Finding Places, Making Spaces

We’ve been researching the CUNY student experience for a while now, and have collected an enormous amount of data: interviews with students and faculty (subsequently transformed into transcripts and coded), student photographs and drawings, and geocoded map locations. And for years we have wanted to find some way to showcase the visual data, and especially the photographs taken by and drawings done by CUNY students in 2009-2011. If you’ve seen us present or looked through our slide decks you’ve seen some of these images. They are AMAZING, full of detail and nuance and movement and challenges and triumphs, and we are so grateful that students shared them with us during our research.

We are thrilled to share our new website, Finding Places, Making Spaces. This website presents selected visual data from our research with CUNY students in 2009-2011 at BMCC, Bronx Community College, Brooklyn College, City College, Hunter College, and City Tech. Students sketched maps of their daily routes, photographed items related to their academic lives, and drew representations of their research processes.

These visualizations augment our publications on this research, and provide an alternate way to learn about what we learned from CUNY students. We’ve included photographs that students took of places and technology, drawings that students made of their process when completing a research assignment, and timelines created with maps that students drew of the activities of a typical school day. All are accompanied by quotes from student interviews, to contextualize the images in students’ own words.

Please take a look at We’d love to hear what you think.

Presentation on Student Taskscapes at Hunter ACERT

We were delighted to present at Hunter College’s ACERT (Academic Center for Excellence in Research and Teaching) last week, talking about our research on the CUNY student experience. We focused here especially on student taskscapes: what they’re doing, where and when, with what tools or objects, and around which other people, and especially the challenges or successes they find.

Many thanks to Jeff Allred (English, Hunter) for inviting us to present, and to everyone at ACERT for a great event. Jeff’s written a blogpost about the event on the ACERT website, and the excellent ACERT videoteam have also posted a video capsule wrapup.

Just One More Question

I’m on sabbatical for the spring and early summer, working on a study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading that should complement our research on students’ lived experiences at CUNY. I’m interested in how our students get access to what they need to read, their process while reading (for example, do they take notes? where do they find space and time to read?), how they prioritize the task of reading, and where they encounter frustration and success.

This is not a post about the results of my research — while I’ve finished up interviews, transcriptions, and coding, I’ve yet to dig into writing up. But I wanted to take some time to write and think about my research practice while the interviewing, transcribing, and coding process is still relatively fresh in my mind. In particular I’d like to consider one specific question I asked during my semi-structured interviews with students:

Are there any questions you thought I would ask that I didn’t?

This question closed out most of my 30 interviews with students and elicited a variety of responses. It’s not a question I’ve asked of research participants before this study, though it seemed like a potentially useful twist on the “is there anything else you’d like to share?” question that I’ve often used at the end of interviews.

Let’s start with the flyers I hung up at BMCC, Brooklyn College, and City Tech to recruit students. Here’s what they said:

BMCC* Students: I’m a City Tech professor doing a study on college students and course reading, and I’d like to interview you.

*or Brooklyn College or City Tech

Underneath that was a bit of text about participant incentives, my name, and the email address to use to contact me for more information or to join the study. When students emailed me I responded briefly with information that was mostly logistical: participants must be at least 18 years old, interviews will take about 30 minutes and be audio-recorded, the Metrocard/Amazon giftcard is for $10.

When students came meet me for an interview, the first thing I did was ask them to read and sign the consent form, as required by CUNY’s Institutional Review Board. The form is 1 1/2 pages long, and while there is a brief summary of my project, it’s predominantly required text about potential risks and benefits, confidentiality, participant rights, and non-participation or withdrawal. In my experience most students read through consent forms fairly quickly; I always ask students if they have any questions before signing, and most don’t.

Looking back at students’ responses to my new last interview question has been fascinating. Most students replied with “no” or some variation on no, like this student from BMCC: “You actually asked all the right questions.” And this somewhat humorous response from a City Tech student: “I think you’ve asked a sufficient amount of questions” (laugh).

A Brooklyn College student thought I would ask about their prior experiences and background with reading, because “a lot of college students hate reading and, like, dread it.” They further speculated on the source of students’ reading struggles: “maybe because they just don’t have really good foundations in reading.” Since I did ask students about their experiences with reading in high school or educational settings before college, as well as about their struggles with reading, I was glad to hear that this student’s expectations matched the interview’s reality.

