Posted by: Emily | May 10, 2010

Brooklyn College critical library instruction report back

Ira Shor started speaking without an introduction. The clock rolled to 1pm, and in deference to gathering crowds, scrambled trains, and usual protocol, the organizers were waiting a bit to get things going. But Shor, who said wasting time was one of the worst things you could do, just got going. This made me terrifically uncomfortable–he’s speaking without prior authorization! I can’t listen without a proper cue to begin!–which, in the end, is part of what’s required if we’re going to become critical teachers.

Alycia Sellie gives a great run down of Shor’s talk on her blog, so I’ll just pull out a few things that interested me from the day.

I was glad to hear Shor talk about discourse as a material force–what and how we talk about things in the classroom makes us subjects, and altering that discourse can significantly change the subjects that are produced. In other words, I might be vested in making myself a high-status professional academic, which requires me to talk a lot and use heavy words like discourse. Or I can be vested in making myself some other kind of subject, one who enables more, talks less, and listens a lot. I think there’s a cost in critical teaching that this helpfully points out–if we’re marginal in the academy as librarians (and I feel like I am, for sure), we risk making this more true by backing away from the production of truth statements in the classroom. Maybe. Or maybe we can do that discursive work in our publications and leave it at the lab door when we go to teach. There’s a tension here that I’d like to tease out a bit, especially as someone who falls in love with high-status discourse, and believes in the necessity of complex languages to explain complex ideas.

Shor’s a composition teacher, and much of what he had to say related directly to what we do as library instructors, reaffirming for me that the strongest connection between our practice and our pedagogy might be mined from the literature of composition studies. The difference being that the composition teacher gets a class for an entire semester, has a chance to cultivate power-sharing and multivocal learning groups. We get students for a session, maybe two. So I continue to struggle with how or even whether the insights of critical pedagogy/teaching apply in that fifty minute block. Robert Farrell, coordinator of instruction at Lehman College, offered up the argument that we absolutely can have the kind of dialogic engagement Shor talked about if we let go of the demand to teach every last technical skill and embrace the conversation. He said he starts classes by asking “Why are you doing a research paper?” and lets the answers to that guide up to half the session, an approach that sounded very interesting to me. (I often begin with a question like that, but give it two or three minutes before diving in to database particulars.) Is that something you could do in your sessions, or would you risk the wrath of the classroom faculty, or would you fear, as I might, that students would not learn the necessary skills to complete their assignments?

Though the crowd was smaller than I expected, the level of interest and engagement with these ideas was incredible. I had so many interesting conversations, about apprenticeship models in higher ed, database searching as demystification, about dialogism and faculty collaboration and mash-ups and agenda-setting, about how reinvigorating it is to take critical ideas and think them through our library instruction practice. Super-thanks to the folks at LACUNY for pulling this together, and I’m excited to keep the conversations going.



  1. Emily, I had a similar response to Shor’s discussion of high-status & low-status discourse. I tend to think of it as my responsibility to help students identify, understand, and use high-status discourse — I draw attention to it as such when I’m talking about searching for articles (e.g., why use theoretical or highly-discipline-specific terminology) and subject headings. In those moments, I try to make it clear that we’re using (even claiming) language that might not be “ours” for our own knowledge-making purposes.

    I’ll admit that I also use high-status discourse as a way to signal to faculty that I can play the game, too (which sometimes makes me feel like a grad student all over again). It’s a way to show I’ve read the theory they’re teaching, that I understand the complexity of the ideas they & their students are thinking-with. It comes from my desire to be considered a peer & collaborator, not only a service-provider or research-technician.

    I’m also thinking that maybe we can find some inspiration in fiction, or in other kinds of in-between prose. Last night I returned to this interview with George Saunders (, in which he makes arguments for both the compression of prose and the need for public discourse that recognizes the complexity of situations & strives for nuance over simple (misleading, misinformed, mal-constructed) statements. And there are those writers we both love, who somehow manage clarity & complexity at the same time: Lydia Davis, Avery Gordon. Of course, they get to edit & be deliberate in ways that feel impossible to do on our feet in the classroom, but I still want to mention them as people who negotiate this tension. You wouldn’t know from my sentences here that I take them as models, but I do.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, alana, to the reasons I use big words (hey, teaching faculty, I can do more than stamp a book), as well as the value of actually teaching that language to the students in front of us. There’s nothing about library language (and here I’m thinking of words for actions–truncation, query, etc.–as well as controlled subject/descriptor terms) that makes it unlearnable by students. In fact, you’ll have a lot more success if you know just a little of the library discourse. I think I have a responsibility to teach that. One of the folks in the discussion talked about steering totally clear of library jargon. I worry that that’s a de-skilling move, and that we risk setting up students to fail when we don’t make explicit the structural stuff that makes some knowledge findable, useable, and other knowledge not at all.

