The Research Essay from an Instructor’s Perspective

[The following is adapted from a talk I gave to colleagues who provide library instruction for first-year college writing courses, but have never taught one themselves. I thought similar librarians might be interested in the research essay from an instructor’s perspective.]

A little bit about my background with writing instruction. I started teaching writing, or rhetoric as it’s called there, at the University of Illinois in 1992. Except for a year when I exiled myself from academia, I either taught writing or worked in a writing center from then until the end of 1999 when I finished library school. I came to Princeton in 2002, and from 2002-2009 I taught seven writing seminars in the Princeton Writing Program. So I have a lot of experience on both sides of the instructor-librarian relationship.

The goal of a writing seminar is to teach students to be able to write argumentative, academic essays using sources, and in many ways this is an unnatural act. Take a look at the Elements of the Academic Essay, which the writing seminars used for years to provide a common vocabulary about writing, and which many other writing programs use. (They now use a variation of it.)

Elements of the Academic Essay

  1. Thesis
  2. Motive
  3. Evidence
  4. Analysis
  5. Keyterms
  6. Structure
  7. Stitching
  8. Sources
  9. Reflecting
  10. Orienting
  11. Stance
  12. Style
  13. Title

13 elements of the academic essay. That’s a lot to cover. Where does the library portion come in? Evidence (maybe), sources (again, maybe), thesis. Evidence could include sources handed out in class, interviews, etc. And the sources might be suggested by an instructor or by the references list in a scholarly encyclopedia. My writing seminars mostly focused on the work of John Rawls and responses to him. If you read the Rawls entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and follow the references, you won’t need to do much library searching.

Some of these are more difficult than others. It’s harder to formulate a thesis than a title, but students even have trouble with titles. In an essay about John Rawls, the title might be “John Rawls.” Not very indicative of what the essay is about.

Students come in as strong writers at a basic level, but they haven’t had much experience writing argumentative academic essay using sources, and it’s a big transition.

In the Princeton Writing Program, there are four essays, but the first three are the most important, and develop in a sequence. Typically, the first essay works with one or two sources and involves interpreting and forming a thesis about those. The second essay usually adds in a few more sources to write about. And the third essay is the research essay.

Librarians usually come in for Essay 3, but the first three essays are a continuum teaching students how to read, interpret, and use scholarly sources in an academic essay. For each essay, there’s a draft (D) and a revision (R). In between those the instructor comments on the draft, makes suggestions for improvement, and meets individually with the students to discuss the revision. The sequence goes D1 R1, D2 R2, and D3 R3.

As an example, I’ll discuss my own teaching. My last writing seminars focused on the work of John Rawls, a Princeton A.B. and PhD who was possibly the most prominent political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past century. We’d start with a 25-page excerpt from his first book A Theory of Justice. Rawls is a complicated thinker and a dense writer, but we spent a couple of weeks discussing the excerpt, focusing on just a few ideas: the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance, Justice as Fairness, and the Two Principles of Justice. In the first essay, students were to make some argument about Rawls.

In D1, most students struggled with his work, and some would wildly misinterpret him, building a strawman called Rawls and making bold claims attacking that instead of engaging critically with what he actually wrote.

There were two problems.

First, reading and interpreting difficult texts is, well, difficult. Nietzsche, who was trained as a classical philologist and thus a very careful reader, somewhere writes that most people read every fifth word of a text and then try to work out a meaning from that. That’s pretty much what most students did on their first pass through Rawls. Reading difficult texts and interpreting them carefully isn’t easy, and the students don’t have much experience doing it. Rawls is probably more difficult than many of the readings in a writing class, but eventually students will venture out into the scholarly literature which can often be difficult to understand for novices in a field.

Second, people tend to quickly form strong beliefs based on little evidence, and then accept evidence that confirms their beliefs while ignoring counter-evidence. That leads to bold, unsubstantiated claims and sloppy interpretations.

Princeton psychologist emeritus Daniel Kahneman studied fast thinking and slow thinking. We tend to make snap judgments and then come up with reasons to defend them. Learning to think slowly and evaluate evidence is difficult because that’s not how we normally think. Studies of motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases conclude the same thing. Some studies have even shown that if people strongly hold beliefs, then presenting them with an undeniable refutation of those beliefs only reinforces their commitment to them. Science is telling us what David Hume told us a quarter century ago. Reason is a slave of the passions.

Students are sometimes like the people Michael Shermer describes in his book Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. They believe weird things (in this case about Rawls) because they’re really good at coming up with smart reasons to defend beliefs they developed by non-smart means.

A good writing seminar should help students break this habit and think more like academics: careful reading, detailed analysis, qualified claims based on the evidence. Even if writing instructors don’t realize it, they’re trying to suppress and retrain natural mental instincts formed over a hundred thousand years of human evolution, and instead teach students to develop their beliefs based on a careful consideration of all available evidence. Compared to that, searching Summon or the catalog to find a few books and articles is fairly easy.

The instructor then comments on the draft. Many of my comments would be pointing out misinterpretations, which usually meant showing that some bold claim the student made about something Rawls supposedly supports was refuted by some other part of Rawls the student ignored. Sometimes there were structural or other issues as well. The revision, R1, would be a little better. Students would have dealt with my counter-evidence and qualified their claims.

In D2 students are a little better still, more careful in their interpretations and more cautious in their statements, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Reading and interpreting carefully. Developing beliefs based on the evidence. Classes spend 5-6 weeks on teaching these skills and the elements of the academic essay before ever tackling the research essay.

By D3, they’ve gotten better, but now have to use the same skills on sources that the class hasn’t read and discussed together. We librarians step in and show them the basics of library research and how to find books and articles, and we make it pretty easy for them with discovery layers. Even then we might be fooling ourselves, since we know that most of the traffic to our electronic resources is driven by Google, not our databases.

Regardless, finding the sources is a lot easier than the task of reading, analyzing, and synthesizing them into a careful argument, and that’s the major goal of the research essay. All the students are familiar with the very basics of online searching. Librarians teach them to do that in a more scholarly way. It’s all the other stuff that’s new to them.

In D3 there are a series of stages: the research topic, the research question, and the thesis statement.

The research topic is first, and there’s no point meeting with us as librarians before they have that. The topic is broad, and could come from some class readings, instructor suggestion, initial interest of the student, or wherever. That’s the point they need to do some preliminary research, which will just be their first round of research.

Then comes the research question, which is best formulated after some searching, but more importantly some reading. Students have to read and understand enough about the topic to know what questions can be fruitfully asked and what questions are already answered or impossible to answer.

Then, they have to research and read more to develop a thesis, a debatable claim they can support from the evidence.

To distinguish these stages, I’ll use a possible example about Rawls.

The topic is John Rawls’ concept of  “justice as fairness.” This is what is known as a “lens essay,” looking at some subject through the lens of Rawls’ work.

Rawls argues that justice as fairness requires us to imagine what a society might be like if we designed it from behind a “veil of ignorance,” what he calls the “original position.” What kind of society would we want to live in if we had no idea what place we would have in that society? Rawls answers that question at length. He argues that we would secure basic individual liberties, make sure positions in society were equally and openly competitive, and that social and economic inequalities would benefit the least advantaged. So we could look at some current social arrangement and ask, is it just?

But let’s complicate it by adding an animal rights perspective suggested by the work of Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton philosopher. This would be a double lens essay, looking at animal rights through the lenses of both Rawls and Singer.

We could come up with a research question:

What if we applied Rawls in the way that Peter Singer might think about? Blind to species? What kind of society would we come up with if we not only didn’t know our human place in society, but didn’t know if we’d occupy the place of a human or a dolphin?

