Library Services, Spring 2017: Library Instruction as Immersive Experience

| May 24, 2017

In Spring 2014 I had the good fortune to attend a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with Sir Kenneth Branagh in the title role, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York; the official trailer may give you some sense of what the production was about:

Another short video, in which Oz Woloshyn interviews Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of the Park Avenue Armory, for Charlie Rose, provides a bit of the history of the Armory, a time-lapse sequence of the “load-in” of the set, and a very nice description and depiction of the path (topographical and metaphorical) by which audience members travel to their seats, moving from the entrance to the 55,000 square feet drill hall to the purpose-built performance space at the far end of the space.

This production of Macbeth has been described as “immersive”; I found the entire production to be remarkable, and I thought there were some elements that made the experience indeed participatory–as Ms. Robertson puts it, “The thing that we try to do here is make audiences part of whatever’s going on”–though probably not quite in the way that some more recent theater works (for example, Sleep No More, the site-specific immersive theatrical production based on aspects of Macbeth) actively situate audience members in the midst of the dramatic action and engage them, sometimes on an individual level, in the literal milieu of the play.  This short video conveys some sense of the ominous interior space, maybe particularly the aural space, of the production:

I have to say that the element of the Park Avenue Armory Macbeth performance I found most truly immersive was the journey from the hall entrance to the performance space, “a traverse stage flanked on two sides by steeply raked spectator stands” (Hollywood Reporter review, 6/5/2014, at http://bit.ly/2qdgk2g), which takes one over a very darkened, very convincing flagstoned and muddy field, to one’s seat.  This is not to suggest that the ensuing play performance was anything less than brilliantly compelling Shakespearean drama; but I found, as I had found with Sleep No More, the first few minutes of the experience to be the most mysterious and exciting.  As Rebecca Robertson says in the Charlie Rose video, “When you walk in and you see these stones and that light and that glow and that really creepy heath that has those witches rolling around in it . . . I think you’re in a different world, and that’s what we tried to do.”

I probably have to admit that I’m very taken with the creepiness, and I do consider this quality to be entirely consistent with the uncanny nature of the play, from the weirdness of the Weird Sisters, to the ghastliness of the murders, to the ghostly visitations that madden and ultimately doom Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the course of the drama.  I think though that, as much as any other aspect of the production, it was the initial passage over the barely-lit heath that had the greatest effect on me, and that in some ways carried over through the on-stage enactment of the play.

I’m not exactly sure how to make the connection between theatrical performances of the kind the Branagh Macbeth and the Sleep No More experience embody, and the potential use of the Smith Learning Theater (or aspects of it) for the purpose of library instruction (or research immersion or constructivist information literacy situated learning).  I’m also unclear on how possible it might be, in the event that such use of the SLT might be realized, to transition from a successfully mysterious and portentous progress from the theater entrance to the site of instruction (assuming this kind of atmosphere to be desirable scene-setting), to sustained engagement of participants in the teaching/learning experience.  I do think that there are some interesting, if possibly superficial, parallels between the Armory drill hall space and the Learning Theater space; what Sir Ken has to say addresses the character of the Armory building overall, but may have some bearing on how the library’s fourth floor, as a locus in the building with some history (like the rest of the building) of its own, may be used to good advantage in a variety of possible ways:

I find it more than interesting to speculate on meshing the dramatic/interactive/immersive potential of the Learning Theater and the (I think) undeniable real-life excitement and adventure of the research journey, and though I feel it to be not a small stretch to bring this conjunction about, I think it would be among the most satisfying possible undertakings of the Gottesman era if this were to be explored in the proper spirit.  I hope it will happen, and I think it can happen; I’ll be very interested to see what we (the library and the community) can together do.

During Spring 2017, Services librarians consulted with students and researchers who were seeking literature or resources on a broad range of topics and subject areas exemplifying the diversity of disciplines in which serious work is being done at the College.  Consultation themes, and information sought, included the following:

