Last Friday, June 7, 2019, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote talk at The Innovative Library Classroom Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s a fantastic conference and I highly recommend attending! I wanted to share the text and slides from my talk to help broaden the conversation about looking at our work as teaching librarians in a more systems/structure orientated way.
Innovating Against a Brick Wall: Rebuilding the structures that shape our teaching
Some Thank Yous
Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying thank you to Candice, Jennifer, and Rebecca and all of the program committee for organizing such a wonderful conference and inviting me to speak here today. This is a conference I always wanted to attend when I lived in Maryland, and I’m so excited to finally be able to be here. I also want to give a special thanks to Lisa Varga for helping me organize my travel here. I’m super jazzed for all of your presentations today and am so looking forward to learning from you. I hope that in the time I have to speak today I’ll be able to offer even a small portion of the knowledge you’ll all be imparting later today.
Who I Am
I’m a teaching librarian at heart, and as much as I know this is a keynote, I can’t help but want to start things off the way I would a class. I’ll spare you the location of the bathroom, water fountain, and emergency exit, because although these are very important to know, I don’t actually know them! What I do know is who I am, which I’ll share because I think it will lend some context to my talk today.
I’ve been working and teaching in libraries since 2007, first at the University of Houston as a psychology and social work liaison, then St. Mary’s College of Maryland as liaison to all the social sciences and an instruction coordinator, and now back at the University of Houston as the library’s Instruction Coordinator and a supervisor of two amazing teaching librarians. I’ve taught information literacy classes in psychology, social work, first year seminars, political science, sociology, economics, and even an odd class for computer science. I’ve taught first years and graduate students and everyone in between. I’ve helped a 52 year old returning student learn how to use the library catalog, led discussions about Google and the bias of algorithms, and shocked a room full of seniors by sharing that no, peer-reviewers don’t get paid.
I say all of this because my day-to-day work and career trajectory is probably intimately familiar to most of you in this room. I’ve done all the Immersions. I’ve read Critical Library Instruction more times than I can count. I’ve sung the praises of bell hooks and yelled “make it critical!” more times than I care to admit. I teach and I think and I reflect and I talk about information literacy and pedagogy and then I teach some more. Sometimes I write.
I also get frustrated about doing the thing I love: teaching in libraries. This talk is about that frustration, and–hopefully–what we can do about it, not just as individuals, because I think we already do a lot of work as individuals, but as a profession of teaching librarians and librarianship in general.
I think there is power in frustration and, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, there is power in complaint (2018). So I personally smile as I complain, because I know that’s a powerful way of saying NO, this isn’t right, and I’m going to tell you why. It’s a way of forcing a conversation that can lead to action, and that action is what can help move us forward to the place we want to be.
So what do I want to complain about? I want to complain about something that sounds boring, but in reality, is huge. That something is structure; specifically, the structures that keep us, librarians who teach, from doing the kind of work we want to be doing, the kind of work that empowers learners and ourselves, the kind of work that makes us feel proud and whole, the kind of work that is generative and sustaining.
I called this presentation “Innovating against a brick wall” because that’s exactly what it feels like in my most frustrating moments as a teaching librarian. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that “we often use wall expressions to talk about the obstacles that prevent us from realizing a desire or completing an action” (2017, p. 136). We’re sitting here at a conference called “The Innovative Library Classroom” where the program is illustrative of the kind of creative, thoughtful work librarians do to further student learning and information literacy, but our innovation often comes up short. I don’t want to come across as belittling the work that we do. We do amazing work and we work hard. But we work within structures that were not built for us–teaching librarians–and the kind of work that we do. They were not built for learners who don’t fit a “traditional” mold, and increasingly, these structures are morphing and changing into ones that aren’t really built for faculty either. These structures are figurative, but their presence is real, and we come up against their materiality again and again, or, as Ahmed writes: “The wall keeps its place, so it is you that gets sore” (2017, p. 138).
So I want to talk about these structures. I want to complain about them. I want to talk about the damage they do and the damage we do as we remain complicit in upholding them. I want to think about ways to subvert them, challenge them, and ultimately change them, fully recognizing that I don’t have all the answers. I also want to give you time to feel proud of the work you do everyday, because it’s good work and we should value not only that work, but ourselves. Complaining about what makes our work difficult is a first step towards changing our working environment and improving the conditions under which we teach.
