What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member

I can’t help but wonder if the real faculty at those institutions where librarians are on the tenure track roll their eyes, snicker among themselves or just plain get annoyed by their library colleagues who refer to themselves as faculty members or carry ranks typically associated with faculty (e.g., assistant professor). Blaise Cronin certain thought they did. In his classic opinion piece “The Mother of All Myths” he obliterates the concept of tenure and faculty status for academic librarians (Library Journal 126, no. 3, February 15, 2001). While I never agreed with all of Cronin’s arguments, tenure may indeed hold some benefits for academic librarians, lately I’ve been thinking about the differences between the work of librarians and faculty. I don’t doubt that even my use of the phrase “real faculty” is going to set off a minor firestorm among those tenured librarians who think of themselves as faculty or even “teaching faculty” owing to the occasional bibliographic instruction sessions they conduct or the seat they hold on the faculty senate. You might understand why a faculty member would ridicule or be angered by librarians who think they are true faculty if you can imagine an individual who refers to him or herself as “librarian” because he or she oversees a room full of books (I encountered such a situation at a past job), but has no professional library degree nor is responsible for many tasks common to our profession. Do you think of that individual as a librarian or an imposter who’s use of that title devalues or even mocks your status as a professional academic librarian?

My regular reading of faculty blogs the last few months has given me a new appreciation for what is involved in being a member of the regular faculty and the challenges and responsibilities it involves. Take for example this post and discussion about frustrations of dealing with students at the blog A Ianqui in the Village. I’m tempted to write that faculty librarians rarely if ever get involved in these types of situations, but I fully expect that a reader will share a tale of a difficult student situation. Yes, I’m sure it happens from time to time, but certainly no librarian is likely to experience the range and regularity of complicated situations (students, chairs, other faculty) with which faculty have to routinely cope. If you regulary read the career commentaries published in the Chronicle you would likewise wonder how many library faculty deal with these situations. Crazed or scary students. Psychopathic senior colleagues. Backstabbing junior colleagues. Isolated experiences one would hope, but these are likely just the tip of the iceberg stories we hear. All librarians, tenure track and otherwise, also must deal with superiors, peers, and subordinates who create frustration. To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member at an LIS program for a number of years. I refer to myself in any written or oral communication or interaction with students or colleagues as “adjunct instructor”. I avoid the pretense of calling myself “professor”. I’ve never felt the need to inflate my title for my own ego or to create window dressing in the hope other faculty will see me as their equal. I know they wouldn’t anyway, and I don’t care if they do. I’m only in it for the joy of teaching a subject about which I’m passionate. But when I do teach I feel much more like a faculty member than a librarian. What makes the difference? The enormous responsibility attached to working with students, even at the graduate level, and playing a role in their lives and their careers. This happens in a way that I or most librarians would rarely encounter during the course of our library careers. The nature of that relationship goes beyond grading papers or devising assignments. Yes, there are academic librarians who do this. But I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty. And if and when such relationships do occur, they are just as likely to happen to both tenure and non-tenure track librarians. And there may even be academic librarians who have dealt with a troubled student or a serial plagiarizer. But I doubt that this, along with developing and planning new courses, advising students as majors in one’s discipline, working with fellow faculty to build the curriculum, sitting on the occasional doctoral committee, even comes close to equating the totality of what it means to be a full-fledged faculty member.

Debating the value of or need for tenure for academic librarians is something I’ll pass on in this post. Besides, those who want more on that debate can always get hold of the one between Murray-Rust and Carver in the September 30, 2005 Chronicle; they do a fine job. And whether I’m ultimately a supporter or opponent of tenure for academic librarians matters little. Those who feel strongly about the need for it are welcome to seek out a position in an institution where they’ll be on the tenure track. Those who wish to avoid it have many institutions to choose from as well. And I certainly have no intention, as did Cronin, of mocking or devaluing the work and contributions of tenure-track librarians.I know librarians at both tenure-track and non-tenure track institutions who do great work and even establish beneficial relationships with students. The point here is not whether librarians need tenure or not. It is how they refer to themselves when they are on the tenure track or have obtained tenure, and how that is perceived by our faculty colleagues. My simple proposition is that tenure-track and tenured librarians should take more time to read faculty blogs. Get inside the head of your faculty colleagues and then think reflectively about the difference between what you do and what they do. If that doesn’t leave the feeling of being a bit like the imposter librarian who simply monitors a room full of books without the full range of librarian responsibilities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to hold a faculty rank. Then again, what’s so wrong with just being an academic librarian.

