Coming out of the spiritual closet

This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.

So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom.  So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.

Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.

Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.

So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.

I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.


Hearing, processing, and mindfulness

anatomy of the human ear
A diagram of the anatomy of the human ear. “Tidens naturlære fig40” by Morten Bisgaard – From the book “Tidens naturlære” 1903 by Poul la Cour. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

This is a story about hearing and understanding, and it will eventually connect to burnout.

I have been dealing with what I believed to be progressively worsening hearing loss for quite awhile now, over a year, at least. I hear things, but I don’t understand. Everything sounds garbled, or I’ll miss the beginning of a sentence and spend the rest of the sentence trying and failing to catch up. Talking in a place with lots of background noise is the worst. I am constantly asking my wife to repeat herself, which is annoying and tiresome to both of us.

I finally mentioned it to my primary care doctor this summer while consulting him about other matters. He told me he could refer me to get my hearing tested, but unless I was willing to pursue getting hearing aids if indicated, there probably wasn’t much point in getting tested. At that point, I was quite resistant to hearing aids, so I did not ask for that referral. But over this past month, I found myself mentally ready to get hearing aids if it turned out that’s what I needed. My inability to understand people was not just impairing my domestic life, but it was adversely affecting my encounters at the reference desk and in the classroom. I was tired of asking people to repeat themselves, and I was also tired of feeling ashamed that I needed people to repeat themselves, because apparently it’s terrible to need accommodations. Yes, I know how dumb that sounds.

Last week, I returned to my primary care doctor, who referred me to an ENT practice. Today I had my appointment, which consisted of a hearing test with an audiologist and then a consultation with an otolaryngologist. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that I have normal hearing. In fact, the doctor and audiologist both said I had excellent hearing. The achievement addict in me preened a bit at this, of course, and then I was like, wait a minute, what’s going on then? Why am I having such a hard time hearing and understanding things?

It turns out that I have a processing problem, not a hearing problem. I am hearing people just fine when they speak, but my brain is taking longer to process the information, so that’s why it sounds garbled to me, and why I need people to repeat themselves, so I have more time to process and translate the information. My doctor said that the neurons that affect the processing of auditory input can decline over time due to the normal aging process–or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the basic idea.

It was at this point that about eighty million revelatory lights came on in my head. I have always had immense difficulty understanding things like verbal instructions or verbal driving directions. When I’m making group study room reservations over the phone at the reference desk, I die a little on the inside when someone has to spell their name for me, because hearing a word spelled aloud sounds like gobbledygook to me and I usually have to have them repeat it more than once. In fact, despite my excellent vocabulary and spelling skills, I stopped participating in school spelling bees at an early age because I have great difficulty understanding a word when it’s spelled aloud, even if I’m the one doing the spelling. Hearing a word spelled out sounds like hearing a foreign language, or a grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Since nothing is real or true until I can research it, I started googling almost the minute I left the doctor’s office. It turns out that there is a thing called auditory processing disorder, which my doctor did not mention, and I don’t believe I have, because I’ve never had a speech problem, and I definitely have not had any academic problems. However, some of the characteristics strongly resonated with me.

A processing problem like mine is not fixable. This is not something that can be addressed with hearing aids. You just have to adapt. My wife almost seemed kind of excited at the prospect of helping me to develop adaptations to this challenge, which seemed weird at first, but then made sense, since she was born with a visual impairment and was educated at a school for the blind, where one of the main things they teach you is how to cope with a world that was not designed for you. My wife is the Queen of Adaptation ruling over the Kingdom of Making It Work. And looking back, I can see how I’ve developed adaptations to my difficulties over the years. For whatever reason, translating a spelled-aloud word into a typed word is about 10 times harder to me than it is to hand write it. So when I’m talking on the phone to people and they need to spell their name, or an author’s name, I take my hands off the keyboard and try to hand write it.

Another thing the doctor said was that when I miss the beginning of the sentence, I shouldn’t panic and try to figure what I missed, but instead I should pay attention to the rest of the sentence that I’m hearing just fine. If I do the latter, I probably can figure out the part I missed by context. There are some customer service encounters I have where this always happens–why is always so loud in Chipotle?–but if I pay attention and hear BLAH BLAH YOU? I can pretty safely assume that the words I missed were probably “May I,” so I need to not internally freak out so much and just do the best I can with what I do understand.

