They came, they occupied: some preliminary thoughts

2011/11/09

Whew!

One week after the event, here are some basic details, and some preliminary thoughts about what worked well, what didn’t, and what to keep thinking about.

Over fifty students came out (it was hard to do a firm count as some came in and out), but it was well over fifty most of the time.  Some arrived early and clearly learned of the event through the advertised channels but a fair number joined after seeing the group and were just curious, which was part of the goal.  There were also a decent number of librarians, but they didn’t outnumber student participants (a rare phenomenon for drop in workshops!!)  We were pretty satisfied with the turnout, given the limited advertising we could manage.    We tried to keep the format open, in keeping with the teach-in/knowledge sharing circle concept, but did opt to bookend the session with an introduction and wrap up.  I talked a bit about the purpose of the event and the series, and tried to stress that we weren’t after the standard speaker-audience experience, but were looking to create a space in which we could learn from each other.  And in retrospect, I think it was important to be explicit about that (even if it felt sort of contrived in the moment),  because the students really did end up owning the event, and it was pretty beautiful to watch it unfold.  Lisa wrapped up the hour or so by showing the research guide, which we now recognize was a critically important piece of this effort, and has since had a life of its own.

I threw out an opening question to David McNally to start, and he spoke for a few minutes about his take on the reasons for the Occupy movement, key antecedents and some fairly sobering statistics on unemployment, the debt crisis, and taxation.    It ended up being sort of defacto introduction to Occupy, which I think was ultimately very useful.  It was important to have David as a participant.   I was a bit concerned that he might dominate the discussion because of his background and expertise in the area,  and it would create a sort of teacher-student vibe.  But he was really mindful and supportive of the intended format, and in retrospect, I think his interventions were really well-timed and at times, critical to way the dialogue unfolded.

I am only beginning to think through the event and exchanges, but a couple of things stand out for me right now.   First, although trite, the old saw “if you build it, they will come” rings true.   In both the comments near the end of the hour and in follow up emails, a number of students expressed their appreciation for having a place to talk about Occupy, and a few asked about ways to continue the dialogue.  We were more than a little chuffed to see  a few students hang back after and start an email list to continue the discussion, and think through next steps.  I think I was most happy about this because it reminded me that we are filling a real NEED to create spaces for students to talk, and learn from each other.    I think this is less about our pedagogical mission (though that’s critical in our context), and more about our social responsibility as librarians.  So, the event was affirming for me  in that regard, and for those that are so inclined, provided some empirical evidence to support the larger project that Lisa and I are working through.  More later on this.

I was also struck by the level of engagement and the articulateness of the students who came out.  I don’t mean for this post to descend into platitudes, but the exchanges were, as one of our colleagues said to us after the event, so moving in their intensity and their scope.  The students challenged and confronted each other throughout the discussion, and there were times when I felt it necessary to hold back from that ingrained impulse to quell the intensity and the difficult emotions that came up.   One of the most powerful exchanges came when one participant put forth a forceful critique of the Occupy sites, and drew particular attention to the movement’s insularity,  lack of openness to marginalized groups and the reports of sexual assault and rape at specific sites.  In her comments, she also named the problems with our own event, pointing out that even though she was sitting in the inner circle of chairs in our group, she could barely hear the other participants.   She was right to name these issues, and in retrospect, watching the ways in which several students responded to her critique was a lesson to me that they don’t always need “us” (the teachers, the librarians, the professor) to moderate, or to intervene.  They get it.  Full stop.

I’m going to save more of these deeper, more nuanced pedagogical issues that this experience raised for me for another post, but for the moment, here’s some of the more immediate logistical and practical things we should keep in mind as we get ready for another event.

  • MIC.  Noise was a big issue.  We were in the Atrium, right at the top of the main escalator, which was ideal for visibility, but it was really hard to hear each other.    We didn’t arrange for a mic, partly because we weren’t sure about turnout and didn’t think far enough ahead of time, but also because it didn’t seem to fit squarely with the knowledge-sharing idea.   I still wonder if the mic would have been a deterrent in some ways.  But if we choose to use the Atrium again, we need to sort out the sound issue one way or another.
  • VISIBILITY:   The location was ideal, but running a tumbler in the back with the event’s name might have drawn in even more.  There were lots of folks who walked by looking curious, but likely didn’t join because they weren’t sure what it was about.
  • ADVERTISING:  On balance, we did pretty good given our existing resources.  It’s hard to tell what brought people out (perhaps we should have asked how they learned of it?) but we advertised in all the appropriate email routes, via the daily campus events listing and e-newsletter, our library home page, and with a one hour blitz of paper posters which were hung in strategic areas of campus.  We also made handouts to distribute right before event in the library, which also had a link to the research guide, which I suspect was also good in getting some folks who were hanging around in the library to join us.  I’d do all of these things again — and I probably wouldn’t advertise for any longer than we did this time (one week), but t I’d certainly make a case for getting more support institutional with the graphic design end of things (we can only rely on on the generosity and talents of family members for so long!), and for getting more help with distribution.
  • FORMAT:  We did alright in terms of keeping the conversation going and ensuring that everyone had a chance to speak.  But if we do more events that bring out a lot of people, I think it would be helpful to think  and learn more about the mechanics/dynamics of convening or moderating discussions — I certainly felt out of my element at times, but that was sort of the point, so I’ll take that as a good thing.

Research Guide:

http://researchguides.library.yorku.ca/occupy

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