All posts by Callie Wiygul Branstiter

Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?

References:

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.

First-Generation College Students – How Can the Library Help?

Three months into my current position, I realized that one of my biggest professional goals was to work with first-generation college students (FGCS). Inspired by a presentation about FGCS on campus at a Teaching with Technology conference sponsored by the campus Center for Teaching and Learning, I immediately marched into my reporting officer’s office seeking guidance on how to make this happen. As a social work librarian at my current institution, my primary outreach focus is on students and faculty who participate in the Master of Social Work program in the School of Social Work, and my secondary focus is participation in campus-wide reference and instruction programs for undergraduate and graduate students. I was worried about whether I’d have the opportunity to achieve this goal in my current position – could I cross the lateral boundaries of my immediate job responsibilities to work with this student population? Would that be a major faux pas? Did any of my colleagues want to join me? Would campus stakeholders be willing to collaborate (or, at least, provide insight) on library initiatives? Luckily, I have an endlessly supportive reporting officer who encouraged me to rally support from both academic and non-academic partners across campus.

Here is some background. I was not an FGCS myself, but I taught many of them in my introduction to information literacy course during graduate school. Planning, coordinating, and delivering lesson plans for that course was probably the most challenging part of my job assignment as a teaching assistant, but it was also the most rewarding – the experience also inspired me to pursue instruction as a library career. If possible, I wanted to continue working with this student population but knew that it may not be within the purview of my job responsibilities, especially in my first job.

At my current institution, the number of FGCS is increasing and the number of corresponding university services dedicated to FGCS is, thankfully, increasing as well. Groups dedicated to peer mentoring, career services, and internships for FCGS are going strong on campus, some of them with years of institutional history and experience under their belts. The First Generation College Student Task Force guides many of these groups. Developed under the auspice of the Office for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, the group is dedicated to connecting FGCS students with myriad resources available to them on campus. In addition to connecting students to academic resources such as the Writing Center and cultural resources such as El Centro Chicano, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, and the Women’s Student Assembly, the Task Force encourages student well being and offers support for stress management. The Task Force also supports FGCS fellowships, awards, internships, and study abroad programs

So how did the library fit into this campus support system for FGCS? Was there a need for a library program for FGCS? I certainly wasn’t sure. I knew that collaboration was key – collaboration with my library colleagues and campus groups dedicated to helping FGCS.

It took six months for me to put out a call to library staff and faculty. I sent an email via the lib-all listserv (which was terrifying!) to gauge interest. Were any of my colleagues interested in starting a FGCS working group in the library? They were. We ended up with a fairly agile group of library faculty and staff – many whom were FGCS themselves – who wanted to develop library interventions for FGCS or, at least, think more intentionally about library outreach to this student population.

But what should these library interventions look like? Are they workshops? Personal librarian programs? A position dedicated to FGCS? Our initial conversations were informal and concentrated on reviewing the literature on FGCS and learning more about campus FGCS partners. We started out as an information-seeking group. We knew that the insight of campus partners dedicated to FGCS was crucial to guiding our charge. And let me tell you, it took time to gain buy-in from these partners – understandably so. Like so many on college campuses, these groups are understaffed and over worked; we were a freshly developed group who needed more of their time. So immediate buy-in was, frankly, non-existent. After months of contacting the Task Force, introducing myself to stakeholders, and describing the charge of our library group, I finally convinced the Vice Dean and Assistant Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives – and leaders of the Task Force – to chat with our group about how the library could help FGCS.

We learned that 16% of the undergraduates at our institution are FGCS, defined as students where neither parents attended or completed college. We learned more about the many academic and non-academic campus groups dedicated to FGCS. We talked about the tacit barriers to college, such as working full-time while maintaining a full course load, managing anxiety about financial support, and negotiating the pressure to select a career aligned with familial goals or values. They discussed how crucial it is to include families in the FGCS experience. The Vice Dean, who teaches a general education seminar, talked to us in-depth about his philosophy and lesson plans for the class. I knew that many FGCS don’t self-identify as FCGS, but these conversations encouraged me to really ruminate on what that meant for our groups’ outreach philosophy. We were slated to meet for only an hour but collaboration flowed beyond that allotted time frame.

