Behind the Paywall: Grading, Bias and Class Participation

This article was recommended all over my twitter the other day, and the topic looks pretty interesting.  So let’s launch a new (hopefully) regular feature, Behind the Paywall. 

Citation

Alanna Gillis. “Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building.” Teaching Sociology, 47:1, 10-21. January 2019.  DOI: 10.1177/0092055X18798006

The Access Experience

Paywall: Sage, accessed at my library.

I had a lot of trouble loading the PDF, which I blamed on my local wifi for a while. Seriously, for a college town, we have terrible wifi options in Corvallis.  But when the same thing happened a few days later, and everything else around it loaded okay?  I think it was clearly a problem with Sage.

TL;DR

Untangling everything that is wrong with how we measure and reward class participation would take forever. Not only do our dominant methods rely on instructors to be free from bias and have perfect recall, but they rest on assumptions about students’ willingness, ability and preparedness to participate in class that are deeply problematic. By continuing to reward participation in these ways, teachers — even when they do not want to — are replicating and reinforcing inequalities. Reframing class participation as a skill-building opportunity and building in robust opportunities for students to reflect on their performance is a better way to go.

Here we go…

So we start off by situating this paper within the context of teaching and learning in the classroom. We know that students who are engaged and participating in class learn more.  Knowing this, professors have an interest in motivating students to participate, so many of them grade class participation.

I am liking this problem statement in its recognition that the target audience has spent many years in school, knows that participation grading is a thing, and doesn’t need eight different citations showing that to be true.  The author goes on to say, yes, I haven’t done any systematic inquiry to nail down objective participation grading themes, but I also don’t have to pretend we don’t all know what we know.  And based on living in the world as both students and teachers, we know that there are two basic ways that participation grading works:

  • Teacher gives grades based on recall. A few times a term (or once at the end) they remember how many times each student talked, and assign a grade based on that.  
  • Teacher gives grades based on actually counting how many times students talk during the term. More complex applications of this method might count specific types of participation (asking questions, answering questions, etc.).

There are issues with both of these methods. Teachers do not have perfect recall. Teachers are human and subject to bias in all the ways humans are biased. And, finally, more talking does not necessarily mean more learning.

OH. I think this next bit though is why this paper is getting so much love.  It’s because it goes down to the next level and points out that the deeper problem with all of this participation grading is that these method of motivating class participation are built on several problematic assumptions: that all students are equally prepared to speak in class; that students all understand class participation in the same way; that students have all been rewarded (or not) for classroom behaviors in the same way; that all students are bringing the same skill set to the classroom.

There’s truly no reason to believe that those things are true. And there are a lot of good reasons to believe that they are not.

SO.

Gillis has three intersecting goals in this paper:

  1. Unpack the assumptions behind participation grading as it happens most frequently now.
  2. Re-frame participation grading as an opportunity for skill development, and re-focus it on more meaningful goals.
  3. Show the evidence that says this new framework is worth implementing in real classrooms.

Literature Review

Let’s unpack some assumptions.

We know student evals of teachers are super biased.  We acknowledge and understand that that bias works in both directions:  students’ biases affect their evaluations of teachers AND teachers’ biases affect their evaluations  of students.  However, when it comes to participation grading, we have a tendency to acknowledge that bias as a reality without really understanding or unpacking its dynamics.

(I’m going to summarize the lit review pretty significantly, and link to some key sources)

The research documents general biases that affect student evaluation: teachers tend to reward students they like,  squishy factors like attitude affect evaluations, and factors like race, gender, ability, and socioeconomic class definitely affect assessment in many ways.

We also know that we work in a world where teachers don’t always remember their students’ names, so systems that rely on accurate recall are inherently suspect.  But the issues with memory go beyond this.  Teachers are more likely to remember extreme situations (outbursts, falling asleep in class) than mundane normalcy. Teachers tend to remember giving students more chances to participate than students remember getting.  

There is also a ton of research that challenges the idea that all students are equally ready and willing to participate in class.  There are  a ton of things going into how students are socialized to understand their role in the classroom, or what appropriate interactions with teachers look like.  Some come from outside school — parents’ messages to children are shaped by their own experiences with school or authority structures, for example. Some come from the lived experience of being in school. Students bring very different experiences with consequences and rewards when it comes to asking questions, offering opinions, sharing stories, suggesting counternarratives, and classroom behavior.  And all of these dynamics — inside the school and out — are shaped by factors (including race, gender, class, ability, language and more) that create and reinforce inequality, and which also need to be analyzed and understood intersectionally. 

