I don’t #critlib as much as I should

I feel that I should #critlib more because conversations and communities like #critlib have to exist; we have to have them, and we have to let them affect librarians and library services. Honestly, this is the stuff that I waited until I was fully-credentialed and hired full-time to talk about. And I can’t tell you, I will not ever be able to tell you, how guilty I still feel that I waited this long, that I was so afraid to use my voice until now. The amazing thing about #critlib conversations for me is that they show me that I am not alone in embodying strange intersections in LIS, and never have been. These conversations are where I get to see other people successfully doing what I have hoped to do for years – use intersectional experiences and conversations about intersectionality to inform an aspiration to be a librarian who empowers people to see a world that they have a place in and to fearlessly take ownership of that place. #critlib conversations are important and special to me because of that. And I’m still very new to it; my first chat was barely a month ago. Full disclosure, I’m basing my observations on just that and the 5 Storify past-chats I’ve now sifted through. From those, though, I’ve also developed a hangup that I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now.

So, as you probably already read in Fobazi’s last post, I was a really horrible ally last Tuesday. She was trying to show me a big problem that she sees with #critlib, and I didn’t really hear what she was talking about until she up and handed me her phone so that I could see for myself. Until she did that, I thought I heard her talking about a completely different problem, and my response was basically the worst. My own hangup about #critlib actually now strikes me as a potential contribution to the problem, which I’ll try to come to terms with in the course of this post – I promise. Let me just hash it out here.

Fobazi was trying to talk to me about how some of the #whycritlib posts demonstrate how inaccessible the tone of #critlib conversations can be. A good few people in those discussions are academic librarians who seem to need to prove that they “speak academic.” This shows up in  chat contributions with words like “praxis” and “positivism” used in ridiculous small-liberal-arts-college ways (I would know -_-;;), or that ostentatiously refer to stuff that you’re “supposed” to read to have cred as a critical scholar or teacher. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, among others. That problem looks worse and worse the longer I think about it. Like, are we really going to try talking about how our profession can disrupt systemic inequality, largely in the language of privilege? And then undermine that conversation by reducing parts of it to academic-language cockfights? Really? Really, though?

I can hear you now, being like “Yeah, but you were definitely all like ‘It’s not that hard to get a working knowledge Freire’ so get off your high horse, dude.” Yeah, you have a point. I do also see the academic-ese problem from an opposite perspective, but the thing is, I feel like the way I see it and the way Fobazi sees it actually weirdly go together. I thought Fobazi was talking about the lazy-academic problem where people pretend like contributions riddled with buzzwords and references to theory are always meaningful, whether or not the references are relevant or the buzzwords aptly used. It sometimes seems like we hope that a theory reference is enough of a contribution to the conversation that we’ve earned a “pass” on contributing to the harder parts of the conversation. When I say “It’s not that hard to get a little Freire under your belt,” I mean getting a little Freire under your belt shouldn’t be the real hard part of becoming and being a critical librarian, and it certainly shouldn’t be something you feel entitled to give yourself airs about. I’m not saying that Freire is totally widely accessible or easy to understand. I’m saying that if our goal is to become critical and radical practitioners, I don’t think we should congratulate ourselves too hard just for reading one or two things by him, cuz now we gotta apply that theory. For real, in practice, in life. No, not preach it to the choir; apply it.

Being able to attach big words and abstract metaphors to issues is not supposed to be our end game. But I see so many people getting caught up in doing that, and frankly, sometimes tripping over their own vocabulary, that I kind of wonder if the conversation wouldn’t be a lot more productive if we all just agreed to use small words unless we’re really, really sure that the big words say it better.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that reading some critical theory is a significant thing to do. If you’ve gone and read all of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that’s awesome; you’ve completed important reading that I feel guilty about only partially completing, and under ordinary circumstances, I’d take that as my cue to shut up until I’ve finished the reading myself. But the thing is, I’ve read just enough of Pedagogy of the Oppressed to believe that Paulo Freire might have intended that we do more with it than passive-aggressively shame our peers for not having read it, or Wring Our Hands About Oppression. I’m pretty sure that after we put down that book, we’re supposed to take a long hard look at the way we think of our students and patrons, take another long hard look at ourselves, and then change the way we serve and teach. And those two latter parts right there, those seem like the hard parts of #critlib conversations to me. As far as I can tell, we seem ok at taking long hard looks at the way we think of our students and patrons. Good start, good start. But then it seems like we’re all kind of afraid of that long hard look at ourselves as a profession and as individual librarians. We all know how heavily white, middle-class, and heteronormative this profession is, and we all acknowledge that this indicates many problems about us as librarians. Yet somehow, we keep bringing our critical conversation on inequality to a theoretical place and forgetting that we have actual firsthand accounts within our own ranks. Or maybe we’re not forgetting; maybe we’re just too afraid that firsthand accounts of marginalization and disenfranchisement from within our own ranks will make visible a world that we don’t want to have to take ownership of.

