This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate class at my university in a certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. It’s a course I’ve taught before, though it changes somewhat each time I teach it, in part because it rotates between several different faculty members every year or so. The course focuses on the practice of teaching and learning with technology, and this week, our last “content” week before our students’ final presentations, the topic was failure.
We’ve had a session on failure during the other times I’ve taught the course, though I believe this is the first time that failure is leading us into the final presentations (and papers due soon after). Our discussion this week was terrific — the students and my co-teacher and I brought our own experiences with failure inside and outside the classroom to bear on our conversation, and we talked through both logistical/practical and emotional aspects of failure in academic contexts generally as well as around their projects specifically. An article by Alison Carr, In Support of Failure, was the focus of much of our discussion, especially about the emotions around failure.
It’s not yet the end of the semester (my college’s semesters go very late — 11 more days!), and I’m thinking about failure too. I’d meant to write more often on ACRLog this semester, but failed to do it. I’d meant to find something more interesting or relevant to write a post about today, but failed to do it. I’m thinking about failure that’s both general and specific: it’s not that I don’t have ideas for topics to write on, but that the topics seem either too well-trodden or too local. There’s a lot going on right now, though I do have time to write, but I’ve failed to take that time to write. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions around these kinds of failure, most of them of the mopey variety, though I also realize that here near the end of the semester it’s not unusual to have more feelings than usual.
When we were talking through classroom failures in class earlier this week, we talked a bit about failure in research and library instruction and how some experiences that might initially seem like failures can actually be pretty valuable for students. The pre-planned vs. spontaneous approach to teaching about keyword searching is a great example of the way a failure can be a useful learning experience. Students are unlikely to find exactly what they’re searching for the first time around, and for a librarian to model (in front of the whole class) that process of searching, not getting useful results, and refining your keywords and strategy to search again is much more realistic for students to see. And (I hope) it makes them feel less anxious about doing their searching “the right way.”
Thinking on this more today I’ve realized that a successful spontaneous search in an instruction session is somewhat choreographed, and still has some measure of control that prevents it from being a true failure. There is that element of uncertainty — it brings me some discomfort to be spontaneous in front of an entire class because what if it doesn’t actually work? What if we refine keywords again and again and still don’t find anything useful? There’s a right way and a wrong way to fail in the library classroom, which seems tied to control. I wonder, if we’re willing to give up some of that need for control, is it still possible to fail in the right way?
ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Siân Evans, Information Literacy & Instructional Design Librarian at Maryland Institute College of Art.
“One of the hardest things to admit is that you’re not doing okay. We want to be always glowing and effusive, charming and graceful but most of us hide little pits of darkness, ever growing and receding, in our guts.” – A thing I wrote when I was 27, in a collection of essays called “Built to Last: A collection of essays on sex, love, and feminism that I liberated from my ex-boyfriend’s blog,” published by D.I.Y feminist press, Pilot Press
“I don’t know how to be. I don’t know if I’m a librarian, a career that feels like a calling to most. Librarian with a capital L. I’m not sure if I really like helping people that much.” – A thing I wrote in my journal when I was 32, in 2015.
What is the relationship between these two things I wrote? I’m going to admit, right off the bat, that I’m not entirely sure. But, given that I’m writing an essay about mental illness and gendered affective labor, I’m going to take a cue from a gorgeous memoir written by an acquaintance of mine, and explore these things that weave in and out of each other for me all at once in a messy (but perhaps radical?) way.
And that’s the thing about feelings and what we call them, they’re messy at best. In The Glass Eye, Jeannie Vanasco explores her various diagnoses and self-diagnoses, musing on how they often seemed wrong or even arbitrary. I’ve been diagnosed as moderately depressed and, in one case, a psychiatrist made an offhand, confusing but ultimately unexamined comment about the potential of borderline personality disorder.* I tend to side with a Foucauldian way of thinking: that all diagnoses serve the function of classification and, ultimately, control; i.e. “reign in those pesky women and make them productive!” And, besides, what do diagnoses really mean outside of the meaning we give them?** Do they ultimately do justice to the feeling?
