Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

Tales from an Unintentional Science Liaison

I’m sure this comes as a surprise to literally no one, but I have a B.A. in English Literature, which, along with History, is one of the most common, librarian backgrounds. Many of the librarians at my current workplace have a similar background to my own, though some librarians have second Master’s degrees in areas outside of librarianship. At my workplace, librarians are given collection development and liaison duties to different subject areas, and if you have a second Master’s degree in, say, Business Management, you’ll most likely be the liaison in that subject area. You’ll build relationships with faculty in that department, purchase materials related to that subject area, and teach information literacy to students taking classes in that subject. Librarians who have worked at the library for a while have obtained liaison duties in areas that fit their backgrounds or interests. As the newest librarian at my workplace, I was left with slim pickings, which is how I ended up as a liaison to biology and environmental science.

I have a tiny bit of background in environmental science from my work with both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management while getting my MLIS; however, it wasn’t the sciency stuff I was doing. I created online content and digital collections, which was super cool and in line with my library degree, but gave me no understanding of mechanical girdling and bark beetle fungi. As for biology, the last class I’d taken in that subject area was my freshman year of high school. Suffice it to say that these liaison subjects are not in my wheelhouse. Goodbye, Austen; hello, Darwin.

When I was first given biology and environmental science as liaison areas, I felt, and still do feel, that I would face some challenges establishing myself as the go-to person in these areas. For example, I was told that that library hadn’t done instruction in these subjects for a while, so it might be hard to get into classes. I had no idea how I was supposed to purchase books for biology because I wasn’t sure how to assess our current collection. Biology is basically every living thing ever, so it felt daunting to try and build a collection that encompassed all areas of life with such a limited budget. I also wasn’t sure how I’d connect to faculty with a PhD in areas I knew little about. At first I thought, maybe I’ll learn some stuff about plants so that I can contribute to a conversation. This turned out to be a bad idea because I can name about four houseplants while one faculty member was able to identify every type of grass on campus by sight. As Zoë recently talked about, the liaison imposter syndrome was real. How was I supposed to become a science liaison?

At the beginning of the semester, I decided to individually email all faculty members in my liaison area to introduce myself, let them know I would buy them stuff, and offer to come to their classes and talk to their students about research. This kind of worked. I got some responses thanking me, some requesting a particular book, and one or two who seemed interested in having me come to a class. I found the most luck in a new faculty group. Any faculty member who was new to campus was invited to a retreat and a learning community so that we could get to know the university and each other. There were three biology faculty in this group, and I was able to talk to and get to know them over the course of several days. They later invited me to their classes. Building in-person relationships was valuable to establishing myself as a liaison.

Building relationships with faculty is important to me, but I really wanted to support students and their information needs. I was initially concerned that students would balk at my un-scientific background and I felt most nervous about teaching a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences class at the beginning of the semester. I was to talk to them about scientific, primary literature, which I know a lot about, but I definitely felt out of my element talking to students who were working in medical fields and knew much more about bio-med than I did. It turns out, I didn’t need to worry. After teaching the class, multiple students scheduled consultations with me, not because they needed my limited knowledge about biology, but because they were still not confident they could identify primary, scientific literature; weren’t sure how to narrow down their topics; needed help with APA; or wanted help organizing their research.

What I learned from these consultations is that I don’t need to be an expert in biology to talk about research and information literacy to biology students (though I know our field is divided about who gets to be qualified for science librarianship). This was true for master’s students, and I had one memorable consultation with a student where we were trying to find information on receptors, and both outwardly cringed at a very jargon-heavy article title. We were instantly on the same page; neither of us wanted to click on that article because the title sucked and we had no idea what it was talking about. For the freshman biology courses I taught, I needed even less subject-specific knowledge because I know about as much about biology as freshmen do. What does a biology freshman need to know about research anyway? Probably the same as freshmen in other fields, which includes finding, identifying, understanding, and synthesizing sources into their own research (amongst other information skills).

