All posts by Veronica Arellano Douglas

Microaggressions, Faculty, and Academic Librarians: a study in intersectionality

I’ve been a follower of LISMicroaggressions on Tumblr for a while now, and even managed to pick up a zine or two in person at various library conferences. Their posts are a much needed reminder that as liberal and well-meaning as we all think/hope/claim/want our libraries to be, the day-to-day experiences of library workers can be fraught with all the -isms. There’s a strong desire, particularly in our current political climate, to make our academic library spaces welcoming and inclusive to students, faculty, and staff at our institutions. What I appreciate about LISMicroaggressions is that it is a mirror for the profession, one that–to continue this forced metaphor–provides a forum to critically reflect on our own prejudices and biases as well as the everyday (however unintended) acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that occur in our workplaces among colleagues.

At the 2016 Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science (CIDLIS), I learned about another microaggression project spearheaded by Joy Doan and Ahmed Alwan at California State University, Northridge: Microaggressions & Academic Libraries. Joy and Ahmed are specifically examining microaggressions against academic librarians by non-library faculty or “teaching faculty.” Their project is rooted in the widely held belief that collaboration between librarians and faculty essential to the integration of the academic library into a campus community. Yet the goal of their project is to investigate the “dissatisfaction” academic librarians feel “about mistreatment by some teaching faculty.”

Joy’s presentation at CIDLIS was, to me, oddly reassuring in the same way that I find LISMicroaggressions is a comfort. Both projects are validating. They take comments or moments in my professional practice that are so fleeting that I question what exactly just happened, and yet so present as to feel oh-so-heavy. The discrepancies in age, educational attainment, gender, and scholarly background between librarians and non-librarian faculty are real, but are rarely acknowledged in the “collaboration literature.” If we can’t honestly discuss the impact of these aspects of librarian identity on our relationships with our faculty colleagues, how can we begin to include the intersectional identities of our librarians of color or those who identify as somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the impact those identities have on collaboration?  If we want to take it a step further, why not look into the labor practices and classification of librarians in academia?

So much of practice-based LIS writing implores librarians to partner with faculty, but in doing so, puts all of the responsibility on the librarian. If we just do enough outreach, learn enough about faculty teaching and research, get that second master’s degree in a subject area, say yes to just one more class, and provide enough free snacks, then BLAMMO! COLLABORATION WILL HAPPEN! Instead of writing about the duty librarians have to fight for a seat at the faculty table (despite often being classified as faculty), we should be digging into the aspects of our identities that make our position within academic so tenuous.

That’s a large part of the reason I’m so drawn to both LISMicroaggressions and Microaggressions & Academic Libraries. I feel as though taken together, these two projects are investigating the culture of academic libraries and the prejudices that make library work so emotional-labor-intensive. I know based on her presentation at CIDLIS that Joy and Ahmed have plans to analyze the data they’ve gathered according to different demographic characteristics and identities of librarians. I’m curious to learn about how our intersectional identities as librarians impact our interactions with non-library faculty. I think our profession would be well-served by building on LIS intersectionality research like Fobazi Ettarh’s excellent article, Making a New Table: Intersectional LibrarianshipIf you have recommendations for additional reading–articles, blogs, websites, books–please share in the comments!

A Reference Redo

Our reference desk is in an odd spot. Rather than describe the situation, I created the following hasty floor plan:

floorplan drawing of the SMCM Library's reference desk and circulation desk

When students enter the library they don’t see an actual person until they are well past the stairs to the second floor. The circulation desk dwarfs the reference desk, and the reference desk is obscured by a giant statue of a naked discus thrower. We’ve cut down on our reference desk hours due to staffing challenges, and historically reference shifts have been lower on the priority list for our librarians (falling behind teaching classes, college service work, and meetings). This has left us all feeling generally dissatisfied about our traditional reference set up. Stats are down (not surprisingly), students tend to go to the circulation desk first, some bypass circ and reference all together and just come straight to our offices for help (which are just around the corner from the reference desk), and reference shifts are inconsistently covered. The librarians have a good rapport with students and faculty, and hold multiple reference appointments (some scheduled, some impromptu) with both groups throughout the academic year, but they tend to happen in our offices rather than at the reference desk.

