From Charybdis to Scylla. Personal Reflection on the UIUC Library Hangouts.

By Atoma Batoma

Communication is not what we start out with, it is what we get to.
Françoise Armengaud

In order to ensure the continuation of the library’s work during the pandemic, Dean Wilkin organized in March 2020 weekly “Library hangouts,” online meetings for the library community that provide an opportunity for librarians to share their experience of the lockdown. These are still going on, but on a monthly basis since September 2020. I suggest that when a full record of this unique experiment is written and properly catalogued, two of the many tags we will attach to it as descriptors will be “education” and “dialogue” or, perhaps more appropriately, education through dialogue. In what follows, I will elaborate on the reasons these tags will serve us well; but first, let me give you a brief window into how these hangouts work.
To an outside observer, these digital hangouts might have the appearance of an online substitute for regular library meetings rendered impossible due to the pandemic and the related lockdown; but for me and, I suspect, my colleagues as well, they feel more like family reunions with two parallel tracks. One track is a laser-focused and solution-oriented discussion of serious issues, including those thrust upon the Library by Covid-19. The second track is a more relaxing one, a quasi-festive use of the chat space to stream the more personal experiences of the pandemic and the lockdown. My colleagues generously shared their personal experiences here, and I have always looked forward to this with pleasure and excitement. It is here that I have discovered what I would never have known otherwise. My fellow librarians possess a huge array of personal skills and hobbies. They are seasoned gardeners, amateurs of animal husbandry, and experienced cooks with a wide variety of their own recipes. I even learned some interesting tips, such as how to entrust your haircut to your significant other during the lockdown, and what corner of the house leads to the best results. Those chats revealed to me a spirit of goodwill, open mindedness, and generosity I had never had the occasion to see in my colleagues.
These librarians I work with are involved in vast and amazing research areas, and this became apparent to me a few years back when I sat on the Faculty Review Committee. However, I had never had the opportunity to be privy to the world of their extra-professional activities and hobbies. The hangouts gave me a glimpse of this profoundly human aspect of their lives. Not only did I discover their multifaceted worlds, I also genuinely felt invited into their homes to share their meals, pick flowers in their gardens, virtually pet their beautiful animal companions. Clearly, this was one silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic and web conferencing technology. I wondered how we could harness and keep this friendship and warmth that permeates these hangouts. How could we continue to cultivate goodwill and genuine human sentiments within the academic structure that our institution desperately needs to function?
In his June 3, 2020 email to the Library, Dean Wilkin shared sentiments that were heart-felt and compassionate in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. He concluded by inviting us to think about steps forward to create an open and inclusive environment for our colleagues and for ourselves. At the June 9th hangout the following Monday, participants responded enthusiastically to this invitation by suggesting educational activities in the form of informal hangouts, reading lists, and discussion groups. Informal hangouts would be designed for us to get to know one another on a more personal, non-academic level, in order to foster a more friendly atmosphere within the library’s workspace. The reading lists would be created to keep us informed and updated on the problems of racism and related social issues. Discussion groups would be a place for us to share our understanding of the issues and, eo facto, ground our individual or collective engagement. Other suggestions were added during subsequent hangout sessions.
As someone who studied both Latin and Greek in high school, when I heard the expression “educational activities” it brought to mind ‘education’ in its quasi- etymological sense. To educate (from Latin ex ducare) is to guide, to lead from one place, say point A, to another place, point B. In childhood education, it is to guide a child from the innocent state of infancy toward the more complex and mature state of adulthood. In humanities in general, it is to lead from a place of confusion, of intellectual uncertainty or insecurity, to a place of less confusion, more clarity or intellectual safety. Whether in child rearing or humanities in general, human experience teaches us that sometimes point B becomes evanescent, becomes a new point A and vice versa. Although this process might look like a Sisyphean task, I see it as merely the manifestation of the unfinished business of the Enlightenment project. Education thus understood offers us pointing arrows and guidelines more than guides. Moreover, education often transforms educators into those being educated and vice versa. In other words, it puts educators and those being educated in the same boat, but a kind of Neurath’s ship that gets reconstructed on the open sea as its sailors go along, unable to start afresh from the bottom.
Our Library-ship, like the ships of other institutions around the world, has been jostled back and forth between the Charybdis of Coronavirus and the Scylla of racism and police brutality. Our Library has nonetheless withstood this jolting in great part thanks to the conversation that animated the weekly hangouts. I believed that these conversations, if maintained and carried forward dialogically, would help guide our institution towards firmer and more prosperous shores.
