I want your fight: On shame and #ACRL2017

This isn’t what I wanted to write about.

When I envisioned my blog post that would sum up my experience at ACRL2017 in Baltimore, I was hoping to write about things like sitting front row for Roxane Gay’s keynote, having lunch with my mentee, attending sessions about the devaluing of feminized labor and the problems with grit/resilience narratives, presenting my poster, and closing out a karaoke bar.

Instead, I have to write about this:

On Saturday morning (after closing out aforementioned karaoke bar), the very last session I attended was a contributed paper by librarians from Westminster College titled, “In a World Where… Librarians Can Access Final Research Projects Via The LMS.” Erin Smith, Taylor Eloise Stevens, John Garrison, and Jamie Kohler co-presented the paper, which outlines their institution’s unique experience with merged IT/Library departments. Librarians are Learning Management System administrators who have access to course content, including student research papers in the first-year writing program. The librarians provide information literacy instruction through a “library week” module which teaches students how to find and read sources on a pre-selected topic.

Apparently, librarians thought that students’ final work was very amusing. On one of the slides, they had a list of quotes from student papers that were clearly meant to poke fun at students’ ignorance (e.g., look at this student who tried to write a paper on the history of African-Americans in four pages, hur hur!). On the closing slide of the presentation, they referred to their students as “sweet dum-dums” who would “get there”; I took a picture of the slide and shared it on Twitter.

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When the presentation closed and the panel asked for questions, I was too exhausted to bring up their choice of language regarding their students. Honestly, I just wanted to get to the ballroom to get a seat for Carla Hayden’s closing keynote, and I promised myself I would follow up with an email to the presenters later.

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On Monday, the Associate Dean of Library & Information Services, Erin Smith, posted an apology to Twitter using her account. This surprised me because I did look for her Twitter account on Saturday but I couldn’t find it, so I assumed she didn’t have one. When I messaged her directly to learn how she found the tweets about their presentation, she said that was tipped off to the situation through a text from a friend.

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Today she sent a “public” apology e-mail to several librarians, including me, in which she implored us to reach beyond the “Librarian Twittersphere” to engage colleagues who make errors like this one. She still did not explain how they ended up using the “dum-dum” phrase in their presentation, or why they continue to use it to describe themselves (#wearethedumdums).

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Many people are lauding Smith for being brave enough to acknowledge the mistake and apologize. I recognize the courage it takes to face this criticism head on and I admire it. However, I do not yet feel that this situation is fully resolved.

This e-mail is not a public apology.

E-mail inboxes are not public spaces. If the intent of the e-mail is to be a public apology, it should be posted in a public forum, preferably on the Westminster College website. It would seem that the Westminster College Library expects the 40 recipients of the e-mail to do the work of making the apology public. [Edited to add: I see that Smith has posted the letter on Twitter as a response to someone else, which is a good start in making the apology public.]

As far as I know, Westminster College Library has not yet apologized to the right people.

The librarians who presented this paper made jokes at their students’ expense. The people who deserve an apology are not other librarians. The people who deserve an apology are their students, along with course faculty and other administrators who gave librarians access to student work samples. Unless I’m mistaken, the librarians have not apologized to the students whose work was the basis for this contributed paper. As a student learning assessment librarian, I am particularly upset that librarians were entrusted with student work for the purpose of improving information literacy instruction–and instead Westminster College librarians used a national conference as a forum to mock their students’ learning.

#LibraryTwitter isn’t just snark.

In her e-mail, Smith said that she and co-presenters almost didn’t find out about the comments made about their presentation on Twitter because none of them are active in that space. So, if I understand correctly, Smith is upset that she might miss out on critical comments made in forums where she isn’t active.

If she doesn’t like things being said behind her back, how does she think her students would feel knowing that their research papers were fodder for librarian laughter at a professional conference?

When I was asked on Twitter who presented the slide, I readily provided the contact information for Westminster College and Erin Smith. I intended for this situation to move off Twitter-land and into real life, and I knew it would be the beginning of a much longer conversation. I know that Smith feels ashamed. I know her apology is sincere, if a little off-key (e.g., stop perpetuating the ableist term “dum-dum”, please). The great thing about shame is that it’s temporary.

In Roxane Gay’s keynote, she talked about this age of American disgrace. White people often tell her that they feel ashamed.

“I don’t want your shame,” she said. “I want your fight.”

We don’t need more shame. We need to fight. I want the Westminster College librarians to fight for their students, to protect them, to love them, to rage on their behalf, and to care as very deeply for their students as they say that they do.

Smith said that she and her librarians were surprised by their assessment results. In a message to me, she explained that they did not realize how “unprepared” their students are. In her e-mail, she said the librarians’ expectations were a “mis-match” with students’ abilities.

Here’s my take: it is not the students who were unprepared for learning. It was the librarians who were unprepared for teaching.