Coming Clean About “Grit” | Peer to Peer Review

Proponents of "grit" claim that developing a combination of passion and perseverance is the most significant factor shaping one’s life. The problem is, this contention ignores a great deal and has unintended negative consequences.

Eamon Tewell head shotIt’s likely you have heard of “grit” at some point over the last several years, whether through the massively popular TED talk by professor Angela Duckworth, her instant-bestselling book profiling highly successful people who demonstrate grit, or any number of other publications that followed on how to cultivate grit in students, children, employees, or yourself. Proponents of grit claim that developing a combination of passion and perseverance is the most significant factor shaping one’s life. It expresses what many people want to believe is true about learning and effort: that hard work pays off and achievement is a matter of applying oneself. Educators and administrators across the globe have taken to the idea of grit, and it is increasingly being applied in higher education, especially as a predictor of GPA, retention, and other numbers-friendly measures of academic success.

The problem is, this contention ignores a great deal and has unintended negative consequences. Even when it comes from a well-intentioned place, grit has the effect of promoting the myth of meritocracy, a belief which is especially harmful to students facing systemic racism, gender discrimination, food or housing insecurity, and a host of other inequalities and injustices that won’t be overcome through positive thinking. As I see grit and associated ideas appear in the library literature and conference presentations, I am concerned that these approaches leave out the realities many students face, and hang over learners’ heads the burden of personal responsibility without providing necessary support. We would also do well to consider how grit and related expectations of individual resilience and doing-more-with-less are demanded of library workers, including how issues such as student debt, mission creep, low morale, and vocational awe intersect with other forces shaping our work.



The problem is not “grit,” exactly; it is symptomatic of a larger issue. Deficit thinking in education focuses on a learner’s weaknesses and the knowledge that they lack, presuming some students possess a deficiency that needs to be remedied. Beginning with “culture of poverty” research in the 1970s, deficit models of education have provided easily accepted explanations for why some students were unable to reach the same levels of achievement as others: these learners came from a deficient culture or background, or were simply not applying themselves. These approaches individualize education and place the blame for a lack of learning on the student, ignoring the deeply rooted issues around us. When taken too far, contemporary theories such as grit that intend to motivate learners are a type of deficit thinking.

Within libraries and higher education, deficit thinking manifests in library instruction when we assume students lack necessary knowledge instead of seeking ways to build upon the experiences they bring to a classroom. It can be present in outreach efforts that target “non-traditional” students in ways that position their backgrounds as unusual and outside the norm. It can be found when an encompassing concept like information literacy is limited to textual, academic, peer-reviewed information, or when library instruction relies on demonstrations of paywalled databases that students lose access to when they are not enrolled. Researching grit and deficit thinking led me to write an article, “The Problem with Grit: Dismantling Deficit Thinking in Library Instruction,” for portal: Libraries and the Academy (Johns Hopkins University Press) on the problems with these approaches to teaching and how we see them crop up in academic libraries.



What can be done to counter deficit thinking in library instruction? To move past teaching that considers learners as possessing inherent deficits, we must seek ways to center structural understandings of justice along with students’ experiences and knowledge. Critical information literacy and culturally sustaining pedagogy are two frameworks with overlapping interests and approaches that facilitate this type of education. These modes of teaching are intended to recognize inequalities embedded within the information landscape and educational systems, and they set aside the assumption that student achievement is a result of primarily effort and engagement.

Critical information literacy’s goal is to question dominant forces in society, and uncover how racism, sexism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression shape libraries and the information landscape. It has a great deal to offer in questioning narratives of individualism and meritocracy, beliefs which work against marginalized students. This can be accomplished by applying different lenses to library instruction sessions, such as focusing on information privilege or how authority is constructed in peer-reviewed journal articles.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy is a direct response to deficit thinking. It addresses the cultural dimensions of teaching and learning in a way many approaches to teaching do not. One key strategy it offers is creating counter-narratives. These personal stories that often run against what we are told are a way to position students as producers of knowledge, instead of consumers of the dominant tales that have already been told. As one example, students can reflect on which voices are excluded in an academic topic they are researching, and write down what personal expertise they could bring to a scholarly conversation based on their background, experiences, or interest in the subject.

An increasing number of librarians are pushing back against the prominence of deficit thinking in discussions on populations such as first-generation students and settings such as community college libraries, problematizing resilience narratives, and identifying ways to honor students’ experiences using strengths-based and asset-based approaches. What these works have in common is understanding that difference, especially difference from ourselves, and how one learns, speaks, or listens, is not a deficit. 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 must wish to learn from students, and that is the best motivation of all for teachers and students alike: learning something new with other people and knowing your contributions are valued.

Eamon Tewell is Head of Research Support and Outreach for Columbia University’s Science, Engineering, & Social Science Libraries, where he identifies ways to support the research and learning needs of students and faculty. Eamon has published and presented on the topics of critical information literacy, library instruction, critical reference practice, and questioning narratives of grit and resilience in libraries. He can be reached through his website or on Twitter.

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