Coming Clean About Grit: Challenging Dominant Narratives in Library Instruction

I provided the keynote at the 2019 Connecticut Information Literacy Conference, where the theme was “What’s Grit Got To Do With It? New Approaches for IL Instruction.” It was an excellent event all around, with a lot of great breakout sessions and energy. Thank you to the Conference Planning Committee for organizing it and for having me. My presentation slides and notes are below, and can be viewed as a slideshow at


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I’d like to begin by thanking everyone who made this conference happen, and facilitated this space for us to share ideas. It takes a lot of work to make an event like this take place, so I’d like to acknowledge the efforts of Dan Lewis and the planning committee, who volunteered their time to coordinate and oversee everything. Thank you as well to the hospitality and maintenance workers ensuring things ran smoothly as we made our way to today’s event. And finally, thank you all for being here. If you’d like to tweet from the conference or follow along on Twitter, you can use the hashtag #CTinfolit2019.


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I want to recognize and extend gratitude to the indigenous peoples who for many years stewarded the land we occupy today. Being a white settler myself, I also wish to acknowledge this country’s legacy of colonialism and the subjugation and exploitation of people and our earth that continues to this day. We are on the traditional homeland of the Sicoag tribe, speakers of the Algonquian language.

This map shows the very approximate boundaries of different tribes across Connecticut circa 1625. It’s estimated that in 1600 the indigenous population of New England was more than 100,000 people. In 1616 a plague introduced by settlers wiped out almost three-quarters of the region’s indigenous peoples. The people who remained were forced off their land by English and Dutch settlers and often joined neighboring tribes. Many later moved as far as the Great Lakes area and Oklahoma.

To take steps against the erasure of indigenous peoples’ histories, I encourage you to learn more about the history of the land you live and work upon. One tool I recommend for doing so is the website, which provides interactive maps about different nations, languages, and treaties across Turtle Island, known today as the United States, and beyond. Most of us here today are librarians who teach, so I hope you’ll also consider ways to bring the history of the stolen land we occupy into your instruction in meaningful ways, and to share this important knowledge with students.


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Before we get down to grit, I want to share a bit about myself. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado. I knew pretty early on, mid-way through college, that I wanted to be a librarian. I got in a U-Haul and moved to Philadelphia to attend library school, and a few years later I got in another U-Haul, this time with my cat, for a job in New York City.

I’ve worked in academic libraries for ten years now. I’ve always done reference and instruction, and I gravitated towards that early on because it’s so rewarding to work directly with patrons and help them meet their goals. I’ve been a Reference Librarian at Sarah Lawrence College, a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Long Island University, and now a Head of Research Support & Outreach for a division at Columbia University. In this job I do some teaching and reference and a whole lot of coordinating, and I supervise four librarians who I really lucked out to be working with.

Teaching in academic libraries, and figuring out how to do that better and more meaningfully, has been at the center of all of my positions, and I imagine at the center of many of yours too. Along with this, I have concerns about our working conditions and inequalities embedded in our field, and how what we’re expected to do rarely corresponds with the resources we have to do it with. I often have strong feelings about buzzwords and how they are coopted to extract labor or deflect critique. But this also means I get excited about things like spending the day at an information literacy conference, and talking about and thinking through these things with you all.


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Here’s the plan for the next hour. We’ll talk about grit, including how it’s defined, applied in education, and some controversies and ideas related to it. Beyond grit we’ll be talking about an overarching idea that underpins a lot of not only library instruction and information literacy, but a lot of thinking in American society, which is the concept of deficit thinking.


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When I was thinking about what to explore for this talk, I came up with these questions. I’m also very interested in hearing from you all on these questions or what I’m leaving out. There will be a couple opportunities during the presentation to share your thoughts, and we’ll have time for Q&A at the end.


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Few ideas in the last decade have resonated so strongly with the American public as grit. As a personality trait to be cultivated, grit has been offered as a way to solve underachievement and dissatisfaction in schools, the workplace, and interpersonally. The phenomenon of grit and the values of persistence and passion associated with it encapsulate much of what people want to believe is true about learning and effort–that hard work pays off, and achievement is a matter of applying oneself.


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Author and psychology professor Angela Duckworth has explored the nature of success for years, having worked in various careers before beginning as a psychology graduate student who started interviewing leaders in different fields. She would ask them: “Who are the people at the very top of your field? What are they like? What do you think makes them special?”

