I missed last night's excellent #critlib chat about student wellness, so I wanted to write a little bit, and hopefully tie together some other things I've wanted to write a little about. We'll see how it goes.
This week, I have been meeting candidates for a caseworker position at the Human Services Resource Center, which is our totally badass, student-created and -funded unit that offers support to students experiencing homelessness and poverty. Their services include a food bank, emergency housing assistance, help navigating external systems (e.g. filling out paperwork to receive SNAP benefits), cooking classes, a kitchen that students can use, showers and laundry machines. Our library collaborated with them on their textbook lending program, which fills a glaring gap* in our collection policies -- namely, that we will only purchase course materials if a professor requests them, not if students do. The library shared our infrastructure (our ILS) and expertise (how do you keep track of books?), but the textbooks live at the HSRC, in part to enable students to access additional services when they come in to pick up a book. (We wrote this project up, if you're interested.)
Anyway, meeting candidates for this new position at the HSRC, I've been prompted to consider how exactly the library fits into their work. While other campus units may refer individual struggling students, that isn't the type of relationship we generally have with our users. Because the library is one of the only spaces open 24 hours, it is a relatively safe space for students dealing with housing insecurity. But our privacy practices, as a profession, can keep us from checking in actively with students about their holistic needs in the way that other folks on campus might. With a few exceptions, I don't have the kind of relationship with students when I might make a referral -- so, it becomes important to make sure we signal help in other ways, whether that means leaving cards about the food bank by the snacks we provide for our student workers, or figuring out something to put up in the bathrooms to remind students of the free shower at the HSRC. Part of why I was excited to work at my library is that we have long had childcare available for students in the library -- my understanding is that this started in part because library workers noticed that student parents were using study rooms to do their work and keep an eye on their children. The library as a space means we have an opportunity to observe patterns as well as do individual direct outreach. It doesn't mean we need to offer all the things -- we don't run the childcare, we just provide the space -- but we need to make the connections to the folks who have that expertise. At my previous job, I worked a lot with student health because alllll the behaviors they focus on (eating, sleeping, sex) happen in the library...whether library staff want to believe it or not.
Also. I recently read Michael Bennett's new memoir, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, which is a super readable and funny overview of his experiences, including as a college football player. The chapter about NCAA sports should be mandatory reading for anyone who works at a sportsball institution. Bennett's description of the exhausting and restrictive day-to-day living as an athlete trying to also be a student, as well as his analysis of the financial trap, is a grim reminder of the dehumanizing potential of higher education. The perception that student athletes are pampered can keep staff (and other students) from seeing the pain and compromises they are in. What other categories of students go unnoticed when we think about their care and wellbeing?
Also. I missed the chat last night because I was at a union meeting. The faculty at my institution is in the process of organizing, and maybe I'll talk more about that another time, but I want to mention it here for two reasons. One, going to these meetings always gets me charged up and grounds me in the reasons we do our work at the university. Organizing is community care, and I'm excited for what comes next. Two, on Monday I went to hear a talk from David Hughes, an anthropology professor at Rutgers and a leader in their local. He spoke both about specific benefits and actions of their local union -- one of the oldest faculty unions in the US -- and more generally about why faculty unions matter in this particular historical moment. I was particularly struck by the fact that the faculty union always advocates for the freeze, if not the reduction, of student tuition. This is a direct impact on students, of course, on top of the indirect benefits of being able to recruit and retain better teaching faculty thanks to their improved salaries and opportunities for career growth.
This community care, the need to build power and advocate not just for yourself but for others in your community, extends elsewhere, of course. How do you demonstrate to your student workers that they *must* take breaks when everyone in your office eats lunch at their desks? We started #lismentalhealth because we have a problem, generally in society, but *also* in libraries. The reservations expressed last night about remind me of my own ambivalence about corporate-rooted mental health initiatives. If all we do for students is to bring therapy dogs once a term, but we don't question the educational model that requires debilitating anxiety before final exams...we're missing the structural problems. When I was dating someone in an MSW program, I heard it said a few times that "Social workers are the custodians of late capitalism." I continue to think about that, more and more.
So what? I guess the threads of this ramble might be authentic connection with students, systemic analysis and change, and meaningful collaboration. My own work seems to be getting further from traditional library tasks, in some ways, but more embedded in my communities and hopefully doing what needs doing. Hey, the library is a growing organism, right?