Resolutions for Failure

How bout that January, eh?  Lots of memes out lately about the longest month ever.  Yet, like this reddit thread, I don’t really get it. I mean, despite my Oklahoma-born, summer-loving upbringing, I do expect that January is supposed to be snowy and damn cold.

I also don’t love, but expect annual evaluations.  They provide a time to reflect on the highlights of the year and set goals for the next.  Most often I approach this task (and leadership generally) from a strengths-based perspective, which has its roots in positive psychology research.  I encourage people to own what they are best at, even using it to build areas at which they feel not so great.   But, as January has brought a lot of harsh realities to the fore, it feels necessary to juxtapose this month’s normal, optimistic resolution with a page from Brene Brown and ponder what didn’t go quite right this year.

My acceptance into the 2018 cohort of the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL) certainly put a postive move on a long-stuck research agenda, and in all respects (except one) it was an a-ma-zing experience. That same week, I was also furtively struggling to complete editor changes for a book chapter on knowledge management in libraries (ala this past post).  Trying to do research while learning how little you actually know about research is one thing.  Working on two research project simultaneously with that fragile skill set is another.  Working against an already extended deadline on a near-complete redo of said research and writing certainly takes one down a peg or two.  But wait!  There’s more.  None of these humiliations can beat the crushing horror four (4) months after submitting the final revised draft, realizing that I’d attached the wrong file.

Yes. Epic. Fail.

I have never asked for an extension I couldn’t meet. I have never wanted to write about a topic more than I wanted to write about meetings and knowledge management in library organizations.  Needless to say, the editors confirmed they’d moved forward without my chapter included. But if we’re being honest, while I was satisfied with the final draft I thought I’d submitted, this blunder was a blessing in disguise that helped me realize how far my cart was in front of this particular horse.

My actual and ongoing research for IRDL has been more like an extremely long January. I’ve progressed in some ways with ease and others with more groping at the dark.  Navigating my mentoring and research  network, I’ve partnered with a friend and colleague who is familiar with my topic and who has strengths in areas that I need to grow.  She and I have spent most of the year sorting out data after messy, incomplete data, just trying to figure out how to approach a sample to use for our analysis.  It’s been frustrating, paving over the same paths and feeling you’ve come up no further along.  We met again this week to pave with our local hub of digital research librarians. In the process we made breakthrough.  A face-palming breakthrough, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

I like to think Winston Churchill, as he’s often quoted, understood the better that lies ahead of the struggle.  Better even than the adage that this too shall pass (because, kidney stones?),  I prefer to remind myself and others that research is just messy until it’s not messy. This is what we teach as librarians, but sometimes forget to tell ourselves.

If I hadn’t been introduced to Brene Brown’s research, or learned what I did from IRDL, or had this particular editorial experience, or the practice of using my strengths, I don’t know that I could as easily take fails forward into something better and more genuine.  That I can say moving through vulnerability has become easier for me, is precisely because that is what the concept of strengths brings to bear for anyone’s vulnerabilities.  My top five Gallup strengths – Learner, Activator, Strategic, Analytical, and Individualization — help me more easily learn from my mistakes, analyze and strategize new paths, know myself and who to go to for help, and take action to keep going!  But even if you can’t yet  see your own strengths this way, research has shown vulnerability is a necessary part of personal and professional growth.

When I complete my current IRDL research, and when (not if) I  get back to research and writing about meetings and knowledge management in libraries, you and I both want it to be good and valuable and cleaner than the path it takes to get there.  So, I embrace the mess!  It may not always be pretty, but it’s a path that moves you forward if you let it.

Finding my footing and imposter syndrome

Like Quetzalli, who started blogging for ACRLog a few years ago, I am dipping my toes into the world of academic libraries by starting with a residency position. While there is some discussion to be had on critiques of residencies and whether a residency is a good choice for any given individual, for my own part, I was drawn to a residency position because it offered me room to explore as well as a little more support. Luckily for me, my institution has also been very receptive about working with my interests and I have no regrets about choosing a residency.

That said, at almost exactly three months in, I am starting to take stock of what I have learned and accomplished so far. With the new semester fast approaching, I am also looking for ways to work better and to prioritize all the various projects that could take up my time. As a subject librarian, a large focus of my work is on liaisonship, which, it turns out, is something of a challenge for me.

As I see it, my challenges are twofold: getting my name out there and establishing myself as someone capable of and willing to work with faculty members. I’m in a new position, so faculty members and students in my subject areas aren’t necessarily primed to come looking for me. To combat this, I’ve sent the usual introductory emails and have been working on meeting faculty members when they’re interested and have the time. I’ve also attended as many events as possible, both to become more familiar with academic focuses on campus and to make sure I’m seen and can participate in informal conversations as they arise.

As for my second goal of demonstrating that I’m capable of the job I’m doing, this has come slower. I’m working as the liaison for Southeast Asian studies and South Asian studies, and my background is solely in Southeast Asian studies, which means I’m working to get up to speed on South Asia. Now, I know that to be an effective liaison you do not need to have extensive knowledge of your subject areas. This is true, too—I’ve successfully answered the South Asia reference questions that have come my way. All that said, I still find myself feeling inadequate, which leads me to an oft-discussed topic: imposter syndrome.

Erin has already written a great post about imposter syndrome, especially tied to comparing your CV to others’. I find myself performing a similar sort of comparison, looking at librarians in my institution and in similar positions beyond my institution and wondering how they do so much, how they are so involved. I know this is similar to Erin’s own struggle and that I’m only seeing things from the outside, but it’s one thing to know that and another to internalize it.

