Tag Archives: reflection

On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing

Everything is information. Even some physicists and philosophers believe that information might be the basis of reality itself. According to a physicist quoted in a PBS blog post, one can imagine a universe without matter or energy, but one cannot imagine a universe without information. Hegel, the philosopher, also famously stated, “The real is the rational, the rational is the real.” If the rational is what we can know, and information is defined as what we can know, then reality itself is information insofar as it is knowable. (Of course we may able to know more than just information, and I’ll elaborate upon that in Part I of this post.)

“Everything is information” is a predominant maxim in librarianship. Ever since library school, with the antelope-as-a-document example we learned, it is clear: librarians are all about this statement. A simple syllogism can then tell us, then, that librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. (If everything is information and librarianship focuses on everything having to do with information, such as the research lifecycle, then librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. Or, to be a little less meta, just everything!) Of course it may be more complex than this, depending upon definitions and grammatical nuances, and I am no logician. But the focus of our profession is all-encompassing.

In this post, I would like to run with this idea…see where it leads – a sort of thought experiment. I will do that in Part II of this post, and will ask: what are the implications of working in a field where the focus is everything? Yet, first I would like to address some of the problems with the maxim and present a preliminary critique of it. For Part I of this post, I will ask: Does Everything is Information take into account our lived experience? What place does knowledge have? My first draft of this post left out the distinction between information and knowledge, and some of my colleagues pointed this out to me. Now upon further reflection, I think this distinction is critical, because it throws into question the notion that Everything is Information and does a better job of accounting for lived experience.

Part I

Everything is Information suggests information is all there is, but what place does knowledge have, then, in reality? Does Everything is Information take into account the full range and types of human experience?

Along with Tony Stamatoplos, I am co-chairing the ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section 2017 Program Planning Committee. We are hoping to propose a panel that will incorporate such a critique. We want to focus on non-textual information, on the lived experiences and physical/material realities of social activists, the kind of non-textual information they produce, and what role libraries can/should play when it comes to this kind of information. So of course the panel will address the distinctions between information, knowledge, and human understanding. We are hoping to invite Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosopher, to be on a panel, along with an archivist with experience in this area and hopefully an activist who is on the ground. Gilman-Opalsky’s forthcoming book, Specters of Revolt – touches on some of these ideas, as well as how revolt is a form of philosophy that takes place from below as compared to philosophy from above, which characterizes the work done by scholars. While I have to wait for the book to be released, I know that Gilman-Opalsky challenges Thesis 11 from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gilman-Opalsky believes that activities that change the world are already a form of philosophy. Gilman-Opalsky sees activism as a form of philosophy that is better than philosophy from above in many ways, because of its “collective, experimental, creative, and humanist dimensions” (Richard Gilman-Opalsky, personal email). His work points to the inherent rationality of revolt as well as the historical context of different movements, as revolt makes a lot more sense when understood within the context of surrounding events and root causes. Indeed, sometimes the absence of revolt is actually what is irrational, as revolt can be the most sensible response to a particular reality.

All of this is to say that “Everything is Information” is a gross reduction of “everything” that discounts the full range of human experience insofar as it leaves out knowledge and understanding. Certain things – physical, material realities, cannot be reduced to text, or even to bits. To reduce some things – experiences, perhaps – to text or to bits means they will be compromised somehow. Something is lost in the translation. To go with the example of activism, it is an embodiment of rationality, the result of history, a reaction to systemic violence and racism, for example, as well as the expression of various affective states stemming from prior experience. It is oftentimes an expression of anger and desire – desire for a better world free of injustice. None of these things can be reduced to information.

Yet we can have knowledge about activism. We observe it, have an awareness about it, and even participate in it. We understand it. We know it on a deeper level than we know, say, mathematical formulas, because it has to do with human experience, which is very complex.

In spite of this fixation on this maxim, we actually do take knowledge into account in librarianship, as well, as a part of the research lifecycle, which includes a deep understanding of information in order to be able to communicate it to others, and that is necessary for the whole field of scholarly communication. We cannot communicate well what we do not understand ourselves. Yet in librarianship, sometimes it seems that we minimize the importance of knowledge or understanding, valuing information and evidence more highly. With scholarly communication, the focus seems to be on the transmission or dissemination of information, not knowledge or understanding. At this point, I am merely speculating as I haven’t thoroughly examined these ideas in order to make an informed critique of the place of knowledge in librarianship. I wonder what such an examination might reveal?