A couple of students replied that they thought I would ask them to read during the interview, like this Brooklyn College student: “I thought I would come here to read something and you would get my opinion on that.” This student also shared that “I really like that it was specified towards me.” In prior rounds of research we’ve heard from students that mapping their days and considering their research process offered an opportunity for self-reflection that they found valuable, and I think this student’s response hints at that kind of reflection as well.

Several students across all three colleges told me that they thought I would ask whether their reading was difficult or interesting, or about specific topics for reading “like, for English classes” (City Tech). A BMCC student expected me to ask about their process for writing papers, which makes sense given that a paper is often the end result of reading that students are required to do.

A few students responded to my question by asking for more specific information on my study, including what I planned to do with the results of the research. Some students had asked this question when they initially emailed me (and one student mentioned that my email had answered all of her questions). In response to the students who asked for more details I shared a bit about my role as a library faculty member and wanting to learn more about what kinds of course materials students need and where they encounter barriers accessing or reading them. I also let students know that I’ll be sharing the results of my research both within CUNY and more broadly via conferences and publications.

Looking back at all of these student responses makes me think that I should add a sentence or two about the purpose of the research to my email with students when signing them up for the study. I also wonder whether I’ve been clear enough about the purpose of my research on the consent form, though it’s unavoidable that some of the required language on the consent form is quite dry (and with its length it’s easy for participants to treat it like terms & conditions and just read quickly and sign). Overall I think this new twist on my final question is a good one, and I’m inclined to keep it for the future.

Understanding the Whole Student at Teach @ CUNY Day

We were thrilled to be invited to present the keynote at Teach @ CUNY Day yesterday along with Natalia Ortiz, doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. Our presentation was a broad overview of our research into how CUNY undergraduates fit their academic work into their lives, focusing on study locations, the technology they use, and how they do research in their courses. Natalia’s terrific presentation also spoke to our students as whole people and ourselves — faculty and staff — as whole people as well, and it was lovely to experience that synergy. Both presentations were livestreamed if you’d like to check them out, and here are the slides and notes from our presentation.

Many thanks again to Luke Waltzer, Director of the Teaching & Learning Center at the GC, and all at the TLC for inviting us to speak and participate in a great day of workshops and conversations.

Workshop on Gathering Qualitative Data

We had a great time this morning facilitating a workshop for our CUNY library faculty colleagues on using ethnographic methods to learn more about our libraries and communities. Beyond talking the talk, we also asked our colleagues to walk the walk and gather a small amount of data about their own scholarly habits and about the reading rooms surrounding the workshop space.

Many thanks to the CUNY Office of Library Services’ Assessment Committee for inviting us to present! We’re happy to share our workshop slides and activity handouts, CC-BY licensed for easy reuse:


Cognitive mapping activity

Space use activity (observation, interview, photo survey)

Our Book is Here!

book-cover We’re thrilled to share the publication of our book: Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education. The book is available directly from the publisher Palgrave Macmillan (among other vendors), and you can take a look at a preview in Google Books.

The book incorporates much of our research over the past 8 years on how CUNY students do their academic work, with a particular focus on their use of technology. We learned so much about the ways that students want to and try to use technology — their own as well as college-provided — to create time for their academic work, and the ways that unanticipated barriers of technology can stand in their way.

The official book description is below. If you read it, we’d love to hear your thoughts — please get in touch.

This book explores college students’ lived experiences of using digital technologies for their academic work. Access to and use of digital technologies is an integral aspect of higher education in the twenty-first century. However, despite the tech-savvy image of them propagated by the media, not all college students own and use technology to the same extent. To ensure that students have the best opportunities for success, all in higher education must consider ways to increase affordances and reduce barriers in student technology use. This book explicitly examines urban commuter students’ use of digital technologies for academic work, on and off campus.

Fall Conference Talks and Slides

We had a great time presenting at two conferences this semester, and are delighted to share our slides and speaking notes with you.

First up was the Library Assessment Conference in November, where we presented A Day in the Life: Practical Strategies for Understanding Student Space-Use Practices with Andrew Asher, Jean Amaral, Juliann Couture, Sara Lowe, Donna Lanclos, and Barbara Fister. This link is to our slides — the paper will be published in the conference proceedings soon, and we’ll post a link when it is.

Just last week we presented at the CUNY IT Conference on our research from 2009-2011 and 2015-2016 on students’ use of technology for their academic work. We’ve posted here both the slides and the notes from our talk.