If we thought about and researched this more, we might come up with the following thesis:

When we view John Rawls’ theory of justice through the lens of Peter Singer, some non-human animals would possibly benefit from rules of justice formed behind the veil of ignorance, and some homo sapiens might lose consideration.

This is still more of a working thesis. It should be more specific about the consequences, but first, the student would have to, in Hegel’s words, work through the labor of the notion to develop the complete argument, responding and reflecting on the related sources, such as Mark Rowlands’ non-speciesist response to Rawls and Hallie Liberto’s and David Svolba’s responses to Rowlands, both easily found through a simple PhilPapers search.

Like the introductory paragraph—which should be written last when you know what you’re actually introducing—the final thesis should be written after the argument is complete and you know what you’ve actually argued, and then you should go back through the essay and cut out everything that isn’t related to it. It’s hard work.

To conclude, students aren’t used to reading difficult texts, interpreting them carefully, arguing with them, reflecting on them, and developing an arguable claim from the sources they find instead of just believing stuff and hoping to find evidence for it. These skills are difficult to learn, which is why what passes for discussion and debate out in the world is so terrible. The lack of these skills and training explains why there are people who fervently believe we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.

And because of this, when it comes to learning how to write an academic research essay using sources, finding the sources is probably the easiest thing the students are going to learn. It’s everything else they have a lot of trouble with. The librarian’s role in the process is important, but relatively small considering all the other things students have to learn to write good academic essays.

Sci-Hub and Information Apartheid

From what I’ve read, the methods Sci-Hub uses to acquire material range from the dangerous and stupid (e.g., providing strangers access to your network) to the illegal and unethical (e.g. phishing scams). Both of those are bad. However, the ethics of the existence of the repository itself is very debatable, and aside from the possible network security problems, most academics, including most academic librarians, probably aren’t going to care that much about Sci-Hub. While I’d prefer to see a more universal sharing of preprints along the lines of arXiv or PhilPapers, preprints aren’t what scholars have access to, so that’s not what they share with Sci-Hub.

A couple of things to consider. One reason this might be popular, and why people might contribute to it, is the contradiction between the sharing culture of academia and the commercial culture of most scientific publishing, which I’ve discussed before. Researchers don’t take copyright of scholarly work seriously because the very concept of making scholarly research unshareable is unthinkable to most of them. Doing research and disseminating the results is what researchers do, and they’ve been doing it for centuries. That’s why they publish in the first place. Most of them probably don’t even realize they’re giving up their right to legally share their research; hence all the takedown notices from Elsevier to Academic.edu. Researchers at scientific corporations might be different, but academics just won’t care about this. It’s a clash of values that can’t be reconciled.

Secondly, nobody without a financial stake in perpetual copyright is going to be especially concerned about the existence of Sci-Hub as such. A publisher over at Scholarly Kitchen was very hostile about SciHub and kept repeating that it’s illegal. True, it is illegal, but it’s not necessarily unethical. It’s illegal to share an Elsevier article with someone who didn’t pay their $35. It was also illegal for African-Americans to drink at “whites only” drinking fountains or stay at “whites only” hotels throughout much of the American south until just a few decades ago.  Apartheid was legal in South Africa until not that long ago, but that didn’t make it ethical. It being illegal didn’t make it unethical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently laid out the case against unjust laws in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In the U.S., copyright exists “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Once that “limited time” becomes almost perpetual, which it basically has, there’s a moral case for arguing that current copyright law is unjust law that creates a form of information apartheid for researchers who aren’t affiliated with the relatively wealthy institutions that can afford the access. Disney drove this more than Elsevier, but Elsevier especially has demonstrated hostility towards any sort of sharing, either by authors of the published works they wrote, or the government with works it funded.

Combining the sharing values of academic research, the creation of information apartheid, and the reliance upon a copyright system that many consider to be unjust and unethical, plenty of researchers, perhaps the majority, have no moral qualms about sharing scholarship as such. Everything about the culture of scholarship implies that sharing is considered the norm, from Academia.edu to the IcanhazPDF hashtag. And the legal argument isn’t persuasive to people who think the copyright system has been rigged for commercial interests at the expense of the public, and that probably includes most people who both a) know anything about copyright, and b) don’t have a financial interest in perpetuating the system against the public interest. A clash of values can’t be resolved by appealing to law that both sides don’t support.

There was a Chronicle of Higher Education article about how librarians were supposedly “caught between journal pirates and publishers.” However, I don’t consider myself caught at all. As a representative of the library, I present the library’s official position on copyright, knowing full well that scholars don’t care because their academic values are more important to them than profits for commercial publishers. While I uphold the law in this matter, I don’t have to agree with it or think it a just law, both because I share those academic values and because I believe copyright law is now at odds with the public interest, and that some bad actors among otherwise beneficial publishers have supported an unnecessarily restrictive information apartheid to unaffiliated researchers.

Instead of lecturing librarians about how we should feel about this situation, publishers would more fruitfully spend their time asking why unaffiliated researchers or researchers in poor countries should be excluded from results of international research considering the vast amount of money they’re already making off of libraries in richer countries that aren’t in danger of dropping their journal subscriptions because of something like Sci-Hub. Figure out a way to disseminate information to the people who need it, or consider sharing with the less fortunate a form of “fair use,” and librarians will applaud you for it, because that is what we value. Create information apartheid and appeal to rigged copyright law, and most of us aren’t going to be very concerned about it. I’ll follow the law and people at my university have so much information privilege they probably will to, but I have no sympathy for certain publishers who are so hostile to academic and library values.

Books in 2015

Seeing a couple of posts about reading in 2015 prompted me to share my own reading list for the year. A couple of years ago I decided to stop reading so much crap on the Internet and read books instead. I’d never gotten out of the habit of reading books. It’s more that I decided the time spent reading ephemera online would be better spent reading books, probably any book. So I started keeping an Evernote tracking what books I read in the order I completed them.

2015 was anomalous in that I read more fiction than usual, mostly because of reading a bunch of Lawrence Block mysteries in the spring. I also read more epic poetry than usual, since I usually don’t read any, and I enjoyed the Lombardo translations of Homer and Virgil.

It’s hard to say what I enjoyed the most, but probably the history of philosophy books. Alan Ryan’s 1100-page history of political thought was quite good, as was James Harris’ new biography of Hume. Hadot on Marcus Aurelius, Long on Epictetus, and Leiter on Nietzsche (not technically a history of philosophy) were also enjoyable if a bit denser than Ryan and Harris. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning–an account of his time in Nazi concentration camps and its influence on his philosophical psychology–was by far the most moving book I read this year. Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle: a Loafer’s Manifesto probably the funniest.

For 120 days I spent a few minutes every morning reading one of Seneca’s 120 moral letters, and he joined a group of writers I now have a special sympathy for, along with Nietzsche, Orwell, and the possibly fictional Chuang Tzu.

Even though I also have two degrees in English literature, I didn’t read nearly as many books as this librarian, but I don’t care if I keep up with the literary conversation. What I like about being a librarian is having the freedom to read pretty much anything I want while having access to almost everything ever published.