Part II

Back to Everything is Information, a thought experiment. What does it imply for us? I will also take into account that librarianship covers knowledge and understanding as well, not just information. We do truly cover everything! What are the implications of working in an all-encompassing field?

First, there is this idea that as our focus is information, we gather, process, comprehend, understand, and create information that is about information. This is very meta, and I think as human beings who are rational, sensing, thinking creatures we have a need for this meta aspect to thought that is provided by our field. We have a need to think about and ask questions about what information, knowledge, and understanding are – in order to fully engage with them, experience them, and create new knowledge (although Plato would disagree with that last bit – there is no new knowledge!). Speaking of Plato, just as philosophers point to the human need to think about reality, so we, as librarians, point to the human need to think about information and knowledge. Insofar as we facilitate these processes, our field – and thinking about everything – will never go out of style.

I also think this means as librarians, we really have opportunities to be creative and think outside the box. There are many different ways to think about information and knowledge, and thus many different ways to think about our field. Especially with information literacy instruction, there are all kinds of ways we can rethink the meaning and practices within information literacy. For example, information literacy also includes literacy – reading and comprehending information. This type of skill certainly crosses the distinction between information and knowledge, as to read deeply and comprehend a text is to have knowledge of the content or topic of the text. On this basis, I developed a critical reading workshop to help undergraduates learn skills in reading dense theoretical texts. These are skills that are important, yet often left to classroom instructors who in most cases probably can rarely take the time to teach such skills. As experts in information literacy and literacy, we are perfectly positioned to do so. This example, too, points to this idea that as information professionals and librarians, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the information/knowledge distinction, and what constitutes knowledge, because students learn from us, as well, how to arrive at a place where they actually know something. We don’t just look at the evidence when we teach information literacy. Even evaluation and formulating a research question require some degree of knowledge, and we assist with these activities.

Finally, the fact that librarianship is very meta also means that the library means different things to different people, and serves different roles for different people. The library isn’t everything to everybody, but it is something to everyone. That is a good thing, but it also can be a point of confusion and contention, especially between librarians and those outside the profession. The broadness and narrowness of our field (as etymologically, it is simply a place for books) sometimes means that the importance of the librarianship is minimized or discounted, but librarians will always be tasked with providing a space where “everything” can be explored, a space where the mind grows – where the real is the rational – a space where we can gather the evidence or information, contemplate it, and experience knowledge and understanding. This is profound.

A Tip of the Hat to Tenure: Realizations in my First Year

Recently, I’m discovering more and more that there are certain advantages to being tenure-track, and this affects my professional identity in multiple ways. It is causing me to take on responsibilities that I wouldn’t normally volunteer for, and allowing me to do research that is challenging and significant. I’m realizing that my decision to apply for a tenure-track position was really a great decision for me personally.

One thing I’ll note before diving in is that I realize tenure is not for everybody, and non-tenure-track positions have their own advantages. For more on the advantages and disadvantages of being tenure-track, read Meredith Farkas’s blog post on the topic. I just hope that this particular post will prompt others to consider how their roles and responsibilities are unique and exciting, whether or not they are tenure-track. I also hope that this might add something to LIS students’ and early or mid-career librarians’ discussions and decision-making processes when it comes to applying for tenure-track jobs or switching from a non-tenure-track position to a tenure-track position. There is such a vast range of opportunities and types of positions in librarianship, and tenure is one factor that one must seriously consider when choosing what types of academic positions for which to apply. I realize not everyone may share my perspective.

So, to begin, there’s that adage that if you’re tenure-track, you say yes to everything. Now some might perceive this to be a disadvantage of being tenure-track, as you can get roped into things you wouldn’t otherwise do or might not like. However, I see it as a positive thing, because I am forced to do work outside of my comfort zone – work that my supervisors and other more senior librarians believe might benefit me and help me grow as a professional, work that also is suited to my specific liaison role and my unique skill sets and areas of interest and expertise. For example, I recently began the planning process for a couple political events for the fall. Along with a Political Science faculty member, I’m going to be co-moderating a student panel in the fall called “Your Vote, Your Voice” on what (and who) is on the ballot in Nevada, as well as how the students themselves are involved in the political process. The context for this event is that UNLV will be the site of the final presidential debate, which will be a monumental event for the campus, bringing in millions of dollars of free advertising and putting us in the national spotlight. This student panel will be a campus Debate event, attracting the attention of national media.