22 thoughts on “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member”

  1. I should thank Steven—I was so annoyed by a previous post on tenure and academic librarians that I submitted a guide book proposal on tenure for academic librarians. (It’s in process now!) I was inspired by the number of people who a) don’t have tenure and b)don’t like the tenure model for librarians that still feel compelled to give advice and pass judgment on the process.

    Those of us who hold tenure (and in my case, rank) should start speaking up about what we like about the system. I have NEVER stated that I think all librarians should follow this model. But in some institutions and some situations it not only survives but thrives—and so do the librarians. I am confident that my fellow faculty members do not roll their eyes at my rank (at least not anymore than they would at any other colleague!) I’m a full professor—and I worked as hard as any other faculty member at our institution to attain that rank. I published materials (appropriate to my subject area), I taught (both for-credit classes and more typical bibliographic instruction), and I pursued a varied service agenda.

    Ironically, I’m now in the situation where I teach other faculty at my institution how to develop their CV—a workshop I started in the library and that moved with me to my appointment as our university’s Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. In this role, I’ve also developed workshops on publishing in the SoTL literature, cheating/plagiarism, and developing teaching portfolios. This opportunity arose because of my faculty status.

    As a librarian, I’ve helped to develop a workshop series called “Practical Professor” where we offer workshops on managing your research time, using databases and alert services to more effectively identify research resources, and even a session on everyone’s favorite topic, copyright. Because I participate in the research process as a faculty member, I can speak with authority on those issues. If anything, our tenure status has created opportunities for us to reach our to faculty on a level that would have been more difficult (but not impossible) otherwise.

    And finally, I find being a tenured professor FUN. I enjoy my role as a faculty member—interacting with students, with faculty and with administrators. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of working on an article, the challenge of working with students who will definitely keep you on your toes in the classroom, and the pleasure of working with bright scholars from a diverse range of fields and disciplines. It’s time those of us who like faculty status and think it benefits both the institution and the individual librarians to speak up. This has been my two cents worth!


  2. I’d venture to say that all academic librarians should do what they can to understand faculty culture, regardless of their status. Otherwise – how can you do the job properly? If you’re a doctor, and you know medicine but don’t bother to pay attention to your patients lives – well, I sure hope your specialty is pathology.

    I realize your point, Steven, wasn’t to debate the value of faculty status, but I’ll follow up on Deborah’s suggestion that we articulate why it’s valuable if we believe in it.

    I don’t feel like an impostor. I’m a librarian. I’m also a full professor. I know my colleagues in other departments see me as a colleague and not a fake. A chemist knows that their daily work with students is very different than that of someone in the music department who teaches voice and often meets students one-on-one for lessons. They have different cultures and different work to do, but they respect each others expertise and the contributions they make to student learning, however different those contributions are. That’s exactly how they view me. They’re not quite sure what I do, but they trust me to do it well, and that it is part of the mix of a liberal education.

    I know they feel this way because some years ago a former president wanted to change librarians’ status at our institution. When it came to the faculty senate, one after another of them said “why? They’re teachers. What they do is an important part of our academic program.” And when it came to a vote, they supported us unanimously. These weren’t all faculty who bring classes to the library, either. They believed our teaching is often outside the classroom, and just as valuable.

    I also must say I find the research requirement a good thing for us. It gives us permission to follow up on questions that we’re genuinely curious about. I found not a burden, but freeing. And, of course, the service requirement means we get to contribute meaningfully to decisions that affect the library as well as our students.

    Like Deborah, I enjoy it. And I hope that all academic librarians – regardless of their title – make an effort to know their faculty. They’re interesting people. And they’re teaching the same students we are.

  3. Stephen,
    What is most interesting about your post is that you fail to articulate “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member”. Sussing this out from what you’ve said, to be faculty is to (a) teach and (b) be involved in a meaningful way in student life.

    Why does that define faculty?

    I have faculty status, and carry rank.

    I (and my library colleagues) am actively involved in faculty governance, in setting general education requirements, in being expert in my field and using that expertise to maximize the possibilities for student excellence within my domain.

    I also read extensively and plan research and publications within my areas of expertise for both practical advancement of the pursuit of student excellence and more theoretical implications of the work I do for the sake of furthering knowledge.

