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.
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.