Trust Me

Reading Annie Downey’s Critical Information Literacy  was like looking into a mirror that only shows your most awkward professional reflection. Her interviews with “critical” librarians (those who adopt a critical approach to information literacy and practice critical pedagogy) are some of the most honest, true-to-life experiences I’ve read from those of us who consider ourselves teaching librarians. Her descriptions of “turf issues” hit particularly close to home:

“it’s a long process to build relationships where the faculty members have some trust in the librarian and respect the librarian’s knowledge, and the librarian has to do it in a graceful way.” –quote from “Linda” (Downey, 2016,  p.133).

Librarians described years of making “gradual changes” to classes and workshops, “tread[ing] lightly when it came to introducing new ideas or using [new] methods” in the classroom, and working hard to “gain the trust of [a] department’s faculty so that she could exercise more freedom in the classroom” (Downey, 2016, p. 132-133). To which I replied in the margins of the text in my special angry orange pen:

REALLY?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Why Must We “Gain” Trust?

It’s most disturbing to me that academic librarians are not automatically seen as experts in our disciplines of information literacy (critical or otherwise) and information organization. When an Intro to Women and Gender Studies instructor at my institution wants to introduce students to the concept of feminist economics, she calls on a colleague in the economics department to guest lecture. When a literature professor wants to offer students a deeper context for a novel set in France, she might ask a friend in the International Languages & Culture department to sit in and offer commentary during a class discussion. But as an academic librarian we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy, which is virtually impossible to do if we aren’t invited into a class to teach.

Efforts at librarian-faculty collaboration privilege departmental faculty, even when librarians are members of the faculty at their institutions. Librarians work hard to seek out teaching opportunities within the curriculum, then must go the extra step of convincing faculty that they have something to contribute to students’ educational experiences. I have had so many conversations with faculty before, during, and after classes where they demonstrate pleasant surprise that I’ve planned out a lesson, given thought to my teaching, and even created assignments. As I stand there stunned, smiling, I can’t help but think, “What else did you expect? How little did you expect of me? What do you think it is I do?”

No, Really, Why?

The auto-librarian response to faculty who desire us to prove our worth is to work hard to do so. There is this belief within the profession that we are or have been somehow deficient, and now we must work to prove our worth to our colleagues in academia because we either a) didn’t do it before; b) tried, but were really bad at it; or c) are trying to make up for bad professional practice. We look inward and blame ourselves. We blame our graduate school training, internships, professional values, and practices. We blame our library administrators, librarian colleagues, predecessors, and librarians-in-training.

But we never blame academia.

 

We never blame the institutions that force us to beg for seats at the academic table and prove that we belong to be there. I sometimes wonder how my friends in the psychology department would respond if someone asked them, “Why are you on the curriculum committee? What do you possibly teach?” I can’t imagine my colleagues in the history department would respond well to a last minute request to “Come on in and do your history schtick tomorrow in my class, will you?” We can blame ourselves all we want. We can continue to create and attend conference presentations on collaborating with faculty. We can continue to read about ways to demonstrate our worth and our importance to our faculty through outreach. Or we could stop trying to prove ourselves and just assume that chair at the table–the one right in the middle– is our due the same as it is for every other faculty member at our institution.

I recognize that not all librarians are faculty at every institution (although I think we should be), but we are still a profession, despite decades of various work sociologists trying to say otherwise. Yes, relationships, including working and teaching relationships, are built on trust, but there is an implicit understanding that as a fellow faculty member or educator that you are, well, an educator. That understanding should extend to librarians as well. I realize that this sentiment may border on petulant: We are important! You need to think so! But that’s not really my intent with this post. I want us to internalize and embody the expertise we all possess. It is so easy (and so overdone) to denigrate our profession and blame ourselves for our current subclass position in academia. But that’s the power of, well, POWER. We think we’re in this spot–where we have to beg for classroom time and hope that we do well in that one class so that one professor will trust us with their class again–and it dictates our entire professional identity. This belief has created subsets of academic librarianship–liaisons, outreach librarians–that exist because we believe that we need to accept the current educational situation and work within it rather than upend it.

Yes, it’s easy to say, “Down with the hierarchy of academia!” but what would happen if we started to act like it didn’t really exist? What would our education programs look like? How would our jobs change? I think they are questions worth exploring as we perpetually engage in the “library of the future” dialogue and the never-ending back-and-forth of whether or not libraries even have a future. I think we do, and I think the library itself is the educational disruption.

