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.

Phase 1 – Autoethnography Learning Community

Hang on to your seats, folks – this is going to be a long one…

The learning community supporting the book I am co-editing (examining autoethnography as a research method in LIS) has been working for about two months now, and we’re heading into the second phase of our work.  Phase One was a learning phase, where we read and discussed things, raised issues and questions, and thought about what was, for most of us, pretty new territory.

Phase Two will still include all of those things, but is also heading into more doing – more data gathering, remembering, sketching, noting, describing, sharing, and … many more things.

We had far more applicants for the learning community than would fit into the the book and when we made those tough choices we committed to sharing our process. Now, I don’t mean sharing our discussions — this is an individual and personal method to learn about and it’s important that our learning environment stay safe for all.  But I do want to share the starting points.

The discussions were broken into three sections, with readings and other resources for each.  The first, What is Autoethnography?, was a bit of a free for all.  Everyone read a different selection of these readings.  The second, Ethics and the third, Getting Started, were more focused — at least in our starting points. We spent two weeks on each.  Here are the 3 sections, with the discussion questions/ readings we considered.  I also compiled a list of all of the resources that people recommended to each other as the discussions progressed.

I. What is Autoethnography?

Discussion Topic: Analytic Autoethnography

Discussion Topic: Evocative Autoethnography

Ellis, C. (1999). “Heartful Autoethnography.” Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683.http://doi.org/10.1177/104973299129122153. (paywalled)

  • Ellis C. & Bochner, A. “Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject.”Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd edition. Eds. Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2000: 733-768.
  • Carolyn Ellis & Arthur Bochner. Presented at the Fourth Israeli Interdisciplinary Conference of Qualitative Research (YouTube)

Discussion Topic: Writing the Reflexive Self

This is an example of AE using fiction.  It’s in this “What is AE?” section because the author engaged in a published conversation about that topic with other scholars in his field (nursing).

  • Grant, A. “Writing the Reflexive Self: An Autoethnography of Alcoholism and the Impact of Psychotherapy Culture.” Journal of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 17, no. 7 (September 2010): 577–82. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2010.01566.x.
  • The What is Real Autoethnography exchange:
    1. Philip Burnard published this autoethnography in 2007. (Link to PubMed, no full text):  “Seeing the psychiatrist: an autoethnographic account.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 14, no. 8 (December 2007): 808-813. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2007.01186.x
    2. Nigel Short and Alex Grant wrote a response, Written as a conversation. (Link goes to ResearchGate and includes full-text): “Burnard (2007): autoethnography or a realist account?.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 16, no. 2 (March 2009): 196-198. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2008.01348.x
    3. Finally, Burnard responds. (Link to PubMed, no full text):  “A reply to Short and Grants’ paper: ‘Burnard (2007): autoethnography or a realist account?’.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 16, no. 7 (September 2009): 670-671. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2009.01430.x.

Discussion Topic: Examples of the Form

  • Stanley, Phiona. “Writing the PhD Journey (s) An Autoethnography of Zine-Writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 2014, 0891241614528708. (paywalled)
  • Sparkes, A. C. “The Fatal Flaw: A Narrative of the Fragile Body-Self.”Qualitative Inquiry 2, no. 4 (1996): 463-94. DOI: 10.1177/107780049600200405 (paywalled)

Additional Resources Posted by Group Members

II. Ethics

Discussion Topic: Foundational Guidelines for Autoethnographers

We identified this as the starting place for this week – so everyone would have the same basic knowledge to draw upon.

Additional Resources from the discussions

Scenario Discussions

In this unit, we also discussed some relevant scenarios to get at some of the ethical issues from different perspectives.  Here they are:

Scenario 1: 

  • Researcher A is doing a traditional ethnographic study. She is examining the experiences of librarians enrolled in the Immersion program as a participant-observer. Her study has gone through the IRB process, and each of her participants has signed an informed consent form.  In the course of her data gathering, one of her participants shares a very specific story about a toxic work environment, where many of the details are about her (the participant’s) supervisor.
  • Researcher B is doing an autoethnographic study of her effort to build an instruction program at her library.  Part of her story relates to her work environment, which she has come to believe negatively affected her experience. Her experience building the program was affected in many ways by her supervisor.
  • DISCUSS:  What is each researcher’s responsibility to the supervisor being described as toxic?  How are they the same?  How are they different?  Are there other factors that would shape or affect your answer

Scenario 2: 

  • Researcher A wants to do an autoethnographic analysis of his experience as an abuse survivor. He cannot see any way to share his story/lived experience while keeping his abuser’s identity confidential, since identifying his relationship with his abuser would immediately identify them.
  • DISCUSS:  What is his ethical obligation in this situation?  Is he obligated to get informed consent?  Are there additional factors that might affect your thoughts on this scenario?

