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Open Letter on the Elimination of the Mask Mandate

I was appalled this afternoon when, as a member of the Rules Committee, less than 2 hours after I received word from the Secretary of the Faculty Senate that the University was "going to recommend dropping the mask mandate very soon" to discover that "very soon" was tomorrow. TOMORROW.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tricia Serio for Provost who spoke eloquently -- and at length -- about the importance of rebuilding trust at the University. I must tell you that this unilateral action -- with absolutely no consultation -- has utterly violated whatever trust I might have had with the administration.

To spring this cackhanded and misguided maneuver by surprise -- after years where I had respected the administration for taking care to act in a deliberative and consultative fashion during the pandemic -- has stunned me and made me feel extremely unsafe.

Why tomorrow? The Board of Health of the Town of Amherst is meeting on Thursday to discuss the mask mandate. And I understand that Hampshire College has planned to eliminate the mask mandate a week after the students return from spring break. Why are we making no effort to consult with stakeholders and to move forward deliberatively? Why surprise people with this on a Tuesday afternoon?

I am utterly disgusted with the idea that I have devoted huge parts of my professional effort trying to effectively build trust: to work with the Union and the Rules Committee to build an effective relationship between the faculty and the administration. And for what? So that it can be squandered by a high-handed and unilateral action that endangers faculty like myself who must worry -- not only for myself, but for my elderly mother who shares my household.

I am appalled and disgusted.

Social Distancing and the Makerspace


I've had a great time during my Professional Improvement Fellowship working in the All-Campus Makerspace. It's a vibrant community of people working on projects they're passionate about. I enjoyed going in every morning, getting a few hours of work before anyone else arrived, and then breathing in the atmosphere as the place filled up. I've made good progress on my project and learned a huge amount about the topics I'm studying. And it's been fun.

I fear the students didn't quite know what to make of me. I wasn't staff and I wasn't student. I was just kind of there. But they were very welcoming and let me be a peripheral participant. I got to help out, in minor ways, with a dozen or more projects going on in the Makerspace. And they were just starting to discover what a weirdo I am. 

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, it became clear that the University would be taking steps to enable social distancing and the Makerspace made the decision to close operations to give staff Thursday and Friday before spring break to plan and prepare for the changes.I swung by on Wednesday and took home my box of materials and got set up to begin working on my project from home. I had realized, even as the pandemic was in its earliest phases, that working there was probably risky. It's a campus crossroads with students from all over campus coming through. So I had been expecting to step back at some point. It was just a surprise to have it happen so suddenly.

I haven't made much progress since I started working from home. I assume that once the excitement over the pandemic wears off, it will be easier to focus and get stuff done.  But I'm really going to miss working in the Makerspace and all the new friends I've made there.

UMass Reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

I asked a question during question time at the Sept 12, 2019 Faculty Senate meeting about the proposed reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

The University recently announced proposed replacement of the Lincoln and North Apartments with new housing stock to be constructed via a public/private partnership. Some are expressing concerns about how these new housing units will be managed. In particular, (1) Who will make decisions about the management of this housing? UMass or a private partner? (2) Will these units continue to be available principally only to UMass students? Or will they be available to other members of the community, potentially displacing students into the local rental market? (3) Will there continue to be the same balance of one- and two-bedroom apartments? Or, as some reports suggested, a shift toward two-bedroom only? Finally, (4) what concrete steps are the University taking to assure that students, especially those with the greatest financial need, will continue to be able to secure suitable housing, both during the construction process and beyond?

The questions were answered by John Kennedy and Swamy, with the clarification that Andy Mangels (absent) would probably be the best to answer these questions. Below is my effort to capture the sense of their reponses, although eventually the minutes will be posted and a transcript will be available.

Many of the details will be worked out during the bid process: the campus will be considering bids that may have more or less management included as part of the overall bid.

The units will be for a mix of graduate and undergraduate units at Lincoln and the North apartments will be for graduate student families. It's not anticipated that the housing would be made available more widely.