3 thoughts on “Trust Me

  1. I always enjoy your posts Veronica & I usually respond with a “YESSSSSSSS!!!!!” but this time not so much. That’s a good thing though – we all need our confirmation bias challenged regularly & it’s especially powerful when it comes from people whose contributions we admire enormously 🙂

    I don’t think that we need to feel defensive or beat ourselves up about the time it takes to develop respectful & trusting professional relationships with academics. Nor do I think that we need to “blame” our academic clients. Academia is a pretty brutal business & I’m guessing that it’s been that way for centuries. Academics often don’t just automatically trust each other, even though they play pretty much the same kind of general role in a university so (for me) it’s not surprising that it takes them longer to trust us – we are different in some ways & the same in others, & becoming more alike over time.

    We will build trust & respect with some academics very quickly (sometimes immediately), with others it will take longer, & some will probably never trust us or respect us (& some of these probably don’t trust or respect anyone terribly much). One of the most significant ways that we are the same is that we are both having to learn about learning & teaching so we can do our jobs properly – we are in a “process of becoming”.

    And, I think that our understanding of basic learning & teaching principles is something that we can harness to empower & fortify ourselves as liaison librarians. We understand about lifelong learning & so we can apply our understanding of it to think about how our academic clients’ understandings of librarians evolve over time as their experiences of their work & workplace change & libraries & librarians change. We understand how academic presage factors (eg. university priorities, budgetary pressures, high or low context communication cultures of disciplines & demands of accreditation bodies that influence curriculum choices all influence academic attitudes to info lit) impact that evolution & how we can harness it to help our clients change their understandings. When we consider these types of things, we empower ourselves to employ lifelong learning (LLL) support strategies/pedagogies like social learning & constructivism that promote change over time.

    Given the environments in which we work, it’s not likely that we’re going to experience immediate transformational change. In fact, given that we’re all human beings, it’s not likely that we’re going to experience immediate transformational change.

    Our understandings of our own profession & our own presage also influence our professional ontology & professional self-esteem & feelings of self-efficacy which influence how we engage with our academic clients, & so the future roles & opportunities for us both.

    For example, I suspect that librarians who see themselves as information professionals have a more behaviourist approach to their client liaison work than librarians who see themselves as people- & knowledge-centric practitioners. In my experience, which I readily acknowledge may not be representative (may even be evidence that I’m living in a dream world), librarians with a behaviourist approach expect clients to think how they tell them to think or do what they tell them to do because they are the librarian. These librarians do things like set up instructional sessions covering things that they consider to be a priority, can’t understand why clients don’t attend & don’t even seek to discover why clients didn’t attend.
    But, intelligent critical thinking people don’t just do or think because someone (even someone they trust & respect) tells them to do it or think it. They learn that these are useful ways to do things or think about things.

    And, if we think that our clients can’t tell that we begin to develop certain negative attitudes towards them as a result, we’re kidding ourselves – we become partners in a pessimistic & disempowering cycle where confirmation bias becomes our biggest enemy.

    As a people-centric & knowledge centric practitioners, we find ourselves new “avenues of influence”. For example, we know that certain academics are frustrated that their students don’t use scholarly sources or that certain courses have poor student feedback in part associated with info lit issues, but the academics never respond to our overtures to work with them. But, we don’t mock, complain about, or demean these clients; we look for structures that can support the promotion of info lit – we start engaging heads of school/department or deans with who are in a position to initiate change through professional development, annual performance review discussions, school/department/faculty priorities or university goals associated with graduate qualities, etc. We engage their academic “mates” to promote our info lit services or other relevant organisational movements (such as the problem-based learning activists) where it’s appropriate. Where we can, we enlist students to subvert the system that ultimately frustrates everyone.

    It’s true, these are “long game” approaches, but they are realistic lifelong learning responses for human beings & the complex & unwieldy academic environments in which they are embedded.

    Better still, we don’t need to be faculty to do this – every librarian can do this.

    Every day, doctors despair because patients won’t do something as simple as swallow a pill that has minimal side effects but will have a major positive impact on their health. That’s people being people. Lifelong learning asks much more than that of people, so we need to be prepared to do much more & we (& our library superiors) need to value those complex & “long game” efforts.

