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?

Doing Less with Less

Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.

It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.

It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.

There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.

Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.

Work weeks, schedules, and supporting students

Recently, Facebook reminded me of a picture I posted when I was in undergrad. It’s a picture of my Google calendar, in the fall of 2012. I was a busy undergrad, especially that fall, but my caption when I reposted this picture was something like, “If only 2012 Hailley knew what 2019 Hailley’s calendar would look like.” 

A screenshot of a Google calendar, with many appointments, from 6 AM in the morning until 9 PM at night.
My 2012 calendar

Between working in Admissions, being a writing tutor, sitting on two committees, being a part of student government and a literary journal, taking four classes, and clarinet lessons, I was never bored. Back in 2012, it was normal for days to stretch from 8 AM until 9 PM. The day wasn’t even officially done at 9 PM: that just meant it was time for readings, homework, or hanging out with friends. I felt busy, and at times, busier than than my friends, but overall, the pace of my schedule felt normal and what it should be like as an undergrad. 

These days, a meeting ending at 9 PM seems “late.” I was on campus walking with friends to a play and overheard a student say they had a meeting starting at 9 PM. My friends and I shared a look that said, “I would not want to start a meeting at 9.” College can be a time when traditional 9-5 is lost. If you’re awake, a meeting can happen. 

As the Student Engagement Coordinator, working with undergraduates is a fundamental part of my job. It has always felt normal for me to stay late, to host a workshop after dinner, meet with a student group, or run a Pop Up Library. And when I saw that Facebook memory pop up this time, I started to think about who else (faculty, staff) had to stay late when I was in college to support my student engagement. In some ways, it’s all coming full circle, as I stay late to support a new group of students. 

I also feel like there is an expectation that I’ll stay late. Part of that pressure is internal, because I remember what it was like to be a student and trying to find time to meet with faculty or advisors during the day (see calendar above). Part of that is my personality, and the ways that I let my personal and professional life bleed together. Part of that also comes from my first experience at Penn State, where I worked from 1-10 PM and saw how the library changed after 5 PM, when the “day folks” left and something new settled in its place. Part of that pressure comes from my conditioning to be helpful, as a woman in a service-orientated profession (Harris, 1992; Hicks, 2014) and some of that pressure is probably imagined.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this pressure and how my ability to stay late is partially built on my identity. I’m a young, single lady with no dependents. I’m often (in both positive and negative connotations) told that I have a lot of energy. The undercurrent of some of these statements imply that with that energy I’m well-suited to work with undergraduates. I feel that these characteristics make people think that of course, I’ll always stay late, handle that evening workshop, or be okay with an after-dinner meeting. They assume that my lack of any dependents means my evenings are always open. If this is the logic, what does it mean when my life inevitably changes? Does the pressure go away? Do I stop staying late or doing workshops on the weekends? Is it implied that eventually I’ll move away from “after hours”? If I move away from that work, will I lose touch with the undergraduates I serve? And if I do stop staying late, how will that change my work (and impact) with undergraduate students? 

In a recent study, Lily Todorinova (2018) examined job position descriptions for undergraduate and first year librarian positions. In this process, she discovered that between 2014 and 2016, these types of positions were on the rise. Many of those positions were listed as entry-level and were offered entry-level salaries, for example, lower than the average salary in 2016 (Todorinova, 2018, p. 209). What does this trend mean for the profession? If we want these positions to recognize and respond to movements within higher education and find ways to integrate the library (broadly: information literacy, instruction, services, etc.) more meaningfully into student life, how are we supporting these new professionals? And how are we being flexible in that support, so that these colleagues are not regularly working 12 hour days, as they accommodate both the traditional work hours and the student hours? Do we allow for time to be flexed in these positions? Do we force our colleagues in these positions to “grow” out of them?

These structures and this tension aren’t limited to academic librarians in engagement and first-year positions; student affairs professionals also have a high burnout rate (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016; Mullen, Malone, Denney, & Dietz, 2018). Many of the reasons why student affairs professionals leave are due to long hours and the struggle to maintain a work-life balance (Marshall et al., 2016). In a study done on new student affairs professionals, one respondent mentioned the long hours were a sacrifice that would result in long-term payoffs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). But that also feels problematic, especially in thinking of a library setting: if I set a precedent, what structure am I putting into place for those who do this work after me? Is that a tradition I want to instill?

So, what helps keep you student-centered, while setting boundaries and without it consuming your entire schedule? My thinking these days is remembering what it was like to be a student, who posted that picture of her calendar on Facebook because she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and academically. To remember those people who supported me in college and find ways to give that back, to a new group of students. And probably most importantly, to keep asking questions to the students I work with about their day-to-day. What does it mean to be a college student at Penn State? As Todorinova discovered, many librarians in engagement positions feel that they responsibility is to leverage student experiences (something I strongly agree with), and there has to be a way to get that insight, both within traditional working hours and sometimes, after 5.

