Workplace issues

From Radical Reference Wiki

Unconference participants framed this discussion in terms of the general direction of higher education within the context of neoliberalism. The main concerns we articulated at the start of the session included the ways in which change gets implemented within neoliberal contexts (technological change, especially); the adjunctification of the teaching faculty; and the availability of union membership to some librarians.

One participant noted that in conversations with coworkers, he found that a sense of pragmatism shapes popular professional belief that it's a "waste of time" for ALA and other professional organizations to make political/social statements, e.g., against the war in Iraq, or against the use of torture to obtain intelligence information. He noted that this pervasive attitude created a professional environment in which progressive librarians -- especially new librarians -- may quickly become discouraged and jaded. Other participants concurred that the profession (as represented by ALA) does not foster a climate for making resolutions. A related conversation occurred later in the session (in concert with the discussion of what's valued in the profession), when participants discussed whether the naming of our politics and work as "radical" scares people away, or if self-selecting as radical is a requirement that limits librarians' willingness to participate in activities like the Preconference Unconference, or to align with librarians involved in radical political and social action.

Next, participants identified additional signs of a shift in the academic & cultural contexts in which we work, including the recasting of citizens (and students) as consumers, and the valorization of technological innovation over other ways librarians practice our craft, or our other investments and responsibilities (e.g., reference and instruction).

We discussed the ways in which institutional bureaucracies and hierarchies stifle change. One participant favorably described a practice of supervisors meeting together as a roundtable and having discussions about management issues, without keeping minutes or notes, and just having conversations to facilitate collaboration and change. He noted that while other librarians in the organization were interested in these meetings, they were wary of meetings that would be closed and the lack of transparency that comes with no note-keeping.

The discussion then turned to participants' struggles with being young administrators and managers. Some participants found that while they initially wanted to employ a management style that was non-hierarchical, they ultimately needed to rely on the hierarchy to make things work. We discussed the possibilities of bringing other ways of organizing -- particularly community organizing -- into the workplace, and whether these strategies can work in organizations where the work culture is to do the minimum, or not chip in to aid each other. One participants who works in a place where the hierarchy is relatively flat discussed how coworkers in her organization support each other and make efforts to be inclusive -- to invite all staff to take part in social activities as a way to promote collective collegial spirit.

The discussion ended with a set of responses to the question of how to break down/through a culture of resistance to collaborative, collective effort among workers. One participant suggested that in a situation with a hierarchy, managers can be explicit about the existence and realities of that hierarchy while also striving to act in just ways within that context. Another participant suggested talking about the meaning of work with workers -- what work means may differ between employees, depending on class or socioeconomic background, for example. This conversation could also help managers understand how workers understand their role in & value to the organization. In response to this idea, a participant described her approach to learning about her staff when she took on an administrative role: she asked her staff to tell her what they do so she could understand their role(s) and how they think about their work.