Then, we have one of the most pervasive dynamics in the teaching literature, at least in the literature that focuses on motivation and learning.  There is a lot of work in this area coming from psychology, using lenses that focus inquiry on personality. This shapes the discourse and produces research (and policy) that frames behaviors like class participation as the result of hardwired personality traits — shyness, introversion or extraversion — and not as behaviors that are built out of skills that can be learned. 

Selected Sources:

New Framework, Different from the Old Framework

“Instead, I propose that instructors conceptualize participation grades in undergraduate classrooms as opportunities to incentivize and reward skill building” (13).

This framework:

  • Conceptualizes participation as a set of learnable, interconnected skills
  • Recognizes and rewards skills that students already believe reflect their engagement in class (peer editing, prepping with classmates in study groups, active listening, coming to office ours) but which are usually not captured by “class participation” grades.
  • Encourages students to work in different skills simultaneously, and to start to understand these skills as interconnected.

Application (Methods)

This is how the author applied the framework in class.

  • 2 sociology classes. 1 400-level and 1 100-level.
  • 45 students per class.
  • Class participation is broken into 5 dimensions:Attendance and tardiness
    • Preparation for each class meeting
    • Participation in small group discussions
    • Participation in full class discussions
    • Participation in other ways (office hours, writing center visits, study groups, and more)
  • Evaluation is conducted using a “self-reporting goal-centered approach.”

Start of the term:

  • Students use a 5 point Likert scale to self-rate along each of the 5 dimensions: How well do you usually do in classes like this with this behavior.  They also write 1 sentence justifying their numerical rating.
  • Students identify 3 concrete, measurable goals for themselves during the term and write out a plan to achieve these goals.
  • Teacher reads and gives feedback on the goals and plan.

During the term:

  • Periodic, informal check-ins.
  • At least one formal self-reflection.  Students re-rate themselves along each dimension and submit a reflection justifying their rating, reporting on progress twoards goals, and adjusting goals/plan as needed.
  • Instructor gives feedback on goals and plan, and if there is a disconnect between the students’ self-rating and the instructor’s perception, meets to calibrate this.

End of the term: 

  • Student submits a self-report that is similar to the mid-term report, but in which they assign themselves a participation grade and justify it.
  • Instructor reviews the reflective material from throughout the term, and the students’ progress towards goals, assigns a grade, and explains it with written feedback.

The instructor reports that there was rarely a disconnect between the students self-reported grade and the instructor’s perception.

(Note, I would expect from my experience that there would be a group of students who would grade themselves too harshly, describing similar activities and evidence to other students but assigning themselves a lower grade than I would, or than those other students would. I wonder if that happened.  It would be pretty easy to re-calibrate at midterm).

Goals/benefits of this approach:

  • Reward a fuller range of behaviors.
  • Reward something more than quantity.

Analysis:

  • Did math with their numerical evaluations and counted how many achieved goals
  • Also inductively distilled themes from the written reflections.

Results

Skill building: Students came to see speaking in class as a skill.  Related to this — they were able to articulate progress even when they were still feeling nervous about participation, or still identified as “shy” or “introverted.”

Starting is the hard part, and then it gets easier.

(Note: most students focused on participating more, but some students worked on skills around participating less, or participating intentionally. These themes cut across both of these goals.)

Connections: The five dimensions of participation are interconnected.

Transfer: Some students reported that they practiced their participation skills in other classes too.

Discussion

I am going to skip most of the discussion because this is super long, and I feel like many of the insights are grounded really well in the rest of the paper.  But I will tell you what the author identified as limitations:

  • Having to rely of self-reporting.  This is the big one.  They tried some forms of triangulation, but most came up short for obvious reasons, like, “I am trying to evaluate things that happen both inside and outside the classroom.”   So far, in the rare cases when there was a significant teacher/student mismatch, course correcting at the midterm check in addressed the problem.
  • The experience so far demonstrates the need to do more, intentionally and formally, to train students how to participate in class.

Final thought

“Sociologists must take issues of inequality as seriously in our grading as we do in our instructional content, and moving toward a skill development participation assessment system is a good step in that direction.” (20)

 

on reading goals and codes of conduct

I started this post as a follow up on the reading goals I talked about here.  But then I ended up, as I often do, writing about something else. Which is not surprising — as I’ve been reading and thinking through these books, they’ve become an important part of how I have been thinking and experiencing lots of things around me.  And my normal process in this space is to invite all of you along on that journey, no matter how long it takes me to get to the actual point.