  1. Aho, Existentialism: an Introduction
  2. Rogers, On Becoming a Person
  3. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  4. May, The Discovery of Being
  5. Block, Burglars Can’t Be Choosers
  6. Block, The Burglar in the Closet
  7. Block, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling
  8. Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
  9. Wu Jyh Cherng (trans.), Daoist Meditation
  10. Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity
  11. Book of Chuang-Tzu (Kohn trans.)
  12. Block, Sins of the Fathers
  13. Block, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep
  14. Block, The Cancelled Czech
  15. Block, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Spinoza
  16. Lieh-Tzu, A Taoist Guide to Practical Living (Wong trans.)
  17. Block, Time to Murder and Create
  18. Homer, The Iliad (Lombardo trans.)
  19. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life
  20. Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
  21. Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, Fate
  22. Voltaire, Candide
  23. Homer, The Odyssey (Lombardo trans.)
  24. Virgil, Aeneid (Lombard trans.)
  25. Stephens, Marcus Aurelius: a Guide for the Perplexed
  26. Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings
  27. Hadot, The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
  28. Block, The Burglar who Painted Like Mondrian
  29. Ryan, On Politics: a History of Political Thought
  30. Holowchak, The Stoics: a Guide for the Perplexed
  31. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Farquharson trans.)
  32. Krakauer, Into the Wild
  33. Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way
  34. Block, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
  35. Long, Epictetus: a Stoic and Socratic Way of Life
  36. Woolf, Rome: an Empire’s Story
  37. Larson, Evolution: the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
  38. Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Hard trans.)
  39. Edmunds, Would You Kill the Fat Man?
  40. Xenophon, Socrates’ Defense & The Memoirs of Socrates
  41. Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
  42. The Dhammapada (Fronsdal trans.)
  43. Seneca, Moral Letters
  44. Blanning, The Romantic Revolution: a History
  45. Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
  46. Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology: a Very Short Introduction
  47. Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle: a Loafer’s Manifesto
  48. Smith & Davies, Anthropology for Dummies
  49. Kabat-Zinn: Wherever You Go, There You Are
  50. Tanahashi, Essential Zen
  51. Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs
  52. Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life
  53. Becker, A New Stoicism
  54. Beck, Everyday Zen
  55. Erickson and Murphy, A History of Anthropological Theory, 4th ed.
  56. Morris, The Stoic Art of Living
  57. Thorpe, Nothing Lasts Forever
  58. Godey, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
  59. Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality, 2nd ed.
  60. Harris, Hume: an Intellectual Biography

Calculating My Odds

Donald Trump and his ilk are fearmongering about terrorism and President Obama wants to calm my nerves. Maybe it’s just that I’m congenitally not a worrier, but in my daily life I’m not in the least worried about being the victim of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, by ISIS, right-wing extremists, or anyone else. Mass shootings and attacks are horrendous, and I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for the people who survive them and the loved ones of those who don’t, but anyone’s actual chances of being involved in one are extremely slight.

According to shootingtracker.com, there have been at least 462 people killed and 1312 injured in 353 mass shootings this year, which is already more than the 383 people killed last year. They define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, which is a broader definition than the government has used. (Compare that to the 30K or so people killed in auto accidents each year.) According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. currently has a resident population of 322,367,564, giving me a 0.00000143% chance of getting killed in a mass shooting this year by the broadest definition. That’s almost literally a one in a million chance, the phrase we use when something is so unlikely that we won’t bother to worry about it.

Of those 353 shootings, 2 seemed to be related to Islamist terrorism (Chattanooga and San Bernardino), resulting in 19 deaths and 19 injuries. That’s from a site called thereligionofpeace.com, which is trying to prove how murderous Muslims are. By being so diligent in tracking deaths by Muslims, they ultimately show that Muslim terrorists have been responsible for .006% of the attacks and .041% of deaths in mass shootings this year, making my chances of being killed this year by a such a terrorist infinitesimal. So thanks, anti-Muslim website, for reassuring me.

But since deciding what counts as a mass shooting is difficult, let’s look at the most conservative data. Mother Jones magazine has been tracking mass shootings since 1982, and they use the criteria of four or more people killed, which means they don’t consider the recent Planned Parenthood attack a mass shooting, since “only” three people were killed. According to Mother Jones, there have been four mass shootings in the U.S. this year. According to shootingtracker.com data, there were 41 such shootings so far this year. However, they include domestic shootings such as this one and this one, which, while perhaps indicative of a culture of guns and violence, are in a different category than mass shootings in public places with the intent to kill randomly. One more kink. In 2013 Congress lowered the federal number of deaths required: “the term ‘mass killings’ means 3 or more killings in a single incident.” That would allow us to add the Planned Parenthood attack to the four mass shootings tracked by Mother Jones.

So at a conservative estimate there have been 5 mass shootings in the U.S. this year: San Bernadino (14 dead), Oregon (10 dead), Charleston (9 dead), Chattanooga (5 dead), and Colorado (3 dead). Of the 5 shootings, 2 are related to Islamist terrorism, 2 to what I would consider right-wing extremist terrorism (Colorado and Charleston), and 1 (Oregon) to who knows what craziness. By this reckoning, this year, there was a 40% chance of a mass shooting being related to Islamist terrorism, and 46% of the people killed in mass shootings were killed by Islamist terrorists, but still more people were killed by non-Muslim white American men than were killed by Muslims.

That’s a large percentage, but of a tiny number of events, and by these standards my odds increase significantly and I have a 0.00000013% chance of being killed in a mass shooting, and a 5.89389322e-8% chance of being killed by a Muslim terrorist. So despite all the fearmongering, there have been 2 Islamist terrorism incidents in the U.S. this year, giving us individually an insignificant chance of having been killed in one.

[Update] If we expand this analysis over several years, it looks even better. According to thereligionofpeace website, there have been 89 people killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S. in the last 14 years. (I’m leaving out 9/11 because that is WAY outside the norm.) That averages to be about 6.4 people killed per year. Dividing that average by an average population of 320 million people each year gives a likelihood of death by Muslim terrorist of 2e-8%. That’s even lower than my previous estimate, because the San Bernadino shooting was uncharacteristic, and the largest number of dead since 2009. That’s a 1 in 50,000,000 or so chance each year that I’ll die in a terrorist attack in the U.S.

Just as who you associate with might lead to a domestic shooting, where you work might as well. I work at a university, where bomb threats seem to be increasing. None have actually been bombed because while any dipshit can buy a gun and start shooting people, making bombs is hard, and none of the shootings seemed related to Islamic terrorism. According to this Wikipedia list of attacks related to post-secondary schools, there have been 6 such attacks this year, leaving 17 people dead (including the 10 dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon). There are 4,140 public or private colleges in the U.S., enrolling almost 18,000,000 students and having tens of thousands of employees. Again, an infinitesimal chance even within the domain of higher education.

None of this is an argument against fighting terrorism and mass shootings or trying to stop gun violence. However, it is an argument that an abnormal fear of being killed in a terrorist attack or mass shooting in the U.S. is unwarranted, and that the fearmongering is little short of demagoguery. Yes, they could happen anywhere, but they’re extremely unlikely to happen here, wherever here is. If the goal of terrorists is to terrorize me, they haven’t won.

Conservative Librarians and Liberal Librarians

In my last post I claimed there were two kinds of librarians–those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t–and that I’m the former kind. Being a divider makes things easy, because once you start looking at the world in that simplistic way you see divisions everywhere. Science and religion, the personal and the political, Guelphs and Ghibellines, really whatever binary that pops into my head can provide useful fodder for false dichotomies, straw men, glittering generalities, oversimplification, question begging, non sequiturs, well poisoning, red herrings, weasel words, and other varieties of sophistry.

I’ve spent much of my adult life learning and teaching how to find, analyze, and evaluate evidence to support justified beliefs and reasoned arguments, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m neither a librarian rock star nor a prominent keynote speaker, so goodbye to all that. Divide and conquer is now my maxim.

On to the latest division. We can divide librarians into conservative librarians and liberal librarians.

Conservative librarians like the status quo, for better or worse. They don’t like change and they struggle against it. In discussions about change, they try to obfuscate the issues with irrelevant arguments, fallacious reasoning, and anything else they can do to draw attention away from existing problems and ways to solve them. If anyone thinks that maybe a current situation has a few problems and people should try to solve some of those problems, conservative librarians will resist them, sometimes by writing angry rants incoherently smearing their opponents and sometimes by writing cautious, overqualified essays subtly impugning the professionalism of those who disagree with them.