    So, I’m actively involved in student learning. I perform university service, participate in shared governance, have a defined area of subject specialization, and perform research and publication within that area. I also teach, both formally and informally (and in almost every single interaction I have with students, staff, and non-library faculty), and am well-trained in teaching and pedagogy.

    Why is that list less defining of “What it means to be a faculty member” than yours?

  4. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a post like this where I agree with a lot of the smaller points, but still disagree with the conclusion. I agree with both Stephen and Barbara that of course we should do as much as we can to understand faculty culture. But for me I tend to find more common ground then differences when I do that — my understanding of what it means to be “real faculty” is far broader than what is pictured here. And more than that – I think a view of “real faculty” that is this narrow hurts librarians, not in terms of rank or prestige, but in that it makes it harder for us to do what we do – to help our student become independent learners and critical thinkers, capable of making meaning and knowledge for themselves.

    My thoughts on this exploded way beyond what could be contained in a comment, so I continued this on my own blog:



  5. Thanks for some good comments to the post. I know those who have tenure and faculty rank are very passionate about it and will certainly defend it. I’m not disagreeing that you may be conducting some of the same business as faculty. But I can’t say that folks are responding to the point about being significantly responsible for students – grading their work for example, advising them in the major, dealing with their problems – did you read the post I linked to and if so is your experience with students similar? Rudy – you say you are involved in student learning. So am I. How many student papers do you grade a semester? How many students do you determine a final grade for in a course (if you do you may be an exception to the majority). I don’t grade any, but I know our faculty grade many. I think that makes us rather different.

    Barbara makes a good point that each of us brings a different contribution to the totality of the student experience, and that we all have our different roles to play. I’m not sure that explains why of all the role players on campus (student services, athletics, computing) the librarians at some institutions are the only ones other than faculty who are assigned a rank – yes – I realize those others – some who have much more involvement with students than do librarians – are not on the tenure track (a puzzling matter for some). Thanks again for some other views on what it means to be a faculty member.

  6. How many papers I grade is not a measure of my role as a faculty member. By that measure, community college faculty are fifty times more faculty than those who work at R1 institutions. I do grade papers, and I do advise students (though not in the major, since I’m a librarian at an undergrad institution and we don’t have majors). But that classroom teaching is a service contribution I make to certain programs in our curriculum (first term seminar and January term), not may main role as a faculty member. I teach far more students out of the classroom than in – in any number of ways.

    I think you believe librarians to be fundamentally technologists (if they aren’t in charge of anything important) or administrators (if they are), and that’s why it’s hard for you to see why we have different status than IT workers or student affairs staff. And that makes you wonder if those of us with faculty rank realize we’re actually rather laughable to our colleagues. Our teaching isn’t really teaching because it doesn’t fit the usual production-of-credit-hours model, and our intellectual contribution to the world of knowledge … just isn’t. All we do is organize stuff and provide training so the real scholars and teachers can do their jobs. Thinking it’s more than risks our being a laughingstock.

    Well, read Anne-Marie’s blog post. And while you’re at it, maybe you need to re-read the ACRL-AAUP joint statement on faculty status reaffirmed in June 2007 and see if it has any bearing on the work you do. Here are a couple of excerpts:

    “As the primary means through which students and faculty gain access to the storehouse of organized knowledge, the college and university library performs a unique and indispensable function in the educational process. This function will grow in importance as students assume greater responsibility for their own intellectual and social development. Indeed, all members of the academic community are likely to become increasingly dependent on skilled professional guidance in the acquisition and use of library resources as the forms and numbers of these resources multiply, scholarly materials appear in more languages, bibliographical systems become more complicated, and library technology grows increasingly sophisticated. The librarian who provides such guidance plays a major role in the learning process….

    “College and university librarians share the professional concerns of faculty members. Academic freedom, for example, is indispensable to librarians, because they are trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of insuring the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial, so that teachers may freely teach and students may freely learn….

    Yes, the language here is old-fashioned. We don’t think in terms of storehouses or guidance in the use of library materials. But in spirit, there’s a kernel here that is about more than administering stuff. It’s about opening the gates to a universe of knowledge and inviting people in so they can be involved in it.

    Ultimately, this isn’t about what we call ourselves. It’s who we see when we look in the mirror. And what think it is that we’re doing with our lives.

