I’m in a weird head space at the moment. I attended the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium (CLAPS) last month and am about to attend the Library Assessment Conference (LAC) later this week. Based on what I experienced at CLAPS and what I’ve read about LAC, the two conferences couldn’t feel more different. I am very curious about how we continue to conceptualize and shape the idea of assessment in libraries.
At CLAPS, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist, and Kush Patel, Digital Pedagogy Librarian, at the University of Michigan. Their exploration of critical digital pedagogy in librarianship was a wonderful mix of writing, reflection, and discussion on the ways in which we can build critical and queer feminist communities in our classes. As part of the session, Anne and Kush asked participants to read five different excerpts of selected texts on care, praxis, technologies, design, and assessment, and then write our reflections on these excerpts as they apply to our own teaching and the learning we want to facilitate in our classes. (You can read the excerpts on the slides they’ve graciously shared online). The excerpt that resonated with me the most was from Critical Generosity by Jill Dolan, which illustrates a generous and caring approach to the criticism of dramatic performances and artists. It was presented as a model for assessment in teaching and learning, one that recast–in my mind, anyway–assessment as care and sustenance.
The current narrative of assessment in libraries is that of justification. We prove our value, show our impact, and demonstrate our connection to student learning and student success. I know we are working and teaching at a time when higher education funding and academic jobs are precarious and departments and faculty are constantly being asked to prove their worth. I am sympathetic to our attempts to demonstrate, through assessment, that our work in libraries is important. I’ve done and published this kind of assessment myself! But because our assessment is done with the intent to appease an external audience, we are constantly in a position to validate our own existence, rather than support the learning realities of our students and teaching librarians. Our assessment is an act of survival, in our minds, rather than something that enriches and feeds ourselves and our students. I’ve shared my professional angst about librarianship not having a seat at the academic table and the ways that influences interactions between librarians and faculty. Our library assessment culture reflects this reality, but it also continues the narrative that we need to prove ourselves worthy of trust and acceptance.
Dolan writes about her first encounter with “critical generosity” in David Roman’s book, Acts of Intervention. Roman describes caring for friends who were HIV positive during a showing of the famously long play, Angels in America. Throughout the performance, he conducted frequent interpersonal assessments: Is everyone doing ok? Does someone need to take their medication? Is there enough food and water? Do people need a break/rest? The root and ongoing narrative of this assessment was care, sustenance, and really, love.
I recognize I’m asking for what many may view as a stretch: making a connection between the interpersonal care Roman and Dolan write about and institutional library assessment. But our teaching and learning in higher education and libraries is about the students we teach and the interpersonal connections we make everyday. So many of our attempts at assessment stay away from “messiness.” We want numbers that make good stories, and we want those good stories to make the library look good. But in staying away from messiness we are erasing the people at the center our work–their complications, needs, bodies, etc. In short, we’re staying away from the “gore” of learning. I don’t mean to be graphic, but I do think our proclivity for neatness is in direct conflict with the process of learning. In my own attempts at large-scale, summative, value-focused assessment, the best I’ve been able to show is that learning takes time, and our own work as teaching librarians is never-ending.
Yes, I know we have annual reports to write and numbers to share with our directors, deans, provosts, and presidents. I do too. But we have power within our profession with the papers we write, the kind of assessment we advocate for and practice, and the care that we exhibit within our work. What would it mean to embrace a critical practice of assessment? What could that look like?