A Wrinkle in Time

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 Susanna Smith, Acquisitions Librarian and Instructional Designer at Georgia Highlands College Library. 

Last time I wrote for ACRLog, back in June 2009, I was a librarian working as a Library Technical Assistant managing a one-person library at a small satellite community college campus in Alabama. Whew. Today … life is completely different, and not just because I’ve been working from home nearly a month! I’m currently the Acquisitions Librarian (who also wears a Reference and Instruction hat most days) at a medium-sized state college in Georgia. I received my M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology a couple of years ago so I also work as an Instructional Designer for our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, developing workshops for faculty and consulting with them on course design. And boy, howdy, I’ve been busy. I’ve recently been working with a library team to revamp our student learning objectives, assessment tools, and our peer observation form. I was part of the group who successfully got the library faculty included in the promotion and tenure process. And in my acquisitions role I’ve helped us switch to a new LMS, started a major weeding project removing 20k plus monographs, learned to negotiate with vendors and manage database resources, and juggled what was for me a mind-boggling budget. That’s a long way from sitting for ten hours a day at a tiny library’s circulation desk!

So how did I get from there to here? As with most stories, it starts with an unexpected change in circumstances.

In 2011, I got a new job. When I started the paraprofessional position in 2007, I helped open a branch campus library and this new job was much the same, except I would actually be library faculty. WooHoo! So my husband and I packed up our bags, moved to northwest Georgia, and I set to work building a new library from the ground up. The physical space was already determined, but I designed the layout, chose the furniture, and built the collection (mostly with second copies culled from the main library). It was another one-person-library situation, but it became clear pretty quickly that we definitely needed a second person to hold down the fort because I was in the classroom so often. For three years I continued to teach 30-50 library sessions a semester on two satellite campuses, and spent the rest of my time at the reference desk. I even had the opportunity to attend ACRL Immersion, which was a life- and instruction- changing experience for me. (Quick plug: I highly recommend it, especially if you feel inadequate in front of a class full of students.)

But ultimately, I still felt the siren-call of technical services. In a past life I was a bookstore special orders and office manager so in 2015, when our beloved Acquisitions Librarian retired, I applied and moved to the main campus to take over. It was a dream come true! I ordered books, managed databases, worked with vendors, did some cataloging. I still spent time at the reference desk, but I was mostly involved with back-office technical services projects.

Until….

I realized I actually missed being in the classroom. Wait a minute … I’m an introvert … how was that possible? Those few classes I had to teach at my first job were always the least fun things I did. But after being in the classroom so much in my recent position, I’d come to enjoy the interaction and now I realized I wanted to continue that. Enter another unexpected opportunity: At about the same time as this surprising self-revelation, the college’s web-based course offerings expanded mightily. The library needed someone to become an “embedded librarian” and work with those online faculty and students. I volunteered, and discovered a whole new world. I worked with faculty directly to develop assignments and even, in a few cases, did some grading. I learned how to use technology in ways far beyond searching databases for information. I started working with assessment, and scaffolding instruction sessions which would lead to better student learning, and considering what a structured one-shot class should look like instead of the free-for-all “teach the students everything in an hour” that is still common practice.

That work led me, eventually, to an instructional design program in 2016 and to where I find myself now. As I’ve been considering what to write for this post, I realized how much has changed in my life over the past ten years. It didn’t seem like such a seismic shift when I was in the moment, but reflecting back I am in awe of how different I am today. And that brings me to another startling bit of self-reflection. What should I call myself? Librarian, certainly. But I also live a lot of my life now on the “teaching faculty” side of the house, wearing my instructional designer hat. I’ve had the opportunity recently to apply for a library managerial position as well as an instructional designer position. I decided against both because, as I told my husband, “I am a librarian at heart.” I never wanted to be an administrator, so that was easy. And I can connect students and faculty with the information they need when they need it using all my hats. In reference and instruction, I do it the old-fashioned way. In acquisitions, I listen to what they need and find the resources to meet that need. As an instructional designer, I work on a meta-level, through pedagogy and design and lay the groundwork for teaching BOTH faculty and students how to better meet their information needs.

If I’ve changed this much in ten years, I wonder what life will be like in 2030? Onward and upward!

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?