Blog Post

Introduction, and Thoughts on a Learning Commons

I’m Liz Lundberg, and I’m a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Iowa. My areas of specialty are twentieth and twenty-first century American literature, science fiction, and affect theory. My dissertation looks at empathy, both within texts and between text and reader, in representations of physical and psychic permeability—when two or more characters are radically intermingled and interpenetrating, what are the ethical and emotional valences of narrative strategies that serve to assign or constrain or suggest reader identification and empathy? How do those kinds of tangled subjectivities (within texts and outside them) transform subjectivity itself, and empathy, and our understanding of the reading experience? I look at feminized bodies and characters in these kinds of narratives; I work specifically with representations of pregnancy, sexual violence, and trans* embodiment.

As you might imagine, my interest in the digital humanities has a lot to do with embodiment and affect. I am sometimes the voice of cranky resistance in conversations about the utopian possibilities of the internet, especially when it comes to pedagogy. I’m a big believer in the importance of flesh and blood teachers in brick and mortar classrooms, not least because an important part of what we do as teachers is cultivate a certain time, space, and atmosphere for learning as a community. But I’m also an enthusiastic experimenter when it comes to classroom and assignment redesign, especially when it involves technology my students already know and use, and especially when it leads to results that last beyond the semester and go outside the classroom. I’m looking for ways to take my experiments with class blogs, social media projects, and community partnerships further: to get the moving pieces of a semester’s assignments more integrated, more lasting, and more meaningful.

As a snapshot of my thinking about the digital humanities: I’m writing this blog post from my university’s newly renovated Learning Commons in the first floor of our Main Library. The description on the Learning Commons’s website describes the space as a “tech-infused comfortable and flexible learning space.” The site emphasizes that the space includes room for individual work and group collaborations, and that it has “modern technology amenities” and ubiquitous technology and research help as well as snacks and coffee. 

I have mixed feelings about working in the Learning Commons. In theory it’s all very exciting; in practice I fit awkwardly in such a space. I like the productive energy, the open design and modern aesthetics, and the sheer volume of people here—the library is hopping! I also like ambient noise and a sense of others working around me while I write. But at the same time, I know I’m getting less written than I would be in my dusty, isolated office—people moving and screens flashing in my peripheral vision is a low-level distraction that’s just enough to add up to “I didn’t get as much done as I thought I would” by the end of the day. And I start to wonder if that’s the case for others working here as well, if working in public, even in a public space designated for work, is a kind of multitasking, which feels SuperProductive but really isn’t. I love having snacks and caffeine available nearby; I hate that I apparently have to start carrying wet wipes with me to the library, to clean up other people’s sticky messes before I can set down my laptop. I love the reservable meeting rooms, with monitors to plug into and floor-to-ceiling writing surfaces, the glass walls encouraging passersby to be inspired by the work they see without disrupting it. But more often than not I see individuals working alone in the meeting rooms, using the space for its relative quiet and privacy rather than its collaborative technology—and I see many other people in the open spaces of the Commons working with headphones on, trying to tune each other out. I would suspect that I’m awkward and somewhat out of joint in this space because, unlike my students, I’m just old enough not to be a digital native. But it’s not just me: a young man just spent a solid five minutes immobilized next to my table, slack-jawed and staring, when the TV behind my head switched to a nature program about fish.

I’ll wrap up this very long introductory post by saying that, as should be abundantly clear by now, I’m interested in the many ways we interface with technology using our bodies and our emotions as well as our minds. I’m excited to be a part of this year’s HASTAC cohort, and I hope to contribute to conversations about these issues.


1 comment

Liz. My institution has a Learning Commons as well, but it also has quiet floors and reservable quiet rooms on quiety floors. I wonder about the performativity of studying in these spaces. My wonder is less in the spaces, but the question of use. If they are meant to be collaborated in, are the students not encouraged to collaborate in class or are they collaborating somewhere else? If so, what does that mean for this space?


We have not officially met before, but we did email back and forth when you contributed to MediaCommons a few months back. I'm happy to see you here and look forward to seeing more of your work and research in the future.