Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

You Are What is Killing Librarianship

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague at a different academic library about potential large-scale (read: scary) changes to our information literacy instruction program models. We talked through rationale, pain-points, and strategies for cultivating buy-in from our colleagues. At a certain point in our discussion, we recognized that this was going to be a tough sell, and this wonderful colleague shared an anecdote where she was once demeaned for ideas like these. You are what is killing librarianship! she was told by a former coworker. We were able to laugh off the comment in our conversation, but it’s one I’ve been continuing to mull over in the days following our talk.

It’s such a hard line to take, because what it implies is that this profession you are a part of–one that required at least one advanced degree and years of practice and experience–is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which you conceive of and are practicing it. You are not only not doing your job well, you are actively working to dismantle the profession you love. To your colleague(s) you are a threat to the professional identity they’ve constructed as a librarian. But as hurtful as this line (and line of thinking) is, it does beg the following question:

What exactly is the “essence of librarianship” and by whom is it determined?

 

What the ALA Has to Say

It’s natural to want to turn to our professional organizations when faced with this question. Ideally they represent us and we embody their beliefs. According to the American Library Association, “modern librarianship” is based on the following core values that “define, inform, and guide our professional practice:”

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility

Notice that these are “core values” and not “core tasks.” There’s no mention of staffing a reference desk, planning library orientation for first year students, soliciting book recommendations from faculty, or teaching every class an instructor requests us to teach. In last week’s ACRLog post there was a great comment by Sandra Cochrane who claims that many librarians respond to the question, “What do librarians do?” with “a list of tasks.” In many ways it’s natural: Our CVs and resumes are lists of things we do/have done; our job advertisements list duties and responsibilities, and our day-to-day is spent in practice. But those practices are rooted in deeply-held beliefs and core values, which may or may not align with those put forth by the ALA.

I’m not going to deconstruct each ALA Core Value in this post, but I will say that there are likely parts of this list that are open to interpretation based on sociopolitical contexts, problematic in light of issues of racism and oppression, and questionable in regards to their intent/founding motive. All of that is to say, it’s complicated, folks, and there are likely other values we’ve internalized as a profession that haven’t made it onto this list.

Core Values & Professional Identity Formulation

Just last week, guest writer Courtney Block expressed the centrality of advocacy to librarianship on ACRLog, and two weeks before that a group of librarians gathered at USC’s Doheny Library for the first ever conference on Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries, where discussions on our professional values, identity formulation, and labor conditions abounded. Attending this conference reinforced for me that although I may share certain professional values with other academic librarians, the ways in which we conceptualize them may be vastly different. That being the case, how does that then impact our formulation of our professional identity and the ways in which we perform librarianship?

For example, ServiceEducation, Anti-Racism, and Social Responsibility are the heart of my own professional practice. I view these values through a feminist, relational lens, in which I am a co-educator, co-learner,  and partner with students, faculty (in and out of the library), staff, and my local community. What’s important to me is cultivating meaningful relationships at all times. This perspective has a direct impact on the ways in which I facilitate classes, approach reference, and propose the development or elimination of certain library services. Someone else in this same job role might have a different definition of each of those values (or a different set of values altogether), which would in turn make their professional practice look different from my own. This difference in practice then accounts for the difference in experience of librarianship and the difference in what we see as “the essence of the profession.”

In my mind, I am improving my professional practice by exploring alternative reference models to the reference desk, because I see the “desk” as both a physical and emotional barrier to egalitarian educational relationships, and a barrier to the core values of Education and Service. My coworker might see the reference desk as an expression of librarian visibility in an educational setting and an embodiment of the professional value of Service. Am I killing librarianship with my practice? Is he? Or are we “killing,” or to be less dramatic, contradicting, our deeply held notions of professional practice?

Is Practice All Relative? 

As I write this post, I am chatting with a friend online about it, working out my argument and thought-process via Google Chat. I’m anticipating being critiqued for being overly equivocal and unable to come to a “correct conclusion” or “truth.” It’s ok! I can take it! Yes, there is a whiff of social constructionism to this post, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage a professional conversation about what we value about librarianship. This needs to happen locally, at our respective institutions, and nationally, via professional conferences, writing (“academic” or otherwise), conversations on social media, and other venues.