Instead of continuing on with business as usual, our library director gathered us together to discuss reference services at our library. It was an informal meeting, but I thought her discussion questions did a great job at getting to the core of why we provide reference services, what reference means to each of us, and how we could potentially be doing it differently. Here are the questions that guided our sharing:

  1. What is the purpose of reference services in the library?
  2. What are your frustrations with reference services? With the reference desk?
  3. If consultations with individual librarians are more popular, would an “office hour” or “by appointment” model work?
  4. What are our users’ requirements for research help?
  5. If the reference desk went away today, what would students do? What would faculty do? What would librarians do? 
  6. How can we improve reference? Can we?

The discussion was extremely productive, in large part because of the leading question: What is the purpose of reference? I would imagine that the answer would vary depending on the library and school, as we all serve unique populations. For our library reference service is about education, collaboration, listening, and sharing. There is (and will always be, I think) a transactional aspect to reference; students will always need help printing, finding their way to the stacks, or assistance with the new scanner. But reference presents a unique opportunity for librarians to build meaningful relationships with students. I get to know students much better one-on-one, while listening to their tales of research woe or triumph, than I do in the classroom. Sometimes a reference appointment isn’t even about locating information. I’ve met with students who just need to talk out an idea with someone who isn’t their instructor or research advisor. Reference services are a highly relational activity, but the model of reference we’ve been operating under until this point is a very transactional one.

One model I’ve been intrigued by recently is the notion recreating the reference desk into a  “beta space.” In the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, Beta Spaces as a Model for Recontextualizing Reference Services in Libraries, Madelynn Dickerson proposes a beta space model for reference services that would replace a traditional reference desk/area with a collaborative research space. According to Dickerson, a “beta space is a prototyping space, but one that focuses more on ideas than technology.” It’s like a research incubator in the heart of the library. In this space  students and faculty could gather to work on research projects together, student work could be shared and displayed, and librarians could collaborate with students and faculty, offering one-on-one or small group research assistance. It’s essentially a learning and sharing lab that sits in a public space. What I love most about Dickerson’s idea is the openness and inclusivity it brings to reference services.  By creating a space that is warm and comfortable we’re setting the stage for collaboration rather than consultations or transactions. We’re saying, “Come in and stay a while.” Here’s a rough sketch of what this might look like:

Example drawing of a beta reference space

An artist and interior designer I am clearly not, but I think this gets the idea across. The space is built for discussion and collaboration. Where does the librarian sit, you might ask? My question would be: Does it matter? I ask that in all sincerity. Do we need to be at a desk with an air of place/authority, or can we float around a larger space instead? I like the idea of being visible, accessible, and sitting in a comfy sofa chair with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to dig into a complex research question with a student during an “office hour” or some equivalent to that in this space. I could see myself meeting with a professor’s undergraduate research group in the private collaboration space, going over the intricacies of their literature review strategy. I envision a lunchtime reception showcasing research from an environmental studies class project. I could also see a group of dedicated library peer mentors who could staff this space and provide much needed research help on evenings and weekends when librarians are unavailable.

As we begin the spring semester (tomorrow!) we’re going to study our reference services more closely, review alternative models to “the desk,” and talk to our students and faculty about how they prefer to gain assistance for their research. Of course I’d love to hear what model of reference you’ve adopted at your library in recent years.

Alternative Library Instruction Models, or What Happens When You Want Back Out

I’ve been an instruction librarian since 2007, and over the years my perspective on library instruction has shifted from

How can I convince my liaison department faculty to schedule a class?
How can I make my classes more scaffolded within the curriculum?
How can I possibly do all of this teaching in one semester and get my other work done too?

