How to avoid spreading myself too thin (and still get tenure)

My position is on the tenure track. Our process is shorter than usual at only three years, but there isn’t an expectation of publication. The tenure process revolves around learning to be a better instructor and librarian. Essentially the process is designed to help you grow into your role. I do not have a PhD, and came to librarianship from a different field, so I don’t have experience with academic publishing. During my first master’s, my thesis advisor recommended publishing a portion, but I felt that nobody would take me seriously and never pursued it further. While I would like to continue some of the work I started in my MSLIS and collaborate with colleagues, I was relieved that I would not be on the hamster wheel of “publish or perish” to pay my mortgage.

I still feel pressure though. This pressure isn’t necessarily even coming from my department. I’m a tightly wound person living in late stage capitalism and I do feel pressure to produce. I also have so many more substantial opportunities in my current position than I ever had in my previous field. I can take classes and attend webinars. I have had the opportunity to attend a few conferences between a scholarship and my alma mater. As a result, I’ve spread myself very thin by joining every committee, attending every webinar, and generally saying “yes AND.”

This school year is quickly coming to a close and I have come to two conclusions from saying, “yes AND” to everything:

1) I have learned a tremendous amount
2) I cannot spread myself so thin and do good work or take care of myself

How can I accomplish this?

By the end of this school year I will have put many programs into place; establishing them is the hard part. Maintaining them will be easier.

I created instructional sessions from scratch. Refining them will be easier.

I should not automatically volunteer and instead pause, and let others go first. (I did this for the first time late last week and it felt strange, but I did not take on anything else.)

Ask, “do I really need to join this committee?” I’m new and it is okay to learn how to do my job before joining everything.

Make big goals for the future and put them on the calendar. I want to collaborate with a certain colleague. I put it on the calendar for 2022. There’s a committee I have been eyeing and I put it on the calendar for 2023. Making goals is wonderful, but there is no need to do everything now.

While I know memes are not facts, my various algorithms on social media keep reminding me that perfectionism and ultra independence are trauma responses. Simply because I was required to be perfect in my past career doesn’t mean that I have to be now. It was in the past that I was relied on to do everything. I am being given the permission and ability to learn to do my job and I need to take that and not run with it.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright. 

Strategies for Collaboration

While completing my master’s program, I was surprised by how frequently team projects were assigned. Collaboration was one of the most commonly used words at my institution, to the point that the manager for my graduate assistant position would excitedly (and sometimes sarcastically) refer to collaborative projects as “collabos.” It wasn’t until my final semester that I had an instructor, who explained her reasoning for assigning multiple group projects in a single course: as a librarian, she said, you will constantly be working with other people, and you need to make sure that you are prepared for that.

While, on a certain level I understood that I wouldn’t be working alone, I did not truly comprehend the degree to which this would be true. As a first year librarian at a small private college, I have spent my  time working closely with each and every librarian on a variety of projects. I also work closely with teaching faculty across my liaison areas, faculty and staff in Information Technology Services, university administrators, faculty, and staff on committees, graduate and undergraduate students, and other librarians outside of the university.

I am still learning and adapting with each new partnership and project, but I would like to share a few strategies that I have developed when collaborating with my colleagues.

Establishing Working Norms

A colleague from another institution introduced me to the concept of establishing working norms before embarking on a collaborative project. We took about half an hour, opened a google doc together, and had an open and honest conversation about our strategies and tendencies for project management. In this conversation we explored the best pathways for our future communication, the flexibility of our timeframes/deadlines, the best ways to schedule our meetings, our tendencies to work ahead or last minute, and our ability/willingness to work outside of traditional work hours. This conversation was somewhat challenging for me, because I frankly had never verbalized some of these norms. As we discussed, we recorded our preferences for future reference. Establishing these working norms has been extremely helpful over the course of our project. 

Simplifying Scheduling

Finding a time to meet with a group of people who have varying schedules can be a nightmare. There are a number of ways to simplify scheduling, and I have found it helpful to establish what is best for all parties, as early on in the collaborative effort as possible. If you are working within an institution and everyone keeps an up-to-date calendar on a shared platform like Outlook or Google, it is much easier to schedule. When this is not an option, I rely heavily on websites like Doodle or When Is Good. None of these are perfect and the main drawback that I have encountered is that they all require team members to take time out of their busy schedules to record their availability. My least favorite, but sometimes the most effective, approach for quickly getting everyone’s input is through an email or text chain–or just good old fashion conversation. Then the problem becomes compiling that data and figuring out the best option.

Communication Methods

Similar to scheduling, people have a variety of preferences for communication. If you are working within an institution that has an official method for communication that is great, but it is still best to check and make sure that the institutional method works for the team members. While the official method for communication at my institution is email, and I prefer to use email, it is not best for everyone nor for every task. A quick conversation with team members to decide on primary and secondary forms of communication can go a long way in helping to select from the plethora of communication platforms we have available.

Flexibility

Finally, I have found it important to establish personal boundaries on flexibility. In what circumstances am I willing to be flexible on communication methods? When will I adjust my availability for meetings? When, if ever, is it okay to work during lunch or even after regular work hours? By establishing these boundaries for myself and holding to them, I am able to preserve my mental health and energy so that when it is time to work and collaborate I am able to be fully present and contribute.

