Thursday, June 14, 2018

And what I choose is my voice

I am taking a class this summer wherein we are reading newly published books about higher education. For this week's class, we read Taking It to the Streets, which I enjoyed far more than I thought that I would. Even in the places where I didn't agree with an author's ideas, I appreciated the vulnerability it took to write about how they considered their relationship to public scholarship.

While all of the author's seemed to be in favor of some degree of public scholarship, a theme that permeates Taking It to the Streets is the tension between being the kind of scholar who chooses only to write and publish and the kind of scholar who chooses to both write and publish and in some way connect to the communities about which they research and write.

It may be too reductive of an observation, but it felt to me like implicit in the tension I felt in this book is whether the goal of the scholar should be to embody a positivist epistemology or a participatory epistemology. The goal of research conducted using a positivist epistemological lens is to explain some naturally occurring phenomenon. In contrast, the goal of research conducted using a participatory epistemological lens is to create change in the world using research findings as the basis for that change.

While it might be tempting to suggest that one or the other of these epistemological lenses is more appropriate for the time in which we live, it is important for scholars on both sides of the divide to understand that there is not universality in what brings scholars to the academy and what undergirds their work. In a chapter titled "A Road Less Traveled: the Responsibilities of the Intellectual," William G. Tierney (2018) writes:
I do not believe that only one route exists for intellectual engagement, and in that light, I want each of us to be aware that we are choosing a particular path. I am troubled at times that a colleague may assume that only one choice is possible and that if another choice is made, then his or her colleague is gravely mistaken or morally failing. I am equally troubled by those who do not see their choices are choices. By assuming that the choice one has made is the only possibility or not thinking through the array of possibilities that exist appears shortsighted to me, loaded with hubris and devoid of humility. (p. 101)

Reading Taking It to the Streets helped give me words to talk about a similar tension I feel in librarianship. While the divide isn't explicitly drawn along epistemological lines, there are similarities. There are library workers who believe deeply that the work of libraries and those who work in them is to be neutral actors, providing access to all types of information to all types of library users. There are also library workers who believe deeply that the work of libraries and those who work in them is to agents for liberatory change, wherein marginalized voices are privileged and hateful rhetoric is unwelcome.

In much the same way as there is not universality in what brings scholars to the academy, there is not universality in what brings library workers to the library. But there's something in what Tierney writes that sits wrongly with me. While choosing to take a particular path or to use a particular epistemological lens is, in fact, a choice, there are people for whom the stakes are higher. In her remarks at the ALA Midwinter President's Program, Emily Drabinski (2018) suggested that:
those steeped in and rewarded by dominant ways of seeing the world don't have to see how intensely political the ostensibly neutral position is. If the white supremacists booking your meeting space are not after you, you don't have to know how dangerous they are. Books about reparative therapy for gay people can simply be another point of view if yours is not the body and mind those authors seek to destroy. To imagine that neutrality could be something we could choose is an intensely privileged position, one that I have to imagine my way into as I listen to the arguments of those whose worlds are rarely contested. (para. 6)

In his chapter in Taking It to the Streets, Shaun R. Harper (2018) echoes Drabinski's thoughts, writing "Researchers frequently mistreat Black Americans and other minoritized populations as variables in their statistical models. Then they go on to make all sorts of assumptions about my people vis-à-vis Whites and other groups in their analyses. Much about this is dehumanizing" (p. 82).

The point I'm trying to make is this: for those of us in dominant groups, acting out of a particpatory or liberatory epistemology in either the academy or the library is a choice. We can choose to turn away from neutrality or positivism because we have the safety afforded to us by being some combination of white or cisgender or able-bodied or middle-class or male. But our colleagues from marginalized communities are less able to adopt the position of neutrality because it is their identities that the world seeks to destroy.

So yes, let's accept that each of us comes to librarianship with a diversity of experiences and motivation. But let's also accept that for some people, living into a participatory or liberatory epistemology is literally a matter of life or death.

Stay positive,

Drabinski, E. (2018, February 12). Are Libraries Neutral?. Retrieved from

Harper, S. R. My People's Professor. In Perna, L. W. (Ed.) Taking It to the Streets: the Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship (p. 79-85). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Tierney, W. G. A Road Less Traveled: the Responsibilities of the Intellectual In Perna, L. W. (Ed.) Taking It to the Streets: the Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship (p. 100-105). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

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