  3. I think the move we may wish to try to de-mystify academic discourse for our students, though not abandoning it and leaving them unprepared for their encounters with it and unappreciative of its use value for thinking. I think we can do so and at the same time be honest (which is not to say merely cynical) about the cultural capital involved in its mastery and deployment.

    I think part of that de-mysitifcation is showing that this language is not monologic, but is actually many different discourses and that the boundaries of these discourses are often disciplinary.

    I think librarians are uniquely suited to the role of demonstrating that disciplinary language and conventions are important for making arguments/truth claims within certain communities but are not “correct” or “objective.”

    Some faculty have adopted the language of their discipline as their “primary discourse,” for example, and so may communicate to students (at least implicitly) that this particular discourse is more or less the “natural” way to produce and communicate knowledge.

    I’m recalling a student who came to the ref desk the other day unable to find “research” on second wave feminism. She had found many articles in journals I respect on her particular topic within that subject, but her instructor had rejected them. As we talked, we pieced together that her sociology prof had a very specific idea of what “research” was–that it was positivist and quantitative.

    Of course we looked for sources that would satisfy the prof, but we also started a conversation about the possibility of adapting her project to an analysis of what counts as research “about” feminists as opposed to “by feminists.”

    It was the end of the term, so she likely just switched to a topic more amenable to the social science discourse of the course, but I think our conversation helped to clarify some of the differences between how knowledge is produced and disseminated in sociology as opposed to, say, women’s studies.

    I also think this approach gets at the “there’s nothing on my topic”–as if information is a commodity fetish in the Marxist sense–a reified thing out there to be collected, used, and deposited into a paper.

    We can help students investigate how information is created within and across disciplines (with all the messy power dynamics, etc.) so that it doesn’t appear to them as the magical, anonymous voice of “objective,” scholarly authority crystalized into a thing.

    By recognizing that information is produced (at least in part) by disciplines, each with its own conventions and methods, can help our students to notice what is not being said by their own discipline (or any of them) about an object of inquiry and how these objects are constructed.

  4. I’m totally pumped that you all are continuing conversations started at our event. And I am not editing that last sentence to make it more formal, like I have a slight urge to do.

    In instruction sessions I’ve led, sometimes I sarcastically engage with library jargon in the hopes to interest students without intimidating them. i.e. I’ll tell students that if they are a huge library geek like me, they will be interested to know that subject headings are “controlled vocabulary.” It sometimes gets a laugh if nothing else, and I think that this is one way that we can involve some of the jargon, but not in an unobtainable way. Invite further exploration of some of these terms, but not insist that they are the only way to understand our resources?

    I’ve also been reading “On Writing Well” recently and thinking about simplifying, and how tricky it can be. My graduate classes this semester have also been forcing me to think about scholarly language–when reading required texts I wonder why the author used such complex and unnecessary language, and whether my classmates really wanted to use that word in class, or whether they were trying to impress us all with their personal lexicon. And am I doing the same when I begin to use the word “hegemony” in daily conversation, because after so long, I finally can understand it and its lineage? Or is this what learning and academia are all about? In using this term, am I joining an exclusive club, on track to power and status, or am I helping to make it so that everyone else I talk with can finally understand hegemony like I do and get excited about learning like I am?

    I think it is our duty to speak in the ways that we are comfortable with–up or down–but in a manner that invites discovery and inquiry, and as Shor pointed out so well and in so often in his talk, we need to acknowledge how classroom conversations may be rooted in other struggles of class and culture.

  5. Your comment: And am I doing the same when I begin to use the word “hegemony” in daily conversation, because after so long, I finally can understand it and its lineage?

    That notion of lineage is important to me. In a context in which at least some listener/readers are aware of the lineage of a term (e.g., “subject” instead of “individual” or “person,” say, or “processes of racialization” rather than “race”) the use of a specific term is as much about making our specific intellectual and political commitments clear as it is about anything else.

    I definitely see the value in that and in “name dropping” when the intention is a sincere desire to lead an interested listener to the source for an idea should they wish to learn more about (hey, this is Marx’s basic idea and he calls it “commodity fetishism,” so if you’re interested in that idea go to town).

    I think the question is what to do when you can assume that these terms, without explanation, will not provide such illumination or “added value” to the majority of listeners and may in fact get in the way of their comprehension. When can we and when can we not assume that?

    If that is my judgement, I may choose to use the term anyway but provide some common-sense gloss that justifies its use–why I’m using it instead of a more accessible term.

    EX: So I’m going to be using this term “subject” in this talk, which is used a lot in critical theory to mean something like person or individual but without the notion of “I’m a special and unique snowflake and can do whatever I want” usually attached to “individual.” You might think of subject as a singular person for purposes of this talk–you or me, or my friend John–but with an acknowledgement that a lot of who we are what we are capable of saying, thinking, and doing are products of the possibilities and limitations of our particular social identities, cultures, languages, and so on and not necessarily just our spontaneous creation; it’s also a way of recognizing, yes, we’re different, but a lot of those differences fall into collective categories rather than being unique to one person.

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