Teaching Workload and New Librarians

The following story is true. However, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Meredith, an acquaintance of mine from library school, is an extraordinarily bright person with an amazing attitude. The moment I met her, I knew she would make an amazing librarian. Despite the small number of jobs available to academic librarians in this economy and despite being limited geographically, Meredith was hired fresh out of library school as a full-time adjunct instruction librarian at a medium-sized public university. In her first semester Meredith somehow taught over 40 instruction sessions, which included several two-week intensive information literacy course sequences for introductory general education courses.

On the Friday before spring semester classes began, Meredith was informed by her administrators that no temporary staff were to be hired to fill in for a librarian going on sabbatical. Instead, Meredith was now expected to take on 50% of her colleague’s workload, without any additions to her salary. Previously, Meredith had provided her superiors with a thorough account of her work hours—complete with professional standards from the ACRL Standards of Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators—in order to demonstrate that she had a full workload.  Despite this, they believed that she was under-worked and that this addition to her current duties would bring her up to full-time.

To make a long story short, Meredith decided to fight this by arguing that if she was forced to take on 50% more work, the quality of education that she provides would severely deteriorate. She told me, “I cannot roll over and become part of the cycle that is perpetuating the corporatization of higher education.” In the end, Meredith was able to prevent the increase to her workload.

This situation is the result of an unfortunate combination of massive budget cuts and administrators questioning the value of teaching information competency in higher education.  While Meredith’s situation is extreme, I have a feeling that her situation may not be an isolated incident. In this economic climate of dramatic budget cuts, librarians—particularly new, adjunct, and temporary librarians—are especially vulnerable. And the time available for some of us to provide effective instruction in information competency is getting compacted with additional duties and tasks.

I don’t want to make this a “librarians vs. them” kind of a thing because I realize there are a lot of complicated factors at play. But I would like to know: how do we successfully determine and prove what a feasible teaching workload is and how can new librarians like Meredith effectively share and demonstrate workload concerns with their administrators?

8 thoughts on “Teaching Workload and New Librarians”

  1. This is one of those difficult things to quantify and that’s why it’s an area where people are most likely to get overloaded. A one-hour reference desk shift requires one hour of commitment. A one-hour instruction session ideally requires more than that. But how much? Some people spend a lot more time prepping for teaching than others. Sometimes that’s because they are really focused on developing exciting learning activities and sometimes it’s because they are less comfortable with being in the moment. The level of prep is also dependent on whether you’ve taught the class before. When I had new liaison areas, I was swamped with prep, but, over time, the number of classes that were new to me decreased and my prep time also decreased. It’s possible that this other Meredith’s prep load may decrease next year as she will be more comfortable with teaching and more familiar with the courses she’s teaching, but that level of increase (50%) does seem extreme.

    I think it’s sad that members of our profession (and adjunct faculty members in general) are sometimes seen as workhorses and are not accorded the respect and consideration that any faculty member deserves. In this case she was accorded that consideration in the end, because she advocated for herself and her students. I wonder how many people in such a precarious position would do likewise.

    I remember going to a supervisor once and saying that my workload was too great and being told that “everyone is busy.” That is not an acceptable response, especially when it was hard enough for me to admit that I needed help. If people are pushed past their limit in terms of workload, their work in general will suffer as will morale. As a manager now, I am very conscious of my employees workloads and just this Fall advocated for one to have a less demanding teaching load. That response so many years ago was what made me want to be a manager in the first place.

  2. Meredith’s story makes me sad. What kind of library throws a new graduate into instruction like that? I’m also dismayed that the administrators are not making hard decisions about what to eliminate with reduced staffing. Telling other people to do more is a terrible way to treat your employees. Middle managers should be protecting the front line staff, not caving to upper administration. As for determining workload: We’ve kept track of how long it takes to prepare for each class for a number of years, so I have the data to show it averages to 2 hours of prep for each class. Almost all of our classes are about 1 hour long, so I go with 3 hours needed for every class taught. “Data Driven Decision-making” is a buzz word in higher ed these days, so you might get some traction by emphasizing such statistics (which it sounds like Meredith did.) I have been blessed with great supervisors, so when I’ve been asked to do more, I’ve replied, “Okay, let’s talk about what I’ll stop doing then,” which leads to productive conversations about priorities. Sometimes services get eliminated, sometimes the Big New Thing gets dropped. But this depends on having reasonable administrators who want what’s best for the library, its clients, and its staff.

  3. New librarian or experienced librarian that workload is too heavy. Unfortunately, I know too many experienced librarians who would work themselves to death under such circumstances–and who argue that they “have” to when told that they are doing themselves and their institutions disservice when they do. Sensible administrators understand that there are limitations to what can be achieved with limited resources–and that their people are resources too.

  4. One of the saddest aspects of this situation is that talented young librarians like Meredith will face burnout and possibly turn away from librarianship as a profession. One strategy for determining a feasible teaching workload is to work with union representatives (if unionized), since this definitely qualifies as a fair labor practices concern. Comparing your workload with those of librarians at peer institutions might also be a good strategy. The hiring of adjuncts especially to teach information literacy speaks to a larger trend in many public (and private) universities towards replacing full-time, tenure-track positions of all kinds with part-time adjunct positions. This unfortunately trend does a disservice both to hard-working adjuncts and to students.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Meredith! You make some very important points–especially about prep time. My prep time has significantly decreased now that I’ve had a lot of opportunities to practice. But whenever I want to try something new, it always means adding more prep time, which I don’t always have. A large workload can really stifle creativity.

    It’s so great to hear that you are advocating for your employees. We desperately need compassionate managers to survive!

  6. Thanks to everyone for your comments. You all bring up some excellent points, such as working with your unions (if you belong to one) and keeping track of how long it takes you to prep for a library session. I’m hoping that this story and these comments might help others out there who might be facing similar situations.

  7. I am actually attempting to calculate what an average teaching load should be for a teaching librarian. I am going so far as to not even count the course prep time. Just what would be the average number of direct contact hours that a professor should have could be consider what could be expected of a teaching librarian. Any ideas on this number?

  8. Lecturers have got set standards to measure or weight workload in terms of FTE or such criteria. Are there formulae by which to scientifically measure acceptable workload for academic librarians? How I wish I could lay my hands on them…

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