This conversation caused us to completely re-shift our focus. Instead of focusing on developing robust workshops, we are focused on changing the library’s perspective among FGCS. We need to simplify library language and heighten the library’s visibility on campus, which means that we need to get out of the library to help FGCS where they naturally fall on campus. We need to focus on what we can do to help them succeed in college. We need to educate academic advisors and campus peer mentoring groups on what the libraries has to offer FGCS. I’m focusing on developing an interactive library tutorial about many of the tacit barriers to academic success – such as breaking down the stigma of attending office hours, or reaching out the Writing Center for help. I’m also focusing my effort on developing campus awareness of OER and laying the groundwork on, hopefully, lowering the costs associated with textbook purchases.

Of course, all of this is in development. But our group now has a set of goals, and that’s a big deal! Group participation may wax and wane during the academic year, but at least we have an objective and related goals. But I’d love to learn more about what other university libraries provide for FGCS. Does your library provide outreach to FGCS? Are such outreach initiatives folded into another program? How does your library approach this outreach experience? I’d really like to develop a support network for librarians to share and collaborate on ideas for FGCS library programs. If you’d like to reach out to me directly (again, I’d really like to hear from you!), I’m on Twitter @therealcalliek.

Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome hit me hard as soon as I entered the job market. As I perused job announcements and skimmed the required and preferred qualification sections, a sinking feeling crept into my chest: How will anyone ever hire me without experience? How will I gain this necessary experience when all of these job announcements want candidates with experience? Do my MLIS and various internships fall short of this requirement? Will I ever get a job? Those fears may have subsided when I received my first job offer, but the sentiment definitely followed me into the first year of professional employment. And I am certainly not alone. From the discussions around emotional labor (which inherently includes imposter syndrome) during LIS Mental Health Week, to scholarly articles and blog posts, it is difficult to argue that imposter syndrome does not exist among academic librarians, especially new ones like me.

But I find less discussion about imposter syndrome among college students. As a subject liaison to a school experiencing unprecedented growth in its online program, much of my daily tasks revolve around curating and assessing library interventions for a large number of first-generation, distance, and non-traditional students. Many of these students are second-career students who haven’t stepped foot (virtually or otherwise) in a classroom in at least a few years, or, sometimes, as long as a decade or more. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program, these students also work at least part-time to support themselves and their families, and complete internships that are a required component of the curriculum. Additionally, the school recently revamped its curriculum to include more rigorous courses in research methodology and data analysis. So how is all of this affecting students?

Recently, I presented library instruction to a group of students in a foundation-year course about research and data analysis. During the Q & A portion, a student hesitantly asked whether practitioners had to understand statistics to be successful. The student was visibly frustrated, so I thought about it, and said that she didn’t need to be a statistician to be a good practitioner, but she did need baseline knowledge of statistics in order to understand this type of research. I relayed my own shortcomings in this area – I took statistics twice during my undergraduate degree and did poorly both times – but explained that it didn’t affect my ability to be a “successful” librarian. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but this experience reminded me that imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon among students. Of course this student was upset, because everything in the curriculum leads students to believe they need to walk through the door as experts in this field. The student felt like an imposter. College may be the first time in students’ lives that they fully experience imposter syndrome, especially in an educational setting, and this student reminded me that helping students navigate these tacit areas of the college experience is just as important as helping them craft a good research question.

So what are the action items? What does “reaching out” look like? How can I help students who are wrestling with imposter syndrome while acknowledging the uniqueness of their experiences and the privilege of my own perspective as a gainfully employed librarian?

It starts with positive reinforcement. As an educator, acknowledge that students bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Then tell them that they do – even if their unique qualities do not include statistical prowess. I encourage students to reflect deeply on their goals and harness their abilities in those areas. A less grammatically correct way of saying this is, be the best at whatever you are good at.

Imposter syndrome is caused by the idea the we need to conform, that we need to be conventionally exceptional (oxymoronic much?). It is a direct result of the neoliberal model of higher education. Tell students that there is another way. I remind them that we need more people in the world who will foster collaboration instead of trying to the best individually. We exist in a time when we have too much competition, and not enough collaboration in academia and beyond.

