All posts by Maura Smale

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

Academic Libraries and the Adjunct Crisis

The large and growing number of faculty members working off the tenure track at U.S. colleges and universities has been well-documented. Recent years have seen frequent articles in the higher ed media including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as major media outlets like the New York Times. You may have read anthropologist and writer Sarah Kendzior‘s 2012 article about contingent faculty in Al Jazeera, or any of the blog posts by adjunct writing instructor Lee Skallerup Bessette at Inside Higher Ed, just to name a few of the many articles addressing what’s become known as the adjunct crisis.

As an academic librarian on the tenure track I’ve often found myself thinking on how the rise in adjunct faculty affects academic libraries. The ACRLog blog team has written about this issue in the past, though since the percentage of adjunct faculty has only continued to climb — up to 76% by 2011, according to the American Association of University Professors — the issue remains highly relevant to all in higher education. While hiring adjunct or part-time librarians obviously impacts academic libraries, I’d like to think here on the effects on academic libraries of increasing numbers of adjunct faculty in departments outside the library.

Working conditions for contingent faculty make participating fully in the campus community a challenge. Adjunct faculty may not have office space which, in addition to their potentially complicated schedules because of a need to teach at several different institutions, can mean that adjunct faculty don’t spend much time on campus outside of the classes they teach. Many adjunct faculty have multiple email accounts which may hinder our ability to connect with them if we don’t know which address they check most frequently. While some adjunct faculty return to teach the same courses in the same department over multiple semesters, many do not. At my institution new adjunct faculty are invited to attend an orientation to the college, though time pressures may make it difficult for them to do so. Staying in touch with adjuncts between semesters to keep them in the loop about library collections, services, and resources can be challenging.

As academic librarians we strive to provide access to collections that are most relevant for the disciplines and subjects taught and researched at our institutions. But while adjunct faculty may be teaching a majority of the courses in a department or subject, it can be difficult to involve them in acquisition decisions. Scheduling workshops and meetings at times when adjunct faculty are available may not be possible. At my college adjunct faculty often teach on evenings and weekends, when our full-time library faculty are less available. And though we do offer library workshops in the evenings occasionally, many adjuncts may not be able to attend them (or other faculty development programs) since to do so represents an investment of their own (often uncompensated) time.

The work we do with students can also be affected by whether their professors are full-time or adjunct. Difficulties getting in touch can hinder our ability to consult with adjunct faculty about their students’ research assignments before they come for library instruction. Some adjunct faculty may be unfamiliar with the collections and resources at our library, and may create assignments for students that are a mismatch with what we have to offer. Depending on their backgrounds and familiarity with the institution and the library, adjunct faculty may not realize that librarians are partners in information literacy and can offer research and library instruction. More than once I’ve heard from adjunct faculty members that they never knew that we provide research instruction for all subjects and disciplines at the college, not just English composition.

What actions can we as academic librarians take? We can stay informed about the challenges adjuncts face, and learn more about increasing adjunct activism, including the New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy group. If we work in an institution with a union, we can advocate for health insurance and other benefits for contingent faculty members. Within the library there are small actions we can take as well. We can make a special effort to reach out to adjuncts with information about the library and, if budgets allow, consider offering a stipend to adjunct faculty to attend workshops, meetings, or other programs in the library. I’m sure there are other ways to partner and advocate with adjunct faculty members — I’d be interested to hear about what academic librarians are doing.

Beyond Livetweeting: Twitter Chats for Professional Development

This time 11 days ago I was grumpy. It was the last Friday before Spring Break, and I was prepping to teach an English Comp I session the next morning — not just a Saturday class but the Saturday before the break week. Our English Comp I sessions are typically assignment-driven, as we’ve found that to be more useful for students than a library tour or orientation, and having an assignment to work on encourages them to participate during the session.

But this class was different. Just one week prior to the library session, the current professor had taken over this class from another professor who’d fallen ill. The new prof was still getting his bearings with the students and he hadn’t yet assigned the research essay. I’d been thinking for a while now that I need to develop a solid plan for these occasional no-assignment sessions, something interactive and useful to students, but it’s been a busy semester and I haven’t found the time to put to it. So there I was with a class the next morning, not at all sure what I’d do with those students, how I’d keep them awake and engaged on the last day before break, or what I could offer that would be of most use to them when they eventually got to work on their research assignments near the end of the semester.

And then I remembered the most recent #critlib chat. What is #critlib, you ask? It’s a Twitter chat held at 9pm Eastern time every other Tuesday, begun earlier this month by moderators (in alphabetical order by Twitter handle) Jenna Freedman (@barnlib), Annie Pho (@catladylib), Emily Drabinski (@edrabinski), Kelly McElroy (@kellymce), and Nicole Pagowsky (@pumpedlibrarian). The purpose of the chat is to “engage in discussion about what critical pedagogy is and how it can be used in library instruction.” The most recent chat, on April 8, was terrific, with conversation ranging from whether neutrality is possible to strategies for encouraging our students to think critically about information. As Barbara pointed out:

At the time I’d wondered how I could incorporate what I read and learned during the chat into my usual strategy for teaching the English Comp I library session, and the need to create a new strategy for this no-assignment session let me do just that. I was lucky that the professor’s broad topic for the class is the American Dream, which is perhaps more amenable to a critical information literacy lens than many topics. I began by spending time talking with students about creating a more narrow research question from a broad topic, and we used the hypothetical research question “Is the American Dream available to all Americans in 2014?” to generate keywords and synonyms for searching which I wrote on the whiteboard.

