Sitting Around

I’m writing this from a hotel lobby in Orange County, California, where the National Conference on Students in Transition just wrapped up. I’ve got a few hours until my flight and the WiFi is fast and free, so I thought I’d put together a quick reflection…

I enjoyed this conference. Like, a lot more than I thought I would? I know that sounds arrogant, but I haven’t had a great time at conferences lately. What I think made this experience more interesting to me is that it wasn’t centered on libraries. I travel a fair amount as part of my job these days, but it was nice to get beyond the view of just academic librarians and talk about some of the broader challenges and opportunities in higher education. I attended sessions about advising, residence halls, first-year curriculum, transfer students, and a lot more. And more than that, nearly every session I attended centered the student experience, rather than the role of whichever academic service or department the presenters were representing.

This was perhaps best exemplified in my last (and favorite) session of the conference, in which Kathryn Wilhite from Kennesaw State acknowledged at the outset “there are no student voices in this presentation–I wanted to instead look at the language we use when we speak to students.” I really appreciated her honesty and recognition that her focus was still on the student experience, even if she was instead investigating what other people are saying. From there she shared how she had applied Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to analyze the rhetoric of communications to first-year students that had me nodding emphatically the whole time. (tl;dr: words matter, and sometimes we do a disservice to our students by not being thoughtful about our language.)

I also managed to connect with a few librarians and other staff who are working on research similar to what I’ve been studying with Erin Richter-Weikum, and it was highly validating to hear how the results of our study are similar to what colleagues at other institutions are seeing. This year has been a bit complicated, but it was genuinely energizing to be reminded that there are lots of thoughtful people in higher education who are doing good work to improve the student experience. Throughout the conference (a few presenters aside), nearly everyone I heard talked about how the onus is on institutions to better meet the needs of students, not how they had managed to change student behaviors to meet the needs of the institution. This is the correct tack.

Lastly, I appreciated that this was a smaller conference, which always allows for more conversations and connections. Although some sessions were more sparsely attended than what I’ve come to expect at national meetings like this, I had some really great, long discussions with professionals from around the country, representing just about every kind of school I’ve heard of. And while there are differences between institutions (“that could never work on my campus–we’re a commuter school”), there are also a lot of common threads. I heard a lot of people talk about the role of leadership, and the need for effective, engaged leaders. I also heard a lot about the need for faculty, staff, and administration to all work together, rather than relying on old models of siloed services. And, refreshingly, a lot of people discussed the role of higher education workers, and how improving the student experience also must involve improving working conditions for academic labor. Maybe it’s just the nature of this conference, but it was a welcome touch.

Unlike the Dodgers fans everywhere. 😛

Cite Zoe Fisher

Eighteen months ago I grabbed coffee with my department head. We had a few things to talk about, but the main item was the creation of a new position in our department. The person would be charged with challenging myself and my colleagues to grow as teachers. They would oversee new instruction initiatives and hopefully help our department and library achieve the potential that had always seemed to elude us in the past. My department head said “I’m thinking about calling the position ‘Pedagogy and Assessment Librarian,’ to which I replied “That’s a hell of a job title.”

There were a few reasons I came to my current library, but one of the biggest was that I would be able to work on a team of instruction librarians. I was enamored with the idea of eight or ten people sitting around talking about the whats and whys of our teaching. I had never had that available to me, outside of conferences, and the thought of it being a daily occurrence was worth uprooting my life.

In those first few months, though, it didn’t necessarily work out how I had planned. In a lot of ways, I came to see that this library was not what I expected. (And, I should mention, that’s probably the case with every mid-career move anyone has ever made.) But after the initial shock of arrival, as I tried to find my footing in a new place, I saw this newly created position as my chance to recruit someone truly exceptional to join the team and push us forward. Someone from the outside who could help us question our practice and do better by our students.

I asked three people to apply. I’ll not name them here, but I will say that all three are brilliant teachers and researchers for whom I have the utmost respect. I knew the job would be hard, and I went after people whom I thought would be fearless in their conviction. As luck would have it, only one of those three applied, and she ended up being the unanimous choice of the hiring committee.

It was Zoe Fisher.

I’m writing this now because today is Zoe’s last day at my library. For the last thirteen months she’s done the job we hired her to do: She pushed me and my colleagues to do better work, and did it with conviction. If she was ever afraid, it didn’t show, and I was consistently excited to hear her ideas and consider what they could mean for our students and our campus.

