When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Learning to Learn


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday I attended a presentation and tour of a private school for children with learning differences (everything from dyslexia and dysgraphia, to autism, ADHD, anxiety, and processing issues, etc.). I’ve written about my son’s issues with learning within a school setting before, in part as a means of processing my own feelings about standardized education, but also as a way to reflect on my own work as a teacher. It’s hard for my experiences as a parent of a child with different learning needs NOT to influence my approach to the classroom.

At this presentation, the school administrators stressed the importance of teaching students to learn how to learn. Because the school sells itself as a transition school–one where the typical student attends for 3 years before moving on to a mainstream public or private school–some parents were concerned about students’ abilities to catch up in certain subject areas. I was so impressed by the school administrators’ answer, and realized that is what we try to do (to varying degrees of success) with students in college. Yes, there is a focus on content; it’s what academic majors are, after all. But there is also an emphasis on metacognition and the development of students’ ability to self-reflect, organize, self-regulate, and solve information needs and problems.

For children with learning differences, success is about coming to terms with the self. Self: acceptance, efficacy, accountability, motivation, advocacy, etc. They’re often the outliers in their classroom, and the source of frustration for teachers. Their confidence is rattled, their anxiety is high, and they often feel alienated by learning at school. Their ability is there but it’s hidden behind a complicated puzzle that can only be solved with care, time, attention, and an understanding of difference. Affect and feeling are central to unlocking their potential (really all learners’ potential) and making learning more than just a meaningless slog. A holistic approach to education is critical for these learners.

In taking a holistic approach to teaching and focusing on everything that makes learning possible, educators facilitate a version of learning that is self-directed and empowering. Learners have the agency to learn about whatever they want to learn and have the strategies and skills to make that happen. That’s not easy in public schools where teachers are accountable to standardized testing scores and hundreds of learning benchmarks. It’s difficult in college classrooms where faculty feel pressured to cover more content than is possible in one quarter or semester. It’s challenging in the teaching we do as librarians, where we manage our own desires to teach processes and critical thinking with faculty requests and student needs.

What could it look like to put learning how to learn first? How would that change our approach to teaching in libraries? In information literacy programs? The common refrain about library school is that it doesn’t teach you all the answers, but it teaches you how to find whatever answer you need. What if our graduate programs focused on teaching us to ask questions rather than find answers? To study learning as a social process (and research/information as a part of that process)? How might that impact our own approach to information literacy education?

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"