If candor or sincerity is a universal value, it is evident that the maxim “one must be what one is” does not serve solely as a regulating principle for judgments and concepts by which I express what I am. It posits not merely an ideal of knowing but an idea of being; it proposes for us an absolute equivalence of being with itself as a prototype of being. In this sense it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are. But what are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are, if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are?
-Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p. 59
A few weeks ago, I found myself just up the road in Nashville for the ACRL Immersion Intentional Teacher program…sort of a professional retreat for instruction librarians. The program is designed for “the experienced academic librarian who wants to become more self-aware and self-directed as a teacher” and, to that end, we spent four days discussing and reflecting upon ourselves as teachers. Now, I’m not going to describe what we actually did for those four days, but let’s just say that Play-Doh, episodes of Glee, and activities designed by Parker Palmer don’t quite fit my learning style. So, in lieu of a descriptive account, I thought I’d pull together some of the notes I took and attempt to explain what I took away from Immersion.
A big part (maybe the whole point?) of Intentional Teacher involved the idea that, as instruction librarians, we have some sort of inner teacher that is the seat of our integrity and identity. In turn, our effectiveness as teachers is directly tied to the extent to which we allow our inner teachers to flourish. Yet, that inner teacher is often restrained by a combination of fears and unrecognized assumptions about our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. So, we set out to uncover our fears and assumptions through a process of critical reflection and the intended outcome was that we would “deepen our identity and integrity” as teachers.
Yet, all of that critical reflection lead me to a different conclusion: rather than enhancing my effectiveness as a library instructor, the attempt to identify as a teacher is what prevents me from being a better library instructor. Ironically, I can now credit the Immersion Intentional Teacher program with helping me to realize that I am not a teacher in some existential sense of the term. So, what am I? Well, I’m an instruction librarian who teaches some 40 one-shot research methods classes every semester, who organizes workshops, who helps to design award winning activities, who helps design curricula, and who does most of the other things that fall under library instruction. But, I’m not a teacher.
Now, you might think that anyone who gets paid to teach is a teacher, or that anyone who teaches people is a teacher, so I should clarify what I mean by ‘teacher’. In the broad sense, a teacher is someone who teaches something and in this sense…sure, I’m a teacher: I teach students how to improve their research skills. But, this is just the basic agentive sense of ‘teacher’ and it’s philosophically uninteresting to slap an -er on a verb and call it a day. One who does is a doer. One who makes is a maker. One who says is a sayer. One who thinks is a thinker. If being a teacher is just being a person who teaches something, then pretty much everyone is a teacher and there’s nothing particularly distinguishing about it. As the Boy is currently learning: everyone poops…but that doesn’t mean we need to critically reflect on our identity and integrity as poopers (though, to be fair, it will get you a sticker on the Potty Chart).
Anyway, when I say I’m not a teacher, I don’t mean it in the broad, boring, agentive sense. And neither does the Intentional Teacher program. Intentional Teacher was after a deeper, existential sense of ‘teacher’, that is, the sense in which one self-identifies as a teacher. It’s about becoming the “librarian as teacher” or even some quasi-Heideggerian “Being-as-teacher.” It’s this type of teacher that I’m not. My sense of self is in no way tied to being a teacher. In fact, the more I try to “be” a teacher in some deep, existential sense, the further removed I become from the thing that brings students into my classroom in the first place: they come because I’m a librarian.
Part way through the Immersion program, I remembered a great piece that Char Booth wrote for In the Library with the Lead Pipe in which she argued that librarians are persistently beset with similar questions of identity. That is, we have a nasty habit of trying to define our roles by appeal to something other than “librarian”; it’s the “librarian as __________” problem. As she explains, “no matter whence the identity question comes, inhabitants of libraryland tend to produce iterations of the same answer: our continued relevance depends on becoming more like something else entirely.” (You know the drill: “librarian as rock star,” “librarian as search engine,” “librarian as facilitator,” or, in my case, “librarian as teacher.”)
To put the obligatory philosophical spin on it, the “librarian as __________” issue is an issue of bad faith. In attempting to mold ourselves into the roles we think we should embody, we are only deceiving ourselves. The “librarian as teacher” is often indistinguishable from Sartre’s famous café waiter: we play the role of ‘teacher’ in the same way the waiter “plays with his condition in order to realize it.” And because social roles are necessarily defined externally, we are necessarily circumscribing our selves. We lose our all-important authenticity when we attempt to define ourselves in terms of social expectations.*
So, trying to identify as a teacher is bad faith because I’m not a teacher, I’m a librarian. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to suck at library instruction. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care deeply about student success. I can still be a teacher in the broad, agentive sense and I can be pretty damned good at it. In fact, library instruction is pretty much my favorite part of my job and I am deeply committed to information literacy (though I hate the term). But, what I don’t need to do is deceive myself into thinking I’m a “librarian as _______.” Channeling Sartre, Booth explains it perfectly:
The more we recommend to each other that we become the someone elses we see fit, the more we risk missing that the deceptively prescriptive identity/utility question is being answered descriptively. Our new reality is like our old reality, only a little more adaptive and a lot more self-reflexive (or vice versa, you tell me). Librarian as ________ analogies are useful in exploring our response to a critically transformative time in the trajectory of our profession, but their function as metaphor should not be overlooked lest we creep too far from our own (rather amazing) archetype.
And that’s what I learned at Immersion Intentional Teacher: that I am not a capital-T “Teacher” in some grand, existential sense. I’m not a “librarian as teacher,” I’m a “librarian as librarian.” I teach, but that’s not what brings students into the library. They come because I’m a librarian; the instruction part is just value added. (And it sort of makes sense when you look at our library instruction curriculum for the massive First-Year composition program where our most important learning outcome is that students understand how their librarians and their library can help them succeed.) Maybe a better way to describe what goes on in library instruction is in terms of the master/apprentice relationship? I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. Regardless, it’s not what I was expected to take away from Immersion. But I’m all right with that and I think the Immersion experience was a great success in spite of the intended outcomes.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. I could probably sum it all up by writing “read the Char Booth article” and just leave it at that. She explains it a lot better, anyway. So, perhaps I can conclude by posing the question to the six people who might actually read this blog: are you a teacher?
[EDIT: I just realized that I forgot to add a very important part: I’m not saying that library instructors can’t identify as teachers. Of course they can. Some of the best library instructors I know are wonderful teachers in the deeper, existential sense. All I’m saying is that identifying as a capital-T “Teacher” isn’t necessary for a library instructor. At least, it isn’t for me.]
* I’m well aware that “librarian” is also a role we often play-act, so it can be just as much an instance of bad faith to identify as a librarian. My response is two-fold. First, it’s been about six years since I last taught Sartre, so I’m a bit rusty. Second, as Sartre argues, bad faith is constitutive: it leads us to attempt to be what we are not through an act of negation. However, if I do in fact embody the virtues of “librarian” then my bad faith isn’t “bad” faith. It’s when we attempt to fit our virtues into a role that we falter, but that’s a different beast from embodying authentic virtues that merely coincide with a role. Of course, Sartre takes everything a step further and claims that sincerity itself is bad faith. But, I find his argument for for this conclusion unconvincing.