  • the syllabi and key readings of various teacher preparation programs working with secondary English teachers; anything that has been written comparing university-based teacher education programs or alternative teacher education programs regarding English content instruction.
  • the concept of “authenticity” in the philosophy of education field (or in the field education in general).
  • the development of college orientations in the United States; assistance in navigating academic journals that address topics around student life in higher education.
  • adolescent or young adult creative writing or journal samples from an existing study that can be analyzed using linguistic inquiry and word count (LIWC); looking possibly to compare male and female samples on linguistic characteristics known to be related to eating disorders.
  • new media art and computational art.
  • suicidal behaviors in the MAP community (minor attracted persons, known as pedophilia).
  • literature to justify the study of network ecology and drivers for organizational changes in a specific organization, the International Energy Authority (IEA), which started specifically as a research organization mainly fostering collaboration across countries to study educational indicators and math and science, is now an international organization with larger legitimization and influence on policy changes in education, ultimately creating a ranking storm of countries’ educational systems.
  • the history of photography pedagogy.
  • reading intervention literature focusing on individuals on the autistic spectrum preferably between K and 2nd grade.
  • literature on how language learning develops in virtual reality (VR) games and on the roles massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) can play.
  • literature pertaining to English literacy, Nepali literacy, and numeracy development in connection with research on two Nepali mothers’ groups.
  • virtual reality and flight training.
  • blended learning within the high school visual arts classroom.
  • hypertension, sodium intake, and nutrition interventions:  studies done in the United States only.
  • the effectiveness cooking programs in influencing high school students’ health behaviors.
  • effect of exercise on depression in older adults.
  • clinical psychology topics, specifically psychosynthesis, ego state therapy, drama therapy/psychodrama (also empty chair technique or action methods/role play), and life coaching (specifically code of ethics for coaches, and key tools/strategies they use with clients).
  • how theories and practices of discipline and punishment have evolved over time in schools and their impact on students, specifically African American and Latino students; what kind (if any) of litigation history there is regarding discipline and punishments; past discipline practices in schools and notes from policymakers that describe thinking in legislation;  help finding datasets for disciplinary and punishment practices for schools, from the 1800s to the 1990s.
  • outdoor writing as part of secondary English classrooms:  generally, what happens when students write in outdoor woodland spaces?
  •  Empirical evidence  concerning the impact of special education programs on English language learners in NYC schools:  hoping to use a growth curve analysis on the data provided.
  • early museum studies programs in the United States and in France; interested in learning about a museum work course given at Teacher’s college by Louise Barrington in the winter of 1929.
  • Single-sex education ( the benefits of women’s/girl’s education), culturally relevant pedagogy/ culturally and racially responsive pedagogy, and student identity in the classroom.
  • the epidemiology of a health issue (particularity in the United States), possibly Bartonella (aka. Bartonollosis, Cat Scratch Disease or Cat Scratch Fever) or Graves Disease (aka. hyperthyroidism).
  • a list of all possible theoretical frameworks in cognition and game simulation technology.
  • adult education:  learning theories, transformative and self-direct learning.
  • history of international students in American higher education, specifically, Korean students at institutions in the New York City/New Jersey area in early 20th century.
  •  teachers attitudes and opinions towards policies, reforms, and/or standardized testing.
  • collecting data regarding citations for Freire and Bakhtin in educational journals since the publication of their major works.
  • art walks as an art based educational research method to see if and how people with non-art backgrounds can learn to become more visually aware of their everyday environment (in connection to art).
  • history of learning analytics; mind-wandering; intelligent tutoring systems and analytics for personalized learning.
  • academic research journal articles on African American women and diabetes; articles can be from 1990 to the present.
  • education researchers who have built off ideas forwarded in Lave and Wenger’s book Situated Learning.
  • relationship between Chinese university students’ perception on homosexuality and university education.

Here, to close, are the numbers of services transactions we delivered during Spring 2017:

  • Senior librarians and services associates fielded 1,616 in-person and reference queries in the course of the semester.
  • Senior librarians responded to a total number of 803 queries of various kinds–reference and information questions, research consultation requests, inquiries concerning library hours and operations, questions and problems pertaining to room reservations, circulation issues–that came to us via the library’s email Support Request service.
  • Senior librarians and services associates provided 48 research consultations to individuals or small groups.
  • Librarians and associates presented 10 course-specific librarian information sessions, either in the classroom or in library spaces, for a total of 218 attendees.

Last summer I was interviewed by Ella Morton of Atlas Obscura for an article on “library anxiety” (see http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-strange-affliction-of-library-anxiety-and-what-librarians-do-to-help), and towards the end of the piece, remarking on the library’s Services Team’s group visit to and experience of Sleep No More, I said, “The idea was to try to get a sense of how space and sound and imagery could be used in our space . . . I think the thing that I liked most about it was the little bit of the scariness of it, the creepiness . . . Maybe it’s a good thing to kind of embrace the anxiety.”  I think I realize now that what I’ve been working towards is the idea of how a bridge between library instruction and the Learning Theater would work:  the notion of addressing students’ uneasiness or outright fear about libraries and library research by inoculating them via a scary/fun passage into or through the Learning Theater, in advance of an immersive magical mystery tour (also scary/fun) of the library research landscape.