Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?

The Quiet Solidarity of National Coming Out Day Through Queer Storytelling and Coffee

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Adrianna Martinez, Reference and Instruction Librarian at New York Institute of Technology.

In the Fall of 2018, I started my first full time librarian position. I work at New York Institute of Technology in Long Island, and I hold the position of reference and instruction librarian. As a queer latinx woman of color, I was (and am still) thrilled to work with such a diverse group of students. The students here are a mix of locals and international students. They come from different economic backgrounds, ethnicity, religious affiliations, and primary languages. I wanted to introduce myself to the NYIT community with instruction and programming that made my approach to academic librarianship clear: to elevate and support underrepresented voices with approachable and critical pedagogy. I want to make the academic library a space that reflects and holds resources for the NYIT community as intellectual individuals, not just their program.

Key to this work is constantly reassessing my language and actions by a) greeting people at the reference desk with gender neutral language b) starting every interaction with my pronouns, and asking for others to do the same c) starting literacy instruction and workshops with a traditional territory acknowledgement.

These practices may seem small but make a great impact on inclusion for the entire community– they have resulted in positive feedback from students as well as an increased interest in research help. Yet, I felt that there was a more visible way to reach those students that have not attended an instruction session by me or stepped foot in the library, which made me think, how can I try to reach those students? One answer was creating space for different kinds of students to feel comfortable in, even if that space is only temporarily highlighted as specifically for them.

One group I wanted to advocate for inclusion in the library was queer folks. The LGBTQIA+ representation on campus was hard to find. For resources, events, even the club itself I found only a sprinkling of information. There was no queer resources page, no official website or office, only an email address to contact. A campus for higher education without visible queer representation can be dangerous, not only for those on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, but all marginalized people on campus. In making one group seen, it opens the door for others to both see themselves reflected in their institutions and be active about wanting to be represented. The academic library can and should be a center for diverse support and inclusion to better serve its community, as well as motivate the rest of the institution to make change. In order to be a voice for marginalized folks on campus, I inquired about the PRIDE student group and administrative diversity initiatives. I already had an idea for an event that would draw attention to the unique experience of queer folks and wanted to include the community.

Student Life and some members of the PRIDE group relayed to me the reason for such an absence in queer life at NYIT. Safety was the main concern for these students. Some members were not out yet, and others had been harassed on campus, therefore they felt that it was safer to have a closed group. This method did, however, isolate those students not included in the closed group. With this knowledge, it was clear that the first event held by an entity that is not traditionally involved in outreach about inclusion. I needed to create an environment that was approachable for students concerned about outing, invite queer folks outside the group into a space of representation, as well as the general public to encourage allyship.

National Coming Out Day occurs every year in the United States on October 11. It was the perfect opportunity to host an event that created the environment the students appeared to be craving. Coming Out is an activity that can symbolize many modes of being. It exists for queer folks of all kinds and those that exist in the margins; talking about it recognizes those people that experience it without isolating them. For this day, I wanted to create a space on campus that was specifically queer for the entirety of the day.

Creating a temporary queer space in the library for this occasion extends beyond the duration of the event in that space. It shows that the library is a safe space for that community year round as well. The event was located behind a counter created in a pseudo-cafe area near vending machines and a microwave. The space was surrounded by small tables and couches, the most casual space in the library (an important note for not only accessibility but also for comfort and noise level). With such little public representation, an all-day event allowed for students to study in a queer centered environment on camps, something that does not happen often. A full day event that did not require myself to maintain needed to be visual and had to do with storytelling. Free to use tools, and accessible material were essential in the medium choice for this event. As a medium for storytelling, YouTube functioned perfectly. Projected from a mondopad the videos could play all day without issue.

People all over the world share their perspectives and experiences on YouTube. The dialogue about National Coming Out Day had to have individual experiences and perspectives at it’s center. To make this event as inclusive as possible, it needed to reflect culturally diverse experiences, from every part of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. With this criteria in mind, I created a playlist of stories from the queer community from the material available on YouTube. The playlist was not only composed of queer material but also varying perspectives from allies.

