November 23, 2017

Playing for Keeps | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

Why we should take fun more seriously

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

Recently there has been some heated discussion on Collib-L about the use of new social technologies as tools to promote information literacy.

Some librarians argued we should be involved in Twitter, Facebook, Second Life, and other Web 2.0 spaces to stay relevant. Others retorted, more or less, “relevant to what? Do you really think if you squat down in the sandbox and start building a castle, students will get excited about libraries? And are you sure that sandbox is where the students actually are?” And others argued that trying to make libraries playful and fun sends the wrong message: research takes time and persistence. Students need to realize it’s hard work.

Then Keith Engwall, systems librarian at Catawba College, said: “Play can be just as powerful an instruction tool as work.” 

That’s a seriously interesting concept.

photo by B.Mayer

Don’t bother me, I’m playing
Play has an important neurophysiologic and developmental function. It’s how children learn. They try on roles, they explore the physical properties of things, they test and taste and prod and poke, they develop motor and social skills, they use their imaginations. None of what they are learning is going to be on a test; a defining property of play is that its motivation is intrinsic. But without those opportunities to understand the world and oneself through play, children’s cognitive and social development can be seriously stunted.

The United Nations included play as one of the basic human rights children should enjoy. The American Academy of Pediatrics reminds parents that play is not just goofing off; it’s essential to child development. Too much structure and an emphasis on building a CV from infancy can seriously harm children; the pediatricians even warn colleges that we need “reasonably prepared” students who are emotionally and socially healthy, not over-achievers. And Peter Gray has argued that the social rules negotiated by children as they play together are fundamental for the development of democracy. If adults step in to control the environment, kids won’t have a chance to discover the “meta-rules” for social interaction. 

Often children’s play appears to be the rehearsal of adult roles, but Stuart Brown, a physician and psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play, argues that they aren’t practicing for “real life,” they are doing the serious work of developing neural connections, creating pathways in the brain that will enable physical, social, and creative abilities. Organizations, he argues, shouldn’t assume it’s just for kids. We need play to promote innovation and discovery.

If you look the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll see how rich are its multiple meanings: freedom of movement, a performance of music or theatre, mimetic representation, a setting of one thing against another. Alas, to the most common definition, “engaging in an activity for enjoyment and diversion,” the OED adds, “now chiefly used of children or young animals.”

But, but . . . can’t we play, too?

Second thoughts about Second Life
As I read the discussion on Collib-L, I thought about a book I recently read, This Book Is Overdue, a love-note to librarians by Marilyn Johnson. In one of the chapters, titled “Wizards of Odd,” she follows librarians into Second Life, where she meets well-dressed avatars with quirky pseudonyms, busy building pseudo-libraries and imaginary identities.

Until I read this book I had never really grasped the appeal of Second Life. In my one visit there, just learning how to get some clothes on and avoid flying into walls exhausted my admittedly short attention span, and I never went back.

When it comes right down to it, I can’t wrap my head around buying unreal estate and intangible but adorable accessories with genuine cash. And while I have often heard the argument, “we should be where our students are,” the only people I know who have ever spent time in Second Life are librarians. Very few of the students I’ve asked have even heard of it. None of them have been interested.

But Johnson had more patience than I had and spent quite a lot of time there with librarians, and what she reported sounded . . . well, sort of fun. Librarians made librarian jokes, developed alternative worlds bristling with steampunk accessories and inside jokes. Did they answer a lot of reference questions? No, but they were enjoying themselves and exploring aspects of their profession that seemed enhanced by the masquerade. As one librarian described it, they were engaging in “harmless role-playing” that is the same creative invention and community building that libraries do in real life when things are going well.

I don’t have enough patience or fine motor skills for Second Life, and I have major problems with the way it seems to reproduce the machinery of materialistic consumption, but my own professional development and sense of humor has been wonderfully advanced by joining the Library Society of the World, an anarchic analog to more staid library organizations. Spend a few hours in the LSW’s FriendFeed room and you’ll find ample proof that librarianship is a lot of fun. And it’s exactly the kind of fun I want my students to have: seriously playful interaction with people and ideas.

It’s all fun and games until someone wins a Nobel Prize
In the end, time spent exploring some frivolous technology needs to be viewed as an intrinsically worthwhile project, not an application that can be used to lure students into the library. That’s just creepy and even worse, it’s not much fun. 

But that doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had in libraries. Genuine inquiry is fundamentally and inescapably playful. Real research—not the pallid imitation of research, the soulless but correct transcription of properly-documented sources that so many college assignments require—is about discovery, exploration, and persisting in the pursuit of an answer that, once finally found, blossoms like a magician’s wand—hey presto!—into a bouquet of new questions.

photo by Gibson Claire McGuire Regester

We need to help students rediscover their own creativity as they play at being scholars. And when I say “play,” I don’t mean that we should encourage them to mimic their professors and use lots of big words they don’t understand, though they may well think that’s what’s expected. No, we need to help them understand that research is all about the interplay of ideas, the freedom of movement among disciplines and spheres of discourse, the courage to ask a question without first knowing whether it has an answer.

For students brought up to believe that everything that’s important will be on the test—that knowledge is something that can be machine-scored—it’s hard to loosen up and learn how to be creative again. But that’s what libraries are for.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books next month

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