Niceness in libraryland: some scattered thoughts

According to Steven Bell in Inside Higher Ed a few weeks ago, "academic librarians are the nice guys of higher education." We agree with each other too much. Instead of engaging in any kind of intellectually rigorous back-and-forth exchange on controversies in our profession, we avoid sounding like we disagree.

I’m of multiple minds on this. I’m all in favor of intellectual rigor, especially if it means fewer dull articles to read and more excitement in the biblioblogosphere. But I agree with Rochelle Mazar: there’s a certain set of gender issues at work here, namely that women are socialized to be non-aggressive, and people react much more negatively to an aggressive woman than to an aggressive man. And I think her question — "Why must we be aggressive in order to be seen as rigorous?" — is completely on target. Indeed: why? (Go read the whole thing. It’s a great post. Oh dear, I’m being too nice.)

I’m not sure contentiousness is the answer to the problem of uninspired professional discourse. I’ve seen contentiousness for its own sake back when I was planning on becoming a faculty member. I don’t think it’s productive. Probably because I saw so much of the kind of disagreement-for-the-sake-of-disagreement that comes from knowing that you have to contribute something new to the conversation (or you won’t get tenured), and there are only so many positions to take, so you’d better make sure you distinguish yourself from the other people who write about your little subfield, and the easiest way to do that is to rip into the other people. I don’t think that’s what Steven Bell means, but I’d still hate to see librarians adopt the "must … say … something … combative …" mindset. And I don’t think intellectual rigor necessarily means constant disagreement.

In the end, "niceness" is kind of a slippery concept: I’m having a hard time, even in my own head, keeping track of whether it means politeness or stifling one’s potentially dissenting opinion or agreeing with other people. I think Bell’s overall point is that librarians shouldn’t feel obligated to hide their disagreement, which is fine by me — as long as we don’t feel compelled to disagree, either.

Next up: I have some not very nice things to say about that Vanishing Shakespeare report.

2 Responses to “Niceness in libraryland: some scattered thoughts”

  1. Christa says:

    I’ve been going back and forth about this issue, too, Amanda, but didn’t yet think about it in terms of gender…now I think, “Duh!”
    I’m actually one who secretly *likes* the combative moment–it’s entertaining, after all. But the truth of the matter is that the more often you get “het up” about things, the fewer people are inclined to listen to you. I’d hate to see this happen too often in the library community, because on the whole I believe we have some really important things to say.
    Furthermore, doesn’t intellectual rigor demand examining the weaknesses in your own arguments just as closely as you examine others’?

  2. Amanda says:

    Yes — and there has to be a distinction between “het up” and “having a definite point to make” / “examining the weakenesses in an argument to get at some degree of the truth.”
    But they seem to slide together in people’s minds — I always had to work to persuade my students, for instance, that “argument” means reasoning as well as shouting match. (I used to cite the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch to make that point, but not enough of them were Monty Python fans to get it.)