The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Learning the Culture of New Networks

The real reason I have not written a blog post for months is that my work with the Library of Congress has taken over my “leisure” time. In other words, I flunked retirement. Nevertheless, when I took on the job of coordinating the beta test of a new learning network for teachers interested in using primary sources from the Library of Congress, I did promise that I could work from anywhere in the world as long as I had Internet access. I’ve put that promise to the test several times. The latest test has found me working from an apartment in Paris that my husband and I rented for a month in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary.

We lived in Paris for one year some thirty-nine years ago when I received a fellowship to teach English in a French lycée. Just as in 1974-1975, every daily task from buying a baguette to relearning the metro system represents a culture shock at some level. For example, in the boulangerie, there’s one line for people only buying bread and another for those adding pastries and cakes to their purchases. In the metro, you must figure out where to insert your cash and in some cases turn a little scrolling wheel and push valider to select a carnet of ten tickets or to refill a metro pass. Even with English screens as a guide, the system requires some critical thinking and a few failures before you reach any level of confidence.

Paris, Porte de la Villette Metro during World War I

Paris, Porte de la Villette Metro during World War I

In a French apartment, you must learn new systems as well. How do you use a faucet that arranges hot and cold from top to bottom rather than from left to right? How do you make coffee in a two-part coffee pot on a stovetop? How do you dry clothes without a rack or clothes dryer? (Hint: Just be happy there’s a washing machine.)

These examples may all seem minor, but they do contribute to a certain level of discomfort that only practice, experience, and close observation can overcome.

When new users approach an online network experience, they must figure out the network’s culture and rules, too. They must figure out the quirks. They must look for clues. And if they have never experienced a social learning environment, who will be there to guide them?

Some network users struggle, but others have the same mindset that makes learning a new culture more fun than frustration. They know when to ask questions, even if they lack fluency in a different language. They don’t worry about asking the right question, or even about asking a question in the wrong place. They simply ask.

Or they play. And they laugh at their mistakes. The people most likely to succeed as users of an unfamiliar learning network exhibit fearlessness in the face of a tool that doesn’t work as expected, a non-intuitive registration process, or unfamiliar features such as adding tags to a post. They test, they mess up, they learn from mistakes, and they explore ways to connect with others because they value the goals of the network. Eventually they warm up to the idea that what they get out of a new network makes what they put in to the network worth every bit of culture shock.

It’s not so different from finding your way through any new culture. Of course, speaking French (or “network speak”) helps, but if you show a willingness to learn by doing, you will adapt to a new culture whether you know the language or not.





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