And isn’t this just like life in general anyway? It is for me. I struggle so hard to just fucking pay attention and sit with the feelings and that I end up not experiencing the actual moment I am in. I have learned and read a lot about mindfulness over the past several years, and it is something I am trying to cultivate, but it is hard. A few weeks ago, I had an especially restful and blissful and pleasant weekend, and I turned to my wife and said aloud, “I am experiencing happiness!” Everything just felt so amazing and perfect that I had to mark it in some way and bask in the loveliness of a fall day, a clear blue sky, a leisurely walk around my neighborhood.

And here’s how I’m connecting this to burnout: for me, responding to and resisting burnout involves mindfulness. It requires intentional, deliberate attention to what brings me pleasure and joy and what makes me feel alive. It was indeed revelatory to learn that I do not have hearing loss, but it was also meaningful to have my problem reframed in a way that made a thousand different kinds of sense. It was helpful to get yet another reminder that the only way I’m going to be able to continue shuffling through this weird life and feel moderately okay doing it is to just pay attention–to listen, to do the best with what I have, to adapt, to be here.

Elle’s Story–An Anonymous Guest Post

I am pleased to present another guest post this week at This story comes from Elle, who completed her MLIS in 2012.


When I reflect upon the way I felt during my first year as an instruction librarian, I realize that during that year, I felt a lot of the same feelings that function as signals that a relationship is not healthy. I started out enthusiastic, happy, and passionate, and ended up emotionally drained, confused, and alone. As is often the case when a relationship ends, it’s taken me some time to be able to begin untangling the various aspects of the situation in order to make sense of what went wrong.

At some point during the past several years, I started thinking of my work as a kind of relationship. Work, like a relationship or partnership, requires a mutual commitment, along with a significant investment of effort and energy from both sides. As is the case in a partnership (intimate or otherwise), in order for a relationship between an employee and an organization to be successful, both parties must feel that they benefit or are enriched in some way in order for the arrangement to be worthwhile. Healthy relationships and partnerships involve giving and receiving; we may give freely and happily, but in order to sustain our ability to give, we must receive something in return. Likewise, for people who genuinely care about the work that they do and the quality their work, work involves a great deal of emotional energy, and if that energy does not elicit results that allow that energy to be recharged and strengthened, our ability to care about our work slowly, inevitably burns out.

My first job as a professional librarian was a part-time position in a learning commons at a local not-for-profit career college. My official title was Academic Resource Coordinator, which meant that I had some role in all of the services that the learning commons offered, which included writing center services, tutoring services, and library services, among other things. Library instruction was just one thing on a long list of learning support services that the learning commons was responsible for providing to the campus.  I was aware that the learning commons model presents a set of challenges for academic libraries, but having heard the message of “embrace change” that seemed to be the rallying cry of academic librarians throughout my time as a student in library school, I was prepared to do just that. Thus, I entered my new role with a mindset similar to what I think lays the foundation of a successful relationship: I was unreservedly committed, optimistic, aware of the challenges and opportunities the situation presented, and I genuinely wanted it to be successful.

Sadly, it turned out that making a commitment to the job and genuinely wanting to be successful in the job was not enough. At first, I felt like something was just…missing. I didn’t feel great about my instruction sessions, for a number of reasons. Instruction sessions were routinely scheduled just a few hours ahead of time, which meant that I got very little time to prepare, and practically no opportunity to communicate with instructors regarding their expectations for the session. Even more problematic was the fact that the instructors’ expectations for library instruction sessions were beyond reasonable for the 30 minutes that was the standard amount of time that a session was scheduled for. In addition to talking about locating and evaluating sources, I was expected to discuss not just citing sources, but the actual formatting of in-text citations and references, along with things like paraphrasing, avoiding plagiarism, and so on.

