Smash all the Gates, Part 2: Professional Silenc*


Like the zero in mathematics, silence is an absence with a function.
-Cheryl Glenn, The Rhetoric of Silence

Silence always has meaning. That’s the main idea behind Cheryl Glenn’s rhetoric of silence, which I want to explore here in terms of the culture of library instruction–how do we choose and use silence, how are we silenced, and how can we resist silencing?

[Two Caveats]

  1. I am going to address the unequal power dynamics between subject faculty and librarians in this post, and some of my characterizations of subject faculty are negative. That said, I have worked with subject faculty who have been collaborative, supportive mentors and co-teachers–and I think that coming out of silence can help increase the amount of positive partnerships we see.
  2. While this post might sound super negative, I actually feel excited and hopeful about the future of library instruction and information literacy. I just think we have some work to do.

So here are Glenn’s three big points of departure (262):

  1. “Our talkative western culture equates speech with civilization itself, gendering speaking as masculine and silence as feminine.” (emphasis added)  BUT–
  2. “Silence can be a specifically feminist rhetorical art, often one of resistance.”  BUT–
  3. “I don’t see speech as always masculine or powerful, nor do I see silence as always feminist–let alone always successful.” (emphasis added)

And here are some ways Glenn says that silence (traditionally/historically interpreted as emptiness) is often read (281):

  • Positive emptiness: agreement/obedience
  • Negative emptiness: stupidity/passive aggression

It’s not surprising to say that librarianship is a profession full of silences.  Full of gendered silences.  There are the stereotypes of the shushing, antisocial, old maid librarian, of course, which have a real impact on how we’re perceived (and which have sparked some great discussion).  There are also the (not unrelated) daily silences we enact.

In this post, I want to explore our silences from a variety of perspectives–how they’re potentially read as emptiness by subject faculty and students, how we try to read our silences as resistance, and what it would mean to come out of our silence.

Examples of our silences, as read by subject faculty and students:

  • Always saying yes: In my last post I talked about saying no to requests for database demos–and what a fraught, complex act that is.  When we always say yes to faculty requests, no matter how problematic they are, we are choosing silence.
    • Meaning (from subject faculty perspective): Positive emptiness–librarians are cheerful, obedient helpers.
  • Skills-based / neutral IL instruction: So, there is the silence of saying yes to the faculty request, and then there is the silence of performing instruction based on that request.  Whether it takes the form of a database demo or something else (CRAPP test, anyone?), skills-based, apolitical IL instruction silences librarians.  We lecture and demonstrate, we present research as sterile and detached from students’ real lives, we cover so much material that students absorb nothing.  We might be talking a lot, but we are silenced because we are not able to truly teach, or to address the complexity of information literacy.
    • Meaning (from subject faculty perspective): Negative emptiness–librarians are not real teachers, and the material they deal with is simple and straightforward.
    • Meaning (from student perspective): Positive emptiness–Librarians are sweet, but boring. Negative emptiness–Librarians don’t have much to say, because I’ve heard this at least twice before.  Research is boring and I’m just going to find some sources to plug into my paper.
  • Upholding academia’s status quo: In my last post, I invoked Elmborg’s question about the tension between being service providers or critical educators within the hegemonic system of academia:

Should librarians “serve” the academy by teaching its literacy skills unquestioningly, or should librarians participate in the critical reflection undertaken by “educators,” a reflection that leads us to challenge, if necessary, the politics of academic exclusion, and to participate in the creation of new and better academic models? (197)

When we always say yes and perform skills-based instruction, we are upholding the status quo–we are reinforcing the exclusionary nature of academic Discourse.  As I said in my last post, we are acting as gatekeepers while simultaneously accepting and perpetuating our own marginalization.

This particular silence doesn’t even register for subject faculty or students. It is simply what they expect of us.

Silence AND (Power or Marginalization)

When silence is our rhetorical choice, we can use it purposefully and productively–
but when it is not our choice, but someone else’s for us, it can be insidious, particularly
when someone else’s choice for us comes in the shape of institutional structure. (264)

Glenn says that silence can be used in different ways by people in marginalized and powerful groups.  Here, in terms of the academy, I’m going to discuss librarians as a marginalized group and subject faculty as a powerful group.

What I see happening is a vicious cycle of silenc*.

When powerful groups use silence to maintain their power: This happens when you pitch an idea to a faculty member (perhaps at a campus schmooze event), and they act at least mildly interested–and then when you follow up via email, they never respond.  It happens when a faculty member books an instruction session but then refuses to engage in a discussion about what that session should look like.  It happens when faculty members don’t accompany their classes to library instruction.  There are a lot of examples, all frustrating.   All of these silences serve to maintain a situation where subject faculty have absolute control over their students, their assignments, and (to a certain extent) the content of library instruction sessions.

