Neutrality Burns–Guest Post by Nina Clements

Note from Maria: I am very excited to publish the first guest post on Academic Library Instruction Burnout. Today’s post comes to you from my friend Nina Clements, who is a reference and instruction librarian outside of Philadelphia, where she lives in a house of books and cats.


In addition to struggling with instruction burnout from the grinding machine that is the college semester, I also find myself burned out on particular ideas. For instance, the neutrality of our profession as manifested in the ACRL Standards and the RUSA guidelines. If I believe the personal is political, how can I promise to espouse apolitical neutrality in my working life? Does such a thing even exist? In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks says that it doesn’t. Education is never politically neutral (Teaching to Transgress, 30).

As Lauren Wallis writes in her recent post on silence in libraries, “Whether it takes the form of a database demo or something else (CRAPP test, anyone?), skills-based, apolitical IL instruction silences librarians.” She goes on to explain what it is that we really do in instruction sessions:

“We lecture and demonstrate, we present research as sterile and detached from students’ real lives, we cover so much material that students absorb nothing. We might be talking a lot, but we are silenced because we are not able to truly teach, or to address the complexity of information literacy.”

This resonates with me; I almost never refer to myself as a teacher in library settings. I am an instructor and often provide very sterile instructions: access this course guide here, click there. I try to avoid this, incorporating as much active learning as I possibly can in my plans, but there’s a certain amount of pointing and clicking that seems inescapable. Wallis also notes that “Coming out of silence means we will make some people angry. After all, we’ve convinced everyone we’re just obedient, cheerful helpers.” I’m certainly guilty of this. I project an easy-going, “how-can-I-help-you” persona, even if there are very different thoughts and emotions buried under the surface.

I recently had an interesting discussion with a colleague about the need to meet students where they are, and how this means becoming complicit in the capitalist hegemony and commodification of education. One way I’ve struggled to resist is to avoid the language of capitalism when discussing my work. Instead of “reference transaction,” I refer to it as a conversation or interview. I tell students that we don’t rent books, we loan them, the way a friend might loan them a favorite book. A group of students approached the circulation desk where I spend most of my public service hours (another possible source of burnout, but that’s another post for another time) and mused, “Wouldn’t it be great if the library rented out computers you could use anywhere on campus, not just in the library?” I explained that we don’t rent computers, but we do lend them out, for a week at a time. Their reactions to this were mixed. They were thrilled and excited. Then they asked, “Why didn’t we know about this?” These students were business students, so they also expressed some disappointment that a potential business plan had fallen through for them. “We could have charged a lot of money for this,” they told me. I wish I had said something really pithy at that very teachable moment, but I just explained that libraries aren’t in the business of making money and that the campus library was a large benefit of going to school here. They looked at me like I was crazy. They couldn’t fathom an organization that was not in the business of making money, that was not in business in any recognizable way.

How do we change students’ consumerist ideas about education into something more personally and intellectually transformative? I don’t have an answer to this question, though this problem is not particular to librarians. bell hooks discusses this at length in Teaching to Transgress. She writes, “the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring.…and if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (3). I’m in total agreement, but how can we disrupt students’ notions of consumer-based education in a fifty-minute one-shot session? hooks continues to say that teaching is a performative act, and that is certainly true of library instruction, even if the performance often makes me feel like Vanna White. We are not a spectacle, as instructors/teachers/educators; we are catalysts (11).

Perhaps the fifty-minute one-shot is simply broken; perhaps we are expecting too much of ourselves in our desire to introduce students to library resources while disrupting their thoughts about such resources? To participate in the engaged pedagogy hooks describes, we need to “not merely…share education but…share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (11). But if this is impossible, what are we to do? These one-shots are our homemade bread and vegan butter.

The first step, I think, is to resist this view of education as individuals. Sometimes this means being unpopular or braving conflict even though the library profession as a whole is much more familiar with passive-aggressive strategies. But it is possible to engage in substantive disagreement/conflict while still remaining respectful of the positions/ideas of others. One way to unpack the burnout we feel is to dig a little deeper. Is it the sheer number of sessions that we’re asked to do without input from the teaching faculty, or is it the false construct of neutrality that undergirds these sessions? Is it the repression of the self? It seems that getting to the root of our exhaustion is the first step in understanding and combating it. The second step is reaching out to other librarians and creating space for a larger conversation.


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