Room to Breathe

Open notebook with a pencil on it
Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

I like working in an academic environment because it follows a predictable emotional pattern—busy times in September and October, a little lull before Thanksgiving, the quietest January in the world. Of course, this depends on your job roles and how your school structures semesters, but I like knowing that across institutions, we’re all on a similar track. 

For me, library instruction has dropped off significantly for the semester at this point. I find more room to breathe, and with that there’s a little space to think about my performance. I’m a big fan of reflective teaching, but in the thick of back-to-back classes, there’s no time to assess myself. Then when I finally have a chance to think, I can’t remember the specifics of good and bad classes; they’ve pretty much become a blur of students and computer labs.

This year, I tried keeping a brief teacher journal. I didn’t worry about capturing much about each class, because I wanted the journal to be something I was able to keep up with. I just recorded the class, date, what went well and what I could improve. I tried to write about each session the same day or the day after, while the details were still fresh. 

Journaling isn’t a new practice for me—I’ve been keeping a personal journal since I was 13, and I’ve accumulated 30ish diaries of all shapes and sizes in my basement. (Sometimes I think, “Gee, what’s my endgame for all these journals? Ritual burning? Ah well, that’s a problem for my descendants!”) Every now and then when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll flip through a few.

The best part of having a 15-year record of your thoughts and feelings is that you can review them and see how you’ve grown…this can also be the worst part of having that much of your brain on the page. Insecurities I’d been obsessing over when I was 21 are total non-issues now. I read entries where I felt like my career was going nowhere, and it’s nice to “know what happens.” I’d say the main trend in my personal diaries is me learning to become comfortable with change.

And I saw trends in my teaching journal from the last year, too! Here’s a few:

  1. This was my first spring and fall semester at this new job. I see myself getting acclimated and learning about various faculty personalities.
  2. A repeated challenge for me was when I’d begin a class and realize that I’m the first person to talk about this assignment with the students. It throws me off when the teacher hasn’t introduced the research project to the class ahead of time. No one has had time to start thinking about a topic yet! I am still working on how to make the most of those classes.
  3. I noted the instructors whose teaching style I admired; I’ve come to know some of those instructors better since I started here, and it’s nice to see I was identifying role models early on.
  4. This line made me laugh: “I am finally in a groove, and I felt like I communicated things in a fun, easy to understand way. Just in time for my last class of the semester…” 

How’s this semester been for all of you? If you’re still in the thick of it, good luck! I hope you find some room to breathe soon.

When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Supporting Each Other as Librarian Researchers

We’re at an interesting stage in the library where I work. Retirements and folks moving on to other opportunities have meant that we’ve done a fair amount of hiring over the past almost-five years. The result is that right now we have more untenured library faculty than tenured, and most of our tenured library faculty are interested in seeking promotion in the future. With so many research-active librarians (myself included!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to support us all in our scholarly goals. We’re all at different stages in our scholarly work, some beginning to develop a research agenda, and others immersed in long-term projects; some of us working individually, and others in collaboration with colleagues in and outside our library, at our institution and others.

I’ve been interested to read about Angie’s and Hailley’s experiences at the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, which have provided lots of food for thought about how to integrate research into our work as academic librarians. At my university we’re fortunate that library faculty have research leave available for the first 5 years of their tenure track (as do faculty in other departments), and all librarians have a fairly generous annual leave allocation and can apply for additional research time as well. While library faculty are on 12-month contracts and still don’t have as much time for their research as do faculty in other departments, the various forms of leave are super important for making progress on our scholarship.

Even with our leave, it can be a challenge to develop and sustain our research in practice. Over the summer I spent some time talking with my colleagues in small groups of folks who are at roughly the same point in their tenure or promotion track, chatting over coffee about what kinds of support they’re most interested in, and thinking on ways we might all support each other. Collectively our research is topically diverse: some of us work primarily in LIS, others outside of LIS, and some do both. We’re a small library — including me, we have 13 library faculty right now — and, combined with our varying degrees of experience in scholarly research, we’re in a good position to mentor each other both collaboratively as well as individually.

It’s been terrific to see the informal mentoring and support we’re all giving each other at the library where I work, and I’m actively working on ways we can keep that going and add more structure. Each week over the summer I blocked two hours in our library classroom for what we’re calling reading-writing-research coworking. Scholarly work can be lonely work, and while it’s expected that we’ll do our scholarship off-campus while on those various forms of leave, we wanted to make some space for that work together in the library as well. Everyone’s schedule is different, and of course folks were out for vacation over the summer, too, but we held that space and time every week for whomever was around and available (myself included!) to come in and get some work done on their research.

With the busy semester starting up soon (and our library classroom needed for instruction) we will probably reduce the coworking timeslots to once or twice a month, and I’m thinking on other opportunities for support. Earlier in the summer I pulled together an annotated list of research-focused resources, including long-time favorites like A Library Writer’s Blog and relative newcomer The Librarian Parlor, just to name two. I’ve shared this with my colleagues and left it open for editing so that we can continue to add to it. During our summer group chats I also heard that more informal opportunities for research conversations would be welcome, so I’m hoping to schedule some time for coffee and cookies and research conversations a few times during the upcoming semester, too. And I’ll keep asking my colleagues what they need to support their research; in my experience it’s completely normal for a research agenda and practice to evolve over time, and I expect we’ll need to change or add to our scholarly support strategies over time, too.

