Monthly Archives: September 2008

Real Faculty In Our Minds Alone

Late last week a number of library news sources pointed to the release of report from the Council of Library and Information Resources called “No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century“. The report contains eight essays that identify challenges facing academic libraries, and it offers a number of recommendations for change that may help to ensure the future relevancy of academic librarians. Library Journal described the report as “Harnessing the insight and experience of some two dozen stakeholders…the report offers a forceful call to action, and a penetrating take on the forces shaping the future of libraries and the academic enterprise”. I believe this report’s themes and recommendations will be somewhat familiar to ACRLog readers because we, and you through your comments, discuss and debate them here.

As I scanned the report I found something of interest in the article titled “Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library” by Daphnée Rentfrow, a former CLIR Fellow who has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. In this essay Rentfrow takes on some familiar themes of how to improve collaboration with faculty and obtain more professional recognition within the academic community. As to her qualifications to write an essay on these matters she describes herself as:

someone who finished a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without once meeting my subject specialist (or even knowing what one was), as someone who taught courses without conferring with a librarian and who never encouraged undergraduates to do so, and worked on a thematic research collection without thinking of metadata or preservation until I had a panicked reason to, I also know fairly intimately the failings of, let’s say, “public relations” and “outreach” that afflict academic and research libraries.

You may find what Rentfrow has to offer useful to improve your own public relations and outreach efforts with faculty. But something that caught my attention in her essay was this footnote:

By “faculty,” I mean non-librarian teaching faculty and scholars. While some universities offer librarians faculty status, while some librarians consider themselves members of the faculty, and while some librarians have Ph.D. degrees, anecdotal evidence shows that students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators rarely consider libraries [NOTE: not a typo – it actually says “libraries” not “librarians”] to be “real” faculty, or even intellectual peers. This problem of image is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

One of the reasons I found this footnote of special interest is because I took quite a bit of heat from several ACRLog readers when I explored similar themes in a post I called “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member“. Instead of just referring to “anecdotal evidence” I pointed to some real differences between what librarians do and what faculty do, particularly as our roles relate to student interaction. Perhaps the point is that it might not matter what we do or don’t do, because as Rentfrow points out as far as the rest of academe is concerned academic librarians are faculty only in their own minds. It seems I made the error of stepping directly on the landmind that Rentfrow tiptoes around.

You might conclude that Rentfrow adds nothing new to this debate, and if you read the essay you’ll see that it is about much more than this issue. Yes, we all know that as far as many “real” faculty are concerned we are nothing more than academic support staff no more deserving of faculty status than instructional technologists or IT support specialists. It may also be familiar territory to point to our profession’s failure to promote the ways in which we are equal to the real faculty and worthy of their respect and collaboration. But given my own attempt to inject some hard to accept reality into this discussion of academic librarians as “real faculty” I have to appreciate Rentfrow’s own honest approach and her admission that some of what she has to say will “offend some readers.” She writes:

Having experienced both [PhD and MLS education], I can understand why a scholar would bristle to be told that a librarian has an equal understanding of the rigors of scholarship and full course-load teaching. But I also understand that the average faculty member is largely ignorant of the changes that have affected modern librarianship in recent decades and the ways these changes (should) affect scholarship and teaching.

It may all come down to a question of what’s most important to academic librarians. Is it being recognized as a real faculty member and being deemed their equal? Or is it doing whatever it takes to work with faculty to partner in helping students achieve academic success regardless of what our status is in the academic community? No instructional technologist, learning center professional or IT specialist I’ve ever met seems as remotely concerned about their academic status as are academic librarians. They aren’t busy trying to establish their equality with faculty. But what I do see is that they are busy spending lots of time collaborating with faculty helping them to improve their pedagogy, their use of technology and their ability to bring the two together in connecting with students. Can you say the same for the academic librarians at your institution?

My apologies to Rentfrow for reducing her well-written piece to a few statements about academic librarians and faculty status. You should take a closer look at Rentfrow’s recommendations (63-64) as well as the overall set provided in this CLIR report (pgs. 10-11). I’m not sure they will resonate with frontline librarians and other library workers. I think they will seem either unoriginal, too ivory tower or simply too vague (e.g., “The functions of libraries must be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level. We need to create professional and practice layers that enhance research and teaching across disciplines”). As with the Ithaka report discussed last week there needs to be more attention paid to the integration of academic librarians into the teaching and learning process. This recommendation of Rentfrow’s expresses it best:

Librarians should work with departments and teaching centers to nurture the idea that the library is a part of all teaching initiatives on campus.

That seems eminently practical and of value to faculty and students – no matter what our status is.