Ultimately, these highly successful people not only were “unusually resilient and hardworking,” but they knew deeply “what is was they wanted,” and “they not only had determination, they had direction.” In short, they had a combination of passion and perseverance that Duckworth coined as grit. In a significant sense, “grit is about holding the same top-level goal,” otherwise known as one’s passion or life philosophy, “for a very long time.”


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Grit skyrocketed into popular culture with Duckworth’s bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, along with a hugely popular Ted Talk. Her original research was based in primary education, with the expectation that if teachers help children get grittier they can achieve excellence in spite of their school or community’s conditions. Educators across the world have taken to the idea of grit. It has been the subject of numerous books on the importance of instilling passion and perseverance in students. Grit is increasingly being applied to higher education, especially as a predictor of GPA, retention, and other quantitative measures of academic success.


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Duckworth offers two equations which explain how one gets from talent to achievement. Notably, both equations contain effort, and as one chapter of Grit is titled, “Effort counts twice.” These aren’t scientific equations of course, but they’re another way she has summarized grit and qualities important to it.


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Duckworth has generally responded positively to how grit has been applied in education, with a few reservations. Since publishing her book and seeing grit in practice in a widespread way, she has expressed some amount of concern with how it’s being implemented. She has encouraged teachers and administrators to be cautious when applying the idea, especially with testing, and even more so with high-stakes testing. Duckworth also acknowledges the importance of environmental factors. She says that it’s not that grit matters more than environment, but they both matter.


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Since grit’s rise to stardom in 2016, it is increasingly being questioned. Educators and researchers are asking whether grit is a good thing or even a real thing. As one example, this meta-analysis suggests that the effects of grit on performance and success have been overstated. The researchers argue that the validity of grit as a psychological construct should be reevaluated. Meanwhile, grit’s applications and ideological functions have been critiqued on the basis of a variety of social and educational issues.


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The characteristics associated with grit, especially perseverance, can be extremely useful. When you face an unexpected setback, or if you’re just struggling with the day to day, getting through it is the single most important thing. Perseverance, or having an end goal that gives you light at the end of the tunnel, is significant in times of crisis. The core message it expresses, that our situations aren’t predetermined and our effort can make a difference, is a potentially useful one and hard to disagree with.


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Many ideas similar to grit have emerged in recent years. Individual resilience, the “10,000 Hours Rule” coined by Malcolm Gladwell, Growth Mindset, and Lean In all express a related core message. Put in the effort, change your outlook, and you’ll see great rewards. Grit and growth mindset, for example, share some notable qualities. With both there’s an emphasis on perseverance, shifting one’s attitude towards challenges they face, and the idea that individuals can “grow” these positive characteristics.

Yet when taken too far, these theories that intend to motivate learners can act as extensions of deficit thinking. Grit presumes that learners not measuring up to certain standards simply need to locate their perseverance and passions. In many cases with these ideas, students must have their deficits remedied by the learning theory.


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I’d like to give you a moment to think about and respond to these questions: In what ways is grit a positive quality to have? How might it be negative? Take a moment to think about it and share with a person or two nearest you, and then I’d love to hear from a couple people on what you discussed.


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I’ve mentioned deficit thinking a couple of times, so let’s define it. Deficit thinking is an umbrella term that covers different theories and ideas that are based in some way on a person lacking something. It can be linguistic difference, or cultural, or maybe someone isn’t “literate” in some area or another (*cough* information literacy *cough*). In this line of thinking there’s a deficiency that needs to be remedied.

Deficit thinking operates with the idea that a given population exists in a state of need, and most often the best way to address this need is for them to apply themselves, conform, or otherwise assimilate to the dominant culture. Under this ideology, as education professor Paul Gorski describes, “people are the problem; their attitudes, behaviors, cultures, and mindsets block their potential for success.”


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Deficit thinking is resilient, to use another term I have some problems with, because it can morph to suit different political climates and aligns neatly with values of individualism and self-help. The supposed cause of these deficits changes depending on the era, but the problem is ultimately identified at the individual level. Because forms of deficit thinking change over time, it’s necessary for our teaching to change in order to respond. The term “deficit model” is a little more specific, and usually applied to education.


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Deficit models view students in perpetual lack, and at fault. This is neither healthy nor accurate. Instead, we need to be open to broader ways of engaging students, of thinking about their lives, what levers they really have to effect change, and where we have some responsibility too. Part of the appeal of deficit thinking lies in shifting blame away from ourselves. This quote from Richard Valencia, who’s a prominent scholar on deficit models and education, gets at how these ideas adapt and place blame on the student.