But I’ve been working this year on naming the things I want to talk about, instead of talking around them, particularly when my initial tendency is to very carefully lay all the mental groundwork I’ve done because I feel uncertain, which is likely to happen when I am speaking about issues of oppression or marginalization, and where my own experience and identity comes from a place of privilege and power.

Like many people, I felt a lot of emotions reading April Hathcock’s blog post describing her experience at ALA Council Forum, many people’s reports of the Council meeting that followed the next day, her immediate experience with ALA leadership in the aftermath, and her clear call to action. I was upset – these events are viscerally upsetting. I was also embarrassed, disheartened, and angry, wondering how many times she has to tell these things that we need to hear about the experiences people of color have in our profession. It’s not fair, and it’s not okay.  But here’s the thing, I can’t say I was shocked. I wasn’t even surprised. And to be really clear I am not saying that it was inevitable that these events would happen in this exact time and this exact space, but that the possibility — and the dynamics of oppression — are always there. And then there’s how we (a collective we, with a focus on those of us who are white, those who have some forms of power and privilege and safety in this profession) responded.  That wasn’t surprising either.

I have seen these dynamics play out too many times in the last several years, in too many situations and in too many (white and mostly-white) spaces. and the responses and reactions I heard and saw —

let’s wait and make sure we know what happened, let’s figure out the details, do we know the backstory? was there backstory? let’s talk about the personalities involved, do those personalities have a backstory? let’s focus all of our energy on the specifics of this one situation, I can’t talk about this situation until we all calm down, let’s talk about how unprofessional or uncivil these discussions are, let’s talk about how unprofessional or uncivil this person is, let’s wait and listen, it’s my job to listen and learn

— were so, so familiar. They keep happening.

On some level, I understand every one of these responses.  In some situations, I have felt the feelings that drive them. But now all I really hear when I hear them  is an effort, a multi-pronged effort, to talk about racism, white supremacy and injustice without ever talking about real change in the behaviors, expectations, hierarchies, ideologies, systems and structures that perpetuate those oppressions. And this effort doesn’t have to be intentional (sometimes it is); sometimes it is driven by feelings and emotions like fear and guilt and a need to feel safe.  

But this is why I have a lot of feelings when people bring up codes of conduct or agreements as solution to racialized aggressions or microaggressions in conference, meeting, workshop, classroom and other spaces. Those of us with some level of power or safety who truly want to dismantle oppressive structures need to be willing to work towards change, change that might threaten both of those things. That is work that will stir up negative, uncomfortable and even scary emotions, and protecting us from those emotions is not what codes of conduct are for. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used that way; that dynamic is also familiar. Without having the hard conversations, and making a commitment to work through the feelings that come with that hard kind of change, then codes of conduct or dialogue agreements will inevitably be used by people with power to keep themselves centered and keep the status quo firmly in place.

So that’s the thing I want to say.  Here’s some more about how I got there.


So, let’s check in on those reading goals. It would probably come as a surprise to no one that my record was mixed.

I made no progress on Common Cause. I’m still committed to finishing that one, but it’s in some ways the most optional so I fall into the trap of prioritizing other things. I made an early push and got beyond the halfway point in Intersectionality, and (probably just as important for me to actually learn and learn to act and actually act from what I learned, got a first draft of some writing sparked by that book out and into the world).

But most of my progress came in the Art of Effective Facilitation, which is probably because 1) I actually had to co-facilitate a dialogue this month and 2) I was (and it’s over but still am) pretty nervous about it.  I’m am so grateful that this training — OSU’s Dialogue Facilitation Lab — exists for many reasons, but one of them is that it provides a space to practice things that are both inherently challenging and also pushing me to re-think things I have done before.  That opportunity to practice in a supportive and learning environment is incredibly meaningful, especially to someone like me.

But, still, that means if there is a book I can read to feel more prepared, I am most definitely going to read it.

The dialogue my co-facilitator and I decided to practice with dug into the tension between freedom of expression and inquiry — and safety and inclusivity.  This is a topic that a lot of people in libraries are struggling with, and that a lot of us in higher ed (where those narratives about free expression and free inquiry and debate and the marketplace of ideas have a really, really, entrenched hold) are struggling with as well.  We thought it would be a good topic for a dialogue with the group of colleagues we have been working with in this lab, and we were right.

But I don’t really want to talk about that dialogue in its specifics here. Doing that would cut against the purpose of the lab, a purpose that I am super grateful for myself, and it also isn’t what I really want to say right now.

