Toodling around in the Denver Art Museum between lunch and work yesterday (I work 4-8pm on Thursdays) I realized – right now, I have time. To slow down, to pay attention, to explore. I always feel under such tremendous pressure to use my time well, and right now, this is using my time well – getting to know my new city, getting rested, spending my time on the bus and train getting caught up on all the reading I haven’t done in the last few years. Thinking and processing. Refilling the well. This is important. I’ll cycle back around to the part of my life where I don’t have time, where I’m working sixteen-hour days or traveling or writing like mad or full up on commitments and projects, and I want to have not wasted these days, I want to have this time to look back on and draw from.
I feel like I am endlessly careening from one thing to the next. Due dates. Midterms. Finals. Deadlines. Programming cycles. Periodic reviews. Projects. The next book the next goal the next task the next thing – and then I am reminded (often, as now, as I’m approaching but not quite at the end of something big, and preparing in the back of my mind for the next whatever) that processing is part of the work.
Reflection on one hand – critical examination of the work or the content and our personal response to it, placing it within a larger theoretical context, unpacking and deconstructing – and creative practice on the other – doing something with the work or the content, being something more than a passive recipient or observer, integrating it into an ongoing practice, creating new knowledge, sharing, teaching – these are the tools of engagement.
Engagement is challenging. It doesn’t allow stagnation: what we engage with changes us, and a culture and practice of engagement is a culture and practice of constant adaptation, reexamination, and chaos.
An engaged, reflective practice is pragmatic. It deals in what is, in radical self-honesty, in embracing a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, in looking at uncomfortable truths, in tearing down problematic, fossilized practices. It’s relational and contextual, and it deals in relationships and contexts as they are, not as we assume them to be or wish they were; it doesn’t tolerate complacency or denial or presumption.
Pragmatism is – I cannot say this often enough, or emphasize it strongly enough – pragmatism is loving and compassionate. I’ve touched on this several times in this series in specific contexts: talking about liminal spaces and low-engagement patrons, talking about grounding ambitious vision in situational reality. But there’s a broader narrative underlying those specific examples, and part of reflective practice is connecting and specific and complex realities to broader narratives, privileging personal lived experience over theory and continually interrogating and crafting theory to be more responsive to lived experience.
I think that people sometimes think of pragmatism as cold and unforgiving, but there’s profound compassion in saying, implicitly or explicitly, I see you. I’m not forcing my own worldview or viewpoints or expectations on you, I am trying to understand, I am paying attention. It’s just as true when we say that to ourselves as when we say it to someone else.
There’s something unselfish about it, a quality of humility, a willingness to participate in a set of collective values, and thereby have a voice in continually interrogating and negotiating those values that is part of a community of peers. This kind of full-on, critique-grounded, self-reflective participation makes us better workers and better community members and in turn actually makes us more assertive and sure of ourselves and better at self-promotion and visibility. When the goal of sharing is not self-aggrandization or ego-boosting but contributing something of genuine value to a broader conversation, it feels unselfconscious and people respond positively to it.
And in so doing we raise up the conversation, and the work, and make connections, and engage with new ideas, and integrate them into our own practice, and nurture our own inquisitive nature, and explore and experiment and share and create, because being engaged makes us want to, and so we are immersed constantly in this flow that is tidal, in the sense of being both cyclic and back-and-forth, ebb and flow, transecting and occupying and navigating boundaries.
The essence of practice is that it’s ongoing, it’s immersive, it’s personal. Playing tourist is not practice. Punching the clock is not practice. (It’s quite possible to provide really fairly decent customer service without going deeper, and I have some colleagues I’m very fond of who do exactly this, but they’re not librarians.) Reading the professional literature dutifully and uncritically (come on, you knowlibrarians who do this, we all do) is not practice, going to a couple of conferences a year is not practice. We can be more than that.
This series has been a process of working through and laying out a personal manifesto, tying together some ideas I’ve been chewing on for many years, some that I’ve talked about at length in the past and some I’ve only come to an understanding of in the course of this reading and writing and interaction with my classmates, completely new concepts and approaches (some of which resonate deeply with what I already believe and some I found really challenging and difficult, and spent quite a bit of time grappling with), views and values that have evolved over the course and over my career and will of course continue to evolve because that is the point.
It sounds hard and scary. It is. It wouldn’t be so incredibly rewarding if it weren’t.
Anonymous, (2016). Who would be a librarian now? You know what, I’ll have a go.
Biehl, B. (2016) The City Beautiful.
Cep, C. N. (2014). The pointlessness of unplugging.
Cheetham, W, & Hoenke, J. (2013). Making mistakes in our daily work: A TTW conversation between Warren Cheetham and Justin Hoenke.
Clausen, K. (2012). The importance of professionalism
Corkindale, G. (2011). The importance of kindness at work.
Fallows, J. (2013). The art of staying focused in a distracting world.
Frierson, E. (2011). Leading with heart.
Henry, A. (2012). How to promote yourself (without being sleazy).
Klerk, J., & Stephens, M. (2010). Open conversation: Being human.
Sandlian Smith, P. (2017). What are you thinking? #2.
Stephens, M. (2014). Reflective practice.
Stephens, M. (2014). Always Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Stephens, M. (2014). What’s Your Pitch?
Stephens, M. (2015). Color Me Curious.
Stephens, M. (2016). Talk About Compassion.
Stephens, M. (2017). Chaos 7 Caring.
Thomas, S. (2016). In Praise of Patience.
Write Where It Hurts: A Community for Scholars doing Deeply Personal Research, Teaching, and Service. Bottom of Form
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Beth Harper is a public services paralibrarian living in historic central Denver and working in the western foothills under the shadow of the Front Range, and an MLIS student at San Jose State University. As Elizabeth Biehl, she writes on SF/F literature and community, art and culture, and occasionally librarianship at www.edgeofcenter.com.