Critical Library Instruction – editors’ chat

Maria, Emily, and Alana met in Google Chat, as they did often over the course of this book project, to reflect on the process and product of Critical Library Instruction: Theories & Methods.

Alana: Hello!
Emily: Morning, y’all!
Maria: Hi!
Emily: How’re we all doing?
Maria: I’m doing okay. Nervous about my presentation at noon today. I’m talking about Critical Library Instruction for our library’s “A Little Knowledge” series. It’s a monthly event the Library hosts, where we invite someone on campus to talk about their research in an informal, conversational lunchtime session. Faculty, staff, and students are all invited. I’m starting by talking about critical pedagogy, and then information literacy, and then putting those together, which is where the book was born. And then I focus, like my chapter, on assessment.
Emily: When you say you’re talking about ‘critical pedagogy,’ what do you mean by that? I know that my own definition has sort of changed over the course of the book.
Maria: Well, I define it first in Freirean terms, and then i explain how other critics and theorists and etc. have expanded upon it and so on. For me, bell hooks is my inspriration. I have a slide up there with some quotes from “Teaching to Transgress.”
Alana: Is there a part of hooks’ work that’s especially significant to you, Maria?
Maria: Yes. She cares about students. Learners are people with souls, and we should teach in a manner that respects and cares for their souls.
Alana: I feel there’s also a strong emphasis in her work on teaching as a practice of living, a part of everyday life — especially in her work on engaged pedagogy. This connects with our shared interest in thinking about the selves & embodiments we bring to the classroom, and how we interact w/our students’ (whole) selves, their personhood?
Emily: Part of what’s helped my perspective has been moving from Sarah Lawrence to LIU-Brooklyn, and working with two very different student populations. I just don’t see how we can do anything but start with who is sitting right in front of us–not the ACRL Standards–when interests, needs, and experiences are so different.
Maria: Exactly. Standards erase difference– “pasteurized processed student product” is the phrase i used in my chapter.
Alana: They also erase context.
Emily: Exactly. I’ve been doing some work lately on the Greek idea of kairos, which means ‘the right moment for speaking.’ What it’s possible to say and what it’s possible to hear depends entirely on a complex set of intersecting factors. That’s one of the reasons I really loved the Smith and Eisenhower chapter (“The Library as ‘Stuck Place’:Critical Pedagogy in the Corporate University”). It addresses these factors directly. While it says some scary things about the context in which we work, it’s helpful to have a sense of what limits what we can do.
Alana: I love the way those authors move well beyond the classroom, and beyond the institution, to situate our practice in broader contexts of neoliberalism & global capitalism, emphases on flexible labor, and creating flexible laborers. They give us a model for how to think-through our situation.
Emily: And it’s a challenging perspective–what are we supposed to do under so many constraints?–but the fact that we might actually find real freedom in our marginality was an interesting perspective.
Maria: But still, there are things we can do, which the book makes clear.
Emily: Yes–we have methods! Like problem-posing instruction, student-centered instruction, etc. Then again, much of this is pretty standard in the instruction approaches recommended by ACRL. Do you think having a politics around this stuff–which we and our contributors do–makes a difference?
Maria: Well, it makes a difference to me!
Alana: It makes a difference to me, too, especially since learning activities are just one part of teaching and learning. There are cases when, if I’m taking power-sharing seriously, I might step out of my role as Expert, and that doesn’t seem like part of the ACRL approach.
Emily: Yes. It also requires changing the way I teach things like ‘authority.’ That’s probably the biggest thing that has changed for me since we started putting this book together.
Maria: Yes. Authority is complicated.
Alana: It also means, as some of our contributors show, that what we teach — in terms of resources, critical approaches to library tools themselves, nontraditional/alternative resources — matters, too.
Emily: And that commitment, for me, comes entirely from my political commitment to acknowledging and making clear the constructed nature of all knowledge.
Alana: Right. For me, it comes from an investment in paying attention to how knowledge is produced.
Maria: Yes. Yes to all of the above.
Alana: Were there other things from our contributors that surprised you?
Emily: I worked with one author (Margaret Torrell, “Negotiating Virtual Contact Zones: Revolutions in the Role of the Research Workshop”) who is a composition teacher. She wrote very clearly from the other side of the fence much of what librarians struggle to articulate about questions of authority. It was a real reminder to me that we need to be talking to our comp friends!
Alana: And I was pleased to work with Lisa Hooper (“Breaking the Ontological Mold: Bringing Postmodern and Critical Pedagogy Into Archival Educational Programming”) on her chapter. Somehow, even given my own interest in critical archival studies, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should collaborate with archival educators, too.