“But to what extent can we promise the kind of safety our students might expect from us? (135)”

One of the things that I read and re-read preparing for this dialogue was chapter 8 in The Art of Effective Facilitation, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens.  The authors in this chapter argue that the common practice of establishing ground rules for social justice conversations frequently emphasizes the idea of “safe spaces” to reassure people who are uncertain or afraid to speak about sensitive topics.  They analyze a case study to show that this framing can get in the way of the kind of authentic dialogue they want to foster. Specifically, they point out that there are several ways that students who identify with the agent group in conversations about oppression — students who embody some kind of privilege and power — can use these ground rules to shut down conversations that are pushing them to hear things they don’t want to hear.  

This is important. We hear derisive take-downs of the idea of “safe spaces” all the time in higher ed (and in the world, but right now I am talking about higher ed).  These hot takes generally follow a similar formula, punching down by framing students from historically marginalized communities (and including those who care about those students and about oppression) as too fragile to deal with the rough-and-tumble world of difficult ideas or complicated situations. This essay challenges the frame of safety, but not in this way.  It focuses instead on the ways that they will twist structures like ground rules, put in place to protect those who have been marginalized, to protect the status quo instead.

“Further, it is our view that the agent group impulse to classify challenges to one’s power and privilege as actions that detract from a sense of safety is, in itself, a manifestation of dominance. (140)”

Because here’s the thing — this always happens.  We create structures, whether they are agreements or codes or rubrics (or standardized tests, or holistic admissions processes, or objective hiring workflows), to make sure that everyone is treated the same, and that everyone has the same access to opportunity, and that everyone is operating under the same set of rules. And if we rely on agreements, or rubrics, or codes, by themselves we will fail.  These things assume that the rules that we are all operating under are just fine, that the people working within those structures are acting with intent and awareness and a shared understanding of those rules and expectations, and that if we just hold everyone to the standards that our rules assume — everything will be fine.

But if those structures aren’t fine, if the standards themselves are racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist — or if we don’t talk about and reveal how different interpretations of them are racist, or sexist, or ableist or classist … then it doesn’t matter that we have those agreements, rubrics and codes. They’ll be interpreted by those with power in ways that keep power in power.  Ground rules will be used by white students to keep from hearing things about whiteness that make them feel uncomfortable, because they will interpret “safe” as “free from discomfort.” Codes of conduct will be used to silence those naming racialized aggression because of their “tone”, lack of “civility” or “collegiality.”

It’s important to understand this — Arao and Clemens did not write a chapter arguing that discussion agreements or ground rules are a bad thing.  They wrote a chapter arguing that if we adopt those things uncritically — without unpacking their assumptions, without making sure that we share an understanding of what we are agreeing to and why it matters, and without accepting that if these agreements are going to do anything about inequality or oppression we will have to change our behavior, our expectations, our practice and our relationships  — then we will continue to reinforce frames that inhibit the real work we want and need to do.

Every. single. time.

Here’s a little peek into the mess of insecurity that is my shy-introvert-who-sometimes-talks-a-lot brain. This is what happens to my feelings after I talk in public — in a meeting, in a formal talk, facilitating a dialogue or a workshop, giving an interview, even asking a complicated question — pretty much every single time.

 

the six emotional stages the author goes through after public speaking (Euphoria, optimism, regret, despair, perspective and optimism) which are explained in full in the text below

I Spoke in Public! Here are my feelings.

 

  1. First, there’s euphoria.  This is a release of tension, fueled by relief that (at least most of)  the bad things I imagined could happen, didn’t.
  2. That’s followed by optimism. I’m focused on next time, building on what worked. In this stage I am starting to think about what went less well, and I’m still in a forward-thinking place.
  3. Then, regret creeps in.  My mind touches on, or returns to, something I wish I’d done a little differently.  This is sometimes a super concrete thing based on tangible feedback I got in the moment.  It’s sometimes a realization that something I said could be taken in a way that was different than I meant it.  It is sometimes a vague feeling that maybe I talked too much, or too little, or interrupted someone, or let a tangent go on too long.
  4. That inevitably sends me into a trough of despair. I start second-guessing everything about it. Things that initially went well are particular targets. I doubt any positive feedback I received.
  5. Then, I get a grip and start developing some perspective.  It usually helps a lot to remind myself that I am not the center of anyone’s experience, even in a workshop I designed, and that I should stop making it all about me. I also start thinking critically about the choices I made that I am worried about.  Some, I realize, made sense. Some, I realize, need work.
  6. And that brings me back to an optimistic place where I can start planning for the next step.