Thankfully I’m not the first to write publicly about mental illness in librarianship, nor the first to note the gendered component of depression and anxiety disorders. That is well-documented. But I do think these are conversations that we need to continue to have, as hard as they are. And, especially in higher education because, as Lisl Walsh has pointed out, academia is “irreparably ableist” when it comes to mental health.
Anecdotally, I also know this need for discussion to be true. Over a glass of wine with a librarian friend, I cautiously mentioned that I was working on a very personal essay about mental illness and library instruction. She responded, “I’m basically your target audience.” In a field of largely women, I imagine she’s not alone.
So two things happened to me at once: I participated in Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby’s interview project on the gendered labor of library instruction coordination and I got really, really depressed. I’m not saying these two things are necessarily linked but I’m also not saying they’re not linked. As bell hooks points out, in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (and I’m paraphrasing horribly here): the moments in which you become aware of your own oppression and the oppression of others are often incredibly painful. And there’s no going back. The veil has been lifted. So, we read. And we learn from what others have said before.
I’ve been doing feminist work for maybe my whole life but was only introduced to the concept of “pink labor,” “affective labor” or “emotional labor” (oppression has many names!) in 2014, when I co-organized a series of speculative conversations at a DIY feminist gallery space in Brooklyn.*** I was aware of the genesis of the term, of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s seminal work on flight attendants and bill collectors. I knew what it meant: that in absorbing other people’s emotions while suppressing your own for the benefit of an employer, you’re doing an invisible form of labor that is affective or emotional, and largely gendered (hence “pink”). But I hadn’t thought much about how it might affect me.
So I read more.
In reading one of the most canonical (if we can even use that term for such a niche field of study) articles on emotional labor in librarianship, I was struck by two things: (1) feelings and (2) names. The study describes the emotions expressed by librarians in reaction to the teaching experience as “ranging from joy and satisfaction […] to feelings of misery” (emphasis my own). I found myself coding the names of the pseudonymous librarians interviewed by whether or not they made positive or negative comments about their own teaching:
Steve and John, it seemed, were thoroughly impressed with themselves. While Kerri, Melissa, Amy, Colleen, Fran and Sandra had mixed feelings.**** I know that students’ reactions to teachers are often gendered, which may also account for these highly critical self perceptions because when you’re repeatedly told you’re not as good, of course you don’t feel all that good. And I also know that impostor syndrome in librarianship is real…
But I couldn’t help but draw loose mental connections between the statistics on women’s mental health and the affective labor of largely gendered professions, like librarianship, social work, nursing, and so on. But those threads are still so, so loose. And I’m not sure where they’ll lead me.
What I do want to explore is the potential for liberation. Always.
Emily Drabinski and Karen P. Nicholson have both written about the connections between the capitalist commodification of time and how the genesis of the term “information literacy” is rooted in neoliberal ideals of the university as a space of production. Nicholson, in particular, argues for an adoption of the principle of feminist slow scholarship to challenge this:
“Slow scholarship — which applies to academic work in the broad sense to include teaching, research, and service — resists the accelerated, fragmented time of the neoliberal university, along with its audit culture, intensified work order, and ‘fast, take-way, virtual, globalized, download/uptake’ pedagogies. Feminist slow scholarship seeks to re-envision the university itself by challenging structures of power and inequality and calling attention to the value (and toil) of academic labor.” (p. 31)
So, back to the beginning. Back to feelings. In her take on surviving academia with mental illness, Walsh writes “Do I even have the right to write this story? is a voice in my head today, as I think about what I need to be doing on a Sunday morning to prepare for Monday…” Simply getting out of bed, reading an email, writing a sentence, let alone teaching can be a struggle for those of us who experience varying degrees of mental illness. When my friend Veronica interviewed me for her project, I told her it felt cathartic. I didn’t realize just how wrong it had felt to admit that teaching took almost everything out of me sometimes, that students’ blank stares, colleagues’ insinuations that my feminist, critical pedagogical methods were futile, and just the sheer number of instruction sessions (57, roughly 50% of all instruction this semester) may precipitate bouts of depression.
