Scenes from the start of the fall semester

I work at an institution with no mask mandate and no vaccine requirement. The emphasis is on personal responsibility, sphere of influence, and individual liberty. Our Access Services workers have kept our building open over the last year and a half while I and my other liaison services colleagues have been able to work from home, parent at home, teach virtual school to our children from home, etc. We returned to the library part-time this summer and full time now that the semester is in full swing.

The fall semester started on Monday. Masked and unmasked students enter the building in a surging mass looking for computers between classes, a place to sit and study, a break from the oppressive heat, or a working printer. I’m sitting in my office with my door closed fielding class requests from instructors who may or may not want a virtual option. Because of our institution’s politics it’s a weird dance of “we can offer…” and “what are your options?” We can’t come out and say “That’s way too many unmasked students in a classroom built for 30.”

I have virtual meetings with colleagues down the hall. We get together to go on masked walks–unmasked if the crowds are thin–and it’s odd but better than nothing. We are all in sneakers or birks and our comfiest workwear. Everyday brings a new administrative email about vaccine incentives, testing options, contact tracing, flow-charts for classroom instructors, temporary remote work guidelines, etc. We all feel at turns hopeful, fearful, gaslit, angry, and exhausted.

I don’t know what fall semester will look like in 2 weeks much less 2 months from now, and I mean that in terms of work, family, health, and general well-being. I don’t do well with broad uncertainty (hello, anxiety!) but it’s the way of life right now. I’ll take joy in a well-placed LEGO set, an iced coffee, or a day off work to go to an empty beach with my family. I will do what I need to do to do my job well and keep my family safe and healthy.

What is your fall semester looking like this year?

Time out! In defense of taking vacation

During a bit of downtime last week, I sat down with my calendar and penciled in a few long weekends and a full week of vacation this summer. 15 whole days! During most of 2020, it felt “pointless” to take a vacation if I couldn’t go anywhere new or visit anyone I loved. At most, I took a personal day here and there, and one family trip in August when Covid rates in my area were low.

So as the summer approaches, and many of us in academic libraries anticipate quieter days in the stacks or our home offices, let’s talk vacation. 

No-Vacation Nation

First, you’ve probably heard that in general, Americans don’t use most of their vacation. Our country doesn’t guarantee paid leave and paid holidays, and those who do have jobs with PTO leave a lot of days unused every year. Even if we do take time off, a lot of us struggle with guilt around using vacation time, or truly unplugging while we’re away.

For most of us, the summer is the quietest and easiest time to take vacation. And yet I still felt kinda funny requesting off, worrying how it would affect my colleagues’ workloads, whether it was even “worth it.” I thought I’d share the anxious objections that came up when I considered PTO, and how I addressed them:

It’s unfair to my coworkers

Do you feel like when you take a day off, you’re screwing over everyone else in your office? If the culture in your library is a microcosm of the “No-Vacation Nation,” it can make it really difficult to take guilt-free time off. But I’ve noticed that taking vacation is contagious (in a good way). When one employee (especially a manager!) ensures they use their leave each year, it affirms that it’s okay to take a break.

At my library, we work a hybrid of remote and in-person shifts on a rotation, which means there is a little extra coordinating to do if someone wants to take a week away. My fellow librarians have been great about communicating and covering for each other. Could you team up with a trusted coworker, and plan to cover for each other while the other person takes a needed break?

There’s too much work to do / If I leave, the whole place falls apart

Let me gently remind you that we work in libraries. The work is not life or death. I know you care very much about your work, your students, and your colleagues, and that care is a beautiful thing. In order to keep giving that authentic care, you’ve got to avoid burnout, and taking scheduled leave is one way to help with that. As Alex wrote recently, you gotta fix your own mask before you metaphorically help someone with their own. 

Also, girl. It is not a virtue to be so irreplaceable that you can’t leave the office for a few days. 

Working from home is restful enough

Do I even need to entertain this hesitation? If the tone of ACRLog’s blog posts this year is any indication, we’re all working longer and more stressful hours this year, and just because we’re doing it in sweatpants doesn’t mean it’s rest. 

