All posts by Veronica Arellano Douglas

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.

 

Energy and Expectations

Sunday evening I went to a hot yoga class. It’s my way of starting off the week feeling refreshed and relaxed, which is much needed these days. The usual class instructor was out sick, but rather than cancel, the studio assigned a substitute teacher. She was perfectly kind and good at yoga instruction, but the energy of the class was just off. Far fewer students showed up than usual (it’s typically a packed class and I’m already starting to recognize a few regulars). The substitute instructor was much more subdued than our usual teacher, had different suggestions for poses, and didn’t cue our regular water breaks. No one really replied to her well-meaning questions and comments with more than a polite smile or nod of the head, and at one point her frustration with our non-communication came out in a kind of snarky comment which she quickly apologized for stating. It was still a good hour of exercise for me, but I’ll admit that the usual relaxation and freedom from anxiety weren’t quite there. I was trying to adjust to this new teacher’s unique instructions, energy, and expectations, rather than just allowing myself to “be.”

Those of you who teach probably know where I’m going with this story. As I made the sweaty, dehydrated walk to my car I realized how much of what I was feeling in class is likely akin to what students must feel during one-shot library classes. They may be in an unfamiliar setting (the library classroom), with a teacher they’ve never seen before (me!), whose personality, communication style, and pedagogical approach might be completely different (or just different enough) from their regular professor’s that it throws them off (partially or completely). The class might feel slightly or totally different than what they usually do on this day at this time period, and they are likely having to make their own adjustments to their environment and their temporary instructor. Having their usual professor in the classroom with them certainly helps mitigate some of the discomfort, but the vibe of the class is just fundamentally different.

There’s nothing wrong with different. Different can be good, but we have to acknowledge it. I know that the first (and sometimes the only) time I meet with a class it’s going to be awkward. When I first started teaching  that awkwardness really got to me and I overcompensated by being extra perky and outgoing. I was performing “teacher” in an effort to distance myself from the awkwardness, but all I really managed to accomplish was to distance myself from my students and emotionally wear myself out. These days I embrace the awkwardness. I acknowledge that this class is likely out of the ordinary for students. I give us all a chance to get to know one another and recognize that this class meeting may feel a little odd, but we’ll all still learn together. Yes, it does cut into content and “teaching time,” but it’s become an integral part of my practice, and–I believe–a valuable precursor to connection and learning. It’s made me more accepting and understanding of both myself and the students in these situations. I realize that we’re all figuring out each other’s energies and expectations together.

How do you embrace the awkwardness in your teaching?

An instruction librarian, a digital scholarship librarian, and a scientist enter a Twitter chat…

A quick note to preface this post: Thank you, Dylan Burns. After reading your post–What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability–I can’t stop thinking about this weird nebula of article access, entitlement, ignorance, and resistance. Your blog post has done what every good blog post should do: Make me think. If you haven’t read Dylan’s post yet, stop, go back, and read. You’ll be better for it. I promise.

I am an instruction librarian, so everything that I read and learn about within the world of library and information science is filtered through a lens of education and pedagogy. This includes things like Dylan Burns’ latest blog post on access to scholarship, #TwitterLibraryLoan, and other not-so-legal means of obtaining academic works. He argues that faculty who use platforms like #Icanhazpdf or SciHub are not “willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it,” and that “We as librarians shouldn’t  ‘teach’ our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons.”

My initial reaction was YES, BUT…which means I’m trying to think of a polite way to express dissent. Thankfully, Dylan’s always up for a good Twitter discussion, so here’s what ensued:

My gut reaction to libraries giving people “what they want, when they want it” is always going to be non-committal. I’ve never been one to subscribe to what a colleague a long time ago referred to as “eat your peas librarianship” (credit: Michelle Boulé). I don’t think things should be difficult just for the sake of being difficult because things were hard for me, and you youngin’s should have to face hardships too! But I am also enough of a parent to know that giving people what they want when they want it without telling them how it got there is going to cause a lot of problems (and possibly temper-tantrums) later on. Here’s where the education librarian in me emerges: I don’t want scholars to just be able to get what they want when they need/want it without understanding the deeper problems within the arguably broken scholarly publishing model. In other words, I want to advocate for Lydia Thorne’s model of educating scholars about scholarly publishing problems. To which Dylan responds:

To which I can only respond:

Point: Dylan. Those of us who teach have all had the experience of trying to turn an experience into a teaching moment, only to be met by rolling eyes, blank stares, sighs, huffs, etc. Is the scholarly publishing system so broken that even knowing about the problems with platforms like SciHub, scholars will still engage in the piracy of academic works because, well, it’s all a part of the game they need to play? Is this even an issue of usability then? Creating extremely user-friendly library systems won’t change the fact that some libraries simply can’t afford the resources their community wants/needs, but those scholars still need to engage in the system that produces that resources. Is it always going to be a lose-lose for libraries?

