would say something along the lines of “I’m happy to see that you make mistakes, too”. I didn’t realize it, but through my “perfect” instruction I had created an unattainable expectation of my learners. If I didn’t make mistakes then how could they? I now embrace mistakes and even use planned mistakes as examples in my workshop sessions. I will also write some of these workshops centered around the most common mistakes and frustrations within an application.

  • Do not be afraid or upset when you make mistakes in front of learners. It’s actually a good thing! Let the beginner know that experts make mistakes too.
  • Use mistakes to your advantage. Mistakes are a great way of learning and taking advantage of them could lead to very positive teaching moments.
  • Purposely make mistakes. Consider using them as part of your instruction.

Shift focus.

I noticed that learners will often take the blame of something that is actually not their fault, but the fault of the software of equipment. This is the most heart-breaking to me because it is completely unnecessary. I always try to let a patron know when it was not their fault and illustrate the problem and how it happened.  I will occasionally take it a step further and blame the application for minor things that the patron has done. For example, when making an illustration using Adobe Illustrator you use multiple, tiny points to create a drawing. Patrons often quickly understand how to create and select points as it’s an easy concept, but often times they struggle in clicking the right spot to select a point. Instead of blaming the patron and explaining how to click points once again, I will remind that the points are quite small and how Illustrator is very specific about where you click. This is also when I will bring up screen resolution and the zoom tools. It would have been easier for me to tell the patron they were doing it wrong, but they would not have been empowered to change the settings of the application to suit their needs.

  • Shift focus on the learner and not the technology. The technology should work for us and not visa versa.
  • Don’t let learners take the blame of things that were not their fault, specifically technical issues.
  • Show the learner how a mistake happened and center it on their needs and not the technology.
  • Blame the application or equipment if needed. Some things are not friendly to every user, so acknowledge this and place blame on poor design. Thankfully Photoshop, the office copier, and your new cell phone do not have feelings that can be hurt.

Provide a safety network.
Patrons are sometimes nervous when leaving a consultation because they are worried they may forget an important detail. Let them know that it’s okay and that they have a safety net, which could consist of another consultation with them, directing them to online guides or handouts, referring them to the university technology center, or giving them your direct office phone number. Do whatever would help the patron feel the most confident and comfortable upon leaving the session.

  • Make yourself available and let them know when it is best to ask your questions or come in for a consultation.
  • Provide any online or physical resources that may be useful to the patron continue or strengthen their learning.
  • Schedule follow-up appointments or send check-in emails to make sure things are going well after a consultation.

That is everything from my list, but I am interested in hearing what others do to help improve their one-on-one consultations or instruction session. What other tactics can be used to help shift learner identities from being negative to being empowered? How do you empower those who feel technology is not for them? Please feel free to comment or email me with some of your feedback on this topic!