Conservative librarians have no positive goals. Their goals are entirely negative. First, stop any changes to the status quo. Second, stop conversations about changing the status quo, and if that’s not possible then obscure or derail the conversations. They will never come out and just say, “I like the status quo and I don’t want it to change no matter what and I wish you’d just shut up.” And they resent being called conservative and will deny it vehemently, because if it’s acknowledged that they’re conservatives opposed to all change regardless of its merits, then their arguments, such as they are, will be immediately ignored by most people.

On the other side, we have liberal librarians. Liberal librarians are more open to change because they’re smart, fun loving, and easygoing. The status quo doesn’t provide them with any particular comfort and they don’t fear the possibility that things might change if it means improvement. They don’t want chaos, but they don’t mind experimentation and gradual progress. They like freedom of discussion not only for themselves but for other people. They don’t try to shut down or obscure conversations. Quite the opposite. If liberal librarians have any flaw, it’s that they tend to discuss things to death. They’re open-minded and perhaps a tad too idealistic. Sometimes they dream too big, but they believe that while utopias don’t exist they still provide motivation to make a better world than we have now.

Liberal librarians like to take what they find and leave it better than they found it. Conservative librarians find this disconcerting because they always prefer what they have to what might be better, because even if the end result is better, the process of change is always bad. When liberal librarians talk about possibilities for improvement, conservative librarians focus on negative unintended consequences. When liberal librarians describe better ways of doing some things, conservative librarians will claim that any small improvements won’t make any real difference anyway so it’s pointless to try. When liberal librarians say they want freedom, conservative librarians will label that freedom tyranny.

There’s nothing either good or bad about conservative or liberal librarians. I’m not criticizing either one or implying that one of these is better than the other. Libraries need both. They need reactionaries who oppose all change and visionaries who can imagine better futures and how we might achieve them. Both are equally good. But it’s crucial that we divide librarians into these suspect categories so that we can discuss which kind of librarian we are or how I’ve misconstrued one side or the other or how maybe I’m just spouting nonsense. Otherwise, we might talk about something important.

Two Kinds of Librarians

Since the beginning of time, there have been two kinds of librarians: those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t. Librarians who divide librarians into two kinds have never met a false dichotomy we didn’t like. We have an easy, simple vision of the world that’s very attractive for us and others, because reducing the irreducible complexity of existence to a series of false dichotomies simultaneously reduces the effort required for serious thought, and some of us are too busy running libraries to have time for serious thought.

The false dichotomy is a useful thing and beautiful in its simplicity. A scary thought is that there might be thousands of librarians motivated by a variety of values. It’s hard work to understand all of the values, much less the fact that even a single librarian can have multiple motives for action. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand it. We can just divide librarians using various false dichotomies. I’m dividing them into librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t because it’s just a lot easier for me to understand the world that way.

Some people believe the world is a messy and complex place, and that even the world of libraries is complex. Those people frighten and confuse me. They believe that individual librarians have a set of sometimes conflicting values whose adherence requires balance, compromise, and negotiation. They might believe, for example, that librarians should act for the good of their individual library users, for the good of their particular libraries, and for the good of all libraries. That’s a lot to think about, though, and I prefer to make things easier on myself. Librarians either divide librarians into two kinds or they don’t, and if they don’t then they’re probably trying to force you to think about something complex that you really don’t have the time or inclination to think about. So don’t think about it.

It’s easy. I don’t. I just look out and see the two kinds of librarians. One kind, the dividers, are like me. They like things clean and simple. The great thing about such simplicity is how much time it saves me. Let’s say I encounter librarians writing or saying things that imply they aren’t dividers. With a wave of my mental hand I easily dismiss them, because if they’re not dividers like me, then they’re not worth paying attention to. If I’m being really generous, as I am here, I might warn other librarians to avoid them as well. Don’t pay attention to the non-dividers. They’re bad.

It gets even easier. Since I can tell almost immediately when a librarian isn’t a divider like me, I can warn everybody about how bad they are without considering any evidence whatsoever. You know who aren’t dividers? People who spend their precious time on things like “citing sources” or “critical thinking” when they’re dividing librarians using false dichotomies. Ugh. I have better things to do. You might think that if I had any respect for my audience I might cite some sources while making grand generalizations about librarians. But no, I assume my audience is as simplistic as I am and that they’ll fall for the same fallacies that I do.  Besides, citing sources takes work, and I prefer to write essays the way first-year college students write them. Hence my opening sentence and my complete lack of evidence for my claims.

Regardless, since I know that the world is divided between librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those that don’t, and since I know that librarians who don’t divide librarians into two kinds disagree with me, and since I know that librarians who disagree with me are wrong and bad, then I don’t have to even examine them closely or provide reasons why they’re wrong and bad. The very fact that they don’t divide librarians into two kinds is proof enough that they can’t be trusted. Wrong and bad librarians like them hate libraries and their users. I can just dismiss them, and I implore you to do the same.

If we both share the same false dichotomy, that saves us from having to understand or engage with librarians who are wrong and bad because they disagree with us.  If we don’t share the same false dichotomy and you dare to criticize me, I have a way of dealing with that as well. I’ll repeat my false dichotomies and fallacious arguments ad nauseum until you get so tired of responding to my circular arguments that you just give up. I can copy and paste my claims into a comment box as many times as necessary. Really, it’s no trouble. And if I get the last word in, then I win the argument, because that’s how the Internet works.

You might think I’d come up with some arguments to defend my own beliefs instead of creating a false dichotomy, aligning myself with one side of it, poisoning the well against the other side, and hoping people will be gullible enough to have a discussion on my terms. But that’s hard work. Fallacious reasoning is much easier than critical thinking, it’s a lot more fun, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. That’s why I like to keep things simple and easy.

Since things are so simple and easy, I don’t know why every librarian isn’t a divider like me. I could try to find out, I guess, but that would require understanding the values and motivations of the non-dividers, and probably engaging them at their own level, and if I do that things aren’t so clean and simple anymore, which means I’d be wasting time I could otherwise spend dividing the world into two kinds of librarians. If I was going to make that much effort, I might as well be a non-divider, but non-dividers are wrong and bad so I wouldn’t want to be like them. My argument is so airtight I might be suffocating myself.

A Modest Ebook Pricing Proposal

After the series of columns I wrote about ebooks for the Library Journal last fall, an ebook publisher emailed me and asked why my library wasn’t buying any of his ebooks even though they met every one of my criteria (DRM-free, unlimited usage, single title purchases, etc.). I tried a public response to that question here, basically saying that libraries generally have to choose a default for books–print or electronic–because they can’t afford both for all their titles. It’s all or nothing, and as long as people still want print books, I’ll keep buying them, which means that I don’t have money left over to duplicate each title as an ebook, no matter how great the ebook platform is. It’s just too much trouble trying to coordinate with publishers and approval plans subject by subject.

The thing is, I could have the money to do just that, if publishers weren’t trying to sell the same book twice, often for more than 200% of the cost of the print book. If the print book is $100 and an unlimited license to the ebook is $150, then buying both would be 250% of the print book price. If the ebook platform didn’t meet most of my criteria, I wouldn’t even think about buying it. Obviously librarians like me aren’t the target customers for publishers who want to sell technologically hobbled ebooks. However, often I would love to have an ebook version of a book, but couldn’t afford duplicates for so many titles.

Publishing is in transition, and that transition could last a very long time. According to recent statistics from the Association of American Publishers:

After slightly declining last year, eBooks experienced 3.8% revenue growth to an estimated $3.37 billion dollars. It’s worth noting that though the volume increased only slightly (.2%), over 510 million eBooks were sold in 2014. That’s nearly on-par with the number of hardbacks (568 million) sold in 2014…. Paperbacks, which remain the most popular format, also saw strong sales at $4.84 billion compared to $4.42 billion and units sold at 942 million compared to 882 million in 2013.

