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 —
“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 hegemonic assumptions 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.


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.


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.


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)

Almost here

This week is kind of like the week before Christmas for me. But a Christmas where I am super excited and at the same time super nervous because I really like the presents I made for everyone and I hope they like them too.

(That might be a little too much truth about how I feel around gift-giving holidays. And about how much of myself, and of others, is present in these pages.)

So for those of you who like to shake the box or peek inside the bags — here’s a teaser.

Why Autoethnography? 

That’s the introduction to the book that I’ve been working on (with lots of other amazing people) for almost three years now. It’s my attempt to capture what I think about the method and about our need for it (and methods like it) in LIS.

The book itself will be available sometime near the end of next week.  It’s kind of a thing for something that’s been three years in the making to become real.  I’m kind of having a believe it when I see it reaction.  But there are some hints that it is going to be real — see, isn’t it pretty?



Stay tuned – more to follow.


I wrote a thing. Over there –>

I haven’t written here in a super long while.  But Hannah and I wrote a thing, published In that Library with the Lead Pipe place.

Sparking Curiosity — Librarians’ Role in Encouraging Exploration

Lots of you know this has been a long time coming — we first talked about it in public, I think, at Online Northwest in the 2014 Snowpocalypse.  I thought it might be fun to pull together all of the posts about it here:

Online Northwest 2014 (with Chad Iwertz)

(Which also led to the Curiosity Self Assessment Scoring Guide)

Library Instruction West 2014

Oregon Library Association Annual Conference 2016

LILAC 2016

European Conference on Information Literacy 2016

This work has also been a part of a lot of the professional development workshops I’ve taught, and Hannah and I have taught, in the last five years.  In fact, we’ll be teaching on this topic (and others) the day after tomorrow at Colorado Mountain College, and we’re very excited.

AMICAL 2015 — It Takes a Campus: Creating Research Assignments that Spark Curiosity and Collaboration.

University of San Francisco 2015 — Fostering Curiosity and Inquiry with First-Year Students



the true reality

I don’t know if the world needs me to say this, but I think I do.  Because this has been bothering me all day.  Yesterday, I saw this on Facebook.


Do you see it?  Do you see the problem?


I’m not going to link to the article itself, because my problem is not with the article or its author. In my quick read it felt like an authentic and honest story, and I think it being in the world will probably mean a lot to many, and this person telling her story is not what I’ve been thinking about all day. But this is a topic that cuts deep for many people and others might have real and meaningful problems with the article. On another day, I likely will too. But on this day, I  want to keep the focus somewhere else.

No, my problem is with HuffPo and the framing. This is not the true reality behind adopting a child. It may be true, it may capture and share and communicate truths shared by many, but it is not the true reality. It is one of many true realities — one of many stories.

It’s not my reality. It’s not my story.

But that’s fine. That’s not the point. What is the point? The point is that we don’t need the true reality. We need lots of realities. Lots of stories. More stories.

You’re adopting?  What country is she from?*

Full disclosure – this makes me mad on a personal level. I think my anger goes beyond that, but this caught my eye and stuck in my brain because it’s personal to me.  I am an adoptive parent, and when I met my daughter she was 11 years old and in foster care. Since that day, I’ve become increasingly aware that a lot of people have personal experiences with this kind of adoption — and hardly any of them ever tell those stories in public.

A big part of that (I think) is that these stories are not just ours. My story also belongs to my daughter, to the people in her other families, and to all of the people who connected with her and loved her and invested themselves in her future. And while all of those people have a right to their stories, when it comes to my daughter and hers, it’s different. The stakes are high. Children in foster care quickly learn that their stories are only partly their own, that they don’t get to decide when those stories are told and when they’re not. They don’t get to protect their stories, to define them or choose which pieces to share the same way that they would if they were not in the system. In many cases, their stories are tied to getting protections and resources and safety, making the choices even less their own.

So making sure our daughter knows that her experiences are not mine to share is paramount. If this weren’t something we’ve talked about again and again, and if I needed to share any part of her story that is not already part of her public identity to say this — I wouldn’t be saying it now. Even if she told me I could. And I think many people in my situation feel the same way.**

Which is necessary and important, but means that these adoption stories are rarely told. And they’re rarely told while other stories — about infant adoption, private adoption, open adoption, family adoption and international adoption — are.

