By Meredith Farkas | October 19, 2012
When I was a psychotherapist, I was drawn to narrative therapy and cognitive therapy in my own work with clients. Both support the idea that the way people view and interpret things can be at the root of their problems. Cognitive therapy is about challenging dysfunctional thinking. For example, someone could get an F on a test and think “I got an F because I’m a loser. I can’t do anything right.” Or they could think “I got an F because I didn’t study for that test. Maybe if I studied next time I’d do better.” Cognitive therapy helps people to think more productively about their problems. Narrative therapy is all about helping people to see how the story they tell about their life is often one-sided and then helping them to build a richer narrative that helps them to not be stuck. It’s about challenging the assumptions that form the core of someone’s frame of reference. With this as my background, it’s no wonder I gravitated towards constructivist theories and models of teaching.
We all make meaning from events in our lives based on our views of ourselves and the world around us. When you like someone, you’re more likely to view things they do through a benign lens. When you don’t like someone, they could do the same exact thing as your friend and you’d be much more likely to ascribe nefarious motives to their actions. We all do this. If you feel like you’re always a victim, you’re more likely to take personally things that people do. “Oh, they didn’t ask me to be on that committee because they don’t like me.” Over time, you’re more likely to look for evidence that confirms your worldview than evidence that challenges it. It’s so easy to get stuck in a narrative that doesn’t do you any favors in your dealings with others.
One thing I struggled with at my current job was making sense of the many different stories my colleagues told me about the library. When you’re new to a library, people want to get you up-to-speed. But everyone has a different story colored by their own biases and experiences. While there were certainly common elements to the stories I was hearing, no one story was the truth. You have to pick out what is factual from what is interpretation. And I’ve made mistakes in that area. I’ve trusted people’s interpretations of events that then colored my own views of things. I’ve learned this year to listen to people’s stories always while remembering that what they are telling me is their truth; not necessarily my truth. What several colleagues told me early on — to ask at least five people about anything — was just about the best advice anyone could give. And I’d suggest the same thing to anyone who is new to an institution. What you hear from someone — no matter how much you like and respect them — is just their interpretation. It’s just as subject to their own biases as anyone else’s. There are likely many other narratives that exist at your library and you need to find your own truth by getting a diversity of opinions and then figuring out what makes sense to you.
How do you combat getting stuck in a narrative? It isn’t easy. It really requires constantly questioning what you believe to be true. Why do I think ____? Is there another way to interpret this? I’ve been making a concerted effort to view everything I see negatively through a positive lens. I don’t always succeed, but it has helped me significantly. I feel much more positive and optimistic when I do that. Getting out of your narrative requires real reflection; something we don’t always have time to do. Just like reflecting on our teaching has tremendous value, so does reflecting on our interpretations of events and people in our lives.
Lisa Hinchliffe from UIUC and I are giving a talk at the Library Assessment Conference this month about faculty culture (or facultyness as we like to say) and building a culture of assessment. Facultyness is something a lot of people bring a lot of baggage to. And Lisa and I definitely started off looking at this through very different lenses, which made writing a conference paper really interesting and enlightening. Lisa definitely sees the great things about faculty culture and faculty governance. I was much quicker to see the things about faculty governance that could hinder the creation of a culture of assessment. In scanning the literature, it’s pretty clear that more people (at least of those who publish) see things through my lens than Lisa’s, which is actually a shame, because that impacts the way so many others will see facultyness. So many of the things I read were about mitigating the negative impacts of facultyness on building an assessment program. In writing this paper, we explored what aspect of faculty culture can actually facilitate the creation of a culture of assessment (while still addressing those things that can be barriers). The act of researching and developing this paper actually helped shift my own view, and I now see possibilities where before I saw barriers.
What in your life could use a rethink? What narratives are holding you back or are getting you stuck in negative thinking? It’s easy to get into that head space and difficult to get out, but trying to reframe the stories you tell about your life and work can change so much.