I will also be the representative librarian co-moderating a presidential election event – an expert panel gathered by Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between UNLV and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The event, “Why Las Vegas Matters in National Elections,” will reflect our metro region’s significance in a swing state. Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan area in Nevada, and is ranked 29th in the U.S. Issues important to Las Vegas are relevant to other large, diverse metros in the region and the nation. The 2 million people in the Las Vegas metro area includes a diverse population, and UNLV is the second most diverse public university in the nation. Panelists will address local and national issues important to Las Vegas, with consideration of their national implications.

How did my involvement in these events come to be? Well, essentially I got roped into it. My direct supervisor had the idea that the Libraries should be involved in some political events for the fall, which aligns with our mission of empowering students and other campus community members, encouraging them to vote and providing access to knowledge they need in order to be educated voters. As political science liaison, naturally I should be involved. So I went to an expert on campaigns and elections in the Political Science department on campus and got some ideas from him, then ran with them. One outcome of this is that it has allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in one of my departments, as well faculty from Brookings Mountain West on campus and experts from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Normally, I would probably never volunteer for such events. I’m not really political – at least when it comes to the electoral process – and I’m really intimidated by the body of knowledge of experts in this area. My justification and rationale for my disinterestedness in politics was based on my belief that electoral politics is a poor substitute for direct democracy, which interests me more, in addition to political theory. However, now I’m developing an interest in practical politics and seeing more intersections between political theory and practical politics. I have a Twitter feed of political scientists and political news sources that I’m keeping up with. I’m reading the books and articles by the experts who will be on the expert panel. I’m showing an interest, because I have to, and because now I live in a swing state which makes the process a lot more interesting, too. What I’m learning is proving to be quite fascinating, and it is stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise cared too much to learn about. And this is all because of tenure.

There are other things I couldn’t say no to, that I’m now very passionate and excited about. For instance, I’m curating an exhibit for the Libraries on student activism on campus, especially through the media – specifically the Rebel Yell, the campus newspaper (which is incidentally undergoing a name change presently – a student decision). For this exhibit, I’m doing extensive research through which a very interesting narrative about UNLV students is emerging. I’m getting to exercise my creativity and innovativeness in giving voice to this narrative. I’m learning a lot about current students and am making connections with current and former students, senior faculty on campus, and community members to acquire memorabilia and learn about student experiences. Normally I wouldn’t seek out such opportunities. I’m not an archivist. I’ve never done anything like this before; I’ve never even done research with archives or special collections. This particular project was initially intimidating to me, and I knew it would be extremely time consuming. I might not have said yes quite so immediately and eagerly had I not felt a sense of obligation because of tenure. Yet this is a real opportunity – to do research for the first time in special collections and archives, contributing to my professional growth; to have my own research featured in an exhibit; and to highlight the amazing work of student activists here, both current and historical – All because of tenure.

Then, of course, there’s the research requirement for tenure. This means I’m supported to do research that challenges me and makes me learn, as a scholar and a librarian. I definitely wouldn’t do research if there wasn’t this kind of support for it – I’m too much in favor of work-life balance to even do much of any reading when I’m not working, so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be motivated to do research if this 20 percent of my time on the job wasn’t devoted to it. And I’m so excited about these opportunities. My exhibit will count as a creative activity in my tenure case. I’m also collaborating with a Sociology faculty member long-term doing research on teaching, providing library support, and assessing student learning in a course with a heavy critical service learning component. The students’ library research for this course is really impactful. They are using library sources to support advocacy work and things like providing trainings and annotated bibliographies for refugee women representing themselves in their own asylum cases. The students are all using different types of library resources and legal resources for this work. They are also learning first-hand about information privilege, with licensing agreements oftentimes prohibiting them from giving resources directly to community members, considered to be third parties unaffiliated with the university. Anna (Dr. Anna C. Smedley-López) – the Sociology professor and I – are going to do some writing about this aspect of the students’ education for this course. Our first project will be to write a book chapter for a new ACRL-published book called: Disciplinary Applications of Information Literacy Threshold Concepts (edited by Samantha Godbey, Sue Wainscott, and Xan Goodman of UNLV). Our chapter, the proposal for which was recently accepted for this publication, is called “Serving Up Library Resources?: Information Privilege in the Context of Community Engagement in Sociology.” What an opportunity this is for me – to be a research partner with a faculty member in one of my disciplines and to be essentially embedded in this service learning program and course in which students are doing truly significant, social-justice oriented library research. Again, all because of tenure.

I feel exhausted just writing this. I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me. These opportunities will challenge me and make me grow as a professional, as a librarian and scholar. And I have tenure to thank.

