It started with a fishtank.


I am the Director of a very unconventional language learning center.

First off, it is not in a basement. It is on the third floor of a castle like building with gobs of natural light and way high ceilings.

We also do not have carrels. When it was built in 1995 the faculty had the good sense to think about making a collaborative learning space way before those words had ever been uttered on blogs etc. The desktops are ADA compliant and also pull-up-a- chair-and-look-at-this-with-me friendly.

I am a stickler for tidiness at work, and for making sure our center seems as clean and welcoming as it can be. I have seen far too many public computer labs fall into disrepair and ruin because it just started to deteriorate and no one took the initiative to stop the decay in its tracks. I do not want this to happen to mine.

We do things differently here. That is sort of my institution’s secret mantra, and I have taken it to heart.

It started with a fishtank. A colleague prior to Ryan built a 75 gallon fishtank and filled it with African cychlids. When he moved to a postage-stamp sized apartment in NYC, the fishtank stayed in the lab.

When Ryan left to go to the West Coast, it made perfect sense that his hammock, too big to transport cross-country, should stay behind. And it gets used. A lot.

Ryan's Hammock
Ryan’s Hammock

But perhaps the most curious addition to our center are the birds. Yes birds. And today these same birds have suddenly (after 4 years of being a part of my center) been “discovered” by the administration. Today, in response to a query from a Dean, I wrote a letter explaining the existence of the cockatiels in our lab:

When [the italian instructor] was pregnant with her first baby she could not continue caring for her zebra finches at home and asked if I would like a pair for the CILC. I thought, well, this would be interesting and kept them in my office. (No one told me however that zebra finches are programmed to reproduce on the hour, so this became a problem. Fast.) I gave most of them away to faculty. The last set I had died mysteriously during fall break in 2008.

The acoustics in the center are such that if you are in the room and at a machine and talking you feel as if your voice is being broadcast across the universe, And yet students are expected to make recordings or speak on Skype for most of the languages we teach…and in this environment they have often felt very self conscious. I wanted to see if I could figure out some ways to make them less self conscious. So I moved the finches in to the lab to see what would happen.

I did some research on language learning and anxiety and found research that suggests that if there is background sound in a room, a language learner will feel less self conscious about producing sound on his/her own with those noises percolating around them.

In addition, with the support of the language faculty I purchased peace lilies to be placed in the center of the tables where the computers and students sit. The lilies provide a bit of privacy so that students feel they are somewhat hidden when doing their work. They also clean the air and (this week they are in bloom) make the lab look nice and provide a welcoming environment.

After the finches died my husband gave me a cockatiel. And then I rescued two other cockatiels. I joke that the ‘tiels are “voice activated:” Whenever anyone talks in the center, they sing or chirp. So, now when someone has to record or skype in the lab, the birds provide the background noise and the plants provide the privacy…and the students, we have found, feel less self conscious as a result.

The cockatiels are hand trained and are very social. People actually come to the CILC to sit with them and play with them. Students study with them sitting on their shoulders. The birds are very people oriented and like to socialize. They have become an interesting and lively addition to the center. The only person I know of who has expressed concern was someone who was allergic to them, but the lab is large and I clean up after them daily so we all seem to be co-existing quite well.

So, that is the story of the “birds in the lab.” The intent is to make the place a welcoming, friendly, active, “noisy” (within reason) space where students can feel comfortable speaking, working together, speaking on Skype, working with faculty, etc. We are not nor ever will be a quiet lab… as the mast head on our website clearly states

Whether the birds will be allowed to stay now that they have been “found” is unclear. I remain hopeful not because they are my birds, but because of what I believe they bring to the center and how they help people settle in and study. So we shall see what happens.

In the meantime, Spring has sprung here and the the cockatiels (Flaubert, Iago and Beatrice) know it.

Here is Flaubert doing his “Tango Amoroso”. Enjoy.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Martha · March 18, 2010 Reply

    Thank you for posting this. You know, I’ve been following you and known you for several years now, and I’ve always wanted to see more and hear more about your space — particularly the birds. Kudos to you for recognizing that our institutional spaces can be more than desks, chairs, and computers. I really hope the administration sees the wisdom in your approach — that making spaces that are comfortable, safe, inviting, and feel “real” can inform the ways in which we learn, think, share, and live in them.

  2. Jan Marston · March 18, 2010 Reply

    Barbara, the wonderful atmosphere in your lab was a big reason we wanted you to talk about it with member schools in the NELL ( Network for Effective Language Learning) consortium. What we heard from our members all over the country was how much you have helped them re-think what an effective language lab might achieve. So many administrators are stuck in the depths of the last century; I hope Oberlin can look at what works, and look at your track record as well as your awesome reputation in the world of professional language technologists.

  3. Ryan · March 23, 2010 Reply

    I am incredibly disappointed in my alma mater for this. Once again, the Oberlin administration makes clear the gulf between their talk (forward-thinking and creative) and walk (fearful and bureaucratic).

    I really hope Oberlin will take the time to actually THINK about what they are doing, and to talk with all of those involved, especially the faculty and students who frequent the CILC specifically because of the unique and welcoming learning environment it provides. These birds are not pets — they do not belong to any one individual but to the space and all of its occupants, and that is where they should stay.

    Keep us updated, please.

  4. Ryan · March 23, 2010 Reply

    Turns out I have an update:

    OC alumni just today received our latest “Around the Square” email newsletter. Check out this piece, which includes the answers to a trivia contest distributed back in January. Pay special attention to question #13:

    When your birds are being mentioned in the same breath as the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route and the first political Mock Convention ever held on an American campus in an Oberlin trivia contest? I’d say it’s time to admit they are an accepted and welcome part of campus.

    (And no, I had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of this trivia contest.)

  5. Martha · March 23, 2010 Reply

    That’s great, Ryan! As a (former) administrator who often felt like I had to “defend” the unconventional nature of my area, I can only imagine how important it is to Barbara to have those who have been impacted by the atmosphere she creates in the Lab speak out about the space (and the people who work there).

    To have it recognized in a piece like that just reinforces that people have noticed her efforts. The best advocates for our unconventional and *vital* attempts at breaking the higher education mold are the students, alumni, and community members who have been affected.

  6. Pete Smith · March 24, 2010 Reply

    Barbara and Ryan, your wonderful creativity in creating the CILC and architecting not only the furniture but, more importantly, the environment has made you known by (and the envy of) learning facility directors around the U.S. and beyond. As we all struggle to make our technology spaces more inviting and our learning spaces, well, actual *learning* spaces–yours was the first original design thinking I had seen in years. And it still is. You did not approach the process assuming that either the students, or we as faculty, were zombies–I detest sterile, lab-like surroundings (and I don’t eat brains for lunch).

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