So if we’re afraid of scrutinizing ourselves too closely, how can we expect to ever get around to that third part, changing the way we serve and teach?

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Don’t make me a cog in your racist machine

I’m really pissed off. I let a white male higher-up fool me into believing that he might actually be on board with diversity as a reality, and not just as some abstract utopia. That’s a trap that I, as an Asian American, should’ve known better than to fall into. White academics (white people, really) will tend to say the right things in my presence. They find me easy to talk to about racial issues (at first), and they find my words easy to accept for various messed-up model-minority reasons. But all it takes is for a black person to say exactly the same things that I say in a slightly different setting, and all of a sudden, the response becomes extreme defensiveness and multi-faceted microaggressions, all horribly aimed at the black person. As far as I’m concerned, these two diametrically-opposite responses cannot both be true; you cannot be committed to diversity only when you’re talking to me. If you are only committed to diversity when you’re talking to me, and not when you’re talking to The Black One, then you’re not committed to diversity at all, and it is now my job to call you on it every time you pull these half-commitment shenanigans.

This happens everywhere, in all kinds of professional environments;  white gatekeepers are always on their “good behavior” with The Asian One because The Asian One Seems More Like Them. They respond more sympathetically when Asian people point out internal/institutional racism to them than when black or Hispanic people do. (I have yet to see if the same holds true when it comes to reporting specific incidents of individual racism.) Somehow, it doesn’t occur to them that their 180-opposite response to The Black One is a situation that The Asian One would give two craps about, probably because they think they already placated The Asian One. Unavoidably, this means that The Asian One everywhere is now complicit in the systemic oppression of black people, LatinX people, disabled people, Other people.

To that, I say No, thank youAlso, How dare you? Nobody gets to play us against each other. To my shame, I used to go along with that game, but I’m trying very hard to claw my way out and I will kick the next person who tries to drag me back in. Metaphorically. Probably.

#whycritlib

So I wasn’t sure if I was going to do write something because my feelings are amorphous and ever changing. And also because something about the questions rubbed me….not the wrong necessarily…but it definitely made me pause. And it’s the same sort of disquiet that I feel whenever anyone asks that type of why activist question. Because for me it feels like I journeyed backwards. I became interested in critical theory and intersectionality because it directly affected my life. Being queer and black and disabled meant that any given moment one aspect of my identity was being marginalized or called into question. So really I learned the words that correctly identified the phenomena that had been occurring (and still are) in my life. Is that to say I wouldn’t be a critical librarian without that personal connection? No I have a degree in sociology I have always been interested in how concepts such as gender, class, race, ability, etc affect the macro and micro interactions within society.

But I guess the reason I am a critical librarian to assuage this feeling of heartbreak. Libraries were safe spaces for me* growing up and so to enter librarianship and see that the same things I felt in education was present in libraries was saddening/maddening. In fact, library school was so much worse than undergrad. I think I wrote my article out of sheer desperation to express how terrible my experience was. Since then I’ve written more things and spoken on panels to try and do my part and make it better for others.

So that’s partly why I participate in the chats. The other reason is because of the current perception of #critlib. People have said that it is very academic library/librarian focused, heavily focused on theory, at a bad time, and also sort of pretentious/exclusionary. And frankly, I think all of those things are true to varying degrees. It’s definitely academia focused due to the large amounts of academic librarians who participate and I think that ties into both the focus on theory and the vibe of pretentiousness at times. I was talking to Ana about how an example of how it plays out without noticing is saying something like,

“oh such and such praxis is influenced by Freire and bell hooks” which makes it necessary to understand both what praxis is and have working knowledge of Freire and/or bell hooks and her response was,

“It’s not that hard to get a working knowledge of Freire though.”

Which is kind of the problem, right? Sure she didn’t mean anything by it, but if you multiply that by 10 or 20 comments by multiple people and you get an environment which can come off as not so great. Because I know when I was a school librarian I definitely did not have the time or mental energy to study critical theorists and how it applies to the field of librarianship. And frankly, there is an argument to be made that there should not be a working knowledge of theory inherent in understanding ways to combat oppression.

