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Demand Frequent Constructive Feedback, Don’t Just Wait for The Annual Appraisal

March 6, 2018

Information Age guru and futurist Marshall McLuhan pithily synthesized his early theorizing in a much-vaunted creative anthology The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. McLuhan proclaims on page 75, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” While connections between McLuahanisms and libraries are most often made by way of information technology, this specific aphorism has more to do with librarians as people than the conglomeration of media we use in our everyday work.

We need to ask ourselves; do we agree we are looking at the present in a rear-view mirror when it comes to our professional life? It is easy to think of ourselves as walking backwards since we have a clearer view of our past than we do of our future, but McLuhan says we are looking “at the present” by means of a device that is designed to look behind us while driving a car. This would imply we are speeding along, and what gets reflected is constantly changing adumbrations with current meaning which remain in our peripheral vision until we take the time to really look.

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is The Massage_0016

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 25. Produced by Jerome Agel. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2001. Marshall McLuhan – The Medium is The Massage.pdf (PDFy mirror), 17. Uploaded July 27, 2014, Internet Archive. Accessed March 1, 2018,

Though, while many librarians have discovered that adaptability to an environment of constant flux is in our own best interest, if we want to remain relevant, how many of us really get to do anything more than respond daily to immediate tasks and needs? We’re often already saturated, and incessant disruption and change can contravene innovation, the development of projects, smooth workflows, and more than sufficient progress towards achieving objectives.

The key is suggested in the second half of the McLuhan quote. Although to “march backwards” does seem to imply proceeding blindly as it were, it is probably also meant to convey steady forward movement that is accomplished alongside and in sync with others, and perhaps more importantly since we are moving backwards the rear-view mirror gives us glimpses of the future not the past.

Either way, to interpret the here and now we need to vigilantly monitor the changes in our situation, and realize we are never alone even as we go progressively onward. A wonderful current example of this is how EDUCAUSE is picking up the pieces of NMC and has pledged to continue producing Horizon Reports. A real impediment is heel-draggers who simply commiserate as they impede the organizational trajectory with pessimism while things simply change around them and others try to rocket by.

Perhaps McLuhan’s diagnosis of the phenomenon of considering where we’re headed in relationship to the past and present is the silver lining to the customary performance review cycle, which is presumably culminating for many of us right now.  Real professional growth requires we take the time to celebrate successes and evaluate failures before moving onto the next thing. We also need to take time to assess with colleagues and supervisors along the way, not just once a year.

Otherwise the annual appraisal is dreaded, the mission statement is mere marketing, staff development becomes extracurricular, goals are nothing more than quickly forgotten new year’s resolutions, and the strategic plan is just a dust collecting showpiece. Besides, going “into the future” together is inherently more optimistic because each of us has glimmers to share during the journey, if we take the time to gaze regularly into our rear-view mirror.

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