Five Healthy Coping Strategies for Dealing with Rejection in Academic Librarianship

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

“Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

Roy T. Bennett

I put myself out there. A lot. I’ve lost count of the number of awards and scholarships I’ve applied to throughout my education and career. I do remember that I was rejected for every single one of them. I really love and recommend this free webinar by Dr. Kate Drabinski on dealing with rejection in academia. One of ACRLog’s former First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers, Quetzalli Barrientos, also wrote a fantastic post on getting rejected in the library world. While more and more of us are beginning to talk about rejection in academia, it’s still a fairly taboo topic that’s difficult and requires radical vulnerability to open up about. So this month, I want to discuss developing healthy coping strategies for getting comfortable with rejection. Here are five of my strategies for dealing with — and accepting — rejection in academic librarianship:

Keep an affirmations file

An affirmations file is a place to keep track of your successes: an e-mail congratulating you on a recent project from a colleague, an award you’ve won or been nominated for, and the positive things students and colleagues have said about you, for starters. Your affirmations file can be physical or digital; use whatever format you know you’ll return to when you need a quick hit of confidence and shot of self-esteem.

Be vulnerable and ask for help

I am a firm believer in the power of radical vulnerability. I think one of the bravest things we can do is ask for help. Whether you’re workshopping a potential journal article or writing a conference proposal, another person’s feedback can be invaluable as it lends a new lens to your work that can help you see things in new or different way and/or how you might improve your work. Find folks who are in your corner and are willing to help you with your work before you submit it – then return the favor when you’re able to, especially to new professionals!

Talk about it

Talking about rejection is crucial. Talking about the things we’re ashamed and fearful of or that are simply taboo is a way to take that power away from them while creating a space for others to share their stories and experiences as well. Ask your colleagues about how they deal with rejection.These conversations about rejections can also lend to new ideas and collaborative partnerships. You never know what might be born from a rejection!

Collaboration over competition

It’s easy to see our colleagues as our competition when we have a scarcity mindset (the belief that there will never be enough, thus our thoughts and actions stem from a place/fear of lack.) Capitalism encourages this. Academia does too, convincing us that our colleagues are our enemies, rather than potential allies and advocates, to keep us from building collective power. While not everyone has our best interests at heart, many of our colleagues could be fantastic co-conspirators, collaborators, and partners in projects, papers, or proposals. I would especially encourage more seasoned librarians to reach out to early-career librarians and ask them what their research interests and career goals are, with the end goal of partnering on a paper or project in mind. On our own, we can only do so much. Together, whether as collaborators, co-conspirators, and/or as a collective, we can create real change.

View rejection as a learning opportunity and keep going!

After being rejected for so, so, SO, many scholarships to attend conferences, I finally started asking for feedback on what would make my application stronger from the awards committee. Thanks to their generous feedback, I learned a lot about what I could do to not only write better statements but to make myself a stronger candidate for awards and scholarships. Finally, this year, I was awarded my first conference scholarship – the ACRL/NY 2019 Symposium Early-Career Librarian scholarship award! 

Discuss further

In the comments section, I encourage you to share what feelings rejection brings up for you, as well as your own tips for coping with rejection.

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu

Liasion Bricolage: Making Do, Gaining Responsibilities and Burnout

My work dramatically changed when I dropped scholarly communication for liaison librarianship last Spring. It has not been a clean break. I was a functional specialist with liaison duties at Utah State and I find myself a liaison with functional duties at the University of Washington. In part because my former job gives me an area of expertise that is helpful to the departments I serve. This has made me think about the role of expertise in our climate of academic librarianship. What are we expected to know for faculty and students? What should a reference librarian know about specialties and how do we balance these different experiences?

The idea of the two roles of academic librarianship, split between functional and subject related expertise, is something explored in library literature since at least the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, this is the introduction of “non-librarians” into library employment (Lihua and Guogang 2013) but more often this distinction has been brought up in the changing roles of subject librarians. Most fundamental to my understanding of my role as a humanities subject librarian has been the decreased emphasis on subject expertise as a requirement, as indicated in reports like Ithaka S+R’s Rethinking Liaison Programs for the Humanities from July 2017.

In this report, Cooper and Schonfeld comment that because of demand-driven acquisitions “the role of subject expertise is less needed for selection of general materials” as librarians have moved from a traditional “bibliographer” role into liaison positions (2). The transition from subject librarian to liaison librarian marks a departure from the subject expertise once necessary to build large reflective disciplinary collections into a sort of go-between between department and library. This isn’t to suggest that subject expertise is completely unnecessary for our positions only that it is less important in our most traditional role as collection managers. Cooper and Shonfeld suggest that having subject expertise is important for helping provide the services libraries are growing in specialized and research-oriented areas. An example is that knowing how a discipline does research is essential to meeting student and faculty expectations (2). Furthermore, this expertise can blend into more functional areas according to Cooper and Shonfeld such as “geospatial, statistical and data, digital humanities, and other forms of expertise, including undergraduate instruction and information literacy,” beyond the traditional expectations of reference librarianship (2).