When we assume that we all not only hold the same professional values, but define them in the same way, without ever explicitly discussing them, we are setting ourselves up for professional blow-ups. As my friend on GChat put it: “We’re led to believe that if we aren’t ‘moving,’ we aren’t working.” We need to consider critical inquiry, reflection, discussion, and revision of our professional values and practices as an integral part of our work. The only thing that will ever “kill” librarianship is our inability to reflect and discuss our interpretations of our professional values and practice.

Out of Office (For the Semester)

This semester I’m on sabbatical from the library. At my university librarians are faculty and eligible for research leaves, and I’m grateful to have been granted one for the spring and early summer. I’m using the time to work on a few writing projects with collaborators and I’ve also started a new research project. I’ll be interviewing students at my urban, public, commuter university on their practices around their course reading, hoping to learn about the ways they get access to their course materials and fit reading into their schedules. So far it’s been fascinating to speak with students about their reading, and I’m looking forward to analyzing the interview data as well.

While I knew that the routine of sabbatical would be different than my usual library director routine, I’ve been a bit surprised at how different it is. My usual schedule in the library is heavy on meetings; on sabbatical most of my meetings are with…myself. (Full disclosure: also sometimes with my cats.) I haven’t had this much autonomy over my own time since graduate school and it’s taken a bit of getting used to. The first couple of weeks were odd — I hadn’t realized how much I relied on the predictability of my usual schedule to frame my days. Now that I’m in the interview stage of my project I have a bit less flexibility, and I’m getting more settled into my new routines.

It’s been interesting to work on library (and higher ed)-related research and writing full-time while not physically working in the library (or at the college). Most of my research interests focus on practice, and the distinction between my own library practice and research is not usually as separate as it as been this semester. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about that. I appreciate the uninterrupted time for reading and writing and thinking, but it feels somewhat strange not to be in the library at all.

Once my student interviews finish I’ll be buckling down for transcription, analysis, and writing, and continuing work on my other projects too. My plan is to schedule worksessions in libraries around the city, public libraries as well as those at the colleges in my university. In addition to the self-imposition of a new routine to structure my days, I’m also looking forward to the opportunities to visit lots of different libraries and to experience them the way patrons do.

I’m curious to hear from other librarians who’ve taken sabbatical leaves. How’d it go? What did you find surprising (or frustrating)? Drop me a line in the comments.

Things Left Unsaid

There are moments of confluence in our day-to-day lives that can impact the way we see ourselves in the world. Sometimes they are moments of revelation and other times they are just a slight shift in perception, a tweak in the way we experience life. This month, which just so happens to be Women’s History Month, a convergence of personal and professional experiences have all centered around gender, womanhood, and librarianship. The events, in no particular order, include:

  1. Reading Roma HarrisLibrarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession.
  2. Participating in a women faculty focus group at my college.
  3. Being interviewed for two different projects on intersections of gender, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity in LIS.
  4. A conversation with a dear cousin on the parallels between nursing and librarianship as “women’s professions.”
  5. Gearing up for an ACRL conference paper presentation on library instruction coordinators and gendered labor.
  6. Discussing casual sexism in academia with a handful of trusted colleagues and friends.
  7. Being called “unprofessional” by a male librarian for participating in the women’s strike.

Definitely a theme, right?

In living through these past few weeks and in writing this post, this has been the most intentional focus I’ve ever given to my identity as a latina, cis woman in highly feminized field within academia. It’s made me realize that there is so much in my professional life as an academic librarian and in my personal life that goes unsaid because to call attention to gender and intersectional gender identity on a daily basis is simply not done. It’s an academic exercise, a luxury. Something those “theoretical librarians” engage in while the “real librarians” do the “real work” in libraries.

Except it is not.

It is not navel-gazing to examine intersectional gender identity in academic libraries and academia more broadly, and here’s why.