  2. Ronnie – your post and Sandra’s reply got me thinking. Faculty at my college don’t trust anyone outside their discipline to advise students in their major, including their faculty colleagues. Too complicated, they say. If this is too complicated for another faculty member to navigate through, I asked, how can you expect students to do it? I didn’t get a reply.

    One thing that is different is that faculty do (for the most part) acknowledge the disciplinary expertise of their colleagues in other areas. I am not sure that non-library faculty really “get” that we bring disciplinary and professional expertise to our work beyond demonstrating how things work and being good at acquiring and making resources available.

    That might be a bit over-simplistic. In some areas faculty often do see us as experts. But even though we have long seen ourselves as teachers, not just workshop facilitators, and we have seen the development of pedagogical theory, methodology, and practice I’m not sure many faculty recognize our autonomy as an area of disciplinary expertise.

    I agree with you – the persistently dismissive tone is difficult to overlook and I don’t think we should. In the 1970s when women were trying to get Women Studies courses added to curricula, asking for a place at the table led to demanding one. The same for many other areas of study particularly in adding non-Western perspectives. Demanding to be seen and heard is sometimes important.

    I have been a librarian for 25 years and an administrator for 15. At my current institution when an email is sent out to the academic deans, I often find out about it after the fact. I AM AN ACADEMIC DEAN. I have stopped asking politely.

  3. Hi Celia & Veronica

    I’m back – SORRY – your post has kept me thinking. And, I’m so glad to read Celia’s response because I have been thinking a little bit about the “library economics” perspective. I should say that I know nothing about library administration or library management (I’ve never worked in these roles or done PD in these areas) & I don’t even know if library economics is a thing.

    I got thinking about it for two reasons:

    First, if info lit work is such a long game thing, perhaps the opportunity costs of pursuing it aren’t actually justified from both the library & the broader organisational point of view? Has anyone really, really looked at this? I imagine that the modelling would take a fair bit of work & require the input of lots of different kinds of expertise, but perhaps it’s time to do it? I vaguely recall a librarian from one of Australia’s most prestigious universities telling me that info lit had been abandoned there at one point.

    Second, I wonder if there are situations where the info lit &/or liaison librarian is paid from the Faculty/School/Department cost centre? Might these librarians face an easier (though still challenging) road? I remember a client (who was a big engager with the liaison librarian role & with whom I had regular frank but enjoyable discussions) once asking me if I, as the liaison librarian, would be better off employed by the Faculty or the Library?

    It was a really interesting question. The Faculty had been divided into four distinct “technical” Disciplines with their own cost centres but the Disciplines worked very collaboratively at the management level and, across all levels, academic & technical staff did identify with the Faculty entity . It was like four Schools in one Faculty but the holistic nature of this Faculty was stronger than the School model. The Faculty decided that it should introduce a multidisciplinary Discipline which focused on the multi-disciplinary courses that were common to all the undergrad degrees & coursework postgrad degrees in the Faculty.

    I & many of the academics who were very active in the learning & teaching side of the Faculty & University saw real promise in this model & the Dean was a passionate educator & a strong leader so we were really hopeful that it would have a very positive medium- to long-term impact on the learning & teaching activities of the Faculty. But the new Discipline lasted only two years.

    The reason … the staff who worked in both their technical Discipline & the multidisciplinary Discipline were paid from the technical Discipline’s cost centre. So, every time budgetary issues associated with staffing came to the fore, the technical Disciplines (holders of the purse strings) won out. Budgetary issues associated with staffing came to the fore regularly as this was never a university with cash to burn & these were tough economic times.

    The academic who asked me the question (about where the liaison librarian would be better off) had long experience in the private sector & was employed on that basis rather than the more traditional scholarly path, so it seemed a reasonable question under the circumstances. Would my role get more traction more easily if the Heads of Discipline & the Dean were the ones responsible for paying my salary? I was sceptical. I suspect that, in part, I felt that the role might be threatened.

    But, now that I’ve thought about Veronica’s post more & had the opportunity to read Celia’s comments, I’m wondering if my scepticism was incredibly poorly placed. Perhaps the liaison/info lit role would actually be more productive (& so economically justifiable, if that is an issue) if it wasn’t part of the Library? I realise that there would be lots of things to consider & model but …???

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