I co-facilitated a dialogue last week and I learned SO MUCH doing it.  And one of the things I learned was this – that this is what I experience and do.  As I was headed into that pit of despair, I had a thought out of nowhere, “it’s okay, give it a few days and you’ll have worked through this. This stage doesn’t last.”  That really helped.  So I thought I would put this out in the world, in case my tangled mass of insecurities might be helpful to you all out there too.

 

Begin as you mean to go on

admission-2974645_640.jpg

CC0 by igorovsyannykov on Pixabay

Every year, Shaun and I have a vague goal to see 52 movies, in the theater, before year’s end.  Every year, we start that process on New Year’s Day.  We honestly never get there, but this year we realized as we hit December, that we had a chance.  I think we were at about 45 movies on December 1.

We decided then that we wouldn’t see any movies JUST to get to 52. Like, they had to be a movie that we would at the very least go see if we were super in the mood for a movie and it was the only thing playing.  Because let’s face it, there are a lot of movies that don’t clear that bar.

In the end, we were stymied by Corvallis.  We are super lucky to have a three-screen indie theater in our tiny town.  Between that and the big corporate chains, a lot of movies come here. But a lot of them don’t come here right away.  There are a number of movies from this release year that we haven’t had a chance to see yet, and we ended up at 49.  We could have made it an even 50 had we seen our NYD movie on NYE*, but we decided instead to begin as we mean to go on.

Why movies?  There are a lot of reasons, big and small, but one of the most interesting to me is — because we work in academia. This is a job that never really goes away.  There are always things to read, talk about, grade, work out, letters to write, applications to complete and there’s no real workday to keep those things contained.  This is especially true for Shaun, but it’s pretty true for me too.  Add to that the fact that I am entirely incapable of sitting and watching anything at home without at least something to keep my hands busy, and movies in the theater become an opportunity to focus, together, on one thing, for two hours.  Even when the movie isn’t great that alone is worth the price of admission.

(We don’t get snacks.  That would probably bankrupt us.)

So, here’s the 2018 list:

Molly’s Game
The Post
Phantom Thread
Call Me By Your Name
Black Panther
I, Tonya
Game Night
A Fantastic Woman
The Party
The Young Karl Marx
Oh Lucy!
The Death of Stalin
Chappaquiddick
Leaning into the Wind
Avengers: Infinity War
Tully
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Disobedience
RBG
Ocean’s 8
The Rider
Incredibles 2
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Ant Man and the Wasp
Hearts Beat Loud
Leave No Trace
Sorry to Bother You
Mission Impossible: Fallout
BlacKkKlansman
Crazy Rich Asians
Blindspotting
Puzzle
The Bookshop
Juliet, Naked
The Wife
A Simple Favor
A Star is Born
First Man
Colette
The Old Man and the Gun
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Widows
Instant Family
Bohemian Rhapsody
Maria, by Callas
Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse
Mary, Queen of Scots
The Favourite
Shoplifters
We haven’t done our annual sit in the pub and create top five lists project yet, though we have started the initial thinking.  Films in bold are my current top contenders, but I reserve the right to shift things after further reflection.  One of these titles is still pretty squishy.
Overall, this was a really good year for movies.  There are usually more than enough contenders for a bottom five list and while that would be possible this year — it’s a relative thing after all — there is a good chance that some movies that are just fine would be on it.
I don’t do an honorable mention list but I do want to point out a couple more films:
  • Most Intense YouTube Marathon happened after seeing Maria, by Callas.
  • Leaning into the Wind is the leading contender for Imagery that Invaded my Dreams and Stuck With Me After I Woke Up.
  • And Instant Family wins for Movie Starring Mark Wahlberg that Most Directly Represents My Life.
Instant Family is a movie about adoption, specifically foster-to-adopt adoption, and it is one that I’m happy to recommend.  I wrote in this space a while ago about how these stories are largely absent, and that we need more of them.  I had some trepidation before seeing this, but went on the recommendation of others who have also shared this experiences, and they were right.  It’s not the whole truth or only story about adoption, and we still need more stories; if we get them, I hope they are done with the context and grounding and honesty of this one.

Continue reading

Blogging like it’s 2005

wordpress-265132_640I’m not a resolutions person.  I never really have been.  In fact, I have a contrarian streak that actually makes me less likely to start a new, good habit on January 1.  Like, I would want nothing more than to join a book group or take up a new sport and the possibility that it would look like a New Year’s resolution would probably be enough to put me off. I think that’s a character flaw.

