Category Archives: Academia

Taming Tenure as a Newbrarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Dylan Burns, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Utah State University.

This month I’ll end my first “year” at Utah State University, only about 3 months in real human time. That is when my tenure calendar, which trudged on before I was a glint in the eye of my search committee, ends the first year. Given the short amount of time I’ve been in Logan I believe I’ve done well in my position as Digital Scholarship Librarian, but the tenure dossier and meeting I schedule in few weeks still makes me think about the tenure process and what it means for librarians.

How am I approaching tenure?

A common refrain amongst faculty librarians is the “failed academic” route to our success. Many of us dreamed of being on campus albeit as research or teaching faculty rather than where we landed in the library. This doesn’t mean that the library wasn’t ultimately the spot in academia that fit my interests and goals the best; In fact, I will say that I should have been shooting for librarianship for a longer time that I actually was. We all hear stories from kids in library school (I can say that now right? Since I’m library #adulting?) where they knew from a young age that librarianship was their be-all end-all, but I wasn’t one of them.

What this means is that in my prior grad school life, I had a completely different set of research interests and projects which may or may not fit in my life as a librarian (depending on how much you squint). In my previous program I presented and published on gendered bananas in advertising and American diplomacy as well as the end of the world in country music. While the end products of my research, strange discussions of cultural politics of bananas aside, fit well in many humanities departments across the country, these aren’t the research projects that librarians need to make themselves better and improve the larger discipline.

What I do think these prior flights of fancy in scholarship give me is a larger context for the work I ultimately am doing as an academic librarian. In my meetings with faculty I can share these experiences with them and draw from my own previous life as a researcher to better design a digital scholarship unit at Utah State which confronts problems and assuages fears.

In a larger context though, I find that academic librarianship allows us to see the larger picture of both the University but the entire scholarly world. Scholars on campus are brilliantly narrow in their pursuits, a necessity of the current state of academia. Librarians, on the other hand, are interdisciplinary to their core.

This leads to a potential pitfall that all of us face. With the new brand of freedom granted by not having to take classes or read assigned texts I’m left with the burden of this freedom. I guide my own path, with the guidance of experienced librarians and my committee. I chose what to read and what skills to learn. This is a great freedom but also a deep frustration: What I am going to do now? In a lot of ways we are experts in gaining expertise. We guide researchers to their own information needs and goals. How do we do this for ourselves?

With my short year concluding I felt a lot of pressure to hit the ground running. I think that is a burden that all first year librarians feel. We see colleagues doing great work and we judge ourselves against what they’ve been able to do in years rather than weeks. Remembering that we’re new and these connections and projects take time to develop is key to early success. Sometimes we come to our jobs with projects in mind, I have some on the backburner, but when confronted with new environments and new colleagues it is imperative that we jettison those projects if new ones come along. I have taken every single opportunity to work with my new friends and colleagues on projects essential to the future of our library.

What I idealized as the Baudelairian scholar or poet in the tower who worked on scholarship as a singular and lonely force is ultimately the wrong approach. Librarianship is one where we can all work on projects together to further the field. Being open to collaborations and being interested in forming these connections has been one of the most important things I’ve learned thus far.

Furthermore, after decades of school, I think I tend to view most of interactions as competitions. Competitions for grads or grants or for articles or conferences or graduate assistantships and jobs. It is easy to carry this competitive edge into the job and tenure does not discourage that kind of thinking. But I remind myself every day that I am in competition only with myself and any opportunity to cooperate and collaborate carries everyone forward together.

In some ways tenure in library circles mirror current debates about accreditation for library schools, in that these are larger discussions over the professionalization of our occupation. How do we as academic librarians view our status at the university? There are some librarians who believe that we are second class citizens at the university, and I think this, unfortunately, might be more reality than fiction at some schools. What tenure and faculty status allows is a gravitas to our work and our status at the university.