Print books are not going away anytime soon. Students and professors want them. Libraries buy them. Yet it’s also in everyone’s interest to support the development of good ebook platforms for academic libraries, which would be easier to do if more libraries bought ebooks even as they were still buying print books.

During the transition period, I’d like to see book publishers offering the same incentives for purchases as journal publishers did 15-20 years ago when journals were moving from print to electronic. I’d like to see an option for Print + Electronic at a price above just the price for print, but well below the price for currently buying a print book and then buying a duplicate ebook for more than 100% of the print book price. I don’t know what a fair price would be for such an arrangement. Journals were often about 10% more per year. Maybe even 20% for the right ebooks. If I had an option like that, I’d certainly purchase a lot more ebooks.

From the publisher’s perspective, it probably looks like a bad idea. After all, plenty of ebook publishers are afraid of DRM-free ebooks or unlimited usage and think that libraries should buy their ebook offerings even if the ebooks make things harder for library users. “What? An ebook for only 20% of the print price? That’s outrageous.” I’d be willing to turn it around. How about paying full price for an unlimited use purchase of an ebook and throwing the print book in for free? In many cases, that would be quite a bit more than buying the print book. Amazon even has a feature like that for some publishers, and I’ve bought at least one print book because the price after I’d purchased the ebook was only a fraction of the ebook cost.

Either way, it’s more money for publishers than they currently have. The ebook platforms are built. Providing access to another library isn’t that difficult. If a library is still buying print books from a publisher instead of ebooks, then any money paid for ebooks would be better than no money for ebooks. Eventually, there might be a transition from print to electronic for most library books. Or Print + Electronic could become the norm, satisfying the large audiences for both on a given campus.

Thus, one answer to the question of why some librarians aren’t purchasing acceptable ebooks is that we don’t have an incentive to. We want the print books because our users want the print books. We would also like the ebooks if they met certain criteria, but paying more than 200% of the print book price to have both isn’t affordable or wise. A Print+Electronic pricing model like that of journal publishers would give libraries an incentive to buy ebooks they aren’t buying now and get money to publishers they aren’t getting now. If someone could make it work, it would be better off for everyone.

The Stoic Librarian

In the words of Jim Anchower, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. For the past three years I’ve been trying to put my best library-related stuff into my Library Journal column, and the pressure of trying to come up with interesting stuff every month wore me out some. Since February I’ve been out of the rotation for the Peer to Peer Review column, and for the last three months have used the time I might have spent thinking about and writing that column reading philosophy and the occasional mystery novel. The publication of a blog post about avoiding library burnout from Letters to a Young Librarian gave me the incentive to write a bit about what I’ve been reading.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism, both the existing writings of the Stoics themselves–Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius–as well as a number of secondary books on Stoicism (I’ve included a selection at the end for anyone interested in further reading). Last summer I intensified that reading, and for the past few months have been trying to practice some form of modern Stoicism. Currently, I’m participating in a Stoic Mindfulness course online and am enjoying it. I also joined a Facebook Stoicism group. I don’t know about avoiding librarian burnout, but I do think that some Stoic practices help dealing with stress at work and what Sartre called the hell of other people.

First, a bit about what Stoicism is and isn’t about. I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of a stoic, which is supposedly “a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” Well, sort of. But just as the philosophy of Epicurus has nothing inherently related to enjoying fine food and drink, the contemporary definition of “stoic” has only a partial relation to either classical or modern Stoicism.

Put simply, Stoics seek a flourishing life devoted to human excellence, living according to our nature as rational and social animals, practicing the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. There are several Stoic beliefs and practices that form a system. Bits of the system can certainly be used effectively without accepting the whole, and I’m going to give a brief summary of the some of the major parts as I understand them.

1) There are things that are within our control and things that are not, and we should concern ourselves only with the things within our control.

In our control are our own beliefs, emotions, and actions. Not in our control are events that happen to us, the actions of other people, and what Stoics sometimes sum up as our health, wealth, and reputation. Now, it might seem like some of that is within our control. For example, our health. People try to eat healthy and exercise, and this gives them some control over their health. That’s fine for a Stoic to do. But if I have a terminal disease, there’s really not a lot I can do about it other than suffer through it or commit suicide if the pain gets too bad. And, ultimately, I will die, which is perfectly natural and nothing I can control. Since I can’t control it, I won’t worry about it.

I can’t control events that happen to me, only the way I respond. So, yes, a Stoic “accepts what happens,” but only in the sense that Stoics accept that things happen they can’t control and work to not get upset or angry over those things because to do so is pointless. People can try to control events and can even have some success, but eventually they will reach a barrier they can’t cross. If there’s something I’d like a colleague to do for me, I can ask nicely, I can plead, I can angrily demand, but I can’t force the person to do anything. Likewise with my reputation. I can try to do my best at things, but I can’t control what other people think of me, so I try not to worry about it. I want to worry only about my own choices and actions, since those are the only things I control. I have no control over the past, so I shouldn’t worry about it. I can only control how I act going forward.

2) It’s not things that bother us, but our judgment about things.

This famous line from Epictetus strikes me as a truism, but is apparently one of the hardest things for people to accept. If someone does something and I become angry, that anger is all in my head. It doesn’t somehow inhere in the action of the other person. People can’t “make me angry,” I can only choose to become angry over their actions, which is completely different. If you believe people “make” you angry, you believe they can control your mind. I don’t believe that. This is easily demonstrable if I’m the only one angry. (I use anger as an example because that has always been my most deadly sin.) Adam Smith observed that if we see other people angry we rarely get as angry on their behalf, and indeed might find their anger unseemly. Stoics believe that we should look at events almost as if we were other people, to take the “view from above.” If the same event wouldn’t anger or sadden others, then the anger and sadness are all ours. Anger in particular harms the angry person more than anyone else. Nobody cares about your anger, except perhaps to know when you’re angry so as to avoid you. As La Rochefoucauld noted, we all have the strength to bear other people’s problems.

3) Take a mental step back from events and examine them as they are before applying a value judgment.

As Pierre Hadot reads Epictetus and Marcus, this is part of the “discipline of assent.” An event happens, say, someone makes a remark about me. Maybe a fellow librarian calls me “fatty, fatty four eyes” in an attempt to anger me. The event itself is that someone said something about me. Whether I believe the person thereby harmed me or not is a value judgment that I apply, usually almost instantaneously. I “assent” (apply a value judgment) to the “impression” of the remark (in Stoic jargon). But with practice it’s possible to mentally step back and consider the situation. Has that person really harmed me? Stoics believe that rude or insulting people are in fact harming themselves by making themselves more vicious. Vice-ridden people who can’t control their actions are like children who haven’t learned to behave properly. Mentally, I might say to myself, “do the actions of rude children warrant my anger or my pity?” Someone else might try to insult me doing what they can control, but I’m only insulted if I choose to find the remark insulting. With a lot of practice, that’s within my control.

4) Act justly for the common good.

This is part of the “discipline of action.” Instead of always considering myself above and before other people, I should try to think more universally. Despite the irrational misanthropy of some people, human beings are social animals and are born into the world dependent on other people. The Stoic philosopher Heirocles conceived of a circle of concern, and Stoics practice to extend that circle of concern steadily outwards from themselves, to their friends and family, fellow citizens, and eventually to everyone in the world. Stoics were the first cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. Check out this panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy, a 61,000-light-year stretch of the galaxy nearest ours of the 100 billion galaxies in universe. Think about how insignificant our lives and concerns are from a universal perspective. Think also that most people, just like you, act in a way they believe is good and believe things they they believe are right. Think of all that humans have in common, including their ultimate death and insignificance from a cosmic standpoint. And then ask yourself why your selfish concerns are somehow more important than everyone else’s in the world.