I can’t go anywhere

If you can’t travel, which most of us can’t, how can we make a staycation actually restful? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Unplug: I intend to sign out of my email on my phone, and tell my partner about the intention for accountability.
  • Plan something: Get some pleasure reading, or devote a day to exploring an outdoor space you’ve never been before.
  • This article from the Chronicle had some other great ideas for restorative breaks at home. 

My family can’t take off with me

My spouse has very little PTO, and uses most of it for their creative career. I’ve had to accept that I could either only take time off when they can, or become comfortable taking more breaks on my own. In past years, I’ve used my solo vacation time to visit faraway friends, do long-haul craft projects with my mom, and spend the time on activities my partner isn’t interested in. These have been some of my most rejuvenating experiences in the last few years!

Do I deserve a vacation? (Spoiler: Yes!)

I recognize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege, as someone with a full time job and good PTO. If you’re in the same boat, remember that vacation time is part of the calculation of your compensation. As Renee Graham wrote directly to my anxieties (and for the Boston Globe, I guess): “Don’t leave your vacations on the table. You’ve worked for it, and it is owed to you. In these difficult and disorienting times, a vacation taken is not a vacation wasted.”

To be honest, I was nervous to ask off for the dates I did, and I was nervous to write this post. The academic culture of burnout and overwork as a signal of your virtuous commitment to education is really hard to push against. But please take breaks. Real ones, where you pretend your library doesn’t exist for 3, 4, or 5 whole days. Do it for your coworkers, so they feel inspired to take breaks too, do it for your students, who need models of healthy academic life, and do it for you.

Evaluating Evaluations During a Continuing Crisis

As we enter year two of this pandemic, I’m thinking about annual evaluations. At my university our annual evaluation schedule has library faculty writing our own annual reports and our appointments committee holding evaluation meetings in late Spring, and reappointment and tenure votes happen in the early Fall. And while schedules may differ at other colleges and universities, now that we’ve lived a full year with covid19 everyone has probably had an opportunity to go through the evaluation cycle at least once.

Last year there were lots of articles in higher education news outlets discussing the extraordinary circumstances of the abrupt shift to remote operations during the pandemic, and it seems like many (most?) institutions canceled student evaluations last Spring, as did my institution. While the college where I work extended due dates for faculty annual reports last year, they were still required, as were evaluation meetings and supervisor reports. This academic year our student evaluations of teaching are proceeding as usual, and all signs so far are that our annual reports and evaluations will be, too.

Librarians are faculty at my university and with the contractual requirements for evaluation dates and processes we’re not able to make changes at our local level in our library, so we’ll be going through the process the same way faculty in all departments are. But I still find myself wondering about the evaluation cycle this year. Should we be doing things the same way this year, when this year is still very much not the same as the pre-covid19 years? The uneven impact of pandemic on all aspects of academic life is well known by now, and especially for those already marginalized in higher education, including folx who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Abigail Goben and Nell Haynes are compiling a terrific bibliography of the effects of covid19 on women’s labor in particular, which has been especially concerning around time and resources for the research and scholarship often required for tenure and promotion. Just today there’s a new report from Ithaka S+R on the results of a survey that digs into the effects of the pandemic on women and caregivers, and the disparities in research and publishing are on stark display.

The faculty union at my university negotiated an optional tenure extension for those on the tenure track, and any faculty member can choose to extend their tenure clock by a year, to acknowledge the incredible disruptions of this past year. The process requires faculty to make that decision at the time that they come up for tenure, which to me has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s definitely true that for some untenured faculty, especially early career faculty, the pandemic might not end up having a big impact on their research and scholarship by the time they come up for tenure. Some may be working on research that can continue uninterrupted even with lockdowns and other restrictions, and others might have had to radically change or even cancel plans. Some may have newly available time and attention in their schedules to devote to their scholarship, without the need to commute, for example, while others have new responsibilities like homeschooling and other caregiving. Ithaka’s report highlights a similar decision at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that’s implemented differently: the one-year tenure deferment is automatic, and faculty who don’t want it can opt out.