Scenario 3:

  • Researcher A is doing an autoethnographic study of their lived experience on the job market — an experience that was largely negative.  The job search experience coincided with a struggle with depression and anxiety.  This researcher knows that engaging in autoethnography will require them to relive some of those experiences.If Researcher A did a traditional study and observed that the study was having a negative impact on a participant’s mental health, they would take steps to eliminate that harm.  In this case, the researcher and participant are the same.
  • DISCUSS:  What is Researcher A’s ethical obligation to themselves as a research subject?

III. Getting Started

Discussion Topic: On Writing AE’s

Librarian-Related AE’s

Additional Resources

No training wheels, revised

Lately I’ve been struggling to come up with a short, easy way to introduce a complicated idea that comes up a lot when I talk about research assignment design and library instruction.  In a Q&A somewhere, I used the phrase “no training wheels” and that’s kind of stuck with me — but I’ve never really felt comfortable with it.

Basically, what I’m railing against here is the idea that instead of figuring out interesting, authentic and developmentally appropriate research assignments for new college students we assign the same types of activitiesA child riding away from the camera on a pink bicycle with training wheels and a white wicker basket we assign to all students, no matter what their level, and then try and make them easier or simpler with shortcuts like peer review ticky boxes or evaluation checklists.

A research paper isn’t a thesis, no, but at the end of the day it requires students to do many of the same things that the lit review portion of a thesis requires.

To do a good job, a student must find, choose, read and use information from sources — add in the “three peer-reviewed articles” requirement, and we’re talking about sources that are produced in a context, for a reason, to contribute to a specific discourse.  And most first-year students have neither the domain knowledge nor the understanding of that disciplinary discourse that experts have.  Which matters, because the experts rely heavily on both of those things to do all of that finding, choosing, reading and using well.

To make this doable, we introduce the training wheels I mentioned above, but if you’ve been around here for any time at all you know that I think those things don’t work very well.

So increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the answer isn’t better training wheels — it’s better assignments. But the metaphor has always seemed problematic to me.  “No training wheels” implies no help.  It implies starting off on the two-wheeler without any kind of safety net, crashing and falling and crashing again and hoping that the essential learning will come before the crashing destroys any desire you have to ride the bike in the first place.

A boy with blond hair is wearing a red hoodie and a red and black bike helmet while riding a green balance bike on an asphalt roadTalking with Lori Townsend and Krasimir Spasov at the recent AMICAL conference in Bulgaria, we figured out the solution — balance bikes.

See, the other problem with the “no training wheels” metaphor is that it’s increasingly dated. Just a couple of weeks ago a friend was telling me that removing training wheels is no longer the developmental milestone it once was. Balance bikes have rendered it moot.

Best of all, the balance bike metaphor extends beautifully, because it’s not just about recognizing that beginners need extra help. It’s specific about the type of help that actually helps. Balance bikes work because they allow children to learn and practice an authentic and essential skill in a safe way.

To learn to bike, you must solve two problems: the pedaling problem and the balance problem. Training wheels only solve the pedaling problem—that is, the easy one. Learning to balance on a bike is much more difficult, and a “training” tool that eliminates the need to balance is worse than beside the point. Training wheels only train you to ride a bike with training wheels. 

— Down with Training Wheels (Nicholas Day, Slate).

In other words, on balance bikes they don’t learn balancing for beginners, they learn actual balance — a skill they can transfer when they move on to fully-featured bicycles.

And that’s what we need when it comes to research assignments — we don’t need tricks and shortcuts that try and do the hard cognitive work of research for students — we need to break those assignments down and design new activities that let students practice essential skills and then transfer them to more complex tasks and contexts.


Images:

150124-girl-bicycle-training-wheels.jpg. Some rights reserved by r. nial bradshaw (flickr)

Balance Bike! Some rights reserved by Movement Six (flickr)

CFParticipation: Autoethnography learning community

This is a project that has been simmering along under the surface of some of the more public things I have been doing this year and I’m really excited about it. As we head into summer, it’s time to bring it forward and find out if there are people out there who would like to join us!

Who and What

I’m going to be co-editing a book for ACRL Publications that will dig into autoethnography as a research method in LIS. We are creating a learning community of authors to explore the method and our final product will be a collection of the narratives that result.

We are looking for a diverse community of practicing librarians who are willing to dig into their own perspectives and experiences to explore the question of what it means to be an academic librarian today. No experience with autoethnography is required; learning together is part of the process.

My partners in this endeavor are Rick Stoddart from the University of Idaho, who is currenlty working on a dissertation examining reflective knowledge-creation methods in librarianship, and Bob Schroeder from Portland State University, who recently wrote this wonderful piece at In the Library Wiuth the Lead Pipe – Exploring Critical and Indigenous Research Methods with a Research Community.

Why?

