The consequences of public ideas and sitting with the feelings

While on sabbatical last year, I read all kinds of stuff, and two works that made a big impression on me were Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Both books convinced me of the necessity of sharing my ideas instead of my usual practice, which is to jealously hoard my ideas, or share them only with a select few trusted people. It’s not that I think that my ideas are OMG SO GREAT that people are going to steal them and pass them off as their own, although this has happened. I also know that I don’t necessarily own ideas, that my ideas have an ancestry and lineage and genealogy and emerge from specific contexts, contexts that I of course cite, because citation matters.

So it was with that perspective in mind that I decided to make this burnout project a blog instead of a lengthy IRB-approved qualitative study of some kind. It’s not that studies aren’t valid and useful ways of sharing ideas; it just takes a whole lot longer, and this project had a sense of urgency to me that I could not ignore.

My vision for the blog is that all kinds of voices will be represented in the discussion of library instruction burnout, and that it would be a safe space for talking openly about the subject. (So far, my two guest posts have been really excellent contributions to the conversation, and I’m always interested in hosting more, so please get in touch if this is of interest to you.) And I knew that by making this a public blog, it would be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the know-how to track it down. Still, though, it was hard to imagine that anyone other than librarians would really care about my writing, so that’s always the audience I’ve imagined and have written with that audience in mind.

So it was very surprising and not a little worrisome to me when I was recently notified by WordPress that my last post had been Freshly Pressed. Honestly, my first instinct was to take the post down, or to make it private, and I still kind of wish I did, because over the last 48 hours, hundreds of random internet strangers have liked the post, commented on the post, or become a follower of my blog. The comments have not always been insightful or useful and many times completely miss my point and are kind of annoying. I have not approved any new comments, actually, because it made me so uncomfortable to even countenance interacting with random internet strangers, and then this morning I disabled commenting altogether.

My discomfort as a result of being Freshly Pressed made me seriously confront my previous revelations about sharing ideas. Isn’t this how innovation happens? Isn’t this how hunches grow and develop and progress? Ideas cannot flourish in isolation, right? They need other ideas to connect to and bounce off of. That was the whole point of making this blog a publicly accessible project.

The difference for me, though, is that in order to connect and be productive and fruitful, the networks that connect the ideas need to be cultivated in a safe place. Suddenly having my ideas on full blast, and having people who were not my intended audience reading my stuff, felt unsafe to me.

It occurs to me now that publishing a blog post that is widely read is not necessarily very different from publishing a book. I’ve done that, too, and that too feels a little weird and terrifying to have all manner of unknown strangers reading your stuff, especially when it turns out that a lot of people read it and like it. My book came out two years ago, and I’m still getting emails from strangers who want to tell me that they like my book. It is a singularly bizarre feeling. It’s very nice and not unwelcome, don’t get me wrong! But it’s just so strange to me that the book I spent two years writing mostly in isolation has a life outside of me now.

I don’t know how to reconcile the tension and discomfort of wanting to have a public platform and then the actual consequences of having that public platform. Austin Kleon and Steven Johnson and all of the Share Your Ideas people don’t really talk about what it feels like to share those ideas. So here’s how it feels: NOT GOOD. NOT SAFE. It feels FEELINGY. One of the lessons of my adult life that I have to keep learning and relearning is to Sit With The Feelings. Even if it feels terrible, I just have to let the feelings happen, and then eventually they pass, for the most part. So I think that this is the answer here, for now, for this present discomfort. I did a thing, and now things are happening, and I’m just going to sit with it.

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Now hiring smiling faces (and who cares about your insides)

This morning I drove past a Burger King that was announcing via outside signage: “Now hiring smiling faces!” My usual response to seeing signs like this is to conjure up a mildly disturbing mental image of disembodied grinning visages rolling (how else would a disembodied face travel?) into Burger King and filling out job applications with…I don’t know what. With a pen in their mouths? How does a disembodied smiling face do anything, really?