When I sense imposter syndrome in a student, I use it as a teaching moment. But I don’t tell students that “everyone has it” because it is not incredibly helpful. Instead, I explain that imposter syndrome is false because you are not an imposter. Your experiences, opinions, and ideas are valuable. Look at your peers and examine why they are valuable. How can you help them? Maybe you can work together, and learn from each other.

The Caltech Counseling Center offers detailed explanations of imposter syndrome as it relates to students, suggestions for understanding imposter syndrome, and outlines the connection of imposter syndrome with gender. The University of Michigan has similar information for graduate students. Inside Higher Ed published a fantastic piece about imposter syndrome written by a graduate student. These sources may be immensely helpful for students who are beginning to understand the effects of imposter syndrome. But I also believe that there are grassroots, campus-wide efforts that we, as librarians, can implement to help undergraduate students who face imposter syndrome. We aren’t their professors (at least, most of us aren’t), but we aren’t their classmates either. For better or worse, we occupy neutral spaces on campus and can reach out to students in distinctive ways. Recently, I founded a first-generation college student initiative in my library. Among my many goals, I hope to help students navigate the tacit barriers that underlie the undergraduate college experience. Partnerships with student services groups, student caucuses, or other stakeholders across campus are among my other goals to help students mediate imposter syndrome.

As librarians, we are uniquely poised to help students with imposter syndrome. I take my role as an educator seriously and want to help students steer the range of problems they face during their academic careers. Instead of competition, I encourage collaboration. Rather than focus on perceived shortcomings, I encourage mindfulness in the areas in which they excel. And I remind students that imposter syndrome is false.

Everyone is an imposter, and nobody is an imposter.

Something’s Always Wrong – Depression and the First Year

I intended to write about something else entirely, but the past two months have been particularly difficult so I decided to share my story now.

To be clear, I am not depressed because I am a first-year librarian; I am a depressed person who is a first-year librarian. I was undiagnosed until my early twenties, but I had been experiencing symptoms of depression and panic disorder long before that. For almost as long as I can remember, both have been a part of my daily life. Now I am a first-year librarian at a large R1 university. So in addition to imposter syndrome, the stress associated with starting a new job in a new city, the crippling weight of student loan debt, and the endemic gender bias persistent higher education, I also grapple with major depression. That said, I know I’m not alone in this experience.

Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for ages people between the ages of 15 to 44 and is also more prevent in women than in men. Let that sink in for a moment. Depression is often accompanied with other mental health disorders. In my case it’s panic disorder, which, for me, means that I often experience sudden bouts of debilitating panic and fear. Approximately six million Americans have panic disorder and – you guessed it – women are more affected by it than men.

I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I have been diagnosed and can start managing my mental health problems with the help of a good insurance policy. I have a treatment plan that includes therapy and an emotional support animal. I also have a very supportive reporting officer who is sensitive to the complexities of my mental health. I’ve begun establishing boundaries between the workplace and my personal life in order to manage stress. I’ve also started doing yoga, which helps.

Despite my best efforts and the resources available to me, depression and anxiety still play a major role in my day-to-day life. Depression isn’t something that is easily “cured,” in fact most of us spend our lives simply trying to manage it. Mental health, especially for women in the workplace, is a complex and layered problem. While awareness of these issues is increasing, it’s still treated somewhat like a taboo. We often talk about depression and anxiety in academia, but it’s often depersonalized.

That’s why I’m writing about this here. It’s very much accepted that depression and anxiety often take a toll on undergraduate and graduate students, but we often don’t talk about how it continues to effect people once they’ve graduated and accepted their first job. What I hope to share with you is the experience of one first-year academic librarian as she struggles to make manage these common mental health problems on top of the stresses of starting a new job.

Academia can be a harsh work environment. Here the myth of eighty hour work weeks still persists, the job search process can be particularly debasing, and new hires often feel overwhelmed by the feeling that they are falling behind or underperforming. Because of the nature of the work, many academics feel like they can never really escape their work. And then there are the pressures of pursuing tenure, which affixes another layer of anxiety and fear.

