“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.”

I don’t think it is unusual to encounter a guitar-strumming dude singing folky tunes at an outdoor Saturday farmers’ market. This is just part of the atmosphere, as normal and expected as the people selling local organic honey produced by lesbian separatist bees. But it is probably unusual to find that the guitar-strumming folk-singing dude is your boss, as in the director of your library. But that is what has happened to me a number of times over the past year. My library director is a musician and a writer as well as a librarian. He used to be the dining critic for our local paper. Now he plays guitar and sings in his own band, while also occasionally penning theater reviews for the local alternative weekly paper. He has a rich and interesting life outside of his job, which is something I desperately want to cultivate.

As I’ve been emerging from the numbness of burnout and depression and trying to reconnect with what brings meaning and purpose to my life, I’ve been experiencing these creative impulses and urges that I’m trying to figure out what to do with. I want to create things and have ideas and daydream. I’ve tried learning how to sew for a while now, but I can barely sew a straight line (see: my kitchen curtains). I’m pretty good at crocheting, but I haven’t made anything in ages. I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint, or draw, or play a proper musical instrument (the recorder in the fifth grade doesn’t count), but time and resources are a challenge. So mostly I’ve been expressing my creative urges through writing.

Writing my book a few years ago allowed a new voice to emerge from me, a voice that was a sort of hybrid of personal narrative and a more professional, scholarly voice. Writing in this voice was immensely satisfying for me, but I’ve also found recent satisfaction in other forms of writing. I attended the How-To Festival at the Louisville Free Public Library a few weeks ago, and I went to a session about how to write a sonnet. It was surprising to me how much information and knowledge I had retained about Shakespearean sonnets from high school English, but there it was, just sitting in my head, waiting to be drawn out. We wrote a sonnet in our little group session, and then later, I wrote some more. I’ve written a bunch of them since then, with rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter and everything. There’s something very satisfying and paradoxically liberating about working through an idea in the confined space and structure of a sonnet.

When I read over the sonnets I’ve written so far, there are many recurring themes: a desire to fly, a wish to be free, wanting to embrace what is true and real, a longing for calmness and peace, the yearning to be closer to something that is divine. And these feelings are emerging in other areas of my life. I find myself increasingly distressed and disgusted by my reading habits, my difficulty in focusing on things of substance, and my mindless internet browsing habits. I recently read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and I was startled and transfixed by her assertion: “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.” I want good books, good ideas, good creations to come out of me so very very much in every possible way, so ultimately I need to feed myself with better stuff.

While I was on sabbatical last year, I entertained lots of fantasies about quitting everything and being a writer of some kind and somehow making a living in this way. This is obviously not going to happen, but I talked about it with my boss last fall. We met for coffee about halfway through my sabbatical and I told him that I felt creatively frustrated and that I wasn’t sure if I could be a librarian forever and what was I going to do with my life and HEEELLLLLP. And he talked to me about cultivating a rich and interesting life outside of my job, how I might find personal fulfillment in doing other things than being a librarian, and while being a librarian can still be satisfying, it can also be the means to support more creative pursuits. And given his regular guitar-playing presence at Saturday farmers’ markets and the like, he knows of which he speaks.

This was revelatory for me. To think of librarianship as a thing I do, a thing that I mostly pretty much like, but also a thing to subsidize other interests and dreams—this was disconcerting but also kind of exciting. For basically my whole career thus far, being a librarian has been central to my identity. So, obviously, having moments of doubt about my future in the profession was very disorienting and confusing. If I’m not a librarian, then who am I? And how did I become someone who anchored my sense of self in my professional identity? If what I do is who I am, then it’s really no wonder that I’ve been struggling with burnout.

You’re not going to find me playing the guitar and singing at farmers’ markets or local stages any time soon, and you probably aren’t going to see me publishing my poems either. But you can find me here, in this space, trying to work through what it means to have meaning outside of my work, trying to feed myself with real food, and jiggling my creative limbs, which were previously asleep, but are now pin-prickingly awake.

