Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Assessment as Outreach: A Low-Stakes Approach

When I first arrived in September to begin my new position as Research & Instruction Librarian I was (understandably) overwhelmed with all of my new duties and liaison areas.  Being new to the areas of Geography and GIS, I decided to start with some outreach to my faculty—hoping to learn a bit about the subject, and lobby for some faculty participation in collection development, while slowly making myself indispensable them.  My first meeting was with a faculty member who regularly teaches an Environmental Geography class with a research presentation as its culminating project.  As we chatted, he expressed concern about the quality of the research that his students were producing…and I saw my opening: “Oh, would you like me to come in to class and talk about some research strategies for their assignment?”
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Since the campus library’s instruction program is robust, and scaffolded, students should be arriving in Environmental Geography (a 200 level class) with a predictable set of research skills based on the library instruction and guidance that they have received in classes previous to this one.  In addition, there were certain skills that I was confident that students would not have according to the outcomes that the library has developed for the 300 level class (BIS 300, for students in the school of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences) that we provide instruction for.

Based on the assignment that the instructor sent me, my understanding of our instruction program, and my previous instruction experience, I bounced into class on Halloween, with streaks of vampire makeup on my face, to teach a very brief introduction to the class guide that I’d made them and a few tips I thought they’d find useful.  The instructor gave me a very generous introduction, and I launched in to my spiel to be rewarded with glassy eyes, and bored stares.  Unfortunately, the students seemed to find my Halloween costume far more interesting than the material I had to present.

After finishing up, I went to talk to Jackie Belanger and Leslie Bussert, about what had happened.  True to their positions (as Assessment Coordinator and Head of Instruction, respectively), they suggested that I conduct a little low-stakes assessment to see if I could figure out why my session had flopped.  As part of this assessment, they suggested that I sit in on the students’ presentations at the end of the quarter to gather information about what sources they ended up using and how the projects shaped up.

In collaboration with Jackie and the instructor, I knocked together a 1 page survey that asked, among other things:
  • What did you learn in the library session that helped you with your research for this class?
  • What did you find most challenging about your research for this class?
  • If you have received instruction in library research methods for other classes at UWB or Cascadia, was the information that you received in this class the same or different from the information that you have received in other classes?
The results were a revelation.

What I found was that over half the class had taken the 300 level class in which they get about 6 hours of in-depth library instruction.  Therefore, the things that they found most useful from my session were not the research tips (that they’d gotten plenty of practice with in BIS 300), but the brief exposure that I’d given them to subject-specific resources for their assignment.  After talking to several librarians who teach in the BIS 300 classes, the consensus seemed to be that students had a lot of practice with humanities and social science resources, but needed exposure to the natural sciences resources that would be most useful for their Environmental Geography assignment.

After a student worker transcribed all of the responses into a excel spreadsheet, I sent them, and my observations, to the instructor with a request that we chat before I did the same session the following quarter.  When we got together, we talked over the results, the analytics for the class guide that I’d made, strategies for what to change, and a plan to continue the assessment process the following quarter.

The session went far better the second time around.  Students were more engaged, took extensive notes, and were visibly and audibly appreciative of the material that I’d presented.  When I sat in on their presentations at the end of the quarter and conducted the second round of assessment, the results confirmed my experience: the revisions that I’d made based on student feedback had increased the relevance of my session.

There were some other unintended but very welcome consequences of this process.  The investment in student learning that I’d demonstrated through the assessment process proved to the instructor my commitment to his classes, subject, and students.  As a result, we have a very open and communicative working relationship that’s been a boon to my other duties as liaison to him and his colleagues.  I got really useful insight into the subject matter of my liaison area, and it has helped me to learn the ropes of what was a previously unexplored discipline for me.  The process also brought me closer to the students that I worked with, and I got lots of reference questions on the assignment during the quarter, and afterward, from students who I’d met in the class.

While it was intimidating for me to conduct assessment on an session that I knew hadn’t gone well, I am convinced that hearing the truth and being able to act upon it was far better for me than living with a vague sense of failure, and several more unsuccessful sessions.  The insight and relationship building that I gained through this assessment experience was an invaluable part of my first year as Geography/GIS liaison at the Campus Library and was instrumental in my process of learning the job, meeting my colleagues, and getting to know the students. 

You'll find a copy of the survey that I used after the jump.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Addressing Social Injustice in the Academic Library: One Approach

In her previous post, Freeda Brook elaborated the connection between the discrimination that our students and colleagues face in the world and on our campuses, and what they experience in our libraries. In this post, I am going to take it as read that it is an ethical imperative--and in our best interest--for librarians to be working actively for social justice and anti-racism, and describe one way that we’ve started to do that in my library.