I brought up my position as a resident at the beginning of this post because I think it also plays a factor in this feeling of imposter syndrome. As a resident, maybe I am an imposter, or at the very least, maybe people see me as an imposter. But I know that this, too, is also just my insecurities talking. While it is true that residents (including myself) do have to explain their positions and do have to face skepticism, it is also true that residents are as qualified as any other new librarian. As Erin lays out in her post, it is perfectly acceptable to be a beginner. Luckily for me, I am part of an organization that supports me and all its new librarians and recognizes that we are all beginners in one way or another.

One of the support systems my library has in place is a new liaisons group that meets once a month. These meetings provide a place to discuss our work and formulate strategies to become more effective liaisons, as well as simply to discuss challenges we may be having. At a recent meeting, when I brought up how I sometimes feel nervous approaching faculty members, a more established librarian offered a piece of advice that really resonated with me: we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser. Now, librarians are not faculty members everywhere, but no matter the institution, we are professionals, and in liaison work as with librarianship in general, there is no reason to feel lesser, even if you are new. For now, I’m going to make an effort to understand that I am a beginner and to not apologize for it, while I continue to learn and grow and develop the relationships that will help me to become a better liaison.

What are some situations you’ve found yourself facing imposter syndrome? Do you have any tips to share that have worked for you?

Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome hit me hard as soon as I entered the job market. As I perused job announcements and skimmed the required and preferred qualification sections, a sinking feeling crept into my chest: How will anyone ever hire me without experience? How will I gain this necessary experience when all of these job announcements want candidates with experience? Do my MLIS and various internships fall short of this requirement? Will I ever get a job? Those fears may have subsided when I received my first job offer, but the sentiment definitely followed me into the first year of professional employment. And I am certainly not alone. From the discussions around emotional labor (which inherently includes imposter syndrome) during LIS Mental Health Week, to scholarly articles and blog posts, it is difficult to argue that imposter syndrome does not exist among academic librarians, especially new ones like me.

But I find less discussion about imposter syndrome among college students. As a subject liaison to a school experiencing unprecedented growth in its online program, much of my daily tasks revolve around curating and assessing library interventions for a large number of first-generation, distance, and non-traditional students. Many of these students are second-career students who haven’t stepped foot (virtually or otherwise) in a classroom in at least a few years, or, sometimes, as long as a decade or more. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program, these students also work at least part-time to support themselves and their families, and complete internships that are a required component of the curriculum. Additionally, the school recently revamped its curriculum to include more rigorous courses in research methodology and data analysis. So how is all of this affecting students?

Recently, I presented library instruction to a group of students in a foundation-year course about research and data analysis. During the Q & A portion, a student hesitantly asked whether practitioners had to understand statistics to be successful. The student was visibly frustrated, so I thought about it, and said that she didn’t need to be a statistician to be a good practitioner, but she did need baseline knowledge of statistics in order to understand this type of research. I relayed my own shortcomings in this area – I took statistics twice during my undergraduate degree and did poorly both times – but explained that it didn’t affect my ability to be a “successful” librarian. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but this experience reminded me that imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon among students. Of course this student was upset, because everything in the curriculum leads students to believe they need to walk through the door as experts in this field. The student felt like an imposter. College may be the first time in students’ lives that they fully experience imposter syndrome, especially in an educational setting, and this student reminded me that helping students navigate these tacit areas of the college experience is just as important as helping them craft a good research question.

So what are the action items? What does “reaching out” look like? How can I help students who are wrestling with imposter syndrome while acknowledging the uniqueness of their experiences and the privilege of my own perspective as a gainfully employed librarian?

It starts with positive reinforcement. As an educator, acknowledge that students bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Then tell them that they do – even if their unique qualities do not include statistical prowess. I encourage students to reflect deeply on their goals and harness their abilities in those areas. A less grammatically correct way of saying this is, be the best at whatever you are good at.

Imposter syndrome is caused by the idea the we need to conform, that we need to be conventionally exceptional (oxymoronic much?). It is a direct result of the neoliberal model of higher education. Tell students that there is another way. I remind them that we need more people in the world who will foster collaboration instead of trying to the best individually. We exist in a time when we have too much competition, and not enough collaboration in academia and beyond.

When I sense imposter syndrome in a student, I use it as a teaching moment. But I don’t tell students that “everyone has it” because it is not incredibly helpful. Instead, I explain that imposter syndrome is false because you are not an imposter. Your experiences, opinions, and ideas are valuable. Look at your peers and examine why they are valuable. How can you help them? Maybe you can work together, and learn from each other.

The Caltech Counseling Center offers detailed explanations of imposter syndrome as it relates to students, suggestions for understanding imposter syndrome, and outlines the connection of imposter syndrome with gender. The University of Michigan has similar information for graduate students. Inside Higher Ed published a fantastic piece about imposter syndrome written by a graduate student. These sources may be immensely helpful for students who are beginning to understand the effects of imposter syndrome. But I also believe that there are grassroots, campus-wide efforts that we, as librarians, can implement to help undergraduate students who face imposter syndrome. We aren’t their professors (at least, most of us aren’t), but we aren’t their classmates either. For better or worse, we occupy neutral spaces on campus and can reach out to students in distinctive ways. Recently, I founded a first-generation college student initiative in my library. Among my many goals, I hope to help students navigate the tacit barriers that underlie the undergraduate college experience. Partnerships with student services groups, student caucuses, or other stakeholders across campus are among my other goals to help students mediate imposter syndrome.

As librarians, we are uniquely poised to help students with imposter syndrome. I take my role as an educator seriously and want to help students steer the range of problems they face during their academic careers. Instead of competition, I encourage collaboration. Rather than focus on perceived shortcomings, I encourage mindfulness in the areas in which they excel. And I remind students that imposter syndrome is false.

Everyone is an imposter, and nobody is an imposter.