Autoethnography is a research method associated with anthropology, but may be more commonly seen in sociology (and it occasionally pops up in most social science disciplines). The method requires the researcher to do two things: engage in a deep, reflective and rigorous examination of their own experience; and systematically analyze that reflection, drawing connections to society and culture as they do. These analyses can take very different forms (narrative, scholarly prose, poetry, dialogue, etc.).

We are hoping that this book will do two things —

First, we want to join with efforts to push the conversation about research in LIS to explore how different research methods and ways of knowing can inform our practice. We think this is important for a couple of reasons –

  • Practical — we should actively seek out and explore methods that busy practitioners can do rigorously and regularly, and
  • Philosophical – methods like autoethnography can allow voices to be heard that are drowned out in larger aggregations of data. And, quite simply, like all research methods, there are things they do better than the alternatives. No method answers all questions, and we should not limit ourselves.

Secondly, one of the things that autoethnography does well is let us dig deeply into questions of practice, experience and identity – so we think that a collection of autoethnographic narratives about librarianship, collected in one place, will be powerful and compelling.

If you want to explore a little more about autoethnography – here are a few starting points (one paywalled):

How?

If you are interested in joining our learning community, and creating a narrative, please send an email to me (anne-marie dot deitering at oregonstate  dot edu)  that answers the following questions. For full consideration, we need to receive your reply by Friday, June 5th.

  • How long have you been a librarian (and how are you defining that)
  • Where do you work and what kind of work do you do there?
  • What intrigues you about this project?
  • What are some questions that you have about autoethnography?
  • Do you have some writing samples (or links to samples) that you can share?
  • Is there anything else you would like us to know?

What are we looking for? Well, first off, we are not trying to evaluate your ability to produce a narrative – we don’t think we can do that and it’s not in the spirit of the learning community.

But we do have two goals that will shape what we look for:

  1. We want to bring together as diverse a group of voices as we can, across many dimensions: time in the profession, type of library work, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, path to librarianship, type of library, geographical location, and more.

We’re walking a line here. While we know that a method that results in personal narratives has inherent diversity — everyone’s story is different — we also think that it is really important that we make sure that we don’t start by only including people who look like us, who do similar work, who live near us, who came into the profession at the same time, and so on.  While we won’t be able to include all the stories we will want to – we are also hoping that this project will make it easier for those stories to appear in the LIS literature moving forward.

  1. We also want people who are working in academic libraries (or would like to be) who are excited to try the method and dig further into it — both as individuals and as members of the community throughout this process.

When?

Our timelines are not set in stone, but we do have some targets. 

We will come together as a learning community this summer and start off with some collective reading/ discussing so that we can start to figure out – what we think this method is, how to practice it ethically, and how to support each other through the process. We are trying to walk a line between providing enough structure for people to get started while still respecting the fact that we will not all do things the same way. So as we move from these initial group conversations to figuring out how to get started on our own projects, and how to revise and improve our narratives as we go, we expect that we will be shaping the agenda together, as members of the community.

We are planning a slightly longer development period than may be typical for a book like this, since we expect almost everyone will be starting from scratch with the method. So we are hoping to have completed manuscripts by early-to-mid summer, 2016.

(Updated at 12:00 on 5/22 to add a link and a clarifying statement to #2 on our goals).

LOEX 2015

Reflections on Reflection. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Meta

Slides

PDF version of the slidedeck

Bibliography

Zotero folder (books, articles, videos)

Script 

Note 1: I used this to create the talk, and to practice and refine it.  I didn’t bring it up with me to the podium.  I spoke from a cryptic set of speaker notes attached to the slides.  So while I think this is an honest reflection of what I said in the talk, there will be places where it doesn’t match exactly how I said it.

Note 2: Most of the slides link directly to an image page on flickr.  The rest link to larger versions here.

Note 3: Big thanks to Rachel Bridgewater and Catherine Pellegrino who helped me turn this from 2 hours’ worth of   thoughts connected in my head  into a talk understandable by other people. Any remaining confusion is my fault alone.

loex2015_2.001

Thank you for that introduction and thank you to the committee for inviting me.  I have to admit I’m a little intimidated to be up here.  LOEX was the very first national conference I ever attended. That was 2005 and right now, 10 years doesn’t seem like very long ago.  So many of the people in this room have had such a major influence on me and on my thinking — I just think the bar at LOEX is set really, really high.

loex2015_2.002

When I was invited to give this talk I was deep down a rabbit hole thinking about reflective practice, emotion and learning.  So when the committee suggested that as a topic, I jumped at it.

When I resurfaced from that and I had to actually settle on a title and abstract I started to worry a little bit.  I mean, this is a topic that can get pretty autobiographical.  It’s personal and idiosyncratic – what’s mindset shifting to me is probably totally obvious to lots of you. But most of all, let’s face it – reflecting on reflection can turn into a mountain of meta that doesn’t really seem like the most productive place to be.

