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.