Grappling with My Faculty Identity

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at the Regis University, Denver, Colorado.

When I began applying for academic library jobs late last year, I was introduced to the wild world of academic personnel classification. First, I figured out what tenure was and what that might mean for my own career. I then discovered that there are tenure track librarians on 9 or 12 month contracts, faculty librarians who are not tenure track, librarians who are not classified as faculty, and everything in between. It was complicated, and I didn’t quite understand what my status might mean in the greater context of the university or college I would work for. In fact, I’m still grappling with my identity on campus, what it means in relation to my colleagues, and how rank influences interactions.

In April, I became a faculty research and instruction librarian at a small university. We do not have tenure, but we are on a rank and promotion track, which means that I have service requirements to students and the university and requirements to contribute to the profession through presentations, publications, and research so that I can be promoted. There are a mix of tenure track and non tenure track positions at my university, and the designation depends heavily on the college. Complicating these designations are the histories behind them. There used to be a faculty union for some of the colleges, but that union dissolved. The library used to have tenure, and some librarians still have tenure, but new librarians do not. I learn new information every day about my university’s history, college structures and classifications, and I’m still confused. It’s like a jumbled bowl of faculty spaghetti. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out, and this is just one college campus.

I’m not usually one to care about titles, what I’m called, or what my status is; however, I’m discovering that other people really do care and that has implications for how they interact with me. What I’ve started to care about is how people perceive what I do. It seems that a large part of my job is fixing people’s perceptions of my job and advocating for it in the first place. Veronica Arellano Douglas recently posted an article that helped me reflect on some of my feelings. A lot of times, I think I’m seen as a resource or as something that can be used by others instead of as an educator and expert in my own field of study. There was a conversation on Twitter recently about this idea that librarians are seen as helpers rather than colleagues. This comes across in emails where colleagues ask me to present an impossible list of things in a 20 minute period or introduce me as a magician who can pull resources out of thin air instead of a colleague that studied and practiced and is an expert in her field. Or, there are comments of surprise that the librarians attenda so many events (it’s literally our job and we want to support our students and colleagues), though attending campus events can sometimes be a struggle when we’re left off the invite list.

Which brings me back to labels. What does it mean if I’m classified as faculty but am not always treated as one? What I think it means is that I have to do a bit more work to build relationships and collaborate with other faculty members. When a colleague remarked that it’s nice the library is invited to faculty events, we had a conversation about how librarians are invited because we’re also faculty. If I receive an instruction request that includes too many topics or doesn’t give me enough time to teach, I can push back and inform them how I approach instruction. I’m trying to find my boundaries and tell colleagues “this is what I do” instead of “is it okay if I do this?” because I don’t need permission to do my job. I’m having conversations about my role in educating students, pointing out opportunities for collaboration, and valuing my own skills and expertise. Many of my colleagues are really receptive and great to work with. I’ve had success teaching classes that go beyond the one-shot model because colleagues were open to the idea that we could have more than one class. I’ve also helped colleagues create research projects for students and brainstorm ideas to teach students information literacy topics. Those moments feel like a win.

I’d also like to point out that, as a new librarian, this is all very terrifying. For one, I feel like an imposter half the time, and I’m also a young female that’s mistaken for a student more often than not so talking to seasoned academics is intimidating. However, I’d like to believe, even if I weren’t classified as faculty, that I’d still be having these conversations and building these relationships with my colleagues. I have to remind myself that I know a lot of stuff and I can make a substantial contribution to my university, our students, and the library profession. For now, I’m going to keep learning all that I can about my university, continue building meaningful relationships with my colleagues, and perhaps one day, figure this academia thing out.

How are librarians classified on your campus? What do your relationships with faculty look like?

Seeking First Year Academic Librarian Bloggers

With the brand new academic year coming up soon (or perhaps, for some of you, already begun!), we’re looking to bring on a few brand new academic librarian bloggers here at ACRLog. We’d like to thank Abby Flanigan and Nisha Mody for their terrific posts this past year in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. We’d also like to encourage new academic librarians — those who are just beginning in their first position at an academic library — to blog with us during their first year.

If you’re interested in applying to be a FYAL blogger here at ACRLog, please use the ACRLog Tip Page to contact us by September 10. Along with your contact info, please send:

– a sample blog post
– a brief note describing your job and your interest in blogging at ACRLog during your first year as an academic librarian

Please send any questions to We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

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.


