an overdue reflection on #claps2016

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium (#claps2016) at the University of Arizona. Overall, the Symposium was a wonderful conference experience: I learned plenty, saw old friends, and made new connections. I would make an effort to attend if the conference happens again in the future. Since getting back, I’ve had writing up a brief reflection at the top of my to-do list – in part as a way to encourage myself to actively reflect on my work. Unfortunately, writing is hard (!) and the perfectly cohesive reflection I envisioned never materialized. So here’s this instead. In just a few words, the core theme of the conference, for me anyway, was the importance of community to critical practice.

Photograph of a citrus tree on an empty, residential street. An older car is visible in the background.
I took this photo in Tuscon. Probably there is a visual metaphor about interdependence here.

being “new” is weird

At #claps2016, Sarah Crissinger and I facilitated a discussion session about engaging in critical pedagogy as a new librarian. You can see all the notes from our session here. As a start, we asked everyone to share 3 adjectives that describe how they have felt while engaging in critical pedagogy as new practitioners (broadly defined, in both cases). Here are the adjectives people chose with the ones that especially stand out to me in bold:

frustrated, clueless, unsure, anxious, joyful, free, curious, confused, overwhelmed, disempowered/ powerless, gaslighted, ignored, fluffy,professional­ish, messy, insecure, guarded, outsider, sneaky, resistant,encouraged but not supported, excited, confusion, desperation, nervous, creative, alone, pushing, excited, confused, exhilarating, at home, rebellious, cautious, invigorated, dangerous, authentic, inspired, unsecure, unprepared, challenged

This exercise was followed by a productive discussion (I’m biased) and hopefully facilitated some meaningful connections between participants. I do wish we’d had a little more time towards the end of the session. Generally, I was struck by how much participants felt alone. Working towards critical practice without a support system is isolating and exhausting.

community vs. individualism

The conference opened with a fantastic keynote by David James Hudson, the core of which focused on the importance of questioning our profession’s unrelenting demands for practicality. It’s a great keynote: I encourage you to watch the recording. However, what really struck me was Dave’s insistence on the importance of community and interdependence, which I attempt to summarize here:

  • The talk opens with an acknowledgement that scholarship “emerges in conversations between people”
  • Critical work inevitably uncovers large and complex questions. It often generates more questions than “solutions.” For this reason, community is very important. You have to trust that others in your community will take on the questions you’re not able to focus on. And ask you hard questions about your work — in a way that is constructive, rather than competitive.
  • Community is really hard in the context of an academy (and broader society) that is very individualistic.

emotional labor and self-care

Another stand-out session for me was the unconference session I attended on emotional labor. We had a really good conversation about librarianship and identity, the very many ways that our work demands affective labor, and the various ways intersectionality impacts the amount of emotional labor expected of us. This latter portion resonated with the great presentation that Vani Natarajan and Miriam Neptune gave that morning about being the only librarians of color at women’s college libraries: they reflected on bringing up problems at work and subsequently being a positioned asthe problem (for having brought up the problem at all). A dynamic that persists in self-proclaimed “critical” (in this case, feminist) spaces like the women’s college library. Among other things, this positionality extracts even more emotional labor.

Other things we talked about during the unconference session: how non-librarian staff often have limited opportunities to take a break from performing emotional labor at work because they are always in view of the public or have no recourse to private office space, how taking steps to enforce personal work/life balance presents its own challenges (i.e. when decisions get made over email after work hours). It was a good session!

Another of the keynotes (Leslie Langbert, Executive Director of the Center for Compassion Studies at the University of Arizona) focused on the importance of self-care for those of us whose work requires us to be expert and emotionally supportive. Judging from the tweets about this session, it was useful to many participants, and I don’t want to underestimate the importance of self-care. However, I was a little dismayed to see a discussion of self-care in the context of work without any mention of the structural issues that make that self-care necessary: namely, working conditions that practically guarantee burnout, oppressive social dynamics that limit underrepresented librarians’ agency even while purporting to include them (a theme that came up in both Natarajan and Neptune’s presentation and Hudson’s keynote), the list goes on.