  7. It’s tempting to just post “what Barbara said,” but I do have something to add.

    At many institutions, “real faculty” are not primarily teachers; they conduct research. The idea of “teaching faculty” is a relatively recent development, in fact. Faculty used to be (and still are at many institutions) primarily researchers whose students learned by working with them.

    While I agree with Steven and previous posters that all librarians who work in academic libraries should have a strong understanding of the work of the non-library faculty, I’m a bit puzzled by Steven’s implication that we aren’t already doing that. Is the clueless library faculty member just a straw person, or are there real librarians like that out there? And what can we do to make those librarians better faculty and librarians, besides berating them in a blog entry that was likely to alienate them from the first paragraph?

    Perhaps Steven’s faculty librarians seem too concerned with petty politics or their own status–but there are plenty of “real faculty” who fit that description as well. And the sad truth is that in many academic institutions the situation is such that all faculty need to be concerned about their status; librarians, as Barbara’s example shows, tend to be a bit more vulnerable to status changes, although the number of tenure-track positions in all departments at colleges and universities has declined in the last few decades. I’m encouraged by the unanimous support that Barbara and her colleagues received, and I’d like to see a blog entry on how they earned the respect of their colleagues. I suspect that it wasn’t solely by reading blog entries.

  8. This is an interesting topic that seems to invoke a strong response. Currently, I am at an institution where the librarians carry faculty rank and are on tenure track. In addition to the usual information literacy classes, some of the librarians act as adjunct professors and teach courses and others work very closely with facuty and students in assisting in researching and writing undergraduate capstone projects. That being said, I am not in support of faculty rank, nor tenure in the traditional way.

    Teaching faculty have devoted more time to their particular subject (having achieved a PhD as opposed to an MLS), but also have additional time (semester break and summers) to devote to further their research into their subjects. Whereas the librians fall under a 40 hour a week/12 month model, making it difficult to find the available time to research/write. Not to say that librarians are not keeping up scholarly activities, but I fell that the depth of those activities does not equal that of fulltime teaching faculty.

    Again, an interesting subject, obviously one that will not be solved easily. I do however think that faculty status and rank for librarians is a bit of a stretch. (now to get back to work on my self-eval and tenure portfolio)

  9. Yes, full-time classroom faculty roll their eyes when we librarians assert our faculty status. The engineering faculty snicker at the aviation faculty because they don’t have doctorates. The physics faculty get annoyed with the engineering faculty because they work in an applied field rather than a theoretical discipline. The science faculty roll their eyes when the humanities faculty celebrate their paltry and occasional grants. The faculty at research universities snicker at their colleagues who work in liberal arts colleges. The faculty at Ivy League schools get annoyed with their colleagues from state institutions.

    What does this prove? Only that human nature has given us a tendency to build ourselves up by putting others down. That’s all. In sense, we just need to get over it and move on.

    It seems to me that the process of education, even higher education, is multi-faceted rather than hierarchical. Why, then, do we assume a hierarchy among faculty rather than honoring each facet for what it is? I thought feminism was supposed to teach us that assuming a hierarchy is in place when one need not exist is dehumanizing.

    The rolling of eyes, the snickering, and the annoyances do not communicate anything about the grammatical objects of those sentences, but they do speak volumes about the grammatical subjects.

  10. As a non-tenture track librarian working in an academic institution where most “real faculty” do no teaching, I say the definition of “real faculty” given by Steven may be flawed. I applaud librarians who can and want to be tenure track. But I also wonder, just as I do for research faculty who do not teach and spend more time trying to find funding for their lab then even doing research, what makes that ‘better’ then spending 40+ hours a week doing what we are trained to do. I am a librarian first and formost. I don’t want to spend half my day/week or summer writing papers that may or not be read, just so I can get tenure. I want to help students, faculty, researchers and even administrators weed through the massive amount of information and deal with issues of copyright and licensing. In addition I am the Instruction Librarian and work with every graduate student, and am seen as the “authority” on EndNote at my entire institution. I am respected and valued.

    If I had wanted to be “real faculty” writing grant proposals and do committee work I would have stayed with my graduate work in microbiology and be earning more money (and apparently more respect!) as a PhD faculty member. I, like many others, want to help others find and use information wisely. This should not be looked down upon because I do not hold a PhD in Biology, nor a PhD in Library Science. Many community college “professors” are there because they would rather spend their time teaching and not doing “real faculty” stuff.

