Discussing the 4 Pillars of Immersion: Leadership

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Jessie Loyer and Veronica Arellano Douglas. Jessie is the Indigenous Engagement Librarian at the University of Alberta. Veronica is the Interim Associate Dean for Research and Student Engagement at the University of Houston. This post is the third in a four-part series, “Discussing the 4 Pillars of Immersion.”

This series was inspired by conversations during a January 2024 Immersion Facilitators retreat that examined our relationship with the foundational pillars of the program. The team explored each pillar by sharing questions and perspectives and considered how to integrate each pillar into the portfolio of Immersion programming. The first post in this series focused on information literacy, the second on the changing roles of librarians in higher education, and in this third installment, Jessie Loyer and Veronica Arellano Douglas will explore the role of leadership in the work of teaching librarians.  

Why leadership? 

Veronica: Those of you who have been to Immersion in previous years may still have a much-loved and dog-eared binder of program materials, notes, and work scribbles. I still have mine from every Immersion I’ve attended since 2008! Yet in preparation for this post, Jessie and I returned to our 2019 Immersion program binders, which we both received as new facilitators and program observers. We wanted to reacquaint ourselves with the Immersion approach to leadership for teaching librarians, which is informed by critical leadership theory and appreciative inquiry. Leadership might at first glance not seem to be central to the work of teaching librarians, however, so much of the work of teaching involves creating and managing positive change; advocating for ourselves, our colleagues, and the communities we serve; and using our influence to center the needs and concerns of learners at our organizations. Whether or not you lead a department, team, or program as a teaching librarian, you are leading instructional efforts at your institution.

Jessie: While we were revisiting Immersion documentation on leadership, we were most drawn to two working assumptions or ideas: 

  1. Leadership is both a social process and social construct that tends to reflect the dominant cultural narratives of an organization
  2. You do not need to be in a leadership role in order to create positive transformation within your context.

The Immersion program welcomes librarians from all roles within their organization, and invites them to a week of generative, focused reflection around teaching. For many of us, budget cuts, deprofessionalization, misinformation and other pressures mean that teaching is frequently scrutinized and asked to be justified; we can feel powerless in the face of these pressures. But I think that the way that we talk about leadership in this program is powerful: what does it look like to create transformation within the context that shapes your work? You don’t have to be the Dean of the library to make transformational change. 

VAD: I think that’s a really important point, Jessie. I know that for a long time I had a really narrow view of “leadership” that was really just me conflating it with management or supervision. I still think that good leadership is essential for successful supervision, but I do think there are opportunities for teaching librarians to learn and grow as leaders at all levels of an organization. I really appreciate the way you characterize leadership as change-making. Teaching librarians see the day-to-day needs, pain-points, and successes of learners and colleagues and are often in the best position to know what needs to change.

JL: Understanding the obstacles and considering what to prioritize makes this work sustainable, especially as big change can seem overwhelming. I also think that connects so neatly to that first assumption: leadership is a process and a construct that reflects the narrative of the organization. When I start a new position, seeing organizational charts tells me so much about what an organization prioritizes, but witnessing how projects are managed gives me an even clearer picture of how staff at all levels are valued. Immersion helps us to see and name those structures of power that shape our work life.

VAD: Yes! A critical approach to leadership, rather than an adoption of corporate leadership frameworks is so needed in academic libraries. If we are turning a critically reflective lens to our teaching we should also critically consider our leadership structures and approach. 

How did you develop your personal leadership approach?

JL: As an Indigenous librarian, I’ve benefitted from my own culture’s beliefs about leadership, and from the fellow Indigenous librarian role-models who shaped and continue to shape my sense of leadership. What is most unique to me about these Indigenous models is a true humility in leadership. My grandfather was Chief of our nation in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and I remember him sitting at his kitchen table, fielding phone calls and stuffing envelopes: he took his responsibility as the external voice for our people seriously, but he never saw any of the work as beneath him. Similarly, I’m grateful for Indigenous librarians like Sarah Dupont and Kim Lawson, who worked with me when I was a student librarian: they were both committed to their own growth and had a hunger for knowledge in the service of others.

Models of leadership that are compelling to me all share this sense of the ecosystem of the work: we are all making this happen together, and all the work is essential and should be celebrated. 

VAD: As an early-career instruction librarian I never thought I would be in a leadership role or position. It was an assumption that quickly proved false, as I ended up leading projects and coordinating teaching programs, then progressed to supervisory roles (department head, and now interim associate dean). I had a lot of preconceived notions of what leaders looked and sounded like and I was not any of those things. It took a wonderful mentor and friend, Celia Rabinowitz, for me to see that leadership could be feminist, inclusive, and always intellectually curious. She was and continues to be a role model for the kind of leader I would like to become. Turning to feminist leadership theory rooted in Emergent Strategy or Relational-Cultural Theory feels more true to who I am and how I operate in the classroom and in life. I frequently turn to adrienne marie brown’s statement, “small is all” as a reminder that culture and leadership is embedded in all levels of an organization. Being in a supervisory position or a position of authority is not about imposing your rules and will on others. Instead being an effective leader ties back to what Jessie describes as humility and an appreciation for the work of everyone. As a leader, you are responsible both for and to the people you lead, and means listening and addressing their needs and concerns, celebrating their work, as Jessie mentioned, and creating trust and community. The community ethos we try to cultivate in the classroom with learners is something that teaching librarians can bring to all aspects of their work throughout their organization.

Again, why leadership? 

VAD: Although Jessie and I were able to connect leadership with the work of teaching librarianship relatively easily, we wrestled with this idea of why we would be discussing or focusing on leadership in the context of information literacy, which is at the center of Immersion. I think Jessie’s reasoning is the most sound here. 

JL: Information literacy instruction requires clarity. It demands that we help connect students to a network of information, enable access, and ensure that students have the context necessary to understand our collections. These tasks require us to build negotiation skills. 

Good information literacy instruction is also good leadership: collaborative, expansive, and responsive. In the same way that the best boss knows that they don’t have to micromanage their workers because they’ve recruited great workers, a good librarian knows that our students come with a whole life of lived experience that has informed the way they search: we don’t need to micro-manage them; we can offer strategies and tools for this unique context. 

VAD: That valuing of the learner, of all people, is critical to leadership and to understanding and teaching information literacy. I really appreciate the way Jessie centers the lived experiences of learners and the influence it has on their individual approach to information literacy. I agree with those parallels wholeheartedly. A good leader does not try to flatten their team or mold them into a cookie-cutter shape of a model worker. Similarly, information literacy education is informed and shaped by the context in which it exists. The same critical reflection we bring to our teaching and try to impart on learners is essential to leadership. In our next post, Carlos Duarte and Mary Broussard will begin to dig into critical reflection and its centrality in the Immersion Program.

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