As a first year faculty member, I have been attending workshops and classes with new teaching faculty, and I must pause and take heart that while I’m not a doctor I have the same role in the larger university machine. This is a hard thing for faculty librarians, including myself, to fully cure. But there are opportunities to find common minds in these interactions and I am thankful that faculty status allows me this kind of in with new professors. I research and they research. I teach and they teach. Even in my short time at Utah State some of my most rewarding experiences have been with working with faculty members as equals in the university’s mission.

Following the road of assessment

This Fall semester has been taking off like a rocket. It’s been a little less than a month, but library instruction has been taking up a good chunk of my time. At my institution, American University, we have a program called College Writing. This program requires all incoming freshman to take at least one section of College Writing.

Every faculty member that teaches College Writing is paired with a librarian. At least one library instruction session is required and it’s up to us to shape the lesson so that it’s relevant to the student’s’ current assignment.

This semester is a bit different. I had a total of 18 sections of College Writing, compared to the nine sections I had last Fall. I was prepared for a busy semester. Oh boy, has it been busy and it’s only been 2 weeks!

I could be as detailed as I want about my routine, but it’s basically a chain of communication. I ask the faculty member about learning outcomes, what they want out of this library instruction day, what skill level their students are at, and are the students quiet? Do they participate? Details like these help me out a lot, since I will only see the students in the classroom once or twice in the semester.

As I scheduled classes, reserved rooms, and worked on my class outlines, I struggled with how I would incorporate assessment into my lessons. Assessment is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. To be honest, this was a subject that I had been avoiding because it was something that made me uneasy. I have always told myself “I’ll do it next semester” or “I’ll find more information about it later.”

However, it’s been a year since I have started my job at American and decided that this semester it was time to incorporate assessment into my library instruction. When I think of assessment, I tend to think of a ton of data, a desk full of papers everywhere, and an endless amount of work (OK, I like to exaggerate). Now, I do have some forms of assessment in my classes, but it’s in the form of the questions I ask the students in order to evaluate their familiarity with not only the library, but the resources that we are using in class.

Assessment comes in many forms, but I specifically had one method in mind. Over the summer, I worked with another colleague in doing library instruction for the Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP). This program provides incoming freshman with preparation for academic success. STEP is a 7 week residential program that helps students with the transition from high school to college. They have a class that is very similar to a College Writing class, meaning, they have a research paper due by the end of the program. One of the components of that class is a library instruction day. As my colleague and I started preparing to co-teach one of the classes, she asked what form of assessment I do for my College Writing classes.

Immediately, I felt ashamed. All the time I had put assessment off and this was the moment where I finally had to own up to it. However, I have awesome colleagues who don’t poke (too much) fun at me. She talked about the post class questionnaire that she usually did with her students. Together, we came up with a couple of questions for the students in the STEP class. It was not a long process whatsoever, but I came to see that there is actually nothing scary about it, like I had thought.

There are many different types of assessment, ones more complicated and time consuming than my little questionnaire. However, I wanted to start small and with something I was comfortable with.  My library instruction classes only started last week, but I remember getting back the questionnaires and leaving them on my desk for a couple of hours. I was afraid to look at them. What if the students did not learn anything? What if they hated me? What if I was the worst librarian ever?

After a couple hours, I needed to log my classes into our stats. I counted the questionnaires and look through them. To my surprise, the students did well. Now, this is an assessment to help me analyze what the students had trouble comprehending and also the areas where I need to do better.

And guess what happened? I found one area where I realized I needed to explain better and spend a little more time on. It’s only the beginning of the semester and I have already found ways to improve upon and this is what it’s really about. To me, assessment is an opportunity to learn about your teaching and improve as you go along.

As someone who is new to this, I want to continue to learn about assessment. There are a couple of resources that one can turn to:

-Look at your own institution to see if they offer any workshops on assessment. What resources do they offer to help their staff or faculty?

-Research other institutions to see if they have assessment in place or an assessment toolkit

-Research the literature on instruction and assessment to see how other institutions go about it

Finally, your colleagues will be your most valuable tools. What assessment do they do? Take them out for coffee and ask them!

