I’ve had a couple experiences recently that have made me realize how much our philosophies of librarianship impact our professional practice. And I’ve realized, too, that even if you don’t have a fully-worked out philosophy of librarianship, you’re unconsciously applying one in your work. Now, by a “philosophy of librarianship” I don’t mean some fully worked out metaphysical system about the nature of librarianship’s role in the universe. I’ve always tried to avoid using the phrase “philosophy” when it comes to thinking about librarianship precisely because of the pejorative connotations that philosophy is a bunch of theoretical abstractions that have nothing to do with practice. But I think that people, consciously or not, really do operate with these abstractions, in the sense that they have a way of looking at things related to librarianship that directly impacts what they do.
I’ve got a new post up over at Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics, on the imposter syndrome and academia.
An excerpt that lays out the problem of the piece:
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s ancient treatise on moral philosophy, Aristotle set out for himself no less a task than to discover the purpose of human life. If we could figure out what we’re all ultimately striving for, Aristotle thought, philosophy might be able to tell us how we can get there. The answer Aristotle came up with – that what human beings want above all else is to be happy – hardly seems like the kind of conclusion you needed to be Aristotle to figure out. But happiness, for Aristotle, is a bit different from our American notions of feeling good; it’s about what the Greeks called eudemonia – a well-lived life. And Aristotle’s methods are instructive for those of us trying to find happiness in our own lives in the here and now.
Aristotle has us consider why we do any of the things we do. For example, if you asked me why I went to work today, I might answer that it’s because I need to make money. And if you asked me why I need to make money, I might tell you it’s because I need a place to live. The process goes on until, inevitably, one reaches an endpoint, and says, “I have no idea why I don’t want to end up desperate and alone with no place to live … I just want to behappy!” and Aristotle’s point is established: you do the stuff you do because it’s supposed to make your life go well. He then goes on to try to figure out what kinds of activities we should organize our life around, so that we can be happy in this way.
The answer Aristotle gives should look pretty good to most academics: the path to happiness is a life devoted to rational thought and intensive contemplation. But if this is right, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the way we approach our work as academics in the modern world. Today, the imposter syndrome – a kind of academiceitis where one lives in constant fear of not measuring up – is “rampant in academia.” A recentChronicle of Higher Education piece describes the deep personal insecurity experienced by those suffering from the imposter syndrome, which arises out of the feeling that one must constantly prove oneself and one’s work worthy to others. According to researcher Valerie Young, this leads to the psychological state where academics become “convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved.” At some point, it seems, we stopped engaging in contemplation for its own sake, and began to focus instead on proving our worth. We left Aristotle behind, and it’s making us miserable.
Check out the rest of the article over at Ethos!
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a kind of dumb piece called “Professors, We Need You!” lamenting the fact that, by Kristof’s account, professors do a bunch of arcane stuff that the public never really benefits from, even though the public could really benefit from it.
I’m probably more sympathetic to Kristof’s point than most, but, nevertheless, I thought this reply to Kristof’s post by UNC-Chapel Hill English Professor Jessica Wolfe was really smart. An excerpt:
While it is true that much academic work is specialized, and likewise true that some of it is even “gobbledygook,” Kristof dangerously conflates the difficult with the useless or obscure [... ]scholarship is difficult because its subject matter is difficult [...]
Even a professor who writes challenging scholarship for a limited audience should be able to explain complex ideas with clarity and simplicity for students and for a non-academic audience. But if we condemn all difficult writing as lacking in use value, we run the risk of making irrelevant some of the most important philosophical, scientific, and yes, even literary writing that exists, from Plato (famously excoriated for his obscurity) to Wittgenstein and David Foster Wallace. Indeed, the special challenge of reading difficult texts—difficult because long, obscure, highly allusive, or written in an archaic language—is the experience that expands and tests my students’ knowledge in the classroom more than any other. That difficulty prepares them for a life in the “real world”—a world in which the most important questions, and the most important answers, are never easy.
Like my friend Matt recently told me when I was complaining about how hard it was to set up my new stereo system: “Dude, some shit s’posed to be hard; otherwise everyone would have a sweet setup. And the sound of that vinyl’s gonna be so warm you won’t even need to turn on the heat in your apartment …”
I know it’s probably going to be me against the world on this one, but here goes: I don’t really understand why librarians teach students “website evaluation.”
What I mean, more specifically, is this:
(1) There does not seem to me to be any special criteria that apply to evaluating websites as such, as opposed to evaluating and thinking critically about information more generally.
(2) We marginalize ourselves by doing things like teaching students “website evaluation” instead of teaching critical thinking more generally.
Let me explain.
Many librarians, like many people, are quite content to do what’s been traditionally expected of them. They fill the roles they’ve been given and, perhaps, they fill those roles well. Small minorities, however, reach out beyond these roles and show us the possibilities for what librarianship can be. They are models for the rest of us. They show us what creative practice can be.
One such model is a librarian so creative in his practical innovations that the only suitable moniker for the man is that he must be hereby christened the “G.L.O.A.T” – the Greatest Librarian of All Time. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to officially introduce you to the G.L.O.A.T. –David K. Maxfield (1913-2001).
It’s getting to be library instruction season, so this is probably something we’re all hearing right about now:
Sure, I’m interested in bringing my class to the library to work on their research paper. Maybe you can show them a couple of databases that might be related to their topics?
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that the answer should be:
Well, okay, it’s more complicated than that. Here’s why: