During the previous academic year I had the distinct privilege of collaborating with several colleagues at the Mansfield Library in the creation of an experimental approach towards not only reimagining our instructional curriculum but also mapping our values and goals as a part of the library more broadly. After spending the fall semester refining the process and ultimately carrying out the experiment in December 2022, we then regrouped and created an interactive presentation of our approach for the Montana Library Association conference in April 2023. This experience helped us break through communication barriers and provided an alternative to conventional curriculum revision approaches which are rooted in linear thinking and assume scarcity as a default, and I hope this approach will continue to help us - and anyone else who gives it a try - create a "crazy quilt" of ideas which prioritizes holism over neatness or conformity.
So how did this idea come about? The retreat originated as an exploration of the multiverse, a popular analogy to the Cambrian explosion of information over the past century caused by rapid advances in communications and compounded by the advent of quantum physics and its philosophical corollary, postmodernism. The metaphor of the multiverse in the context of libraries and information raises seemingly infinite questions like:
The very day I had this hyperdimensional conversation, a long-awaited book arrived on my doorstep: A Vast, Pointless Gyration of Radioactive Rocks and Gas in Which You Happen to Occur, the art-and-essay coffee table book companion to the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, both by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The film had already been percolating in more than one mind at that point, and this very inspirational book examined the cultural and scientific context which has rapidly seeded and cultivated the idea of multiversality across our landscape, from the highest ivory tower to the lowest patch of Disney paydirt. A particular chapter of this book compared the art and act of quilting as both metaphorical and actual multiverse: Kelsey Keith interviewed a group of quilters about their practice and how it could be compared to the quilted model of the multiverse. Applying this approach in the opposite direction, we were able to bring the high-concept ideas I mentioned before down to earth - and literally onto the table.
The beauty - and challenge - of making a quilt, especially certain types of quilts, is in the process. A piece of fabric might be perfect for one quilt but a mismatch for another; in that case, the piece doesn't need to be thrown away and can be saved for the right quilt. Similarly, ideas and values might be perfect for one situation, or one potential universe, but might need to be set aside in a different context. Maybe, by using the quilting process, we can visualize what we do and what we want as individuals and negotiate how to put it all together. Not every piece may make it to the final product, but this method eliminates hierarchical prioritization and instead emphasizes harmony and consensus.
In particular we were inspired by the crazy quilt, a form of patchwork which originated out of scarcity and material conservation and quickly evolved into a distinct genre of non-symmetrical and highly unique textiles. The practice exploded in the West after the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where many Americans were impressed by the intentional "crazing" or cracking in the glaze of Japanese ceramics which rendered each object totally unique. By de-emphasizing the traditional constraints of symmetry and simple geometry (and, in parallel, de-emphasizing institutional conventions on our approaches towards our work) we could focus instead of what could be possible, and on ensuring that everyone in the conversation could be represented in the work.
We were also greatly influenced by "African-American women's quilting: A framework for conceptualizing and teaching African-American women's history," an article written by Elsa Barkley Brown in the summer 1989 issue of Signs. Our entire project is deeply indebted to Brown, who had already profoundly articulated the ways in which quilting, and particularly African-American women's quilting, carries not only unique aesthetic sensibilities but entire analytical frameworks which can be used in instructional settings as alternatives to Western and colonial patterns of meaning-making, whose dire flaws have already been well articulated in other spilt ink. Brown illustrates a pedagogy inspired by a variety of Black traditions and innovations such as quilting, jazz, and gumbo ya ya, and which pulls from those traditions radical values such as improvisation, nonsymmetry, ambiguity, polyrhythm, contradiction (apparent or actual), and nonlinearity. Not only do these ideas manifest themselves in quilting styles such as crazy patchwork, but they are also evocative of the mind-expanding and post-(or, outside-)modern branches of thought growing from the quantum seed that has sprouted into today's trunk of the multiverse. Barkley's pedagogical framework was the thread that connected all of our crazy idea patches into a single conceptual textile.
For those interested in more technical sources of inspiration, I am also mentioning another article helpful specifically to those in library and educational work seeking critiques and alternatives to the "one-shot" model of instruction: "'Slow Your Roll': Making Time For Reflection and Diverse Epistemic Practices in Library Instruction," published in the September 2022 issue of the journal of College & Research Libraries. What crazy quilting does as a metaphor for the destabilization of linear space, ideas such as these act to similarly decompress notions of linear time in pedagogy.
High concepts aside, what did this project actually mean for Reference & Instruction at the library? We put together a half-day retreat for all employees in our service area (which included both tenure-track and adjunct faculty, professional staff, and student employees). Before the retreat, we provided our colleagues with the aforementioned articles and a workbook which contained quotes, explanations, instructions, and materials for creating paper "bits" which would form the physical components of a paper quilt representing our ideas and values. The workbook included a "lexicon" of pre-generated terms and phrases that I hoped could be relevant or thought-provoking for the exercise (examples include terms like "reference desk," "roleplaying games," "Montana," "databases," "seeds," "tutorials," "ScholarWorks," "copyright," "ACRL Framework," etc.) as well as ample space for people to write their own. Any of these words could then be cut out and brought as physical representations of what was important to each individual. To help people through this process, we offered the following guiding questions:
Once everyone had "gathered the bits," we could have the retreat in earnest; the event was held at the Missoula Public Library to provide a refreshing, neutral space away from our typical offices and meeting rooms. On the agenda was an introductory discussion in which we examined several quilts, a preliminary series of exercises in which we once more "gathered" and discussed the "bits" which would make up our quilt, an actual quilt-building activity, and a conclusion to attempt the tying up of loose threads and setting up a path forward. Some elements of the retreat were inspired by the work of adrienne maree brown in her books Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation and Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds. The actual construction component was adapted from real crazy patchwork instructions by Jan T Urquhart Bailie.
