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?

Posters, Infographics, & Ways of Showcasing Student Engagement

This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about posters. In early June, NPR shared a story of Mike Morrison, a graduate student who has been trying to transform the academic research poster landscape. In Mike’s almost 20 minute video, he explains what’s wrong about current academic posters and proposes a new layout in order to gather knowledge from these posters more easily. 

I don’t disagree with Mike; his new poster layout is appealing. As a librarian who has been leading undergraduate research poster workshops for a few years now, Mike’s layout emphasizes our big three: font, color, and size. Viewers are directed to the big ideas (aka the biggest elements on your poster) and have sidebars to more information if needed. This new layout also relies on a QR code, to direct really interested viewers to explore more on the project, on their own time.  

However, as I sat in my office and listened to Mike’s video explanation, I thought of the summer science students I just given a poster workshop to. The supervisor of their summer program noted several times throughout my presentation that while I was showing off some best practices, ultimately the students’ faculty mentor/PI had final say on the poster layout. This could mean a poster could end up very text heavy, use a certain color palette, or requires a certain logo or author designation. These preferences often come from faculty who have spent a lot of time in the field and have strong opinions about creating posters. Then I tried to imagine having a conversation with them about Mike’s new layout. Making this sort of jump and abandoning the traditional poster layout will take time and energy. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if the poster tides move towards Mike’s layout, it will be a challenge. Academia is steeped in tradition and this includes a tradition of how research posters are thought about, created, and displayed. Before computers, posters were created by cutting up an article and pasting it on poster board! While we have PowerPoint and InDesign, I can’t say that all of our posters have moved much farther than cutting and pasting in their own digital way. 

Mike’s layout also got me thinking about another spin off of research posters we’ve been talking about at Penn State: student engagement posters. Recently, I’ve been in a lot of conversations asking about the best way for a student to showcase their experience. A research poster feels too stiff, too formal. An infographic seems like a better match, but also isn’t a perfect fit. Earlier this spring I took our research poster workshop and modified it for an infographic student engagement workshop. Within these student engagement posters, we are trying to see the meta part of the experience. What did the students learn from this experience? What skills did they bring in and what skills did they take away? How did this experience prepare them for another experience? I built in a set of reflection questions and even tried my hand at my own student engagement experience poster. 

A poster describing the author's experience in New York City where she interned at the New York Public Library.
My attempt at a student engagement poster

Today, I met with some Student Engagement Network interns, who had been tasked with making their own student engagement posters. They used both a formal, template (a hybrid of the research poster with some engagement) and were also asked to create some sort of infographic inspired poster. It was great to chat with them and it definitely reminded me of a few things: 

  • Making posters is NOT a skill often taught to undergraduates. Even with platforms like Canva or Piktochart, students still need guidance on how to visually represent an experience. 
  • The students I worked with felt strongly their primary poster audience was undergraduates who might be interested in their engagement experience. The poster needed to not only convey the experience, but also encourage others to explore a similar experience. I don’t think I had fully considered that audience and that definitely influences how the poster is created and what resources should be included. 
  • They appreciated the ability to reflect and hone in on a main message they wanted to get across. Of course, if they discover the reflection questions AFTER they started making the poster, that’s not quite as helpful. 

So what’s next? I’m not sure. I have some ideas and will be curious to see the research that Mike and others do around eye tracking and understanding the new poster layout he has proposed. Perhaps academia will see a shift in research posters and perhaps we’ll find a way to get student engagement experiences out there too. It seems like everything is up for grabs and it’s exciting to explore and think about these topics. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the new research poster layout or if your institutions are thinking about more intentionally showcasing the meta part of student engagement experiences. 

Falling Off, Getting Back On

I can’t be the only person in academia who heads into summer thinking of new year’s resolutions. I’d guess that the lure of making resolutions at multiple points in the calendar year is kind of an occupational hazard for resolution-inclined folks who work in higher education. Our workload and responsibilities can shift fairly dramatically between the regular semesters and the summer (or other intersessions), and in that transition from one to the other it’s tempting to pause and take stock of how things are going and what we might want to change.

I have once again fallen off my almost-daily-writing-practice wagon, and it is time for me to get back on.

I do have a (mostly) consistent habit of taking about 45 minutes each morning as research time at home before I head into work. That length and timeslot aligns well with my family’s schedule for now — my brain works best on research-related tasks in the morning — though that might change in the fall when school starts up again. While 45 minutes is not an enormous amount of time, applied (week)daily it does move my projects forward. I try my best to protect this time for myself, though during particularly busy times in the semester it’s easy to let other work tasks expand to fill this space, easy to let myself be convinced that it’s more important to use this time to catch up on other work than to focus on my research.

The current state of my research and writing projects typically determines how I use that morning time, so even when I’m consistently spending 45 minutes it’s often not 45 minutes of writing. I might be analyzing data for a research project, reading and taking notes on sources, managing citations, or thinking through an IRB application or research questions. That time is still useful, but it’s not the same as time used specifically for writing. Writing is different. Writing is hard. And the more I write, the slightly-more-easily writing comes to me (though full disclosure: it’s still challenging).

Falling off and getting back on the almost-daily-writing wagon is something I’ve done so many times in the decade plus since I’ve been an academic librarian, and in a way it gets easier every time. It’s true that during busy times it’s easy to fall off — when my day is more meetings than not and ends with a to-do list that’s longer than when the day began, taking any time at all for writing can feel like an insurmountable goal. But it’s also true that it’s getting easier to dust myself off without judging myself too harshly for the fall, and to climb on back up. It’s 100% completely normal to fall off the writing wagon, and that wagon will always stop to let me jump back on and begin again.