Self-care is an important practice, but it is ultimately focused on the individual. The dynamics that render it necessary are multiple and complex. We need to recognize how our work is interdependent and foster community spaces (April Hathcock has a couple of worthwhile blog posts about why conceiving of spaces in the plural is necessary) to get through it and build something better. To wrap up rather clumsily, huge thanks to the organizers of #claps2016 for the work you did to provide one such space.

#critlib #feelings

#critlib #feelings

This morning, I spilled coffee all over my desk. I also finally had a chance to sit down and read Cathy Eisenhower and Dolsy Smith’s excellent “The Library as ʻStuck Place’: Critical Pedagogy in the Corporate University.” (Full disclosure, my original copy of the article was tragically destroyed in the aforementioned coffee disaster.) I am glad that I read that chapter before sitting down to do my #critlib homework… in part because it’s prompting me to answer Kevin’s excellent questions more honestly. I am also grateful for the end-of-semester lull that is allowing me the time to sit and reflect about my work.

Why are you a critical librarian? Why do you identify with these ideas?

One answer: “Information” is not neutral. The ways that information is organized and made legible/accessible are often the result of broader configurations of social power (including systemic/structural dynamics rooted in social relations: racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc.). Re-configuring information (i.e. by articulating what counts as “credible” information through instruction and collection development, redesigning the digital and analog interfaces that necessarily mediate how people access information, etc.) can be a way to reconfigure social power. Librarianship is basically in the business of reconfiguring information, and I see critical librarianship as a way to mobilize that practice to help dismantle racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc. Alternatively, if practiced “uncritically,” librarianship can be yet another mechanism for extending and enabling racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc.  So… that’s one answer.

Another answer: In their book chapter, Eisenhower and Smith write, “…the term ‘critical’ itself masks the particular work scholars and teachers are doing by coding anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, etc., with the ambiguous word that surely represents critique, but of what sort?” Prompted by this question, here are a few other reasons I identify as a “critical librarian” (for better or worse):

  • “Critical” is a convenient umbrella term.
  • To fly under the radar and/or strategically mobilize resources in spaces where encouraging “critical thinking” is a stated goal, but more explicitly political articulations might be met with resistance.
  • Out of anxiety that the work that I’m doing is not “enough” to be explicitly labelled as anti-racist or anti-colonial, etc.

Both answers are true for me and, to me, a big part of practicing “critical librarianship” (used here as a convenient umbrella term) is learning to hold multiple conflicting truths in tension and using ambiguity as a productive starting point.

Why do you participate in these chats?

Since tomorrow’s #critlib chat is about feelings, I should probably own up to some of mine: As a new academic librarian, I often feel ambivalent about libraries, and especially, universities. In particular, how these institutions (and our work in them) enact and create various oppressive social structures. As Eisenhower and Smith write, even “[our] discursive resistance to the corporatization of higher education….is subsumed in its Foucauldian way into numbers thatscaffold the very discourses we critique” (emphasis mine). For me, #critlib chats are a space where I feel safe to express that ambivalence, reflect on it with others, (hopefully) identify some seams, “stuck places,” or other spaces where enough prodding might allow us to not only imagine and, in some small ways, enact social structures that are somehow more just. Feelings-wise, #critlib chats can be generative, re-energizing, (and yes) validating for me.

In a lot of ways, this is what I get out of reading theory and pursuing research/writing projects as a practitioner, but with the added benefit of dialogue in real time. (This not to argue that #critlib is essentially about theory… just that it occupies a similar place in my thought-processes.) Where I can, I try to have these conversations in my face-to-face life, but I like the fact that #critlib chats mean I can also have them with people I would probably not know otherwise.

Community is a big part of it for me as well. There’s a lot of people I’ve “met” through #critlib that I interact with on twitter beyond the chats. Those interactions are usually supportive and affirming, and I am grateful for them. This professional community of geographically dispersed students, new librarians, and established librarians is probably one I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Not to mention, a couple of my #critlib friends are now plain-old, we-don’t-only-interact-on-twitter friends. That’s pretty cool.