Making strategy more transparent

I’m not one to make new year’s resolutions, per se. Still, I have been trying to work on something resolution-esque in the past few months, or maybe even for a year now, although it didn’t begin with any formal shape or label. However, it’s mid-February. It’s the end of week four of the semester and things are feeling rather hectic. My resolve seems weak and my desire for hibernation and Girl Scout cookies is strong. So right about now feels like a good time to check in for a kind of status report and a little refocusing and reinvigoration.

My “resolution” centers around the notion of strategy. I’ve been trying to work on better communicating with others the strategy behind what I’m doing and thinking. That is to say not just the items I cross off each day’s to do list, but how those items intersect in service of a larger plan or aim. For example, not just the classes I’m teaching today or next week or this month, but how selected classes connect as part of a scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for anchor, or core, courses in academic majors. Or that the assessment project I’m working on now is part of a larger plan for assessment that contributes to our multi-faceted understanding of students’ information literacy learning and outcomes. I’m not trying to blow smoke here. I’m just saying that what I see as strategy isn’t always apparent to others. How could it be if I didn’t tell anyone about what I’m thinking? I’m trying to work on this in large part by just talking about it more.

By talking about it more, I mean I’m trying to clarify my strategy for myself and articulate it more clearly for others. I’m trying to communicate in different ways–both abstract concepts and concrete examples, both words and graphics–to make stronger connections. I’m trying to be more transparent about what I’m thinking and how I’m connecting the dots. But I’m also trying to carefully listen to what others have to say to see how my thinking and my work is part of a still larger whole. This librarian-led scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for a series of anchor courses in the psychology major that I mentioned a moment ago, for example, is only part of still more expansive information literacy teaching and learning for psychology students. So when I meet with psychology faculty, I talk about students’ development across that series of courses, but I ask about where and how they are also teaching information literacy in those courses and others, as well. We talk together about assignment design and course goals and students’ needs. It’s not about some great reveal, as if by magic, at the end. Talking about it along the way makes the individual steps and component parts more connected, more meaningful, more collaborative, and, therefore more successful.

the_larger_whole

R-chie overlapping structure arc diagram by Daniel Lai, Jeff Proctor, Jing Yun and Irmtraud Meyer” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been focusing on strategy directly with students, too, in the classroom and during research consultations. When I ask students to experiment with a research question in a database, for example, I frame our discussion of their approaches as “best practices for search strategies.” We talk not only about which words they typed in, but why they picked the words they did and what impact their choices had on search results. We add things like “identify major concept words” and “use synonyms for major concepts words” to our list of strategies. I think this metacognitive approach helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework for future application. I am increasingly talking with students about what their strategies are, how they are (and should be) developing strategies, and how strategies can give them agency over their research processes and learning. When we talk about strategies for organizing, reading, or synthesizing sources, students are (mostly, not all–let’s be real) interested. I try to be transparent about my strategies, too: why we’re doing what we’re doing.in the classroom. Students seem eager for a framework that helps them decode, maneuver, manage, and direct their work. They are engaged in these conversations. Never have I seen them take more notes than when we talk about strategy.

It’s well and good to intend to work on strategy and think about the big picture–indeed, it’s an attitude or habit of mind–but the reality is that it takes practice, requires space, and demands reflection. Part of my “resolution” is also to get better at strategic thinking and work. My attempts to make time and space have so far included three approaches.

  1. Visual organization. I’m a big fan of lists and post-its and paper. I write everything down to keep track of ideas and tasks big and small. I regularly organize and reorganize these notes. I’ve started grouping them by theme or project in a chart, rather than just simple lists. The visual layout has been a helpful reminder of how small items are part of a larger whole. It helps me think about connections.
  2. Scheduling time for strategic thinking. I’m not doing so well on this one, to be honest. It’s rather easy to lose the thread of this practice when you’re suffering from email/instruction/meeting/life overload. As a case in point, I jotted down about three (probably more interesting) ideas for this blog post that I was excited about, but they all required more big picture thinking and research than I could make happen before this deadline. I’ve been trying to schedule time in my calendar for strategy, just like I schedule meetings. But then I catch up with email instead or I schedule in a student who needs last-minute help or I cross a few other little things off my to do list. Even though I blocked two hours in my schedule to work on reviewing results of recent assessment projects to find connecting themes across them, I let the other stuff in. Those things were more pressing, but also just more easily accomplished. Of course, the pace of the semester doesn’t always permit open blocks of time to devote to the bigger picture. But I also need to work on sticking to it.
  3. Research, presentation, and publication. The motivation of an approaching conference presentation or a writing commitment forces my hand to think and reflect more strategically and meaningfully, not just in passing, about the big picture of my daily work. I’ve been seeking more opportunities for this kind of structure because it’s been so helpful for processing, interpreting, and meaning-making.

