Assumptions & Expectations

May 31st was my son’s last day of first grade. His class had a pizza party, complete with cupcakes and cookies to round out the celebration. He had a fantastic year at this new school after a terrible one at his old school. He received two “awards” from his teacher, who handed out different award certificates to all the kids: the “Always Happy” award and the Mathematics award. This kid LOVES numbers and does math problems for fun.

My son is on the autism spectrum. He is in the regular classroom with supports. For those of you who speak the parent language of special education in U.S. public schools, he has an IEP and he is mainstreamed. He’s a lot like any quirky kid you’d meet at the park, but there are things about him that are unique. He doesn’t like loud noises (fire alarms are the worst) or persistent quiet ones (clicking ceiling fans). He may take a while to answer a question; so long, sometimes, that you wonder if he forgot what you asked him (he didn’t). Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention to what’s going on, but then he’ll ask a question, or say something, or point out a detail that indicate that he is fully present, aware, and alert. Sometimes he asks odd questions out of (what we think is) nowhere. His pattern of speech may sometimes sound a little different. He loves the outdoors, hugs, Legos, his bike, and oddball humor.

He’s also a constant reminder to me as I move through my day-to-day work, in and out of the library classroom, to check my expectations and assumptions of students. I’ve taught classes where the same student blurts out answers before anyone else can, or asks an odd question at what seems like an “off” time to be asking it. There have been other classes where students don’t make eye contact, appear to be somewhere else, or give blank stares. Sometimes students look confused. Sometimes they don’t answer questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions where the answers are things I’ve just said.

Those actions may be about me. Maybe my pacing is off or my explanation is confusing. I could be really really really ridiculously boring at that point in class. I could also seem like the kind of person who wants people to ask questions whenever they have them, no matter if it seems odd to others.

But those actions are also about them. Maybe a student doesn’t make eye contact and blurts out comments/questions because they too are on the autism spectrum. Maybe they look confused and sort of blank because they have issues with auditory processing, and I’ve given too much information or too many instructions all at once. They could have low vision, difficulty hearing, or could be in real pain that day (and everyday if it is chronic). They could be listening and processing everything I saw but not be able to externalize that interest and learning in the way I am used to seeing it.

There is so much we don’t know about the students we see once or twice a semester. Sometimes we have opportunities to really get to know them and sometimes we never see them again. In whatever time we have with them, we can drop our assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We can set expectations high for ourselves and for them, and do everything we can to support them in their learning so that they meet those expectations. (Check out Zoe’s last post on Universal Design in the classroom for some excellent ideas.) We can check any judgements we might be inclined to make about a student’s actions, facial expressions, or speech. It might feel a bit unusual at first, but if we practice it a little every day, we stop having to practice and we just start doing it.

It’s easier for me now that it was in years past, but I have practice at work and I have practice at home. Checking assumptions is hard work, but it’s a responsibility we have to the learners in our community. Beyond that, it also opens us up to a world of interesting people who can befriend, laugh with, and learn from that we might have otherwise missed. In setting aside our assumptions we leave room to get to know people. In expanding our ideas of what constitutes learning behavior and how we can support different kinds of learners in the classroom, we set the stage for all kinds of interesting education to happen.

photo of award certificate that reads "the always happy"

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections from MILEX

Last month I attended MILEX, a Maryland library conference. The subject was Culturally Responsive Teaching in Libraries, and it gave me a lot to think about. The timing was great: I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on my teaching practices this summer. As I’ve written in the past, library school did not prepare me for productively thinking about pedagogy, so I’m always eager to learn about different approaches from my peers.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) was a new term for me (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this conference). Ashleigh Coren, the keynote, asked us to write our own definitions of CRT before sharing an “official” one. This exercise showed me that most of us intuitively grasp what culturally responsive teaching must include: understanding your audience, inclusive language, and Universal Design for Learning. Coren shared Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition: “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” with these main characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

We spent the rest of the day exploring applications of CRT, discussing teacher efforts and exercises that successfully make space for multiple perspectives as well as those that were less successful. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

All of the presenters touched on the importance of disclosing a bit of who you are at the beginning of class. This might seem 101, but I truly never considered meaningfully introducing myself to students in a one-shot. I feel pressed for time and I assume they don’t really care who I am or why I do this work. I just launch in after a quick, “This is my name, this is what librarians can do for you” spiel. But CRT isn’t just knowledge of the identities, learning styles, and values students bring to a classroom, but an awareness of my own identity, worldview, and blind spots. These students are going to meet me for 50 minutes one day, and if I don’t share anything about myself, why should they trust my expertise? Why should I expect them to feel comfortable approaching me or admitting they don’t know something if I remain a complete stranger to them? This conference helped me see how the disclosure of personal information (to the degree that you’re comfortable) can build trust with your students.

For example, several people at the conference suggested sharing your pronouns as part of your one-shot introduction. I know a lot of librarians already do this, or have pronouns in their email signature or name badge. This not only reveals something about your identity, but also communicates a degree of inclusion, even safety, in your classroom. Again, this must be to the degree you are comfortable, but as a cis woman I see this as a simple change I can make starting today.