But this morning, my customary weird mental picture faded as some more troubling thoughts emerged. What does it mean to advertise that you’re hiring “smiling faces”? I think it mostly means that you don’t really give a shit about what’s on the inside of a person as long as they are presenting a picture of friendliness and happiness on the outside. I’ve been on the receiving end of some unpleasant customer service interactions in which the worker had something less than a smiling face, and it certainly doesn’t make that encounter very fun, but at the same time, I am uncomfortable with this idea of emotional labor, that employers can demand that you feel a certain way—or at least display a certain feeling—as a part of doing your job. The space between the display of feeling and the actual feeling is often cavernous and disorienting and feels pretty terrible.

When I was on sabbatical last year, the ideas I originally wanted to explore ended up meandering into—guess what?—burnout. I started reading everything I could find about burnout, especially as it related to instruction librarians, and the earliest article (Becker, 1993) I could find on the topic is also the one that offended me the most. Becker basically says the solution to burnout is maybe we should be less enthusiastic and aspirational about our work. No, really, here’s what she says: “Unfortunately, emotions and attitudes (such as this ‘enthusiasm’) are very susceptible to the causes of burnout listed above. The individual strategy of lowering unrealistic goals is seldom mentioned” (p. 355). Becker also notes:

At the professional level, to relieve the heavy burden of guilt and feelings of failure caused by the setting of overly idealistic goals, philosophies of bibliographic instruction should be reexamined and restated in light of typical real-life situations, without sacrificing vision or discouraging exploration. Bibliographic instruction librarians presenting pragmatic sessions on practical library research skills should not be reviled or maligned in the library literature (p. 355).

This remarkably pessimistic view is kind of depressing to me, and it seems like it would be more conducive to burnout than being disappointed that my high expectations weren’t met, or if my enthusiasm were disillusioned. Becker’s view also seems to acknowledge that there is a difference between how we feel and how we’re expected to publicly enact our feelings, and that this difference is just something we should accept as normal, something we should live with and try to regulate and maybe even stifle. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this strikes me as an unusually damaging and dehumanizing prescription for the problem of burnout.

This idea of emotional labor is something I’ve talked about here before. Hochschild (1983) studied flight attendants, who certainly are required to engage in emotional labor to a significant degree, and she notes that one of them reported to her that being required to display positive feelings all the time made it hard for her to recognize and understand her real actual feelings. This is, as the kids say these days, relevant to my interests.

Here’s where these two things are getting entangled for me: The confusing space between how I actually feel and how I’m supposed to visibly feel is, to me, a factor in burnout. If I’m expected to behave as though I’m always on, always ready to be at service, always poised to answer your question or teach you how do to a thing, but I don’t feel appreciated or acknowledged or valued as a person who has expertise and who can do all of those things, then I feel like my feelings don’t really matter either, which is ultimately dehumanizing. Furthermore, Becker’s argument that librarians should somehow be less enthusiastic and idealistic about teaching as a way of combating burnout also feels really invalidating and dehumanizing to me as well, which is the opposite of what I think she claims it will do.

Encountering Becker’s article while I was beginning to unravel this whole burnout thing last year was kind of disheartening. My reading of it almost made me feel like burnout was my own fault. It was my own fault for having idealistic and enthusiastic visions of the exciting potential of library instruction and what it can do for the students I teach. It was my own fault for idealistically and enthusiastically linking my politics to my teaching practice in an effort disrupt the damaging power relations that govern higher education, and, ultimately, the world at large. I obviously needed to lower my expectations and focus on “real-life situations,” right?

But what is more “real-life” than to acknowledge, make visible, and provide resources to explore racism (Pagowsky & Wallace, 2015) or the Iraq war or the Occupy movement (Ryan & Sloniowski, 2013). How is it not “real-life” to teach students about the imperfect structures and methods libraries use to organize information and make it accessible and knowable (Drabinski, 2013)? Or what exactly is not “real-life” than to encourage critical examination of Wikipedia as a way of talking about how privilege and power dictate who gets to say what and about whom (Jacobs, 2010)? These are actual real things in the world, and to ignore these actual real things and just stick to “pragmatic research skills” is a missed opportunity and does our students a disservice and makes me feel like I’m supposed to be some feeling-less teaching robot.

