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.

 

Assessment as Care

water from watering can falling on small plants - Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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?

 

Agency, Not Use

The body is an agent, not a resource

-Donna Haraway

This quote appeared on a slide during Carrie Wade’s presentation at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium last month. Her talk, Making the Librarian Body, was a part of a four woman panel, (Re)productive Labor and Information Work, which also included the excellent work of Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, Alanna Aiko Moore, and Chiméne Tucker.

I’ve not read Donna Haraway’s work, but A Cyborg Manifesto and Situated Knowledges are on my TBR list now (thanks, Carrie!). Her words resonated with me, as did all of Carrie’s presentation to be honest, as I thought about the language that we use to describe ourselves as library workers in academia. I’m working on a research project with Joanna Gadsby and Siân Evans on the pedagogical power dynamics between librarians and faculty, and there is so much common language among interview participants. Statements along the lines of…

I just wish faculty would use me in their classes.

I want students and faculty to see me as a resource.

Why won’t they take advantage of me and what I have to offer?

I’ve used words like these before. I’m sure we all have. Until recently I hadn’t stopped to think about the implications of these statements being used in a feminized profession, the gendered roots of those sentiments, and how they imply a problematic use of the body. I am not a resource; I am a person. I am a woman with agency, skill, experience, and talent. I do my work for myself and for my community. I am a teacher who facilitates learning. I do not go to work to be used. I go to work to educate, empower, and learn.

There’s a tendency towards eye-rolling whenever I get too far into the semantic weeds of our professional discourse, but I keep poking at our word choices because I think they matter. They reveal attitudes and reflect internalized values. They show us how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to be seen by others. What would an empowered discourse of library work look and sound like? Could we replace the above statements with things like…

I am an educator.

I see myself as a facilitator of knowledge, learning and empowerment.

I do my job well for myself and my community.

I value my own expertise and the expertise of students, faculty, and staff.

Our bodies are our own and are a part of our being. We act in our bodies rather than provide them to others as a resource. As library workers we have an opportunity to challenge and change language that reduces our work to only being valuable if taken advantage of by others. Our work is integral, vital, and important. It works in tandem with and reproduces the academy in which we exist. We are agents, not resources.

The Emphasis on Text(s)

The current dominant paradigm of information literacy emphasizes the importance of connecting with textual information. This produces a deficit model of information literacy which does not take into account the importance of information learning or other sources of information which are accessed through communication or action.

–Annemaree Lloyd, Information Literacy: Different Contexts, Different Concepts, Different Truths?
as cited by Eamon Tewell in 
The Problem with Grit

It all started with this quote. I was sitting in Eamon Tewell’s presentation at LOEX earlier this month, learning about the problematic nature of grit narratives in education and libraries, when these two sentences showed up in his slide deck. Eamon was convincingly linking the popularity of grit to current deficit models of information literacy education. By defining information literacy in academic libraries in a particular way, we categorize students as academically deficient. They may be able to solve complex information problems on their own, in their own way, but because, as Annemaree Lloyd states, we emphasize text as information in academia, their experiences and abilities are invalidated. Our academic librarian version of information literacy is rooted in the written word, and not just any written word, but words of a certain kind: academic journal articles, scholarly books, book chapters, reports, grey literature, legal documents, etc. Our emphasis as librarians is on the things we can read that signal some connection to the academy.

We see examples of this in our work all the time. We might say something like,”You are used to using Google, but Google won’t help you in this situation,” (Spoiler: It probably still will). Or, “Let’s start our research with the library databases.” We might try to branch out from scholarly texts by encouraging students to use Wikipedia or news sources as launch pads for research, but these are all still resources rooted in the written word. I can always count on Library Twitter to help me process problematic ideas and issues, so I posed the following questions to my colleagues:

Responses were so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Desmond Wong, Outreach Librarian at the University of Toronto, shared the problematic nature of current information literacy education in relation to searching for and accessing indigenous peoples’ knowledge. This idea is seconded by research done by Alex Watkins of University of Colorado Boulder, who sees this emphasis on academic textual sources as “academics policing the boundaries of authority as well as elevating a particular way of knowing.” (Side note: Both Desmond and Alex have done some excellent work researching indigenous knowledge practices and information literacy). And Karen Nicholson pointed me to the great chapter by Alison Hicks on this very topic in her recent book co-edited with Maura Seale, The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship

In Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy, Alison Hicks moves beyond the ACRL Framework vs. Standards debate to advocate for a sociocultural approach to information literacy. This focuses on the ways in which information literacy “shows itself” in different communities, and the ways in which it is shaped by different contexts. A sociocultural approach to information literacy shows us that the way we’ve defined information literacy as librarians is just one version of information literacy. It is a “social practice that emerges from a community’s information interactions” (p. 73). But by adopting a “single understanding of information literacy” as the information literacy, we impose one group’s knowledge practices on another (p. 75). What we are teaching in academic libraries is specific to an academic context, but we are teaching it as though it is universal.

I can already hear the dissent brewing, because so entrenched is my relationship to a particular type of information literacy that I had a similar, initial, knee-jerk reaction. “But we need to teach students how to use and understand these textual, scholarly resources precisely because they are new and they have never used them before!” I had to counter my own reaction with a blog post I read a few years ago by the ever-prolific Barbara Fister. Referencing the PIL study that looks at info-seeking behavior of recent college graduates, she laments the difficulty these young adults have setting up their own personal learning networks. We’ve focused so strongly on information as a textual source in information literacy education, that we don’t address the information literacy practices of different communities, including the workplace. Think about the last time you started a new job and how you gathered new information about your place of work. Did you immediately start digging into scholarly articles about best practices? Or did you set up formal and informal information appointments with your new colleagues? I think we all know the power of information in the workplace and our lives, and we’d be lying if we said we got all of this information from reading text, much less academic texts.

I’ve been deep in this idea lately as I start a new job and seek resources for my son who has various learning differences. As much as I want to say that scholarly, empirical research articles have been my go-to information sources, they absolutely haven’t. For me, as a new employee, my information literacy practices have centered around talking to people and learning from their experiences and institutional knowledge. For me, as a parent of a child with learning differences, my information literacy practices have centered around meeting and speaking with other parents and special needs education advocates. This is the information literacy I practice in my daily life, and I am starting to think more and more about how to incorporate this into the work I do with students, librarians, and faculty as an information literacy educator.

 

Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.