Academic theory subject of fear, misunderstanding

This op ed I wrote was published in the Morning Call on 6/15/22.

Recently, a flyer publicizing “..the Facts about Critical Race Theory in East Penn School District” has been circulating our community. This flyer says that Critical Race Theory (CRT) may be masked using terms including “Social-Emotional Learning,” “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” and “Privilege/Supremacy.” It also lists effects of CRT, including “an elementary student feels guilty for being white.” This is yet another attempt to create or exacerbate fear in white parents who are hesitant to have honest conversations with their white children about the historical and present inequities of life within the United States. 

CRT is a scholarly, political movement that originated in legal studies and points to the struggles to advance made by people of color in the United States (voting rights, school desegregation, etc) and suggests that the law is a viable channel to challenge institutional and structural inequality. Saying that CRT is not being taught in our schools may be disingenuous. One of the core tenets of the movement is that “racism is endemic to the United States and as such is a permanent, though shifting, organizing force of American social and political life.” Racism is present in the history of the United States and in the social structures that facilitate school funding, incarceration rates, lending rules, voting disenfranchisement, and others. Our students should be learning about this, according to their academic ability. Perhaps one of the greatest fears of our community is that our children will come home wishing to speak about things that we, ourselves, are not prepared to discuss. 

Creating a better community requires all of us to do a significant amount of learning, reflection, and consideration of others. Understanding of privilege is not, in fact, a precursor to white guilt. Instead, it is a stepping stone towards advocacy for “the least of these” within our community and an understanding of social structures that block the achievement of our own. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is also, likely, misunderstood. SEL values student coping skills, interactions with others, and other behavioral skills that promote learning. Citizenship, goal-setting, responsible decision making, and work habits are part of the spectrum of skills included in SEL – and are valued by all members of our community. Students aren’t robots that need to be programmed with facts and figures… they are developing humans that need to be supported socially and emotionally to succeed academically. Remove SEL from schools and we are undermining student learning.

The crux of this issue appears to be fear and misunderstanding of language. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are now buzzwords used to trigger fear about human difference. Diversity recognizes that there is a range of human experience, equity is the path towards supporting one another in achieving happy, healthy outcomes – we each need different things based on our differences. And inclusion occurs when every individual feels that they belong. Each of these is an admirable outcome for our children and, incidentally, recognized by governments and corporations alike as requirements for success. The meeting advertised by the flyer in question has happened. None of these issues were discussed in detail, but parents voiced concern that students are not prepared by their education for success. 

So, who do we trust to define success?  We rely on academic expertise for most social advancement and acknowledge the authority of those who achieve degrees from credentialing institutions. Parents, undoubtedly, have a role to play in their children’s education and development, but organizing and seeking influence based on misunderstanding and fear will not benefit our children. Parents who want to engage in their students’ education should model the practices we’d like our students to embody most – communication across differences, acceptance of complexity, personal reflection, and consideration of others. Otherwise we are risking alienation and distrust as our children become the free-thinking adults we would like them to be.

Antiracist pedagogy panel

I was honored to be asked to sit on a panel about antiracist pedagogy. Here are the thoughts I prepared ahead of time:

Library instruction is traditionally, and incorrectly, identified as “point and click” instruction, teaching students to navigate databases and search catalogs for books. These technical skills that are imperative to implementing successful search strategy are no longer the most important learning outcomes of a library instruction class. Our students struggle in an information environment that includes news aggregators and misinformation, not to mention social media. My grant application was to learn about and pursue flipped instruction as an opportunity to carve out time to facilitate conversations during class time and attend to critical information literacy learning outcomes. Critical information literacy emphasizes the ways that power and privilege influence our experiences with information. Therefore, information literacy lessons, or conversations about information creation, use, and maintenance, that are focused in this way allow students to investigate power and privilege in their daily lives.

