Reflecting on contract work and precarity

Like many others, as the year is coming to an end, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Last year around this time, I was anxious about graduating, the job hunting process, and the potential for un/underemployment in the spring.  A lot has changed since then. I left the city I lived in for over a decade to start my first academic librarian job. There’s been lots to celebrate! But I’m still kind of feeling anxious about the future. 

My job is a “contractually limited appointment,” meaning it’s a fixed-term position with an end date. I still have many more months to go before my contract ends, but it’s something that’s frequently on my mind. In particular, whenever there’s discussions about long-term projects and planning or relationship building, I become aware of the temporality of my position. I think, will I be here next year?

While I was in school, I was warned that it may be several years before I find an ongoing permanent position, as lots of the jobs out there are part-time, or full-time contracts. According to Brons, Henninger, Riley, & Lin (2019), 46% of academic librarian jobs advertised on the Partnership job board (a Canadian library job board) were precarious. It seems like contract work is or becoming the norm for many early career librarians. When I was job hunting, I framed these positions in my mind as opportunities to get my foot in the door or a chance to try a new aspect of librarianship. But now that I have my foot in the door with my dream job(!), I am realizing that contract work is more challenging that I had thought.  

In their article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self Care,” Lacey (2019) points to financial insecurity and the emotional and mental costs of precarious work. In particular, their discussion about the cyclical stress of acclimatizing to a new organizational culture and place, including establishing relationships, resonated with me. Being on a contract means, you’re constantly looking for work, trying to orient yourself to a new job, city, and leaving behind relationships. 

I’m very lucky in that I didn’t need to move far for my current position. It’s only a short bus or train ride away, although some days it feels very far.  I’m also very lucky in that I have super supportive colleagues who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and a valued member of the library. I feel guilty about not focusing on the present and being fixated on the future, thinking about when I should start job hunting or where I’ll be living next year. 

What has been helpful is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m encouraged by the growing conversations about precarious work in libraries. For example, I’m excited about projects focused on contingent labour in libraries, archives, and museums like the Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions, the Precarity in Libraries research project, or the @OrganizingLIS twitter account.

Looking at the current climate with the rise of the gig economy, it feels like part-time and contract work in librarianship is not going to go away. But, I’m also feeling very hopeful! I am looking forward to learning more about shared experiences of precarity and collectively working towards better conditions for library workers.

Feeling my way as a teacher

This month, I’ve been participating in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), an intensive three-day program that involves presenting mini-lessons, peer feedback, and discussions on learner-centred teaching practices.  

My experience with teaching is not extensive. While I did have opportunities to assist with library instruction and co-teach some classes in library school, I had never designed or developed an information literacy (IL) lesson before starting my current position. While I had crammed as much as I could about learning outcomes, active learning techniques, frameworks and standards, and educational philosophies, the idea of creating an IL lesson on my own was daunting. 

When I first started my position in the summer, I had grand plans to explore and be creative in my teaching, and spent time perusing Project CORA, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and various library instruction books and guides, particularly around critical approaches. But when September rolled around and my calendar started filling up, exploration and creativity went out the window! As a new librarian, lesson planning took longer than I had anticipated, filled with constant questions of “am I doing this right? Is this going to work?”

I was extremely grateful to my colleague who shared their detailed lesson plans with me, and I heavily relied on what they had already created and delivered. While it was amazing to not have to create lessons from scratch and approach faculty with IL lessons that they were already familiar with, I also felt that I wasn’t developing my own teaching style and philosophy. I was reluctant to take risks or try anything new.

While the ISW program isn’t focused on information literacy, it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to learn and to try out (and fail at!) new teaching techniques and learning activities in a relatively risk-free environment. For example, I’ve explored looking at evaluating sources and peer review through online recipes, which was a fun for me because I got to talk about my current obsession with Bon Appétit! Last week I tried designing a 10-minute lesson around mapping out research journeys and exploring research strategies based on everyone’s personal journey. I ran out of time and didn’t feel super great about how the lesson went, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with learning activities that involve giving over control to the learners.

I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to try to take any big risks in my IL classes next semester. In the ISW, I didn’t have to consider what faculty want, the pressures of an assignment, or even the challenges of teaching in a large classroom. The context of the one-shot class is another thing to consider when thinking about experimenting with new teaching techniques. As a new librarian, I’m still feeling my way. But I did gain a bit more confidence in my teaching while participating in the ISW, and the opportunity to try new things was invigorating. I’m hoping that confidence will encourage me to try new things, however small, in my IL classes. 

One of the small goals for my teaching next semester is a suggestion one of the ISW facilitators made: make the implicit explicit. I hope to make my teaching decisions (the why am I doing this) more transparent to the classroom and also for myself through written reflection. 

I have one more ISW session left this upcoming Friday. While I won’t miss watching recordings of myself teaching, I will miss the dedicated time spent on talking about teaching. I’m definitely going to try and find more opportunities to share teaching practices with my colleagues, other librarians, and other instructors.