Category Archives: Academia

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.

Publishing!?

Scholarship and publishing: both the blessing and the curse of a tenure-track academic position. Of the three requirements for tenure and promotion, scholarship seems to be the most stressful requirement for many tenure-track librarians to meet. It is a frequent topic of conversation among younger faculty, reflective of the stress associated with this requirement. I feel that I’ve at least been able to keep up with this requirement (though others are far more active than I am) and so I’d like to share some of the things that have worked well for me. Furthermore, I want to follow my three points with some things I struggle with and am working on as a young librarian, as well as include a call to hear advice from readers.

First, write about that which interests you. There is so much literature in the library and information science profession that is just not of interest to many people. Some of the best and most interesting writing comes from authors who are interested in and excited by their work – be one of those writers! Perhaps it’s some topic which is interesting, or an innovation or novel process that you are implementing at your library – whatever it is, write about it and find a good journal for it. Chances are that you enjoy your career as a librarian, but have a wide variety of other interests (we are a profession with broad passions and curiosities). Where do your professional and personal interests align? Last month, I attended a panel at which Jessica Pigza spoke about her book BiblioCraft – which is an example of what great things can happen when you find the intersections between your professional and personal interests – and then write about it!

Second, though being sole author of articles is important for tenure and promotion, equally important to me has been collaboration on articles and other peer reviewed work. I feel very fortunate to have worked with some great folks on publications and presentations – and that collaboration made the finished product far stronger. Much of the work I’ve done collaboratively really could not have been done alone. Thinking about my first point, being passionate about what you write, it occurs to me that you might have some great, big idea piece you’d like to write. Part of it is very much in your area of expertise, but much of it is not. This is a perfect opportunity for collaboration. Invite the person that can speak to the areas where you feel less knowledgeable to be a co-author. I’ve met some great people this way, and have vastly expanded my own knowledge. It’s also a great way for a new professional to get one’s name on a wider stage.

Third, managing my writing and publication has been key for me. It’s important to always be writing, and to show progress, so that at the end of the tenure clock you aren’t trying to write a multitude of articles and hoping they will be accepted and published. For me, this means I am trying always to be active on three tasks: waiting on review of articles I have submitted, actively writing an article, and developing ideas and collaborations. Having some kind of sequencing like that is helpful, but presentations and articles don’t write themselves, and don’t appear magically out of the air. Perhaps sharing how I write and craft new ideas will be helpful to you, reader, and will also prompt you to share ideas with me (and the wider audience) that will improve our writing processes.

For me, writing begins with a very rough idea. It might come from something I read, an art work, a presentation, or even a movie. Always being open to blending things in and outside libraries has really expanded the pale of what I write about. Drawing parallels between libraries, and say, the work of Wes Anderson (I’d love to read that article) for example. When I have an idea, though, I need to write it down before it vanishes from my mind. Next for me is refining that idea by talking informally with knowledgeable people in and outside of the library. What things are interesting to people? What things work? Listen, and be willing to adjust your original idea – or abandon it altogether. When I feel like I have an idea a bit more refined, I am usually very excited to start writing – and that’s exactly what I do. Riding those waves of inspiration and excitement gets the majority of my first draft finished – but deadlines for draft submission (and tenure requirements) help. Blocking out time when you are writing is essential to me (as is having a clean workspace). When the writing is finished, my first draft is typically awful – and I try to step away from it. Give it to some people you trust to look at – for me revision is key in refining my flow and points.  I try to listen earnestly to the feedback, and swallow my pride and address the comments – even if that means a very thorough revision. Repeat the process of review and revision a few times, and something approaching a finished article or presentation is the result.

As I mentioned above, it’s not all quite dancing and happy times when I am writing (and I am certainly no Gene Kelly). My first point above was about finding where your interests overlap, which seems fairly simple prima facie. However, finding the area of overlap between your personal interests and the expectations for areas to publish about in scholarly journals is a bit more difficult for me. It’s especially hard for me – blending the tenure expectations of my job with writing for my PhD and then finding where that small area overlaps with my personal interests is very difficult. I would be really interested to hear what ideas you readers might have about that, and more broadly where, and how, you find positive overlap for scholarship.

Beyond finding that intersection of personal and professional interests, follow-through is also a problem for me. I have a hard time after the initial blush of interest starting to write. How do you all bridge the gap from idea to actually writing?

Finally, I frequently have ideas for scholarship that are broad (and inspired by people that inspired me) that I need to invite collaborators. It can be hard for me to swallow my pride and ask people who I deeply respect (and am a bit in awe of) to work with me. Do you all have any strategies on asking people to collaborate, and doing that collaboration in the best way?

I’d like to conclude with an invitation to you, reader, to share what works well for you (and what doesn’t) in the scholarship arena! Perhaps together we can reduce the stress we all feel about this area of tenure and promotion!