But it was a hard job. Spoilers: Sometimes people don’t like to be challenged. Sometimes organizations don’t function well, or at all. I don’t want to get into specifics, though I’m willing to bet Z won’t be shy about sharing her reasons for leaving.

No, instead I want to write about how much fun it can be to work with someone who is fiercely, exceptionally competent. It’s been amazing to have a sounding board just down the hall–someone who could review a lesson plan or an interview question or a conference proposal, and in ten minutes make it into something so much better than anything I could do on my own. But more than that, someone who could do all of those things with care.

“Care” is a word I’ve thought about a lot lately. When I think about the people working in libraries whom I admire the most, and what they have in common, it’s that they all care. Like, a lot. But more than that, their care informs their actions. They question things and enact change. They get things done. For all of my caring, I can only occasionally, if I’m very lucky, get something marginally significant accomplished. It seems like Zoe does something significant every day.

Still, caring that much can be isolating. It’s hard to be the only person in the room who thinks something is very, very wrong, and it’s even harder when the rest of the room won’t listen to the reasons why. For that reason, the last thirteen months have been a revelation to me. Now there was someone else in the room–someone much more courageous than I am–who was willing to speak up when something was amiss. Someone who could change things. It let me glimpse what our profession could be, if only we were willing to do something.

So while I’m sad to see my friend go, I can’t wait to see what Zoe does next. She’s an engaging speaker and a staggering writer, not to mention one hell of a teacher, so I’m certain she’ll keep pushing librarianship. For my part I’ll just have to do my best to fake the courage she has and speak up more. As for how to do that, I realize now that I’ll have to follow a piece of advice I once gave myself years ago…

I was at Library Instruction West in Portland, and I had just seen Zoe present for the first time. After her session, I went for a walk outside to clear my head and process what I had just heard. The content of the presentation had been about inquiry based learning and encouraging metacognition in students, but more than that, her arguments called into question large segments of how we do our jobs as librarians. It was a great, challenging talk, and after a few minutes of walking I sat down and wrote a reflection about how her work could inform my own. It’s the first three words of that reflection that I’m repeating to myself now, as I think about how I can convince librarians to rethink their practices:

"Cite Zoe Fisher"

Do Better

Something happened at ACRL in Baltimore last week. A group of people were criticized, but they weren’t immediately aware of that criticism. The reason for that lack of awareness is that this criticism was taking place in a discourse community that these people don’t regularly occupy. They know it’s there–people have told them about it. But to be a part of this community means, in many cases, devoting a large amount of time and effort to learning its conventions. There’s jargon and shorthand language and a lot of “inside baseball” discussions. Even if you’re present, you might miss something because the community is so dense.

For that reason, this community feels very exclusionary. It takes time to break in, to make sense of it. Lots of people quit, or take extended breaks from it, because it can be so exhausting. Sometimes it’s toxic.

There have been lots of accusations hurled at the community in the last week, with special attention being paid to their language and demeanor. Visible members of this group shared their thoughts in a relatively public forum, and others wished they had done it better. I understand completely. There have subsequently been apologies and reconciliations, though there are also continuing discussions of the need to recognize the core issues at work here. Is this really who we are? Is this really the best we can do?

The discourse community I’m writing about is “scholars.” The group that was criticized was “students.”

I’m not going to highlight any specific presentation or event, but there were more than a few problematic sessions I attended in which college students (whom you might recall are adult human beings) were referred to as “kids.” There were some other names used, too. And I noticed presenters who used diminutive language to talk about students also tended to center “scholarly sources” as being the “best” or “right” sources to use. I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that three years after our profession first began uttering the phrase “authority is constructed and contextual,” there are still instructors presenting formats as absolutes to students, yet here we are. There are issues in librarianship and we need to address them.

Luckily, people spoke up in the rooms when problems presented themselves. April Hathcock took to the microphone during Roxane Gay’s keynote to criticize our profession’s whiteness, and its propensity for filling spaces and centering white people. Zoe Fisher spoke to a panel about how their framing of “millennials” was problematic. Jessica Critten asked presenters if their support of Evidence Based Practice allowed for any critique of that epistemology. There were 3,500 librarians there, and we spent the week talking to each other. Of course there were also conversations taking place on social media during all of this, and many of those interactions have led to even more face-to-face moments that make the conference better.