I slowly began to realize that I was pouring my emotional and intellectual energy into a service—library instruction—that appeared to be little more than an afterthought to the college. I didn’t feel confident that I could really provide a very high quality instruction session for which I had little notice, little time to prepare, and so on. Early on, I saw these issues as process-related things that could be and should be remedied at the department level. But as time went on, I began to get the sense that there was a culture of indifference towards library instruction that went beyond the ways that the learning commons managed its workflow. Instructors expected a lot from the sessions (e.g., searching strategies, citing sources, avoiding plagiarism, APA formatting) but didn’t see any need to contact the learning commons within a reasonable amount of time to schedule a session ahead of time, and these attitudes had apparently been unchallenged by the administration. The head of the learning commons, who had previously served as dean of general education at this same college, seemed generally unconcerned about scheduling sessions on extremely short notice, as though it hadn’t really occurred to her that inadequate time to prepare might compromise the quality of library instruction sessions.

And then, there was the worst part of all: A significant number of the students were woefully underprepared to use computers independently, so teaching anything about locating, evaluating, and synthesizing sources was, for the most part, out of the question. Once, toward the beginning of one of my sessions, a student asked a question about accessing library resources off-campus, which is a reasonable technical question for a library instruction session. After answering this, without giving much thought to what kinds of responses I might get, I asked the class if anyone else had any similar questions. One student raised her hand, and asked if I could show them how to email an assignment to the instructor, which turned into an overview of saving and uploading documents. On a different occasion, I spent an entire session answering questions about Microsoft Word and discussing workarounds that students could use if they did not have access to Microsoft Word off-campus.

Basic computer literacy and technological readiness for college-level coursework are issues that I think should probably get more attention from the field of academic librarianship broadly; at the very least, these issues are deserving of a separate blog post. Suffice it to say that for me, as an instruction librarian, it was disorienting and disheartening that the college seemed either unaware or unconcerned about this. It seemed like the college was okay with treating library instruction as a kind of catch-all service that would, in theory, fill in the gaps in students’ computer skills, information skills, critical thinking skills, and communication skills (e.g., what does it mean to paraphrase another person’s words?). Paradoxically, even though library instruction seemed to be viewed as a one-stop shop service, it was treated inconsiderately and with little respect, as evidenced by the fact that instructors wanted sessions on extremely short notice, with the expectation that sessions would be not much more than 30 minutes long. (I was once told, off the record, that the 30 minute thing had been put in place by the administration, which wanted to hold instructors accountable for making appropriate use of their classroom time with their students.)

It didn’t take long before I became aware that I was expending a significant amount of energy attempting to mask the negative emotions that I was feeling about my work. I developed canned responses to use when people asked me how things were going, and if was I liking my job. I regularly took time before the start of my work day to “get in to character” so as to be able to present in an appropriate manner. I developed a cognitive protocol that I intentionally activated when I found myself in situations where, either during reference duty or during an instruction session, I felt unpleasant emotions welling up. It was exhausting. But I pressed on, until I couldn’t. For me, the tipping point came when I began to feel like my commitment to the quality of my work and the energy and passion that I had for it just simply did not matter: The fact that I cared about the quality and effectiveness of library instruction sessions was, at best, at odds with the college’s view of library instruction, and at worst, probably worked against me. I mean, if I hadn’t cared about the quality of my sessions, it probably would not have bothered me that I got little notice and virtually no time to prepare. If I didn’t view information literacy as essential to a valuable undergraduate education, it likely would not have mattered to me that I didn’t really get to teach it. The fact that I cared was my downfall.

Clearly, there were a number of different things going on in this situation, all of which worked together to create a situation that I ultimately felt that I could not stay in and care adequately for my emotional well-being. For me, I think these issues created a situation in which I did not feel needed: If what is needed for library instruction services is simply someone who will show up, answer computer-usage questions, and give very cursory overviews of basic information strategies, then all they really needed was someone with basic computer skills. They didn’t really need someone with an MLIS and an understanding of information literacy, and they certainly didn’t need me, an individual with a unique approach to teaching and a genuine passion for quality education. In this situation, it became clear to me that what was needed was someone who was willing to give a great deal and take on lots of responsibilities, but who would understand and accept that they shouldn’t ask for much of anything in return.[1] One day, it suddenly hit me: If this were a relationship, I would be a complete fool to continue to invest my energy and my time into such a relationship.

I left the learning commons voluntarily after one year. I felt depleted and disillusioned; I felt like I just did not have very much left to give, and I had begun to question my goals of becoming a full-time academic librarian. So, for now, I’m unattached; I’m working on a number of academic-library related groups and projects, none of which involve a full-fledged relationship with any one institution.

