The Cafe across the Street

As I’m writing this the last few librarians visiting Denver for ALA Midwinter are finishing up their remaining obligations and getting ready to head home. In my case I’m back at work, just a few short blocks from the Convention Center that hosted us for the last several days, sorting through my handwritten notes and Twitter timeline to see if I can get a better sense of what I learned.

This was my first Midwinter, and will likely be my last for a while. I had been told in the past that this conference was much more focused on committee work and the “business” of running ALA, and that held true. I moderated a meeting of the ACRL First Year Experience Discussion Group, as well as attended a few other Interest and Discussion Group sessions, then effectively ended my “official” conference on Sunday afternoon with the President’s Program debating whether or not libraries are “neutral.” (They’re not, by the way.)

What set this conference apart from my previous ones was the number of “unofficial” events I attended–coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks–all taking place outside of the conference but still filled with discussions of libraries. After mulling it over, I think these extracurricular meetings were the result of a couple of factors. The first reason was that the conference took place in my home of Denver, and I was trying to show friends and colleagues some of what the city has to offer. The second reason, and this is the one I’ve been slow to realize, is that I now know a whole lot more people who work in libraries than I did a few years ago. Conferences like this one are our chance to catch-up and compare notes, and that sort of interaction is more often best conducted in the cafe across the street from the conference, rather than at the conference itself.

It’s that last point that’s drawn my attention. Something that struck me about Midwinter was that the crowd in the Convention Center skewed older and more experienced than what I typically see at Annual or ACRL. I saw a lot more people with titles like “Director” or “Dean,” and I consequently heard more people make statements that started with “What I have people in my library do is…” This isn’t inherently problematic, considering the committee-focused nature of the conference, and I honestly found it really valuable. It gave me a better awareness of administrative practices throughout the profession.

At the same time, I noticed that the crowd outside of the conference–the people meeting at the cafes and restaurants–skewed much younger. I attended a #critlib meet-up on Monday morning where I met several current MLIS students, as well as a few people in their first year or two of professional library work, and listened as they talked about their grad programs and upcoming job searches. This experience was equally valuable in that it reminded me of the common concerns of new librarians, as well as let me see that the discussions around this idea of “critical librarianship” are continuing with the next wave of library workers.

Still, I would have liked to have seen more interaction between these groups. I attended a few sessions where there were both grad students and library directors in the room, but those sessions tended to only include the voices of the latter. Which brings me to my main point: It’s incumbent upon those who are more established in the profession (like me) to get into more rooms with those with less experience. Then, once we’re there, we need to stay quiet and listen. We need to tell other established people to stay quiet and listen. If you have to talk, use that chance to ask thoughtful questions, then stay quiet and listen.

If there’s been a theme in librarianship for the last few months, it’s been discussions of “the pipeline,” by which I think people mean “the people who will work in libraries after us.” And for all of the conversations around diversifying the profession and changing the face of librarianship, I didn’t hear a lot from the next group of librarians in the Convention Center. They were there, to be sure, it’s just that other people did the talking and didn’t take much time to listen.

We need to work on that.

Winding Down

Last week my nephew had his first birthday. He lives across the country, which means I hardly ever see him (save for pictures my sister sends me from time-to-time), but that sting is tempered by seeing my other nephew, who turns two next month, on a fairly regular basis here in Denver. I haven’t been around kids very much, and it’s amazing to see how quickly they turn into people with thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears.

I mention these children, and their milestones, to remind myself that as this year comes to an end, life has kept happening. And will continue to happen, somehow? Someday these babies will be adults, and they’ll ask me about 2017, and I can’t imagine what my response will be other than to stare off into the distance and say “that was a rough one.”

But really, what happened this year? As I mentioned in Monday’s #critlib chat, I haven’t written in my journal nearly as much this year as I have in the past, so I don’t have much to read as I replay the year in my brain.

Here’s what I know: I managed to stay productive (likely as a means of distracting myself). I wrote a couple of articles, taught a class for-credit, read a lot about algorithms, thought a lot about phenomenology, and continued plugging away on trying to figure out first-year instruction on my campus. I traveled to conferences in Baltimore, Chicago, and Orange County, California. More importantly, and I took an honest to goodness vacation to France and focused on my family life.

Much like I wrote last year, though, there’s been a pall over most everything. I’m never more than a moment away from remembering what’s been happening, what’s happening now, what’s going to continue to happen. And it’s everywhere. Like, everyone is feeling some variation of panic, frustration, depression, or anger. Even people in positions of power seem furious?

The maelstrom has manifested itself in a variety of ways, not all of which I could have anticipated. I’ve cried in front of colleagues, supervisors, and human resources. I’ve sat in Ombuds Offices and spent my lunch breaks reading Robert’s Rules, you know, just in case. I’ve seen students walk out of class to preserve DACA and left dozens of voicemails for a U.S. Senator who can’t be bothered to answer the phone.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

Finals week came right on time. The library was packed with students in pajamas cramming for their Chem exams, same as it ever was. We’re still writing our assessment reports, still updating lesson plans, still helping first-years find those three articles, two books, and a primary source. The same routines are in place, and I’ve been keenly aware that there is still good work to be done.

The only difference is that now everything is completely different. I can’t believe I’ve had to qualify library use policies with “except for Nazis,” but here were are. This year, man, it’s been a scene.

And the tension is sickly comical. The world is all on fire or underwater, but I still need to find coverage for my chat reference shift. The President of the United States is sharing racist propaganda, but faculty still want me to talk about the databases. Yeah, the Tax Bill is devastating, but all of the dry erase markers are out of ink and there’s a stapler jam.

I would read the news between classes to see if my childhood home has been destroyed by a hurricane. I would pause a conversation about the likelihood of nuclear war to check my phone and see a picture of my nephew taking his first steps. I would look at trending topics on social media, see a famous man’s name, and ask that most 2017 of questions: “Did he die or is he a rapist?”

I mean, high-fives all around to anyone who managed to get out of bed today, and no judgement to those who didn’t.

My biggest hope moving forward is that my nephews will come to know “2017” as shorthand for a hard year, not “The 2010s” as shorthand for a hard decade. I’m almost oddly optimistic, in that once you bottom out, there’s no place to go but up… right?


Anyway, I’m excited to pack this year away and start looking forward. Part of that will involve writing more on this blog, so be ready, dear reader. And hey, all of us, let’s have a happy new year?

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.