Librarians Meet the Commissioners, Live: The Middle State Accreditation Standards Revisions Redux

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

If the recent town hall meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in Albany, New York had been a boxing match, you might have easily concluded that the librarians won in a forceful effort to help shape the revision of the accreditation standards document. One third of all those who stood up to speak spoke in defense of the work librarians do on college campuses across the region.  Furthermore, not all of those who spoke were librarians.  Librarians had allies among the classroom faculty present.  One history professor closed out the comment period with an impassioned call for all to recognize the seductions of the latest trends as not having the tested value of some of what has been with us for centuries.  In particular, he referenced libraries.

The overwhelming response of librarians to the call for action in the ACRLog post of January 27, 2014 and other forums had a resounding effect.

While some may feel librarians and library concerns dominated the open discussion at the MSCHE meeting – one speaker from the audience, not a librarian, elicited a laugh from all when she introduced herself and made a particular point of saying that she was not a librarian – in an odd sort of way, it might be argued that libraries lost some ground in this critical round with the Middle State Commissions.  Yes, there was a victory, and a strong victory it was.  The chair of the steering committee, in a conversation before the proceedings, in introductory comments to the assembled audience, and throughout the open comments period, apologized for the omission of the words “information literacy” from what will become the new Characteristics of Excellence.  It was a mistake, he said.  An embarrassment.  We were wrong and we are going to correct it.

The Middle States Commission, the same accrediting body that Steven J. Bell had called “a good friend to academic librarians…an early adopter of specific language in its standards addressing information literacy as a desired learning outcome,” had made a boo-boo and was more than ready to make it better.

Information literacy was in.  But libraries were out.  So were laboratories, art studios, physical education facilities, and any other tangible objects, for this is a standards document focused on the student learning experience and not on the counting of things. Never mind that certain things, ranging from large, physical facilities and infrastructure (including infrastructure that allows for learning in a non-physical or virtual setting) to the smaller tools of education from brushes to beakers to books, play an indispensable role in the educational process.  As the president of the Commission warned those present, any attempts to be specific and proscriptive in the new document would endanger the future viability of the accreditation process.  Counting library books, in particular, was noted as an out-dated methodology, something to be steered clear of in a modern evaluation of a college.  A number of other vitals have dropped from consideration. Faculty is a word less used in the current proposed standards. Faculty used to be covered as a standard of its own.  According to the Commission, some of their members do not employ faculty.  So faculty are not required to make a college and neither are libraries.

Most librarians would agree with the Commission that counting books is not a fair way to measure the adequacy of a college.  Librarians are the first to acknowledge that we own less and less of what we consider to be our collections and lease more and more. Our big e-book packages see titles come and go, often with the result that we will give up on cataloging whatever books are in an electronic package to save ourselves the effort later of removing titles from the OPAC. Counting these books as a way to define our libraries would be like counting each raindrop as it falls, and then disappears on a lake, or worse, down a drain.

Indeed, the visible physicality of the academic library has been on the decline since the end of the card catalog, through the advent of CD-ROMs, to standardized access to databases through the internet. Nonetheless, Jason Kramer, the Executive Director of the New York State Higher Education Initiative, a library lobbying and advocacy group, made a forecast at the MSCHE town hall meeting this past April first.  If the physical functions of what libraries do—the thoughtful selecting and the collective acquiring of and providing access to resources on the behalf of many—is not taken into equal account with the established and now well-accepted role of librarians as key in the educational path towards information literacy, legislators will see this as an opportunity to deny funding for library resources.  It will be April Fool’s Day for many days going forward and it will be libraries who are the ones who will have been duped. In other words, if higher education standards documents make no mention of the need for a college or a university to acquire valuable, and sometimes costly, information resources as one way in which they are defined as an institution of higher learning, then those elected officials who see that tax dollars make their way back into the economy will pass over libraries as fully-prepared to do their job with little more than access to Google.

Perhaps the match between the librarians and Middle States Commissioners in Albany was not a win for either side but rather ended in a tie.  The Commission accepted that it must add information literacy back into the document; librarians are ready to make the case for expanding their role to include other things library.  According to the New York rules of boxing—and this has been a face-off in the New York State capital, an official will often decide on a winner when there is a tie based on which contender appears to be in “better physical condition.” Librarians will do well for the future of education and all learning if we begin to step forward and acknowledge once again the very real physicality of the profession we serve.  Libraries are very much about concrete, tangible goods, services and spaces without which, the incorporeal, but totally laudable goal of assisting learners on their path towards information literacy could not be achieved.