Our ingenious student employee Stephanie Hohn created a series of beautiful "fabric" and "stitch" patterns which represented a variety of relevant concepts: an illustrated map of the University of Montana campus could represent a sense of place, and it could be encompassing or narrow (one of the members of our group staffs the Payne Family Library at Missoula College, which is physically separate from the main campus and thus has its own complexities and considerations); a collage of pages from a medieval illuminated manuscript could represent Western traditions, or the Archives & Special Collections; an illustrated pattern of the Three Sisters could represent Indigenous knowledge, or agriculture, or our Seed Library. These pieces were printed at a large scale using the Paw Print's large format printers and were then cut into smaller pieces of various shapes and sizes which could then be used in various ways as visual elements or as backgrounds for the lexicon pieces. We also printed out a special larger square of each design, any of which could serve as the "foundation" of our quilt.
In the pre-building, "Gathering The Bits" phase of the retreat, we facilitated discussions around the guiding questions mentioned above as well as an additional question: "What is the purpose of this quilt?" When it came time to actually build the quilt, we centered the conversation around the following questions:
One of the most important elements in this discussion was the foundation. Finding and articulating a shared core of values and goals is not always as easy as one might think, even in a group of people who get along. For whatever reason, many of us (including myself) were captivated by a pattern of hundreds of green-and-black microfiche pages composed in a grid, and this square became the background for our foundation. We seemed to fit as many ideas into the foundation as we could, populating the space with big-picture concepts "relationships," "experimentation," "compassion," and "curiosity." We also included bits representing various groups of people, such as "students," "high schoolers," "student employees," "staff," and "faculty," and included notions grounding us in our context such as "place-based," "Montana," "cultural humility," and "history." A few jargony but nonetheless meaningful scraps also made it into the foundation, such as "diversity, equity, and inclusion" and "library as refuge / haven."
Around the foundation, other pieces linked together ideas, services, and places. A literally cloudy LibGuides fabric served as the base for our digital manifestations such as "podcasts," "tutorials," "workshops," "online learning," "videos," and "LibGuides" - items that we had all too often been consigning to the sidelines, and to which we began paying greater attention after the retreat. A Three Sisters fabric held together values and notions in which we decided (after some discourse) we wanted to grow, such as "care," "reflection," "creativity," "enjoyment," and "kine/body." After a great deal of back-and-forth, the staff members at our sister/auxiliary library inside Missoula College (across the river) decided to use a campus map fabric to locate themselves within the shared quilt while also acknowledging the spatial distance between the two libraries which does, of course, manifest in our relationships and operating principles as well.
In short, though our end product may have been large and unwieldy - with layers of abstraction and ambiguity that left many seams open for interpretation even amongst the people in the room, let alone anyone else who encountered it - we were able, together, to make a quilt. We set aside the baggage of our normal modes and entered a collaborative and creative space in which we could seriously negotiate our values and appraise not only what we are doing, but what we're not doing, and ways we might want to change what we do in the future. Our values were articulated not just with words but with art and visual thinking.
Altogether, the terms we used might seem broad, vague, and ambitious - and maybe they are! But in workplace settings, and especially in academia, it is already unusual for us to be centering core moral and community-oriented ideas instead of institutional objectives euphemistically directed by economic values. These foundational concepts would serve to direct several aspects in the subsequent months, most noticeably through the "mending" of our information literacy curriculum. In particular, the quilt exercise catalyzed the formation of the "dispositions" in our curriculum, representing the traits and values we hope to develop in students through our instruction. We underwent many subsequent discussions debating the finer points of our language regarding learning outcomes and dispositions, though some of the greatest value in these terms may lie precisely in the quandaries and conversations they evoke.
A subversive and often extralinguistic quilting conceptualization experiment may not be for the faint of heart, especially for those who are hoping that it will all map neatly back into the confines of academic and corporate paradigms. However, it opened new doors for us, and when we adapted what we learned into an exercise for librarians from around the region at the MLA conference, I was relieved to see that it seemed to provide similarly evocative conversations for our colleagues in other institutions. The conference attendees divided into four different groups, each comprised of members from very different places and types of library, and each of the quilts made by the end of the session were both visually and conceptually distinct - even though, for the interest of time, we already gave them a Three Sisters foundation piece labeled "Information Literacy".
My hope is that our experience opened some seams and closed some others, providing new clarity and inspiration for us while we work, unavoidably, in more mundane universes with grades, budgets, and deadlines. I also hope that our crazy quilt experiment was helpful to those who attended our conference session, and may be fruitful to any who read this and want to try making a quantum quilt of their own.