Don’t believe me? Just look to what was maybe the best part of my week in Baltimore: seeing Sofia Leung, Jenny Ferretti, Annie Tang, and Kat Bell all ask questions of Carla Hayden. Their actions, which were the result of deliberate and effective organization, meant that we didn’t have a repeat of the whiteness that stifled the Roxane Gay Q&A. April’s influence and the subsequent actions of these four people made the conference better for all of us. They let the rest of us see what it looks like to Do The Work.

My point in all of this is that there’s still a lot work to be done when it comes to how academic librarians treat students. We need to raise awareness of problems, then follow through on correcting them. And as our discussions continue, I think we’d do well to follow the example set by April, Sofia, Jenny, Annie, and Kat–they pointed something out, got organized, then did something about it.

We can do better.

Wiretaps and CRAAP

It’s been four months since the election, and the rhetoric around “truth,” “facts,” and “fake news” doesn’t seem to be dissipating. I wrote about this a few months ago, though I’ve continued to be flummoxed when considering how to address these ideas with students in class, or in conversations with friends. Meanwhile the librarian profession has continued to congratulate itself and claim an expertise in addressing so-called “fake news,” which evidenced itself yet again in a recent article from the Huffington Post that discusses the CRAAP test.

For those of us who have been subjected to the absurdity that is one-shot library instruction, CRAAP is a frequently employed mnemonic for source evaluation, dealing with Currency, Relevance​, Accuracy, Authority, and Purpose. It’s a quick and easy checklist with a funny name, so it gets used in undergraduate classes all over the country by librarians who are short on time, but still want to encourage critical thinking around information.

That said, this kind of checklist solution falls so completely short of meeting the needs of our society right now. Why do I think that? Because CRAAP isn’t about critical thinking–it’s about oversimplified binaries. As students go down the list, they put their source into one of two boxes. The information is either “current” or not, “relevant” or not, and on and on until we get to the point of “fact” or not. And while that kind of simplification might help get us through a one-shot, it’s not going to apply in an authentic information seeking situation, where these ideas of “truth,” “fact,” or “reality” are much more nuanced and complicated.

How about an example? Let’s look at the Trump wiretap case that continues to fester. In his initial tweet, he states:

“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

This claim has subsequently been refuted by people in politics, media, and the government, though many others feel that it is a real story, and worth investigating. Which side is right? Who can we believe? To answer that question, let’s see if the tweet holds up to the rigor of CRAAP:

  • Currency: Trump mentions that he “just found out,” so the news is at least current to him. He also situates the event as taking place in 2016, during the campaign, which makes it germane to the current discussion.
  • Relevance: Amidst discussions of executive power overreach and meddling in the presidential election, this is highly relevant. Likewise, this is a primary source, coming directly from one of the people involved in the story.
  • Accuracy: This person receives daily intelligence briefings. Unfortunately these are classified, so we can’t easily corroborate them at this time, but we have to consider that he might very well have accurate information, leaving us with insufficient evidence to judge otherwise.
  • Authority: Beyond the daily intelligence briefings and team of advisors, he’s the President of the United States. His office imbues him with authority.
  • Purpose: He’s informing the public of misconduct executed by his predecessor. The country and the world have been following his election closely, and this revelation has the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the Obama administration.

Based on this analysis, Trump’s tweet accusing Obama of wiretapping him is a “credible source,” and worth believing. Only thing is… I don’t believe it, and I know I’m not alone. So where does it leave us? What happens when there’s information that CRAAP says is “credible,” but we refuse to believe it?

It’s worth spending some time with that last question, because it calls into question the entire institution of “evaluating sources.” If we insist on oversimplifying, and employing binaries, we’re going to end up in situations where the evaluation says one thing, but we’ll continue to believe the other. I suspect our students end up in that place on a regular basis when we talk about “credibility” these days, though I also suspect these conflicts about information have always been there. And while they aren’t all necessarily politically charged, the current political climate has brought them to the fore.

So what’s next? It’s easy enough to say “don’t use CRAAP,” but how should we talk about these things in class?

For my part, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about the concept of “authority.” Of all the factors considered within CRAAP, the idea that authority is a binary is especially galling. And with each escalation of Trump’s policies, the reinforcement of that binary becomes more and more dangerous.

Consider this statement from a member of Congress. While lambasting journalists and defending Trump, he says that it’s “[b]etter to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” My interpretation of this sentiment is that the state would like to arbitrate what’s true or factual. They are positioning themselves in a binary in which it’s either coming from the government or else it’s fake. In this situation, librarians saying “anything that ends in .gov is reliable” are now complicit.