So with that, let’s start picking apart some of the different structures that make our work so challenging.
Structure #1 – Librarians as Service Providers in a Patriarchal System
One of the first things I’d like to discuss is the concept of librarians as service providers in patriarchal systems. According to Deborah Hicks’ study of librarians’ constructed identities, “Service, broadly defined, was often considered to be the essence of librarianship” (2014). It’s one of the Core Values of Librarianship as defined by the American Library Association, which states: “We provide the highest level of service to all library users” (2019). This defines who we are not just as librarians but as teaching librarians and has a huge impact on our work.
In Affective Labor, Resistance, and the Academic Librarian, Lisa Sloniowski argues, among many other excellent points, that this over-emphasis on librarians-as-service-providers devalues the intellectual work and emotional labor we do as educators (2016). But Roma Harris argues that the problem isn’t service itself, but rather the framing of service (1992). Over 20 years ago she wrote about the potential within librarianship to transform the idea of service from one that exploits workers in those roles toward a more democratic and mutually empowering exchange between librarians and patrons (Harris, 1992). I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with service, working in a service profession or being service providers. The harm comes when patriarchal, racist systems co-opt the idea of service for their own gain, devalue it while benefiting from it, and leave those of us who provide service unable to dictate the terms of our own hard work.
As an example, we’ve all had That Problematic Teaching Request: The professor who asks you to teach them library, tomorrow, at 8:00am. That request hides a lot of assumptions:
- That we offer services such as touring, presenting, or, as a faculty friend once told me, “doing a library song and dance” but we certainly don’t “teach” in the same way that they do.
- That we are at the beck and call of anyone outside the library to provide services as needed.
- That we don’t put time and care into our teaching.
These assumptions are harmful, and they are rooted in a construction of service, that, especially in academia, means that people are expected to give of themselves until there is nothing left. We are expected to be servile and deferential in our service, and for those of us who simply don’t hold for that kind of nonsense, we are constantly reminded that others do. I’ve seen colleagues take on That Problematic Teaching Request (I’ve done it too!) in an attempt to build trust with faculty peers, gain credibility that somehow must be earned and is never freely given, and prove themselves worthy of teaching. I’ve heard more than one early career librarian lament that they can’t say no to any instruction request that comes in for fear of never being asked again.
There is a lack of mutuality and respect inherent in this version of service that reinforces hierarchies (my work is more important than your work), emphasizes exertions of power, and exploits care. You can see this play out in teaching librarianship’s collaboration literature. In 2000 Dick Raspa and Dane Ward published The Collaborative Imperative: Librarians and Faculty Working Together in the Information Universe. This collection of essays stressed the importance of collaborative relationships between librarians and faculty, with one author going so far as to state that without this relationship, “the teaching library will cease to exist” (Cook, 2000). Yet despite this dire warning, the teaching library is still here, and we are still writing and presenting about ways to get faculty to collaborate with us. This is totally contradictory to the idea of collaboration as mutually beneficial and empowering. An empowering relationship can’t grow out of a power imbalance. And by positioning ourselves as the party solely responsible for seeking out, creating, and maintaining these collaborative relationships we are demeaning the work that we do and the service we provide within higher education as teachers.
But we aren’t the only ones who uphold this structure of patriarchal service, and to lay blame within our profession would be totally disingenuous, and, well, wrong. In a study of instruction coordinators my colleague Jo Gadsby and I did a few years ago, we found that so many of the problematic interactions instruction coordinators had with faculty were predicated on a dismissal of our work. One instruction coordinator, when introduced as a new member on a university-wide assessment committee was referred to as “one of the library girls.” That offhand remark is demeaning and disrespectful in such a complex, concise way. It highlights the coordinator’s femininity, equates it with the library, and dismisses her work, the work of teaching librarianship, as unimportant and not “real work.”
But our teaching is work. Our teaching may be a service (and that’s a point I think, that is still up for debate), but if it is, then we are teaching in service to our students and to furthering the ideals of education. It’s a service in the same way that faculty who teach perform a service in the name of facilitating learning, and it is not work that should be dismissed.