What kind of liberation is possible? Critical pedagogy asks us to be vulnerable with our students, but what if we already feel so very vulnerable, as if some imaginary membrane between us and the world barely exists? Where is the space for a radical, open vulnerability in the increasingly neoliberal academic landscape? Walsh’s suggestions for what inclusivity for academics could look like line up perfectly with the premise of slow scholarship. The one that stuck with me the most is simply acknowledging that academics (and librarians) with disabilities (of all kinds) exist. In meetings, in the classroom, in daily conversation. For me, this has involved being open about my feelings. It has also involved being intentional about making space for reflection as part of my teaching praxis, and demanding that that space be recognized as what it is: labor.
In other words, more of this. And more of this.***** Taking the time.
**This is not to deny the usefulness of psychiatric medicine and of diagnoses (I benefit greatly from my access to mental health care), but rather to highlight that it is not a linear path from the (imaginary) Dark Ages to now but rather a complex social history that is peppered with scientific advances but also informed by patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and many other structures of domination. There’s SO much written on this, but you can start with Foucault!
***Epic thanks to my love Jacqueline Mabey for sharing her curatorial genius with me and to shero Kate Bahn for introducing me to this concept and for continuing to be the radical, feminist, punk rock economist and wonderful friend that she is.
****Note that this is not a quantitative study but just my initial reaction to reading the article. Of course, we cannot assume gender based on name (look at mine!), nor can we assume that the authors selected names that corresponded with the gender identity of the participants.
*****But does this boss really care about her or just care about her productivity? Do any of under late stage capitalism? Damn the man! 😉
My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.
During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask.
Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that
Questions are hard to ask; and
Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.
Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.
I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.
One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.
I haven’t written an ACRLog post in a long time. It’s an all too typical story of the combination short-on-time + writer’s block sort: a busy late Winter/early Spring (such a wintery late Winter, too), and I’ve had conference and other presentation preparations to do as well as the usual work stuff. And since this is only my second semester as chief librarian in my library, “the usual” still includes a fair number of tasks and responsibilities that are new to me, and I’m still learning a lot. I’ve had post ideas in my head for sure — about the ACRL conference (which was terrific), for example — but I’ve been slow on the uptake and time has passed. Lucky for me, with Jen, Sarah, Erin and Lindsay on board we’ve not lacked for great stuff to read here.
One of the overarching themes that my colleagues and I have been working on this year in our library is environment. What’s the environment like in the library, for students using our resources and services as well as for our workers: library faculty, staff, and students? Enrollment at the college (and at the entire City University of New York) has grown tremendously in recent years. Which is terrific! Though of course sometimes having more people in our not-any-larger space can be a challenge. We’ve also navigated some retirements and hiring of new faculty and staff, and it’s been a more change-heavy year this year than in the recent past.
Environment encompasses both a physical component as well as a mental component. I don’t want to minimize the challenges that can come from shortcomings of the physical facilities — these are real difficulties that can impact our ability to work. But sometimes I think that the mental environment is even more important. We can feel it now in our libraries with finals upon us (or nearly so) and many students hard at work and/or stressing out. It’s why academic libraries often offer finals week stressbusters like coffee and snacks or therapy dogs, to give a little positive boost to the mental environment in the library at a time when it’s much needed.
Last week my research partner and I presented at the Connecticut Library Association Conference, capping off these busy past few months. We weren’t able to stay for the whole conference, unfortunately, but we did catch featured speaker JP Porcaro‘s presentation. JP spoke about inspiration, leadership, and the importance of a positive attitude, and one of his slides really resonated with me:
We all come from different places and have different reasons for being here. Everyone has a bad day occasionally, those times when it’s hard to stay positive. I want to work in an environment where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt, where the mental component of the environment is more positive than negative, even during finals week. It’s an important part of my job to help make that happen, and one that I’m still working on, especially on those mornings that start off with subway troubles or my teenage kid waking up on the wrong side of the bed. I’m redoubling my efforts here as the semester speeds to a close, reminding myself that emotions are contagious.