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.

Thinking Tenure Thoughts

Last week Meredith Farkas wrote a thoughtful post on her blog, Information Wants to Be Free, about tenure status for academic librarians. Spirited discussion ensued in Meredith’s blog comments and on libraryland Twitter (much of which Meredith Storified) which has continued to today. The conversation has included many varied perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of tenure for academic librarians, including preparation for research and scholarship in graduate library programs, the perceptions of status and equality between academic librarians and faculty in other departments, salary parity, academic freedom, and the usefulness and rigor of the library literature.

I support tenure for academic librarians as I do for faculty in other departments primarily because I believe that tenure ensures academic freedom, which is as important in the library as it is in other disciplines. I also have concerns about the tenure system more generally, concerns that many academics in libraries and other departments also voice. One of my big concerns is that the pressure to publish can result in quantity over quality.

This conundrum was raised during the Twitter discussion of Meredith’s post and had me nodding vigorously as I read. I am absolutely in agreement that the tenure system as it currently stands has encouraged the publication of large amounts of scholarship that ranges from the excellent and thought-provoking, to the interesting if somewhat obvious, to the just not very good, to the occasionally completely wrong. Of course, this is a problem not just in academic librarianship but in other disciplines as well. The avalanche of scholarship resulting from the pressures to publish to gain tenure affects libraries and the broader academic enterprise in a variety of ways.

It takes time to write and publish, and time spent on that is less time to spend on doing research or reading the research that others have published, research that might be useful in our jobs as well as our own research. You might remember the article in the Guardian late last year in which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs suggested that he’d be unlikely to get tenure in today’s academic climate because he hasn’t published enough. I try to stay current on what’s being published in a handful of library journals, but like many of us my interests are interdisciplinary and there is no way I can read even a fraction of what’s relevant to my scholarly interests. And the more that’s published, the more difficult it can become to find the good stuff — something we see when we teach students to evaluate sources, but something that can stymie more experienced researchers as well.

There’s also a direct connection between the ever-increasing publication for tenure needs and academic library budgets. Those articles need to go somewhere, and journal publishers have been more than willing to create new journals to fill up with reports of academic research and sell back to libraries. Publishing in open access journals can help, as others including Barbara Fister have suggested.

But I think academic librarians with tenure can make an impact on the quality versus quantity problem, both in the library literature and in scholarly communication more widely. I’m coming up for tenure in the fall, and while I’ve published my research open access, it’s also true that I’ve submitted most of my work for publication in peer reviewed journals, primarily because that’s what “counts” most. I don’t know that I’ve written anything in the past 6 years that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but as Meredith and others noted in the Twitter conversation, without worries about what counts I probably wouldn’t have felt as much pressure to write as much as I have for peer reviewed journals, and might have spread my efforts more evenly between blogging or other forms of publication as well. I’ve also felt torn spending time on other work that I know isn’t as highly regarded as traditional scholarly publishing — work like conference organizing and article reviewing and blogging, for example.

I’m looking forward to coming up for tenure in part because I’d like to help work toward expanding the definition of scholarly productivity to include alternatives to peer-reviewed publication in journals, and to focus on quality over quantity. Some of this is work that librarians are already doing — work in promoting open access, for example, among faculty in other departments who may not realize that there are peer-reviewed, highly-regarded OA journals. As academic librarians we have a view of the scholarly publishing landscape that other faculty may not share, and I hope we can use this position to advocate for tenure requirements that take into account more of the possibilities for contributing to the creation and propagation of knowledge than peer review and impact factor alone.

Summertime Space in the Library

After a long, cold winter in much of the U.S., summer is finally, definitively here. Many of us in academic libraries are taking advantage of the slower summer months to work on projects — both big and small — that may be difficult to get to during the academic year. Hopefully we’re getting the chance for some rest and relaxation as well, so that when the fall rolls around we’re rejuvenated for the start of the new semester.

In the library where I work we’re having a somewhat busier summer than usual. We’ve got a couple of librarians retiring, some new staff coming on board, as well as a major upgrade to the ILS used by all of the colleges within our university system. All of this has meant lots of activity for our librarians, making it in many ways more similar to the full swing of the semester than to the typical summer.

Student use of the library, on the other hand, has been characteristic of the slower summer. While summer classes are offered, there are far fewer classes and students than the rest of the year. The college has fairly high enrollment (17,000 students) for the size of our campus, and during the academic year we struggle to accommodate them in the library. (Luckily, a new building is under construction on our campus which will relieve the congestion when it opens in a few years.) A full, busy college library is a much better problem to have than an empty one, though it does bring challenges. With a colleague I’ve been engaged in a qualitative study of students’ academic culture — including library use — and have identified many of our students’ frustrations with the library that we’re beginning to address.

But as I walked through the very lightly populated library last week, I wondered what lessons we can learn from studying the library during these times of less heavy use, like the summer. What affordances might the summer provide?

During our primetime hours in the academic year we field many student complaints about noise levels in the library. One of our two floors is designated as a quiet individual study floor, but it can be a challenge to maintain quiet when the library is crowded. In the summertime that floor is not just quiet but silent. Students are spread more evenly over the quiet floor as well, and we haven’t had any complaints about the areas of the floor that are often problematic during the academic year. Our other floor, which has areas for group study and individual study, is also quieter during the summer, with more of the groups working together talking in low voices. Again, this is our goal for the academic year, too, but when the library fills up it can be difficult to maintain.

A related topic is student use of computers in the library. We have two small computer labs plus computers adjacent to the reference desk for students to use, and during the semester they are nearly always occupied. One challenge is that some students are clearly using the computers for non-academic reasons, often watching YouTube, shopping, or playing games. Perhaps they have some time to occupy between classes, or are taking a break from their studies. While we have no desire to prohibit activities or websites at our student computers, when we’re busy and there’s a line to print or use the computers for other academic reasons, it can be difficult to reconcile. We do have time management software on our computers and can adjust the settings to reduce session length during the busy periods. But our summer use is instructive — there are plenty of computers both for students who want to work on their assignments and for those who want to watch the occasional World Cup match.

I wonder whether the summertime lack of crowds has offered a window into preferred student library use, as students may be less likely to have to change their behavior based on the presence of others? And, if so, what can this teach us about extending the possibilities for students to find their ideal academic workspace in the library throughout the academic year? I’m already thinking about clearer and more visible signage, and perhaps increasing the number of walk-throughs by librarians, staff, and security to encourage students to keep their voices down in the quiet areas.

Does your library feel different in the summer than during the academic year? Have you gained useful insights from observing your library during the slower summer months?

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!