Tenure-Driven Publication And Presenting Need Not Be A Grind

I was inspired to write about publishing and presenting by academic librarians on the tenure track by a post on this topic over at Wandering Eyre . Jane relates how she feels like a “lady of the night” because she is obligated to give away her research to professional conferences if she is to achieve tenure. While her post is itself a continuation of a thread about gratis presentations versus paid ones, I sensed more angst about the “publish or perish” pressure felt by academic librarians on the tenure track.

I’m not on the tenure track – never have been – so it may be difficult to put myself in the place of someone who is feeling the strain of seeking to get selected to speak at a prestige conference event, or feeling the need to sacrifice the opportunity to accept a good honorarium at a lesser prestige conference because accepting might reflect badly on one’s perceived commitment to achieving tenure. I’ve also had the good fortune to publish where I wish or present where I want without needing to worry if it will impress a tenure review committee – and perhaps that degree of freedom helps to promote writing and presenting productivity.

But after reading an account like the one at Wandering Eyre I have to ask what this profession needs to do to work towards (acknowledging that the tenure process is not under the control of librarians alone at any institution) a more holistic tenure process. What do we gain by putting our young or new professionals through a process that leaves them feeling drained and uninspired, believing that what you really have to communicate – and how you choose to communicate it – isn’t as important as where you write or speak it. Admittedly, the tenure track and its associated pressures are all about weeding out under performers to create an academic organization that benefits from having the best of the best. But what can be done to allow those on the tenure track to enjoy the process of research and publication, the way it was meant to be be experienced, without being made to feel as if they are on a vicious treadmill. Here are a few suggestions that might help tenure-track librarians avoid that “senseless grind” feeling.

  • Allow new librarians a year or two to get their feet wet before starting the tenure track countdown clock. Since librarians come out of library school far from being finished products they have a lot to learn. It is not the same as a faculty member that has come out of a Ph.D. program where he or she has done extensive research and writing – and usually just continues that same research in year one on the job. Let’s not add to the new librarian’s pressure by requiring research right from the get go. Heck, it can take a few years in the field to figure what one’s research interests are. Others have suggested making the tenure track longer for similar reasons. Giving librarians more time to discover their true research interests will make conducting research feel more intrinsically rewarding and less like forced labor.
  • Allow librarians to make their research more of a learning experience by turning research into an opportunity to master new skills. Allow tenure-track librarians to build a research portfolio that reflects a subject skill or a technology focus. A business librarian’s research could consist of articles about advanced techniques in specialized databases. Another librarian might choose to focus on library applications of web-based software.
  • Let collaborative efforts weigh more heavily than they may count now. One of the best ways to get on the road to publication and presentating is to co-author with more experienced colleagues. Give more weight to being a third author or a panel discussion member, especially in years one through four. As librarians get more experience they’ll begin to take the lead and move into those first author spots.
  • As next-gen librarians more frequently come to the profession with blogs, more of them will gain a following and develop some degree of notoriety. Rather than seeking to quash that with standard tenure procedures, allow these blogging librarians to flourish by giving them some credit for their work and allow them to accept some of those offers to present even if it’s not the ACRL National Conference.
  • The future of professional development is virtual conferencing/workshops and webcasting. Are tenure committees paying attention to this? It’s time to allow participation in virtual programs to count as a form of scholarship. And for those librarians who build virtual communities like Web Junction, OPAL, or Blended Librarians, as members of boards or contributors, they should be getting plenty of recognition and credit for tenure.

    Do I expect tenure-track academic libraries to make these sort of changes? Well, I would hope the more progressive ones can give it some thought. Why not attempt to transcend some of the likely opposition (I did it this way, so should others; Faculty won’t treat us as equals if our tenure process isn’t the same as theirs; Some of these new methods are not peer reviewd, etc.) and be among the first to create new avenues for scholarship. There is significant discussion about this profession’s need to recognize that our user communities are changing and that our libraries need to change to accomodate those users. If this profession can’t even recognize that its members and what drives their research interests are changing – and that it is time for new accomodations – then we may be truly challenged to meet the needs of our user communities.

  • 7 thoughts on “Tenure-Driven Publication And Presenting Need Not Be A Grind

    1. I think MPOW is flexible in their requirements, but I worry about what will happen when I try to get a job elsewhere. Unlike professors, we do not have grad students and a lighter work load to free up our time to reflect, write, and research. We spend so much time on our actual jobs, that we do not have time for the things that will allow us to keep our jobs. It is a vicious circle.

