Category Archives: Professional image

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

I Want You to Like Me

I know, intellectually, how naive it is to assume that other people, especially students, are here to help me fulfill myself—naive at best and arrogant at worst. But . . . my own growth as a teacher requires that I face such awkward facts. To become a better teacher, I must nurture a sense of self that both does and does not depend on the responses of others—and that is a true paradox.

–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 73

I’d be lying if I said I entered my library classroom with no care for what the students think of me. As much as I want them to critically question and engage with the information we’ll be discussing over the next 1-2 hours, I also want them to like me. I want them to think I am approachable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and if they happen to think I’m witty, that’s just icing on the cake.

I can admit this now, but would not have dreamed of sharing this desire early in my library career. My conception of the classroom then was as a space where individual needs and wants were secondary to the higher pursuit of learning. I would have told you my class was student-centered, learning-outcome-driven, and that my own needs and wants didn’t enter into my teaching. It would have been a bald-faced lie.

Silence in the classroom was difficult for me to stomach, and still is–I just handle it better now. I feel happiest when I have a good rapport with students in class, when I see them smile at me, when we share a laugh or two. There’s a big dollop of ego and narcissism that enters into the classroom with me, and if I don’t acknowledge it, if I try to negate it, it just works itself into the learning setting in insidious ways.

Parker Palmer’s vignette about his classroom interaction with the “Student from Hell” is one I come back to again and again. (You can find it in The Courage to Teach.) In it, he tries everything in his teaching arsenal to get one young man to engage with not just the material, but with him. He does so to the detriment of all other students in the room, so focused was he on getting this one student to like him, and ends up ending the class in a “black hole” of self-pity and doubt. Later he learns that the “Student from Hell” was in the middle of a difficult family situation that was putting a strain on his academic work and threatening to end his college career. It’s a powerful story, one that highlights the interplay between two persons with unique perspectives, experiences, and emotions and how these subjectivities meet in the classroom.

The classroom is not an unemotional place. It’s a space made up of human beings, teachers and students, who through their interactions can shape and influence one another’s identities and experiences. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks specifically addresses the denial of emotion and ego that so many teachers feel they must do in order create a truly “intellectual space,” and how it’s ultimately detrimental to the learning experience. An intellectual space is made up of people, and as people, we want to connect. We want to build relationships and forge friendships. Fear of rejection is powerful. There are moments when teaching can feel scary, because it’s not just about what you are teaching, it’s about you as a person and a teacher, and about your students as people. In some ways this is far more pronounced for librarians, who have a limited window in which to create meaningful connections with students.

I’ve found that acknowledging my own desire to be liked in the classroom and understanding the impact it has on my identity as a teacher has been incredibly freeing. I’m able to say, “you feel like that class was terrible because you didn’t quite feel a connection with the students, but maybe it wasn’t so bad.” I’m also able to think about the ways in which feeling like I have a classroom full of pals might lead me to think students are learning more than they are actually retaining. It’s a strange paradox, as Parker Palmer puts it, but it’s one that I’m willing to own up to these days.

Invisible Disabilities, Self Care, and a Generous Heart

This has all been said before, and better than by me. Not to bury the lede – practice self care and have a generous heart.

One of the insights I’ve gained as I’ve grown older, is how deeply and comprehensively injuries and illness can effect someone. Or non medical issues – the regular ups and downs of life. Especially on the job.

A few weeks ago a friend called out a scholar for not caring about their research. The presentation was bad, they were unenthusiastic and, frankly, it sounds like it sucked. It sucked for my friend to sit through it. Maybe the presenter doesn’t care, and if a presenter doesn’t care it’s hard for anyone else to care. But I kept defending this unknown person, thinking maybe they were doing the absolute best they could and we just don’t know what is going on.

What if they have plantar fasciitis and standing is painful? Or if they have a bulging disc between their vertebra that is pressing directly on a nerve? What if they suffer depression – that wounds so many, kills some, and hides in plain sight?

What if they have lost someone?

What if they have an autoimmune disorder that is causing a cascade of seemingly unconnected problems that just makes them tired and miserable? Maybe their doctor thinks they are a hypochondriac.

Migraines.

Microaggressions.

Muscular sclerosis.

HIV.

Prescription drug side effects.

Nonacceptance of gender identity.

A belittling, tyrannical supervisor.

Their child is being bullied.

Parkinson’s.

Marital problems.

Financial troubles.

Sick family.

Othering.

You get the idea.

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons someone might be flat or uninspired that have nothing to do with their passion for a subject. Personal matters and illness can intersect in ways both traumatic and invisible that harm our work performance – and I mean the affective state we try to project.

As I age and endure some of these issues I usually choose not to share my troubles with coworkers. I imagine they are doing the same – the best they can. (EDIT – a friend notes this suggests that people normally and perhaps should hide their problems. She is right, and that is not what I wanted to communicate. I was speaking to my tendency to not share. Sharing of problems can be therapeutic and I hope people can seek help and not be isolated by the problems they face.) I  have had to become better at self care to combat the little aches that accrue as my birthdays pile up. I get off lightly and I never will know what others are enduring. Maybe you are healthy and happy in your job – awesome! But please have a generous heart and at least assume others are doing their best within the framework of their life. And of course, practice self care to the extent you can.