Learning outcomes are important to my antiracist classwork, as is the pedagogical approach. Flipped instruction is an example of collaborative and antiracist teaching practice. There are two components – the instructional material -tutorials, videos, etc- and a classroom discussion. In my discipline, library and information science, it is part of the ethic of the profession to make work open and able to be reused by colleagues. Through my research for this grant I discovered PRIMO, Peer-reviewed Instructional Materials Online, which is an amazing database created and maintained by the Association of College and Research Libraries. Using other individuals’ instructional materials goes against White culture norms of competition and individualism. Being open to using others’ materials in class has allowed me to put my energy into understanding antiracist facilitation and topics of conversation for class time. Collaborative teaching practices like flipped instruction allow me to build my own capacity through my ability to focus on facilitation by leaning on my teaching and learning community. This is my small way of challenging norms and decreasing my complicity in a white supremacist system that asks us to stand independently of one another and decreases our connections as community.

To me, flipped instruction is really an intermediate location between a banking model of lecture, described by Paulo Freire as an oppressive practice and an inclusive classroom that focuses on relationship development and dialogic learning as described by bell hooks. At Muhlenberg, librarians are often included in a classroom environment in one or two 75-minute instruction sessions at the invitation of the professor. This is referred to by librarians as a one-shot model. I often feel like an interloper and so it is difficult to engage a class in conversations that include analysis of race, privilege, and power. Flipping a classroom means I have twice as many touchpoints with students to pursue the intended learning outcomes. But this literally wouldn’t happen without collaboration with professors. In order to facilitate classroom dialogue in this less than ideal circumstance, I feel that practicing vulnerability and utilizing my own experience and consideration of social identity to begin conversation is necessary. It sets the tone for the class and models the type of personal reflection I seek to inspire in students. Asking students to consider information access as a facet of social identity or which voices are privileged in information structures is important for students in information literacy learning, but specifically within a primarily White institution.

Sitting in the back, reflecting on the physicality of teaching

I am currently working with an individual who is in the process of completing his MLIS and receiving internship credits to observe, co-teach, and then provide instruction.  It has been a very rewarding experience for me – thinking about what I value in my instruction (active learning, reflection, formative assessment, critical pedagogy) and helping him explore these areas – while giving him the freedom to explore and develop into his own kind of teacher.  In these final stages I am observing instruction and there are some things that have stood out to me just from the experience of sitting in the back of the room:

  1.  It’s hard to read the board/screen – lighting and size really changes the experience.  I would recommend zooming in on searches in databases and lists of retrieved results.  I shudder to think how many times I was referring to things on a search screen that were only visible to me, an experienced searcher who already knows where to look and who was standing at the front of the room directly by the screen.
  2.   Students need to be explicitly asked to follow along if you want them to do searches with you.  In the past I’ve demonstrated searches and then provided time for students to try searches with their own topic.  I now realize that the demonstration time associated with this activity is more lecture oriented, unless I explicitly state that students should follow along.  Mimicking my search can be a learning opportunity – even experiencing what happens with a typo is a learning event.

These things may have never occurred to me if I wasn’t observing someone else teach.  This experience has definitely helped illuminate my privileges as an instructor, setting the speed for the class and being able to see what is available is a huge benefit of being “in charge” and is something I will be interrogating in the future in the hopes of creating an equitable classroom community.


The Books I Read in 2019



As you can see, I read a lot for pleasure this year.  Reading has always been a great source of pleasure for me – a bit of escapism, a love of silence and comfortable corners, and a good story can get me into a happier brain space.  I think that Sally Rooney’s novels were my favorite of the year, but I clearly also got into Liane Moriarty and Armistead Maupin.

My professional life was guided by the wisdom in Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks.  I also have a copy of The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander and Mary Oliver’s Devotions on my desk… I return to these frequently while I’m working, though I haven’t read them in full.

One of my best friends was married this year and another had a baby – and I drove to each of these life celebrations to the tracks of audiobooks.  In fact, I rarely get in my car these days without jumping into another novel.

