I have a new post up on ACRLog today that’s sort of the writing of my heart right now. I’m beginning to realize that a lot of my professional malaise is rooted in a lack of connection, and I’m taking such joy from learning about relational cultural theory with a fantastic group of librarians. If you have some spare time this afternoon, check it out:
Last summer I read Women’s Growth in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center, and it may have changed my life. It was published in 1991 by a group of women psychologists working at the Wellesley College Stone Center as a feminist response to traditional (aka clinically accepted, aka Western, aka masculine) models of human psychological development. It turned the notion of women as emotionally deficient on its head, arguing that existing models of development didn’t account for women’s experiences in the world. The Stone Center scholars, clinicians, and educators used their experiences working at women both in and out of Wellesley to describe what they saw as a relational model of human development, one where women, and really all of us, grow in our lives through relationships with others. What traditional developmental researchers at the time saw as co-dependency, these women framed as a healthy way of working through the world. Their development of relational cultural theory was, and continues to be (to me) mind-blowing. We grow through connections with others. We grow through relationships.
Before reading these essays and case studies I’d never really stopped to think why I’d internalized this idea of being independent, alone, and totally self-sufficient as being successful in life, when culturally, my Mexican-American upbringing always stressed family and strong ties among women within that family unit. It also forced me to think about ways in which I was forcing that independence, and really distance, on my son, who is just naturally one of those children who thrives on the confidence and positive reinforcement he receives from close meaningful relationships. Why can’t he take a bit more time to grow through our connection as mother and son?
This collection of course also brought to mind so much of the work that we do in libraries. I have a chapter in the forthcoming book, Reference Librarianship & Justice, on relational theory, the concept of mutuality, and reference work, and am thinking more and more about the ways in which so much of our work as librarians is rooted in relationship, and how those relationships can either be vehicles for empowerment and personal growth, or simply leave us unchanged and unmoved. There is of course, the issue that relationships require the involvement of someone beyond yourself, but in keeping with the writings of the Stone Center folks, there are ways in which we can move through the world that increase the likelihood of more meaningful, even powerful relationships.
The word empathy gets thrown around a lot these days, in conversations about everything from child-rearing to website development, to user experience research. What I like about the Stone Center definition of empathy is that it is a deep connection in which people are open to truly understanding one another. It is affirming and mutually enriching. It isn’t about using empathy for some kind of corporate gain like creating a better user interface, or selling more product. It’s about using empathy to forge a meaningful connection that will help both people grow and change.
But back to librarianship…
I’ve been thinking so much about the notion of the “information literate individual” and how our concept of this mythical person in many ways conflicts with a relational theory of development and also contradicts itself. In academic libraries we want to create independent, information literate researchers, but we also want them to know that they are part of a scholarly community. We want them to have their own voice and question the authority of others, but we don’t talk about the ways in which we all compromise both our voice and authority in our daily lives. We want our students to be able to do things on their own, do their own work, find their own information, but so much of our work is about working together with other colleagues, faculty, and and students. Our Framework for Information Literacy talks about communities of learning and seeking guidance from others, but I wish it also spoke to the need for relationships in learning and understanding the world of information, and the ways in which we as librarians can forge those relationships.
I’ll end with one last thought from the October issue of the SGI Living Buddhism magazine, which, in the way that all things converge in my life, was about mentoring relationships. The description of mentor-mentee or teacher-student relationships was so in line with relational theory. The bonds we make with our students and colleagues shouldn’t be hierarchical; the foundation should be one of “mutual trust” and “common purpose.” When we work together, through a relationship, towards a shared goal, we bring a piece of ourselves to the interaction, but we also open ourselves to possibility and growth. In those moments I’m happiest being a librarian because I’m happiest as a person. I feel as though I’ve actually connected to someone else and made a small imprint on them, and they’ve done the same to me.
I channel-surf compulsively. If there’s even a 30 second break in between a show’s segments I’m lunging for the remote, rapidly switching through extended cable. During one of these channel-flipping reflex moments I paused, transfixed, on a promo for The O’Reilly Factor. Politics aside (way, way, aside), the marketing tagline was intriguing: “O’Reilly is the leader in confrontational television.” I had no clue this genre of television existed, much less O’Reilly’s status as its preeminent host. Yet in the span of just a few minutes I was able to list a dozen tv shows whose ratings thrive on the spectacle of confrontation (I’m thinking of you Real Housewives). I count myself amongst their viewers, enjoying the cheap thrill of a restaurant shouting-match while safely hidden within my cozy living room.
I am by no means a confrontational person–my disapproval over service at a restaurant is usually communicated with what I believe to be my “angry eyes”–but I am beginning to wonder if confrontation isn’t a bit necessary sometimes, particularly within librarianship. Are we replacing the cathartic, sometimes helpful need to engage in confrontational discourse with staged reality tv show fights? Can confrontation be productive?
Battleground Reference Desk
I sometimes feel like an info-maid at the reference desk. Can I help you? Here you go. Yes, I can find that for you. Sure, I can hold your books. I want to be friendly and helpful and alleviate some of the stress and anxiety library patrons may feel, yet sometimes, the demands are simply unreasonable. I can’t in good conscience help a student find articles to support what I know is a terrible research paper topic choice. I can’t just point someone to the books on poetry when I know what they really need is an American poets anthology. I also refuse to let a patron get away with not learning simply because they’ve shoved a piece of paper at me and asked me to “find this.”
Confrontation (albeit reasonable and polite) is good. No one wins when I act like the reference desk doormat. Sometimes people need to be challenged. Instead of helping a student find articles for a 3 page paper on ALL OF AUTISM, talk the student down a bit (This is a great topic, but it’s really BIG. Let’s think about a way to narrow down your research). Instead of pulling books for a new library patron, show them how to use the OPAC while you look up their requests. Not every reference interaction is a teachable moment, but often times pushing back just a little adds a rewarding piece to your work. Librarians are a helpful bunch, but we aren’t doing our patrons any favors when we intentionally lead them down the path of least resistance.
The same can be said for our interactions with our colleagues. Libraries lacking sufficient internal discussion and debate will end up stagnant and out-of-touch. It’s ok to disagree with your colleagues, and more importantly, it’s your responsibility to give voice to your dissenting opinion. Assuming everyone conducts themselves with a decent level of professionalism, confrontation can be a good thing. It can mean the difference between blowing money on a sub-par e-resource or purchasing a collection of e-books most students will use. Debate can help spark new ideas, while surpressed opinions can only lead to feelings of resentment. In short, workplace drama, when done right, can be a good thing.
Scavenger Hunt Meltdown
Perhaps one of the most difficult things an academic librarian can do is confront a professor with a poorly conceived research assignment (aka the scavenger hunt; the use the index that’s out of print assignment; or the we don’t own any of those books review). Here again, by keeping our mouths shut we do our students, the university, and particularly this professor, a huge disservice. If the common goal of any academic institution is to educate students, then confronting someone with a less-than-ideal assignment is critical. Offering assignment suggestions incorporating existing library resources may be an ideal plan of attack, as it focuses on a professor’s potential to engage students in meaning research. Who can argue with that?
No Fist-Fights, Please
Although I won’t be getting into any O’Reilly-style shouting matches anytime soon, I think I can easily say that, done correctly, confrontation can be a force for positive change. My new goal: Speak up at least once a week when I normally would stay silent, seething. It will hopefully prevent some inner dialogue (Why didn’t I say____?!?!) and lead to much needed real-time discussion.