Scrolling through Twitter this week I noticed a few fellow academics committing to writing for 15 minutes each day, and that feels like an achievable, worthwhile goal to me as I settle back into my seat on this wagon. There are plenty of seats — consider climbing up with me if you’re so inclined.

Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach

I attended The Innovative Library Classroom (TILC) at William & Mary last week. It is my favorite conference, and I wanted to give it a shout-out just because it’s great (big enough to meet new people and get lots of new ideas, small enough that you can see everything you want to, the organizers are awesome, always great keynote speakers and presentations) but also because one of the lightning talks at the end of the day gave me an idea I wanted to explore some more.

The lightning talk was called “Reshuffling the Deck: Enlisting Students to Re-Envision an Active Learning Classroom.” (The presenters were Alyssa Archer, Charley Cosmato, and Susan Van Patten from Radford University, and Liz Bellamy from William & Mary.) They discussed getting a grant from Steelcase, creating an active learning centered classroom space, and how the librarians wound up finding a general-use layout of the furniture and kind of… leaving it that way. So they created little cutouts of the furniture available in the room and asked students to reconfigure it with different uses in mind. (It’s a really interesting process and if you get the chance to ask any of them about it, I recommend asking them for more detail than I’m reporting here.)

When I got back from the conference, I returned to my current project: redefining the reference schedule.To solve the math problem of fitting the number of librarians into the number of shifts, I’m considering lots of possible options, including reducing the number of hours covered during the day, changing the duration of each shift, making a two-week rotating schedule instead of the same schedule every week, and more creative (see: confusing; complicated) options.

At some point, I took a break to skim my conference notes (trying to take my own advice from several weeks ago) and I was thinking about this puzzle-like approach these librarians took with their space configuration question. Inspired, I cut up the schedule into different pieces and tried putting it back together. In doing so, I found a new way to break up the schedule that I’m going to put forth as our best choice.

I’ve actually explained my love of schedule-making by telling people “it’s like a puzzle made of time and people!” (which sounds fun to me, but earns me some weird looks, so maybe that isn’t a universal opinion) but I had always been envisioning more of a Sudoku puzzle (numbers to plug into boxes) than a jigsaw puzzle (physical pieces that can be reconfigured).

Now I’m finding other problems I can solve with this approach of “cut it up and put it back together.” I want to rearrange my desk to make it more reference-consultation-friendly, so I need to think about how I want to configure the things I use on my desk. (Come to think of it, my living room could probably benefit from this approach, too.) I’ve heard of doing a website analysis by cutting up a screenshot of the homepage, handing the pieces to potential users, and asking them how they would put them together in a logical way, much like the presenters at TILC did with their classroom. I’ve been trying to piece together a research agenda plan for a few months… maybe I’ll try treating that like a puzzle, too!

What problem do you have that needs a new problem-solving approach… and could treating it like a puzzle help?

Making the space: Researching beyond IRDL

I’ve spent the last week at the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). Most of the workshop has happened in the beautiful William H. Hannon Library on Loyola Marymount’s campus. Last month on the blog I talked about my preparation for this week-long research workshop. The week has been a whirlwind and it’s hard to believe we’re finishing up today (Saturday). I have learned a lot — about the research process, the projects my cohort members are working on, and about librarianship at a variety of institutions. I feel energized and excited about conducting strong LIS research. My research project has changed and evolved and I’m headed back to Penn State with a stronger version of what I submitted back in January.

Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been intentional about creating space for this learning and research. When I was preparing for IRDL, my research mentor mentioned in an email that I should set aside my work for the week in LA. I took their words to heart; I put on my out-of-office message, alerted my co-workers that I wouldn’t be responding, and haven’t replied to anything. I put my work in Pennsylvania on hold and that allowed me to concentrate on the material being covered. I had the chance to develop my project, connect with my peers, and apply what I was learning.

And everything was okay.

My colleagues respected my time to be away and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this work. This time pushed me to spin my wheels, read more of the student engagement and involvement literature, and craft a journey map template for student engagement opportunities. During our workshop days, I got to spend time with my peers and work through the research process together. We spent an hour crafting 10 survey questions and an afternoon deciding on a set of questions for a focus group. What I learned was that in order to get the data you need, you have to be willing to devote uninterrupted time to finding ways to ask good questions. A good survey just doesn’t happen; it requires thoughtful decisions, defined variables, and a pilot test. This stuff cannot be rushed.  

So yes, it was great that I had this time to think, process, and experiment. This time was exactly what I needed. But I know that once I’m back in Pennsylvania, all those other priorities will return. IRDL has been good for lots of things, including forcing me to consider how I should spend my time when I come home.

The question I keep returning to is: how do you create this meaningful space for research work? How can I replicate the work environment of this week? Can I find ways to be just as intentional about setting aside work for this work when I’m back in Pennsylvania? I have never been good about blocking time and asking for that time to stay uninterrupted. In order for me to do this project, and to do it well, I’ll need to start defining those boundaries more clearly. It’s a habit to be developed.

But it’s not something that I have to do on my own. Community is always an important piece of my librarianship and with research, community support is important. We built LibParlor to create community and now, after a week in Los Angeles, I have a new community to lean on. We tell the students we teach that research isn’t a solo process and that’s a good reminder for us too. Throughout IRDL, I have seen the strength of collaborating with others for surveys, interview questions, and inferential statistics. It’s better to tackle that stuff with someone else and I’m thankful my research network community continues to grow. And I know they will help hold me accountable for the time I need for this project.

While I’m still figuring this out, I’m sure others have some ideas. So, how have you created this space? How have you found balance between the day-to-day of your job with the time to research? How do you depend on and support your research community?


Featured image of the William H. Hannon Library, taken by the author of this post.