Another element to the playlist was videos from the It Gets Better Project. In 15 minutes of sitting in the cafe drinking coffee one could encounter a video of four tips for coming out to your parents by the parent of a queer child, a video of individuals coming out to their immigrant parents, and a clip from the first National Coming Out Day celebrated on the Oprah Winfrey Show. In another 15 they could encounter a video explaining the concept of two spirit, a Buzzfeed video of individuals talking about how they felt before and after coming out, as well as someone talking about the similarities in coming out in the queer community and coming out in the disabled community. The mix of experiences and moments of high impact in American culture to do with the LGBTQIA+ community that a student may be discovering for the first time created an environment of curiosity for everyone involved.

My role after the playlist was set up for presentation was to invite people into discussion about coming out. To maintain a casual tone of the event, I made coffee for anyone that stopped by. If a student just wanted coffee, while the coffee brewed, I told students what the event was about, and if they knew what National Coming Out Day was celebrating. I would highlight information about the current video playing and allowed the student/s to direct the conversation. Some students discussed in brief their own coming out story, or asked questions which I answered on an individual level, and one even came out to me and we discussed in depth family dynamics and whether he would feel comfortable coming out to them, or if he wanted to stay in the closet until he felt more independent.

This kind of event has never been hosted by NYIT before, to build community in this way, especially not by a librarian, which makes this event significant not only for the queer community but for all marginalized groups. In entering the event space on October 11 students were exposing themselves to voices that had not been elevated on campus before. Whether they were getting an extra caffeine jolt, or working while quietly listening or even just heard about the event; this made an impact. It showed that the library space is for the entire NYIT community, and we as librarians are conscious that representation matters.

I felt the real impact after the event ended. The event sparked a trust among the queer students and myself. Some students would find me in the library to share with me their experiences on campus as queer folks. The planning and follow through of this event allowed me to have a platform show my support for the community even when they didn’t ask for it. In doing so, it built a trust between myself and the closed PRIDE group that benefits the entire NYIT community. I am now working with the PRIDE group to become their adviser.

As a member of the queer community, I am personally invested in supporting the NYIT LGBTQIA+ folks during my time here. However, one does not need to be a part of a marginalized group in order to support them in a forward facing way. This kind of event does not require a lot of materials or space. Especially in a reference and instruction there are simple steps that one can take in order to make students feel visible. Solidarity and representation is happening on many fronts of librarianship: from the reimagining of knowledge organization systems, to archival work, but there is more to be done, especially on the fronts of outreach and instruction at the academic level. The process of inquiring about an underrepresented group can be an act of advocacy. Communities change through allyship and conversation.

An academic library can exist as many things, including a center for reflection and self growth, not just scholarly thought. If underrepresented populations are not placed into these spaces, it is a disservice to the community. This is just one example of a way that outreach at an academic level can exist that strengthens the queer community. In the upcoming months I will be bolstering the library’s collection in order to fill in the intellectual gaps here, as well as creating a library guide about LGBTQIA+ resources through the library and beyond. This is only the beginning of my time at NYIT, but it is not the beginning of this train of thought. On a commuter campus like NYIT it is hard to make an impact that leaves an impression of what someone can get out of the library; adding queer solidarity and acceptance to that list may motivate more students to seek them out.

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

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.

 

Information in the Indignation Age

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

As a librarian, I worry about the ways that emotion, especially anger, influences our interactions with information. So much of our political discourse is intended to arouse indignation, and I’m concerned about indignation’s impact on one’s ability to learn. Higher education needs to become more intentional about preparing students for inflammatory discourse as a potential hazard in the information landscape.

An important Pew study offers a lens for understanding the cyclical relationship between our media habits and the increasing political polarization of the United States. The short version is that media consumers spend more time with media that confirms their political outlook, and that ideological reinforcement makes one less receptive to dissenting views. The degree of outrage and distrust in our political discourse makes this dynamic quite unsettling. A quick perusal of the online comments following any major news story shows that media-driven ideological reinforcement is not leading to higher rates of polite disagreement – AkronKittyLuvver is out for blood.

A subsequent Pew study confirms the tension. Researchers found that Democrats and Republicans tend to associate negative character traits with members of the opposing party. A strong contingent of Democrats say that Republicans are more dishonest compared to other Americans. An even larger percentage of Republicans say that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that the other side is more closed-minded compared to other Americans. We are all-too-ready to make hostile judgments about those whose perspectives differ from our own. What does this self-righteous antagonism mean for our capacity to learn about complex and evolving issues?

Indignation in both the media and in personal communications is particularly worrisome because it signals to one’s audience that the matter at hand is so grave and so morally charged that there is no room for alternative perspectives. Attempts to present other points of view will be met with resistance or even hostility, so there is little point in sharing a different opinion (unless you take moral offense at the indignant person’s thinking, in which case you can vent your own sense of outrage).