It’s not like there is no narrative about my experience out there. We all know the stereotypes about older child or foster care adoption. When we shared that we were planning to take this path, the same fears came up over and over and over and over. Some were grounded in some kind of experience (my cousin’s first husband had an adopted daughter and I think it was really hard).  Others were worse, and grounded in nothing specific. It got to the point where we didn’t share very widely because it was just too difficult to respond to negative and intrusive assumptions from acquaintances or friends of friends.

If there were more stories, sharing more experiences and more truths, this would start to change. I do believe that. This — the importance of stories and reflections on experience — is also something I think about a lot (and have especially been thinking about a lot lately). These aren’t new or unique thoughts. And they’ve been brought to the forefront and expressed better than I ever could — #weneeddiversebooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name just a few.

We tend to on one level focus on the importance of narrative and simultaneously undercut it on another. On the first level, we accept that we use story to organize and make sense of the world. We get that we use story to communicate and to collaborate.  We talk about the importance of stories in developing empathy and connections with the world. I mean, we even talk about the importance of story in instrumental ways — like in assessment and “sharing our value.”

But at the same time, on that other level, we don’t trust that our stories have value for what they are. We hold up generalizability as the gold standard of inquiry. News outlets entice clicks with exposés that deliver “the real story.” We focus our highest praise on fiction that captures universal truth. And that is what bothers me so much about seeing this on my Facebook all day.

Providing a platform for people to share their experiences honestly and reflectively is a good thing. But it’s not a good thing because it’s a way to get a scoop. Qualitative research isn’t valuable because it’s sampled and significant and generalizable, and HuffPo didn’t find the answer to this question so no one else has to ask it.  We don’t need to find the universal experience, the real story, the true reality. What we need is more.

More stories.


*My daughter is from the United States. Just like most adopted children in the U.S. are. Public agency and international adoptions account for about half of the adoptions in the U.S. every year. The other half includes lots of things — step-parent adoption, adoption by relatives, private agency adoption, etc. — and most of those also involve children from here. Only about 15% of children in the U.S. are adopted from other countries, and this number has been dropping. Still, this is almost everyone’s assumption when they hear we adopted. This is likely a result of many factors, including our age, education and income bracket, but I think it also illustrates how skewed the public conversation about adoption is. 

**I’m not sure the author of the essay does, which is another reason I didn’t link to it. She has a blog where she talks about these issues too, and I don’t read that so I really don’t know what her attitude or policies are about privacy. That’s what I mean by on another day, I might be focused on something else. Plus, you’re all librarians so if you who want to find it you will. 


The problem with context

“Judging from what you all, say” remarked Aunt Jamesina, “the sum and substance is that you can learn—if you’ve got natural gumption enough—in four years at college what it would take about twenty years of living to teach you. Well, that justifies higher education in my opinion. It’s a matter I was always dubious about before.”

— Anne of the Island (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

Annbook cover with the image of a young man in a brown suit seated on a rock wall, looking at a red-haired woman who is looking away from him, with the title Anne of the Islande of the Island was always my favorite of the Green Gables books, not because (okay, not just because) it’s the one where Anne finally gets it together about Gilbert but also because it’s a college story. And I’ve had romantic fuzzy notions about college for pretty much my whole life. So because I’ve read and reread this book so many times over the years, I’ve been able to pull this quotation out to liven up a lot of reflective writing pieces about the value of education, college, training — you get the picture.

But I’ve been thinking about it lately from the other side. From the perspective of learning that can’t be shortcut, at least not entirely. I was scanning Twitter one day, and saw this tweet from Emily Drabinski, who was live-tweeting a talk about context and information literacy by Andrea Baer.


In my work, I end up talking a lot about evaluation and authentic evaluation. Especially to classroom faculty and teaching librarians. And so much of that is tied up with this idea of context. The tl;dr version is blah blah tools like evaluation checklists suggest that evaluation can be done with a close examination of the thing itself, out of any context, and that’s not how evaluation works. Evaluation is social and tied to how valuable a thing is seen in community, to the rhetorical situation and blah blah ….

Anyway, I’ve been churning on this tweet and my reaction to it for a while. I keep coming back to two relatively recent experiences with authentic evaluation in my own research.