What To Tell Students About Distractions

At this time of the year many academic librarians are gearing up for their fall instruction sessions. While much of the planning focuses on developing active learning techniques, integrating new resources or introducing new instructional technology like clickers, I wonder how many librarians are thinking about how they’ll deal with electronic distractions. Not only can students tune out a library instructor with their personal communication gadgets or a laptop, but in a hands-on computer lab setting putting a student in front of a computer is akin to saying, “Please go ahead and surf the web or IM your friends while I try to teach you something”. Sure, you might have a computer control system in your classroom, but that can be a bit of a hassle for a short-term session and who really wants to use it just to bring the hammer down on wayward students.

So if you’ve that found distracted students represent a challenge in your short-term sessions, you can well imagine that this can be an incredible problem for faculty with a multi-class teaching load. This past year has seen a number of faculty and institutions declaring outright bans on any type of electronic device in the classroom. Some critics of that action say that giving students access to the web can enhance their learning. For example, students can quickly search for additional information that can contribute to a topic discussion. An instructor can direct students to a website that contains images or primary documents that can deepen a student’s knowledge of the subject matter. But without a tight control on student access, texting, IMing and surfing can quickly make a mockery of learning.

Determined to prevent that from happening in his courses this faculty member makes clear in his syllabus how he intends to deal with this problem. To address what he calls the “divided attention” problem, an entire section of the course syllabus is devoted to what is an extended warning about texting, surfing or otherwise using gadgets in class. But first he appeals to the students’ intellect. He writes:

The brain has got to give up on one of the tasks in order to effectively accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: it makes you slower and dumber. For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class. But there’s another reason, too: technology often causes us to lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior and, as a result, perfectly lovely people become unbelievably rude.

It appears to appeal as a method for reducing student distraction because a number of faculty have requested permission to use his exact wording in their own syllabi. Academic librarians are without the luxury of a syllabus for their instruction sessions nor do they typically hold the power of the grade. But there is probably no reason why a librarian couldn’t begin a session with a statement that cautions students about the dangers of distraction. The real challenge is whether or not a library instructor wants to throw down the gauntlet and actually issue a warning along the lines of “If I catch you texting or IMing I’ll just ask you to leave – and let your professor know you didn’t make it till the end of the session.” A bit heavy handed perhaps? Maybe it’s best to check with the instructor first. See if he or she has a policy on classroom distractions. If so, then a better approach may be to let students know that policy extends to your session as well – along with any related consequences for unacceptable behaviors.

I’ve been out of the library classroom for about a year now – such is the life of an academic library administrator. But I’ll be doing a few instruction sessions this fall to help out with a massive instructional undertaking for our freshman Analytical Reading & Writing course where we’ll be doing close to 200 sessions in multiple sections for this one course alone. I’ll be interested to see what sort of distracted students I encounter – and how I manage those situations.

What’s in a Name?

What do we call ourselves?  How do we describe ourselves to others?  What adjectives should (could) we use to describe ourselves?

I started thinking about this today as I sat in the communication sciences building, back at my office hour.  I’m sharing the closet office with two undergraduate advisors, and our three name tags & titles are on the door, like this:  Person 1, undergraduate advisor; Person 2, undergraduate advisor; Stephanie Willen Brown, librarian.

I thought:  what if I called myself a “library advisor”?  That might make more sense to students.  Several years ago, I stopped telling students I was “on the reference desk” from 2-4 and started telling them that I had “office hours” from 2-4.  During classes, I could see quick comprehension in their eyes when I told them my “office hours.”  Similarly, I now use the phrase “search engine” when describing PsycINFO (as in, “PsycINFO is THE search engine for psychology!”); that seems clear to the newer students and usually gets a laugh from the more experienced ones.  I wonder if I would help students make a similar leap in understanding if I called myself the “library advisor”  for communication sciences.

As I was mulling this over, I read the FemaleScienceProfessor blog, noting especially last week’s Rename the Professors Poll.  She is tired of “the unsatisfactory nature of the current terms for professorial ranks,” noting that ” ‘Assistant Professor’ is particularly annoying and kind of demeaning as a term, and ‘Associate Professor’ isn’t much better.” Her riff on endowed chair names is very entertaining. She’s written about the issue of faculty titles a lot, and she’s now running a poll which “focuses on the Big Three (replacements for Assistant, Associate, and ‘full’),” noting that some “categories are versatile enough to permit some fine-scale additions to the Professor rank.”  As I write this, there are 13 comments and over 500 votes.

Would it make a difference if faculty were called Lieutenant / Commander / Admiral?  How about One-star Professor / Two-star Professor / Three-star Professor?  Or if librarians were called “library advisors?”  Let’s start our own poll.  What could we rename ourselves to more clearly describe *to our students* how we can help them?