Overall the session included more questions and discussion and less time for students to search on their own than the more assignment-driven sessions I teach. We spent lots of time talking about how information is produced and distributed while trying to keep a practical focus on what’s available in the library and what’s available on the open internet. We talked about how search engine results are ranked, and what to consider when choosing which information to use. I asked them to work with a partner to find one library and one internet source; while I love asking students to work together, it can be challenging if each student has chosen a different research topic.

While much of what I did in this session is similar to what I do in the more assignment-driven sessions, reviewing the #critlib chat before planning the session helped me stay mindful of critical approaches to information literacy as I was teaching. There’s always so much to cover in a library session and it can be so easy to charge on through, and I’m grateful that participating in the chat two weeks ago reminded me to look for opportunities to draw in students’ own experiences and to question the information landscape with students.

I’ve used Twitter to catch up on conference livetweeting for a while now, and also get lots of recommendations for professional reading and resources from the folks I follow, but this is the first time I’ve dipped into a Twitter chat for professional development. If you’ve missed the two chats so far, never fear: there’s a terrific cheat sheet/repository of chats and questions with links to a Zotero bibliography and a Storify of each chat. And if you’re interested in critical information literacy, please join in! The next chat is tomorrow, Tuesday April 22nd, at 9pm Eastern. Use the hashtag #critlib to tweet and follow the conversations.

Wondering About Workshops

Like many academic librarians, my colleagues and I teach several drop-in workshops each semester for faculty and staff at the college on topics like citation managers, Google Scholar and other specialized research tools, and instructional web design, among others. I’ve written a couple of times here about these workshops: we consider them to be opportunities for outreach as much as for instruction, though our attendance levels have waxed and waned over the years, leading us to add a workshops by request option for departments or other groups of interested faculty and staff. The latter has been intermittently successful — some semesters we’ve gotten several requests for workshops while others have seen none — though since these workshops can typically be prepped fairly quickly we’ve decided to keep offering them for now.

The past year or so has brought a new twist to our faculty/staff workshops: students! For several of the workshops we’ve offered — most recently one focusing on using ILL and other libraries in New York City to make the most of research beyond our college library — we’ve had one or two students attending as well as faculty and staff. We advertise the workshops on a faculty and staff email list that doesn’t include students, but we also hang posters around campus, which is probably the way students have learned about the workshops (or via our blog or Twitter). We’ve always had plenty of room in the workshops for the students who’ve dropped in and, as far as I know, there haven’t been any problems with the occasional student sitting in on a workshop with faculty and staff.

If there aren’t any problems, what’s to say about it? I keep coming back to thinking about students in the faculty/staff workshops for a couple of reasons. We used to offer drop-in workshops for students, too, but stopped doing so a few years ago because we very rarely had anyone show up. Perhaps it’s time to bring drop-in student workshops (not course-related) back into our instructional mix? One thing to note is that in the past the drop-in student workshops typically covered one resource like Academic Search Complete or LexisNexis, or were much more general workshops on research strategies for students. Maybe the more specific and advanced topics covered in the faculty/staff workshops are more appealing to our students, especially those who’ve already taken English Comp I, which requires a library instruction session?

On the other hand, every workshop requires at least a little bit of prep time, not to mention the time to promote it via email, posters, blogging, and Twitter. Our workshop committee is fairly busy already, so to add workshops that may not be well-attended could be tough.

All of which makes me wonder: if our faculty/staff workshops are not currently overcrowded, and our student workshops were not historically overcrowded, might we consider offering workshops that are open to any member of the college community, faculty, staff, and students alike?

To my knowledge we’ve never done that before. What are the possible ramifications of workshops open to all? Research has shown that interaction between students and faculty outside of the classroom has a positive impact on student engagement (Kuh et al., 2007, Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle). Could open workshops provide those opportunities? Would faculty be uncomfortable learning something new alongside students, or vice versa? We would probably want to avoid workshop topics focused on developing plagiarism-resistant research assignments or the like, right? Or would there be a benefit to opening up an information literacy workshop pitched at faculty to students, as well?

If you’re offering workshops or other instructional opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to attend together, I’d love to hear about it!

Fitting In Reading

It seems like every year one of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more. Read more? But I’m a librarian, I read all the time, right?

Over the 7 years that I’ve been a librarian I’ve heard that misconception all too often upon meeting new people. “Oh, you’re a librarian? You must read all the time/love to read/spend your days reading!” Of course the context of that statement ultimately determines my response (and I am always polite, even when slightly exasperated), but in truth the answers are no, yes, no. Of course I love to read, as I always have, even before I was a librarian. But the amount of long-form, focused reading that I typically do during my workday is very, very small. Not that other forms of reading don’t matter — I can usually keep up with my work-related RSS feed and the newspaper, and like most office workers I read many many MANY emails each day. But sit down in my office with a book? Not often.