Structure #2 – Liminality of Librarians as Educators OR The Centrality of the Classroom
Let’s set aside service for now and look at a second structure: The Centrality of the Classroom in Higher Education and how that sets us, as teaching librarians apart in a liminal space. The entire higher educational experience is built on the classroom (virtual or physical). I use classroom as a stand-in for credit-bearing course because I like naming things other things, but also because, like a brick wall, there is something material about the credit-bearing course and our exclusion from it. It’s the microenvironment where learning is centered; anything else from the library to the writing center to residence life is co-curricular or ancillary. So what happens when the university is built on the classroom but you don’t have one? As teaching librarians we operate outside the day-to-day sphere of influence of most of the teaching and learning that takes place on our campus. I realize that’s a generalization. There may be many of you in this classroom who teach credit-bearing courses at your institutions. But unfortunately that’s not the norm across the profession and more often than not when we talk about our teaching, we talk about the only kind of teaching available to us:
Call it a one- two- or three- shot. Call it the guest lecture model. Call it embedded librarianship. They are all different ways of saying that our connection to students within the structure of the classroom is mediated.
I will never forget Annie Pho, teaching librarian extraordinaire, at her 2015 LOEX presentation, where she referred to librarians in the context of teaching as vampires. “We have to wait to be invited in.” It’s such a perfect way to sum up our predicament. We have an amazing body of knowledge and expertise around information literacy, pedagogy, assessment and increasingly, critical theory. We understand the educational landscapes of our institutions. We have an interdisciplinary understanding of research and scholarship. But we lack ownership of a piece of the curriculum of which we are a part. I taught for 6 years at a small liberal arts college where information literacy was one of the school’s “four core liberal arts skills.” Yet even with that explicit mention in the college curriculum I initially struggled to prove myself worthy of teaching guest lectures in my subject area of expertise.
I want to say that information literacy belongs to everyone (doubly so for critical information literacy). I find myself nodding along to Alison Hicks’ call for a sociocultural perspective on information literacy, or the idea that communities, contexts, and disciplines shape “what information literacy looks and feels like” (2018, p. 71) But I also worry how this nuanced and much needed approach to information will impact us as teachers. The space we have to call our own–the library–is already an intimate public sphere. It belongs, in theory, to everyone. I want information literacy to be approached in a similarly, open, non-exclusionary way, but then where is the space available where I, as a teaching librarian, can exist?
I would be lying if I didn’t say there are times that I find comfort in this liminality. We exist outside the classroom structure. We don’t have to grade. We can provide teaching, support, and guidance to learners in a non-threatening, low-stakes environment. Our status and expertise is often overlooked and, as Maria Accardi reminds us, that means we can just fly under the radar and try new things in our teaching and assessment that our faculty counterparts may not have the freedom to do (2009). And we do this! The kind of teaching we do within this existing structure is amazing, but it has no place to grow and expand unless we continue to be let into the classroom in whatever way we can make that happen, and sometimes we can’t, especially when a far greater structural issue exists.
Structure #3 – The EduFactory aka Late Stage Capitalism in Higher Education
In my own research about teaching librarians’ relationships with faculty, librarian participants wanted to be collaborators, co-teachers, co-educators, or educational consultants. When asked about the reality of these relationships, they were sometimes collaborators, but more often guest lecturers (or, on a few rare but rough occasions, babysitters). One research participant put it best when they stated: “[Faculty] really value librarians on some level…but it’s like your grandmother who really loves you, but always gets you the wrong gifts because they don’t understand you.” It’s a miscommunication of their value to us, and of our ability and care to them. It sets up an us-vs-them dynamic, where we lament that faculty don’t get us, and continuously try to figure out how to fix it.
For a long time I did the same kind of obsessive thinking–Why won’t they collaborate with us? Why don’t they get what I can do? Are they just being willfully stubborn and ignorant? Is it me? Is it them? Sometimes, yes. I don’t want to downplay interpersonal dynamics and the impact of implicit bias, ageism, sexism, and racism on the way librarians and faculty do or do not work together. But the more I’ve talked to and done research around and with teaching librarians the more I see it being less about interpersonal dynamics and more about a larger structural issue that exacerbates interpersonal dynamics, and that’s the expansion of neoliberalism in higher education.
