Holding Ourselves Accountable: On-going efforts to address racism in Burns instruction sessions

Last summer we shared some of the internal conversations Burns staff have been having regarding our roles as special collections librarians and archivists in responding to ongoing, systemic racism. Part of this discussion centered around our roles as instructors who mediate collection material steeped in white supremacy. As part of our continuing commitment to accountability to our community and ourselves, we’re using this week’s blog post to share how we changed our approach to classes this past academic year, what we learned, and what we need to improve going forward. This review of our instruction program is part of our ongoing efforts to address Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) issues across all our public services responsibilities.

We believe transparency is an important part of accountability, and want to invite feedback as we try to do the right things while educating ourselves. We know many of our peers are working on the same issues. We’ve benefitted from hearing about their work, and hope sharing what we’re doing can contribute to the on-going conversation about inclusion in special collections.

What We Did:

As we planned classes this year, we pushed each other to actively discuss the scope of our collections more bluntly with students. Most of our special collections are from overwhelmingly colonial points of view that helped create and reinforce ideas of white supremacy. For some classes, this meant acknowledging the racist perspectives the students would be seeing. In others, we challenged the students to acknowledge the racism in the materials by asking guiding questions such as:

  • “What cultures are represented?” (fairy tale illustrations)
  • “What does the illustration on the page tell you about the worldview of the artist? What biases are present? ” (illustrations in non-English Jesuit missionary accounts)
  • “Who speaks in the text? Where does their authority come from? What people and places are included? Left out?” (texts on patient treatment for mental illness)

With more forgiving (a.k.a. longer) class plans, or in classes with a learning objective of becoming more familiar with special collections and archives, we tried to include discussion about the archival silences pointing to what was not collected or made available for research with discussion such as:  

  • Using students’ social media accounts as a framework for discussing what isn’t included in records– which then became who often isn’t included in archival records. (Advanced Research Seminar)
  • How those in power can suppress records of dissent, and the risks to physical documents during violent rebellions and government instability. (Resisting & Rebelling in Modern Latin America). 
  • Class, gender, and racial biases in historical materials and the concept that the closer you are to power, the more likely it is that your written record exists in archives while working with travel accounts of upper class, white British women. (Gender, Sex & Power in the British and Ottoman Empires)

Students responded well to these discussions. They, in turn, challenged us to expand our collections and collect more post-colonial material, a sign that they were reflecting and engaging with discussions about the limits of our collections. We’ve been working with our fellow Burns librarians and archivists on acquiring and describing more diverse material for instructional purposes and will continue to do so in the future.

What We Learned

Throughout the year, we learned that the most effective approach to addressing racism in classes was to be bluntly clear about the colonial and racist undertones (and overtones) of the materials we were working with. Telling it like it is created space for students to confront the racism in the material more easily, without being nervous to be the first student in the class to call the documents racist. Like everything else in instruction, setting the class tone with this directness became easier and more routine for us with practice.

Knowing our perspectives are limited, we wanted to make space for students to bring up concerns and suggestions of their own. This spring, we added this question to the standard assessment form we give to the majority of classes: “Are there any accessibility or equity gaps we should be more aware of for future sessions?” Students are encouraged to leave honest (anonymous) feedback about their class experience.  While many leave it blank, we’ve been reviewing comments left and thinking about changes that need to be made based on their feedback.

Where We Need to Improve

After reflecting on this year, we’ve identified some ways to continue incorporating anti-racist ideas in instruction.  First, we want to strengthen our commitment to include discussion of racism in our classes. For classes where learning objectives don’t align with either exploring how archives and archival research function or with learning about historically oppressed communities, we still need to include a brief introduction addressing why we have the materials they are working with, how they came to be collected, and what constraints and structural racism they represent. This needs to become as routine as our quick discussion about care and handling in every class.

For those classes that are trying to find the voices of oppressed communities in our records, we want to explicitly discuss how they are reading against the grain and, in doing so, are honoring the voices we can find, even in racist materials. Dr. Rachel Ernst, who brought her literature core class in to look at Anansi stories, called this reframing what voices we can lift from our materials, and centering the words and experiences of marginalized communities despite the racist framework around them. 

Working with some of our material can mean painful confrontations with racist imagery and rhetoric, and we know that even short encounters with this material can hurt our students of color. Going forward, we will start classes explicitly extending the same advice to our students that we tell each other — if you find yourself reacting strongly to the material, step out of the room and take care of yourself as needed. Prioritize your own mental health.

For classes with learning objectives that include understanding how archives work and/or introductions to the archival research process, we’re going to work this summer to create an active-learning module on archival silences to complement our other modules on different parts of archival research. We’ll use this module, once developed, to expand on our current discussions of missing voices in archival records when we teach archival skill courses going forward.

We wish to re-emphasize our commitment from last summer and the urgency to continue this work. We invite community feedback to hold ourselves accountable to anti-racist efforts in our instruction program and in all other parts of our library services. We commit to making any necessary changes so that all feel welcome in Burns Library.

–Katherine Fox, Head Librarian, Public Services & Engagement

Kathleen Monahan, Reference, Instruction & Digital Services Librarian

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