How do you motivate your strategic thinking? How do you make room in your daily and weekly schedule? Or perhaps, how do you use small chunks of time for big picture thinking and work? I’m eager to hear your strategies in the comments…

The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship

creation
Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.

I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!

Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.

Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.

I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.

I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.

In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.

I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.

Generosity at work

It seems to me that the interconnectedness of our work makes us library folk frequent collaborators. It often takes a number of people working together, for example, to select, acquire, receive, catalog, and provide access to resources. Or, for instance, how does a librarian have access to students for in-class instruction if not through collaboration with faculty? We are often skilled at working cooperatively and fostering partnerships within our libraries, across our campuses, and beyond.

The characteristics and quality of our many collaborations, however, can sometimes be disappointing–as is the case in all work environments, no doubt. It’s frustrating when work that is connected and should be collaborative is instead disjointed and siloed. It’s challenging to work with a difficult or defensive colleague or supervisor. And it’s depressing to recognize when we ourselves have been the source of a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half or so working with a faculty member at my institution on a fairly intensive teaching and research project. The course of our deepening and developing partnership has provided me an occasion to give a lot of thought to our collaboration and, by extension, the nature of collaboration more generally. This particular faculty member has been an especially generous collaborator. By generous, I don’t mean she has been nice or easy to work with, although she certainly has been those things. What stands out most to me is that she has never been territorial or defensive. She has had no tendency toward one-upsmanship. Instead, she has been at ease with and even eager for sharing ideas, work, and credit. She was as keen to hear my ideas as she was to share her own and just as likely to advance my interests as she was hers or, better yet, find common ground between them.

Indeed, when I reflect on the many people I’ve worked with, I feel grateful for all the generosity I can so easily call to mind. These people and moments were characterized by, much like my recent faculty partner, a ready willingness to share ideas, information, communication, and credit, an inclination to recognize the potential and the contributions of others. These were people who were accountable and took responsibility for their fair share of both work and mistakes. Rather than trying to stake personal claims, they sought to support and advance those around them such that everyone benefitted–individually and together.

As far back as elementary school, I’ve prided myself on being a good teammate or colleague, yet I now recognize how one-sided a collaborator I often have been. I cringe to recall the moments when I was certainly eager to help others, but not work with them. I see now how I was often resistant to others’ contributions and reluctant to hear criticisms. I was more than happy to give, but not to actually join forces. I wasn’t ill-intentioned, just perhaps (too) focused on self-reliance or proving myself.

A search for recommendations on how to be more generous at work turns up articles like this one and this one. The short version of their suggestions includes things like: be thoughtful, work hard, communicate readily, collaborate better, share credit, create positive working environments, and so on. While these things can be easy to know, they are often hard to do.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being nice here. I’m by no means against niceness or kindness. What I’m talking about, though, is developing and contributing to an environment of thick collegiality such that we can work effectively together in a “shared endeavor to create something rich in meaning.” Generosity, I think, helps makes this possible.

So how to become a more generous collaborator, leader, colleague, supervisor, supervisee, mentor, and/or teacher? Some research suggests that, perhaps like most things, practicing makes it easier. And my personal experience suggests the same. The more I practice generosity–that is, the more I cultivate the mindset and habits of a generous colleague or leader–the easier it is. And the more generosity I see around me and receive in return. It seems to me that respect and trust are at the core of this attitude and practice. Being generous both requires and helps promote trust and respect.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. I do think I’m better at this than I used to be, perhaps because of time, age, worldview, and because I’ve worked at it, too. I also know I can be better at it still. But the practice of promoting generous behaviors and attitude–the work of it and the reflection on it–has had a significant impact on my work relationships, quality, engagement, and satisfaction.

It would be naive to ignore the roles gender and other types of power and privilege, or lack thereof, can play in collaborative work and the work environment generally. Some might say, for example, that generosity is expected of women, and not men. Or some might say that to be “generous” actually means to be weak or timid or taken advantage of. There are challenging and troublesome expectations and stereotypes wrapped up in this conversation for sure. It’s reasonable to worry how this might reinforce divides, rather than challenge them. It seems to me, though, that generosity can help to subvert stereotyped expectations and structural inequalities by acknowledging others’ capabilities and accomplishments, by making space for voices otherwise unrecognized. I think practicing generosity at work opens communication, creates respect, and transforms our perspectives and practices for the better. Generosity can promote opportunities and engagement for us all.

Your thoughts? Drop us a line in the comments…