Within this structure students are simultaneously dollars and customers–aggressively recruited and secretly (or not so) exploited. We see this in recent publications about ongoing enrollment crises at colleges and universities in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, where institutions are scrambling to bring in students to help meet their bottom line (Kelderman, 2019). It shows up at the latest Library Assessment Conference, where proponents of libraries using “learning analytics” data gleaned from students who don’t have the ability to opt out of its collection talk about the critical need to “save students’ lives” through this gross invasion of property (Oakleaf, 2018). The focus is on getting students into and out of higher education as quickly and efficiently as possible, seemingly for their own sake (less student loan debt accrued; earning potential realized faster), but really for the sake of the university, whose financial health and well-being relies on either a) getting as many students through their system as quickly as possible, or b) saying to lawmakers who influence higher education budgets, “Look! We graduate students on time!’”
This creates a work environment shaped by models of efficiency and return on investment, where everyone from the library to the math department is expected to demonstrate and articulate their contribution to the bottom line. This creates poor working conditions for everyone. Everyone. Ourselves, the custodial staff who clean our classrooms, the student affairs professionals who advise and mentor students outside the classroom, and the faculty who teach the credit-bearing courses we are trying to “get into.” Faculty are overworked–teaching more and more classes as budgets are cut and professorial lines are either eliminated or simply not filled. They also take on more and more service responsibilities, many of which do by committee what should be work of an office of full-time staff. And those are the realities of faculty who are lucky enough to be in tenure-track, full-time, or tenured lines. For those in adjunct or visiting positions, the precarity of their employment means that they continue to do more with less and less, often, as some of my colleagues in English composition are forced to do, driving from 2-3 institutions each week to cobble together a livable wage through various adjunct gigs.
I ask you to consider this working reality as we continue to worry that faculty “don’t want to collaborate with us,” and as we in libraries are continually asked to demonstrate value, prove our worth, and do more with less. These are terrible conditions in which to engage in meaningful conversations, much less collaborations around pedagogy, information literacy, and learner-centered education. As much as we want to work with our colleagues to embed information literacy in the curriculum, overhaul an assignment, or rework syllabi to include critical information literacy, where are we getting that time in the day? Are these efforts rewarded, particularly for faculty, who face increasing pressure from lawmakers to articulate their monetary value in either classroom hours or research dollars garnered? How does the adjunct fit in a one-hour planning meeting with us when they are driving from campus to campus? The structural systems in place in higher education are not conducive to the kind of time, energy and care needed to create meaningful educational experiences and partnerships. There is no reward for caring about your colleagues, no monetary gain from expressing care towards students (unless it helps with retention and graduation rates), and no spot in tenure files for affective labor.
No More Head-Banging – Dematerializing the Wall
I wanted to focus much of my talk on a discussion of these structures not to demoralize, but to validate. Our work is difficult, and it’s difficult not because we aren’t trying hard enough or because we need to overhaul our entire practice, or because libraries need to be reinvented (yet again). We are doing good work–amazing work, really, under the circumstances. I also wanted to highlight these structures because there is power in naming them and in complaining about systemic problems. To return to my analogy of the brick wall, I want us to stop coming up against it as we seek to do good work. I want us to stop feeling like we are banging our heads against an immovable surface and start talking about some of the things we as librarians and everyone in higher education can do to do dismantle it. We all know it is there, but moving beyond acknowledgement towards action is important.
And we do take action.
Subversion and Tactics
Teaching librarians are constantly subverting the troublesome and harmful structures I’ve just examined. In a forthcoming book chapter, Andrew Wang discusses the practice of tactics in librarianship, which “allow librarians to work within the confines of its oppressive systems while also introducing subtle changes with minimal risk.” We perform tactics every time we say no to one instruction request too many in a week, sometimes with a small lie attached; “Sorry, I’m totally booked on that day.” We perform tactics when we take that request to “teach them about the library” and turn it into a discussion of why certain voices are privileged in the scholarly discourse. We take this action when we hand a student a tissue after they burst into tears in our office over their latest confusing assignment and let them know it’s ok. We’re here to walk them through it.
We weave critical pedagogical practices into our classes, tap into feminist theory to create lesson plans, and find ways to teach and mentor students outside of the classroom. We find ways to provide learners with the kind of help, support, and care they may not otherwise receive in a system that views them as tuition dollars and data to be mined. We subvert authority in and out of the classroom on a daily basis. So how do we grow these subversive tactics into better, more supportive structures?