At this point a friend of mine enters the Twitter discussion. Jonathan Jackson is an instructor of neurology and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Prior to this conversation I’d not thought about #TwitterLibraryLoan and similar efforts at not-so-legal access to scholarship as acts of resistance, but Jonathan’s entrance into the discussion forced me to think about the power of publicly asking for pdfs. I’ll admit that part of me skeptical that all researchers are as politically conscious as Jonathan and his colleagues. I’m sure there are some folks who just need that article asap and don’t care how they get it. But there is power in calling out that one publisher or that one journal again and again on #ICanHazPDF because your library will never be able to afford that subscription.

I’ll admit that the whole Twitter exchange made me second guess motivations all around, which is what a good discussion should do, right?

Trust Me

Reading Annie Downey’s Critical Information Literacy  was like looking into a mirror that only shows your most awkward professional reflection. Her interviews with “critical” librarians (those who adopt a critical approach to information literacy and practice critical pedagogy) are some of the most honest, true-to-life experiences I’ve read from those of us who consider ourselves teaching librarians. Her descriptions of “turf issues” hit particularly close to home:

“it’s a long process to build relationships where the faculty members have some trust in the librarian and respect the librarian’s knowledge, and the librarian has to do it in a graceful way.” –quote from “Linda” (Downey, 2016,  p.133).

Librarians described years of making “gradual changes” to classes and workshops, “tread[ing] lightly when it came to introducing new ideas or using [new] methods” in the classroom, and working hard to “gain the trust of [a] department’s faculty so that she could exercise more freedom in the classroom” (Downey, 2016, p. 132-133). To which I replied in the margins of the text in my special angry orange pen:

REALLY?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Why Must We “Gain” Trust?

It’s most disturbing to me that academic librarians are not automatically seen as experts in our disciplines of information literacy (critical or otherwise) and information organization. When an Intro to Women and Gender Studies instructor at my institution wants to introduce students to the concept of feminist economics, she calls on a colleague in the economics department to guest lecture. When a literature professor wants to offer students a deeper context for a novel set in France, she might ask a friend in the International Languages & Culture department to sit in and offer commentary during a class discussion. But as an academic librarian we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy, which is virtually impossible to do if we aren’t invited into a class to teach.

Efforts at librarian-faculty collaboration privilege departmental faculty, even when librarians are members of the faculty at their institutions. Librarians work hard to seek out teaching opportunities within the curriculum, then must go the extra step of convincing faculty that they have something to contribute to students’ educational experiences. I have had so many conversations with faculty before, during, and after classes where they demonstrate pleasant surprise that I’ve planned out a lesson, given thought to my teaching, and even created assignments. As I stand there stunned, smiling, I can’t help but think, “What else did you expect? How little did you expect of me? What do you think it is I do?”

No, Really, Why?

The auto-librarian response to faculty who desire us to prove our worth is to work hard to do so. There is this belief within the profession that we are or have been somehow deficient, and now we must work to prove our worth to our colleagues in academia because we either a) didn’t do it before; b) tried, but were really bad at it; or c) are trying to make up for bad professional practice. We look inward and blame ourselves. We blame our graduate school training, internships, professional values, and practices. We blame our library administrators, librarian colleagues, predecessors, and librarians-in-training.

But we never blame academia.

 

We never blame the institutions that force us to beg for seats at the academic table and prove that we belong to be there. I sometimes wonder how my friends in the psychology department would respond if someone asked them, “Why are you on the curriculum committee? What do you possibly teach?” I can’t imagine my colleagues in the history department would respond well to a last minute request to “Come on in and do your history schtick tomorrow in my class, will you?” We can blame ourselves all we want. We can continue to create and attend conference presentations on collaborating with faculty. We can continue to read about ways to demonstrate our worth and our importance to our faculty through outreach. Or we could stop trying to prove ourselves and just assume that chair at the table–the one right in the middle– is our due the same as it is for every other faculty member at our institution.

I recognize that not all librarians are faculty at every institution (although I think we should be), but we are still a profession, despite decades of various work sociologists trying to say otherwise. Yes, relationships, including working and teaching relationships, are built on trust, but there is an implicit understanding that as a fellow faculty member or educator that you are, well, an educator. That understanding should extend to librarians as well. I realize that this sentiment may border on petulant: We are important! You need to think so! But that’s not really my intent with this post. I want us to internalize and embody the expertise we all possess. It is so easy (and so overdone) to denigrate our profession and blame ourselves for our current subclass position in academia. But that’s the power of, well, POWER. We think we’re in this spot–where we have to beg for classroom time and hope that we do well in that one class so that one professor will trust us with their class again–and it dictates our entire professional identity. This belief has created subsets of academic librarianship–liaisons, outreach librarians–that exist because we believe that we need to accept the current educational situation and work within it rather than upend it.

Yes, it’s easy to say, “Down with the hierarchy of academia!” but what would happen if we started to act like it didn’t really exist? What would our education programs look like? How would our jobs change? I think they are questions worth exploring as we perpetually engage in the “library of the future” dialogue and the never-ending back-and-forth of whether or not libraries even have a future. I think we do, and I think the library itself is the educational disruption.