While inequity is the result of intersecting oppressions based on race, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, and class, among other factors, I would argue that right now the library community must engage most actively with race and ethnicity because of the incredible racial homogeneity of our profession. As of 2012, 85.8% of all librarians in academic libraries were white—a percentage that’s hardly shifted since the early 1980s. While we stay the same as a profession, the racial and ethnic demographics of our students are continuing to shift in the direction of more diversity. What this means is that until our profession becomes more diverse, a lot of us white folks are going to have to do some serious thinking and talking about race.

As members of a profession that prides itself on staying relevant, we must ask ourselves: how do we respond actively, respectfully, and quickly to a changing student population with shifting cultural backgrounds, experiences and priorities? Luckily, in 2012, the ACRL Diversity Committee provided us with a starting point in its Diversity Standards: Cultural Competency for Academic Libraries (2012) (full disclosure: I will be an acting member of this committee as of ALA Annual in June 2013).

Before I arrived at my present institution, Dave Ellenwood, a fellow librarian here, and Sarah Leadley, our library’s director, began conversations about how our library could engage with the standards. As a result, the library’s Diversity Team was formed and given a formal charge in September of the 2012-2013 academic year. After I muscled my way on to this team of hilarious, engaged, thoughtful, and committed library workers, we made a work plan of two required all-staff trainings, two teaching meetings, and a series of brown bag discussions that all addressed at least one of the Diversity Standards.

Doing social justice work can be exhausting, frustrating, and emotionally taxing. We face pushback from those that we work with, we struggle with feelings of inadequacy, we make mistakes and say things that are misguided or misinterpreted. Most importantly, it’s hard to know when and if we’re making a difference. In fact, as one study demonstrated, it’s possible in diversity work to do more harm than good. Despite all of these challenges, I remain firmly convinced that the immediate and long-term results of thoughtful social justice work outweigh the inevitable difficulties.

After a year of working actively and intentionally toward cultural competency, with the caveat that we are nowhere near done—and will continue this work indefinitely—I strongly advocate for the approach that we took. I want to outline some of the reasons that I think our work was a success, and how we measured that success:

We have the support of our library’s leadership. Cultural competency and social justice work can often be marginalized and sidelined in relation to the rest of the work that we do as librarians. Our director recognized that this work was real, complex, and time consuming, and so she made it a formal part of our jobs, thereby legitimating it in our eyes and the eyes of our colleagues. Doing social justice work is emotional and challenging, and often makes those who are spearheading the efforts emotionally and professionally vulnerable. Knowing that we had institutional support for our work emboldened us and gave us courage to do difficult activities and readings with our colleagues that we might have shied away from without that support.

Our team is composed of librarians, professional staff, and classified staff. While this may seem like an incidental point, the whole team agrees that this is one of the keys to our effectiveness. To be successful, we have to have buy- in from the whole library staff (especially since students rarely make any distinctions between us). Workers from different departments and different classifications will inevitably have different experiences of power, diversity, and student interactions. Having input from different parts of the library helped us to plan trainings that would be relevant to all of our work, and to become aware of the varieties of strengths and interests that our whole library staff brings to our community.

We put relationships at the center of our work. Though I didn’t know anyone on the Diversity Team before we started, we very quickly became a closely knit group of colleagues and friends who recognized that supporting each other’s ideas and work was essential to the group’s overall success. We then began to think about how to support the work that our colleagues were doing across campus, and made it a priority to visit the spaces and events where diversity and social justice work was being done on campus. Doing this increased the visibility of the library, added to the team’s knowledge base of issues and strategies, demonstrated support for our colleagues of color (who often organized those events), helped us get to know the folks that we work side by side with on campus, and helped us contextualize our work in a broader effort toward justice and inclusion.

We built formal relationships with other diversity and social justice groups in our college communities. Our library serves two colleges, Cascadia Community College and the University of Washington Bothell. As part of the UW libraries system we also serve and are connected to the whole of the University of Washington. In addition to serving on our library’s Diversity Team, each member of our team serves on an additional committee at the college, university, or libraries level. Our library is the point of intersection for all of these different communities and through this formal interconnectedness we have been able to harness the work going on around us to strengthen our work in the library, and share with these more disparate communities the wonderful work of our colleagues.

We built community around self-inquiry and justice. Many of us got into the work that we’re doing because of an interest in access to information and resources, which is connected, intimately, to justice. Taking a broad view of cultural competency work can help connect us intellectually and emotionally to colleagues at conferences and at our own institutions who can help us think through issues and problems and gather evidence and empathy. Because this is a formal part of our work (see the first point) several of us made it a point to attend workshops and lectures at ALA Midwinter and ACRL this year that discussed diversity and social justice. Hearing about the work of Jaena Alabi , Kawanna Bright, Deborah Lilton, Pambanisha Whaley, Martha Parker and Maria T. Accardi , intensified our sense of urgency about the work that we can do to make our workplaces welcoming and safe for queer colleagues and colleagues of color.