What are your best practices for supporting librarian research? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know.

You Should Really Think About Publishing Something

It’s a piece of “advice” we’ve all received at some point or another in our academic librarian career. We may be on the tenure-track, in a continuing appointment position, promotion eligible, or classified as administrative staff. But at some point we’ve all heard some variation of the following statement:

You should really think about publishing something.

Sometimes it’s said in passing by a colleague who received similar feedback at some point. Others times it comes up in conversations with supervisors, mentors, or department chairs. It might be a breezy statement or one laced with concern. It frequently shows up around review or promotion time or sometimes just when someone happens to look at a cv or think it might be appropriate. When and how it comes into being, it remains a supremely unhelpful statement. It’s the kind of statement that causes more angst and stress than positive action. It reinforces the idea that a line on a CV is what’s important. It has the potential to create writing prompted by fear and/or a desire to “get a name out there” or just to “get something published.”

Those of us who teach and work with undergraduate students focus on helping students value their curiosity and prior knowledge so that they can cultivate their own research interests and produce work that elicits pride. We don’t tell students that they should just “write something.” We ask them to think about what sparks their interest. In our classes we practice asking questions rooted in curiosity and wanting to know more about an idea or subject. We focus on research as an iterative process and the way that new ideas emerge from the reading we do, the conversations we have, and the thoughts with which we wrestle. We do this because it helps students improve their thinking and writing, and it creates a connection to their work. I want us to have this time connection to our own work.

A friend and colleague once told me that their most productive writing time was the year after their sabbatical year. That year off from teaching and service work gave them a chance to read, explore different ideas, and find space for themselves within a meaningful academic conversation. That’s the difficult stuff–the stuff that takes the most time. Instead of saying “You really should think about publishing something,” we could encourage reading, questioning, and exploration. We could make time in our workplaces–which might mean dropping something else–for professional reading. We could share our own research interests and ideas with our newer colleagues and help them spark their own interests. We could ask questions about their practice, listen to their ideas and concerns, and encourage their interests. Small questions are sometimes the most interesting! Would could embrace the practice of curiosity.

There are so many more productive, helpful things we can say and do to encourage writing and research within academic librarianship. What was the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received?

Making the space: Researching beyond IRDL

I’ve spent the last week at the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). Most of the workshop has happened in the beautiful William H. Hannon Library on Loyola Marymount’s campus. Last month on the blog I talked about my preparation for this week-long research workshop. The week has been a whirlwind and it’s hard to believe we’re finishing up today (Saturday). I have learned a lot — about the research process, the projects my cohort members are working on, and about librarianship at a variety of institutions. I feel energized and excited about conducting strong LIS research. My research project has changed and evolved and I’m headed back to Penn State with a stronger version of what I submitted back in January.

Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been intentional about creating space for this learning and research. When I was preparing for IRDL, my research mentor mentioned in an email that I should set aside my work for the week in LA. I took their words to heart; I put on my out-of-office message, alerted my co-workers that I wouldn’t be responding, and haven’t replied to anything. I put my work in Pennsylvania on hold and that allowed me to concentrate on the material being covered. I had the chance to develop my project, connect with my peers, and apply what I was learning.

And everything was okay.

My colleagues respected my time to be away and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this work. This time pushed me to spin my wheels, read more of the student engagement and involvement literature, and craft a journey map template for student engagement opportunities. During our workshop days, I got to spend time with my peers and work through the research process together. We spent an hour crafting 10 survey questions and an afternoon deciding on a set of questions for a focus group. What I learned was that in order to get the data you need, you have to be willing to devote uninterrupted time to finding ways to ask good questions. A good survey just doesn’t happen; it requires thoughtful decisions, defined variables, and a pilot test. This stuff cannot be rushed.  

So yes, it was great that I had this time to think, process, and experiment. This time was exactly what I needed. But I know that once I’m back in Pennsylvania, all those other priorities will return. IRDL has been good for lots of things, including forcing me to consider how I should spend my time when I come home.

The question I keep returning to is: how do you create this meaningful space for research work? How can I replicate the work environment of this week? Can I find ways to be just as intentional about setting aside work for this work when I’m back in Pennsylvania? I have never been good about blocking time and asking for that time to stay uninterrupted. In order for me to do this project, and to do it well, I’ll need to start defining those boundaries more clearly. It’s a habit to be developed.

But it’s not something that I have to do on my own. Community is always an important piece of my librarianship and with research, community support is important. We built LibParlor to create community and now, after a week in Los Angeles, I have a new community to lean on. We tell the students we teach that research isn’t a solo process and that’s a good reminder for us too. Throughout IRDL, I have seen the strength of collaborating with others for surveys, interview questions, and inferential statistics. It’s better to tackle that stuff with someone else and I’m thankful my research network community continues to grow. And I know they will help hold me accountable for the time I need for this project.

While I’m still figuring this out, I’m sure others have some ideas. So, how have you created this space? How have you found balance between the day-to-day of your job with the time to research? How do you depend on and support your research community?


Featured image of the William H. Hannon Library, taken by the author of this post.