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Education professor Pedro Noguera extends this thinking, recognizing that our educational systems are primary vehicles for replicating the status quo. We want to believe schools and especially higher education results in social mobility, and that’s sometimes true, but it’s not often, and it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.


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You’re probably getting what I’m hinting at, which is that grit is an instance of deficit thinking. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, and it really depends on how far you take the idea. But we don’t need the idea of grit, since it doesn’t give us anything tangible. At any rate, I don’t think grit isn’t really the problem; it’s symptomatic of larger issues.

There are some significant problems that can result from deficit thinking and associated ideas. Because qualities like grit are performed most often by marginalized people, it can naturalize existing forms of oppression. In this way, instead of lessening educational disparities it reinscribes them. Basically anyone other than those who are being asked to show grit are the ones creating the terms and conditions. Beyond just grit, deficit models are fundamentally about how best to maintain the functioning of an existing system, without any sacrifices required on part of privileged classes.


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Here’s a fun fact that doesn’t get shared often enough: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is an actual joke. If you really try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you just stay where you are. So whenever you hear someone sincerely making the case for bootstrap pulling, just know they’re unknowingly making a joke.


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As librarians Chelsea Heinbach, Brittany Paloma Fiedler, Rosan Mitola, and Emily Pattni argue, deficit thinking manifests by believing that students who don’t conform to a traditional path, namely one reflecting that of white, middle-class, English-speaking young adults who attend college soon after high school and have college-educated parents, are less likely to succeed.


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You have to wonder how many students see through all this and know they’re not the problem. I’m willing to bet a lot. Many of these theories rely on the idea of character development, which presumably Bart is learning through writing on the chalkboard in the opening sequence to The Simpsons. Their aims can be easily used as a way to establish control of students, while also increasing the likelihood that learners must rise yet again to the challenge of developing culturally-contextual qualities and knowledge without given significant support to do so.


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Now let’s consider how these ideas are applied to our own area of work. How does deficit thinking inform the idea of information literacy? How does it inform the practice of library instruction? Take a couple minutes to discuss with the person nearest to you, and we’ll group back up to hear from anyone who’d like to share.


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To look at how deficit thinking shapes information literacy, I wanted to consider how info lit is defined, as well as what forms it takes through our instruction, and how these deficit models are encouraged through professional discourse.


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In taking a look at recent definitions of information literacy, the good news is that a lot of the language has moved from the sort represented by the ACRL Standards, which are very clear in positioning anyone who doesn’t have a set of requisite skills as lacking. We haven’t come that far, though, as this comparison from LIS professor Alison Hicks indicates, when we put the actual definitions of information literacy in the Standards and Framework side by side. Don’t get me wrong–the Framework is a vast improvement, and has been a productive place for academic librarians to get inspiration for their teaching. Even if we had a definition of information literacy that’s “right,” and manages to reflect different knowledges outside of academe and the western canon, it wouldn’t magically fix everything.


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The bigger problem is unraveling the ways that definitions such as these shape our understandings of information literacy without fully comprehending it. We work in higher education in North America, which generally prizes information with the characteristics here, and which students are expected to use and professors are expected to contribute to.

There’s a lot more to information literacy than textual, academic, peer-reviewed, information. There are more ways of knowing the world than the scientific method, and there’s more to knowledge than the research paper. Though its enactment in our institutions and libraries, valuing these things acts to marginalize other types of knowledge.


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This quote from scholar Annemaree Lloyd gets at how this overemphasis on certain types of information that she describes, and supposedly universal models of information literacy, narrow the conversation of what info lit is and how it can be addressed in a classroom. This also means that learners with knowledge and experience outside of these parameters are considered deficient.


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That leads us to what happens in our classes. How many of us get requests from instructors to just “show the students the library databases?” I can’t think of a more deficit-based approach to teaching. Students need to access databases so they can get articles to cite in their papers, yes, but wow, there is so much more we have to offer.

Even within the one-shot session there is a lot we inadvertently do that reinforces this notion. The lack of time we have with students leads to a lot of lecturing and a focus on point and click database demos, and few attempts to get to know them or their understandings of information seeking. The information we do talk about is usually limited to academic books and journal articles, which creates a very narrow picture of how knowledge can be expressed and shared.


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Here are some ideas to counter those practices, some of which you may already do. We face time constraints in and outside of the classroom, it takes a lot of work to develop or change lesson plans, and we’re expected to balance the interests and needs of instructors, students, and ourselves at the same time. But if we’re serious about making library instruction meaningful, we have to prioritize what we think is most important and significant.