Deeply Entrenched Patriarchal Structures in LIS

Roma Harris’ book was published in 1992, but reading it 25 years later, I’m struck by its relevance to my current work experiences. Despite being a feminized profession, we’ve somehow adopted masculine ideals in terms of what we value as a profession, how we seek to advance librarianship, and how we treat one another as librarians. Olin and Millet’s Lead Piparticle, Gendered Expectations for Leadership in Libraries, and Neigel’s LIS Leadership and Leadership Education: A Matter of Gender, thoughtfully analyze the ways in which, decades after Roma Harris critiqued librarianship for working towards a masculine ideal, LIS still models leadership–or more accurately, management/administration–as masculine labor. It’s a lose-lose set-up for women, who are viewed less positively when they perform both stereotypically masculine and feminine behaviors at work. This was abundantly clear to me after a colleague shared our library’s posters and flyers for Day Without a Woman with librarians at other institutions. I thought it was a bold move, an example of us taking action for other women in feminized professions–teaching, social work, nursing, childcare–who were not able to take the day off work. Yet we were immediately called out by a man for being “unprofessional” by not making ourselves available in service to others. It was hard to see those gendered expectations played out in front of a larger audience of our peers.

I’ve been seeing those same gendered expectations in my own research. Digging into the literature and interviewing instruction coordinators in preparation for an upcoming ACRL presentation, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that certain spaces and roles in libraries are more “for women” than others.  Teaching in libraries is ultra feminized. The relational work that instruction coordinators do and the interpersonal competencies they possess should be highly valued, but are–by virtue of being women’s work–instead simply expected, unacknowledged, and undervalued.

It’s a bummer.

As Within, So Without

Then there are the expectations that accompany being a woman in academia. I wrote a few weeks ago about the power imbalance between faculty and librarians in most academic settings, but think it’s important to stress the role that gender plays in those interactions. The service ethos in which librarianship is rooted is complicated by our gender identity and the expectations attached to women at work. My cousin, who works as an oncology nurse, doesn’t understand why something so obvious as an overwhelmingly female workforce in a structurally masculine setting–hospitals, academia–is hardly discussed. I have to agree.

In speaking with women faculty and staff I confirmed that the casual sexism I experience on a daily basis is not just unique to women in libraries, but to women in academia more broadly. It wasn’t until we gathered to explicitly address these incidents and issues that we felt less alone, more validated, and more empowered to speak up in defense of one another. Examples ranged from outright sexual harassment to more subtle power plays: being told to smile more at the reference desk or in classes, being expected to take on more of a sympathetic listening ear to students, being talked over in meetings and undermined in our work, being casually touched by male colleagues who never do the same to one another and that contribute nothing to the interaction but making us uncomfortable.

There was an acknowledgement of our shared experiences and a desire to work to support one another to change it.

An Airing of Grievances?

I’m not entirely certain what the intent of this post is as I attempt to wrap it up. I don’t want this to be finger-wagging or an airing of grievances, but I do think that some cathartic purging is always needed when discussing events and ideas that impact us in such a deeply personal ways. In some ways I’m just trying to open a conversation. I searched for “gender” in ACRLog before beginning to write and was surprised to find so little that addressed gender identity, sexism, and LIS explicitly. Roma Harris would argue that it’s an intentional if not conscious effort to separate librarianship from “women’s work” by not talking about gender.

I’m heartened by the good, feminist research being done by my academic librarian colleagues and hope that this much-needed introspection continues in our profession. We are a discipline, a profession, a field of primarily women, and the way that gender plays out in our work is worth analyzing, discussing, pulling apart, and putting back together. It’s the only way we’ll create a feminist, inclusive practice of librarianship, which is perhaps the larger point I’m trying to make, but maybe just dancing around.

Second Semesters: Meeting Expectations and Setting Goals

Classes started this week. Utah State University  seems to go back to school earlier than other institutions I’ve been associated with, whether this is a truth or just a feeling based on my always busy and never resting natural state I can’t know. As you might recall from my first post on ACRLog,  I felt the pressure of freedom hanging over my head as I approached my first tenure meetings and class sessions. As I look back on the goals I set, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that I didn’t get the large projects I had planned finished or even near completed. Sometimes I set the bar too high, and sometimes other priorities took important parts of my time. While I stressed about what I could do in the time I had, I didn’t know what it was like to work in this environment despite my degree.

Going with the flow is difficult when you feel the need to justify your existence. When I started, there was an urgency, self-imposed, on hitting the ground running. Freedom, as well as a new job, breeds deflated self-worth and a need to prove myself. I was lucky to start with two fantastic new librarians, who, much like me, felt a need to contribute and change the world in that first month. Our worth was already ( probably) proved and our anxieties over changing the world probably caused us too many sleepless nights in the first semester.

