Seven years later

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.

In 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of being a First Year Academic Librarian blogger for ACRLog. As part of this “where are they now” series, let’s talk about the years since I last blogged here.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to blog is I had absolutely no professional network as a new librarian. Librarianship was a second career and I worked in a lab while taking courses online at night. We had class meetups in Nashville, but the department was in Knoxville and things like collaboration, mentoring, and research opportunities were a step removed from campus. ACRLog got me the attention of people I still call friends. As a new and rootless academic librarian on the tenure trail, the blogging experience was incredibly helpful to me.

Since I stopped blogging in 2013, a lot of things have happened at University of Akron, many for the bad. Our enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students total which caused predictable Survivor-style winnowing of the workforce via layoffs, not filling positions, and buyouts. There are about half the library faculty as when I arrived and a liaison system seems unrealistic given staffing levels that cannot support the number of subject librarians one would need to do the idea justice. I personally am liaison to nine departments, about 120 faculty and around 1,900 students. I remember being at a conference and someone saying they had 700 students they were liaison for and the room gasped. I was jealous.

I have had, as of now, five university presidents, three provosts, and two library deans. There were many retirements, one of which was my direct supervisor who retired at the end of 2015. I was asked if I would be interim head of the Science & Technology Library, which I agreed to and began in January 2016. A colleague who was more experienced turned down the opportunity, and I was the only other faculty in the branch at that moment. I took the job and had absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian duties as physical sciences librarian.

I had more than five years of management experience going into the job, so the mechanical parts of management (budgeting and HR stuff) were pretty easy. But it was difficult to leave the faculty bargaining unit, my spot on Faculty Senate, and in general go over to “the other side”. I maintain that my most significant accomplishments as Interim head of the S&T Library are helping relocate the engineering tutoring program physically within the library and getting snack machines put outside the library entrance so students wouldn’t have to leave the building after hours for food. I believe students are more appreciative of the latter accomplishment. After a calm and relatively successful time in this position, another colleague left library management at University of Akron for library management at Harvard University – a career downgrade I still don’t understand. (Don’t send that email, it’s a joke.) Given the particular personal and professional dynamics of the workgroup, I was offered the opportunity to take over leadership of yet another unit. I accepted and became an assistant dean (“ass dean” of course) in December of 2017. If you are following along at home, this is lab rat to assistant dean in less than five and a half years. At the beginning of this position I had two staff, two contract professionals, and seven faculty librarians as direct reports.

When I took this new role, there was absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian or interim department head duties. I was, quite simply, doing what had once been three jobs (actually more than three jobs, as the S&T Head had absorbed a third of a job before retirement). Also, I was on the tenure clock trying to produce an appropriate number of articles, presentations, and accomplishments in professional service to meet our promotion benchmarks. In this I was successful – I got tenure and promotion in July 2018. I would be curious to learn of other tenure track assistant deans who had the position without tenure yet. I gather it’s a very rare occurrence, but is also a sign of how much upheaval was happening at my place of work.

This is when burnout started to set in. I could do the job, or the three jobs, but I could not do the three jobs well. I was spinning plates, putting out fires, and other notable metaphors for spasmodic action. This period really sucked because working hard to be adequate is a poor trade. Department chairs had a group that met regularly and talked about common issues, not so with assistant deans. I felt my social world constrain at work, and being a manager is hard emotional labor. I learned about the fears, difficulties, illnesses, and family situations of my colleagues at a deeper level than I really wanted. Shouldering all that personal grief and pain for everyone was difficult, more so because the universe of people I could talk to about it was so, so small.

I also started having clashes with coworkers – sometimes about performance issues, sometimes about claims unbacked by facts, sometimes about the direction of the university and the library. It was honestly a miserable experience that I stayed in too long because of money (pro-tip – you make extra money in administration) and not wanting to abandon my dean who also has a huge workload. The final breaking point was an interim president seemingly hell-bent on making the worst decision possible, implemented and communicated in the worst and most aggressive way possible. I mulled it over for many months and asked to step down at the end of July 2019. When I told my wife about the decision, in part to apologize because we would be living leaner, she said, “Oh thank God.” The person who knows me best had been wishing for me to get out of the situation for months and was overjoyed.

The classic union song, “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. My dad was an autoworker and union activist and I remember seeing Pete Seeger sing this evergreen tune live in Detroit. To say that unionism is part of my life is an understatement – it’s a bedrock element of my identity. Increasingly, while a dean, I felt that I was on the wrong side. The university response to economic crisis was, to me, authoritarian and inexplicable, explanations didn’t make sense and discussion was not welcome. The herky-jerky management led to a lot of wasted effort around the university as plans had to be discarded almost as fast as you could attempt implementation. If you do go into academic leadership, you are carrying water for the upper leadership and their decisions – you don’t get to hide when you disagree and leaving the position is the most honest thing you can do if you don’t like what’s happening. I think the only thing I really miss is the occasional (and very flattering) head hunter emails I used to get. Right after I left management, we hired a new university president who is, so far, “pinch yourself, am I dreaming” good. His wizardly move? Running the university like other institutions.