Recreating Structures (Relationally)
While in the depths of frustration, burnout, and at times depression, caused by what feels like these never-ending subversion practices, I’ve found comfort in two schools of thought: relational-cultural theory and emergent strategy. Both theories and practices were developed by women who saw existing structures–in psychology/therapy and community organizing/social work, respectively–as harmful to women, marginalized peoples, and human connection. The scholars & practitioners at the Stone Center at Wellesley College recognized that existing psychological models of human development weren’t helping them provide adequate mental health care. These models were rooted in a Western notion of the independent, masculine, human ideal, and were in fact, pathologizing women and other marginalized people unnecessarily. So they created a new model of human development–relational cultural theory–which emphasizes the primacy of relationship, connection, and intimacy in human lives (Jordan et. al., 1991). Instead of recreating community organizing efforts that were best described as “penetrative,” adrienne maree brown proposed new structures for organizations and activist efforts that placed them in “right relation” with the communities they hoped to serve and embolden (2017). Her recommendations for practice–emergent strategy–are rooted in afrofuturism, biomimicry, and humanism, and embrace cooperative, interdependent relationships and structures.
I want to draw from those two theoretical models that have very real, very practical applications to reshape the structures that influence our work as teaching librarians. Right now we are subverting these structures while still acknowledging and thereby upholding their power. We’re making holes in the mortar, pushing out individual bricks, or digging tunnels underneath walls, but we are still behaving as though the walls are rigid. I want to encourage us to think about what our work could be if our structures were malleable and existed to empower rather than confine us.
Fractaling Power Dynamics
Let’s start with the concept of the fractal, which I always found supremely fascinating as a kid and now, as an adult, holds even greater meaning. adrienne maree brown applies the concept of fractaling, which we see in nature in everything from cauliflower and ferns to vein structures, to organizations: “What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system” (brown, 2017, p.53). What this means for us is that we need to model what we want to see and permeate it outward. We dislike the power dynamics and hierarchies that diminish, dismiss, and disappear our service to learners and higher education, but we replicate those same power dynamics and hierarchies within our libraries, our departments, and our instruction teams. As a feminized profession, we don’t embody the feminist practices of equality, mutuality, and empathy.
So how can we?
Valuing our time
We can protect ourselves as people and value our work. We can set limits on the amount of teaching we do in a year, semester, week, or day. And by “we” I mean those of us in positions of power in libraries who can set these organizational rules, boundaries, and norms. I don’t want to impose more individual responsibility on librarians when it’s the systems that should change. I cringe whenever I see librarians on Twitter talking about teaching 5 classes in a day in a week where they have no fewer than 3 classes everyday. It’s shared as a plea for help, a request for someone to say it’s all going to be ok. You’ll get through it. But I don’t want us to just get through it.
A colleague of mine once said she wished she could adopt the model her doctor had for surgery: I only teach on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. All of us at the table laughed and joked about how that could never happen, but when I went home that day I wondered why it couldn’t. The usual responses popped up: Just think of all the students and classes we’d miss! What would faculty say about us and our workload! But we still miss students and classes when we teach ourselves to exhaustion and faculty may only be teaching 2-3 days out of the week. So….why not try it? In creating flexible structures that make it easy for ourselves and the teaching librarians we supervise to set limits and create boundaries around our teaching practice and pedagogical consultation and we are creating the kind of healthy workplace we all need. We are demonstrating respect for ourselves as educators and acknowledging that we are a valid actor in the educational theater. In short, we are demonstrating that we matter.
There are some library instruction programs, like the one led by Nicole Pagowsky at the University of Arizona, that have eliminated the librarian guest lecture model all together. It’s a bold move in a profession that still routinely talks about “getting in the classroom,” but one that reflects their values of collaborative education, integrated information literacy, and care for students. They are fractaling out what matters to them in a particular way. It may not be your way, but it’s the way that reflects their values and library, and it’s putting out a particular learning culture to their university. They are externally embodying their narrative through practice.