Another lightbulb moment for me: reach out to the faculty ahead of the one-shot and ask about the classroom culture. I never think to do this. I ask for assignment instructions, resource requirements, and maybe potential topics, but it would be great to know ahead of time if the class is shy, prefers small-group work, or has lively group discussions. Asking the instructor about her classroom culture also shows that I care about her students’ comfort enough to adapt my one-shot to resemble their classroom environment.

For me the best part of CRT is student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a facilitator rather than sole bearer of knowledge. For librarians looking to make one-shots more engaging, I recommend turning over some control to the students. For one thing, it introduces a little bit of the unknown to your classroom, which always spices things up. But also, as Coren said after her keynote, “students think they know less than they do.” In the reverse: they know more than they think they do, and I believe they know more than we think they do.

CRT demands awareness of the student perspective, but also appreciation for their insights and experience. No one is a blank slate. Anyone who has made it to college has encountered information already, using strategies that work for them. I don’t want to be an instrument of assimilation, telling students that there’s one right way to navigate ideas, that there’s one right way to measure truth. My way is not a blank slate either; it’s informed by my identity, my education, and my privilege. I want to foster a learning environment where students bring their own instincts and cultural values to the research process.

I wanted to end with specific strategies to make your classroom culturally responsive and welcoming to all, because the practical takeaways are always my favorite part of a professional conference:

  • Create a safe place for students. Disclose pronouns and establish ground rules for group discussion.
  • Introduce yourself and explain where you’re coming from.
  • Spell out library jargon. Specifically, write the words you’re defining on the board or in your slide.
  • Repeat directions. Go slowly.
  • Allow time for small group discussions before asking people to share their answer with the class (think-pair-share style). Lindsay Inge Carpenter suggested that collectivist cultures might favor this approach; it also helps shy people feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Make your classroom a “no stupid questions” environment. Tell students they won’t be punished for asking about plagiarism or other topics they might be nervous about.
  • Regularly do peer observation with colleagues.
  • Know that cultural competency is not a box to check, but a skill to build over time.

Correction: Originally I had misattributed Ashleigh Coren’s quote about student knowledge to her keynote. The quote came from the Q&A that followed, not from her formal address. This post has been updated to reflect this.

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.

Library Jargon

 

German shepherd sitting in the grass, head tilted like he is confused or curious.
“Freya,” by Ashley Coombs

This is my first post for ACRLog in my new position as a community college librarian! Starting a new job, I see everything in a new light. Circulation processes, internal record-keeping, who to email for what: all this is fresh for me at this institution. My brain has to work much harder than when I’m settled and on autopilot. It’s a natural part of any transition, and though it’s sometimes uncomfortable, this perspective is also helping me re-evaluate my use of jargon is a big way.

Specialized library vocabulary can be an intimidating source of library anxiety. Erin L. McAfee says that “feelings of inadequacy, confusion, shyness, and frustration” are emotional barriers that create distance between us and our patrons. Jargon we don’t understand definitely leads to confusion and frustration, and I want to do everything I can to reduce that library anxiety and help all students feel like they can be welcome here.

I’m looking for ways to make my speech more accessible to new library users in the classroom and in teaching tools like LibGuides, but there is also research to show that students prefer a de-jargonized website as well. “Students prefer simple natural language,” and even if we include a glossary of terms on our website there’s no guarantee they’ll read it or get anything from it. Better to examine our language and meet students where they are, in my opinion. So what are some of the words I’d like to revisit?

“Reference” is a word I have increasing trouble with. When I call myself a reference librarian, I immediately explain, “That means I help you with research.” Should I start calling myself a “research librarian” as many institutions do? Luckily, my new institution has already dropped the word “reference” and just calls all their librarians “librarians.” And when “reference” means the start-your-research tools like encyclopedias and overviews, I’ve considered moving toward calling these simply “background info.”

There is also internal language that serves librarians but really shouldn’t be used when communicating with students. In my opinion, “PAC”/”OPAC” is internal language, and so is “serials.” Mark Aaron Polger’s study shows that while librarians prefer the term “database” on the library website, students are looking for a button that says “articles.” I think “database” is a word we’re all so comfortable using that we can’t think of a logical replacement. But based on these findings, I know I need to simply define a database as a place you search for articles.

Some people squirm at the idea of giving a definition that is not exhaustive. “A database doesn’t always contain articles!” or “Not everything that’s searchable is a database!” But isn’t it enough to get a first-time library user started? Couldn’t we get more specific once they’re comfortable or in a discipline-specific class?

Acronyms are another type of jargon that tempt librarians and college staff in general. Acronyms are often made in the service of speeding up communication, but they also create a group of people who are in the know and a group that has no idea what the alphabet soup means. Taking the time to spell out the acronym the first time it’s used is worth doing.

Tammi Owens’ presentation on library jargon concludes that “the library’s online presence should be engaging and empowering, not confusing, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.” Those words inspire me as a teacher too. There are plenty of teachers who project authority and expertise, and there are learners who benefit from that approach. But I like the idea of my classroom presence being engaging and empowering, not confusing or overwhelming. I want my students to understand me. I want them to feel like searching skills are within their capacity, and I’d rather be accessible than impressive. Acknowledging that jargon exists is the place to start, and endeavoring to define, simplify, or eliminate it is the way forward.

What words do you find yourself constantly defining? Are there words you wish librarians would stop using?

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.