I also realized that I know more about my liaison areas than I thought I did. For instance, I may not be able to describe every scientific fact driving climate change, but I am familiar with the conversations surrounding climate change, the change in terminology over time, the contentious and political nature of the subject, and that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is happening. I also know that genetics, CBD receptors, concussions, maternal mortality in the US, polio reemergence, cancer immunotherapy, antibiotic resistance, and renewable energy are hot topics right now as well. Guess what students are writing about? If I remain up-to-date on scientific news and understand the general conversations surrounding those topics, I’ll know what students care about researching. If I don’t know something about a subject, students have been really cool about sharing their own knowledge about a topic, and I get to learn something new.

Remaining up-to-date with student work and research trends is something that I can do on my own campus as well. I think it’s important for me to support student and faculty scholarship, especially in my liaison areas. I recently attended an event where students in science departments shared posters of the research they’d conducted over the semester. Biology faculty were there and several students I’d worked with over the semester were sharing their work. They were very excited to talk to me about their research and some students recognized me from classes or consultations. In fact, one of the biology faculty members introduced me to a student as the biology librarian, and the student responded, “I know. She talked to my class about primary research.” I’m considering everything about that interaction as a win.

Though I’m achieving small victories and growing my confidence that I can be a good liaison, most days, I feel a little anxious and unsure about what I’m doing. Collection development is still tricky, but luckily, I have colleagues that know this subject area fairly well and can help, and faculty in biology have made their own requests for materials. There’s also subject lists and all sorts of resources to help me figure out what materials to purchase. I still haven’t connected with every faculty member in my liaison area, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to. Despite the challenges, I’m enjoying science liaisonship more than I thought I would. I hope that my confidence continues to grow and I become even better at supporting the research needs of my institution.

Are you a subject liaison? What are your experiences with librarian liaison roles?

How to Make it to Winter Break

It’s finally here: Finals Week. I’ve been reflecting on the emotional state of our students – I see a blend of exhaustion, procrastination, and shame that forms a vicious cycle in the last month of the semester. And although I’m not facing exams or major papers, I can relate. In fact, the general atmosphere of the library this time of year can make those emotions pretty infectious. Here’s how I’ve coped with the cycle of weariness and urgency in December.

Am I exhausted or burned out?

“Burnout” is a word I throw around, and sometimes I conflate actual burnout (chronic exposure to workplace stress) with ordinary fatigue. Kevin Harwell wrote an article called Burnout Strategies for Librarians that helped me understand the difference.

A key element of burnout is depersonalization, where you start to see your library patrons as “queries, questions, or cases, rather than people.” When students approach the desk and my first reaction is dread, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break and recharge. For me, this increased cynicism is the major symptom, but it’s not the only facet of burnout. The other two major pieces of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion and “a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

So if you’re dead-tired, you’ve started to see your daily responsibilities as irritating stressors, and you can’t remember why you signed up for all this in the first place – congratulations, you have something in common with students at finals week. But for students and librarians alike, there may be a remedy!

Of course the long-term remedy is to take meaningful breaks and adjust your workload. But it’s December; many of us just need a solution to get us to the winter break. These are the strategies I’ve use when I feel like my resources are all but used up. My recommendations come in the form of two mental exercises:

  1. List your accomplishments
  2. Practice compassion (for others and yourself)

List Your Accomplishments

I happened upon this exercise by accident, but I found it surprisingly meaningful. First, make a list of the things you’ve achieved this year. It can be as granular or as general as you’d like. I focused on professional accomplishments from 2018, but you could incorporate your personal achievements or progress you’ve made on creative or financial goals as well.

Then I found someone who was willing to hear me read off this list of accomplishments. Maybe you already have some kind of check-in with your supervisor at the end of the year, or maybe you can pull your best work friend aside for a few minutes while you toot your own horn. I read my list to my husband, and it was meaningful to share how much I’d learned in one year.