We can find ways to acknowledge other sources of information beyond the library, like friends, family, or personal experience, or other sources students can scaffold their understandings from. We can respond on the spot to student interests and needs, and adjust our teaching methods accordingly. And we can question the limits of scholarly articles and the emphasis on Western methods, since every way of knowing has its own set of assumptions and limitations, and none are perfect on their own.


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What it comes down to is this: how you define a problem determines your solution and approach. What does it say to define students as lacking? How can we expect to have meaningful exchanges with learners if we think they have nothing to contribute? The appeal of deficit models is that they allow teachers to define problems in ways that call for straightforward and practical solutions; if we cultivate a certain quality in students they’ll be information literate. But what would it look like to value student knowledge and contributions in our different settings?


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Now that we’ve established deficit thinking is problematic and a major element of information literacy and instruction, let’s talk about what to do about it. To move past teaching that conceives of learners as possessing inherent deficits, we must consider ways to center structural understandings of justice along with students’ experiences and knowledge.

Critical information literacy and culturally relevant pedagogy are two frameworks with overlapping interests and approaches that facilitate this type of education. These modes of teaching are intended to recognize the inequalities embedded within the information landscape and the educational system.


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Critical information literacy is a theory and practice that asks librarians to involve themselves and their students in the social and political dimensions of information. Its goal is to question dominant forces in society, and uncover how racism, sexism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression shape libraries and the greater information landscape.

Critical information literacy has a great deal to offer in problematizing narratives of individualism and meritocracy, beliefs which work against low-income students, first-gen students, disabled students, and students of color. This can be accomplished by applying different lenses to library instruction, such as information privilege and the construction of authority.


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These are big topics, but we can easily introduce them in our classes to begin the process of questioning these larger issues. Librarians Char Booth, Sarah Hare, and Cara Evanson have written about information privilege in instruction and outreach. We’ll look at more detailed activity in a moment, but here are some ideas to consider.

If you’re teaching a class where the students are investigating a topic of their choice, take advantage of that openness to explore the economics of scholarly communication. This is also a favorite of mine to do in business and health sciences classes. When I’m talking about PubMed, for example, I mention how it’s freely available and doesn’t require a subscription, which is essential for many people who are researching medical treatments and don’t have an academic affiliation. It’s also quite possibly essential for these students later on when they graduate and may or may not have the database access they need. Drawing attention to who has access to crucial information can lead to further conversations.

Another topic that troubles the idea of meritocracy is who can or cannot publish on a topic. This is something I ask students often in class, on a worksheet or in discussions. And of course who can or can’t publish on a topic is linked to all sorts of different ideas related to authority, and how that changes in relation to a subject or setting.

These are a couple ideas on classroom content, but the way we teach is just as important. There are lots of ways to show students that their contributions matter: asking them for search terms, having time at the end of class for them to give you feedback on what they learned or still have questions about, or having them present to their classmates on the results of a database search.


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Next, let’s look at culturally sustaining pedagogy. Culturally relevant pedagogy was first given form in 1995 by Gloria Ladson-Billings, and a number of scholars have expanded on these ideas since. Culturally relevant pedagogy has three criteria: the development of academic skills, cultural competence, and critical consciousness.

It is a direct response to deficit models, which have historically had the goal, as Django Paris states, to “eradicate the linguistic, literate, and cultural practices many students of color brought from their homes and communities and to replace them with what were viewed as superior practices.” He has argued that the term “relevant” doesn’t go far enough, and suggests “sustaining” instead.

What I find most useful about culturally sustaining pedagogy that critical information literacy doesn’t address often enough, is the cultural dimensions of education. One major aspect of this approach is creating counter-narratives–personal stories that often run against what we’re told–which fits in nicely with questioning deficit thinking.


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Like critical information literacy, there are a lot of different ways to incorporate these ideas into your instruction. Asset-based approaches are one way to frame this. Librarian Kim Morrison has done great work around asset-based pedagogy. In her article quoted here, Morrison describes the importance of counter-storytelling in her class. She has her students journal and reflect on the class, and consider what they learned, including how the class affirmed some things they know while challenging other ideas.

This quote captures an important point, which is that it’s a continual process. Instead of developing the perfect lesson plan and sticking to that, it’s a recognition that students and teachers both should be working to identify relevant knowledge bases. For Kim Morrison’s class it was hip hop for some students, and for some of my classes in the past it’s been local knowledge of New York City or their career interests. It’s a lot of work, and it takes experience, but giving up some control is essential.