But is indignation necessarily the enemy of open-mindedness and open discussion? In True to Our Feelings, philosopher Robert Solomon presents a more nuanced view of anger and indignation. According to Solomon, anger arises when we have been hurt or offended in some way, and it manifests itself as an impulse to level blame against the offender. While anger can operate on a strictly personal level (“his loud talking is distracting me and it’s making me mad”), indignation implies that the offense oversteps important considerations of justice and morality (“his loud talking in the quiet area of the library is rude and unfair”). The sense of transgression involved with indignation can make a difference in the level of vehemence with which indignation is felt or expressed. Indignation involves more than simply being offended – it is being offended and having justice on your side (or at least feeling that way).

Because indignation is wrapped up with one’s understanding of justice and morality, it is not the sort of emotion that one can get over easily. Moving past indignation may require a revised estimation of the line between justice and injustice, and that sort of reexamination is hard to undertake in today’s polarized environment. The indignant mind presents fertile ground for confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and other obstacles to learning.

But Solomon also points out that anger and indignation have their value. For one thing, the ability to experience and express these emotions is essential to maintaining our personal dignity, to stand up for ourselves or to stand against unfairness. As Solomon puts it, “[T]here are times when one is a fool not to get angry, not only because the situation calls for it but because otherwise one degrades oneself as less than a fully functioning human being.” Indignation puts energy and backbone behind our convictions.

Furthermore, for Solomon (and for Aristotle), anger is not inherently irrational. Instead, anger is rational when it fits the occasion, when it is directed at the right parties, and when it is proportional to the offense (neither an overreaction nor an underreaction). Forward-looking considerations are also crucial for assessing anger’s reasonableness. Solomon emphasizes the strategic qualities of emotions, especially their impact on how we relate with others. Does one’s style of anger fit with one’s long-term interests, or is it better to revise (or even abandon) one’s current strategy?

Considering indignation in this strategic light, I find a theoretical home for my worries. For example, indignation is irrational if its heat and hostility get in the way of negotiating to address the conditions that inspired indignation in the first place. Indignation is also irrational if it entrenches the indignant person in righteousness to such a degree that they cannot consider other points of view or continue to learn about the circumstances of the offending injustice (which, in the case of political disputes, are probably quite complicated).

Can indignation foster learning? A sense of outrage might lend urgency to one’s investigation of an injustice, driving one to learn more quickly or more deeply than an investigator without the same sense of passion. Amia Srinivasan points out that anger is part of really understanding oppression, a matter of viscerally apprehending the gulf between the way things are and the way they should be. A vital educational message for these polarized times is that learning is a crucial lens for reflecting on the reasonableness of one’s indignation.

Rational indignation cannot become so all-encompassing that it crowds out dispositions to learn. Indignation motivates learning when it is combined with intellectual courage (a willingness to face ugly situations squarely, without rationalizing them away or exaggerating their severity) and with epistemic humility (a clarity about the limits of one’s perspective and a consistent recognition that one can always learn more).

Media-inspired indignation is an information problem, a potential pitfall that higher education should help students prepare for by exploring a range of important questions:

  • How do partisan media, indignation, and intellectual autonomy relate to one another? Does media-inspired indignation stimulate or stifle curiosity about politics?
  • How does indignation over political matters define one’s relationships with one’s peers? With other groups?
  • When political leaders and campaigns use rhetoric to inspire indignation, how does that work to their advantage?
  • Is indignation worth the costs? Political discussions in the media typically address exceedingly complex conditions that impact vast, diverse groups of people. Given the uncertainty involved in policy making, when we weigh the likelihood of achieving a satisfying political resolution against the consequences of being angry at our neighbors, is the antagonism associated with indignation justifiable? If not, what attitudes are more appropriate?

To be clear, my concern is not ideological. If one’s beliefs place them in the far reaches of the ideological spectrum, that may be perfectly legitimate, as long as those beliefs stem from the careful, iterative consideration of the best evidence available. But when I look at the polarization data from Pew, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I worry that indignation contributes to a cycle that drives us ever further from the ideal of informed political participation. Our students need to reflect on this dynamic – they need to demand better of their politicians, their news sources, and themselves.

(Though perhaps, not too indignantly.)