In the LIS world, Twitter is one of the main channels we use to build networks of support, circulate new or interesting articles, and engage in conversations about our work. But social media comes with its own pressures. I have found that my desire to engage with my online community has led to me Tweeting after working hours and on weekends — time which should be reserved for my non-librarian self and my family.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to balance my intense preoccupation with being grateful for my job, and unsatisfied and ambitious with my work – call it a sort of workplace Stockholm Syndrome. I feel so lucky to have a job, but also unsatisfied with many of the tacit pressures that underlie the job description. This, in turn, triggers panic and worsens my fears that I might appear ungrateful to observers, and that I may not fit into this world after all.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental health in academia. It’s probably too much to list here, but Google “mental health academia” or read some of the stories under the #lismentalhealth hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see how many people are talking about this issue. There are many powerful stories out there, and I’m grateful to be in such a supportive community where we are all bent on raising consciousness in this arena.

I often see suggestions like mediation, yoga, and finding hobbies as suggestions for combating these stressors. While they are great suggestions, I still worry that we are missing the point.

Until recently, mental health in academia was diluted to general statements like “every librarian needs a therapist,” or “we need to support our colleagues with depression or anxiety,” or “imposter syndrome is a real thing.” Of course it is tremendous that we are admitting these facts as community, and awareness is the first step toward a sea change. But, suggesting that exercise or picking up knitting are solutions to these problems is a step in the wrong direction.

But this is just my truth, and part of managing my own mental health is coming to grips with what works for me. Everyone has their own truth, and whatever yours is, don’t ever feel like it’s abnormal.

So, what solutions do I have? For me, navigating my depression in academia means that I set very sharp boundaries on my time. I have never been someone who can work ten or twelve hours straight. I don’t feel guilty about not working on the weekends (when I can help it). If I am not on email duty, I stop responding to email after 5:00-6:00 in the evening, and I’m gradually working on not checking it altogether after that time.

I also vacillate between checking Twitter daily to not checking it for weeks. Social media (Twitter especially) is a precarious place for me. While I find it a great tool for connecting to others in the field, it engenders an overwhelming sense of Keeping up With the Joneses. When that happens, I take a break.

It is also pretty important for me to rely on family and friends who aren’t librarians. I can’t talk about being a librarian all the time and need a social life that isn’t connected to my job. I’m also becoming more comfortable with saying “no” and protecting my time. There’s a lot of pressure to volunteer for everything as a first-year faculty member, but I’ve learned to know my limits. This is both a professional and personal struggle, but I’m getting there.

This is just what works for me.

Mostly, I just think it’s important to keep this narrative open, so I’m taking this position of privilege to do it. So, on those days when I am crying before leaving for work, feeling like a total failure for not measuring up to my colleagues’ success, or comparing my student loan debt to my annual adjusted gross income, maybe writing about it here can help me find out that I’m not alone. Hopefully, it’ll do the same for you.

Stating Your Case: The Annual Review

This year marks my first year as a professional librarian and, as such, January 2016 is the due date of my first full performance review packet. Librarians at my university are considered faculty and are on a continuing appointment track, which is similar to tenure but different in structure. While this is the first full performance review I’ve ever encountered as a librarian, it is *not* the first time I’ve had to do a performance review. I was reviewed countless times during my former career in the corporate sector, and the outcomes of these reviews helped determine whether I received a raise, promotion, or additional opportunities within the company. I’ve always felt moderately confident going into these previous performance reviews because their expectations were clearly delineated and set. There were clear rubrics that determined an average score from an above average score. But my upcoming performance review as a faculty member has my head spinning.

First, I should explain that my university bases librarian performance on whether or not we meet the ever-amorphous “excellence in librarianship” and “impact” benchmarks as opposed to metrics or other formulas. So what determines excellence in librarianship? You tell me. Please!