Since leaving management I have become union liaison for University Libraries and was then elected to the Akron-AAUP executive committee. Guess I just like being in the middle of things. I’ve been able to refocus on my librarianship, which I only had three years to figure out before taking on managerial duties, and reconnect with faculty friends. I’ve been able to refocus on previous projects I had to drop before – like learning more about data. I am happier and get more enjoyment from my job. Ultimately, my stint as an assistant dean didn’t suit my values and that internal conflict started leaking out in my disposition. I don’t think the state of Ohio or the university is well-served by eliminating traditional majors and steering students into class delivery modes, and possibly majors, they don’t really prefer. Right now there’s a risk of universities outsourcing their teaching to a cyborg nightmare of Pearson, Cengage, and Blackboard due to financial desperation. That is a future worth fighting against.

Which side are you on?

How To Be the Youngest Person in the Room

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Catie Carlson, Director of Pfeiffer Library at Tiffin University.

If you were a traditional student who went straight to library school and then found themselves working in an academic library shortly later, you probably experienced it. It being the confident, new librarian who wants to help students succeed only to be confused for a student yourself. At first it can be flattering, but it can quickly become frustrating when you want to have authority and respect in a room. For good examples of why and how that can happen (as well as for a few unfortunate trolls), I recommend reading the comments and replies to Jenny Howell’s tweet.

Dr. Howell is describing the biases and discrimination that exist for young women in academia. She is also touching on imposter syndrome, which is no stranger to ACRLog posts. We all feel not-smart-enough, not-good-enough, not-insert-adjective-here-enough to belong in librarianship and academia at some point. Typically this is just described as a state of mind, such as Veronica describing her internal monologue or Zoe confessing her insecurities fueling her imposter syndrome. However, age and gender can create a physical embodiment of those feelings. These can manifest in ways such as Dr. Howell’s description, being confused as a student, or even being called a “baby” within the profession.

I am no stranger to feeling imposter syndrome. As a young librarian, working with senior faculty could be intimidating with their vast experience in comparison to my newness. I would get nervous if I couldn’t come up with a quick answer for a student fearing they’d think I was useless. These are natural scenarios when you are a “baby” in a profession. With personal relationships eventually forming with these people, it became less intimidating to work with the faculty. As I became more familiar with student needs at my institution, I was taken less off-guard by surprise questions. Slowly, though I was still a “baby librarian,” imposter syndrome started to wane, which is good. Being a “baby librarian” is a problematic way to describe yourself because you’ve worked hard to be in this profession, but it’s even more troublesome when you feel you can accept the term regardless of its connotations. However, imposter syndrome would still appear at times: on an insecure day, when I made a mistake, or in a new interaction with someone.

After just a few years at a small institution, a retirement left the director role as an option. I had only been a librarian for a few years, but I had shown my value to the institution over that time. More than one person encouraged me to apply to the job, but I was on the fence. While I welcome a challenging opportunity to enable self-growth, this seemed like a stretch. Imposter syndrome would start all over with such a promotion. Despite these doubts, I applied, I interviewed, and I accepted a directorship before the age of 30 years old.

While I knew my insecurities in accepting a leadership position going into the role, there were some things I did not expect. Having never been in the position, I had no idea what it is like to be a young female in a leadership meeting, and by that, I mean being the only young female in a leadership meeting. When I sit at a table with our three school deans and Provost, I am one of two females in the room and I am the only millennial. I think it is safe to say there isn’t even a Gen X in the room. When I attend library director meetings across our state, the scenario does not change much. Essentially, I went from being a “baby librarian” to a “baby leader” and so the problematic way of viewing of oneself continues.

It can be scary and lonely to not see a peer in the room, especially when the expectation is for you to be a leader in that room. With just a few years now under my belt, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I hate leaving problems unresolved. Therefore, here are some things I have found helpful to shed the imposter syndrome again:

Be Confident
Years of experience are important, but they are not everything. Always remember that you got this far for a reason. I have to tell myself every day: You weren’t given a position; you earned it. I tell myself twice, three times or four when I have big meetings. It helps even if just a little.

Play to Your Strengths
I love utilizing technology in my work and life. I once sat in a meeting where the leaders talked about an upcoming survey for us. I offered to just do it then while in discussion because (as always) I had a laptop and it would take 5 minutes to create, distribute, and move on. While it prompted millennial jokes from my colleagues, one approached me after the meeting, apologized for the jokes, thanked me for my initiative, and complimented my technology skills. Moral of the story: People will notice when you know what you’re doing.

Be Proactive
Volunteer for things. It’s how they will eventually notice your great work just like in my survey creation. No one asked me to do it, but I knew I could do it quickly and it would ease the load for others. People like this, but academics must always be cautious about burn out.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
You’re the youngest one in the room and you will be judged. It’s unfair, but I still think it’s the truth. If you screw up, they will notice more than if you succeed. Research, prepare, and practice for everything – then do it again and again. If you succeed enough, maybe you can continue to be that youngest-in-the-room scenario.