5) Learn to desire that things you can’t control happen as they do.

This one’s really hard, the “discipline of desire.” Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus are explicit that our lives will be happiest if we not just grudgingly accept things that happen beyond our control, but learn to desire that they happen as they do. Nietzsche wrote about the “eternal return,” and asked how we would feel if we knew we would live the same life over and over again and things would always happen as they do now. His life-affirming answer was amor fati, the “love of fate.” Stoics also try not to be averse to things happening they can’t control. Many, perhaps most, people fear death. But for the Stoic, death is nothing to be afraid of or avoid. We all die. It’s natural. We can’t avoid death. We can only control the way in which we deal with it. Stoics practice doing this by imagining things happen that ordinarily one might consider bad, such as the death of a loved one, and trying to emotionally deal with the impermanence of the world. Confer a line from the movie Gladiator, where Maximus is (supposedly) quoting Marcus: “Death smiles on us all. All a person can do is smile back.” Or an actual quote from Marcus: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”

6) Cultivate apatheia.

The Stoics, like all ancient philosophers, had a goal of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness but perhaps best translated as a “good life,” or a “flourishing life.” This isn’t to be confused with “the good life” in the sense of having wealth or possessions or infinite leisure, as some people use the phrase, because Stoics are indifferent to wealth. You can achieve eudaimonia whether you’re rich or poor. The chief difference of the Stoics was their desire for apatheia, which shouldn’t be confused with apathy. Whereas the Epicureans sought ataraxia (tranquility), the Stoics sought apatheia (“without suffering”; equanimity). It’s not all emotions that Stoics shun, but only the pathological ones, the ones that make us suffer, such as anger, extreme grief, depression, and anxiety. Good emotions, on the contrary, should be cultivated along with apatheia: love, joy, etc.

7) Be here and now.

There’s a lot of popular writing in the west extolling Buddhist mindfulness, which I’m all for (and heartily recommend this book, which is a sort of translation and commentary on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta). But there’s also a western tradition of mindfulness. Roman Stoics had the phrase hic et nunc, “here and now.” Be always mindful of what you’re doing and of what’s happening to you. Monitor your responses to outside events, and to make sure you’re responding appropriately, not with knee-jerk emotions. Stay aware that you’re doing what you should be doing, and not lost in worries or ruminations about things you can’t control. It’s the hardest easy practice anyone will likely ever try.

8) Meditate on your actions.

Another parallel with Buddhism is Stoic meditation, but instead of meditating silently trying to empty the mind, to have a “mind like dead ashes,” Stoics meditate upon their forthcoming activities (in the morning) and their actions of the day (in the evening). Marcus wrote that he awoke and reminded himself that he has the work of a human being to do, and he wasn’t made so that he could lie in bed under warm covers all day. A warm bed on a cold morning is one of my favorite things, and during the winter I often reminded myself of Marcus’ pep talk. Wake up. Review what you have to do. Some of it might be difficult. You’ll encounter heavy traffic or unpleasant people. Think about it all beforehand and imagine dealing with it all with equanimity. Practice in your imagination the way you’ll want to respond when things happen.

In the evening, review your actions. Were you rude to someone? Did you get angry when someone cut you off in traffic? (I should note that my workplace and home life are fairly peaceful, and I find myself struggling with apatheia the most when I’m commuting.) Is there anything left undone that you should have done? Did you do everything as well as you could, and if not, could you do better tomorrow?

9. Virtue (arete) is the only good, vice is the only evil, and both are the result of our choices.

Like most ancient Greek ethics, Stoicism is a version of “virtue ethics.” Virtue is the usual translation of arete, which means something like excellence. So the virtues would be various human excellences. Etymologically, ethics is about character (ethos in Greek), so virtue ethics is about forming an excellent character through the proper use of reason and the practice of other virtues, especially courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. For the Stoics, the only good or bad things are choices we make. Everything else is an “indifferent,” which can be used virtuously or viciously. Thus, nothing inherently “bad” happens to you, because only things you choose to do viciously are bad. Neither do inherently “good” things happen to you, because goodness is part of our our choices, whereas things that happen to us are subject to our judgments about them. Thus, at every moment, our choices define the sort of character we have.

Then try some Buddhist meditation, too, because it’s good for you.

Okay, that’s a basic explanation of Stoicism as I understand it, leaving out some of the more technical language. When I first started reading Epictetus’s Handbook (my first classical Stoic text), a lot of it seemed commonplace to me, but I hadn’t realized how much Stoicism I’d imbibed through Nietzsche, existentialism, Thoreau and even the New Testament. Also, there are some remarkable parallels with Taoism. Though not so clearly articulated, #s 1-3 above were mostly ingrained in me already. I struggle a lot with #s 4-6, and find that continually recalling #7 and practicing #8 helps. Complete mastery of Stoic beliefs and practices would make one a sage, but the Stoics weren’t sure that any actual person had attained sagehood. Everyone giving it a try are progressors, just trying to get by in the world as best they can. All non-sages are fools, but there are fools who know they’re fools trying to do something about it, and fools unaware of their folly.

———————

Further reading:

Primary Works (there are many translations of these. I’m including ones I own.)

Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

If you want public domain versions of all these, taken mostly from the Loeb Classical Library translations, try the 99-cent ebook Stoic Six Pack. It has all of Seneca’s letters instead of just a selection, but I think starting with a selection is probably better.

Epictetus’ Handbook is short, compact, and full of wisdom. I’d recommend starting with it, then perhaps Marcus’ Meditations, selected letters of Seneca, then back to Epictetus’ Discourses, just a bit of each every day instead of all at once. Seneca has some useful essays as well, particularly On Anger. If you really want to branch out, there are works recommended in the books below.

Secondary Works

Beginners might want something less scholarly and more therapeutic. I’d recommend these:

Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Robertson is a therapist in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tradition. His book is basically a very readable popularization of Hadot’s work (see below) with some CBT thrown in. After Epictetus’ Handbook, this would probably be the second book I’d recommend to most people. It skips the sometimes tedious expositions of “phantasia kataleptike” and the like talks about what it might mean to live a Stoic life in the modern world. Robertson also helps run “Stoic Week” and the Stoic Mindfulness course I’m participating in.

William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Irvine’s book is the first one of these I read, and the one that got me started reading the Stoics proper, but ultimately I think he gets it wrong. His modern Stoicism is, I believe, really a modern Epicureanism drawn from the Stoic sources that sound most Epicurean, where the goal is tranquility rather than equanimity. In many of Seneca’s letters, he quotes Epicurus and draws Stoic lessons from him, under the belief that all true sayings belong to everyone. That’s my impression of what Irvine’s doing here. It’s a good read, though, and a modern Epicureanism would be a good thing. I’d also recommend his books on desire and insults, both of which have a lot of Stoic influence.

If you want something a little more focused on the historical philosophy of Stoicism, this is a good introduction:

John Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

I particularly enjoyed the chapter in Sellars on the “philosopher’s beard.” I didn’t know that in the Hellenistic period, Greek philosophers in the Roman Empire (e.g., Epictetus) tended to wear beards while most Romans shaved. It was part of living the philosophical life. I’ve had a beard for most of my adult life because my face breaks out in a rash when I shave, but maybe my face was just being philosophical the entire time.

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

These are both solid works of classical scholarship that provide an influential interpretation of late Stoicism, especially the “three disciplines” of Epictetus and Marcus. If you like thick scholarly books in philosophy, you’ll likely enjoy these.

