Social Context and Assessment

Decontextualization is becoming one of the most dangerous concepts we face. In libraries. In our personal lives. Everywhere. When I say decontextualization, I am talking about removing social factors from situations. For example, saying that America is a “melting pot” erases the identities and subsequent experiencse of those that are marginalized including people of color, women, LGBTQ, those with disabilities, non-binary folx, etc. It assimilates them into a patriotic story without recognizing their accomplishments, their loss, and their mere existence. It is dehumanizing. And, this is something that needs to be said now more than ever when our current President is threatening the lives of indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, women, and our Mother Earth through deportation, censorship, reduced access, and so much more. This is endangering lives. I couldn’t start this post without mentioning these specific actions that affects not just national politics but the global landscape.

This has been on my mind lately because I attended the 13th Annual Leadership Symposium hosted by the Association of Research Libraries this past weekend in Atlanta. This symposium was for those that were awarded a scholarship/fellowship and professional development opportunities for two diversity recruitment programs: SAA/Mosaic and Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. One of our activities was to take the StrengthsFinder assessment. This is a test developed by Gallup. When I saw this, I was a little excited because I do love personality tests, even the user-generated Playbuzz ones I see on Facebook. However, I was also skeptical as to how this would be used. And, of course, I wondered if it would be decontextualized to not include factors such as race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.

I took the test at home before the symposium, and I was very impressed with the results. To summarize, this test contains 34 themes and the results of the test indicate your top 5 themes. Here were mine:

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During the symposium, two individuals from the University of Kansas Libraries came to talk to us about it and perform a variety of activities. I have to say, this was very transformative for me. It helped me to understand my strengths and how they work well (or not well) with others’ strengths. I enjoyed that this really had a foundation in collaboration that could be utilized in so many different settings. It was just very human, and I appreciated that. Mind you, I did not want to. I am very skeptical of corporate buzzwords such as “leadership”, “teamwork”, and “efficiency”. But, for me, this was helpful. It even allowed me to realize WHY I chose librarianship as a career and why my two previous two careers were not the best match! It is difficult to not be hard on ourselves for potentially making the “wrong” decisions in life. I frequently say that I do not regret my previous professional choices because it got me where I am now. But this activity helped me see the “why”.

BUT, I definitely had to voice my concerns about decontextualization during these activities. One of my top themes was “Empathy”. And I expected that this was likely a theme that was indicated for many women. I did see that many of the women did have these traits. Nineteen of the 21 participates of this symposium were women, and librarianship is also very feminized (just over 80% female librarians and library workers). However, I also was curious about the language used. Are “Empathy” and “Caretaker” two sides of the same coin? After I voiced this, one of the facilitators looked into it and followed up with me. She told me “Empathy” is, in fact, one of the top themes for women. I very much appreciated the follow-up!

Of course, I tried to think about information literacy as it related to this test. What “ways of knowing” are being employed here? What does this mean for our profession, for leadership, and for teamwork? Also, if I or others hadn’t spoken up about this, would we be complacent with the results we got? Additionally, I wondered how the questions of the test were crafted to potentially erase certain identities. Is it possible to create assessments to discover individual qualities while not being informed of social context? Race is a social construct. So many identities are socially constructed! So how do we assign roles or themes pertaining to socialization without considering these factors or using other language to describe them?

I am not dismissing this test. As I mentioned, it was pretty spot-on and eye-opening for me. I also think that one tool cannot tell us all the information. However, we don’t know what we don’t know, and I am curious how much more could be revealed by comparing this test with another or by discovering how different identities may intersect with certain themes. On the flip side, it would be interesting to delve into the different epistemologies used to create the test as well.

While this assessment looked at us as individuals, it also made me wonder how library assessment includes or does not include contextual factors. I hear a lot about library assessment, but, as a student, I have not had a chance to dive into it much. However, I am aware of the recent ACRL Information Literacy Framework which addresses context through its first frame “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual“. I look forward to learning how these two concepts can be married. I’m sure this can be a series of blogposts and a research topic in itself!

Have you ever taken a test and it has it all wrong because you it didn’t take context into consideration? Do you take the results of these tools at face value and apply them into your life as you see fit? I would love to hear what you all think!

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Nisha is a second-year MLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Find out more about her at www.nishamody.info.

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