Story 1

My colleague Hannah and I have been talking about curiosity in libraries in some different contexts for quite a while now. We’re trying to write up a piece of that this summer, which is always an interesting experience — to write up a piece of something that is still actively evolving. Both stories come out of this work; this is the more recent. And it’s probably the more typical when you think about why trying to contextualize your thinking in a new field, or why trying to contextualize a piece of information is hard.

So, the more we think about curiosity the more we think about affect. Curiosity and uncertainty can’t be separated — to be curious pretty much inherently means that there are things you don’t know. Not knowing stuff can be fun and exciting! But in terms of research assignments, which are perceived as (and which are for real) fairly high-stakes assignments in a course context, that not knowing can be less exciting than it is scary. So how to encourage students to try new things, use new sources, research unfamiliar topics when they have good reasons to be wary about doing so?

As we spend more time working directly with faculty on these questions, we’ve started to wonder what’s out there about risk taking, emotion and writing pedagogy?  At conferences people have suggested to us that fields like creative writing and creative arts might also be interesting places to look for more. And as I moved through these literatures I came across a creative writer with a huge body of work in writing pedagogy, who engages specifically with the idea of risk: Wendy Bishop.

Now before I started digging into Bishop’s (substantial) body of work, I started doing the additional digging I needed to do to contextualize it. On the one hand, this was a necessary step to understanding it myself. Her work is several years old now, and I don’t have the chronology of the debates in this field at my fingertips. I don’t think you can really understand work like hers without knowing what she was responding to, in her field and in the world. On the other hand, this is also a necessary step to evaluating the work, to put this back into the infolit context raised above.  Because this is a field I am working in, or at least alongside, I need to know how the community understands the work to predict how it will be perceived, questioned, critiqued and accepted before I can decide if and how I want to use it.  And I knew from this article, that the answers to those questions might be complicated.

Rhet/Comp is a field I know a little about, not a lot.  And what knowledge I do have is uneven and idiosyncratically collected, heavily influenced by wonderful people I’ve worked with and know. Still, I didn’t have to start from scratch this time!  So I knew what to ask, I knew some things to look for, and I knew some of the complicating factors.  Long story a little less long — it’s almost 3 weeks later and I’m still working on building this contextual understanding. And this is something I know how to do.

I can use information tools I already know how to use to do it.  I can use reading and thinking and organizing skills I already have to do it well. I am spending most of my time in genres I understand and know how to read. I have a working knowledge of many of the theories in play, and I know how to find out more about those that are less familiar. I can pull books I’ve already read off my shelf. I can call on people who know this scholarship (and who knew this scholar) and just ask my questions.  Okay fine, I also have a full time job and other projects — but that’s pretty much my main barrier. Mostly, making sense of a new context or conversation is something that just takes a lot of work — even after the How and Why learning curve is behind you.

Story 2

Now, this contrasts a lot with this earlier experience with a new body of literature — which in many ways was the thing that sent us in this direction in the first place.  When Hannah and I first started working on curiosity and poking around to see what was there, we did so in a very interdisciplinary, broad-net kind of way.  We found curiosity talked about a little, but not a lot, in many fields. We found lots of definitions of curiosity. We found it talked about in ways both similar and distinct in conversations that didn’t seem to intersect. And most of these mentions, and conversations, studies and definitions neither grew out of nor directly applied to our higher or adult education context.

In this exploring, we came across the work of an educational psychologist named Jordan Litman. It wasn’t hard to place his work in its disciplinary context which, to be honest, wasn’t a context we were super interested in. Litman is interested in curiosity as a personality trait. He and his partners develop and validate instruments to measure different types of curiosity, the data from which can then be analyzed next to data measuring other types of traits, states and behaviors.

There is a huge body of discussion around the very idea of personality traits. And honestly, we didn’t want to get into that. Our interest was sparked by this research because it made us think about curiosity, and how curiosity plays out in research assignments, in new and different ways. It helped us see past our own assumptions and our own experience to consider a way of seeing and knowing the issue that we’d been blind to before. On that level, it didn’t really matter if Litman’s approach was the best, if his work was highly respected or marginalized, or if it was basically ignored within his community.  And even there, trying to navigate between the “marginalized because of quality and marginalized because of a less hip topic” possibilities didn’t seem worth it or necessary. Whether these curiosity types behaved just as the research said they did didn’t really matter.  For our purposes, the idea that curiosity can be sparked in many and varied ways was the important thing — much more important than whether or not curiosity types can be definable or measurable or predictable. And so we decided not to do the weeks of background context-building that it would have taken to really understand this work as it was being used by the researcher.