The more experienced librarians reading this blog post might cry “BURNOUT!” but I am beginning to think that there’s a larger structural issue with library instruction programs like mine (and perhaps like yours as well).

The Set Up

I work at a small, public, liberal arts college that prides itself on its focus on teaching, undergraduate research, and close academic relationships between faculty and students. Librarians are 12 month tenure-track faculty, and although we don’t typically teach credit-bearing courses, we are heavily involved in the traditional “librarian-as-guest-lecturer” model of library instruction. I use the phrase “library instruction” because as much as I want to say we have an “information literacy education” program we aren’t quite there yet. My colleagues and I work with every section of incoming first year and transfer student liberal arts seminars (required for all new students) as well as multiple classes in multiple liaison departments. We’ve hit a point where our seminar involvement pretty much takes over our entire existence each fall semester, to the detriment of our other teaching, to say nothing of our other professional responsibilities, service, and scholarship. I’ve tried creating banks of activities based on our much-reduced information literacy learning outcomes so that my colleagues could plug-and-teach more easily, but the uniqueness of each seminar section makes it difficult to follow any kind of scripted lesson plan for all sections.

If the world is as wonderful a place as I hope it to be, I will likely be on sabbatical next academic year, leaving my colleagues–or, if we’re lucky, a visiting librarian–to absorb my teaching responsibilities (sorry, friends). As my library’s unofficial instruction coordinator, I realize that even with an extra teaching librarian we’d still be stretched far too thin to actually make a dent in the amount of work we put into these seminars. So…

What’s a Library Instruction Coordinator to Do?

I was professionally “raised” on the library instruction model that praised getting into as many research-based classes as you possibly can, because doing so would help students become better researchers and faculty better understand the importance of information literacy. I don’t buy this at all anymore. I feel like it puts librarians in an odd (perhaps even subservient) role and just isn’t pedagogically sound. What’s the point of teaching ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME? That just leads to repetition and, well, burnout.

That said, curriculum mapping is hard. Unless information literacy is built into the college’s curriculum from the top down (see Champlain College’s Core Curriculum sequence for scaffolding IL dreams), Major and Core Curricula are often unwieldy and not necessarily conducive to sequential information literacy integration. Plus doing so is not  a guarantee that teaching loads for librarians will be manageable and sustainable.

I know some libraries have pulled out of face-to-face instruction for first year courses like seminars and English Composition altogether, in favor of web-based tutorials or LMS embedded modules. Others hire one person to do all instruction for that particular course, and still others, like mine, split up the course load among all teaching librarians.

One way that our first year and transfer seminar is unique is that each section has a dedicated Peer Mentor–an upperclass student who takes the course and serves in this oddly defined role of part teaching assistant, part model student, part emotional support person. A visit to Swarthmore College last month, which has a wonderful peer research and information associates program, has me thinking about ways in which the Peer Mentors could take on many of the more mechanical teaching tasks that we as librarians are doing now. This would include things like introducing students to the discovery layer, databases, catalog, and interlibrary loan. We could then, as a library faculty, develop assignments, activities, and lesson plans to share with seminar instructors to integrate information literacy into their pedagogy.

I wonder if that’s going against one of librarianship’s sacred cows. Non-librarians teaching information literacy???? Gasp! Cringe! Ack! But I think it would free my colleagues and I up to work more thoughtfully with our liaison departments both in and outside of the classroom and develop a pedagogy of information literacy that best meets their needs.

My goal for the spring is to investigate pedagogy / library instruction models at other small colleges for ideas and inspiration, and create a plan for fall 2017. I’m curious to hear from readers who are perhaps in similar instruction predicaments. What’s worked for you?

On Critical Habits of Mind

This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.

How does your company treat its employees?

Oh you know, good. They say they value them.

But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?

The list goes on and on.

I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.

So we practiced.

We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:

How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?

We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating  company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.

These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?

Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.