Another Goodbye

Well, today is my last post for ACRLog. When I started writing last October, I was in the middle of my first year of librarianship. Now I’ve got a year and half under my belt, and I don’t think I can claim the mantle of “first year experience” anymore. It’s time for me to move on to other things and make room for the next crop of first year librarians. I’ll still be grappling with many of the same questions I’ve written about this year, but I’m looking forward to entering my second academic year here with some of the confidence that experience brings.

Before I go, I want to thank the ACRLog team who made this such a positive experience for me by checking in each month, kicking around ideas for posts, and offering feedback on blog drafts. For any would-be bloggers who are interested in reflecting on and processing your first year of academic librarianship in a public space: don’t be afraid! There will be plenty of guidance and support along the way.

I wrote last month about some of the challenges I’ve experienced as I’ve made writing a more regular part of my professional practice, but I didn’t highlight some of the best parts of writing, and particularly of writing for ACRLog. In my efforts to generate ideas for posts, I’ve been inspired to read more widely which has had the natural effect of broadening my interests. I’ve started engaging in instead of standing on the sidelines of conversations happening in our field.  And I’ve starting clarifying my own philosophy of librarianship through the process. Thanks to ACRLog for giving me the space to do that, and thanks to everyone who engaged with my posts. As Quetzalli said, it is always nice to hear that something you’ve written has been read by others. I’m grateful for the conversations that came out of writing for this blog and hope to continue them even now that I’m moving on to other things.

Thoughts on Writing From a First-Time Author

One of my performance goals this year is to write more. My position isn’t tenure-track so there’s no pressure to publish, but finding meaning in my work is important to me and the best way I know how to that is drawing connections between what I’m doing all day and the broader environment in which I’m doing it; in other words, building a reflective practice.

Writing is, at least for me, a deeply uncomfortable process. I suspect this likely because it’s an un-flexed muscle of mine. I applied to write for ACRLog because I wanted to push myself to write more often for a public audience, hoping that the process would get easier, and to get more comfortable articulating my own thoughts about librarianship. Each month, I go through several false starts. I’ll write half a blog post hoping that the thing I want to say will become more clear to me as I write. Sometimes this happens and sometimes it doesn’t, so I’ll often end up switching several times settling on my final topic. I’ve also learned that I need to give myself plenty of time for editing. I wish I were the type of writer who could dash something off, perfectly formed, but I find myself having to back and rewrite and rearrange constantly in order to come up with something I feel really gets to the point I was trying to make in the first place.

It’s also a very vulnerable process to share your writing with other people, even if (maybe especially if?) it’s in a professional context. I think the most engaging writers and the ones I’ve learned the most from manage to be radically honest in their writing, even for an audience of their professional colleagues. While this is what I am working towards, I still find myself worrying in advance about how something I write will be received. I wonder if openness, too, is a muscle that needs to be flexed regularly.

These thoughts have been on my mind recently because I’m about to submit the first draft of the first book chapter I’ve ever worked on, and I’m feeling nervous about sending it off for feedback. I was lucky to collaborate with three of my colleagues on it, and I was reminded of this as I read Michele Santamaria’s recent post on Embracing the Value of Sharing “Rough Work”, in which she writes about the value of being part of a learning community and sharing “rough” work with your peers. The research community she describes challenged and encouraged the author as she was working on a project outside her comfort zone, and I completely relate. Although it wasn’t a formalized learning community, working alongside my colleagues (sometimes literally) on this chapter opened up space to work together on moving from unformed ideas to rough work to an actual chapter. In truth, I don’t think I would have been able to get through a project like this without their solidarity, encouragement, and feedback.

Pushing myself to write and to grapple with the insecurities it brings has helped me grow, but it also helps me empathize more with the undergraduate students I work with (and graduate students and faculty – I’m sure they’re not immune!). It’s easy to talk about “Scholarship as Conversation” and jauntily remind students that they are scholars, too, but writing this chapter reminded me that it is really, really hard sometimes to figure out what it is that you could actually contribute to that conversation and intimidating to assert your own thoughts and ideas in a realm that you may have only experienced as a consumer. There may not be a lightbulb moment where you realize you have a brilliant idea to contribute to the scholarly dialogue. Maybe the only way to get there is to practice.