Who Benefits?

Ahead of a critlib chat that’s happening today, my friend Lisa Hubbell asked that we take some time to write up how we engage in critical reflection, and how that reflection informs our practice.

For my part, I journaled for my first year or so as an instruction librarian, keeping notes on what worked in class, what didn’t, and how I wanted to improve. That was mostly driven by my feelings of being an impostor, and as I got more confident in the classroom, I journaled about my experiences less and less. I picked it up again once I moved jobs, because those same feelings of being a fraud appeared again, and now I write about work once or twice a week.

Most of that journaling is of the small scale, day-to-day, “here’s what’s going on” variety, and I wouldn’t consider it “critical reflection” (though it’s still very helpful and meaningful to me). No, the larger reflection I engage in, the question I use to interrogate my practice as a librarian, came from the brilliant Donna Witek, and it’s a relatively simple one:

“Who benefits?”

Whenever I’m conflicted about what I should do, whether it involves teaching or not, I ask myself that question. “Who benefits from this?” And if I don’t like the answer, I try to do something about it. I make changes to lesson plans, I speak up in meetings, I do whatever I can to make things better, even if only incrementally.

It’s also the question that’s guided most of my scholarship for the last couple of years. “Who benefits from hardline plagiarism policies?” “Who benefits from disparaging popular media?” “Who benefits from presenting evaluation of information as a binary?” I ask those questions and spend time researching them to see if the answer is “students,” though it almost never is.

And so I speak up at meetings and publish things and give presentations and try to get feedback, because I recognize that there are going to be gaps in my reasoning, and collective reflection gives way to new insights. I want to know if other people see the same issues, and hear what they think about how to fix them.

That’s how I benefit from working at a large library with a bunch of smart people, from participating in critlib chats, from attending conferences. I’ve been able to develop as a librarian and a person because of the ability to ask critical questions and openly discuss the underlying issues with other people. It’s how I’ve been able to grapple with many of the frustrations and disappointments that cast such a pall over 2016, and it’s what still gives me some shred of hope that we’ll manage to get better.

I know that Twitter chats aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, and lots of people don’t feel comfortable sharing things so publicly, which I absolutely respect. But in the interest of supporting my friend Lisa, and in the hopes of preparing us for whatever comes next, I really hope more librarians will critically interrogate their actions, and I hope at least some of that reflection becomes visible. This is a strange time for the world, and librarianship has been responding in strange ways, so I think we could all benefit from asking ourselves how we’ve reached these decisions, and if we really want to continue with them in our practice.