Still, as someone who spends a lot of time in her head, the inherently reflective nature of the calendar turning over affects me no matter what I choose to do with that information. And one of the things I was reflecting on this year was a conversation that Meredith tapped into about blogging, reading and social media platforms.

I told Meredith at the time that one of the biggest barriers I have to writing in this space — this space right here — is the lack of reading.  And what her post made realize was that I wasn’t talking so much about reading time and space, but the lack of a network of other digital writing to read.  Back when this was the only real platform for sharing that now happens in a much more fragmented way, it was a rare week where I found nothing to think about in my networks.

(Or maybe it’s just because Google murdered Reader. I blame that for a lot of things).

But back then, when the writing was longer form, and my scanning happened once or twice a day on Google Reader (or del.icio.us) I made more choices about which rabbit holes I was going to go down.  And I had more information to make those choices. My To Read pile was still out of control, and I was never caught up. Let’s not pretend it was different than it was.  Still.

If there’s one thing Twitter is good for it’s pushing All the Things written by and recommended by All the Brilliant People right by my eyes and I have been feeling a kind of desperate desire to read all of those things for the last two years at least — a desperation that is really keeping me from sticking with anything long enough to do the reading I need to do.

So I think I need to slow down.  To make some choices.  To take a breath or two.  When I say blogging like it’s 2005, that’s kind of what I mean.  Be intentional about  here, don’t write here, but mostly write here without trying to keep up with the conversations an the thoughts and the torrent of ideas that is going on elsewhere.  I think sharing some of those choices here will let me feel more connected to them – and less like I should push them aside for the next thing and the next thing and the next.  Here’s what I am going to try and focus on for the next few weeks:

These are directly related to stuff I am doing and working on.

  • The Art of Effective Facilitation – edited by Lisa Landreman. Ideally, I will start and finish this one this week, because it’s going to provide some grounding for a training I’m heading in to.  Realistically …. we’ll see.
  • Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. I have been stalled out 2/3 of the way through this for a while, and since the pieces I have already read are already making their way into stuff I am writing, I think I need to buckle down. Ideally, I will have this one done by the end of the month.
  • Transformative Civic Engagement through Community Organizing by Maria Avila. This was recommended at a workshop/retreat I went to in November, by another one of the participants and I got my hands on it right away and loved it immediately. But I am still only ten pages in.  Honestly, it’s really fast and really short – I could probably finish this in an afternoon.  But I’m going to give myself an end of the month deadline for this as well.

And in the less directly connected but still important category — I made a public commitment to read this on twitter, and didn’t finish.  So let’s see if I can get through the rest:  The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how much better I do with regular writing time.  I’ve never been a “write for an hour every morning at five” type of person, and  I have never successfully kept up a journal.  Honestly, I’m pretty lousy in general at writing on a schedule.  But I do better when I write regularly.  My daughter has a sticker on her laptop that says “Write until the world makes sense” and for real, that’s what I’m missing when I don’t write — the chance to make sense of things.

I’ve tried a bunch of different ways to build that in to my regular work, and honestly, I’m not too happy with any of them.  I don’t have a well-defined set of reasons why.  But some of this has to do with public/private thinking.

Some of that sense making I need to do will honestly never be for public consumption, because that’s not the kind of work I need to do.  Some of the sense making I need to do will only make more sense if I talk about it with others.  I’m realizing that no matter what the platform, I don’t really want to the stuff in the first category in the cloud — in fact, most of that work isn’t even stuff I do well digitally.

But the stuff in the second category – I get some learning and thinking and sense making value when I write for an audience that I don’t get when I write for myself, or when I tweet, or when I bring up the same idea in four different meetings because it’s on my brain and needs to get out.

So that’s what I’m thinking.  And that is what I am thinking of trying.  I’m not resolving to do it, though, so let’s not call it a resolution.

untangled thoughts

The Set-Up

I don’t know what it is about Veronica’s posts*, but they always include a thought, or a line, or even a snippet of something that either unlocks a new thought, or clarifies something I’ve been thinking and couldn’t articulate.

In this one today, it was this line
Our emails to our colleagues always start with, “This week is CRAZY busy,” or “I have so much to do,” or “I have meeting after meeting; class after class.” I recognize that some of these statements might be genuine venting. People are tired and they sometimes need to share their woes.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking — um, yeah, what’s surprising about that?  And I get that.  I am kind of saying it too.  See, this is about me. This line hit me right where I needed to be hit in the moment.  I’ve read and thought a lot about these issues and questions, and about related issues and questions as these conversations have emerged and re-emerged over the years (in many fields and professions).  I have a lot of thoughts, is what I am saying.