I was glad to see annual evaluations as a topic of discussion at a recent department chairs meeting at my college; though I had to miss that meeting, a colleague attended in my place and brought back lots of useful notes. There seemed to be general agreement that extra attention is needed this year to be compassionate, constructive, and supportive in our evaluations. One chair noted that the annual evaluation is always a snapshot of a faculty member’s career – with faculty responsibilities in teaching, scholarship, and service, every year will not necessarily look the same even in non-pandemic times. I’m keeping in mind Dr. Amanda Visconti’s tweet during the CALM Conference earlier this month that quotes overhearing someone say “the pandemic is a stretch goal,” and I hope everyone who’s in the position of evaluator this year keeps that in mind, too. And with so much still uncertain for next year, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, as states take different approaches to getting back to “normal,” I hope the evaluation process can continue to adapt as the pandemic does, and continue to center support and compassion.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.

Lost in Exigency, Baby.

As a researcher of organizational communication, I have spent much of the past year observing and analyzing crisis communication by university and library leadership. Often I’m in the minority, praising communication and transparency I’ve observed from university responses to the pandemic, where others have been quick to find fault. Far from an apologist, my unpopular opinion just as often puts me at odds with leadership, especially when presenting views of those further removed from the hierarchy.

Kansas stirred up quite a bit of crisis communication last week as its Board of Regents (KBOR) unanimously passed a policy suspending University tenure protections aimed at addressing immediate budget challenges due to COVID-19. While no University is required to implement the new policy, KBOR gave Universities 45-days to respond with criteria and a process for invoking such a policy.

University administrators’ reaction to the policy was swift, either seeking broader input or acknowledging they would not implement. An open letter also quickly circulated, criticizing the policy as well as administrations who hadn’t joined in denouncing it outright. Without diminishing this alarmed response — the policy and its adoption are certainly worthy of it – my first and strongest impulse is always to ask questions.

One important question being asked is “why is a new policy needed?”

When KBOR’s Governance Board met to present and discuss this policy (around 19 minutes in), Regent Kiblinger asked this very question, in context and comparison to KBOR’s existing “financial exigency” policy. The response she got highlights several distinctions, while justifying it against other COVID-specific policy changes the Board has made.  The first key distinction, though, really struck me.

“It treats everyone the same.”

KBOR General Counsel, Julene Miller

The new KBOR policy (6.b.ii) creates a COVID-specific exigency (if you will) applicable to any state university employee without the declaration of financial exigency as a prerequisite. Who is affected is the current focus of both the response from Universities and indeed the essence of how this policy “treats everyone the same”. It is admittedly more complicated , but deceptively that simple.

This sentiment — a takeaway from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s very timely visit to my campus this week discussing Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press) – has bolstered an uncomfortable hunch I have about this current situation in Kansas.  Fitzpatrick calls for a radical rethinking of how we participate in our collective values as communities of learning with a “duty of care”. While faculty loudly address the failure of leadership to make clear or understand the value of academic freedom and shared governance promised by tenure, we fail recognize and acknowledge how its structures like tenure and governance have also been built and broken down in ways that no longer live up to the values they intended to secure.

The key differences in the policy getting the most attention have to do with who has input throughout the processes and changes to the advance notice, process of appeal, and the affected employees. These explicit limitations on who is consulted, their representation and due process do raise justifiable concerns on a number of levels, one of which may be the further erosion of academic tenure in and beyond Kansas.  But, remedying these concerns through a narrow lens of tenured faculty rights, just hits wrong. It misses the larger point, an opportunity even, that could be driving new and more equitable policy. Ironically, it misuses the privilege afforded by that which actually needs defending here.

What’s driving the policy?

The next set of distinctions the KBOR Governance Board outlined in its meeting mention the expedited timeline the new policy provides and an executive-centric role in the process. While financial exigency lacks as explicitly specific a process, it does ensure the executive role is shared with governance. We’ll come back to this.

