Category Archives: Academia

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?

References:

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.

Mentorship in your first year

Entering a new workplace is scary. Entering a new profession, environment, and career all at the same time, is scarier. However, with a little help, the transition can be smooth.

Before I even began my position at American University, I was assigned a mentor, another librarian at the AU Library. I had never had one and did not know what to expect.

As a first year librarian, I will be honest, I was not expecting a mentor, but I knew I would need one. I did not know the importance of having a mentor until I had one. However, as I dove into my new job, got involved in service, and started going to conferences, I realized that mentorship is very important.

Mentorship is essential because it not only provides guidance and confidence in yourself, it is also important in terms of retention in the profession for the coming years.

For guidance, as a new professional, you’re going to have questions that are not just “where is the best place to eat?” Instead, you might be curious about faculty governance or advice about a possible research project. I often found myself bouncing ideas off of my mentor or expressing concern or anxiety about my career path. The first couple of months were a time of getting to do new things, but also observing everyone around me and thinking about the possible career paths that are ahead of me.

The most important aspect of a mentor-mentee relationship is the relationship between you and your mentor. This relationship is reciprocal. By this, I mean that a mutual respect grows and that they are also learning from you.

Because I think this is a very important topic, I wanted to share how I go about it, because it’s also new to me as well. I do not pretend to know everything about mentorship, but as I go through this process, I continue to learn more. Here are a couple of “best practices” that I recommend for in order to get the most out of this experience.

-There must be some structure. My mentor and I see each other almost every day at work, so we always have short conversations about work, research/scholarship, plans, etc. However, we always find a time for either coffee, lunch, or dinner to further discuss these topics and to also put a plan in motion (if necessary). This block of time is just for the two of us and allows us to speak freely and express our thoughts and ideas. As I said before, the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is a two-way street. You both should benefit from this relationship.

How so? You should be able to teach your mentor new things, whether it’s about your interests or bringing a new perspective. Learning from your mentor about their career experiences and observations should also be beneficial to you.

-There will always be challenges in not only the workplace, but in your research agenda, service, or other aspects on your career. Have honest conversations, because if you can’t have these conversations about career struggles or successes, then who can you have them with?

-Write everything down. Even if you’re having coffee or lunch with your mentor, it is still a meeting about your career, your research plans, etc. I always have my notebook and pen with me and it’s also useful to have when you and your mentor are bouncing ideas off of each other.

-Have a plan and take the initiative yourself. Before having coffee or lunch/dinner with my mentor, I like to have a good idea of what my next plans are. For example, the Spring semester is coming to an end and our department has been discussing summer projects. Along with summer tasks/projects, I also have to work on presentations for a conference in August. Having an update and a timeline for my mentor is helpful for myself because I can get feedback.

The mentor-mentee relationship is what you make of it! This also brings up another question. What if you don’t have a mentor, but you would like one? There are a couple ways you could go about this.

Depending on your institution, the library might have a mentorship program in place already. Ask about the program(s) and find out what it consists of. Would you get paired? Or be able to choose your own mentor? What are your research interests? Ask questions!

The other option would be finding a mentor on your own. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this because I would feel intimidated. However, if there is someone that you feel would be a good fit, ask them if they would be willing to mentor you. I am not the expert at this, so I cannot say much. However, I would urge anyone to do their research on how to approach this subject. There are a couple of good articles out there for further reading into the subject. For example, “Are you my mentor? New perspectives and Research on Informal Mentorship” written by Julie James, Ashley Rayner, and Jeannette Bruno provides insight into informal mentorship, and how it might be the preferred method.

Another option would be to research the mentorship programs within professional library organizations. ACRL and ALA have mentoring programs to fit different interests and needs. It’s all about finding out what your options are!

On a personal note, I am very grateful for the mentor I have right now. This experience has been more than I imagined and I hope to continue growing, as well as updating you all!

A Tip of the Hat to Tenure: Realizations in my First Year

Recently, I’m discovering more and more that there are certain advantages to being tenure-track, and this affects my professional identity in multiple ways. It is causing me to take on responsibilities that I wouldn’t normally volunteer for, and allowing me to do research that is challenging and significant. I’m realizing that my decision to apply for a tenure-track position was really a great decision for me personally.

One thing I’ll note before diving in is that I realize tenure is not for everybody, and non-tenure-track positions have their own advantages. For more on the advantages and disadvantages of being tenure-track, read Meredith Farkas’s blog post on the topic. I just hope that this particular post will prompt others to consider how their roles and responsibilities are unique and exciting, whether or not they are tenure-track. I also hope that this might add something to LIS students’ and early or mid-career librarians’ discussions and decision-making processes when it comes to applying for tenure-track jobs or switching from a non-tenure-track position to a tenure-track position. There is such a vast range of opportunities and types of positions in librarianship, and tenure is one factor that one must seriously consider when choosing what types of academic positions for which to apply. I realize not everyone may share my perspective.