The graduate student senate is involved in the planning for the redesign of these units in order to strike an appropriate balance between 1 and 2 bedroom apartments to meet current needs.

The university is in conversation with landlords in North Amherst to find appropriate placements for families displaced from the North Apartments, at the same rent, such that children will not have to change schools.


UMass Makerspace Charette

Early in the fall, I got a call from someone in Facilities Planning to let me know that the campus was developing some kind of Makerspace project. It was kept under wraps until quite recently when a Makerspace Charette was announced. There were nearly 100 people that came: the usual suspects, but also a lot of new faces I hadn't seen before. The first hour was spent mostly with presentations from the administration, explaining the process and the context.

It turns out that, with the new Design Building, there is space in the Fine Arts Center Bridge that will become available to be repurposed and renovated. And there is money already in hand to do the renovations. The administration has heard of Makerspaces and wants to see if they can build one here. And to show how serious they are, they've hired a consultant: Cambridge 7 Associates.

C7A showed fancy new makerspaces at some of our peer institutions and also some really appalling examples of what some people build and call a "Makerspace". I thought they did three good things: One was to show what not to build, like a break room with some "electrical circuits" (extension cords, but he called them "electrical circuits") hanging from the ceiling. The second good thing was to make clear that the "build it and they will come" model is wrong headed. (Although, to be honest, this whole project sounds a whole lot like that). The recommendation of C7A was a "hub": something that can complement existing makerspaces. But they also pointed out (rightly, I thought) that the makerspace shouldn't be necessarily in the center of campus -- or necessarily even on campus. It should be peripheral -- or even off campus -- with the goal of being a place where people from on campus and off campus could meet and mingle. Which is, of course, exactly what we've been trying to do with Makers at Amherst Media for five years. Sigh...

After that there were a bunch more presentations from some of the makerspace leaders on campus: mostly engineering (M5, Innovation Shop, Queer Lights) but also from the library and the new entrepreneurship program.

As the presentations wound down, there were a number of occupants of the building who had only just learned that the charette was happening. They spoke up to mention their space issues and hopes that some of this space could be available for their needs.

It sounded like originally the organizers of the charette had planned for us to be sorted into particular kinds of groups as a breakout. As time was growing short, however, they just had people assort randomly, more or less, and take a few minutes to discuss. My table had a variety of interesting people: some people from art, engineering, library, and other places on and off campus. I agreed to be the "recorder" (mainly so that we weren't making a "girl" do it). These were our conclusions:

First, the process is completely backwards. We ought to be thinking about how to use the Maker movement and principles to transform pedagogy and the student experience on campus, where appropriate. And only then to think about how the financial, physical, and human resources on campus could be best deployed to support that mission. It's perhaps understandable, given that the money and space are available and that the funds can only be used on campus that people might ask the question this way. But it seemed that everyone agreed it was the wrong way to do it.

I learned that the UTAC committee is talking about coordinating with Amherstworks to develop a Makerspace. This was news to me. But, of course, everyone is trying to build a Makerspace everywhere.

In fact there are already makerspaces all over campus and all of them need resources to make them work better. A big challenge is that what makes makerspaces work is people with the right skill set -- that bridges technology and pedagogy -- with enough time in their portfolio to support a makerspace. This is especially true if we want to make makerspaces more accessible (to have a hub that can tie together all the satellites). But the largest challenges are perhaps the institutional barriers that make it difficult to collaborate across University boundaries and divisions.

In spite of the number of makerspaces, there are still big campus gaps. There is no campus space doing anything with virtual reality, for example.

And finally, our group offered a couple of practical tips: if building makerspaces in this space, one needs to think through the adjacencies of which kind of space can coexist with others -- and which can't. And to be sensitive to issues of gender and inclusion, as some kinds of makerspaces are almost entirely male while others are mostly female.

After the groups reported out, we were thanked for our contributions and dismissed. After the meeting, I have no ability to predict what affect, if any, our comments will have on the process.

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