Valuing our affective labor
We can also work towards creating library structures that value the kind of affective labor and relational work inherent in teaching and educational practice. I say this primarily for the supervising coordinators, department heads, and administrators here and out there who may hear or read this keynote. If we don’t value the relational practice in and emotional labor of teaching librarianship how can we expect those outside of the library to value it? Most libraries try to adapt bylaws and promotion practices that mimic those of faculty in an effort to be seen as peers and professionals. We want to highlight publications and scholarship, major accomplishments made independently (no co-authors, please, or, if you must, be a first author), and Big Change. What if we changed our review structures to highlight maintenance, affective work, relationship and connection? It would offer a more complete picture of the complexity of our work given that so much of what we do as teaching librarians is less about flashy projects and more about fostering connection, thoughtful reflection, and iterative practice.
This requires that those in leadership positions in libraries not only value the work of cultivating learning but are able to share the story of teaching librarianship work as work to those outside the library as well. If you are a teaching librarian ask yourself: Can your department head, director, or dean paint an accurate picture of the work that you do? What would it take for them to understand it? If you are a director, dean, or department head ask yourself: How can I learn more about the teaching librarians do? What matters to the learning experience? How can I facilitate this important work? We have to fractal upward and outward for these kinds of practices to replicate and take hold.
I talk of “value” in a way that has nothing to do with the ACRL Value of Academic Libraries initiative. I am not focusing on demonstrating, proving, calculating, or articulating the (monetary) value of the academic library to external parties. What I’m concerned with are our professional and personal values and what we hold dear. Part of reshaping the structures that influence our teaching involves centering what we value and making that our focus. It involves asking ourselves what we really care about, because once we figure that out we can bend walls to support us and our work rather than impede it.
There is so much fear inherent in librarianship: Fear that we will become irrelevant. Fear that we are being rendered obsolete. Fear that we aren’t seen as equals in academia. Fear that jobs will be deprofessionalized, outsourced, automated, or eliminated. That fear has a huge impact on our work. It’s what we foster on a small scale, push outward, and replicate. It’s our fractal. It creates a spirit of defensiveness and a practice of reactivity, and it means that we are constantly blaming ourselves and trying to change ourselves for others. Our core is always reforming, but never intentionally, only reactively. It’s physically, psychically, and emotionally exhausting.
So what do we value, as educators in libraries? Let’s take a minute to think about that. Based on the thoughtfulness demonstrated at conferences, in conversations, through scholarship, and in the practice of all the teaching librarians I know, here is what I think we value and hold dear:
- Learners, whoever they may be and in whatever context they exist.
- Learning, via open minds and integration of past experience and connection.
- Our relationship with learners and their learning.
If that’s what we value, then that becomes the center around which our work functions. I know that sounds simple and almost trite, but I do think we lose sight of it sometimes. If what we are centering is the learner, learning, and the learning relationship, then we matter, too. bell hooks proposes the notion of engaged pedagogy, where not only the learners but teachers are empowered in the educational process (1994). It’s a way to ensure that learning environments are growthful, anti-oppressive spaces, and that when we facilitate learning we take into account the subjectivities of everyone, including ourselves. We all depend on one another to grow and learn.
That may not happen in a credit-bearing course where we are a guest lecturer or co-instructor, but we don’t have to defer to that structure. Where and how else can we nurture and develop learning relationships? In asking that question we can open up new opportunities for ourselves. Is it through experiential learning initiatives, partnerships with other units on campus deemed “co-curricular,” student research awards, faculty professional development institutes and programs, or mentorship programs with undergraduates? If we center the learners, learning, and learning relationships, we stop fetishizing the classroom or credit-bearing course as some kind of sacred space. It becomes yet another avenue for facilitating relationship, among so many others.
The Importance of Interdependency
When we focus on the learning relationship we start to let go of ideas of ownership and control. We recognize that we are all interdependent, and that this interdependence is not only healthy, it’s necessary. In our classes we teach students that research is not a solo activity. In learning and researching you are engaging with the ideas of those people who came before you and who are participating in the conversation now. Your peers, professors, librarians, family and friends all influence and guide your research and learning. It doesn’t mean your own voice doesn’t matter and it doesn’t mean that you lose your voice. It does means that your voice is strengthened in relationship with others. This is something we tell our students, but it’s a good lesson for us to internalize in our own work, especially when applied to labor issues in academia.