The Sweetest Fruits are Further Up

Part of my experience as a first year academic librarian has also been my experience as a new tenure track faculty member. As a part of this tenure process for library faculty, I must go through an annual reappointment review. The review includes my direct supervisor, as well as a committee of tenured library faculty. This committee provides feedback and input in preparation for “going up” for tenure and promotion – which will happen in about four and a half years for me.

To this end, over the past week, I’ve been compiling my checklist for annual review. In thinking about what I’ve done in the half a year that is under review and submitting my 33 (!) page checklist (that includes publications and appendices), I started thinking about what made me feel good about turning in my first checklist.

Really, it’s simple – don’t go for the low-hanging fruit. I know I talked about this some in the first post I wrote here at the ACRLog, but it struck me again. Pleasure and pride in your work come not from doing “just enough” but from exceeding the expectations set for you as a first year academic librarian. A work-life balance is important to maintain (see my last post) but when you are at work, it’s important to take pride in the quality of that work.

I’ll freely admit that the first year in any new job – especially one with comparatively different duties than one’s previous jobs – is difficult. But it’s important to learn the expectations for you that will be reviewed by not only your supervisor, but also informally or formally by your peers and colleagues in the library. Talk to people, get a clear understanding of these expectations, and then exceed them.

For me, this meant passing up a few opportunities to serve and being perhaps a bit selective in what I chose to do to perform service for the profession. Right after I started in this position, there were several local and regional service opportunities I passed up, knowing that the expectation was for local, regional, or statewide service. That waiting and knowledge of expectations paid dividends when I applied for, and was accepted to, an international group working on revising the ISBN.

I’ll close with a piece of advice one of my friends gave me several years ago: that you begin in the manner you intend to continue in. The statement is perhaps a bit convoluted in syntax, but to me it is a reminder to the bar of expectations is set by your actions early, so it’s important to set a good standard early to both set professional perceptions of yourself in the workplace, as well as compelling you to do the best work you can.

PS – In honor of “library shelfie” day yesterday, here is a photo of technical services where I work shortly after our building opened in 1968:

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page, http://libinfo.uark.edu/info/mullins40/
Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page, http://libinfo.uark.edu/info/mullins40/

Accreditation Standards & Libraries: A Dangerous Ride Down a Devolving Course

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE, or, Middle States) is looking for feedback on the proposed revisions to the Characteristics of Excellence, the MSCHE accreditation standards. If you work in a college or university in an area that comes under Middle States jurisdiction, have or know of a child who attends one of the affected schools, or care about the future of higher education, add your comments to an online survey by January 31 or take the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting scheduled at one of several locations in the region throughout the spring of 2014, and be sure your voice is heard.

The Middle States standards set the bar for the accreditation of colleges in five states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If adopted, the new standards will shape what higher education looks like in four of the eight Ivy League universities, the top two largest U.S. colleges as measured by enrollment, nine Historically Black Colleges, and the first college in the United States dedicated to the education of the deaf, among so many others. The number of students who will be affected is extraordinarily large and diverse. In contrast, the number of standards by which Middle States will measure a school is dramatically shrinking to half the number established the last time the standards underwent a comprehensive review.

According to the MSCHE, “[i]n response to extensive feedback from member institutions and experienced peer evaluators, the Steering Committee attempted to streamline the standards, eliminate redundancies, and focus on clarity and brevity.” What Middle States has done in the process of streamling their standards is to eliminate any mention of libraries from the new plan and entirely eliminate a carefully crafted integration of the teaching work librarians do from the “Educational Offerings” of a college or university (current Standard 11), the “General Education” goals of in institution (current Standard 12) and any “Related Educational Activities” a school was designed to offer (current Standard 13).

The long journey academic librarians have taken to reshape instruction in research to reflect the goals of information literacy, and further, to bring academic institutions on board so that they might understand the broadened role libraries have to play in higher education has been purpose-driven, far-reaching and effective. According to the American Library Association (ALA), when it last looked, each one of the six accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation includes “language in their Standards that stress the importance of teaching [information literacy skills] abilities in colleges and universities.”

Unfortunately, since ALA did its review of the most widely accepted accreditation standards in 2011, some things have changed. What Middle States is moving towards in its proposed new and briefer guidelines, may be, in fact, part of an unwelcome trend in a backward direction.  The most recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges Handbook of Accreditation, published in 2013, leaves information literacy out of Standard 2, “Achieving Educational Objectives Through Core Functions” and only implies the existence of a library in Standard 3, “Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability.”

As higher education in the United States moves into a period of a fuller integration of pedagogy with technology, a time where researchers struggle to find their way through the onslaught of an information overload (be it a uniquely modern problem or not), and every college administrator from the president on down is quick to remind faculty of the increasing calls for accountability, will libraries continue to be counted?  Libraries and the work librarians do must remain central in every institution of higher education.  Let your voice for libraries be heard.  Respond to the MSCHE survey today.