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Here’s one anecdote to illustrate counternarratives. During one class, I worked with students individually as they looked for resources on how their neighborhoods had changed. One student, searching the Historical New York Times database for articles, realized that when she searched for her neighborhood in Brooklyn, the database attached descriptors like “African-Americans,” “poverty,” and “handgun crime” to articles referencing it. This is one of the articles she found. Not only did the database classify the neighborhood in demeaning ways, but the first article in the results focused on the community’s appearance, and the presence of trash and lack of general maintenance, in a story that had nothing to do with that.

The student was upset but not surprised at these characterizations, and mentioned the media’s tendency to focus on the negatives in her community. Based on these sources she revised her topic; she decided to tell a counternarrative. Her research paper would now address negative representations of her neighborhood and how communities that are considered impoverished or crime-ridden are likely to also be made of up strong bonds among families and neighbors.


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How can instruction be reframed to counter deficit thinking? To recap, we’re looking for ways to center student knowledge and contributions, discuss issues on a systemic rather than individual level, and recognize that students are likely coming in with varying levels of interest, energy, and familiarity with the library and doing research.


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Let’s take a closer look at some examples of what countering deficit thinking looks like in instruction.


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First is an activity I developed with my colleague Kate Angell. We’ve revised this over time but the basic elements remained consistent. We start by dividing students into small groups, pass out an activity sheet for them to write their names, their topic, and their answers, and then assign each group a different source. We decided on a combination of library and open web resources. Each group comes up with a topic on their own, and they find one webpage, article, or other resource to answer questions about.


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Here are those questions. They focus on authorship, usefulness to the students, and representation. After the groups have written down their answers, two members from each group come to the front of the classroom, one to go through the search process and the other to report on their answers. I’ll ask leading questions as they present, about the gender bias among contributors to Wikipedia, or targeted ads in Google, or what search terms aren’t working in a database.


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Another activity I’ve had success with is, especially for first-year students, is based on an idea from librarian Sajni Lacey, at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. This starts with getting students into small groups and asking them to write down the top 3-5 places they go to get information for their everyday needs. After they’ve listed these, I ask each group to rank them by how often they’re used. Once this is done, someone from each group comes up to the board and writes down the sources.


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Then I ask what stands out on the lists. Sometimes their parents or classmates will come up, but usually it’s Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Snapchat. We have a 5 to 10 minute discussion about which of these sources are best, which quickly turns to different situations where a source might be useful, or not.

We get back into groups, and I ask them to write down 3-5 criteria they use to decide whether that information is good or bad. Then we get back together as a class, and the groups suggest these different criteria. This usually takes the discussion into areas that are just begging for context, which is what I want. We develop a list that the students agree on, and these criteria are written on the whiteboard.

Towards the end of class we talk more specifically about how the library’s resources fit into their information seeking, and how the info the library provides address what some other info sources don’t. This activity acknowledges there are many sources for information, not just academic, and uses students’ contributions, which truly guide the discussion, to talk about finding and evaluating information.


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Cultural and political climates influence educational trends and practices. Deficit thinking reflects an individualistic approach to learning, in line with neoliberal conceptions of the self and education wherein personal responsibility and competition are paramount. So how do we dismantle an institutionalized worldview, that’s woven into our society, our schools, and our teaching; something that finds its way into massively popular ideas like grit? Little by little, and piece by piece, the only way we can.

First, we need to recognize deficit thinking when we see it. This can be difficult because it’s all around us and we’re so accustomed to it, but to question this way of thinking, we need to be able to identify it. That means critically reflecting on how we’re socialized into perpetuating these myths, and how our identities are socially constructed and change over time. What is key is understanding that difference, especially difference from ourselves, and how one learns, speaks, or listens, is not a deficit.


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For our teaching, we must discard the assumption that student achievement is a result of primarily effort and engagement. Students’ experiences, interests, and lives shape their perspectives on information and education, and these perspectives must be made an integral part of teaching in libraries. This means that we wish to learn from students. In my experience that’s the best motivation of all, for teachers and students: learning something new with other people and knowing your contributions are valued.


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Finally, don’t be afraid to challenge students. It’s important to make sure that learners who are less familiar with libraries, or computer use, or searching for information aren’t ignored, but I know that in my own instruction, I tend to err on the side of caution when I should be encouraging students to extend their knowledge, not just confirm they can search a database. It’s a balancing act. So teach at the level you want students to learn at, while recognizing differences in familiarity with academic cultures and expectations. You will quite possibly be surprised.


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You can contact me after the conference over Twitter or email, and you can find my slides at My slides also have recommended resources included at the end. Thank you for listening and being here.


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