That having been said, I have not abandoned hope of somehow finding my way back to a meaningful role in an academic library setting, although the thought of being responsible for a significant amount of in-person library instruction really does not appeal to me. My hope is that I can find a way to contribute to increased institutional awareness of the importance of information literacy and the value that academic libraries can add to the quality of education that students receive. I think that working as an instruction librarian—that is, delivering one-shot instruction sessions—is an important first step in joining the field-wide effort to enhance instruction librarians’ roles on college and university campuses. It could even be argued that conditions like those I experienced in my first library instruction position—being responsible for providing instruction sessions with little or no notice, not having an office to work in, or an opportunity to do any instruction-related work away from the reference desk—are to be expected and endured because these experiences are prerequisites to gaining better, more “academic” positions in the future.  I am concerned, though, that the costs associated with positions like these outweigh the potential benefits that *might* accompany different roles that an instruction librarian *might* have the opportunity to pursue later on in his or her career. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been in the market for an academic library job knows, we mostly do not get to choose to go only to institutions where we can be reasonably confident that we will be valued. Many of us, especially those of us who are relatively new to the field, have to take whatever experience we can get and try to create a path towards securing our ideal roles and positions. But if, for whatever reason, we end up at institutions willing to treat master’s degree-level people as little more than matchsticks, to be burned through and discarded, then the process of getting the required experience can be extremely costly. As a relative newcomer to the field, I was not at all prepared for the harsh realities of the one library instruction position that I was able to secure as a recent graduate. I suspect that I am not alone in this. I think it would be appropriate for us, as a field of educators, to ask ourselves whether we are adequately preparing students in our field for the broad range of library instruction positions and responsibilities that they might encounter.

[1] This feeling was especially jarring given the job-search process and subsequent interview process that I experienced on my path towards securing this job, which is a topic that is deserving of far more discussion. For now, I will simply say that while there are many factors that impact the job market at any given time, and individual institutions do not control the job market, institutions can control the interview process that they subject applicants to. If what is needed for a library instruction position is someone who will show up, answer computer-usage questions, and give very cursory overviews of basic information strategies, then the interview process should reflect that. It is absurd for an institution to subject a candidate to an academic-esque interview process for a position that will not allow that employee to do anything academic whatsoever.

A library instruction experience that I actually enjoyed!

I had a very pleasant and satisfying library instruction experience today, and I want to talk about what made it so. I think that the pleasure of this session served as a useful inoculation against repetitive burnout-inducing teaching.

Context: I was asked to visit a group of incoming first year students attending a week-long writing intensive workshop designed to give them a head start on the conventions and expectations of college writing before the semester starts. The workshop took place in the writing center, which has an instructor workstation with a giant touch screen display and student workstations. I was given 60 minutes. The writing center director is leading the workshop all week, and she talked to them about the CRAAP test before I got there. I have a strong, collaborative relationship with the writing center director going back several years. We share similar goals and try to make the most of where our instructional interests intersect and overlap.

What I Did: I prepared an activity that asked students to consider three different information sources on the same topic and answer questions about the audience, creator(s), and purpose of each source, and why those things matter to them specifically. I chose a Wikipedia article, a scholarly article, and a .gov website on the topic (distracted driving) and linked to them in a LibGuide for them to access easily. The students worked in three groups, each assessing one of the three sources and answering the questions, then we talked about all three as a whole class. I’ve done more complicated versions of this activity (more sources and more questions), and this was a more streamlined, simplified version. I spent the majority of the time guiding the activity and subsequent discussion of the sources and how our conversation connected to the conventions and concerns of college writing in general. I spent only a little bit of time showing them how to navigate the library home page, keyword brainstorming, and search phrase construction. I gave the writing center director a handout about this to distribute later.

What I Worried About: I did have some concerns about the students having been introduced to the CRAAP test before I got there. It’s not that that the CRAAP test isn’t useful; I just didn’t know how she had sold it to them, and if it had been presented as a set of flexible guidelines or as a rigid code to which they had to adhere. I didn’t think it was the former, because I know the writing center director pretty well, but I still worried about it. I personally referred to it as a set of flexible guidelines and also talked about how authority is constructed and contextual. (Look at me being all Frameworky and everything!) Also, I felt worried about whether they would actually talk and participate during the group work time and whether I was going to be uncomfortable and nervous while I waited for them to complete the task. For me, this discomfort/nervousness, or the anticipation thereof, is a trigger to shift into autopilot lecture-and-demonstrate mode as a security blanket.