If this makes me idealistic, then fine, I’m idealistic. And to ask or imply that I should do otherwise as a way of combating burnout? This is what I would call—wait for it—“unrealistic.” An approach to teaching and reference that sheds light on how information is produced and disseminated and tries to empower students to transform the power structures that obscure and erase the marginalized—this is one way I am able to shorten the distance between “now hiring smiling faces” and my real actual feelings. And I really don’t know any other way of doing this work and not wanting to crawl in a hole and disappear.


 

P. S. Citation matters.

Becker, K. (1993). The characteristics of bibliographic instruction in relation to the causes and symptoms of burnout. RQ, 32(3), 346-358.

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction. Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, H. L. M. (2010). Posing the Wikipedia “problem”: Information literacy and the praxis of problem-posing in library instruction. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A. Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 179-197). Duluth: Library Juice Press.

Pagowsky, N., & Wallace, N. (2015). Black lives matter! Shedding library neutrality rhetoric for social justice. College and Research Libraries News, 76(4), 196.

Ryan, P. & Sloniowski, L. (2013). The public academic library: Friction in the Teflon funnel. In L. Gregory & S. Higgins (Eds.), Information literacy and social justice: Radical Professional Praxis (pp. 275-296). Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

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.

Emotional labor and library instruction

I’m having a complicated tangle of thoughts about library instruction burnout, and I’m hoping that a regular writing regimen, using this blog as a platform, will help me work through these thoughts. Right now, my thoughts involve the interconnectedness of things like the concept of emotional labor (work that requires an external display of positive emotions that may be in conflict with the worker’s real actual internal emotions, see Hochschild, 2003), the role of affect in the formation of teacher identity, the necessity of a self-care practice for those engaged in the emotional labor of teaching, and how peculiar it is to me that, as far as I am able to determine, hardly anyone really officially talks about this entanglement when talking about instruction librarianship.

For example: consider the ACRL Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators: A Practical Guide. I have consulted this document regularly since its 2007 publication to help guide my practice and professional development, as well as the professional development of the librarians who teach in the program I coordinate. As the document itself states, “This document is intended to help instruction librarians define and gain the skills needed to be excellent teachers in library instruction programs and to foster collaborations necessary to create and improve information literacy programs.” And it pretty much does just that. The Standards address things like administrative skills, curriculum knowledge, presentation skills, etc.

But it seems to me that an essential skill for being an instruction librarian or instruction coordinator is the ability to regulate the complicated emotions that are inevitably part of being a teacher. Julien and Genuis (2009) describe the results of a qualitative study of Canadian academic and public librarians involved in instructional work: “A full range of affective experiences were manifest in the diary and interview data” (p. 929). Study participants reported a wide range of emotions, ranging from pleasure and enthusiasm to more negative emotions, such as frustration and disappointment. As the authors note, “the teaching experience is not always a joyful one” (p. 930). Julien and Genuis conclude with the observation that “individuals and organizations will benefit from considering the influence of emotional labour on library staff with instructional duties” (p. 934).

So why aren’t skills related to negotiating the emotional labor of teaching just as essential as presentation skills or leadership skills? The absence of these skills in the Standards—indeed, the actual invisibility of the reality of affect in the Standards—seems to me to resonate with the anxiety Julien and Genuis’s study participants reported about the “visibility or invisibility of instructional outcomes” (p. 931). The participants struggled with the feeling that their teaching efforts didn’t matter, because the nature of the one-shot library instruction model means that you rarely have “tangible proof” that a student actually learned something. In short, instruction librarians battle the negative emotions of feeling invisible in many ways, and at the same time, the official professional document that purports to formalize the skills we need to be good instruction librarians further invisibilizes us by completely ignoring the central role of affect in instructional work.

However, I am ready to make visible the skills we need to negotiate the very real emotional labor of instruction librarianship. In the coming weeks, I want to explore my hunch that one way of coping with library instruction burnout is validating the reality of having complicated feelings about the work we do and identifying ways of negotiating these complicated feelings.

Reference:

Julien, H., & Genuis, S. K. (2009). Emotional labour in librarians’ instructional work. Journal of Documentation, 65(6), 926-937.