Resisting burnout through the spiritual dimensions of feminist pedagogy

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to wrap my mind around this past semester. My campus has a master’s of interdisciplinary studies program, and I taught a course about feminist pedagogy in this program this spring. The class consisted of seven graduate students and two undergraduate students, since the class was cross-listed with the undergraduate honors program. There was something about teaching a course about feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogical methods that was simultaneously exhausting, to such a degree that it’s taken me awhile to be able to talk about it coherently and without wanting to cry, but at the same time incredibly enriching. Teaching this class opened a door to a way of teaching that embraced the affective dimension of teaching rather than shying away from it or resisting it, and it also provided access to a spiritual aspect of teaching that was unexpected, but still profoundly meaningful.

I think I wrote in my book (I say I think, because writing the book happened a long time ago and my memory is fuzzy) about how sometimes I feel like I have to obscure the feminist approaches to my teaching because I’m afraid of how people will react or respond. So to have the freedom to be unabashedly and justifiably explicit about my politics, and how they inform my teaching, was very exciting and liberating. To witness the power of feminist pedagogy each week, to see students’ perspectives—and even their lives!—transform each week—I don’t even know how to describe how moving and powerful this was for me. It was humbling. For example, I watched one of my students struggle to integrate her conservative Christian worldview with feminism all semester, and at the end of the semester, she wrote a paper that examined biblical passages to argue that Jesus was a feminist teacher. Another student experienced the death of her sister during the semester, and she shared with me that she employed feminist pedagogical methods to help her and her family plan the memorial service. Other students reported integrating feminist pedagogy into their work lives, into their relationships and personal lives, and it was a sincere and genuine privilege to witness their journeys throughout the semester.

I’m reminded of this concept from Celtic spirituality called the thin place or thin space, and it describes the place or space where you can sense and experience the divine more closely than you can anywhere else. This is my own definition of it, and if you Google around, you’ll read all kinds of perspectives on it, but this is the basic concept. I think that the term is meant to describe literal places, according to my understanding, but for me, teaching this course on feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogy was a kind of thin place, where my breath was regularly taken away by a feeling of proximity to something much, much bigger than I, where reading final papers was a spiritual experience, and assigning grades to them felt like blasphemy. The papers still sit in a pile on the bed in my study, because I feel terrible about recycling or shredding or otherwise disposing of them.

I’d like to describe myself as a pragmatic Roman Catholic-turned-Episcopalian who is mostly anti-New Agey or woo woo or whatever. But it is a true fact that I am wordlessly and ineffably drawn to Marian iconography, that I have a Virgen de Guadalupe candle on the desk in my study, that I have the Rublev Trinity icon hanging above my desk, as well as various things I’ve cut out from my church bulletin. But I don’t know how else to express it, except to say that I’m reminded of when I was an undergraduate in college, and one of my psychology professors was conducting research on I don’t even remember what, and we, his students, were regularly asked to fill out surveys about various things. I remember one of the questions, which I think was rated on a Likert scale, was something like, “I feel chills when I see beautiful works of art or read good poetry” or something along those lines. I rated this as a Strongly Agree, and I recall thinking to myself: “Wait, so there are people who don’t feel this way? What’s wrong with them?” I bring this up to try to draw a parallel, to try to explain that this particular teaching experience provoked similar feelings that are difficult to explain: this sense of being unaccountably moved, altered, transformed, just as I am by Psalm 4 or Richard Proulx’s Exodus Canticle.

I think feminist pedagogy can be a deeply healing experience for a teacher. For me, feminist pedagogy, whether in a semester-long course, or in a library instruction one-shot, is more taxing than more traditional modes of teaching. It takes a lot out of me, but the rewards are so rich and soul-feeding that it is worth it to me. And, for me, embracing feminist pedagogy is a way out of the soul-killing dehumanization that is burnout. Feminist pedagogy insists on and honors the humanity of both the teacher and the learner. These feelings are echoed in the work of one of my students, Katie, who gave me permission to use her name and quote from her paper. Katie’s paper argues that feminist pedagogy is a sacred experience, and she notes, “When the personal is no longer considered a valid area of sharing and exploring, both the teacher and student lose much of their personhood.” I believe this to be very, very true, and for me, resisting burnout in the library instruction classroom and beyond means embracing the difficult and demanding but gratifying and soul-feeding work of teaching through a feminist lens. This means being fully present as a teacher, as a person and participant with thoughts and feelings and perspectives and filters and baggage.

