I recently spoke briefly at an all day retreat at our college about why I am involved with diversity work on campus (I’m a member of the faculty Multicultural Affairs Committee and completed a 25 hour intensive called Intercultural U). There are a lot of reasons for doing diversity work, despite it’s difficulty and the discomfort it can cause, including social justice reasons, and the opportunity for critical thinking and grappling with complexity. But the main reason I’m drawn to this work is because it’s personally enriching. It’s deep, meaningful, and authentic work. You get to grow and get outside your own lenses and biases and ultimately see reality more clearly.
This ability to challenge your own perspectives, examine your implicit assumptions, and inquire into the the viewpoints of others is crucial to diversity work, but also to the work we do in our organizations and the work we do as librarians. Most of the time see what we want to see or are conditioned to see. This can be the cause of a lot of the problems we face or lead to patterns where we get more and more frustrated. This can happen when serving students and faculty or working with colleagues.
Have you ever thought, “if only students came to ask us for help, they’d be so much more successful on their assignments,” or “if only faculty consulted librarians when designing their assignments students wouldn’t struggle so much?” We often see the issues we face through librarian lenses or our own personal biases and not as they really are.
There are ways to take off our librarian glasses though, and when we do we are able to work more effectively with our colleagues and serve our students in the ways they want, not the ways we want.
Too often we make assumptions about our users and design services around those assumptions. This can lead to poor utilization of those services and frustration by both the users and librarians. The problem’s that we’re trying to solve are not our problems, therefore we need to put ourselves in our users’ shoes and uncover their struggles, needs, and motivations. There is already great work being done by some libraries in this area, such as the ERIAL project. If you want to dig deeper into empathy, Stanford’s d School has some great resources.
Uncover implicit assumptions
There are implicit assumptions and mental models that we carry as librarians and educators that constantly color our experience of the world and of which we are not even aware. These could be unsaid things like “face to face education is the most effective kind” or “students these days give up easily.” In the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that mental models often are helpful at one point but “as the world changes, the gap widens between our mental models and reality, leading to increasingly counterproductive actions.” Trying to make these assumptions explicit so than can be examined is an important element of getting outside our own lenses.
Don’t just interpret, observe
One way to uncover your assumptions is to recognize the difference between observation and interpretation. In a Design Thinking in Education workshop I recently attended, the speaker showed us an image and asked us to tell her what we could observe. It was surprising how fast we moved into interpretations, saying that the person in the image was a woman, assigning motivations and speculating on what the person was doing. We do this with students, faculty, and colleagues all the time. “The students are just not interested.” “My colleague just dislikes change.” The idea here is to cultivate a beginner’s mind and make observations. From there you can ask about those observations and test out different theories or assumptions based on those theories.
Advocate AND Inquire
We so often simply try to push for our own positions and advocate on behalf of the library, but if you only do advocacy you are not seeing the whole picture. When you’re advocating you’re not open to other viewpoints and you miss out on opportunities to learn. I’m sure most people have had the experience of pushing for an idea in a meeting and both sides simply got more polarized in their positions. Senge says that “When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer to ‘win the argument’ but to find the best argument.” Just talking louder is not going to be effective.
The ability to uncover what is hidden can be really powerful. What are ways that you use to get outside your own experience and put on different lenses into the world?
I had an amazing time at ACRL in Indianapolis, learned a lot and talked with some really smart, engaged people. I also had a blast presenting on Hacking The Learner Experience with Brian Mathews and Lauren Pressley. I’ll be posting some of the themes that I took away from the conference soon, but I figured I would get our slides up in the meantime.
It’s that time of the academic year when everyone is busy. At Champlain we’ve been having a lot of conversations about faculty workload and about how course load, advising, service, professional development keep growing as we try to do more and more. Librarians here also wear a lot of hats. Almost all of us teach, we all do reference, we serve on committees and are involved with campus initiatives, all in addition to our regular job duties. And students might be some of the busiest among us. They have various classes, jobs, internships, clubs, organizations, and important socializing to do.
In all of these cases, it can lead to a very transactional view of the work we’re doing. Instead of seeing the big picture of a class assignment, stepping back to understand why we’re doing something, or thinking strategically, we accomplish task after task, simply trying to put out fires without asking where it is leading us. There are several reasons for this. First, we continually take on new projects and tasks because we want to serve students, or add something to our resume, or because it sounds fun. Second, we don’t reexamine things that we are currently doing because they have “always been done that way” or they simply become routine and easy to miss.
“As with a tree, the more of it there is, the farther it is from it’s roots. The less of it there is, the closer it is to it’s roots.” – Wang Pi
Librarians are very service oriented and want to help, but constantly taking things on can lead to over-extension, loss of effectiveness, and ultimately burnout. We need to balance our desire to serve others with our need to take care of ourselves and maintain our effectiveness. There are several strategies that can help with this:
At Champlain we had a presentation the other night from a group of interim deans and consultants giving us their perspective from the outside. They said that we have a “culture of yes” at our institution. A culture of saying yes is a much better environment to work in than a culture of saying no. It makes work more fun and can be a big strength in serving our students. But when we overuse strengths they can become weaknesses. While it’s important to have a culture of yes, say yes strategically. When you say no you can say, “this sounds like a great opportunity, but with what I have currently I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves.”
Ask “does this add value?”
I’ve almost finished The Lean Startup and the really important question that Eric Ries asks is “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?” Are we solving library problems or the problems of our students and faculty? We have limited resources in terms of time and budget. Are they being used in ways that are benefiting our users? Could they be used more effectively elsewhere? We need to focus on services and initiatives that people need and want. As the economist Thomas Sowell succinctly put it, “Producing things people don’t want is a road that ultimately leads to the bankruptcy court.” In the case of libraries it means becoming irrelevant.
What can you drop, automate, delegate or reorganize?
I’ve talked here before about reducing clutter and asked the question what can we drop? Dropping things can sometimes be difficult because it may involve tradition or someone’s territory. But there are other ways to drop things. Are there different workflows or organizational structures that will do the same things more efficiently? Can tasks be delegated or automated? Perfection is the enemy of good enough. If someone else (or an automated process) can do something 80% as effective as you can, delegate.
Focus on what’s important but not urgent
“If you were to do one thing in your professional work that you know would have enormously positive effects on the results, what would it be?” The effectiveness guru Stephen Covey says that our time is best spent on things that are important but not-urgent. These are the things that we believe will be really beneficial but we never seem to get to. Instead they get shifted to the backburner while we attend to what is urgent and get in the habit of putting out fires. By carving out time to focus on things that are high impact as opposed to urgent, we can use our time more effectively and we won’t have as many crises.
To maintain sustainability in our work lives, not feel overwhelmed, combat burnout, and avoid the busy trap, it’s crucial that we don’t simply put our professional work on autopilot. We need to regularly step back and see the bigger picture of our work. What do I really want to accomplish? Why am I doing this? Is this adding value to students, faculty, or other community members? Do I have to do this or do it this way? We need to slow down sometimes and we need to take care of ourselves, or else we’ll do a poor job at serving others.
Information Tyrannosaur is the dino-mite site of Andy Burkhardt, librarian and emerging technology enthusiast. I blog about libraries, social media and connecting people and information. If you enjoy my posts feel free to subscribe.