A Student (Doesn’t) Walk into a Library During a Pandemic

I’ve restarted the library’s blog to create a space just for students. The idea was to help them navigate the college experience through the lens of the library. Naturally we feature heavily in the messaging. I already have a newsletter for faculty, which they seem? to read, but we didn’t have anything for students. The blog already existed, but hadn’t been used in a while. I’m not convinced this is the best platform, but will keep it until I come up with something better. In the meantime, it doesn’t matter how good the content is if the students don’t know it is there.

This brings me to my main challenge…
We continue to struggle to communicate with students as a library. I understand that this was a challenge in the past, but not at this scale. Our library and entire campus is remote. We aren’t even lending books this semester to keep all of us safe. The library is fully virtual, and I have enjoyed communicating this with my fellow faculty members, but getting the message to students has been an uphill battle.

Foot traffic to the library in “the before times” wasn’t an issue and I have heard that it could get downright crowded. This meant simpler forms of communication worked well- word of mouth, a chalkboard, flyers, and bulletin boards. A candy jar with small advertisements attached and bookmarks both worked well in previous positions. None of these methods work right now.

Our students don’t read their emails. Well…I guess I don’t know if that is based on data, or something we anecdotally suspect. I will continue to email them from time to time to cover all of my bases. Email may be the easiest, but I don’t think it is the most effective means of communication for them.

We do know that students aren’t liking our social media posts, but fellow faculty and staff members have. That’s not a problem exactly, but it does mean that we should use Facebook to communicate with our colleagues, not students. About a year ago we started an Instagram account, which has been fun for me as a new user (I learned long ago to cut myself off from more social media, but that’s a different discussion entirely), but we get the most responses from other libraries. Again, this isn’t a problem exactly, but we should use Instagram for that purposes and not assume that our messages will reach students. Twitter is the same way. I’m hesitant to open a TikTok account since as someone approaching middle age, the more I try to be cool, the more I resemble this. I also have privacy concerns about making videos in my own home.

Prairie State College uses D2L as our learning management system for remote classes. Since I am the liaison librarian for a few classes, I can see that students are active and engaged in that space. We have a link to the library and at our request, instructors can put our content there too. I think there is some potential, but the library isn’t a “class” that students have to access via a course shell to participate. It might take some creative thinking to see how we can easily deliver library messages that way.

I’ve also been meeting with departments one by one to share with them what the library can do for them and their students right now. They are always gracious and seem to welcome our services into their virtual classrooms. It is a roundabout way, but one I think has some potential to communicate with students.

I think that there won’t be one way that we better communicate with students right now. It will be several and I need to find the best combination of reaching out via their professors, over D2L, on our own website, via student leaders, and potentially over different (new) forms of social media. This isn’t a problem that I have to solve today or even all at once, but it is something that we can measure and track, which will give us immediate feedback about what works, and what doesn’t.

Combatting Imposter Syndrome with Comradery and Critical Pedagogy

One of my friends from my graduate program is currently an instruction librarian at another institution. At the beginning of the academic school year, he asked if I would like to join him in reading partnership centered on instruction and pedagogy through a critical lens. So far this year, we have read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While reading these books we have met weekly or biweekly to discuss the contents of each chapter. I am as sick of Zoom as the next person, but these meetings were often the highlight of my week.

During these sessions we have shared our experiences, opinions, and instruction strategies as they relate to the work of hooks and Freire. It is hard to select just one topic from hours of lively conversation, but one common theme has been resonating with me as I reflect on last semester and look ahead to the new one – the complicated student-teacher relationship.

Both authors problematize the traditional hierarchical classroom setting where the teacher is always the leader of the classroom and students are often stripped of their agency upon entry. Rather, hooks and Freire explore the ways in which it is necessary for teachers to empower student agency, and to enter into a teaching and learning relationship with the students.

Creating a classroom where students have agency, and their experiences and voices are truly valued is demanding work that becomes more complicated when applied to the library one-shot instructional model. Part of this complication comes with the course instructor/librarian relationship. If the course instructor teaches with a traditional lecture model, and does not see the value of centering student voices and experiences in the classroom, librarians may not feel empowered to create this environment, or may even run the risk of not being asked to return.

As a new librarian at a new university, building relationships with teaching faculty has been one of my primary goals. Through my various communications with faculty in my liaison areas, I have not encountered any strong push back to my instruction style. However, and this may be completely in my head, I often feel that there is an expectation that I will come into the Zoom room as the Expert and fill the students with my Librarian Knowledge. This unspoken, and perhaps fully imagined, expectation feeds into something I have written about before – imposter syndrome.

This is made worse by the fact that I am what some of my colleagues like to refer to as a “generalist” – I do not have a master’s degree in any of the fields with which I liaise. This is where student experiences, voices, and expertise come to play. My reading comrade and I have been discussing strategies that implement hooks’ engaged pedagogy and Freire’s dialogics – essentially centering student voices and experiences in the library one shot.  

In reality, I am not a generalist. I specialize in library pedagogy and information literacy. When I give over half of the classroom time to the students to share their thoughts, experiences, and even expertise on information literacy topics, I am seeking to empower student knowledge, and allowing for them to teach and learn from each other. Of course, I bolster their ideas with additional perspectives where and when it is helpful. By creating a learning environment that centers students, I am able to bring together my subject expertise and their knowledge base.

Learning to navigate classrooms norms and pedagogical power structures is something instruction librarians are always participating in. In conversation with my reading comrade, I have developed several new strategies for this. It is my hope that as I push and break down the boundaries of the hierarchical classroom, my new colleagues will see the value of this practice.