On the last day of class, I asked my students to tell a story, using words, images, or both, about their experience with feminist pedagogy. I provided them with sheets of paper and a box of crayons and played soothing instrumental music, and I participated in the activity as well. My image is below, and here is what it means: for me, teaching this class was a way of accessing and being my whole self, and the hole in my self, my soul, that was caused by burnout and depression and all sorts of things was healed and transformed and made new. And as I continue to progress on this journey that is teaching, I need to remember to continually draw upon—and simultaneously feed—my whole self, my whole soul, in order to seek renewal, healing, and joy.

me

I do not think that the Framework is our oxygen mask.

One of the reasons I grapple with burnout is that the content of library instruction, and the one-shot model through which I deliver it, is essentially the same thing over and over again. Yes, I can experiment with different teaching methods and activities and so on, but ultimately it’s all pretty much the same thing. So I’ve been interested in exploring whether the new ACRL IL Framework has any implications for resisting library instruction burnout.

First, though, I need to work though my thoughts about the Framework to begin with, and I have to say that as the conversations about the Framework started emerging and circulating over the past year or so, I mostly side-eyed it all pretty suspiciously. I was too burned out and cynical to really care very much. I read each draft as it came out, but I did not submit any feedback or participate in any of the public discussions.

It was with this same spirit of baffled wariness that I regarded the final official version “filed” by ACRL at Midwinter this year. I’m currently taking a Library Juice Academy class led by Andrea Baer in an effort to work through what the fuck I’m supposed to do with this thing, if anything. As of now, I’m still a little suspicious and not entirely convinced that the entire document needed to be articulated through the rhetoric of threshold concepts. But, ultimately, despite my wariness, I’m choosing to view the Framework as an invitation to re-envision what I do and how I do it. My library instruction program has had essentially the same learning outcomes for like a million years, so yeah, let’s revisit them, and yeah, let’s let the Framework stimulate our thinking.

I do not regard the Framework as a mandate to change or do things in a particular or specific way. ACRL does not have the final say about the library instruction program I oversee.

The vision of information literacy articulated by the Framework is more complex and conceptual than the vision offered by the old Standards, I would argue, and I would also contend that it’s rather more interesting than the old view of information literacy. Authority is Constructed and Contextual, you say? Well, yes. Of course it is.

But I don’t think that the Framework is necessarily my ticket out of Repetitiveteachingville, and here’s why: none of this reconceptualized vision of information literacy matters if a writing instructor emails me and asks me to “demonstrate how to use databases” for his students, and if the assignment for the writing class calls for students to find five scholarly peer-reviewed articles and no websites are allowed as sources at all.

That is, I’m not sure if the teaching faculty I work with will really care about this dressed up vision of information literacy.  Admittedly, I’ve not yet really engaged with them yet about these new developments in our field and how they might (or might not) inform our teaching practices, but just based on my years of experience of doing this? No. I mean, maybe like five of the fifty faculty members I work with regularly will care. Everyone else? They just don’t want their students to use Wikipedia, and they want me to reinforce that.

And to me, this is merely a symptom of the larger problem I face and that I’ve been struggling with for the better part of a decade. Despite my consistent and intensive and strategic outreach efforts, despite my partnering with faculty members who are indeed library champions who do get what we do and why, despite all of my efforts to chip away at the culture that marginalizes the very real teaching and learning work we do in the library, I’ll get a writing teacher sending his class to the library, with no notice, with a fucking scavenger hunt assignment that requires students to work with print reference books only. Please excuse me while I *headdesk* forever.