In this moment, something about this line and the way it was expressed made me step back and think about all of those thoughts and conversations together.  Thoughts about the cultural issues that valorize overwork, and the ways that the messages we send, implicitly and explicitly, shape those cultures.  Thoughts about performative or competitive busyness, and the ways that we reinforce that without (and with) intent to do so.  Thoughts about structural and resource issues, about doing more with less. Thoughts about rigor and gatekeeping and mission and values, and about hegemonicassumptions and vocational awe (though that last not as usefully before Fobazi named it as after).

In all of the years that I’ve been thinking about these interlocking questions, I have focused on the parts, not the whole. I’ve been struggling with the parts a lot (where “a lot” means both frequently and  intensely) this past year as a relatively new administrator and especially as someone doing that work in a constantly under-resourced and over-performing place. I mean, it’s a true fact that these questions are many of the reasons that I decided to continue in administration after my stint as a (rotating) department head was done — not because I had answers, but because I thought the questions needed answering and I wanted to be in a position to act on answers, that at least in some small ways pushed beyond the individual solutions we often end up with. 

In the reality of management, though, all of these intersecting issues and questions create a tangled mess.  I pull one thread, and the tangle unravels for a few yards and then reemerges and intensifies in another spot.  And when I read Veronica’s post, it unsnarled some of those thoughts and that’s what I really want to talk about here. This is going to be interesting (to me at least).  I’m talking about looking at a big issue more broadly, but about looking more broadly at my narrow experience.  These issues matter for lots of reasons, they’re big and they’re snarly and they extend beyond libraries and beyond academia.  They intersect with other big issues. And I’m going to be ignoring most of that for something that is specific, and grounded, and situated and about me and my relationship to these questions in this moment. 

Finally, The Point

I realized recently, though I didn’t have the words, that one of the things I’ve been struggling with is seeing and feeling the difference between these different forms and drivers of busy.  I’m experiencing these things in a space where trying to survive busy coexists with enthusiastic busy and switches off with overwhelmed and unhealthy busy and those all sit next to performative busy, and social busy and competitive busy. See – and this is important — the point is not that there is some busy that is real and some that is not.  

All of these types of busy are real. They are. And all of them matter to the organization and all of them matter to me. But some of these issues are cultural and some are structural and there’s also a healthy intersect between cultural and structural, and as a manager I can have power and ability and positioning to change things but only if I understand what it is that I am changing. Because changing structures isn’t the same as changing culture and its unlikely that anything is wholly one or the other. 

The types of busy that we might think of as performative or competitive, that are driven by a desire to meet expectations or align with norms — tacit, overt, assumed, experienced — get tangled together with the resource issues, the unexamined inequalities, the problematic reward structures.  I’ve written here before about how helpful I find this idea: culture is what people do. When busy is what we do, when it’s the de facto answer to “how are you?” then it can be really hard to untangle those pieces that make the solutions way more complicated than “so do something else.”  

I wouldn’t have thought this to be true, and maybe its down to being a beginner manager, but the issue is this — when the culture pushes us to busy and overwork, we can’t effect real change unless we deal with the underlying structures that shape the culture.  But when the culture is like that, it makes it super hard to see those structures to change them — to see what they’re doing, what they do, to tease out and draw those connections in a useful way.  It does. It really, really does.  And here’s the other thing.  I’m part of the problem, and I’m more of the problem as a manager and part of it because I am a manager. 

I understand feeling the need to match the busy I see around me — to keep up with the accomplishment and productivity and — really — with the busy. Weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly — this feeling has only gotten stronger as I’ve moved into positions with more privilege and more power within the organization. Surrounded by people who do so much and succeed so hard and shine so bright, well, if I have a named professorship, or become department head or AUL, shouldn’t I be the busiest one of all? And I feel that and it comes out in the answers I give when people ask how I am. I emphasize the busy, the deadlines, the meetings and all of the tangible output of the work I do. 

For sure, I do have those times when I am up against it. Sometimes it’s self-imposed and the result of too much yes. Sometimes it’s drop everything all hands on deck because the university says we have a fortnight to do three months’ worth of work. But a lot of the time, I’m not the busiest one in the room. I usually have a solid to-do list, but I also schedule time to read, to write, and to think. I don’t usually miss lunch. I go home and I have hours where I can knit, cook, eat, do laundry, and watch the Olympics. And I see almost fifty movies a year. In the theater. With my phone turned off.