Maria: I found it exciting to work with Troy Swanson’s chapter, especially. I’d read his previous work so it was pretty cool to get to correspond with him personally. His exploration of personal epistemology was really thought-provoking. As critical teachers, we resist the banking method model of teaching. But what happens when students prefer it? Troy takes this up in an interesting way.
Emily: One thing that really amazed me was how on time our authors were, which is more than just a hey-we’re-lucky! thing. I had the sense that people were really anxious for a place to put down the incipient ideas and practices that many of us are working through in isolation. I heard a lot of “I’m so grateful for this project” from my writers.
Alana: And I was so happy with how willing everyone was to really respond to our questions, to elaborate their arguments, to really revise
in ways that meant re-thinking or re-visiting initial arguments. I think this was a tricky collection to contribute to, in part because we’re interested in both theory and practice, trying to bring those two together, creating space for ideas in ways that we don’t usually see in the literature on instruction. It’s hard work!
Emily: I was so grateful to get some of those heavy-theory chapters, too. Practitioners are rarely asked to think very hard, which is a real shame. For me, the book has been like finding a home. As a thinker who goes to work every day, having a place where those two identities can exist has been really amazing.
Alana: And it’s been a reminder that it’s okay to take time to think, to question.
Maria: It is! It has been like that. Working with my authors challenged my thinking. It helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one thinking about these topics, that there is a conversation happening, and that we were helping to facilitate it.
Emily: It’s not a perfect book.
Alana: I’d be really worried if it was the perfect, definitive volume on critical library instruction.
Emily: I’d really like a more extensive discussion of critical library instruction and service learning, and I’d like to see more stuff along the lines of institutional/global critiques.
Alana: I’d also like to see more critical engagements with race,
Emily: and queerness,
Alana: and disability.
Maria: It’s a conversation starter, I think.
Emily: Yes, and one of the core themes in this book is learning as a dialogue, that knowledge doesn’t ‘settle,’ isn’t ‘final.’ We don’t offer a Top Ten Critical Pedagogy Tips and Tricks. It’s about having conversations, between students and teachers, students and students, teachers and teachers, and everybody else.
Alana: And this is why we need more, better instruction about instruction at the level of LIS programs.
Emily: I didn’t have a single instruction class. Not one. Nothing about pedagogy.
Alana: Me neither. Well, one-half of one of my reference class sessions addressed instruction.
Maria: Neither did I. The one class Pitt offered didn’t fit with my schedule.
Alana: I got my training and experience at Ohio State, where I experienced critical pedagogies from the position of teacher and learner, in my Comparative Studies courses and through working with the first-year writing program.
Emily: I’m getting it now in my composition and rhetoric program.
Maria: I first learned to teach in the writing center and then the composition classroom in my MA program at the University of Louisville.
Alana: I was so hungry for examples of classroom practice when I started learning about critical pedagogy.
Emily: Me too. I was in a conversation with faculty recently about this book, and I said, with no guile whatsover, “I believe this book could be a game changer.” It elicited huge laughs! I mean, the book is about library instruction! But I really think it could be, if it invites people to step away from ‘mastery’ and towards discussion and engagement with critical teaching practices.
Alana: That approach feels aligned with what happens in our individual teaching — we experiment, make mistakes, find some things that work super-well on one context & not in another…
Emily: We have to be able to struggle and fail, which is all political work is anyway, or the work of life.
Alana: Right on. Excellent connection.
Emily: I made the shittiest yam and bean stew over the weekend, but I’m having it for lunch because it’s what I have to eat. But now I know for next time–fewer chipotles.
Alana: And you’ll make other soups.
Emily: Many many others, probably a new one tonight. And that hooks back up with hooks–this is all part of the wholeness of us as instructors, right?
Maria: Yes, we are imperfect creatures, soft animals, even when we are teachers.
Emily: I have to go to a desk shift in a minute, so can I ask one last question? I always say in my classes, “If you take one thing away from this session, it’s that.. You can do this/you can come see me/you have a right to succeed here, etc.” What’s the ‘one thing’ you hope people take away from this book?
Maria: I hope people will take inspiration from the book to try something new, to rethink their practice.
Alana: For me I think it’s what we’re already talking about: what happens when we create spaces of possibility — by taking time to think, to experiment, to take risks in (thought-out, reflective ways).
Emily: I guess I would hope people would read the book, or even part of the book, and then turn to the librarian next to them and tell them what they thought. I hope we start conversations.

We hope you’ll join us in talking about critical approaches to library instruction. Maria, Emily, and Alana will be making room for these conversations at

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