At the end of the day, students will still meet at the end of their day. In wanting to support students, folks in these positions will work outside the bounds of 9-5. What we can do, both as employees and supervisors of these types of positions? I don’t have any firm answers but I do have a lot of thoughts. Currently they include:

  • Articulate our values and how those plays out in our work. If we want to be student-centered, what does that look like, for us as an organization?
  • Understand that just because you have “engagement” or “first-year” in your title, doesn’t mean that you’re the only person who can support the entire student population. This work has to be done collectively and not placed solely on one individual. 
  • Recognition that everyone’s time (ours, others, students, etc.) is valuable. It’s not a competition of who works the most, but instead an understanding that we all have things we care about and want to pursue outside our work responsibilities.   
  • Identify your colleagues that work outside the bounds of 9-5. Articulate why that is (position type, job description, population to serve, etc.) and reflect on something you’re doing to support their schedule. If you’re not sure of your answer, ask that person what’s one new way you can support their schedule.

I see and feel the tension, and don’t know exactly how those feelings and tension will change over the next few years. But I’m reflecting on these structures and trying to sort it out. I’m curious about what others think about these ideas and strategies around this topic.


Reference

Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Hicks, D. (2014). The Construction of Librarians’ Professional Identities: A Discourse Analysis / La construction de l’identité professionnelle du bibliothécaire?: Une analyse de discours. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 38(4), 251–270. https://doi.org/10.1353/ils.2014.0017

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359

Mullen, P. R., Malone, A., Denney, A., & Dietz, S. S. (2018). Job Stress, Burnout, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intention Among Student Affairs Professionals. College Student Affairs Journal, 36(1), 94–108. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0006

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing New Professionals: Lessons for Graduate Preparation Programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022

Todorinova, L. (2018). A Mixed-Method Study of Undergraduate and First Year Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries in the United States. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.02.005

Posters, Infographics, & Ways of Showcasing Student Engagement

This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about posters. In early June, NPR shared a story of Mike Morrison, a graduate student who has been trying to transform the academic research poster landscape. In Mike’s almost 20 minute video, he explains what’s wrong about current academic posters and proposes a new layout in order to gather knowledge from these posters more easily. 

I don’t disagree with Mike; his new poster layout is appealing. As a librarian who has been leading undergraduate research poster workshops for a few years now, Mike’s layout emphasizes our big three: font, color, and size. Viewers are directed to the big ideas (aka the biggest elements on your poster) and have sidebars to more information if needed. This new layout also relies on a QR code, to direct really interested viewers to explore more on the project, on their own time.  

However, as I sat in my office and listened to Mike’s video explanation, I thought of the summer science students I just given a poster workshop to. The supervisor of their summer program noted several times throughout my presentation that while I was showing off some best practices, ultimately the students’ faculty mentor/PI had final say on the poster layout. This could mean a poster could end up very text heavy, use a certain color palette, or requires a certain logo or author designation. These preferences often come from faculty who have spent a lot of time in the field and have strong opinions about creating posters. Then I tried to imagine having a conversation with them about Mike’s new layout. Making this sort of jump and abandoning the traditional poster layout will take time and energy. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if the poster tides move towards Mike’s layout, it will be a challenge. Academia is steeped in tradition and this includes a tradition of how research posters are thought about, created, and displayed. Before computers, posters were created by cutting up an article and pasting it on poster board! While we have PowerPoint and InDesign, I can’t say that all of our posters have moved much farther than cutting and pasting in their own digital way. 

Mike’s layout also got me thinking about another spin off of research posters we’ve been talking about at Penn State: student engagement posters. Recently, I’ve been in a lot of conversations asking about the best way for a student to showcase their experience. A research poster feels too stiff, too formal. An infographic seems like a better match, but also isn’t a perfect fit. Earlier this spring I took our research poster workshop and modified it for an infographic student engagement workshop. Within these student engagement posters, we are trying to see the meta part of the experience. What did the students learn from this experience? What skills did they bring in and what skills did they take away? How did this experience prepare them for another experience? I built in a set of reflection questions and even tried my hand at my own student engagement experience poster. 

A poster describing the author's experience in New York City where she interned at the New York Public Library.
My attempt at a student engagement poster

Today, I met with some Student Engagement Network interns, who had been tasked with making their own student engagement posters. They used both a formal, template (a hybrid of the research poster with some engagement) and were also asked to create some sort of infographic inspired poster. It was great to chat with them and it definitely reminded me of a few things: 

  • Making posters is NOT a skill often taught to undergraduates. Even with platforms like Canva or Piktochart, students still need guidance on how to visually represent an experience. 
  • The students I worked with felt strongly their primary poster audience was undergraduates who might be interested in their engagement experience. The poster needed to not only convey the experience, but also encourage others to explore a similar experience. I don’t think I had fully considered that audience and that definitely influences how the poster is created and what resources should be included. 
  • They appreciated the ability to reflect and hone in on a main message they wanted to get across. Of course, if they discover the reflection questions AFTER they started making the poster, that’s not quite as helpful. 

So what’s next? I’m not sure. I have some ideas and will be curious to see the research that Mike and others do around eye tracking and understanding the new poster layout he has proposed. Perhaps academia will see a shift in research posters and perhaps we’ll find a way to get student engagement experiences out there too. It seems like everything is up for grabs and it’s exciting to explore and think about these topics. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the new research poster layout or if your institutions are thinking about more intentionally showcasing the meta part of student engagement experiences. 

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.