It’s a liberating feeling to decide not to do this — to decide that “this thing is valuable because it’s useful to me.” Being able to do this, however, also means climbing that How and Why contexualization learning curve. It comes from knowing what questions might be asked, and knowing how to justify our choices in our context. And it comes from a position of privilege and control over our practice, and from knowing our expertise is respected by those who share this work with us.

So what?

These cases look different on the surface, but in both we’re drawing on some similar things.  Both of us bring years of experience to this work, experience developed in different disciplines and different professional communities.  Hundreds of papers, presentations, proposals and posters, directed at different audiences and for different purposes, helped us figure out what we need to know to communicate well. We’ve learned — through trial and error, by applying effort and feedback — what we need to know to understand context.

When I was first starting out as a librarian more than ten years ago, I came across the Harvard Writing Project. One of the conclusions of that study that has stuck with me ever since was that feedback — delivered early and often and from many perspectives — was essential for students to learn to write and think. And of course, because students come to college already knowing how to write and think, we know that what this and other studies are really saying is that opportunities to write and get feedback early and often are essential to learning how to write and think in this new and unfamiliar academic context.  

And in the years since, this has been borne out over and over: students who get the chance to write and create for different audiences, with helpful feedback, do just fine. They develop processes for writing, researching, thinking, and organizing that are useful (and well-used).  They figure it out. They learn what they need to know to get the work done by doing the work.

I was talking to a colleague in Comp recently about some topic coming down from administration  — hybrid classes, or maybe Adaptive Learning —  and he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “you know, we know what works.  Small classes, lots of feedback, and lots of opportunities to write different types of things for different types of audiences.  And it seems like all of these things we’re asked to study and adopt and add to the curriculum are just trying to find ways we can avoid investing in that thing we know works.”

We do know what works, but it’s expensive. And this all makes me worry about information literacy instruction. Ironically, not so much about the tools demos as the beyond-the-tools conceptual pieces that we talk about when we talk about infolit. I worry that when I talk about evaluation in a one-shot, I’m inevitably complicit in suggesting that there are generic, context-free ways to do the kind of thinking that we associate with evaluation or creation.  I worry when I argue for context and for teaching these things authentically I am setting up my colleagues to feel inadequate or less than the kind of learning that only experience, and repeated, meaningful experience can enable.  And most of all, at the end of the day, I worry that we’re supporting the institution in an effort to successfully create a world where they can measure “gains” in learning in research and writing and critical thinking without investing in the infrastructure and faculty needed to give students the repeated and meaningful experiences that help people really learn how to do these these things in context, no matter how that context changes.

Which all seems to point to Aunt Jamesina being wrong – that college or college-like experiences can’t substitute for experience.  But that’s not it at all.  I’m not talking about sink or swim, throwing students in at the deep end to see if they can figure it out when I say they need lots and lots of chances to figure it out.  I still think there is a lot we can do to create structured, supported experiences. A lot we can do to reveal the unwritten expectations of the culture and context that new college students need to understand. A lot we can do to encourage the metathinking needed to make sense of those experiences.

And I think that doing so in a way that reveals academic writing as communicating in a rhetorical situation that is culturally specific and not universal – is helpful to people who will have to navigate many such situations in their lives. But I’ll admit, I can’t wrap my head around where to start with the kind of work it takes to meaningfully contextualize in the one-shot, in the LibGuide, in the tutorial. And my brain shies away from the problem altogether. Which may be something to work on.

I have no title for this

Which probably means I shouldn’t publish it.  But I made a mess of things on Twitter last night, talking to a friend about an issue with a context I didn’t understand in a way that was guaranteed to be misunderstood.