      I have faith that our profession can change in this regard. I actually think this is a battle that may be easier to win than the changing view of librarianship.

      Now, I have to go and write some thoughts down, so I can convince someone to publish them. *smile*

    2. As you’ve noted, many of these issues reflect the tenure and promotion process writ large, not just for academic librarians. All tenure-track faculty face issues like:

      *the rush to publish – several critics of contemporary academic culture have noted that the publish or perish mentality and the escalating expectations for publication in various fields (and funded research in others) have contributed to an environment in which much of the research that is published is “immature,” i.e., it has not had the time to ripen as it might have in the days when Leo Marx could spend 30 years working on “The Machine in the Garden” (1964) (a favorite example from my days as a grad student in American Studies).

      *inconsistent recognition of digital scholarship for the purposes of tenure and promotion – when I was at Washington State, the library faculty were among the first to write guidelines for the peer review and recognition of digital scholarship into our process. This project was written up by one of its leaders, Ryan Johnson (now at Mississippi) in “Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process” (2004) and it’s a topic that has definitely grabbed attention when I’ve presented on it as part of broader discussions of scholarly communication for our Preparing Future Faculty program at KU.

      *the place of collaborative research – some will say that one is not safe to co-author until one already has tenure, but I think a healthy mix of first-authored pieces with second-authored pieces can work in many places. Not all, though, and it’s important for an incoming librarian to clarify how that sort of work is looked upon, both in the library and by the campus P&T committee (if there is one). Certainly, I think that tenured librarians should look for opportunities to co-author with junior colleagues who are learning how to identify a research question, place it in the literature, and address the ever-present “so what?” question.

      I have rarely heard anyone talk about not presenting at one conference or another because of prestige issues, although I have heard this mentioned in terms of publications. On the other hand, I have heard people urge academic librarians not to be too involved with state associations (other than ACRL chapters, of course) owing to the perception that these are dominated by public and school librarians. I’ve often thought that was unfortunate and admire the ACRL chapters that have managed to stay integrated with ALA chapters. On the other hand, I have also really enjoyed attending ALAO conferences in Ohio, and that is a separate ACRL chapter, so . . .

      Interesting questions, really, in part because of the great variation in the entire “faculty model” for academic librarians.

    3. I completely agree with the suggestions here for helping new tenure track librarians ease into the publish or perish mindset. At MPOW we have lost/will continue to lose good people who lack enough research publications. I would consider many of these librarians to be “the best of the best”, but perhaps in areas other than publications. I understand the importance of research and the need to compete with others in academia – but in a service profession, I feel that assisting others with their research should be our top priority. The “best of the best” should include all types, strong in different areas…who together can forge a strong team and do good for the library and university as a whole.

    4. The trouble with tenure for librarians isn’t publishing; it’s the whole tenure calculus. Librarians are the proverbial square peg of work performance being forced in the round hole of tenure. It’s always bothered me that academic librarians ostensibly felt their work was not good enough unless it received the nihil obstat of tenure. So, we force ourselves through a strainer that measures teaching, scholarship and service. Whatever else we may do, we do not teach as faculty do. What we do is certainly an educational effort and in my mind may be the most important one students get in their four (or five or six) years of college. But it is NOT teaching as faculty define it.

      What we should be doing is formulating our own criteria and defining what we mean by however many components we derive. Under the present system, we try to have it both ways. When the teaching appears weak, we complain that we’re librarians and the system isn’t fair. When the scholarship is altogether absent, we argue that we must work 12 months out of the year and do not have time for scholarship. And so on. But we cannot have it both ways. Both complaints are not reasons for not granting tenure, but reasons why librarians must re-examine what the criteria should be. If we choose not to devise a system that really measures what we do, then we should not complain if we fail to live up to a criteria that measure what someone else’s job requires.

    5. I believe that it is all in your attitude. Many Next Generation librarians
      dislike the idea of requirements, but if we instead see the publication
      expectations as “Opportunities” it becomes fun. It is often human nature not to want to do something that is required or to balk at unreasonable requirements; but when thus challenged, you may surprise yourself. Go with your research interests and discover an avenue that has not been Done to Death. New tenure-track librarians may also lack the confidence to put their ideas into writing for a peer-reviewed publication, while they have no problem writing for the (much more) informal venue of a blog. Writing a blog or posting on one is already contributing to the public discourse. My contention is that with experience folks develop more confidence in their own writing and scholarship.

    6. Much of the articles in academic library journals are tedious and fundamentally unreadable. If this is what academic librarians are required to churn out – little more than “how we done it good at my library” – then the whole process is broken.

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