Applying Counter-Narratives to Academic Librarianship

Beginning notes from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s keynote at IDEAL 2019.

Late July and early August were a whirlwind of travel for me. First up: ACRL Immersion, where I had the privilege of observing the program as a new facilitator. This was followed up by a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio for IDEAL 2019, the Advancing Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility in Libraries & Archives Conference. I’ve been pouring over my notes, doing some personal reading, and reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that connected these two very intense learning experiences. One of those ideas was the concept of counter-narrative.

Counter-narrative comes from Critical Race Theory, and is rooted in the idea that power creates a dominant story that is accepted as Truth. Through counter-narrative, groups of people who have been marginalized have the power to resist dominant ideology and tell the story of Truth from their (our) own perspective and experience. An excellent example of counter-narrative in action is the 1619 Project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times. This project “is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” I had the honor of hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones and Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at IDEAL 2019 and both stressed the importance of the stories we tell and the way that narrative shapes our reality.

There are so many opportunities for us to develop and apply a counter-narrative to our work in libraries, which is influenced by the same ideologies and -isms that plague the world in which we live. We see this in the work of Eamon Tewell, Jacob Berg, and Scarlet Galvan, who turn the resilience narrative so many libraries adopt on its head, highlighting the ways in which it reinforces structural inequalities and shift responsibility to individuals who suffer. It is present in the instruction team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries who seek to dismantle deficit thinking in information literacy education and acknowledge the strengths that transfer students bring to the classroom. The work of Annie Pho and Rose L. Chou in Pushing the Margins, along with that of the many talented librarian researchers who contributed to that excellent volume are all prime examples of counter-narratives by women of color within our profession.

What narratives and ideologies have we bought into in our own work in academic libraries? What have we simply accepted as Truth without bothering to question, poke holes in, and dismantle? There’s this unfortunate narrative that critical inquiry is about posing problems without offering any form of solution. To respond to that, I’ll borrow from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw and say that “There is power in naming.” There is power in storytelling, in pointing out problems, and in developing a discourse of dissent. What can you question? What kind of counter-narrative can you give to our profession?

You Should Really Think About Publishing Something

It’s a piece of “advice” we’ve all received at some point or another in our academic librarian career. We may be on the tenure-track, in a continuing appointment position, promotion eligible, or classified as administrative staff. But at some point we’ve all heard some variation of the following statement:

You should really think about publishing something.

Sometimes it’s said in passing by a colleague who received similar feedback at some point. Others times it comes up in conversations with supervisors, mentors, or department chairs. It might be a breezy statement or one laced with concern. It frequently shows up around review or promotion time or sometimes just when someone happens to look at a cv or think it might be appropriate. When and how it comes into being, it remains a supremely unhelpful statement. It’s the kind of statement that causes more angst and stress than positive action. It reinforces the idea that a line on a CV is what’s important. It has the potential to create writing prompted by fear and/or a desire to “get a name out there” or just to “get something published.”

Those of us who teach and work with undergraduate students focus on helping students value their curiosity and prior knowledge so that they can cultivate their own research interests and produce work that elicits pride. We don’t tell students that they should just “write something.” We ask them to think about what sparks their interest. In our classes we practice asking questions rooted in curiosity and wanting to know more about an idea or subject. We focus on research as an iterative process and the way that new ideas emerge from the reading we do, the conversations we have, and the thoughts with which we wrestle. We do this because it helps students improve their thinking and writing, and it creates a connection to their work. I want us to have this time connection to our own work.

A friend and colleague once told me that their most productive writing time was the year after their sabbatical year. That year off from teaching and service work gave them a chance to read, explore different ideas, and find space for themselves within a meaningful academic conversation. That’s the difficult stuff–the stuff that takes the most time. Instead of saying “You really should think about publishing something,” we could encourage reading, questioning, and exploration. We could make time in our workplaces–which might mean dropping something else–for professional reading. We could share our own research interests and ideas with our newer colleagues and help them spark their own interests. We could ask questions about their practice, listen to their ideas and concerns, and encourage their interests. Small questions are sometimes the most interesting! Would could embrace the practice of curiosity.

There are so many more productive, helpful things we can say and do to encourage writing and research within academic librarianship. What was the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received?

Assumptions & Expectations

May 31st was my son’s last day of first grade. His class had a pizza party, complete with cupcakes and cookies to round out the celebration. He had a fantastic year at this new school after a terrible one at his old school. He received two “awards” from his teacher, who handed out different award certificates to all the kids: the “Always Happy” award and the Mathematics award. This kid LOVES numbers and does math problems for fun.

My son is on the autism spectrum. He is in the regular classroom with supports. For those of you who speak the parent language of special education in U.S. public schools, he has an IEP and he is mainstreamed. He’s a lot like any quirky kid you’d meet at the park, but there are things about him that are unique. He doesn’t like loud noises (fire alarms are the worst) or persistent quiet ones (clicking ceiling fans). He may take a while to answer a question; so long, sometimes, that you wonder if he forgot what you asked him (he didn’t). Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention to what’s going on, but then he’ll ask a question, or say something, or point out a detail that indicate that he is fully present, aware, and alert. Sometimes he asks odd questions out of (what we think is) nowhere. His pattern of speech may sometimes sound a little different. He loves the outdoors, hugs, Legos, his bike, and oddball humor.