Creating a list of your accomplishments might offset how motivation seems to dry up in December. This exercise helped me say to myself, “I know you don’t feel motivated and you just wish it was Winter Break already. But look at all you did get done this year.” The burned-out feeling of inefficacy, the sense of diminished personal accomplishment, can be counterbalanced by an objective list of things you did indeed achieve.

While I haven’t assigned this exercise to any of my students, I’ve been able to informally remind them of the ways I’ve seen them grow over the semester. Being reminded of how far you’ve already come may be a useful jolt to help you cross the finish line.

Practice Compassion

Shame is a major emotion students are feeling this time of year. Shame prevents them from moving forward on projects, even as due dates draw perilously near. It discourages them from asking help. I’ve been thoughtful about how I contribute to an environment of shame, and how I can instead encourage self-compassion.

I’ve talked with faculty who believe that intense pressure can force better academic results from students. After all, if they’re just “lazy” and carelessly procrastinating all semester, then the “tough love” of a scary deadline could be an effective motivator. However, I’ve read some blogs and essays by educators who insist that a shaming approach is counterproductive. Instead, Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield call for “academic empathy”:

“Brené Brown offers a definition of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love” (60). She observes that shame produces fear, risk-aversion, and the creation of a negative shame spiral. In Brown’s description, shame has no prosocial effects: “Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior” (72)…shame not only hurts students but in fact also creates barriers to equitable teaching and learning.”

In fact, even the “lazy student” trope should be interrogated. Devon Price critiques the myth of the lazy student better than I can in this piece on Medium:

People love to blame procrastinators for their behavior. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behavior for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it — that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated, and lazy, doesn’t it?

For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.

Most librarians react with compassion when we watch students ride the procrastination/shame spiral. But is it as easy for you to be compassionate to yourself? Shortly after graduating my therapist advised me to let go of the need to be perfect, to strive for personal excellence instead. (This is the grown-up version of “Just try your best.”)

So the message I want to communicate to my colleagues and my students this time of year is: be gentle with yourself. Shame makes us isolate ourselves and berate ourselves for not doing enough, but it’s counterproductive. Take your time. Take breaks. Ask for help. You got this.

How Vs. Why: A New Way to Look at Incorporating the Framework

This piece started out as my attempt to figure out how to write about the difficulties my community college colleagues and I have encountered when trying to find effective ways to incorporate the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education into our one-shot library instruction sessions. As I sorted out my thoughts on that topic, I saw a different, but related, question we should answer first: what is the balance of “library instruction” versus “information literacy instruction” we can and should achieve in this instruction session?

If I define “library instruction” as “teaching students about how to use the library’s resources and services” (whether that’s a point-and-click demonstration of a database, an explanation of what can be found in a subject-specific research guide, or answering questions about what services are provided at the reference and circulation desks) and “information literacy instruction” as, well, teaching what is found in the Framework (identifying authority, considering information’s value, understanding scholarship as a conversation), then I don’t think I’m making a bold statement by saying: “Library instruction is not the same as information literacy instruction.” To over-generalize a little, “library instruction” is the “how” of research, and “information literacy instruction” is the “why.” This is something we probably all already knew, but I had not thought about it in the context of answering the question of how to incorporate the Framework into my one-shots.

Both “how” and “why” instruction are important, and a student needs both to thrive in their research. If a student doesn’t have the nuts-and-bolts information of how to access a database in the first place, how are they supposed to apply the information literacy concepts that help them choose a high-quality, reliable, scholarly article from that database? On the other hand, if we don’t allot enough time to evaluating one’s sources, the student might just choose the first article that pops up in the database, without critically considering its authority or value. We need to strike a balance between the two, but what is the right balance? There is, obviously, no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It will vary based on the course, the instructor, the students, the assignment, and the librarian.