    To those who want to write papers and be on committees should be acknowledged and rewarded for being ‘real faculty’ in their specialty area (be it English, Physics, or Library Science.)

    However I also think if giving academic librarians rank and tenure status is the only way to get respect from ‘fellow’ faculty in other fields, then this is a sad day for all academics. This topic really should be about personal choice (to work at an institution with or without tenture status for librarians) and not a judgement that all academic librarians are or are not ‘real faculty’.

    Just my humble opinion.

  11. I enjoyed reading Steven B’s posting and agree with most of what he writes. Some of the issues he covers are included in my book, Faculty Librarian Relationships (Chandos, 2005).

    Thanks, Paul Jenkins

  12. I work as an Academic Librarian in a small university and hold both Tenure and the rank of an Associate. I also wanted to state that while I enjoy having tenure and sabbaticals, I do not feel that I am a Professor but a Librarian.

    Our jobs are complex, challenging, require constant learning (as are Professor’s). It requires us to be experts – and many times very highly specialized experts (just as faculty researchers are.) BUT it also requires that we take our knowledge and implement it as managers who strive to take our organizations in new directions as times change; and in this area we are very different from faculty who are rarely concerned about changing organizational structures, budgets, and managing others (unless they are a department chair or Dean.)

    I respect what faculty do. I also recognize that I hold a level of understanding about the world of information a world that they only view from the periphery (i.e. they know about getting published, editorial boards, and in our institution they even do collection development for books and some journals). They do not need to understand licensing of e-products, organizing collections, retrieval tools, technological innovations in information, the impact of government legislation on how libraries operate (such as in the case of the Patriot Act or copyright), etc. This does not make me their superior – just as their knowledge does not make me mine. Instead, I feel like their collegue (despite the fact that I do not hold myself up to be a “Professor”).

    I don’t think we need to call ourselves Professors in order to be proud of what we know and do. But I do feel that we definitely are their collegues and when we do our jobs well they often thank heavens that there is someone who can make sense of the complexities of gathering and providing information.

    Carmen Kazakoff-Lane

  13. Carmen, you make some very good points. I was also mulling over the particular role librarians have in the big picture issues – advocating for making information available to all (through advocating for open government, appropriate privacy measures, open access models for scholarly communications, etc. etc.) Our science faculty, for example, didn’t have a grasp of how their publishing decisions impact our collections, that information is an ecosystem of sorts.

    All that said, I think what you say about self-identity as a librarian, not a professor, is probably true in many other fields. If I ask a colleague in the history department what she is, she’ll say “historian,” not professor. We all have multiple identities – and we’re all individuals.

    I also agree with Angela and Herman that (to wildly paraphrase their points) that focusing on “status” as a hierarchical issue is limiting and dehumanizing. And worrying about my status is something I’d like to think I grew out of after high school.

  14. Angela writes: “I don’t want to spend half my day/week or summer writing papers that may or not be read, just so I can get tenure. I want to help students, faculty, researchers and even administrators weed through the massive amount of information and deal with issues of copyright and licensing.” Is that so”real faculty” can go on to write papers that will not be read? Get real yourself! What make their unread papers better than your unread papers? If academic librarians had better and more advanced graduate-level training themselves (training that goes well beyond learning how to throw keywords at a database until something sticks) they’d be better equipped to exploit their sabbaticals and faculty status by making real substantive and original contributions to research in their own field. That’s what being “real faculty” is all about. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you ask one?

  15. I think Steven is falling into a very common error himself when evaluating faculty culture. I have been an academic librarian for the past decade and a PhD student for the past four years. As a PhD student I have been inducted into academic culture in a much more intense way than ever before–even as a librarian with full faculty status and credit-course teaching responsibilities at the institution where I work. I have learned one important thing: teaching does not a faculty member make. The vast majority of faculty I have come to know as both a liaison librarian and a PhD student pride themselves on their research–there contributions to the creation of new knowledge in their disciplines. They identify with their field and not with the institutions where they teach. They do not work ‘for’ a university, but ‘out’ of a university. As I continue to broaden and deepen my knowledge of my own field, I am coming to share this orientation more and more. Teaching is something most faculty do because they must. Research is something most faculty do because that is what makes and defines their careers. Librarians, in my view, need to work harder to create a research culture in their own libraries. This will help them to relate to faculty and to reach out to colleagues from other institutions. It may also, by the by, make them into better librarians.

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