So I worried, and that worry made it into the subtitle.  And I wouldn’t say that I have stopped worrying and learned to embrace the meta — but I am working on embracing the discomfort that comes with it.  And that’s actually what I am going to talk about here today.

But before I start into this story — let’s talk for a minute about reflective practice.

  • How many of you build time for reflection or metathinking (thinking about thinking) into your instruction sessions?
  • How many of you would say that you do the same in your practice — build in time for reflection, or thinking about your thinking?
  • How many of you would if you had more time?

There’s a lot of research showing that taking the time to reflect on how you think is important to learning.  I’m not going to get into that here; I think that metathinking is pretty entrenched in the way we teach in libraries.  But if you want a really clear overview, Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning is a great starting point.

signposts for this talk going from practice to assumptions to emotion to discomfort  

So I’m focusing here on that specific category of reflective thinking that informs our practice as teachers.  I’ll take you to where I started on the topic a number of years ago, go through the event that sent me down that rabbit hole over the last year and where that took me.

And I’ll ground all of that in the literature that informed me. There’s a Zotero folder linked from my blog (info-fetishist.org) where you’ll find all of those references.

loex2015_2.004

I started thinking specifically about the role of reflection in teaching practice a little more than 5 years ago in a research project that I did with my colleague Kate Gronemyer.

This project was strongly influenced by the book The Reflective Practitioner, by Donald Schön.  Schön is really interested in that “practice” part of the phrase — he wanted to understand how practitioners (as opposed to researchers or experts) make decisions and solve problems both in the moment (which he calls Reflection In Practice) and after the fact (Reflection On Practice).

He assumes that professionals don’t just implement strategies or follow theories developed by experts, but that they also draw on a big body of knowledge built through experience.  And he wanted to figure out what good practice knowledge does and how professionals to capture and share it.

A list of prompts used to generate stories for a research study about reflective practice in libraries. Prompts include: a situation that haunts you; a time you solved a tricky problem; a time when your expectations were off; one of the best/worst learning experiences; the best/worst instruction librarian you know; a horror story; a time you went beyond the call of duty; a time when you considered leaving the professor; a situation that reaffirmed your choice to do instruction

We gathered and analyzed a collection of stories that teaching librarians told about their practice. These were the story prompts. (Well, the actual prompts were longer, we’re good academics, but these are the salient bits) We each coded the stories and then identified themes together. We also took note of the practice environment where the story happened (when we could).  All told, we identified about 8 themes and I’m going to dig into two right now.

A bar graph indicating which prompts generated the most utterances with the power code. The two highlighted prompts are Horror Story and Situation that Haunts You

First up is power.

I should mention here that all of the codes could skew positively or negatively — I could talk about being totally empowered in a situation or about being totally disenfranchised and so long as I specifically invoked the concept of power in the story — that code would apply.  When you see that most of these codes came from these story prompts — tell us a horror story, or tell us about a situation that haunts you, you can probably guess that most of these were negative.

A quotation from an instruction librarian that says the students were filing into the classroom and the faculty member turns to me and says I changed the assignment

And when I tell you that almost all of these were about the one-shot, I’m guessing you can guess what kind of things were coded this way. Some, focused on specific moments.

A quotation from an instruction librarian indicating that she feels she lacks power in a professional relationship with a faculty member

And others were about a specific event, but mentioned the power relationships in play — like this one, that focuses on faculty.  Or there might be a librarian who says, “I’m the instruction coordinator, but I can’t actually compel any of my colleagues to teach.”

A bar chart indicating the prompts that generated the most utterances coded with the theme flexibility. The most common are Horror Story and a Time When Your Expectations Were Off.  The second tier are best/worst categories.

The second theme is flexibility, which actually gets at another aspect of the same dynamic. There’s something out of my control, so I have to be flexible. So horror story is still up there, but the second most common prompt was, tell me about a time when your expectations were off.  But this one is interesting because the code also showed up a lot in stories where people were talking about extremes or ideals — the best teaching librarian you know, or the worst learning experience ever.

Quotations from instruction librarians. One says that the best instruction librarians can spin on a time and the second is from an instruction librarian who blames herself for an unsuccessful session

Taken as a whole, the stories connected to this theme gave the strong impression that for instruction librarians there is a lot of basic stuff out of our control. I mean, the teaching environment is uncertain for everyone — there are people in it — but for instruction librarians there are just basic pieces we have to adapt to.  I’m guessing that’s not a controversial statement.

Taken together with power, however, we couldn’t help coming away with the idea that despite this, we instruction  librarians we take an awful lot of responsibility on ourselves.  In fact, the story that included this second quotation was actually pretty extreme — we’re not talking about “dude got behind and his students don’t have the assignment yet.”  There was a changed assignment, technology problems controlled by another department and the faculty colleague was really more of an active saboteur.  But to this librarian the main takeaway was her failure, in the moment.  And that kind of thing came up came up again and again.