I still have a couple more College Writing classes, but I am going to make it my goal to incorporate even more assessment for next semester’s classes. In other words, I am going to make myself accountable. For next semester, I will write another post on how I plan to incorporate more assessment into my teaching, but I also want to know from our readers, what assessment do you do for library instruction? Stay tuned!

Lingering Lockout Questions

It’s been a week since the faculty — including library faculty — at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus returned to the Fall semester. Just before the semester began, they were locked out by the university administration when their contract expired and before they could vote on a new contract. I know many of the librarians at LIU, some were formerly at my own university (City University of New York), and I count them as both colleagues and friends. I also live and work very close to the campus; I walk right by it on my way home each day.

While news of the lockout was initially slow to break, after the first few days both mainstream and education news began to run coverage of the lockout. If you weren’t following the lockout as it happened, you can catch up on the websites of my local paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and our own Barbara Fister’s great piece on Inside Higher Ed. And for a thoughtful discussion of the end of the lockout and future concerns, I recommend Emily Drabinski’s interview in Jacobin Magazine. Emily is both a librarian and the secretary of the faculty union (and, full disclosure, a friend); her Twitter updates were instrumental in getting the media attention that the lockout deserved.

I’m so relieved for the librarians, other faculty, and students that the lockout is over, that I no longer see police fences to corral protesters when I walk home past LIU’s campus. But I’m left with lots of questions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’d been a member of CUNY’s faculty union when I was Instruction Coordinator, the only union job I’ve ever had. As a Chief Librarian I’m now on the management side, since mine is a title that’s excluded from the union. CUNY has had its own lengthy contract negotiation process, settled only this past summer after the old contract expired in 2010. But I realized over the past few weeks that I know little about unions, the history of labor, and the impact on librarians and libraries. I care very much about library workers — at my place of work and libraries generally — and it’s clear I have work to do to learn more.

I’m also left with questions like “what’s next?” Certainly LIU’s faculty and administration go back to the bargaining table to begin contract negotiations again. But what’s next for academic libraries? For higher education more generally, at institutions with and without a union? When faculty are replaced (even temporarily) and students walk out, is the college still doing the work of a college?

Just Add Water: Resolutions for the New Semester

I’m firmly in the midcareer stage of librarianship, but every fall I’m still a little bit surprised by how quickly the campus and library go from quiet intersession to full and busy when classes begin. Our semester started last week at the college where I work. It’s like an instant soup mix: just add water and stir to reconstitute our campus community into a buzz of activity.

Folks in higher education are lucky that we can celebrate two New Years each year if we’d like to: in January and the start of the new academic year in the fall. On the first day of classes I erased my summer whiteboard to-do list and replaced it with our library goals for this year and my other upcoming library and research tasks, a little ritual that both helps me keep track of my schedule and gets me excited about all of the great work we have planned for the year.

All of which has me thinking about resolutions. I don’t make too big of a deal about New Years’ resolutions, though I do try to do a bit of reflection as a new academic year begins (and in January too), considering what I’d like to accomplish during the year and whether I should make any changes to get there. I was reminded that it’s resolution time again by a post last week on the Prof Hacker blog that suggests we ask ourselves “What do we want to make room for this fall?” (It’s a great post — feel free to head over to Prof Hacker to read it, I can wait here.)

Thinking about the resolutions I’ve made in the past, many involve making room in the ways that the Prof Hacker post discusses: for reading, taking breaks, writing, and long-term planning, among others. All are activities that are kind of nebulous and squishy. Typically nothing will immediately go wrong if I don’t do them, and there are plenty of tasks like paperwork to complete and requisitions to approve that have to happen by a specific deadline. It’s easy to let the deadline-driven stuff crowd out the nebulous stuff, a classic problem of short-term vs. long-term gain.

So this year my one resolution is both modest and sweeping: to make room for the squishy stuff on as many workdays as I can. Sometimes that will mean doing one pomodoro of writing before work, and other times it might look like catching up on my reading over lunch, or taking a break, even if only to walk around the block.

Do you have any new academic year resolutions? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And best wishes for a great semester, too!

Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?


Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.