Instead of this approach, we need to wade into the messiness. We need to openly acknowledge that what we accept as “authoritative,” and subsequently “true,” is a very personal position. Call it a “bullshit detector” or “critical consciousness” or whatever, but our ability to evaluate information, and explain that process to others, has to involve recognizing that we, and the people with whom we interact, are whole human beings, each of us bringing a set of lived experiences that are unique. And those experiences, as much as anything, are going to drive what we accept as “real.”

All the checklists in the world aren’t going to change that.

The End of 2016

I’m writing this on my last workday of the year, so I thought I would look back on what 2016 meant for me personally and professionally. It’s all very odd–in a year I suspect will carry notoriety for the next several decades, I had a lot of successes. While the headlines seemed to go from bad, to worse, to all-out surreal, life and libraries kept going. I got into a pattern of waking up, reading the news, becoming terrified, then commuting to work and doing my job. I’d teach a class or two, go to some meetings, work on a few projects, then go home and yell or cry at the nightly news. It’s a weird mixture of privilege, numbness, and routine that marked this year, and I’m not quite sure what comes next. Still, I want to look back on the high points.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the nice things that happened in 2016:

  • After a rocky first year, I started to feel like I was making a difference at my job. We were able to move the needle on developing new curriculum, and we’ve begun consulting with faculty across campus to change some of their perceptions of what we can and should be doing as librarians. It’s been so much slower than I could have anticipated when I started here eighteen months ago, but we’re starting to build momentum, helped in no small part by some excellent hiring decisions this year. Next year will see two more faculty hires in my department, and I can’t wait to see what energy and ideas they bring with them.
  • I traveled to a lot of conferences, and was able to see and do remarkable things. I ate cactus with a bunch of critlib friends in Tucson. I gave a keynote presentation in San Francisco, then walked along Ocean Beach in Golden Gate Park. I stayed in a yurt just outside of Moab and showed up at Library Instruction West with red dirt under my fingernails. Then I ended my presentation year with a trip to Orlando, a place that had a huge influence on my teenage years, but that I hadn’t seen in a decade. I never imagined I would have these opportunities as a librarian, and know that years like this one are rare, so I’ve done my best to savor it.
  • I learned from a lot of really, really smart people. In a year full of amazing work, my highlights remain Dave Hudson’s keynote from CLAPS, along with April Hathcock’s blog that came shortly thereafter. I also continue to be in awe of the brilliance of my friend and collaborator Jessica Critten, who said and wrote some stunning things in 2016.
  • Seeing three graduate assistants I’ve supervised get hired as full-time librarians. As I’ve developed as a librarian and begun supervising MLIS students, I’ve tried hard to demystify the job search process and do whatever I can to help them get that first professional job, which I know can be a daunting experience.

Still, underneath all of these, I’ve felt a persistent sense of concern, doubt, frustration, and terror. Part of that lunch in Tucson involved discussing with friends from outside the U.S. an election scenario that seemed impossible at the time, but has now come to pass. The trip to Orlando happened just a couple of weeks after the shooting at Pulse. I’ve been advising MLIS students through a job search process I know to be broken, and I find myself explaining archaic rules and exclusionary policies. Dave, April, Jess, and a hundred other librarians have all written and said things that point to deep flaws within librarianship, and yet the ALA seems to be leading us deeper in a dangerous and wrong direction.

And so I find myself trying to navigate the tension between things that are going well, and the simultaneous reality that things are going to hell. It’s an exhausting exercise. It’s exhausting to hear students express fears in one setting, then hear administrators deny those feelings in meetings a week later. It’s exhausting to meet with campus departments who say “we agree with what you’re trying to do, but we’re not going to help you.” It’s exhausting to hear calls for nuance and critical thinking met with infographic and checklist solutions.

If there’s been a motif for my blog over the last couple of years, it’s the phrase “I’m not sure what comes next,” and that accurately summarizes my sentiments here at the end of the year. I do know that 2017 is coming. I know that a lot of people are going to stand up for what they believe in. I know that a lot of things are going to change.

I also know that we’re not going into this alone. My weird little corner of librarianship includes some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life, and I know that there are other weird little corners of the world with still more brilliant people. I also know that brilliance isn’t enough. There are power dynamics that were exposed this year that I can’t comprehend, other than to know that they are more powerful than I am.

I hope they’re not more powerful than we are.