So it seemed clear to us that we have some simple, shared, narratives out there about what good library instruction is — and that a lot of us are using our reflective practice to compare ourselves to these smoothed out, idealized models.

And you can see why, right?  Because there’s safety in these narratives.  If I succeed, I’m comforted by the fact that I knew what to do to succeed.  And even if I fail, if I can find the place where I didn’t match up to the narrative — I didn’t use enough active learning, I wasn’t flexible enough — then that promises safety in the future if I just match up.

But at the same time — horror story, situation that haunts you — it was clear that these narratives also generate a lot of stress, anxiety and angst.

A signpost slide that indicates the next section will be about Stephen Brookfield's Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher

So, we needed a different model of reflective practice — which brings us to critical reflection. Here we were informed strongly by Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

For Brookfield, the goal of reflective thinking is to identify and question the assumptions that lie under the surface of our practice.  These assumptions can be causal — about what causes what — so, sitting in a circle makes people feel equal.  Or prescriptive — about what good teaching is — for us, one of those would be active learning is best.  Or they can be paradigmatic — big, world-view type assumptions – I’ll be talking about those throughout the rest of this talk.

And over all of these, he especially warns us to watch for hegemonic assumptions — assumptions that seem fine, but can cause us to be complicit in our own oppression.

And what does that mean? Well, I would consider “a good librarian will fix any problem related to her students’ learning in the moment” — to be hegemonic.  That narrative lets me focus all of my work to fix the problem on me and my own teaching, on developing a big enough bag of tricks to respond to any situation. And I don’t deal with the underlying issues with the course instructor — about the power relationships between us or about the things they are doing that sabotage their students’ learning.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and give students a good learning experience — of course I’m not saying that — but in our reflection on practice our analysis should be much, much more complicated than “I failed because I wasn’t flexible enough.”

And he gives us the lenses across the top there — our own experience, information from students, information from peers and information from theory — as tools to ferret out and analyze those assumptions.

A signposting side indicating the next section will be about Brookfield and James - Engaging Imagination

So, Brookfield’s approach really really works for me.  Identifying problems, and then intellectualizing them — gathering and analyzing data and trying to understand them in a new way — that’s right smack dab in my comfort zone.

Which means that earlier this year I was reading a book called Engaging Imagination – mostly because it was by Brookfield and another education scholar – Alison James. They make the argument for building play, imagination, metaphor and movement into reflective classroom activities.

Now, I read a lot of this kind of stuff, I even seek it out.  But I don’t really do any of those things in my own reflection — I stay in my head, in my verbal, analytical place where I intellectualize my problems.

So when I seek these things out, I’m doing it for my students — I’m doing it because  I think metathinking is a really important part of the learning process and I know that reflective assignments make a lot of people uncomfortable. So by offering as many modalities as possible, I’m trying to ensure that everyone gets a chance to be comfortable in reflection, at least some of the time.

a large pile of red bricks, some with dried mortar still attached

But early on in this book, Brookfield and James said something that hit me like a ton of bricks.  They said that’s not why we do this.  The reason to build a lot of reflective methods into your class isn’t to make everyone comfortable — the reason is to make everyone uncomfortable, at least some of the time.

Now, when I read this — this discomfort piece — it just grabbed hold of my brain.  And I think that was because it made me realize how uncomfortable, even upset, I get when I am asked to veer away from reflective analysis and writing.  If you ask me to do it in a workshop — I’ll do it, I might even enjoy it once I start, but when I first hear that we have to create clay models or something my first reaction is to be upset, flustered, defensive, maybe a little angry and internally yelling oh no no no no no no no.

A cup of pens and pencils. Only the top lip of the cup and the tops of the writing implements are visible.

And here’s the thing — I totally should have known better. I should have known this all along. Because as much as I love reflection and do it all the time, I don’t do it for real when I’m told to do it. Workshops, courses, annual self-appraisals – seriously, my memory isn’t perfect — but I can’t remember a time when I’ve done real, meaningful reflection as an assignment.

14 year old Anne-Marie, sitting in her parents’ living room with fourteen pens and a spiral notebook – writing a whole term’s worth of reading journal entries in one night.  That’s how I did every journaling assignment I ever did – high school, college, library school — the night before they were due.

See, I’m not saying this worked for me (and it did, I got A plus pluses on reflective writing)  because I am so super good at reflection. That is absolutely not what I am saying. It worked for me because I’m super good at reflective writing assignments.  It’s not about my writing, or reflecting, it’s that I always know exactly what my teachers want to see.  I know the kind of learning they want to see, the process they want to see, how they want it communicated and I deliver it.  I’m not reflecting to learn, I’m performing.

And I didn’t even feel bad about it.  I still don’t – not really. I mean, I don’t shy away from reflection in my real life. That larger life skill learning happened.  I value reflective practice, and I work actively to do it better.  But after reading Engaging Imagination there was no way I could avoid realizing that if I’d been pushed out of that verbal, analytical comfort zone more I may have seen things or understood things that I missed.