I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris while traveling in Spain.  I was struck by the number of relevant themes, both to my travels and to the current global political phenomenon of refugees.  The refugee crisis that the United States government currently perpetuates is the embodiment of the same fear and close-mindedness that Harris describes in the reactions to Vianne Rocher and Anouk.

I spent seven months of this year pregnant and, if you ask any person who has been pregnant they will tell you, it isn’t the easiest experience. Books have been crucial in the passing of time when I’ve been tired, sick, or uncomfortable.  But, as I reflect on all the occurrences of the past year, I feel that, in the end, it has been one that has passed in joy, comfort, and hope for the future.






Narrative Inquiry, Autoethnography, and Reflective Assessment

I continue to think about qualitative assessment methods that may prove useful in my librarianship practice.  My research has led me to

Graf, A. J., & Harris, B. R. (2016). Reflective assessment: Opportunities and challenges. Reference Services Review, 44 (1), 38–47.


Behar, R. (1996). The Vulnerable Observer:  Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart.  Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Both of these texts have been useful in thinking about ways that I can write myself into my own story, recognize the meaning in what I do, and create narratives/artifacts that may be valued by a greater collective.  Ruth Behar writes, “Vulnerability doesn’t mean that anything personal goes.  The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn’t otherwise get to.  It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake.”  These words deliver a personal challenge to me – I am determined to be vulnerable and to make that vulnerability count.  My internal monologue returns to the fact that every research and writing practice is one saturated by choices and personal values.  I believe that transparency related to my role in research and assessment reveals the values embodied in a final product. However, I also feel that Behar is warning of ulterior motives to incorporating oneself into a text – the allure of the ego, perhaps.

Anne Jumonville Graf and Benjamin R. Harris encourage assessment through community reflection and describe case studies in which librarians consider the unintended outcomes of their class instruction and, in another experiment, risk (in the tradition of bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress, 1994) – “…empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks” (p. 9)):

  1.  What risks did you encourage students to take in today’s instruction session?
  2. What risks did you embrace, yourself, in today’s instruction session?
  3. If you were asked to ‘take a risk” when teaching this class again, what might you do?
  4. Having considered these questions, do you have anything you’d like to add? (p. 15)

I find these forms of reflective assessment to be in line with my values (vulnerability, risk taking, teacher as learner) and am inspired to try them as a method of assessment in an upcoming internship experience I am providing to a Master’s student.

As I pursue this line of questioning, it occurs to me that narrative inquiry, autoethnography, or reflective assessment are all appropriate methods, but to use one may also require my being able to articulate the reasoning behind the choice of one tradition.

What is valued? What is meaningful?

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, which isn’t to say that I haven’t been writing.  Over the summer I completed three article drafts, which are in various stages of the editorial process for future publication – a new milestone that I’ve been very proud to pursue.  Simultaneously, my colleagues and I have been thinking about the ways that we measure our success as librarians and are experiencing some frustration at the differences between librarian and faculty acknowledgement and promotion.  For example, faculty on our campus are promoted when they demonstrate dedication to service, scholarship, and teaching – librarians are not.  My own investment in these areas is not leading me to additional financial stability.  I am interested in participating, but should I be compensated for this work?  Is my interest in pursuing compensation or recognition a drive towards neoliberal values and the cult of productivity or am I advocating for change in an inequitable system?

My questions have led me to begin to think in earnest, again, about assessment.  How can I advocate to for the representation of the work my colleagues that increases visibility and demonstrates value?  How can I assess students and instruction in a way accounts for the value of diverse human experiences and ways of knowing and being?

This past year, I’ve been turning towards some methodologies that appear (to me) to be outside the standby methods of the social sciences, but have value in representing the complexities of what is occurring in life and education:  autoethnography and narrative inquiry.  I have a lot to learn, but I’m aiming to grow towards the regular creation of field texts and in greater understanding of the tensions in creating research texts from them.