Fifteen Years In

I started my first professional librarian job fifteen years ago this week. Fourteen years and nine months ago I was already making plans to leave either it or the profession, mostly in response to one person who seemed determined to destroy my happiness and career. Fortunately for me, the tiny number of people who have tried that over the years have underestimated my resilience. Professionally, I’ve had such good fortune overall that I don’t even think badly of them anymore when I bother to think of them at all, and their small number is overwhelmed by the many great librarians I’ve enjoyed working with.

When I started drafting this post, it was meant to be a reflection of where I see myself now that I’m a middle-aged, mid-career librarian. However, as the draft progressed, it became as much about how my career has been influenced by the two philosophical traditions that have personally affected me the most–existentialism (esp. Nietzsche) and Daoism–and how they have shaped my career and my satisfaction with it. I’m not sure the two philosophies are completely compatible, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I first encountered existentialism when I was 18 or so, and I generally credit my engagement with it for saving my life, since I was one hopeless, depressed, semi-suicidal mess who didn’t mind believing it was all the world’s fault. At its most basic, existentialism teaches that people are “condemned to be free,” that our very existence forces us to make choices, those choices define who we are and give meaning to our lives, and ultimately we are responsible for those choices, even if we choose not to choose. People often find this anxiety-provoking and they seek to avoid being responsible for their own choices or they believe something else defines them instead. They’re living in bad faith. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a grand ideology, often religious or political, that they believe relieves them of choice. Sometimes they reduce themselves to a limited role where they deny they have choices. Sometimes they conform to the herd, desiring the right job and the right house and the right car and the right clothes and the right lifestyle to impress their fellow sheeple on whose opinion they base their self-worth, or else feeling sad or angry when they don’t achieve those things. Sometimes they believe that they are essentially a certain kind of person (e.g., good or smart or nice) and that this imagined essence defines them regardless of their choices and actions. Sometimes they seek to blame something or someone for their condition: it’s God’s fault, or the Devil’s fault, or the government’s fault, or society’s fault, or their parents’ fault, or their spouse’s fault, or they were just following orders. They believe it’s always someone or something else’s responsibility for their situation and the consequences of their choices, when really it’s the choices we make and continue to make that define our characters.

Everyone faces limitations, and sometimes those limitations can overwhelm us, but we still choose how to respond to our situations. If I’m in a bad situation, and I choose to do nothing to change it, then I’m in effect choosing to remain in that situation, or at least choosing to live in it without protest or without adapting sensibly. Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre lived under the Nazi occupation of Paris. They couldn’t overthrow the Nazis by themselves, but they could damn well join the French Resistance. We’re thrown into existence and the world owes us nothing, and no amount of wishing, hoping, or magical thinking will change that. Regardless, whatever happens, the ultimate responsibility for how I react to my situation lies with me. Do I choose to commit suicide, or to continue living (which Camus considered the only serious philosophical question)? Do I become overwhelmed by a meaningless universe that owes me nothing, or engage in creative projects that give my life meaning? Do I remain depressed about the state of the world and my place in it, or do I accept that life and the world will never be perfect and then suck it up and do what I can? Do I retreat into comforting illusions, or face hard truths? Do I live like “they” want me to live, or do I go my own way? Do I wallow or do I act?

Do I choose to remain a miserable slacker and blame other people for not recognizing my supposed inner worth, or to ignore the herd entirely, to overcome myself, try to “give style” to my character as Nietzsche puts it in this famous passage from The Gay Science (Kaufmann trans.):

One thing is needful.— To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it.

Because whichever I choose is up to me, and the choices I make create the person I am, whatever comforting lies I might otherwise tell myself. While some people find this freedom terrifying, I found it invigorating. I could no longer blame the world for my being in it or indulge some magical hope that everything would suddenly be better someday. It took a while, but eventually I realized it was up to me to become who I am, and instead of killing me it made me stronger.

Professionally, freedom and bad faith play out in various ways. For example, in that first job with the adversarial colleague I had several choices. I could silently submit and believe someone else’s low opinion of me meant I was worth less than I believed, or I could just quit, or I could sit home complaining all the time and blaming that other person for my misery, or I could fight back, or I could try to get a better (and not just a different) job. I chose the latter two (although there was definitely some complaining at home as well). I fought back vigorously and I started looking for a better job. With several criteria for what sort of library I wanted to work in, I applied for only three jobs that I thought suitable, and after three interviews and eleven months of fretting later I got the job I have now, or at least a previous version of it. I have definitely faced some adversity along the way in this job; such is inevitable. However, instead of just sitting around complaining (although I’ve done some of that as well), I’ve tried my best to take action to improve my situation. Sometimes I’ve taken risks, including at least one that could have seriously derailed my career had things gone differently, but if I hadn’t taken those risks I’d have been responsible for choosing not to take them and remaining in a situation I didn’t like but could try to change. I’ve known librarians (and non-librarians) over the years who spend a lot of time complaining and blaming other people for their situations who haven’t done much to change themselves or the situation. Those people are living in professional bad faith.

Sometimes we make all the changes that we possibly can, though, and then we have to decide how to live in the world that remains. Do we keep complaining, or do we just let it go? Do we rage against the world or wander free and easy? That’s where the Daoism comes in. My yellowed copy of the Penguin Classics Tao Te Ching [I use whichever transliteration the edition I’m referring to uses] was with me in college as much as volumes of Nietzsche or Camus, although not as well understood until the last few years. Numerous passages can be related to work, but I’ll try to be brief. Here’s one chapter from the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell trans.), chapter 24:

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. He who has power over others can’t empower himself. He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.

The translations vary, but I picked Mitchell’s because of the emphasis on just doing your job and then letting go. If you can make positive changes to yourself, your situation, or your library, then make them, but at a certain point the ability to make positive changes will stop, and after that it’s best to just let things go. Learning to just let them go has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a librarian and a person, but a lot of times now I can and I believe I’m happier and healthier because of it. Learning to let go is also a choice, and one that can be consciously made, but it has to be made over and over again. And if you don’t want to learn to let go, then you want things to just keep nagging at you. That’s a choice, too.

It’s easier if you don’t get too wrapped up in your own importance. Here’s another translation of the same chapter from the Daodejing (Ames and Hall trans.) that emphasizes arrogance and pretentiousness more:

Blowhards have no standing, the self-promoting are not distinguished, show-offs do not shine, braggarts have nothing to show, the self-important are here and gone. As these attitudes pertain to way-making (dao), they are called indulgence and unseemliness. Such excess is generally despised that even those who want things cannot abide it.

I have many personal vices, but I’ve long tried to follow a basic rule based on this chapter: don’t be pretentious. (I’ve done less well on the arrogance, but I’m working on it.) Don’t puff yourself up or make untrue claims about yourself to make yourself seem more important than you are. A sense of importance and value based on lies will ultimately crumble and is probably already regarded as a farce by those around you. The older I get the more I try to keep in mind (and state publicly): “however externally successful you are, and no matter how great you might actually be, you’re dependent on opportunities you didn’t necessarily create and a whole network of people who enable you to do what you do.” Every moment you spend talking about how great you are is a moment not spent actually trying to be great. And the more important and entitled you think you are, the more you’ll feel slighted by a world that couldn’t care less about you.

Five years ago I wrote a reflective post like this, creatively entitled Ten Years In. In it I discussed not having a long term goal anymore of “moving up,” and wrote that “I think the goal should be mastery. Instead of thinking about the future, I want to do things well in the present and see where those things lead. For all I know, the end goal will be the same, but the path is much more interesting and less predictable.”  More Daoism, which I was beginning to reacquaint myself with at the time.