And that could have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.  Seriously, this bugged me for days.  I just kept churning on it.

Because there are unwritten narratives in play here too.  Embedded in these “show us what you learned” assignments are assumptions about what kind of learning, analysis or process is valued and valid.  And those narratives are usually unwritten, and unspoken — that’s one reason why these assignments cause so much angst with so many people.  They favor some students more than others, and I was one of those favored few.

Wooden sign, hung from a wooden bracket with silver chains. The word Welcome is burned into the sign.

It made me see that a lot —  maybe even most — of my own reflective thinking has been spent on trying to help my students join me in my comfort zone, without questioning the narratives and assumptions underneath.

And this made me deeply, profoundly, uncomfortable — because it’s a really incomplete way of looking at learning.

Black and white photo of a young adult looking into a security camera. The photo is distorted.

And it’s a superficial version of reflective practice.  I’m taking my students’ experience and filtering it through my lens — which is obviously going to distort it.  It inherently makes me focus on gaps, places where they don’t match up.  And on figuring out ways to make them match my assumptions about learning.  This puts all of the burden of significant change on my students.  After all, I’m reflecting on their experience. I’m not really reflecting on my own.

Which brought me back to my initial, emotional and defensive reaction to those assignments — and I dove head first into the rabbit hole that is emotion and learning.  As you do.

A signposting slide indicating the next section will highlight work on neuroscience by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

One of the deeply, deeply entrenched narratives in western culture is the mind/body (or thinking/feeling) binary, or the idea that logic, reason and higher order thinking are separate from — and even disrupted by — emotion, passion or feeling.  Knowledge construction in our culture is a sober, analytical process based on evidence and data — not feeling or experience.

Last spring, I was at the American Educational Research Association’s conference in Philadelphia and at that conference AERA presented their Early Career Award to an “affective neuroscientist and human development psychologist” named  Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.  And her work — which connects social emotion, cognition and culture — totally captured my imagination. So when I started exploring this topic in earnest, I came back across her work and entered this kind of fugue state where I read everything she’s ever written.

So basically, into the eighties the research about the brain and learning reflected the binary I just mentioned. The idea was fairly entrenched that reason, logic and thinking and emotion were separate, controlled by different parts of the brain.  But there were anomalies.  And they disrupted this prevailing narrative, as anomalies often do.

a beige wall with a white sign posted somewhat askew. The sign says

These anomalies were patients whose cognitive functions seemed to be intact, but who showed gaps in their decision making.  They weren’t able to consider the consequences of their actions. They were insensitive to the impact of their choices on others. Basically, they weren’t able to learn from their mistakes, so they would make the same terrible choices over and over.

But here’s the weird thing — they could TALK about that stuff just fine. They could explain the risks involved in their business decisions. They could describe social norms.  Cognitively, they seemed to have what they needed to make good choices, but then they didn’t.  So it seemed likely that the affective domain was in play.

A venn diagram with Processes Related to the Body on one side and High Reason on the other.  The overlapping area is large and labeled Emotional Thought

So when researchers studied what was going on in these brains they concluded that when we experience things, we “tag” them with information about how those choices or decisions worked out for us. And this information is stored with our emotional knowledge.  Without the ability to access the parts of the brain that manage that emotional information — how we felt about those choices — we can’t use it to make good decisions moving forward.  So emotion doesn’t get in the way of thinking – emotion is an essential part of higher-level thinking.

a metal handle with the word rudder etched in and clearly visible

In fact, one of the most interesting hypotheses Immordino-Yang suggests for higher education is that it is this emotional rudder (her metaphor) — or the ability to draw on the emotional knowledge associated with our past experiences — that helps us transfer knowledge from one experience to another. Particularly relevant to instruction librarians — we need our students to be able to transfer what they learn from us moving forward.

A young woman covering her face with both hands

These new lines of inquiry mean re-thinking what we mean by survival.  One of the narratives in the thinking/feeling binary is that strong emotion kicks in when we’re under threat and need to feel safe.  But that narrative mostly focuses on physical harm – the idea that when we see the car heading for is it triggers a basic, emotional response (Immordino-Yang says “in the alligator brain”) that protects us.

But as our world got more complex, so did our understanding of survival.  Survival now goes beyond our physical safety as an individual and includes other people and our social relationships.  Those emotional tags we put on our experiences aren’t about us in a vacuum, they’re all about how our choices affected other people and how that bounced back on us.

So protecting ourselves against threats to our status and identity is every bit as important as protecting ourselves from physical harm.  Emotion is still basic decision making — I want, I feel — but more advanced cognition doesn’t replace it.  Instead, higher level reasoning lets us pick and choose and customize our responses in more sophisticated ways.

A signposting slide listing takeaways from this section which are repeated in the text.

So, what are my takeaways from this?