We had a terrific time at both presentations, many thanks to all who came and asked so many great questions!

Fall Research Updates

We had a busy year of new data collection during 2015-2016 and are looking forward to sharing the results of that research this year.

First up is the Library Assessment Conference in Arlington, VA, in early November. We’ll be presenting on the Day in the Life project with colleagues Andrew Asher (Indiana University), Juliann Couture (University of Colorado, Boulder), Jean Amaral (BMCC), Barbara Fister (Gustavus Adolphus College), Donna Lanclos (University of North Carolina, Charlotte), and Sara Lowe (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis). For this project we used text messaging to facilitate students’ self-reporting of their activities, and geocoded the results to create maps of where students traveled throughout a typical schoolday. It’s been so interesting to see the similarities and differences between how, where, and when students do their academic work at the 8 institutions.

In December we’ll be presenting at the CUNY IT Conference on the results of our research on how digital technology can be used by students to create time and can thwart students’ efficient use of time for their academic work. We’ll be talking about data collected during our first round of research in 2009-2011 and a follow up study of student technology use last year in 2015-2016. We’ll post the slides/storify/notes for both presentations as soon as we can.

Thinking about Time and Technology for Academic Work

My phone is on its way out. It’s an Iphone 5 and my service contract has expired, so I should probably upgrade. But I’m not a fan of the current Iphone 6 — it just seems too big to me, even in it’s non-phablet form. Because I’ve read that Apple is planning to release a smaller Iphone 6 soon, I’m waiting to get a new one. (Not always very patiently waiting, sigh.)

This self-imposed waiting for a new phone has required a few recent behavior modifications on my part. One of the ways that the phone is breaking is that there’s something loose inside that makes an audible noise when I move it too quickly, so no more shake to undo if I type (or delete) something I want to revert, a feature I use infrequently but do like. I also can’t really turn my phone off anymore because it crashes repeatedly for the first 10 minutes or so that I turn it back on. And the battery life + indicator have both gotten a bit flaky — sometimes the battery seems to drain faster than it should (occasionally in combination with the phone getting warm), and other times the battery indicator doesn’t change at all, even when I’ve been using the phone for a while and I know the indicator should be going down.

All of this wonkiness combined has meant that I have to think about my phone much more than usual. Specifically, I have to think about whether it’s charged, when I might need to charge it, and where I can charge it. I’ve started to bring my charger everywhere and actively scope out places to plug my phone in when I’m not using it, even if the battery seems full. This is a big change for me — I used to carry my charger only on days when I knew I’d be out and using my phone heavily (hello, conference Twitter). Now the first thing I do when I get into my office is plug in my phone, and the same with the classroom where I teach this semester. On a recent train trip I was made somewhat anxious when the train was too full for me to get a window seat adjacent to an outlet and had to sit on the aisle; lucky for me at one of the major stops someone next to a window got off and I was able to change seats. I also sometimes use my laptop to charge my phone now, depending on how long I need to use the laptop.

I realize that this is more detail that you ever needed to know about me and my phone habits. It’s the most minor of inconveniences, really, but the time I spend thinking about dealing with (and then dealing with) my semi-functional phone is time I could spend doing other things, and requires me to work around the technology in ways that I didn’t have to when the phone was fully functional.

This has been on my mind recently as Mariana and I are working on a project about the ways that technology shapes time for our students. Technology can be incredibly useful for our students’ academic work; the student we met during our first round of research several years ago who talked to us about writing her papers on her smartphone on the subway is the example that springs to mind most readily. But if that student has to print her paper to hand it in, and she prints on campus because it’s free (even if she has a printer at home), and there’s a long line or a jam at the printer when she gets to the library, time saved by technology can become time stolen. She is working around the technology rather than having the technology work for her, and there are real implications for her academic work.

These are just some preliminary thoughts as we begin to dig into our project — we’ll share more about this project as we go.

Our Article on CUNY Students’ Commutes and their Academic Work

We’re delighted to share that our article about how CUNY students use (or don’t use) their commutes for their academic work was just published in Urban Library Journal. In this article we share the what we learned in our study specifically about students’ commutes, and suggest strategies to help urban academic libraries direct resources, services, and policies to best serve their commuter students. Many thanks to our ULJ editors and peer reviewers!