So, to begin, there’s that adage that if you’re tenure-track, you say yes to everything. Now some might perceive this to be a disadvantage of being tenure-track, as you can get roped into things you wouldn’t otherwise do or might not like. However, I see it as a positive thing, because I am forced to do work outside of my comfort zone – work that my supervisors and other more senior librarians believe might benefit me and help me grow as a professional, work that also is suited to my specific liaison role and my unique skill sets and areas of interest and expertise. For example, I recently began the planning process for a couple political events for the fall. Along with a Political Science faculty member, I’m going to be co-moderating a student panel in the fall called “Your Vote, Your Voice” on what (and who) is on the ballot in Nevada, as well as how the students themselves are involved in the political process. The context for this event is that UNLV will be the site of the final presidential debate, which will be a monumental event for the campus, bringing in millions of dollars of free advertising and putting us in the national spotlight. This student panel will be a campus Debate event, attracting the attention of national media.

I will also be the representative librarian co-moderating a presidential election event – an expert panel gathered by Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between UNLV and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The event, “Why Las Vegas Matters in National Elections,” will reflect our metro region’s significance in a swing state. Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan area in Nevada, and is ranked 29th in the U.S. Issues important to Las Vegas are relevant to other large, diverse metros in the region and the nation. The 2 million people in the Las Vegas metro area includes a diverse population, and UNLV is the second most diverse public university in the nation. Panelists will address local and national issues important to Las Vegas, with consideration of their national implications.

How did my involvement in these events come to be? Well, essentially I got roped into it. My direct supervisor had the idea that the Libraries should be involved in some political events for the fall, which aligns with our mission of empowering students and other campus community members, encouraging them to vote and providing access to knowledge they need in order to be educated voters. As political science liaison, naturally I should be involved. So I went to an expert on campaigns and elections in the Political Science department on campus and got some ideas from him, then ran with them. One outcome of this is that it has allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in one of my departments, as well faculty from Brookings Mountain West on campus and experts from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Normally, I would probably never volunteer for such events. I’m not really political – at least when it comes to the electoral process – and I’m really intimidated by the body of knowledge of experts in this area. My justification and rationale for my disinterestedness in politics was based on my belief that electoral politics is a poor substitute for direct democracy, which interests me more, in addition to political theory. However, now I’m developing an interest in practical politics and seeing more intersections between political theory and practical politics. I have a Twitter feed of political scientists and political news sources that I’m keeping up with. I’m reading the books and articles by the experts who will be on the expert panel. I’m showing an interest, because I have to, and because now I live in a swing state which makes the process a lot more interesting, too. What I’m learning is proving to be quite fascinating, and it is stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise cared too much to learn about. And this is all because of tenure.

There are other things I couldn’t say no to, that I’m now very passionate and excited about. For instance, I’m curating an exhibit for the Libraries on student activism on campus, especially through the media – specifically the Rebel Yell, the campus newspaper (which is incidentally undergoing a name change presently – a student decision). For this exhibit, I’m doing extensive research through which a very interesting narrative about UNLV students is emerging. I’m getting to exercise my creativity and innovativeness in giving voice to this narrative. I’m learning a lot about current students and am making connections with current and former students, senior faculty on campus, and community members to acquire memorabilia and learn about student experiences. Normally I wouldn’t seek out such opportunities. I’m not an archivist. I’ve never done anything like this before; I’ve never even done research with archives or special collections. This particular project was initially intimidating to me, and I knew it would be extremely time consuming. I might not have said yes quite so immediately and eagerly had I not felt a sense of obligation because of tenure. Yet this is a real opportunity – to do research for the first time in special collections and archives, contributing to my professional growth; to have my own research featured in an exhibit; and to highlight the amazing work of student activists here, both current and historical – All because of tenure.

Then, of course, there’s the research requirement for tenure. This means I’m supported to do research that challenges me and makes me learn, as a scholar and a librarian. I definitely wouldn’t do research if there wasn’t this kind of support for it – I’m too much in favor of work-life balance to even do much of any reading when I’m not working, so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be motivated to do research if this 20 percent of my time on the job wasn’t devoted to it. And I’m so excited about these opportunities. My exhibit will count as a creative activity in my tenure case. I’m also collaborating with a Sociology faculty member long-term doing research on teaching, providing library support, and assessing student learning in a course with a heavy critical service learning component. The students’ library research for this course is really impactful. They are using library sources to support advocacy work and things like providing trainings and annotated bibliographies for refugee women representing themselves in their own asylum cases. The students are all using different types of library resources and legal resources for this work. They are also learning first-hand about information privilege, with licensing agreements oftentimes prohibiting them from giving resources directly to community members, considered to be third parties unaffiliated with the university. Anna (Dr. Anna C. Smedley-López) – the Sociology professor and I – are going to do some writing about this aspect of the students’ education for this course. Our first project will be to write a book chapter for a new ACRL-published book called: Disciplinary Applications of Information Literacy Threshold Concepts (edited by Samantha Godbey, Sue Wainscott, and Xan Goodman of UNLV). Our chapter, the proposal for which was recently accepted for this publication, is called “Serving Up Library Resources?: Information Privilege in the Context of Community Engagement in Sociology.” What an opportunity this is for me – to be a research partner with a faculty member in one of my disciplines and to be essentially embedded in this service learning program and course in which students are doing truly significant, social-justice oriented library research. Again, all because of tenure.

I feel exhausted just writing this. I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me. These opportunities will challenge me and make me grow as a professional, as a librarian and scholar. And I have tenure to thank.