  • That strong emotional reaction I have to certain kinds of learning experiences should be telling me something — emotion is part of why we create simple, smoothed over narratives in the first place and why we don’t poke at them — we’re protecting our core, our identity, our place in the world
  • Emotion is necessary to thinking and in particular, it’s an autobiographical emotion.  Connecting to our experiences and our feelings around them is necessary to evaluation, analysis – those higher level processes.
  • That autobiographical emotion isn’t fully internal — it’s shaped by our interactions with other people and with culture.  We can’t really critique our assumptions and narratives without understanding those influences.

A light grey wolf staring directly into the camera

Now, there are many people — some informed by feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory and others working from more traditional perspectives —  who have challenged the thinking/ feeling binary — making the case for bringing the whole student, not just the cognitive student, into the learning process.  And this is a body of work that had been building for  decades.  So some of this feels a bit like science is catching up to theory and experience.

And where I am going now with this is pretty strongly influenced by a group of scholars like Megan Boler, Laura Rendón and Kevin Kumashiro, who are grappling with the question of how to create safe and meaningful classroom experiences when you are specifically asking students to question and dismantle deeply held beliefs.  These scholars have a commitment to anti-oppressive practice, in many cases because they’re teaching courses on topics –  about race, gender, sexuality –  that inherently ask students to examine some of their core ideas about identity and self.

Now, it might seem like instruction librarians are doing something different — asking students to “find and cite 3 peer reviewed sources on reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone” seems pretty different from asking them to dissect their privilege.  But a lot of this work resonates strongly with me as an instruction librarian.  In many ways, I think asking students to question and dismantle deeply held beliefs — or at least be willing to do so — is exactly what we do.

We’re asking them to engage in open-minded inquiry.  And at the very least, this means they have to consider the possibility that they might change their minds about something that they care about.  And if they care about it because it says something about where they’re from, or their family history, or what they want to do, or things they believe in — that’s threatening.  And this applies too to the basic things we do — we might be asking them to rely on sources and discourses they’ve been taught since birth to be skeptical about.  Or sometimes we ask them to put aside sources and texts they’ve always believed are valuable sources of wisdom about the world.

And even  if we don’t do so overtly, what we’re asking them to do might also require them to dismiss habits of learning and research that have probably served them very well in the past, through many years of experience, and to internalize new ways of thinking about knowledge, evidence and information.

All of these things reach right down into the identities we construct for ourselves — what we believe is right, what we believe is wrong, where we find wisdom, what we value as thinkers and learners — these are all essential parts of who we know ourselves to be.

I think it’s fair to say that to be information literate is to be okay with the idea that what we know in our core to be true could change tomorrow — and that’s terrifying.  And so I believe that it’s only fair that we hold ourselves to this same standard.  Starting with — or at least for the purposes of this talk focusing on — our reflective practice.

A yellow post-it note with the words Put Your Feelings on Hold handwritten

Historically, we’ve treated feelings in education (and honestly, in other arenas too) as something to control or suppress – push them down so that thinking can happen.  And we’ve also used this as a way to control or suppress people who have historically been considered more emotional or less rational.

And I think that there’s an element of this controlling, suppressing and managing narrative in our thinking about reflective practice as well.  As much as I love Brookfield, I can’t deny that the thinking/feeling binary undergirds much of the argument in this book.  There’s a strong through-line that essentially frames the process of critical reflection as a process of intellectualizing the emotional and cognitive challenges of teaching.  I mean, he comes right out and says it —  if we don’t critically reflect “we are powerless to control the ebbs and flows of our emotions.”

shower controls with red and blue representing hot and cold water. The area in the middle is labeled comfort zone

And I’ll admit that this is also my comfort zone.  This is how my brain works.  In fact, I’m sure this is what I was serving up in all of those reflective writing assignments — watch me intellectualize my emotions and learn and grow.  And here’s the thing — it’s not like this isn’t super useful in teaching.  And it’s a big part of what makes up effective reflective practice.

This is where things get tricky for me.  There is a lot I like and want to preserve about my comfort zone, about reflective practice and more broadly. I think there is value the type of inquiry embedded in “college level research.”  I think there’s fun, creativity and enjoyment to be had in these intellectual exercises and practices.  I like stretching those muscles and I think they’re muscles that need to be worked and skills that need to be practiced.  I think when people can do this they’re more powerful and able to make things happen.

But when we’ve tried to divide thinking and feeling, that doesn’t just mean pushing emotions aside — it also means elevating lots of things that are traditionally associated with rational thought or inquiry.  We reject the importance of experience, lived experience, in favor of science and “rigorous evidence.”  It’s an either/or thing.

And if this isn’t how thinking works — if this isn’t how humans evaluate and consider and decide and choose — we need to be able to connect the pieces of this binary together and find new spaces somewhere in the middle.