The next question, for advanced users, is: can I fit both “how” and “why” into the same activity? For a little further reading, this is the article I was reading when this new question clicked for me. I realized that I do the things that Shawna Thorup describes, such as doing on-the-fly searches for the students’ suggested topics without knowing what the results will be. This squeezes “Searching as Strategic Exploration” into the same activity that used to be just demonstrating the use of a tool. You get a two-for-the-price-of-one experience if you use your demo time to explain why a student might want to use limiters like “peer-reviewed only”: they know how to do it and they also know why they should do it. (Bonus points when they understand if they should do it!)

I know that none of this is revolutionary, but for me at least, it is a new way of looking at an old question, and I hope that it might help you approach that question in a new way in the new year.

Assessment as Care

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

I’m in a weird head space at the moment. I attended the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium (CLAPS) last month and am about to attend the Library Assessment Conference (LAC) later this week. Based on what I experienced at CLAPS and what I’ve read about LAC, the two conferences couldn’t feel more different.  I am very curious about how we continue to conceptualize and shape the idea of assessment in libraries.

At CLAPS, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist, and Kush Patel, Digital Pedagogy Librarian, at the University of Michigan. Their exploration of critical digital pedagogy in librarianship was a wonderful mix of writing, reflection, and discussion on the ways in which we can build critical and queer feminist communities in our classes. As part of the session, Anne and Kush asked participants to read five different excerpts of selected texts on care, praxis, technologies, design, and assessment, and then write our reflections on these excerpts as they apply to our own teaching and the learning we want to facilitate in our classes. (You can read the excerpts on the slides they’ve graciously shared online). The excerpt that resonated with me the most was from Critical Generosity by Jill Dolan, which illustrates a generous and caring approach to the criticism of dramatic performances and artists. It was presented as a model for assessment in teaching and learning, one that recast–in my mind, anyway–assessment as care and sustenance.

The current narrative of assessment in libraries is that of justification. We prove our value, show our impact, and demonstrate our connection to student learning and student success. I know we are working and teaching at a time when higher education funding and academic jobs are precarious and departments and faculty are constantly being asked to prove their worth. I am sympathetic to our attempts to demonstrate, through assessment, that our work in libraries is important. I’ve done and published this kind of assessment myself! But because our assessment is done with the intent to appease an external audience, we are constantly in a position to validate our own existence, rather than support the learning realities of our students and teaching librarians. Our assessment is an act of survival, in our minds, rather than something that enriches and feeds ourselves and our students. I’ve shared my professional angst about librarianship not having a seat at the academic table and the ways that influences interactions between librarians and faculty. Our library assessment culture reflects this reality, but it also continues the narrative that we need to prove ourselves worthy of trust and acceptance.

Dolan writes about her first encounter with “critical generosity” in David Roman’s book, Acts of Intervention. Roman describes caring for friends who were HIV positive during a showing of the famously long play, Angels in America. Throughout the performance, he conducted frequent interpersonal assessments: Is everyone doing ok? Does someone need to take their medication? Is there enough food and water? Do people need a break/rest? The root and ongoing narrative of this assessment was care, sustenance, and really, love.

I recognize I’m asking for what many may view as a stretch: making a connection between the interpersonal care Roman and Dolan write about and institutional library assessment. But our teaching and learning in higher education and libraries is about the students we teach and the interpersonal connections we make everyday. So many of our attempts at assessment stay away from “messiness.” We want numbers that make good stories, and we want those good stories to make the library look good. But in staying away from messiness we are erasing the people at the center our work–their complications, needs, bodies, etc. In short, we’re staying away from the “gore” of learning. I don’t mean to be graphic, but I do think our proclivity for neatness is in direct conflict with the process of learning. In my own attempts at large-scale, summative, value-focused assessment, the best I’ve been able to show is that learning takes time, and our own work as teaching librarians is never-ending.

Yes, I know we have annual reports to write and numbers to share with our directors, deans, provosts, and presidents. I do too. But we have power within our profession with the papers we write, the kind of assessment we advocate for and practice, and the care that we exhibit within our work. What would it mean to embrace a critical practice of assessment? What could that look like?