And I totally understand how I was misunderstood – it’s entirely my own fault. She mentioned some conversations she’d heard or read from new graduates talking about burnout and impostor syndrome and my mind went to different conversations I’ve had with new librarians over the years and made connections. But since I was talking about a different situation where new librarians rarely have direct experience, it seemed obvious that I was saying new librarians couldn’t have had real experience with impostor syndrome and burnout. Like, totally, glaringly obvious. Like I have no excuse obvious.

My only excuse for being so wrong is that I honestly can’t imagine believing that burnout and impostor syndrome aren’t experienced in graduate school, professional transitions or new workplaces. They have been a huge part (directly or indirectly) of every graduate program (and undergraduate) program, every job search, every career change I’ve ever been a part of.

My experience was different, however, in the conversations. When I was in grad school in the 90’s and library school in the oughts, these things weren’t talked about. At least not in spaces where people could hear. We didn’t have names for those experiences; we didn’t have a vocabulary to talk about them. And we really didn’t have a vocabulary that overlapped and connected with other conversations going on within the profession. Burnout or impostor syndrome weren’t being discussed by established professionals either.*  And when the issues were discussed, it was in the context of a necessary rite of passage — “we did it, you should too.”

So the fact that it’s being discussed in such a way that new librarians have that vocabulary to talk about it could be a positive – it could mean it’s being tackled in a meaningful, important way by institutions – but that’s where my own experiences make me worried.  About the implicit and explicit messages we send as a profession.

See, my brain went to lots of conversations I’ve had over the years about working with faculty and campus partners. When I was in library school the idea that librarians have to constantly deal with faculty indifference was a frequent narrative.  It was a narrative that I ignored – having been faculty in a prior life I knew that I would not have been indifferent and I assumed that there were people like me still out there. But when I started hearing it from new librarians in job talks, in practice interviews and in capstone projects — I started to get really angry. Not because these librarians were expecting to have these challenges, but because the solutions they’d been given were so incredibly problematic.

They were all individual — the narrative was that faculty are inherently, always indifferent no matter where you go and no matter where you are, and it’s ALL ON YOU to solve the problem. Which of course you can’t do, because the problem isn’t an individual problem. Still, everything was always grounded in individual action, individual connections. They would talk about strategies like taking cookies over to their departments on the first day of every term, or delivering a welcome gift to all new faculty. They’d invite said new faculty out for coffee, join the campus gym to make connections.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those strategies — but they don’t solve a problem that is structural. They basically accept that problem as inevitable, and advise the librarian to figure out a way to survive within that structure.

You scratch the surface of that “faculty indifference” narrative and there are issues of power, issues of culture — things that can’t be solved on an individual level.  And when we put all of the responsibility on the individual when we are in institutions have some control over how we define success, how we advocate collectively, that’s accepting that the problem is inevitable. These things are choices that we make, and those of us who have privilege have an extra responsibility to own those choices. Putting all of that on the shoulders of individuals really, really made me angry. And putting all of that on the shoulders of librarians brand new to the profession, really, really made me sad.

And when I started noticing it in that area, I started noticing it in others. Librarians taking on so much individual responsibility for situations that reflect institutional inequalities, structural factors and cultural practices. When I started working deeply on reflective practice and critical reflection — that was why. I heard so many stories from librarians taking individual responsibility for things that also needed to be fought at another level.

So when I heard Merinda say that new librarians were talking about burnout and impostor syndrome, my brain went back to those librarians who were set up from the start to climb Sisyphus’ mountain with faculty collaborations, not to the specific conversations she was addressing. I said then that I thought that impostor syndrome and burnout were different than the infolit example — and they are – especially in how they are experienced.

My experience or worldview doesn’t say that new librarians can’t have experience with impostor syndrome or burnout. It says that one of the messages they are likely getting (implicitly or directly) from those who have been in the profession is that those things are inevitable — an inherent part of graduate school, of working in the public sector, of being an academic — and that the responsibility for finding strategies to survive those conditions is on them.

I agree with Sarah, whose efforts to reach out to me while I was dealing with the emotions of this were so appreciated, there is a broader professional conversation countering that individualist narrative, and that  Maria Accardi’s blog and burnout project is a shining example of what that can be.

*I do wonder if shared vocabulary sometimes obfuscates too – when someone tells me today that their job hunt was a nightmare, I can be 100% honest and say mine was too. But that doesn’t mean our experiences were the same.