A signposting slide indicating the next section draws from Megan Boler's Feeling Power

Megan Boler wrote a wide-ranging and provocative book called Feeling Power — about the power of emotion and also about the ways that feelings have been used to control and dominate within education. She closes by outlining ideas for a pedagogy of discomfort.  I’m not going to do this book justice here — and I’m doing even less justice to the huge body of scholarship that inspired her — because I’m going to zoom in on just one of her points — the need to resist simple binaries, the things we construct to make sense of a complex world.

A lot of these binaries are in play in our classrooms, not just thinking/feeling: novice/expert — scholarly/popular — individual/collective — theory/practice — objective/subjective — I’m sure you all are thinking of more.  When you start to scratch at some of the idealized narratives underneath our practice you’ll find them.  We create and hang on to these binaries to make sense of a complicated world. But when we internalize these simple structures, it gets harder to deal with the implications of our critical reflection.

Here’s an example.  A big binary that frames a lot of our thinking is about people — good/bad – deserving/undeserving – guilty/innocent.  We’ve all probably internalized it to some level, even if we fight it.

One of the most powerful things we want is learning that reaffirms our self-image.  If  we’ve internalized that binary good/bad/innocent/guilty — then when we think we might be contributing to something that hurts our students, we feel guilty. We feel all of the feelings related to that.  And our self-image can’t handle the idea that we’re guilty so we resist.  We will ourselves not to see the issue — Boler calls this inscribed habits of emotional inattention —  or we use our reflective practice to rationalize the original critique away.

Because here’s the thing — metathinking, reflective thinking, even critical reflection — these methods or practices can be used to justify and entrench just as easily as they can be used to illuminate and dismantle.  And honestly, I think the more adept you are at the motions of reflection the easier it is to use it to justify whatever you want it to – especially if you’re not aware that you are doing it.

A desert landscape with a large boulder in the background and a field of quicksand in the foreground

Committing to finding spaces between these  binaries lets us deal with this complexity — we’re not good or bad — we’re in the middle, it’s not all about us and which side we’re on, and we can deal with all of the complex factors that go into the situation.

But this isn’t easy.  It requires us to accept a scary level of uncertainty.  This is a shifting landscape – we’re between the binaries here today and we keep thinking and working — we’re somewhere else tomorrow.  And really, it shows that some of the identities we construct are actually pretty fragile themselves.

a street lamp with two lamps extending to either side of a metal pole. To the left a sign that reads No Parking on Either Side.

And maybe librarians are the best people to navigate this uncertainty with our students. Because we already straddle  binaries — between theory and practice, scholar and practitioner, specialist and generalist, novice and expert — you can probably think of more.  We’re unique on our campuses; we’re already in the grey areas.

I have a colleague in Oregon, Sara Seely from Portland Community College, who tells her classes — I know about all of your assignments and what all of your teachers want and I’m not grading you — I’m totally on your side.

I just love that.  I love it because we so frequently frame this as a barrier — we don’t have access to the carrots and sticks built into the system — but it can be liberating.

Most of us do not have majors, minors or degree programs to manage.  Most of us can’t compel attendance or attention. It’s true. But if we’re not benefiting from those systems, then we’re not bound by them either.

We teach, and we want students to do well in our classes but the end game for us isn’t their performance on the end of session quiz.   Traditional metrics like grades don’t even capture much of the teaching work we do.

We teach, and we want students to learn, but we really want them to take what they learn and use it later — so we can focus on what they need to integrate and transfer that knowledge.

We teach, but we don’t have to weed out students or protect the rigor of our programs.  We can make the unwritten rules, values and rewards transparent to all of our students, even if they don’t come in with that knowledge.

We teach, but we’re not going to be judged at the end by how well our students master a body of content – we can afford to complicate the picture for them and follow where they explore.

And the thing that’s powerful about sitting between binaries comes from rejecting the idea that we need to make either/ or choices – or align ourselves with one set of entrenched values.  From our position, we can help students learn a new culture and make its norms and assumptions visible and  transparent while also doing what we can to dismantle structures that exclude, hurt and discriminate.

But that can be scary. And uncomfortable. There’s a timidity sometimes that pops up in our profession that says — “if I draw too much attention by challenging the norms they’ll take away what I DO have in the academy.”  I’d like to see us fight this more actively – to say we are different and this is what we do and we’re the only ones who do it and that’s the value we bring to campus — and commit to building that case.

Because we can’t do all of this if we align ourselves with simple narratives — whether we define them for ourselves or maybe especially if they’re defined for us.  No matter how safe they make us feel.

And so, in the end, we need to embrace the discomfort because if we focus on choosing the side that will make us feel safe I don’t think we really are.  A slide asking for questions

So.  as it turns out, ending a talk when you feel like you’re still in the middle of the topic is harder than you’d think.  I’m going to be exploring the gray areas on this one for a while.  I hope we all can keep talking about it.

Questions?

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