Many of my colleagues at other universities have clear cut standards to which they are evaluated: thirty percent of their time is dedicated to service, thirty percent is dedicated to teaching, and thirty percent is dedicated to research, and so on. However, my employer has not established a standard for “excellence in librarianship.” There is no definitive standard for delineating what excellence could be for a reference and instruction librarian versus what is deemed excellence for a technical services librarian, for example. Some may argue that the lack of clear standards is a huge check in the plus column for librarians. We aren’t relegated to metrics, and we can showcase our efforts and tell our stories any way we want (at least theoretically). While numeric formulas may seem confining or even archaic, I have discovered that articulating and justifying my intangible, behind-the-scenes efforts, in addition to my standard job responsibilities, is difficult. It’s up to the librarian to strategically align their performance with the mission and vision of both the library and the university, which is what we should be doing anyway, but this lack of explanation does tangle the process.

My full performance review will be a partial year review. When it is submitted, I will have been with my university for ten months. The first six months of this job were spent becoming acculturated to my first academic job at a large R1 university in a major metropolitan area. This entailed a lot of instruction shadowing, meeting with students and faculty, and traveling to the other academic centers where I was assigned as liaison. Listening and observing was a huge part of my day-to-day work life. I kept a daily log of my activities, and submitted monthly activity reports to my reporting officer. These meticulous notes show lots of progress, including relationship building with colleagues, faculty, students, and stakeholders at my institution. In other words, I may not have loads of fancy workshops and sexy publications under my belt – yet – but I have laid significant ground work for future projects and programs that will potentially have a large impact of my daily work. But how do I showcase these in an annual review under the banner of “excellence in librarianship”? Are these considered “soft skills” even though this is what it takes to make a real impact?

Here are a few thoughts I’m using to guide my writing. I do not presume a one-size fits-all approach, but merely offer suggestions:

1. Soft skills have serious value. In fact, I posit that instructional academic librarianship as a whole is moving toward a more backstage model. Meaning, we – especially new librarians – may not have loads of workshops, programs, or events on our year-end activities report, but we are constantly working on the more understated areas of librarianship, such as cultivating relationships with community stakeholders, for future benefit. Based on both mine and my colleagues’ experiences (both at my institution and outside of it), our roles are changing. We spend more time working with faculty and colleagues on large, months-and-years spanning projects that fall outside realm of a brief bullet point or narrative paragraph. Mention these long-term planning events and relationship building in your review packet. Don’t be reticent to sell your soft skills.

2. Connect your activities to the strategic mission and vision of your library and institution. Obviously this should be incorporated into both short-term and long-term goal planning, but it also needs to be explicitly stated, especially in a performance review dossier. For example, I know my reporting officer understands how I connect my goals to the mission and vision of the libraries and the unique needs of my liaison department, but does my Dean know that? Or the Provost? How can I make it clear to them?

3. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Does that word conjure four-letter imagery for you? I get it, I really do. There are power structures and privilege inherent in traditional corporate marketing practices. I also understand that, for many of us, the term connotes with other corporate lingo such as customer service, traffic forecast, year-end results. They word is faulty, but, quite frankly, it is important to harness its power for our own use as librarians. Subvert the traditional use, and harness its power to your advantage.

Think of it less as marketing, and more as conveying value: it is vital to convey our value to everyone – stakeholders, faulty, students, colleagues. And we convey this through marketing, whether we like it or not. The way you market yourself as a librarian could not be more important than during the full performance review. The action verbs you use to tell your story, the way your weave your story, how you present your reference/instruction/tutorial statistics (table, narrative, chart?), the structure of your reports – it’s all important. It makes you unique. I may be biased – my undergraduate degree is in marketing and I worked as a brand manager at an advertising agency prior to graduate school – but it’s important. Subvert and harness.

4. Clear and concise vs. verbose and extensive. I love a good, long narrative, but my full performance review is not the place to extol the minutiae of my daily activities. Rather, I choose to focus on an activity-impact model. I’m choosing a few points to tell my story. It’s the written equivalent of an elevator pitch: tell the story in two pages or less.

5. Get as much trusted and honest feedback as you feel comfortable with. I don’t trust a thing that I write until several trusted colleagues, mentors, or friends have proofread it.

Good luck and happy writing to every librarian writing their performance review in the throes of year-end chaos.