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?