Build the Relationships
Senior leaders can help, and those that are willing will mentor you. Without some great mentors in professional organizations, I would not know half of what I know now. Your mentors can help you prepare as suggested in number 4. Their years of experience do come with knowledge, and we’re fortunate enough to be in a profession that values knowledge sharing. Key example, look at the blog you’re reading. Also, don’t forget that the more you work with your colleagues, the more you get to know them, and that personal relationships will again make it less scary to be there.

Be True to Yourself
When I became a leader, it felt like I had to do a lot of image related things to make it true and to be respected, especially at a young age. I’ve realized that trying to fulfill that preconceived notion won’t make it so. Therefore, I won’t be the post that tells you to network if that’s not your thing. People notice you for you and will also notice insincerity and discomfort. To be successful, you have to be yourself.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to have the years of experience (though they don’t usually hurt). Not a day goes by for me without thinking about the day’s growth opportunities and how each day builds on the last day. However, being new to a field, to a position, or to life doesn’t make your ideas and hard work any less valuable. We need fresh ideas, eyes, and experiences to continue to grow and adapt our profession so don’t let anyone refer to you as a baby. (Question: Have any men new to the profession been referred to in this way? I’d love to hear from you!)

At the very least, remember that you’re only young once. You get older every day of the year. One day, you won’t be the youngest in room any more. That may be a sad day; I certainly am no longer looking forward to it. When that day comes, remember where you started and be the always-needed-mentor.

Lesson: Culture is Hungry

Two weeks ago, I attended the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians at the University of Minnesota. The Institute is a week-long program focusing upon academic librarians within their first three years of librarianship from diverse backgrounds. The main faculty are Kathryn Deiss and DeEtta Jones.

This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.

When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning.  My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.

I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.

I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:

Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018
Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018

Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.

Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”

The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.

In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.

 

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

On Leadership: Doing it Right, but Dancing

Lots of things leading up to a post on leadership lately, such as contemplating my own privilege, planning strategic priorities, and experiencing the challenges of parenting tweenagers. But mostly, I think this post is in typical response to evaluation time, which requires me to describe competencies and expectations of leadership, both for managers and  for staff and faculty without management or supervision responsibilities.

What I hate most about leadership conversations is what I see as an arbitrary division between leadership and management. I particularly dislike the adage that addresses these differences as:

Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.

I don’t believe in this division, probably because when I was as a manager, I did all kinds of things wrong, and as a leader I never feel like there is a clear right answer to things. My personal philosophy of leadership is more fluid. Ultimately, I believe we all practice a little of both.  As a librarian, especially, this comes from my observation that library managers and leaders typically come up from the ranks of library workers. In my experience, this places a high value on skills of librarianship over the particular skills of leadership, or in the management of library process over the relational management of people or teams. I admit this is perhaps just as oversimplified as the former adage, but does help me with a point.

The danger I see in the phenomenon of manager-heavy leaders in libraries is a tendency to devalue inspiring and motivating aspects of leadership.  There is also the risk of micromanagement when scaling effective management of processes to people. When I was a staff member in the ranks, I felt the biggest issue of leadership and management had to do with opportunities for development, organizational communication, and curbing supervisory micromanagement. As a leader, I still hear the call for better communication and less micromanagement, but at the same time there remains a preference for managers who are leaders and experts in doing, and a general distaste for too much touchy-feely inspiring and motivation. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Certainly people skills and leadership skills come just as the practical librarian skills come, with both learning and doing.  This has been true for me, especially with respect to gaining confidence in my relational side, improving my communication, and managing stress.  I also recognize my strengths in learning and analytical thinking, which plays out in a constant cycle of reflection, learning, and self-correction. A necessary part learning from doing is how it prompts a realization for development and how we make time for meeting that need.

Beyond demonstrating the value of leadership development, it is extremely challenging to build in time for this. Especially as leaders come from within the ranks, rarely is there a swift and seamless transition of duties.  It is often hard to let go of former responsibilities.  Not only are we increasingly asked to do more with less, but many find the certainty of former tasks a necessary coping mechanism during the change and uncertainty of a new leadership role. Yet some of the most excellent leaders I’ve known can be so heavily bogged down with their doing that they unintentionally give themselves and their staff the perception that they are too busy to bother with people-concerns, or for training that does not appear directly tied to doing. Finding a better balance remains an imperative for doing the right thing by the people I lead. But, I know the solution consists of something more than just good delegation.

In a Covey training I was once tasked to put my personal philosophy into a single word, for which I chose dance.  This word — and I went a step further with a theme song — best reflects the ebb and flow of leadership for me. Doing it right, but dancing. This helps me see leadership as a more nebulous evolution between structured intention and carving out time (choreography), learning and development (feeling the music), and the need to just do something (dance!).  I’m learning that you can’t take away too much doing from leadership.  Staff don’t respect it, and library leaders and managers don’t function well as leaders without it.  So, I’m trying to find good ways to facilitate managers and staff to embrace delegation of the doing, nurture an ongoing development of strengths and weaknesses, while giving plenty of a space for dancing.

What is your current leadership/management philosophy?  How do you, or your leaders and managers, balance doing things right and doing right by people?

Please share theme songs if you’ve got ‘em!
Want more on leadership? See http://acrlog.org/tag/leadership/