What Worked: The group work was successful! The students made astute and complex observations about the sources and asked smart questions. I think I chose good, accessible sources—the scholarly article, in particular, was not especially full of jargon. The body language and facial expressions of the students indicated that they were mentally present, paying attention, and engaged.

How I Felt: I felt energized and excited to be there and work with them. I felt like this wasn’t just one of a billion interchangeable generic library instruction sessions. I liked that I spent minimal time on pointing-and-clicking and more time in conversation about bigger picture issues. I think this energy, and the novelty of trying something new, helped me counteract my usual triggers.

What I Will Do Next: Try to build opportunities for interactive conversations about more conceptual stuff at the beginning of instruction sessions. My tendency is to do more explanatory/overview stuff first, and then move to discussion, but maybe launching the discussion right from the start improves the energy and sequencing of the session’s activities. I didn’t build in any formal assessment mechanisms into the session, and if I repeat this activity in some form in the future, I’ll need to think about incorporating some sort of quick classroom assessment technique.

Zinemaking My Burnout–Guest Post by Donna Witek

I am delighted to present this guest post that describes a creative way of dealing with burnout. Donna Witek is an Associate Professor and academic instruction librarian in Northeast Pennsylvania. She blogs at Information Constellation and tweets about libraries, parenting, and technology as @donnarosemary. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably in her office coloring.


Under this blog’s title is a tagline and an invitation: “what we talk about when we talk about burnout”.

So, let’s talk.

I’m burnt out on assessment.

Many who read this particular blog will likely see that statement and say, “Oh yes, indeed, been there (and maybe still am).” This helps me, because believe it or not, I am not in the mood to use words to analyze why I’m burnt out on assessment. Most of it feels too self-evident for me to do that productively.

But even for the parts that aren’t self-evident, writing words about why assessment, as it is structurally and institutionally handed down to librarians like me (which may not be the ‘ideal’ of what assessment could be, but is still my present reality)…writing words about this isn’t going to help me right now, because at the end of all those potential words, I still need to do assessment.

Words can be powerful. The act of naming things helps us understand them better. And by understanding them, we may* have the capability of doing something about them (i.e., reflection into action).

But the words I have inside me, in reference to assessment, are a mess that I’m not ready to shape into something fit for public consumption.

So I made a zine instead.

This is the part I’m excited to talk about in this post about what we talk about when we talk about burnout. (Try saying that three times fast!)

I took a thing I feel, in ways that are pretty big and overwhelming, and I turned it into a tangible thing that tells a small part of the story of what’s happening inside me in reference to assessment. And it helped.

There are of course words in my zine–including what can only be described as bad (but satisfying!) poetry, written by yours truly. So words certainly helped me along here. But zinemaking also involved cutting with scissors, writing things out in pen, drawing pictures with highlighters, and shaping the space that falls between the boundaries of the zine template I chose to use to tell the story I need it to tell.

The specific aspect of assessment I’m burnt out on right now is rubrics–writing them, teaching with them, and scoring them.

So I turned my burnout about rubrics into a zine.

This process challenged me to shape my burnout into something others can see and engage with, and my feelings about this one part of assessment have now been named, not through a detailed text-based analysis, but through and in a zine. Which I made out of my burnout.

It’s the best act of self care I’ve done this summer (with a close second going to taking up coloring). And Maria has encouraged me to share it with all of you.

My zine is called Outside the Lines, and over in my little corner of the internet you can access it, trade for it, or buy it at cost. Here’s the tagline I wrote for it:

A zine about the liminal spots on the page where learning / understanding / living / loving / making / doing / being must sprawl outside the lines in order to actually happen.

And here’s a sneak peak at the cover (scanned in color for digital viewing):

Using that red highlighter was sooooo satisfying.

There are so many things in my life, both professional and personal, to which this idea–this tension between order and sprawl–applies. Rubrics are the topic of volume 1, issue 1. I’m hoping to create a new issue twice a year on a different topic each time.