While I’ve found blogs and other online sources to be useful in keeping up with the academic librarianship and higher education more generally, lots of scholarly research and practical information is published in books and journal articles, too. Reading a book about information literacy, or the latest issue of C&RL, or a book about student retention that specifically addresses commuter colleges is totally, 100% relevant to my job as Coordinator of Library Instruction at a non-residential college.

So why is there a stack of books and articles 8 inches high on my desk? And a book due back to ILL tomorrow that I haven’t even cracked open?

Reading, and especially reading in print, is tricky in an office environment. To me it has the appearance of being simultaneously uninterruptible and leisure-like, which I realize are somewhat at odds. The focus that someone reading a long-form text brings to the task, perhaps taking notes as they read, sometimes makes it seem almost rude to bother them. But that’s contrasted with the popular image of a professor with their feet up on their desk, surrounded by books, just waiting for students to stop in with questions. I’ve exaggerated both of these scenes, but I think there’s a grain of truth in each.

If I’m reading at work, will folks not stop in because I seem focused and they don’t want to interrupt me? Or, on the flip side, if folks do stop in will I lose track of the thread of the reading? And, perhaps the core of the issue, is reading “work” in the same way that other office-bound tasks we may do at our jobs are “work”? Or does reading at my desk make it seem like I’m not working, especially if there are other tasks that need doing on my to-do list? Alternatively, I could bring work-related reading home to tackle on evenings and weekends, but then I’m shortchanging my opportunities for leisure reading (which I never feel I have enough of anyway).

Keeping up with the scholarly and practical literature in my field is professional development, and as such it’s an important and worthwhile undertaking. So maybe it’s as simple as that — reading for professional development is a work-related task like any other, and I should add it to my to-do list for each day.

Do you read books and articles while at work? How do you find the time and space to keep up with longer form professional reading?

Expanding Our (Conference) Audience

The week before Thanksgiving I joined thousands of anthropologists and others who descended on Chicago for the American Anthropological Association conference. My research partner Mariana Regalado and I participated in a roundtable session with colleagues from four other institutions who are also doing ethnographic work in libraries and higher education: Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay, Lori Jahnke, and Donna Lanclos. Our session discussed the myriad ways that college and university students engage with technology, and how students’ lived experiences can add detail that may be missing from data collected to inform strategic plans and administrative initiatives. Also threaded throughout was an interrogation of the idea of the undergraduate as digital native, which of course academic librarians readily identify as problematic. Donna both blogged about and Storified the session well, if you’re interested in the details.

The roundtable format at the AAAs was new to me, and I have to admit that I was a bit nervous before the session in part because I was not quite sure what to expect. From what I could glean beforehand it seemed like roundtables are intended to be a bit like what many library conferences call panel sessions, though somewhat less formal. We didn’t have papers to present or a linear slide deck, but rather began with each of us describing our projects, using a Prezi to offer a few visuals, then jumped in with the six of us discussing broad themes and talking points we’d identified beforehand. We had just under two hours for the session and there was lots of discussion and conversation with our audience.

And our audience was delightful! As a group they were highly engaged, with multiple folks asking questions and offering discussion points from their own experiences. Though smallish in number, we were lucky enough to have attendees who inhabited different roles in the higher education: full-time faculty members, adjunct faculty, graduate students, and even a thoughtful, well-spoken undergraduate who asked terrific questions and readily shared her frustrations and challenges with academic technology with us. It was fascinating to hear from an adjunct who shared her story of being assigned a new classroom chock full of the latest tech tools, and her struggles to use the technology in the absence of thorough training. And the undergraduate noted that sometimes her professors assign tech-heavy projects seemingly without a full understanding of the time and effort involved in pulling them off, assuming that all students her age have loads of experience with any new tech tool.

In some ways the session was like a mini-focus group, with the end result that the six of us on the roundtable left energized and enthusiastic for future research and collaboration. Since then I’ve been thinking not only about our research but also about the audience. At academic library conferences we tend to talk to and amongst ourselves — fellow academic librarians. Sometimes graduate students attend, but conferences are expensive, and since academic librarianship doesn’t have the strong tradition of the conference job interview the way many scholarly associations do, there’s perhaps not as much of a reason for MLIS students to attend conferences while still in graduate school.

But wouldn’t it be fabulous to have conversations — both formal presentations and informal — with faculty, students, and others who use and have a stake in academic libraries at our conferences? Of course we can hold focus groups at our own institutions, but there’s a different dynamic at conferences, in addition to the opportunity to speak with folks from other colleges and universities. I’m not sure that there’s enough relevant content for faculty and students from outside the library to come to a conference geared towards academic librarians, though. Have you been to any library conferences that drew attendees from outside of the world of academic libraries? Other than inviting non-library folks to present with us, are there other ways we could encourage them to attend?