When marginalized groups use silence as a form of resistance: Glenn says that people in marginalized groups can use silence “purposefully and productively.” Librarians are great at subverting a less than ideal instruction situation. So, while we might do a database demo to show students how to find scholarly articles, as we were asked, we might also make an accompanying libguide with engaging videos that describe the nuances and problematic aspects of the peer-review process.  Or, we might deliver instruction on the second week of classes, as we were asked, but make a heroic effort to show students how they can use chat reference or schedule research consultations later in the semester, when they are actually working on their research assignments.  These are clever strategies for dealing with a bad situation, and perhaps they work sometimes, for the most intrinsically-motivated students.  But they are not widely effective. They are also completely maddening. They serve to reinforce and perpetuate the silencing inflicted on us by subject faculty. While these acts might feel like our choice, I believe they are more a reflection of “the silence inflicted on us by institutional structure.”

Breaking the silence cycle

What would it mean to break the silence cycle? It would mean refusing to simply fulfill requests, it would mean insisting on discussing research assignments with faculty, it would mean demanding a seat at the table where assignments and curriculum are designed. I know that this is a (hard-won) reality at many institutions, but it is certainly not the norm in higher education.

Coming out of silence means we will make some people angry. After all, we’ve convinced everyone we’re just obedient, cheerful helpers. And according to Glenn, the act of coming out of silence isn’t usually easy or pretty–often for reasons related to gender (and of course we’re a feminized profession). Glenn gives examples of people from marginalized groups who remained in silence (and sometimes used it purposefully and productively) because they had no other choice–to come out would have been, at the very least, professional suicide. While the stakes might not be quite that high, or at least not that immediate, for us, it is still a scary prospect with real implications. Early in my library career I was called all kinds of (sexist, ageist) names for resisting the culture of silence/-ing in library instruction. None of them bears repeating here, but they roll around in my head all. the. time. Those names often keep me in silence. And sometimes I wonder if I will ever stop hearing them.

Coming out of silence demands collective action. As I learned the hard way, coming out of silence is not something that one librarian can try to do alone. At an institution, it would have to be a strategic, meticulously planned, relentless mission. It would require everyone to be brave and open to criticism, even if it wasn’t deserved. But I think it would be easier to handle bad names and harsh words as a united front.

Coming out of silence is an exercise in self-respect. I love Maria Accardi’s new blog about academic library instruction burnout because she is actually grappling with the deep-seated problems of library instruction culture. In her most recent post, she questions the dehumanizing nature of library instruction:

If we were to insist on our own humanity in instructional settings, would that make our “clients” [students and faculty] more aware that we, too, are people? What would it look like to insist on our own humanity? Is this basically just asserting ourselves when we feel like we’re being marginalized or dismissed? Or is it more than that?

These are striking questions simply because they need to be asked. How have we gotten to a point where the practice of library instruction is dehumanizing? How have we let ourselves be marginalized and dismissed, over and over again, to the point that it feels natural? Maria points to “asserting ourselves” as a way to resist that dehumanization, but she suggests there might be more to it. If I were to attempt to respond to her question, I would offer the collective action strategy discussed above–but to get to that point we have to truly value ourselves and what we do. We have to be unafraid to tell everyone else that we value ourselves, too.

Where to?

It feels like we’re at a tipping point in the library instruction world right now. The prevailing culture has been one of silence/-ing for so long, largely because of how the ACRL Standards translated to practice. What’s interesting is that fifteen years ago, the Standards gave us one way to come out of silence and define a role for ourselves in the classroom. But because of the linear, largely apolitical conception of information/information literacy put forth by the Standards, there’s still work to be done. As I’ve said before, I think the Framework gives us the language and the backing of a hefty national association necessary to make some bold changes–to forcefully come out of silence. Can we do it? I would say heartily, yes.

Works Cited

Accardi, M. Academic Library Instruction Burnout. Retrieved from

Glenn, C. (2002). Silence: A rhetorical art for resisting discipline(s). JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, 22(2), 261-291.

[Also see Glenn’s book, Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence]

Pagowsky, N., and Defrain, E. (2014). Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction? In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from

Pagowsky, N., and Rigby, M. (Eds.). (2014). The librarian stereotype: Deconstructing perceptions and preconceptions of information work. Chicago: ACRL.