We take pleasure in our work. Building those relationships across campus meant that we got to meet the fun, funny, heartfelt, and like-minded people that enrich our intellectual and working lives on campus. As a team we made time to decompress, talk about our other work, and generally treat each other like the whole human beings that we are (but don’t always act like at work). We encouraged each other to read articles, watch movies, and listen to music that expanded our understandings of power, injustice, cooperation, and joy. When we start to take them seriously, issues of privilege and injustice become profoundly depressing. Keeping the joy of connection in our sight helped us remember why we’re doing this work.

We keep student experiences ever-present in our planning. At every institution where I’ve worked I’ve heard from students stories about the discrimination that students experience in the world, in their home, in their classrooms, and around campus. This campus is no exception, and that informed every decision that we made about what sorts of trainings to offer, what scenarios to present to our colleagues, and what student information and voices to bring into our conversations. Good library work is based on trust and empathy, as anyone who has conducted a successful reference interview knows. It is our operational belief that working toward cultural competence helps us to be more empathetic, and more deserving of the trust of our students.

We put an emphasis on assessing our work. As I said before, one of the most difficult parts of this work is not knowing if it’s making a difference. Assessing our work is the best way to make sure that it’s having an impact and is relevant to the community. After our all-staff trainings we asked participants to fill out anonymous evaluations and we followed up several months later with in-person meetings with each of the library units to hear how the training was affecting their work after they’d had time to put it into practice. We were hoping to find out how to make our work better, but the most important information to come out of this assessment was encouragement. Our colleagues told us in great detail and with enthusiasm how valuable they found our work to be. When things got difficult or tense in trainings, it was helpful to remember that feedback and stay focused on what we knew was working.

I’m sure it’s clear by now that the most important work to come out of this year’s efforts was relationship building in all its formal and informal capacities. While this was initially surprising, it now seems obvious: social justice work is ultimately about exploring identities and building safety and understanding within our communities around those identities. Of course that work would foster deep and meaningful connections when done with a seriousness of purpose and a lightness of heart. This will be the sustaining lesson that our team takes away from this year of work as we plan for a new year (and beyond) of cultural competency work.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, please share any work, insights, incidents, or conversations that you’ve had around diversity in your libraries. We’re always looking for new ideas!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Call for an Anti-Racist Approach in Librarianship

Lately I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how libraries and librarians can challenge racism in higher education. It is a tricky thing to talk to people about for a couple reasons. For one, a lot of people, especially White people, think of racism exclusively as something that is interpersonal, overt, and motivated by hate. It is not. While that kind of racist behavior is less socially acceptable now than it was in the past, less overt but equally harmful microaggressions are still perpetrated against people of color on a daily basis. Look no further than racist tweets, culturally appropriationist theme parties, or complaints against Affirmative Action.
Beyond these often unacknowledged slights, the institution of higher education in many ways still reflects and upholds the historic social and economic dominance of White people in America. In a thorough and insightful review, Diane Lynn Gusa describes a pervasive White institutional presence (WIP) at colleges and universities across the country. WIP manifests in a sense of superiority and entitlement among Whites, which goes hand-in-hand with monoculturalism of White culture, values, and beliefs. We see this in the curriculum where White authors and culture are the assumed normal, while other cultures are only addressed in separate courses. What do you think it feels like to be an American and a Latina majoring in English these days when authors of color are routinely excluded from “the canon”? Outside of the classroom, Whiteness is equally pervasive: the social activities, performers brought to campus, artwork, names on the buildings, and the faculty and administration. In one study by Mitzi Davis, et al. a student remarked: “A lot of time I feel out of place, because you see all White faces. You know I am the only fly in the buttermilk.” White members of these institutions often fail to recognize the pervasive markers of their identity and their privilege, while non-White members are distanced physically and socially from the community.
Another reason this conversation is difficult to have in the library community is that we see ourselves as being progressive and welcoming communities. Even if racism is taking place on our campuses, could we really be perpetuating in our libraries? Yes, I think we are. Though we may indeed be harboring a bunch of liberal malcontents, we are still a place that reflects the norms of our communities, both good and bad. Students can and do experience microaggressions, hostility, and negative stereotypes relating to their use of the library. A study by Daniel Solorzano and Miguel Ceja quotes a student:
Last time we went to the library ... to study ... obviously, it's finals time ... people are going to study. But when we walked in there looking for somewhere to sit down, it's like ... they've never seen Black people before in their lives, or they've never seen Black people study before!
Another example is the now defunct Asians Sleeping in the Library tumblr (don’t worry, Buzzfeed archived selections of it for posterity).
It is hard to say the extent of racism our students of color face because this is an issue that we have not sufficiently researched or addressed. However, the negative and alienating experiences of students of color on college campuses has been researched, and I think it is naïve and lazy to assume that the problems happening on our campuses are not happening in our libraries. As a community that prides is progressive and welcoming nature, it is time for us to address this head on.