Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.

Keeping Track of Your Commitments

I’m not the first FYAL blogger to note this, but there are significant differences between professional and student life. Lindsay O’Neill previously wrote about the culture shock of academic life, as well as her techniques for time management, and how the amount of freedom you have to shape your own days is both liberating and overwhelming. I’ve noticed many similar differences. When you’re a student, the semester feels like a sprint towards the finish line. When I became a librarian, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out before me, and it was up to me to figure out how to fill it. As a student, assignments and deadlines are clearly defined for you by somebody else. Now, a lot of the work I do is self-generated and much less defined in its contours.  In this post, I wanted to discuss some of the strategies and tools I’ve used to adjust to this environment.

Last year, I received the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen as a gift (and a subtle hint, perhaps). I’m naturally averse to most things that seem like they’d be found on a CEO’s bookshelf, but this book has actually proved to be helpful as I’ve transitioned into my new job. Although I was able to define some big picture projects and goals for myself when I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish them. When a goal is as loosely-defined as “figure out how to support graduate students” or “plan successful outreach initiatives”, the next steps are not immediately obvious. More than once, I found myself feeling stressed or anxious about projects I was working on outside of work or while I was falling asleep, without making much progress on them while at work because I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward.

Allen posits that the stress most people experience comes from “inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept” (Allen 13). Whether these commitments are with yourself or someone else, they generate “open loops” that need to be attended to. His system for managing commitments requires three basic tasks:

  1. Capture anything that is unfinished in a collection tool.
  2. Clarify your commitment and what you have to do to make progress towards it.
  3. Keep reminders of the actions you need to take in a system you review regularly.

I decided to commit to Allen’s system. I downloaded the task management application Wunderlist, where I keep both a list of ongoing projects and a list of immediate to-do items. For any given project, I spend a few moments thinking about what a successful outcome would look like, what the next actionable step I can take to get there is, and capture it in my to-do list. Allen’s book helped me see that this kind of work — planning, clarifying, and prioritizing — is, actually, work. This was a revelation to me, as I had previously felt that unless I was producing something, I wasn’t really working.

This system makes it much more manageable to keep track of long-term or bigger projects by breaking them into smaller, actionable pieces. If the next step on a project requires action from another person, I can transfer that to-do item into my “waiting for” list, so that I know where the project stands, and that I’m not personally responsible for the next action. It’s helped me keep track of ongoing or informal responsibilities, too. For example, I have a recurring weekly reminder to input my reference and teaching stats, so I don’t forget and try to do them all at the end of the semester. If I say “oh, I’ll email that to you!” to someone, I put it on my to-do list so I don’t forget. I also have a space to keep track of the things that need doing in my personal life, like “schedule dentist appointment” or “oil change” (both real life items from my current to-do list — very glamorous).

Another thing I’ve learned about the pacing of academic life, and working life in general, is that you cannot work at your full capacity all of the time. There are natural dips in energy and motivation, and allowing for those is a necessary part of avoiding burnout. I select items to work on from my to-do list based on how I’m feeling and how much time I have before the next meeting or appointment. On a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling bleary and my brain is turning off, I might choose to update links on a LibGuide. On a Monday afternoon, when I’ve just had my post-lunch coffee, I’ll tackle a writing project or draft a particularly complicated email. Having a list of all the things I’m on the hook for helps me make those decisions more easily.

Breaking bigger projects down into actionable items and writing down what those next steps are has helped me immeasurably. If this is sounding very common sense to you, I imagine you are a more naturally organized person than I am. My personal organizational system prior to reading this book was to keep about five different to-do lists at any time, scattered throughout different notebooks and digital spaces. I generally used to-do lists as a tool to review my commitments in that current moment, but rarely referred back to them. The mental energy I was expending on storing all of the things I had to do in my brain was enormous, and not particularly efficient or effective. Now, I’ve outsourced this memory work, and it’s helped me feel more at ease with long-term or big picture projects. For any given project, I’ve identified a next step, and it’s on my to-do list.

What are your techniques for moving forward with gooey projects? How do you manage your time and stay productive in a less regimented environment?

Works Cited

Allen, David. Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin, 2015.

How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?