I often read  that employers “made the right choice” when they chose you. I never really believed it when it came to me, and that is why I set outrageous goals for my first 6 months many of which were impossible.

Hope springs eternal, and while a new semester means new challenges from our students it means a second chance for planning and goal setting. The key thing I learned in my first semester is that there will always be a second semester. I’m setting goals and expectations to reflect that, here is what I learned:

  1. I learned about writing and research goals.

I came to Utah State with four years of graduate school behind me. That means 8 semesters of seminar classes, with article length sojourns into the deepest recesses of popular cultural memory and library sciences. I spent much of the summer attempting to fit the projects I worked on in classes into what I needed for my tenure dossier. Try to change the world of libraries with a paper on paranormal manifestations of Abraham Lincoln and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I struggled to come up with new topics, in part because I didn’t want to abandon these ideas and papers. I talked to mentors about following these strings to their natural conclusions, but it seemed like more of an outside hobby than a true tenure quality research portfolio. These were the projects I had and I felt desperate to have logs in the fire.

Putting these projects on the shelf was one of the best decisions I’ve made. There might be a day when I can work on them again, but by taking a single breath and looking around me I found colleagues who were open to sharing their ideas and building projects together. By letting the research come to me in my day-to-day library world I found myself producing better research, thinking better ideas, and learning about new approaches to my work than I ever would have had I focused on what I had previously done. Everyone in academic libraries is intellectually curious, and as such, the job sparks interest in new approaches and problems. When I calmed down, research projects hit me directly in the face through the natural course of my work.

  1. I learned about learning goals.

Many new librarians complain about their library schools; “ I didn’t take the right classes” or “I didn’t learn how to do this” are common refrains on both twitter and in the real world. Nothing in library school can prepare you for the specific things required in your new job in your first year. We all come with either theoretical approaches or with experiences from our grad schools. While I have drawn from my experiences as a graduate assistant and as a student (especially in metadata and digital preservation classes), the real library is different from the one we apprentice in.

This isn’t to say that this isn’t valuable, or that library school is not something that helped me get to where I am, but believing that it was the end-all be-all of libraries and that graduating from the top library school in the country meant that I didn’t have anything to learn was a mistake. I basically had to re-learn everything. Learning is an expected part of our jobs and being ok with not knowing all the answers or solutions is ok.

Each library has its own politics and policies that hinder and promote our lives as librarians. Library school teaches us about the ideal library (a mixture of Ranganathan and Borges), but the library we work in, far from ideal, is the one we have to navigate. No class can teach you about what Utah State University Libraries needs today or tomorrow. But the people I work with are more than willing to welcome me into this world. I learned on the job, and I’m still learning on the job.

  1. There’s always room for saying no.

I came to Utah by myself and decided, socially at least, to say yes to everything. I’m an introvert and an only child as a result I like to be alone and by myself. But…I’ve been to Pioneer Day Parades, Porch Crawls, I’ve watched fireworks with families, I’ve hiked several mountain passes, I’ve driven to the lake 45 minutes away ( I don’t swim). I didn’t make a whole lot of friends in graduate school and I knew that this time needed to be different. Saying yes to everything worked socially, but I found very quickly that it didn’t work so well at work.

Along with my struggles to prove myself I wanted to be a “team player” and take whatever share of the load that was offered to me. I ignored warnings of burnouts and back aches as I took all that I could. Somewhat legendarily I took 7 freshmen orientation sessions this Fall (everyone else did no more than 3 and even that was a lot). You need someone on Saturday to give tours? I’ll be there. You need a desk shift covered? I got it.

I don’t’ regret doing these things, and I don’t think it was detrimental to my mental or physical health but saying no is as healthy as saying yes to social engagements. I learned that saying no today left a yes for tomorrow. My colleagues set boundaries for themselves primarily because our time is limited. Doing a dozen things half way isn’t helping anyone. Along with the research goals, there is always another day, week, or month to accomplish tasks. I don’t advocate putting important tasks off, but I truly believe that pacing myself is going to lead to more gains and more triumphs tomorrow than losing sleep tonight.

I’ll be the first to admit that I barely take this advice or have learned completely from these moments.  But second semesters are opportunities to start again and start fresh. I have a mountain of tasks ahead of me, classes to teach, and papers to present. I’m more comfortable today with the job ahead. All it took was time and another go around.