The Ames and Hall translation of the Daodejing has a good critical apparatus that has helped me understand this better in recent years. This is from their introduction to the translation:

Daoism … expresses its deferential activity through what we are calling the wu-forms. The three most familiar articulations of this pervasive sensibility are: wuwei, wuzhi, and wuyu. These are, respectively, noncoercive actions in accordance with the de (“particular focus”) of things; a sort of knowing without resort to rules or principles; and desiring which does not seek to possess or control its “object.” In each of these instances…, it is necessary to put oneself in the place of what is to be acted in accordance with, what is to be known, or what is to be desired, and thus incorporate this perspective into one’s own disposition.

Without a goal, I still accomplish things. Although I have no destination in mind, I go to good places. There’s nothing in particular I want, but I have ended up with abundance. Without preconceptions and prejudices, I can understand more than I do now.

The Daoist classic The Book of Zhuangzi (Burton Watson trans.) has a famous story about Cook Ding, who is praised by a lord for his superior carving skills. When asked his secret, Cook Ding replies,

A good cook changes his knife once a year—because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month—because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the place is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then they’re plenty of room—more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

I’m not quite sure exactly how the particular talent of Cook Ding applies to library work, but there would be worse things than to be Librarian Ding and work as effectively as possible with what’s there, skillfully avoiding resistance while achieving appropriate outcomes. If I have a goal, that’s it, even though it’s ultimately unattainable.

What this means in practice might not look any different on the outside from the actions of an anxious striver, but from the inside it feels different. After I reached the last explicit professional milestone I had set for myself, I took a while thinking about what I do, making some changes, and trying to come up with another one. What do I want to achieve and by when? That dreaded question in so many job interviews: where do you see yourself five years from now? (To which I always wanted to answer: “um, your boss?”) Eventually I decided that any such goal at this point was unnecessary and I just started working on another project. There doesn’t have to be a larger goal to motivate acting and reacting appropriately to the situations I find myself in. I have some big things I’d like to do, but if they don’t work out, that’s fine, too. Mostly, I want to do whatever I do as well as I can.

Some people inspire themselves with motivational sayings or by telling themselves things like, “I want to be great! I want to do big things!” But you can be great and do big things by just responding to situations as they arise to the best of your ability. If you want something done, do it. If it just can’t be done, let it go. And if you never achieve greatness? Well, few of us do. The world keeps going anyway. As a friend once told me, the library I work in was there before I was born and it’ll be there long after I die.

Professionally, if a better opportunity comes along, I’ll seize it. If it doesn’t, I won’t worry about it. If I achieve greatness, so be it. If not, that’s okay, too. At some point I reached the state where I rarely ruin my present contentment by dreaming about some future where everything would be better if I could just do this or get that or be someone or somewhere else. For most of my young life, and then again for my first couple of years as a librarian, I was that way. Perhaps part of the reason I’m not now is that I’m in a better professional position than I was fifteen years ago, but I know librarians in similar situations who are still unhappy in their jobs or with their lives. For now I just do what I do as well as I can and see what happens. Fifteen years in, it’s a good place to be.

The Murphy Conundrum

I hadn’t thought about the Joe Murphy lawsuit for a while until someone commented a couple of days ago on this post from September. I started to reply to the comment, but my reply was getting long enough I thought I’d bring it to the front page. Here’s the comment, in full:

This whole issue is so sad. but it was much more sad for me when one librarian was called a sexual predator, and almost no librarians stood up to say that was wrong.

 

First, people have said it was wrong. About a month after the story “broke” on blogs and Twitter, the Library Journal wrote an article about the lawsuit. Currently there are 131 comments. There are a number of indignant comments aimed at the defendants for making accusations about Murphy without providing any evidence. Nonetheless, the online commentary I’ve seen has been more against the Murphy lawsuit than against the defendants for calling him a sexual predator. Why might that be? I can only speculate, but here are some of the reasons I think Murphy has taken so much of the heat when ordinarily more people might be supportive. Some of these overlap a bit, but they were the reasons I thought about on my drive to work this morning.

1) The lawsuit trumps the accusation

Most librarians (I suspect) found out about the accusation when they found out about the lawsuit, and the facts of the lawsuit make Murphy look very unsympathetic. Murphy contends that this isn’t a SLAPP suit, but the large amount for damages and the fact that he filed it in Canada rather than the U.S. sure make it look like one. The lawsuit itself is so brazen that it eliminated whatever sympathy some might have been able to muster for Murphy.

2) Librarians like freedom of speech

Calling someone a sexual predator is bad, at least unless it’s true. Regardless, librarians like freedom of speech and they don’t like attempts to silence it. The defendants were speaking freely, if perhaps foolishly, and rather than address them publicly or deny the accusation he decided to sue them in a country with laxer free speech laws than the one he and one of the defendants lives in. I’ve seen numerous comments that hinge on the lawsuit and its silencing effect as the reason they’re opposing Murphy, whereas I’ve seen very few standing up for the rightness of the defendant’s actions as such.

3) Murphy has irritated a lot of people

As I wrote in September, I don’t know Murphy, but I know a lot of people who know him, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything about him that wasn’t derogatory, both personally and professionally. So while people who didn’t know who he was might be against the lawsuit, people who do know him might be unwilling to stand up for him at all. Even if they don’t believe he’s a sexual predator as such, they know that challenging the defendants is equivalent in many people’s eyes with supporting Murphy.

4) This is a very gendered issue

Almost without exception, the comments I’ve seen questioning the defendants or supporting Murphy have been from men, with typical ones being “How do we know? Where is the evidence?,” etc. On the other hand, women seem much more willing to give the defendants the benefit of the doubt or at least be against any attempt to silence them, because they have experienced first or second hand the silencing of women about issues of sexual harassment. The “how do we know?” argument runs both ways, though. Men might say, with some justice, “How do we know they’re not lying? Where is their evidence?” But from a different perspective, we can ask the question another way: “How do we know they’re wrong?” Gender seems to have some effect on the way this question is asked. And until we have more evidence than we have publicly available, we can’t know whether they’re right or wrong, so anyone stating definitively that they’re wrong to make those accusations is making that claim without supporting evidence, which is what many have accused the defendants of doing.

5) This is not about the defendants

It’s very possible to be against the Murphy lawsuit while having no particular sympathy for the defendants. I’ve read comments challenging their motivation, veracity, and even sanity. Let’s say for argument’s sake they’re evil, crazy liars who for some reason decided to target Murphy. Maybe they didn’t like his haircut or his absurd stance on SMS reference and they wanted to go after him. There are more effective ways to deal with such people. Crazy liars can be exposed as such without suing them for $1.25 million dollars. Publicly challenging them and denying the accusation might still make for a messy conversation, but one in which it would be very possible for Murphy to gain some sympathy as a victim of outrageous accusations instead of a perpetrator of an outrageous lawsuit. Suing them in such a way makes everything very public and makes him look bad without making the defendants necessarily look good. In other words, not challenging the defendants isn’t the same thing as supporting their actions or beliefs.

So there are my speculations on the conundrum of why something that might normally be criticized isn’t. Of the various reasons, the first probably explains my writing about the lawsuit without saying much at all about the justness or rightness of the defendants actions. I believe they believe they are in the right, and I know others believe that as well. I have no particular reason to believe them or not believe them, I feel no compunction to defend their actions whatsoever, and I think they could have handled the whole issue in a more effective and less lawsuit-inducing manner.  However, while we don’t have enough evidence to say whether they’re definitely in the wrong, we do know about the lawsuit, the amount Murphy’s suing them for, the country it was filed in, and the general trend of men trying to silence women about sexual harassment, and I have no problem being against that lawsuit rather than for or against the defendants. That’s why what little I’ve written hasn’t been defending them so much as criticizing the lawsuit, and if that’s ever dropped I probably won’t have much more to say about the issue.