My first reading about narrative inquiry was Clandinin’s (2006) “Narrative inquiry: A methodology for studying lived experience.”  Clandinin (2006) provides an easy-to-read, engaging overview that has me excited to read more.  Next I’m going to explore the dimensions of field texts that Cladinin and Connelly (2000) uses to situate a narrative (interaction, continuity, and place) and consider the differences in methodologies in order to determine what will suit our/my library needs (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2006).

Clindinin (2006) refers to Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri, who says, “We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness” (pg. 51).  I believe that there is meaning in the experiences that lead us to location of ourselves, our need to know, and our path to growth.  Here I am, once again, standing in a place where I do not know – declaring my current motivations, position, and inspiration and where I hope this drive leads me.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Clandinin, D. J. (2006). Narrative inquiry: A method for studying lived experience.  Research Studies in Music Education, 27(1), 44-54. DOI: 10.1177/1321103X060270010301

Clandinin, D. J., & Rosiek, (2006). Mapping a landscape of narrative inquiry: Borderland spaces and tensions. In D. J. Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp. 35-75). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

The Books I Read in 2018

I was browsing through Instagram this week and saw a post by @samjstirling: “Adulthood is completely understanding why Britney Spears shaved her head.”  And so I concluded that 2018 is the year that I’ve become an adult.  No more judgement from me, Britney.

I want to be vulnerable and open about my professional struggles.  If you would have asked me last year what was on my mind I would have likely told you that I felt frustrated that I didn’t have a passion, a purpose, a specific project or interest that would make my work meaningful to me.  Then, in November of 2017 I saw Janaya Khan speak and decided that I wanted to be more politically active.  I began working out my frustrations through local organizing.  I also decided that 2018 was the year that I would radicalize myself – and so I began reading.

all about love; where we stand: class matters; the will to change; fates and furies; arcadia; the girl with the back tattoo; the nix; sula; beloved; pedagogy of the oppressed; giovanni's room; the book of joy; the last season; norse mythology; between breaths; don't call us dead; the divergent series; new and selected poems by mary oliver; just mercy.

As you can see, I wasn’t entirely focused in my radicalization efforts, but many of these books changed my life as my awareness of the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy increased my drive for justice.

Consequently, I organized programs:

  • The Power of Partnerships: Building institutional and community alliances to transform research and learning, Delaware Valley Chapter of ACRL – April 20
  • Development in Allentown: Are you being left behind?, Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity – April 29
  • Structures of Power in Information, LVAIC Information Literacy Learning Community – May 23
  • People Matter: The changing faces of Allentown, Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity – October 13
  • Librarians as Advocates: Leading activism on your campus and beyond, Delaware Valley Chapter of ACRL – October 26
  • Party for the People: A night of art, community, and social justice, Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity – December 13

I taught classes and focused on critical information literacy praxis.  I began to develop a game to help students critically evaluate the Library of Congress classification system.  I helped a class in which half the students were incarcerated.

I began research on dialogue and news evaluation, information literacy and metacognition, and Allentown community dreams.

I canvassed for a candidate during the primaries and advocated for my communities needs at city council.

And in spite of all of this, I have had many mental health challenges.  Awareness of the horrors of our hate-ridden society has produced a lot of internal anxiety and an unprecedented amount of frustration about things I previously loved in my life.  This is the year that I’ve practiced meditation, abstained from drinking, and started cognitive behavioral therapy.  I’ve had to work hard to be happy in spite of the intersections of my privileged identities, love from friends and family, and a happy place to work.

I share this in the spirit of renewal and practice.  This year wasn’t just one of radicalization, but one of increased awareness, empathy, and compassion.  I’m thankful for my new direction in life and will continue to make small changes until I find more balance.  May the new year bring peace and connection and freedom from fear for you and yours.