I want to make zinemaking a part of my praxis as an academic instruction librarian (to bring this back around to the project of this blog). I learned this summer that taking my burnout, and turning it into something material that tells at least a small part of the story going on inside me, helps me see it clearer, understand it better, and shifts my feelings toward it from burneverythingdownrightnowrageragerage, to “hey, look at this rad thing I made out of that crappy feeling”.

It’s hard to explain why this shift matters, but it does. It makes it so I can face fall semester, during which I know I will have to write, teach with, or score at least one new rubric. It also makes it so I can go through fall semester keeping an eye out for other things about which I have that ragey feeling, so I can target those things as topics for future zines, transforming my feelings about them into something satisfying and tangible to share with others.

It’s like I have a new twice-a-year therapist, made out of paper, post-its, pens, scissors, glue, and highlighters. So even when I can’t write out in detailed language what my burnout is like, I’ll now be able to talk about my burnout through the regular act of zinemaking.

And knowing this makes facing my next task involving (effing) rubrics palatable.


*I say “may” because, even if analysis leads to deeper understanding about a problem, and even if that in turn leads to ideas for how to change the situation to make it better, so often there are structural barriers in place that make putting these ideas into action impossible or close to it.

Flipping the switch on worry and burnout

“Illuminated light switch” by Mikewarbz at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

When I think about being a little kid, my childhood memories are mostly filtered through a haze of stomachaches. I was an anxious kid who mostly channeled her anxiety into stomachaches rather than, oh, I don’t know, crying? Talking about it to a trusted adult? Acknowledging my feelings in general? I had a lot of very good, and very unbloggable, reasons to be anxious as a kid, but I think I have—and still have—an innate tendency toward worry. It seems to be central part of my mental landscape. Much of the work of my adult life has involved trying to deal with this anxiety, which seems to be more prevalent at some times rather than others.

Right now there’s this whole cluster of work-related worries that are occupying my energy. Much of these worries are also unbloggable. A cryptic and general way of describing these concerns would be that I’ve been worrying a lot about making do with scarce resources. I was going on and on about the latest permutation of my concerns while making dinner with my wife the other night, and she said something along the lines of, “They don’t pay you enough to worry about work in your free time.”

This assertion shifted something inside of me. I’ve always been a person who, in the words of Mem Fox, aches with caring about things that matter to me. I can probably attribute much of my academic and professional successes to this tendency. I care a whole fucking lot about things, and it pretty much consumes me. Or, I should say, I allow it to consume me. It also helps, or should I say “helps,” that I work in higher education, which fosters a toxic culture that urges people to give and give and give and give while eliminating more and more resources and support.

I’m going to start saying no to things. This means saying no to professional requests that make me feel stretched and for which there is inadequate support. But it also means saying no to myself, telling my mind to STFU (but perhaps more gently) when I’m ruminating (yet again) about some stupid work thing that I can’t do anything about. I’M NOT GETTING PAID FOR THIS. I’m not getting paid money, and I’m not getting paid in time or any kind of practical support and resources, and I’m certainly not getting paid in fulfillment and satisfaction to spend so much of my time and energy worrying all the time. I told my boss the other day that a current particular matter is literally keeping me awake at night. He told me, not unkindly, that this was pretty dumb. I know it is.

It’s become very clear to me that professional boundaries mean not just protecting your time from the forces that are only too happy to encroach upon it rent-free, but also protecting your mind. Basically, I need occlumency lessons from Professor Snape. Right now, what’s working for me is visualizing my hand turning off light switches whenever I start to ruminate about something. It sounds weird, but it kind of works. Sometimes, if the ruminations are particularly persistent, I line up an infinite row of light switches in my head and I mentally turn each off, one by one, until the thoughts stop, or at least quiet down considerably.

Is it really any wonder that burnout—the experience of it, and the idea of it—weighs on me so heavily? I mean, yes, the culture of library instruction is weird, and higher education is kind of jacked up, and there are all sorts of mitigating factors that make burnout particularly insidious and pervasive among my peers. But it certainly doesn’t help that I could beat a cow in the unlikely event that there were ever to be a rumination competition.

I am flipping the switch now in my head, and also by writing this, too. Maybe if I do it enough I won’t feel so terrible. Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else want to flip switches with me? It would help to feel not so lonely as I make my way down this endless hallway fill of worryswitches. Come flip some switches with me.

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.