He’s also a constant reminder to me as I move through my day-to-day work, in and out of the library classroom, to check my expectations and assumptions of students. I’ve taught classes where the same student blurts out answers before anyone else can, or asks an odd question at what seems like an “off” time to be asking it. There have been other classes where students don’t make eye contact, appear to be somewhere else, or give blank stares. Sometimes students look confused. Sometimes they don’t answer questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions where the answers are things I’ve just said.

Those actions may be about me. Maybe my pacing is off or my explanation is confusing. I could be really really really ridiculously boring at that point in class. I could also seem like the kind of person who wants people to ask questions whenever they have them, no matter if it seems odd to others.

But those actions are also about them. Maybe a student doesn’t make eye contact and blurts out comments/questions because they too are on the autism spectrum. Maybe they look confused and sort of blank because they have issues with auditory processing, and I’ve given too much information or too many instructions all at once. They could have low vision, difficulty hearing, or could be in real pain that day (and everyday if it is chronic). They could be listening and processing everything I saw but not be able to externalize that interest and learning in the way I am used to seeing it.

There is so much we don’t know about the students we see once or twice a semester. Sometimes we have opportunities to really get to know them and sometimes we never see them again. In whatever time we have with them, we can drop our assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We can set expectations high for ourselves and for them, and do everything we can to support them in their learning so that they meet those expectations. (Check out Zoe’s last post on Universal Design in the classroom for some excellent ideas.) We can check any judgements we might be inclined to make about a student’s actions, facial expressions, or speech. It might feel a bit unusual at first, but if we practice it a little every day, we stop having to practice and we just start doing it.

It’s easier for me now that it was in years past, but I have practice at work and I have practice at home. Checking assumptions is hard work, but it’s a responsibility we have to the learners in our community. Beyond that, it also opens us up to a world of interesting people who can befriend, laugh with, and learn from that we might have otherwise missed. In setting aside our assumptions we leave room to get to know people. In expanding our ideas of what constitutes learning behavior and how we can support different kinds of learners in the classroom, we set the stage for all kinds of interesting education to happen.

photo of award certificate that reads "the always happy"

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.

You Can’t Die of Impostor Syndrome, Right?

Like a good old millennial I was Gchatting with a friend, a fellow old millennial, and asked, “Can a person die of imposter syndrome?” And yes, I did misspell “impostor” in that question.

I was met with a “hahahahahaha” and some emojis, along with a much needed pep talk. No, it didn’t end that feeling of panic that was making my shoulders ache and my throat tight. I still felt my stomach flipping and my face heating up. My particular flavor of Impostor Syndrome manifests physically, and is a strong mix of embarrassment, anxiety, shame, and excitement. I once asked Library Twitter if it ever goes away, and was met with a resounding NO from the women I idolize. It may change, but it never goes away.

I’ve been told to own my expertise, fake it ’til you make it, and remind myself that I belong here. I’ve tried to replicate the actions and approaches of colleagues and friends I greatly respect in hopes that I’ll manifest some of their confidence and air of authority. It’s not me. It feels false and a bit painful, honestly.

Articles and books abound to help women and people of color, my own intersection of identity, thrive despite impostor syndrome, deal with it, and even cure it. I’ve tried them all, but the feeling persists, and I am starting to wonder if it really is such a terrible thing.

I mentioned shame making its way into my Impostor Syndrome expression, and I think that shame is less related to “feeling like I’m not good enough” and more related to feeling the Impostor Syndrome. When I teach I try to encourage students to embrace confusion, ask questions, and generally feel ok not knowing answers to things. I need and want to do the same, but often feel as though there is no room for this kind of “novice culture” for women of color in the workplace. Our Western workplace culture tends to conflate vulnerability with weakness, a desire to learn with incompetence, and questioning with a lack of knowledge. So when self-doubt and “not knowing the answer that I feel like I should know” make their way into my brain, I feel weak, unworthy, and even more down.

My feminist brain screams: EVERYONE HAS FEELINGS AND NOT ACKNOWLEDGING THEM IS AN INSIDIOUS SIDE EFFECT OF THE PATRIARCHY. FEEL YOUR FEELINGS.

My work brain chimes in with: You need to be more confident or no one will take you seriously.

But then I think back to some of the leaders and colleagues I’ve most admired, and what stands out is their ability to say, “Wow, I don’t know anything about that. How can I learn?” Or, “You know I am feeling a lot of self-doubt today and could use some encouragement.” They were/are strong enough to fully own and express those feelings and use them to grow as people. So maybe it’s not Impostor Syndrome that’s the problem, but the way that it is vilified. Yes, it’s important to not continuously drown in a pool of your own self-doubt and anxiety, but part of swimming out of that pool includes sharing those feelings and acknowledging that it’s ok to feel that way. It was so encouraging to hear expressions of “me too!” and “same here!” from my heroes online, and I want to do better about expressing those feelings, too. I want to stop worry about it impacting my professional image (whatever that means) and embrace the range of emotions I want all learners to feel. Feel your feelings, y’all.