A lot has been achieved since the beginning of the hangouts, particularly on the front of the struggle against Charybdis: the constant sharing of information, the mutual moral support and encouragement among colleagues, the discipline with which the guidelines and instructions have been followed, all this outcome of the weekly and then monthly conversations has allowed the library to carry out its main tasks. Also, new programs and individual initiatives such as discussion groups and outreach activities have come to light. The results of the hangouts and the decisions made as well as their implementations, are recorded in the minutes and accessible on the library’s employee website. I wish to elaborate here on the less tangible, but not less important aspect of the desiderata of the hangouts, notably the interpersonal communication through dialogue.
We know instinctively and perhaps empirically that dialogue is a core component of the educational process. At the June 9th hangout following Floyd’s murder, several participants shared their experience of encounters with colleagues perceived as micro-aggressions, and which made them feel uncomfortable. Commenting on this, the Dean said, “I hope that when that happens, that there is a dialogue.” Here is the crux of the matter, the “hope” and the “dialogue” in the Dean’s response are inseparably linked, and that link defines the complexity of dialogue as the essential aspect of human communication and the most difficult to achieve. The word ‘hope’ points to the value of the desired thing to obtain or action to undertake, and the possibility of its future achievement. It also expresses an appeal to the mediation of human agency without which the achievable cannot be achieved. The difficulty of achieving authentic dialogue is twofold. On the one hand, it depends on the empirical situation in which the encounters occur, and on the other hand, it hinges on the socio-cultural identities of the those involved in the encounter.
The experiences recounted during the hangout took place in face-to-face encounters. In such situations, the spontaneity of the encounters can provoke rough emotions and, consequently, create obstacles to an accurate assessment of the sincerity of the feelings as well as the intention behind the verbal or physical expressions of the partners of the encounter. Although emotions should not be shoved aside and ignored, for they are one of the vital signs of our existential fabric, interpersonal or social contexts require us to maintain some control over their expression. What we can, and should do in such situations, is be open to other people’s reactions to our words or deeds, and if these turn out to be negative or hurtful, be ready to take them back; honest retraction of our words in emotion-charged or conflict-laden situations is the clearest indication of our good will.
Dialogue is difficult to achieve for a second reason related to the fact that, as stated by several sociologists and philosophers of communication, we never take part in communicative encounters as pure disembodied subjects, but as situated individuals with socio-cultural backgrounds and biographical trajectories. This multifaceted dimension of our identities can influence our viewpoints and impact our perception of others as well as our attitude toward them. In a multicultural community like the U of I community with its multitude of viewpoints and perspectives, this can be a challenge. But if we become aware of it through dialogue, it can be an opportunity for education and growth, for the aim of authentic dialogue is not to reduce this multitude of viewpoints to a common cultural or ideological denominator; the aim of authentic dialogue is to understand where the partners of a conversation come from so that they can search for consensus and build together an inclusive and vibrant community, a microcosm of humanity. As Chancellor Jones reminded us in his October 7, 2020 email, “the diversity of our community and the perspectives, talents, and life experiences reflected within it fuel our creativity, advance deep, critical thinking, as well as the innovations needed to address racism and social disparities to improve the world and lives”.
As suggested above, authentic dialogue may be also defined as a communicative search for consensus, that is, a communicative process by which we try to reach agreement on a set of propositions or claims, be they factual, value, or policy claims. But, as Simone Goya-Fabre warns us, the path to consensus is bumpy and offers no guarantee of success: “even when expressed with alacrity and ductility, the communicative discourse is rarely a linear discourse. It never runs like a quiet river. It is a constant debate” (my translation). But despite its uneven and bumpy nature, dialogue as search for consensus is worth undertaking, for as Francis Jacques puts it, “our conflicts are profound but the search for consensus can have a heuristic value (my translation).”

[1] Expression coined by the Austrian philosopher of science Otto Neurath and popularized in American philosophical literature by the American logician and philosopher of language Willard Van Orman Quine through his x book Word and Object. See also his y autobiography titled The Time of my Life.

[1] As Robert C. Solomon puts it in his book titled True to our feelings. What our emotions are really telling us, “our emotions are engagements with the world, not mere self-enclosed feelings” p.  204

[1] I am not oblivious to the fact that, as the French say, no one is deafer than he who does not want to listen (il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas écouter).

[1] Goya-Fabre, Simone. De l’Interrogation ou philosopher autrement. Paris : Les Editions du Cerf, 2011.  « Le discours communicationnel, quelles que puissent être en lui l’alacrité et la ductilité de l’expression, est donc rarement linéaire : il ne coule jamais comme un fleuve tranquille. Il est un constant débat ». P.126.

[1] Jacques, Francis. Consensus et conflit: une réévaluation. In Herman Parret, La communité en paroles: communication, consensus, ruptures. Liège : Pierre Mardaga, 1991. « Nos conflits sont plus profonds et notre recherche du consensus peut avoir une valeur heuristique… ». P. 120.

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