Instead of upholding and buying into a separate but unequal relationship with faculty, and library staff, we need to work and advocate for better working conditions for all of us. We see this in the work of Emily Drabinski, who has been an extremely vocal and tireless advocate for better faculty compensation, and benefits. The UC System librarians used their collective bargaining power for a better contract, one that increased their salaries and health benefits and, although they weren’t ultimately gained, created a conversation around the need for librarians to have academic freedom. These examples highlight the kind of work we can do as librarians do dismantle and reconstruct the walls that neoliberalism is constantly building in higher education.
We can continue to talk of collaboration with faculty all we want, but that kind of collaboration needs good working conditions to happen. What kind of workload do instructors, adjuncts, and graduate students at your institution have? How bogged down by service commitments and research dollar quotas are the tenure track faculty at your school? How backlogged are your library’s acquisitions staff when you ask for additional resources for a class you’ll be teaching? If we can’t answer those questions then we aren’t in right relationship with those around us.
Neoliberalism thrives on the centrality of the individual. It feeds off of resilience narratives, individual exceptionality, and the idea of the lone savior. It encourages us to push through and go it alone, because we will be rewarded in the end. We might, but we’ve also done so by at best, ignoring those around us, and at worst, exploiting or pushing them down. By centering our interdependence, we are not just negating neoliberalism, we are rendering it obsolete in our work. It’s not a useful or growthful structure and we have no room for it.
Conflict, But Make it Growthful
As we seek out ways to create change and reform existing structures, disagreement and conflict will happen. That’s ok. It’s necessary. Alana Kumbier, in her discussion of conflict through the lens of relational-cultural theory talks about the necessity of “growthful conflict” (Arellano Douglas et. al., 2018). One of the hallmarks of oppressive work culture is the suppression of disagreement. Those in power set the rules and tone for work and any dissent is characterized as being harmful to the organization (Showing up for racial justice).
This is because disagreement is powerful. Like complaint, conflict can illuminate problems and pave the way towards better working conditions and relational connections. If we try to disappear dissent, then all we do is uphold harmful structures, practices, and sentiments. Healthy conflict–conflict that moves relationship forward rather than tearing people down–is how we change.
It’s also important for us to recognize when relationships and connections need to be left behind. Sometimes we need to break up with practices and people who harm us. It’s ok to stop trying to collaborate with that one professor who never returns your emails. It’s ok to stop putting time and energy into a teaching program for a department that doesn’t include your perspective or silences your contributions. You don’t have to keep doing work that takes and takes but gives nothing. And those of us who supervise and manage: We need to encourage the people who work for us to end those practices and relationships. We need to empower our colleagues to do what’s right for them, too. That’s a part of learning through conflict and growing towards connections that sustain us.
I want to end this talk of structures, brick walls, subversion, and rebuilding, with a look towards better futures. I want to do this by exploring something that’s been on repeat in my brain for the last 3 months. It’s touching, profound, appropriate to our time here today, and most importantly, it’s really really cute.
It’s the ending to The Lego Movie.
I have a seven-year old son at home and this is his favorite movie right now and we watch it at least once a week. At least.
Here’s a quick summary: The Evil Lord Business doesn’t like what he sees as the chaos and confusion of people building whatever they can imagine with Legos. So he captures all the super creative types–master builders–and uses them to create instructions to build everyday things that everyone must follow. He then solidifies these Lego structures with crazy glue to make sure no one can change them. This little guy is Emmet, and he and his pals see the power and beauty in everyone building whatever they want, no matter how crazy, so they try to defeat Lord Business and they win! They free the master builders and everyone is able to build whatever they want, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous.
I bring up this movie, again, because I’ve watched it more times than I can count, but also because, I want to encourage us to be like Emmet. He’s initially a follow-the-instructions kind of guy, but grows into the kind of heartfelt thinker who can reimagine structures to be whatever he wants them to be.
You, as teaching librarians, who live the practice of education, connection, and learning everyday have a wealth of ideas for changing the structures that we work within. My hope is that we’ve started a conversation today that will continue through complaint, reflection, action, and ultimately, the reimagining of structures. Those of us who have power to make change can listen to those around us and enact their good ideas. And those of us with voices, which is all of us in some way, can share our ideas for reshaping our work. We aren’t powerless and we can effect change, and when try to do so together, we can make big things happen.
Thank you, sincerely, for listening to this mash-up of complaints and concerns, ideas, and theories. I hope that I can hear your teaching stories as I meet you and I know that I will learn from you today.
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