Veronica Arellano Douglas is Instruction Coordinator at the University of Houston Libraries. She received her MLS from the University of North Texas and is an ALA Spectrum Scholar. Her research interests include relational-cultural theory, gendered labor in librarianship, and critical librarianship and information literacy. She blogs at veronicaarellanodouglas.com.
“What do you study?” she asked me, in the completely guileless way that people have when they genuinely want to get to know you.
“Hmm…well, I guess I’m really interested in critical librarianship and information literacy, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the classroom environment I help shape and the learning relationships I want to cultivate with students.”
I was a bit heavy on library speak in my response, mostly because I hadn’t really thought about the best way to describe my research interests to someone in a different field–in this case, clinical social work and counseling. To be honest, I hadn’t put a lot of effort into it because I hadn’t really encountered too many people outside of libraries who 1) thought I might have research interests and 2) cared what those might be. Rachel was different. Her approach to counseling and social work was rooted in her own practice of critical analysis and social justice, and she had a way of expressing interest in a person that was both affirming and encouraging. She was curious, intelligent, and eager to talk about the ways in which our work existed in parallel situations on our college campus.
“Oh, that sounds a lot like exploring the intersubjective!” Rachel replied, “In a therapeutic context there is the client, the therapist, and the space in between, the place where we meet, validate and acknowledge one another, and cultivate a relationship. That sounds a lot like the teaching relationship you’re exploring.”
And just like that, a casual conversation over dinner and drinks opened up a way of thinking about my research that was previously unknown to me. Investigating intersubjectivity in social work, therapy, and education led me to writings by relational-cultural theorists and a completely new theoretical framework in which to view librarianship.
A Relational Cultural Theory Interlude
“For those of us feeling stifled by the hierarchical power structures inherent in academia and made worse by neoliberal approaches to education, a relational approach to librarianship can potentially redefine our professional values to stress connection and mutual empowerment.”
Relational-cultural theory posits that all human beings grow and change through relationship. It’s a feminist rejection of the independent self as the pinnacle of human psychological development that centers relationship and relational ability in empowerment and positive growth. Within relational-cultural theory is a strong focus on intersubjective mutuality, the state of being open to change in relationship characterized by empathy and emotional attunement to other people as well as a sense of vulnerability and openness of self. Its applicability to librarianship is, I believe, boundless. Our profession is, at its core, all about fostering connections–between librarians and patrons, librarians and librarians, information and people. Relational-cultural theory gives us a model for creating meaningful, egalitarian, feminist connection in our work and fostering it in others. It can transform our teaching, reference work, information organization, and our day-to-day experiences with colleagues in and out of the library. What I appreciate most about this theoretical approach is that it advocates for a sense of self that lifts others up, encouraging “power with” other people rather than oppressive “power over” others. For those of us feeling stifled by the hierarchical power structures inherent in academia and made worse by neoliberal approaches to education, a relational approach to librarianship can potentially redefine our professional values to stress connection and mutual empowerment.
Researching Connection Through Connection
The irony of learning about a theory of relationship and connection through the connection of a meaningful friendship is not lost on me. It’s such a fitting origin story for my research agenda, one that demonstrates the power of cultivating relationships for the sake of simply learning more about another person. I didn’t befriend Rachel because I thought she could be useful. I thought she was warm, funny, and had cool hair, the trifecta that typically serves as the impetus of most of my adult friendships. Our friendship was, and is about more than our overlapping academic interests. It also wasn’t a stop gap on the road to me being an independent, self-sufficient researcher. The relationship itself was, and remains, the point. Through it, we’ve each learned about each other and grown as thinking, feeling people.
That’s where I think typical conceptions of research and researchers tend to lose me. So much of research culture stresses the individual. The gold standard is to be a sole author, first author, or primary investigator. It’s what “counts” during the tenure citation tally and what we want to point to when touting our own or other’s expertise. Yet the actual doing of research is rarely solitary. As researchers, we cultivate relationships with our research participants, our colleagues, our co-investigators, and the researchers who have done work in our fields before or concurrently. One of our professional frameworks stresses “Scholarship as Conversation” but somehow we still talk about scholarship as the thing that we do individually, as though we can have a research conversation or relationship with just ourselves.
It’s a problematic, and I think, harmful framing of research, particularly for new librarian-researchers. I remember feeling pressured to come up with a research agenda on my own, to develop my own individual perspective and ideas without the input of others lest I be seen as unoriginal. To ask for help in academia is often seen as a weakness rather than an action that requires courage and intelligence. This approach to research is lonely, scary, and ultimately, not at all productive. I am so grateful to have had thoughtful, inclusive colleagues in my first library job who embodied the “power with” model that relational-cultural theorists advocate. They asked me to join projects, encouraged my writing, and always made time to explore ideas with me.
I still have moments where I wonder if I should be presenting and writing solo, but then I think of the richness of perspective I gain from discussing ideas with colleagues and friends. I realize that this pressure to go it alone comes from a system whose values I do not share, but is so insidious that I’ve internalized this way of thinking. I have to actively work against this system, and I think it makes my research and my writing better. I would encourage other librarian-researchers to do the same. We don’t have to idealize the patriarchal research conventions that isolate us from one another.
My advice for those of us who are often unsure how to initiate connection–and I include myself in this group, as this is a practice that I’m still learning to intentionally cultivate–is to start small. Rachel and I met because she was looking for a book in a library, looked a little lost, and I then felt prompted to ask her if she needed help. We chatted about her being new to campus and we decided to have lunch together. Yes, there’s certainly an aspect of serendipity to our meeting, but there’s also an effort on both of our parts to be open and welcoming to meeting a new person. I think the key is not to go in with an ulterior motive, but simply engage in connection for the sake of learning more about someone new. Ask the new faculty member in your cohort out to lunch. Attend a seminar and ask a colleague about his/her research. Invite the new Career Services mentor to walk to the coffee shop on campus.
At ACRL 2017 an early career librarian came up to me after a discussion group, introduced herself, and shared that she appreciated what I contributed to the discussion. I was totally floored. It was such a kind, thoughtful gesture, and made me want to get to know this amazing librarian better. We’re now friends and I admire her work very much. I may not always be bold enough to approach someone in person, but the wonderful thing about librarianship is that we’ve created so many virtual spaces for us to connect with one another. I’ve developed friendships and research partnerships with people through Twitter, particularly #critlib chats; by commenting on interesting blog posts; and by writing to authors of articles, books, or essays that really resonated with me. I think most people are flattered to know that they’ve made an impact on someone, but more importantly, I think so many of us are eager for connection. We want to feel acknowledged, and we want to see and hear others. There is great capacity for growth in healthy, mutually empathetic relationships, and we can start cultivating them in our research and professional lives, too.
Relational Reading Suggestions
Freedberg, S. (2009). Relational theory for social work practice : a feminist perspective. New York : Routledge, 2009.
Jordan, J. V., Hartling, L. M., & Walker, M. (2004). The complexity of connection: writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. New York: Guilford Press.
Jordan, J. V., Kaplan, A. G., Miller, J. B., Stiver, I. P., & Surrey, J. L. (1991). Women’s growth in connection: Writings from the Stone Center. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Miller, J. B. (1987). Toward a New Psychology of Women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.
The Development of Relational-Cultural Theory. (2018). Retrieved April 2, 2018, from https://www.jbmti.org/Our-Work/the-development-of-relational-cultural-theory
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