In some ways, I believe that this meets our users where they need us; they need experience in digital humanities for example because of burgeoning scholarly interest in many humanities disciplines. But we also have to think about our ongoing budget constraints and “do more with less” attitudes, that have dominated libraries, and the public sector as a whole, following the economic slowdowns of 2001 and 2008. Gwen Evans, in a chapter on using student staff to do programming work, connects this to Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage (Evans 2011, 229). Levi-Strauss writes:

The Bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project…but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions of destructions. (Levi-Strauss 22)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1966, 22

Bricoleur has no real English equivalent but Levi-Strauss likens it to “handy man.” The connections between this and contemporary library field are clear. We make do with what we have and, when it comes to liaison positions, we have risen to meet the challenges without the means to hire staff to cover all the needs. Instead the transition away from traditional subject librarianship to liaison librarianship has opened reference librarians to a world of new technologies and responsibilities. In this case the “whatever is at hand” happens to be the liaison librarian positions we find at every academic library, as the library moves away from the PhD Librarian bibliographer. Undoubtedly, this leads to the doubling up of positions as institutions, especially those with large FTE but small budgets, combine positions beyond what might be possible for a single person to handle.

Unfortunately, I think that it is necessary in a lot of ways, as Cooper and Shonfeld state, to understand how research is being done in our fields is to be conversant in new technologies and research applications. Yet much of this is grounded in how we talk about librarianship and assess our success. When I was rolling these thoughts around in my brain, I was struck by my colleague Veronica Arellano Douglas’s post from last month on Efficiency and library assessment where she asks “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.” The same can be asked about specialties, when did the library become about how many specialties we can match each librarian to? What complicates this further is that ff the expectation is to do as Cooper and Shonfeld state and have a little expertise in all the potential skills needed in a subject area, where do the functional specialists in the library or around campus come in? In other words, at what point are we patching together our house as bricoleurs as opposed to building a new one as an engineer? Is such a system sustainable over long periods of time?

This is hyperbole because no one is asking librarians to be experts in everything, but it is not far from the expectations placed on us from either the doom-filled future or our own role in the academe. From my personal experience, I have seen that many of these bricoleur jobs fall onto younger professionals who struggle to keep up with all their tasks and responsibilities as well as balancing promotion and tenure (if their institutions have that). Young professional adept at balancing those different tools and constructions will invariably be asked to take on more projects with the same, and perhaps less, resources at their disposals until they can’t afford to take on anymore. Furthermore, the taking on of many more responsibilities has been used to combat perceptions of imposter syndrome. For myself I know that becoming an expert in digital humanities (whatever that might mean) gave me the gravitas to work closely with teaching faculty even though I felt clearly that I was not one of them. This could and does, if not checked, lead to burn out.

I have been frank with colleagues at both institutions and on Twitter about my own burnout and my steps to prevent burnout from happening again. As a new professional, three years feels like a lifetime but its relatively new in terms of a career, there is always pressure to be this bricoleur. Especially to make do with an increasing amount of responsibilities and expertise with little return in resources or time. How many of us are asked to drop something when picking up slack? Yet, I am confused as to whether or not this is our expected role in the future of being a liaison. Expectations from our departments range from pure collection development, to the teaching of library databases, to the teaching of research skills, to, finally, the teaching of subject specific knowledge. This last quarter I taught a session on writing program notes for performances which blurred the lines between research expertise and subject specific knowledge. This does not branch too far from my positional expectations, but it changes what I can do for my department. The same can be said about more functional types of library work. Without proper guidance, which I have been lucky to have thus far, liaison librarianship can easily go out of control with an investment in each student and faculty research direction. Where does being a liaison stop and where do the functional experts begin?

Being at an institution with a wealth of experts around the library and campus makes this decision a little more complicated. How often am I expected to bricolage my way through a liaison experience rather than pass users on to my more knowledgeable colleagues? For assessment purposes, I might want to do all that I can. This has been, and I believe will continue to be, unclear in many liaison programs. It is not a fault of individual liaison programs but rather, as noted in much of the literature, that the role of the liaison is changing, and we don’t quite know where it will end up. Along the way we might leave a lot of burned out liaisons in our wake.

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.