BstGN-_CEAA4OMB.jpg

That’s me, reading, knitting and hanging with my dog.

So I became a manager in to have the power to effect change, but having that power has pushed me to behave in ways that entrench the culture that needs to be changed while it also obscures those structures that need to be changed to change the culture.

That’s a fun conundrum.

And it makes me wonder, when I talk to people about not trying to do more with less, or when the university talks about work-life balance, while at the same time we all answer every “how’s it going?” with “I have so much to do,” are we just giving people something else to feel inadequate about, or creating some other set of expectations that they have to perform to? I’ve noticed, as these issues have been raised by more and more people in more and more contexts (both in my library and out) that people are starting to put qualifiers on their statements of busy: “I know we’re all overworked,” “I don’t have more to do than _______, she’s REALLY busy,” or “I have four deadlines tomorrow, but it’s self-imposed, so that’s okay.”

(That last one is me. I said that.)

Of course, I am not saying we shouldn’t have those conversations, or that there’s no way to have those conversations without just swinging that pendulum wildly from one side to the other. I guess I am just musing on the challenges of moving these types of cultural conversations (conversations I value) in the workplace to where they need to be if the result is going to be meaningful, to dig into the structures, and to create the kind of change that requires trust.

Which brings me back to those feelings. I can start with myself, right? I can start when I’m not under the gun, under the wire, and needing to vent. I can start talking about the things that Veronica talks about when people ask me how things are going. I can be honest about not being the busiest person in the room. I can talk about reading and writing, even when I feel guilty that I have time for those things. I can talk about meeting deadlines and projects I enjoy and saying no and saying yes. And then, when the busy times inevitably come, I can talk about being busy in a way that maybe doesn’t send the implicit message that everyone else had better be busy too.

*So, obviously, I can’t wait to hear more about Veronica’s book deal.

#stealthgoals

Last summer I was observing a session of ACRL’s Immersion program. My purpose there was to observe the teaching as a future teacher, but as usual in the face of smart people with interesting things to say – my brain went to town on the content.

#stealthgoals

That idea of secret outcomes just grabbed my imagination and I had to share.  It captured Dani’s imagination too and #stealthgoals was born.

Why #stealthgoals?  

To be honest, we think it’s partly because “stealth” is more fun to say than “secret.”  And “goals” is definitely broader (and maybe therefore more interesting) than “outcomes.” Both of us came from the teaching and learning world, but we have also both recently taken on administrative and management responsibilities and let’s face it, #stealthgoals are just as interesting in that context.  And things re much more likely to be “goals” than “outcomes” outside of teaching.

But a conversation earlier today, we also discussed whether one of the reasons that the concept resonated so immediately is tied to our experiences in that teaching role. In library instruction — and really in teaching and learning more broadly in higher ed — we are routinely pushed to think about our goals, our outcomes, our assessment from the students’ perspective, and to communicate that perspective directly to learners.  And as librarians we have to spend a lot of time thinking about what that means for informal learning, for tutorials or point of need services, for learning spaces, and all of the other parts of our teaching lives that go beyond the traditional for-credit course.

And a whole lot of that is fine!  When thoughtfully constructed and intentionally used, things like learning outcomes and rubrics are really great teaching tools, and really great communication tools. Some of our favorite conversations with colleagues and students alike have been sparked by the desire to really come to a shared understanding of why what we are doing matters.

But a little bit of it isn’t fine. Obviously, when it turns into a hoop-jumping exercise — when posting the outcomes becomes the goal, instead of a means to the goal — that can get disheartening. Maybe less obviously, though, we wonder if maybe sometimes we use that focus on the learner to avoid having the real conversations we need to have about our own agendas, priorities and values?  Does it allow us to ignore questions and issues of power and our place in our organizations? And this is a question that’s come up in many contexts, throughout the library — it goes way beyond the classroom and the teaching and learning context. If we limit our vision to the things that we think our users (or learners or clients or investors or stakeholders) value — what do we miss?  What falls outside of that frame?  

And, as you can see, this is where our subsequent conversations about #stealthgoals have gone way beyond the description in the tweets linked above.  

So we are thinking this might be an excellent topic for a panel of librarians, doing different work, and bringing different frames to discuss.  Maybe in public?  At some place like ACRL?  If this sounds like a conversation you might want to have, let one of us know.

Anne-Marie (email) (@amlibrarian)

Dani (email) (@danibcook)