I get really tired of fighting to be taken seriously, to be regarded as a valued contributor to and participant in the teaching and learning community, not someone who merely sits at a desk and answers the phone and points out the bathrooms and “demonstrates” how to use a database. By the way, you know who can “demonstrate” how to use a database? Pretty much anyone who can type words in a box and click “search.” Asking me to “demonstrate” something does not value and respect my expertise.

To return to my main point—and I know this has gotten a bit ranty—the new Framework encourages us to “Reach out to potential partners in your institution, such as departmental curriculum committees, centers for teaching and learning, or offices of undergraduate or graduate studies, to discuss how to implement the Framework in your institutional context.” But here’s the thing: I’ve been doing all of these recommended strategies already for a really long time, and every time I make some headway and convince someone of the importance of the instruction we do, there’s always someone who doesn’t get it, and that someone who doesn’t get it doesn’t necessarily undo all of our progress, but it still feels pretty terrible and demoralizing.

So what do I do? Keep chipping away, making small changes and headway where I can and fuck the haters? I’m guessing that’s probably where I’ll go with this, but damn if it isn’t exhausting and, yes, conducive to burnout.

Framework or no Framework, the marginalization of library instruction—and the concomitant burnout—will not change unless there is a radical shift in the culture of academic libraries and higher education in general. And I’m not fully convinced that the Framework is the tool that will help us bring about this urgently needed shift.

 

I am a person.

I am a person: I find myself saying this a lot these days. When I’m encountering professional difficulties, personal life conflicts, or even difficult customer service experiences (Time Warner, I’m looking at you), I have this urge to insist on my own humanity in response to whatever conflict/difficulty/whatever I’m facing.

In trying to trace the origins of this curious assertion, I find myself reflecting on the following: This is part of my grappling with burnout recovery. I think a big part of experiencing professional burnout is this terrible, terrible sense of dehumanization. The emotional exhaustion and cynicism I’ve felt about instruction work has made me feel like I’m somehow less of a person, like I’m just this teaching robot inserted into Slot A in order to meet Objective A. And this dehumanization extends to the constituencies I serve as well, students and faculty alike. I feel terrible admitting it, but I reached a state last year where I found it profoundly difficult to have empathy for the students I worked with.

Maslach’s 1978 article on burnout is pretty much the foundation of all subsequent scholarship on the topic, and in the conclusion of this article, she makes this interesting assertion: “If we hope to improve the quality of staff-client contacts, we need to focus on changes on both sides of the exchange. The institutional system ultimately translates into people, and it is the way each of these people interacts with others that can either promote human values or destroy them” (p. 123). I think it is noteworthy to note that the “clients” we serve (mostly students and faculty) can also play a role in how we deal with burnout and wonder how this might actually play out in the particular context of instruction librarianship in higher education. If we were to insist on our own humanity in instructional settings, would that make our “clients” more aware that we, too, are people? What would it look like to insist on our own humanity? Is this basically just asserting ourselves when we feel like we’re being marginalized or dismissed? Or is it more than that?

It is also evident to me that I am a person is also part of my own mostly unbloggable emotional landscape. I’ve done a lot of interior work over the past several years on the idea that My Feelings Matter, and I Am A Person seems like a logical extension of that effort.

I’ve had a pretty terrible and emotionally taxing week for lots of reasons that I hope to explore in a subsequent post. Suffice it to say that for me, teaching using an intentionally feminist perspective means that I experience so so so so many feelings, the most feelingsy feelings that ever were felt in the history of feelings. I am tired, very tired.

In the end, the good thing about remembering that I am a person is that honoring and affirming my humanity and feelings is generally a good self-care practice. The fact that I am thinking I am a person is a good sign, a sign that I am thawing from the terrible, frozen sensations of burnout numbness.

The bad thing about is I am a person is oh, it hurts. It hurts. Like warming up after some awful frostbite, it hurts.

Reference:

Maslach, C. (1978). The client role in staff burn-out. Journal of Social Issues, 34(4), 111-124.