Identity expression, safe spaces, and advocacy

I recently admitted to a colleague that I had hoped to write in this blog monthly and that my public reflections have become much further apart as my job responsibilities, relationships on campus, and teaching load expands.  I am not able to jump online and immediately share my experiences and reflections, but there is one moment from last month that remains in my mind, and so I’m sharing, and processing some more, now.

As the semester started, I was reminded by April Hathcock of the importance of creating welcoming spaces on campus and of the value in providing microaffirmations to show individuals that they belong.   Since most of my initial interactions with students are in library instruction sessions, I do my best to be approachable and to affirm to students that they belong in the library, that it is my responsibility to help them find and use information resources, and that I am someone that they can rely on and relate to.  In an effort to meet students, I introduce myself by name and pronouns, and ask them to do the same.  Most of the time, this is a non-issue in classes.  Occasionally, students ask what it means to identify their pronouns.  This semester, I had a student refuse, saying he doesn’t believe in “that modern mumbo-jumbo.”  This individual was a white adult male and I was frustrated and baffled about how to deal with the situation.  I blundered my way through a brief conversation with him, while his white male professor stood behind him wide-eyed and silent.  There were a lot of power dynamics at play here and, while I understand that many other things could have happened, I left the class determined that I would handle it better if a similar situation ever happens again.

I later read Veronica Arellano Douglas’ entry about allowing students to create systems of learning that encourage them to “set their own limits and share what they feel comfortable sharing.”  She emphasized that if we require students to share, “it can’t be on the dominant group’s terms.”

So this is where I have landed, though I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.  When I introduce myself I say, “I would appreciate if you share your pronouns with me, as it helps me perform my job with excellence and not make gender-normative assumptions.”  Should a student say rude things in response, I will tell them that it is out of respect for the diversity of human experience and maintain that they don’t need to participate, but they do need to be respectful.

I realize that this scenario is one in which an individual with privileged identities was communicating that he was uncomfortable, but I think it remains true that we cannot force students to share their pronouns, potentially making a space unsafe.  I do think, however, that it is important for me to make a request students share their pronouns with me, so that I’m not assuming the dominant group’s terms.  This is an example of a situation where I am able to leverage my own privilege in order to ally myself with individuals on the margins.  This is what it is like to be an advocate, it is difficult work that doesn’t always go perfectly the first time.  But through reflection and persistence I hope it goes better the next.

An Update from President Jess Denke

Happy Fall 2018 everyone!

I’m excited to say hello as I begin my year as DVC President.   Change provides opportunity for reflection, and so my thoughts go towards all the accomplishments of the past year.  In the 2017-2018 year, we held two successful programs on news literacy and library partnerships, we awarded $3,000 in scholarships to members to support their professional development, and we provided mentorship opportunities for students and librarians.  In effect, we continued to build community for you – our esteemed network of library workers in the Delaware Valley.

I’m thankful for all of the people I have met this past year and the new relationships that I’ve formed.  Each interaction reminds me of the value of the work of a local chapter of our professional organization.   Through our community we provide professional development, support one another during challenges and change, and build our ability to consider different perspectives and challenge our own lens.

Our upcoming fall program supports each of these endeavors.  Librarians as Advocates: Leading Activism on Your Campus and Beyond will be a day devoted to identifying our work as librarians as that which resists systems of oppression and supports those marginalized in our society. Library work has at its core the values inherent in access of information to all – equity, diversity, inclusion, and freedom.  However, sometimes these values are lost in the day-to-day business of running a library.  Join us on October 26th to be reinvigorated in the action of library work towards a better future for all.  We are currently accepting submissions for lightning round proposals, we are in the process of assembling an amazing panel of librarian activists and community organizers, and we are planning an afternoon of roundtable dialogue.  Stay tuned for registration information, which will be shared in the near future!

Libraries and librarians are well-positioned to make a difference in the lives of those who need us most.    Together we are stronger and can achieve more.  Please join me in building professional relationships; your participation will make us a more prepared, effective community of action.


This post was original published on 9/10/2018 on the ACRL DVC blog.