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.