And I’m not saying I don’t contribute to that. Expectations and language are informed by experiences and background knowledge and I have a fair amount of education. But I think working with such young kids really helped kick that habit. Middle schoolers are only starting to learn higher order concepts. When you’re talking about something like information literacy using theory and all of that will blow past most of them. It’s all about how can I take this higher order concept and make it accessible in the most concrete and language appropriate way. And not only that, but to contextualize the information into schemas and scenarios that make sense to them. Constantly having to bring things down is hard trust me. I was definitely not good at it for a while. But I’ve gotten a lot better. And I try and bring that into the chats. Because I still don’t know Freire. I do have to look up words like prescriptivism and other jargony words that float around the chats.

So hopefully someone will see me in the chat and be like…oh she’s using words less than 5 syllables! And she’s relating everything back to her own personal life and other sort of more real life type situations. Because again it’s not theory to me. Theory helps name the phenomena (and I’m not discounting how powerful naming can be), but in the end it’s worthless without someone being like….this is how it plays out in your job and/or your life.

 

 

 

 

*There were definitely moments where I experienced racism, but I was also young and hadn’t put a name to the phenomena yet, and they were few and far between.

The Wheel Moves Ever So Slowly

Academia, man. It is a wonder anything gets done. In order to even have a super sanitized work blog, you have to go through three different committees. Three! And it just feels like I’m the awkward parrot who keeps saying “schools do this differently!” over and over and over again until it loses meaning and everyone checks out. But like….I had almost complete autonomy while in a school. Can you imagine what that’s like? To think of a program and only have to work through the logistics? The only question ever asked of me when I did things for the students was “how much would it cost?” and “is it age appropriate?” And as long as those questions were answered I could just keep it moving. To go from that to this extreme bureaucracy is painful. It’s like going home for the holidays. You answer only to yourself for most of the year and then go home and are treated like a child again. Either way it is unfun. Now of course I understand that with giant universities it’ll be worse, but I don’t think it’ll be something I’ll ever really get used to it.

On Our Temporary Positions

Today, I’d like to talk about the term-limited aspect of our position. Fair warning: there’s a chance that the impetus of this post (and indeed, this entire blog) might be an accumulation of rage that bubbled up to a point where we could not remain silent.

I think that people have a tendency to see permanence as an indicator of value. In much the same way that marriages that “last” are considered “good” marriages, permanent jobs possess more social value than temporary ones. I take issue with this; permanence can be correlated with stability, which can be good for us as individuals, but it is also correlated with entrenchment in backward practices.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, I was startled, disturbed, and offended to find that the colleague, whom we have served alongside with for months, sees our position in the same light as contract or temporary positions — and that light, where he is concerned, is not a good one. The colleague refused to discuss the significance of differentiating the residency program from other term-limited positions, and went so far as to ask if F and I are students. Alongside this colleague, we have provided in-depth reference services, we have taught information-literacy workshops in gen ed courses, we have brought up and facilitated salient discussion on teaching practices, and we have participated in and facilitated dialogue and collaboration with other departments. We have both been introduced as professional staff multiple times. We are both members of the corps of academic librarians that liaises to the faculty senate, and we are both members of the faculty union, alongside the other professional librarians of our university.

Our colleague’s statements were couched as simple lack of understanding of our position, but I feel with increasing certainty that they actually have nothing to do with the position being a new one in our library, and everything to do with the entanglement of the word “diversity” in our job description. This is another instance of someone making an automatic assumption that two first-generation, LGBTQ, ethnic-minority people could not possibly have EARNED positions of any rank –  that the positions must have been extended EXCLUSIVELY to DIVERSE PEOPLE. And *surely* diverse people haven’t gotten as far as becoming successful young professionals right? There can’t be any of THOSE running around yet (perish the thought!), so these two “girls” must be students. Why else would they have taken TEMPORARY JOBS?

Let me switch back to my non-sarcastic voice now so we can get a couple things straight. We are fully-credentialed. We possess robust experience; we have ideas for using our experience to inform our work here, and for leveraging the experience we gain here to do meaningful work in other institutions. We’ve paid thousands of dollars and some of the most productive years of our human lives as dues, to get ourselves through advanced degree programs and to build up the professional acumen that qualified us for our current positions. Not to speak of the countless moments of doubt, steeped in fathomless first-generation guilt, that we have worked ourselves through to convince ourselves that this work is worthy of our energies, that this profession is a worthy legacy to contribute to. For my part, I have worked for six long years in low-pay, no-benefits, assistant-level positions, waiting for the job well that dried out in 2009 to fill up again. I took this position because I thought that it could be a valuable addition to my CV (yes, my CV). I accepted it at a lower salary than one offered to me for a permanent position at another university in a town with a far lower cost of living. I took this position because I believed, despite knowing the potential shortfalls of “diversity residency” programs, that driving conversations about diversity into the full light of day is one of the most important things that I can do in this incredibly white, incredibly cis- and hetero- normative profession. I do not owe explanations for occupying any space or position. I’m here. Ready or not…