But, first, the gist of the financial exigency. The Kansas Reflector summarized the policy even more succinctly [my emphasis inserted]:

Under existing Board of Regents’ policy, a state university must formally recognize a financial exigency that [has already] required elimination of non-tenured positions and operating expenditures. With the declaration, the universities could move ahead with reductions in tenured faculty positions.

By the open letter responding to this new policy asserting at the outset that, “procedures already exist to make decisions according to financial exigency as part of shared governance”, its authors acknowledge the similarly dire circumstances that concern both policies. KU’s rules and regulations for shared governance of financial exigency further emphasizes the gravity.

“Only as a last resort after all possible alternatives calculated to preserve the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning have been in good faith examined, and utilized or rejected, should the University consider the release of any tenured member of the faculty on the basis of Financial Exigency.

https://policy.ku.edu/governance/USRR#ArticleVII

If urgency of the circumstances are justifiably similar and this new COVID-19 specific policy is something clearly different than financial exigency, then how we talk about those differences matter.

The positive difference in the policy of financial exigency (shared governance) has already been noted. My question is why would we defend a policy that requires Universities to explicitly begin eliminating non-tenured lines before any tenured lines?

Because…tenure?

Like crises before it, COVID-19 has been both a global equalizer and a stark reminder of disparities resulting from all kinds of privilege. For KU employees COVID-19 has already forced temporary salary reductions across all employee types, additional hiring freezes, and top-down realignments that have resulted in administrative promotions and demotions, unpaid additional labor, and the voluntary and involuntary loss of good people and expertise.

Values and standards can certainly be upheld during unprecedented upheaval. The open letter reminds us “the statements of core values and standard practices [of academic freedom and tenure] were composed during moments of extraordinary societal upheaval and unrest—during the worst economic depression and the deadliest world war”. We must acknowledge they also occurred when “in some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.” Can we honestly say today, under circumstances similar or unique from crises of the past, that explicitly prioritizing the elimination of non-tenured faculty or staff actually “preserves the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning”, but eliminating any tenured faculty doesn’t?

What actually needs defending here?

What if Universities responded to the call for developing this framework with a generosity inherent in “it treats everyone the same”? What if a framework did include shared governance, adequate notice and appeal privileges, and did so (as the policy requires) for any state university employee?

Wouldn’t that be better than defending currently inequitable alternatives like financial exigency, or narrowly focusing on the academic freedom afforded only to tenured faculty?  Wouldn’t it be better than an institution publicly declaring they are (for now) not planning to submit criteria or implement the new policy as is?

These questions prevent me from defending an alternative of financial exigency as it exists. In posing these questions, I also acknowledge that KBOR’s approval of this policy without shared governance and transparency is indeed unprecedented in a manner that “degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students”. At the same time, I can see the issues it is attempting to address gives unprecedented opportunity for more equitable approaches to “save the university”.

Having worked for the State of Kansas in the KBOR system for more than 20 years, I have experienced the political and budgetary challenges to employee salaries and benefits from the vantage point of different employee statuses – classified and unclassified staff, tenure track and non-tenure track, and tenured faculty administration in which I have supervised or mentored all of the former. This given me access to perspectives some of my colleagues may not as readily share.

Clearly this issue has shaken more than the foundational principles of tenure. It has us questioning ourselves, our professional relationships, and our leadership at all levels. Ultimately, though, this is a good thing.  And while manifested poorly, both these polices, and at all times our privilege, should be open to further critique.

Shared governance is a privilege students, staff, and faculty can and should exercise on behalf of the most vulnerable. It calls us to use our collective voices not in self- or self-identifying preservation, but for giving unprecedented voice, participation, and due process for all employees. KU’s chancellor has publicly and internally sought input from governance, administrators, faculty, and staff across the university to determine this process, despite any requirement of the KBOR policy to do so – as he should! In addition to this invitation, it is our right and obligation to demonstrate how equity becomes and remains a prerequisite part of any policy.

Let’s get to it.