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On cyborgs

In class this week, I had a chance to revisit one of my favorite metaphors for librarianship: the cyborg.

I owe a great debt to cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, whose book “Natural-Born Cyborgs” (2003) is one I continually return to, even when I disagree with some of its arguments. (You can read the eBook version via MLibrary here.)

He writes:

“For we shall be cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and nonbiological circuitry. This book is the story of that transition and of its roots in some of the most basic and characteristic facts about human nature: For human beings, I want to convince you, are natural-born cyborgs.” (p. 3).

Whenever I find myself staring down existential dread about the huge cultural shifts we’re undergoing as a global wired community, and as a profession of information experts, I think about Andy Clark, about how humans have always been cyborgs from our first use of tools, and I feel a bit more in control. (Editor’s note: I am perhaps prone to existential dread. Your mileage may vary.)

So, in class, when a colleague practiced her podcasting skills and interviewed me briefly about my ideas on librarianship, I said, naturally, “Cyborgs.” (Which, for the record, are way nicer than Cylons.)

There’s something both hopeful and a bit fantastical about the extent to which we enjoy what’s also known as “distributed cognition” these days. It is the complexity of these human-electronic networks that also underscores my fundamental belief that we need more librarians and knowledge workers now, not fewer. We need guides.

So it was in this spirit that I appreciated our introduction this week to core learning theory, and the ways in which librarians can become those guides to constructing new knowledge.

On “stickiness”

The cyborg metaphor probably reveals something about the way my mind works, as all evocative metaphors do. Our discussion this week about the importance of cultivating metacognitive skills and useful learning schema in learners reminded me how much I rely on anecdotes and metaphor to help illustrate and encapsulate my ideas about teaching and learning and information work.

As a writer, I try to exploit that “stickiness” of ideas, of the odd and captivating turn of phrase: In one of my previous incarnations, I worked as a newspaper headline writer, the closest thing to poetry I can manage, and I relished the explosive brevity of great headlines.

Yet in the classroom or on the reference desk, I am continually challenged to unearth and connect to learners’ prior knowledge, in order to help make new ideas clear, or to find a “sticky” concept that will illuminate something more complex.

I have been inspired by the work of U-M professor and former secondary history teacher Robert Bain (2005), whose chapter in “How students learn: History, mathematics, and science” (eBook at MLibrary here) outlines the way he capitalized on what he calls a “simple linguistic device” (a new schema, in the terms of our discussion this week) to reframe students’ thinking on history. The new schema also gave students a concrete way to check for understanding — to employ metacognition — as they encountered unfamiliar ideas.

“The most significant instructional goal and feature of the activity involved our naming these distinctions by creating two new and key terms — ‘H(ev)’ and ‘H(ac)’ — standing for ‘history-as-event’ and ‘history-as-account.’ Why make up such new historical terms? Students typically enter history class with established conceptions and assumptions about history. They use the word ‘history’ in two very different ways: (1) history as a past occurrence (‘Well, that happened in history.’) or (2) history as an account of a past occurrence (‘I wrote that in my history.’) Their everyday and commonsense uses of the word ‘history’ blur the distinctions between the past and accounts of the past and reinforce typical conceptions that history is but a mirror of the past. A crucial instructional move, therefore, involves creating a language to help students break out of their ordinary, customary use of ‘history’ to make fundamental disciplinary distinctions.” (p. 187).

My question, then, is how can librarians help challenge or connect to prior knowledge when our interactions with learners are often so short? Developing metacognitive strategies and learning frameworks takes time, and as librarians, we often don’t have the sustained time with learners as teachers do.

Maybe part of the answer lies in the self-paced online learning modules we touched on in class: opportunities for librarians to “make their best case” with captivating and memorable concepts that stick.

What other ways can librarians make an impact on learners when faced with a limited amount of time?

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