When Busy Leads to Block

I had an idea for my post this week, and came to work this morning thinking it would be relatively easy to get the words on the page (type the letters on the screen). I’m working on revisions right now for a chapter for a book about service and identity in academic librarianship and, somewhat ironically, I have a heavier-than-usual college service commitment this semester. I’m super, super, super busy, and have service on my mind, so I thought I’d write a few paragraphs about service outside the library and how that impacts my work inside the library.

Except that whoops, I’ve already done a lot of writing about service here, apparently: this post from almost a decade (!) ago, and another from a couple of years later, and one even more recently after I’d taken my current position a director. Between those posts and the chapter I’m working on, I think I’m fresh out of service-related ideas for this post.

So what now? What do we do with blogger’s block? Perhaps less formal than writer’s block, blogger’s block is most definitely A Real Thing, and I’d guess many folks suffer from it from time to time. I’ve tried various strategies to counter my bouts of blogger’s block in the past:

  • Reading! This is old faithful advice that I’ve found usually works: the more I read, the more I find to write about. I (still!) have an RSS feed of library and higher ed blogs that I follow, and I try to keep up with library and higher ed news media as well.
  • Twitter! Melissa’s post last week was a great primer on the benefits of Twitter, where there’s a robust library and higher ed community sharing and discussing information and news. Despite the very real problems with the platform, I’ve stayed on Twitter because I do find value in being able to interact with friends and colleagues, and to listen and learn from librarians, academics, and others.
  • Research! Often there are aspects of whatever research projects I’m working on that can serve as inspiration for blog posts. I’ve also found that blogging about my research can be useful as a way to work out my initial thoughts and ideas before sharing results in a more formal way at conferences or in publications.
  • A List! I’ve sometimes kept a list of possible topic ideas, many of them half-baked (if that!), and returned to the list periodically to see if anything catches my eye. This strategy works best for ideas that are less time-sensitive (says the person who is just realizing that she hasn’t looked at her list in a while).
  • Work Stuff! Not unexpectedly, the main source of inspiration for my posts here at ACRLog is what’s happening in my job (and associated work responsibilities). Similar to research, sometimes blogging about job-related ideas, questions, or concerns is useful for figuring them out, and I’ve gotten lots of great suggestions from commenters as well.

Right now I think my main problem is that I’ve been too busy to rely on my usual strategies, unfortunately. But listing them out here reminds me that they exist (because my busy brain has a hard time remembering that), so I’ll for sure be in much better shape when it’s time to write my next blog post.

Supporting the other side

So far in my research career, I’ve put a lot of stock, energy, and passion around the benefits of hiring and supporting student employment in the library. It’s the topic that gets me most fired up at conferences, the thing I’ll tweet about until I can’t tweet anymore, and one part of my job that I keep coming back to, regardless of my job title. I believe in the potential of undergraduate employees to be crucial part of the library. I believe that if you set the bar high, undergraduates will rise to the occasion. But recently, I’ve realized that in that belief, I had forgotten about the other side: the role of the supervisor.

A few months ago, I worked with a colleague to put together a landscape survey around student employment in our libraries. The goal was to discover who in the library was supervising students and if we could find areas of synergy. We asked questions around hiring, on-boarding, continual training, and barriers to success. As we reviewed the answers, the one I remember the most clearly mentioned that as a supervisor, they felt unprepared because the rules and policies around hiring, training, and supporting student employees were unclear. It’s one of those things they never give you a manual for, you’re just suppose to know. And of course, any manual that might exist is in pieces, scattered throughout HR websites, the library’s intranet pages, and library legends told to you by your colleagues. This stuff isn’t clear or transparent and often requires lots of time to figure out. This was the first moment where I thought, “Okay, building a program is more than just for the students. The supervisors also are an audience to consider.”

Recently, I’ve been reminded of this fact when I was leading an informational session on our internship program. In the session, as we talked about the components of the program, including a new community of practice group I’m building, one participant asked, “Will the supervisors also meet regularly, just like the students?”

After a small beat, I nodded. “Of course.” I was reminded of the survey and once again reminded of my own assumptions around supervision. In reflecting on that situation, I think I assume that people who had studente employees for a long time just knew how to do in a meaningful way. But it’s becoming more clear that just because you have student employees, doesn’t mean that you know everything or feel supported.

And upon even further reflection, I realized that since I started trying to create some program structures for our interns, I’ve done my share of complaining about how I never hear from some interns and that I can’t seem to get through to some of their supervisors. I often chalk it up to structural issues, or a desire for an official announcement to the library about my role with our interns. However, the more I think about this angle, the more I realize part of the problem is that while I logically understand having an intern takes a ton of time and energy, I’m not valuing that idea in practice. I’m not recognizing or finding ways to support my colleagues who do this work. In other aspects of my job, I talk about how I am there to support my colleagues who do student engagement, and this also applies to student employees and their supervisors. This support can happens in many ways — from having intern community of practice meetings to getting the supervisors together to let them know they’re not alone in this. I’m a coordinator and that means both for students and for my colleagues.

For every program that we create to support our student employees, we are also responsible for creating the necessary structures and support for our supervisors. If we want unified programs, complimentary training modules, and a shared vision for student employment in the libraries, we have to create the network for our supervisors. This lines up so nicely with George Kuh’s definition of student engagement, where institutions must be willing to provides the resources and support for these opportunities. If we want meaningful internships or purposeful part-time employment, we have to be willing to provide the support (through professional development, regular meetings, and honest conversations) to our supervisors. Neither the students nor supervisors can do this work alone and both groups need to feel supported in this endeavor.

So where do I go from here? I’m trying to be more intentional and start thinking of how I can help build those structures in my role. I’ve started using the word “support” in talking to supervisors about my role with our interns. I’ll probably add monthly intern supervisor meetings to my calendar this fall, and start to note down obstacles that this group might face (and how we can problem solve together). As the moderator for both groups (students and supervisors), I’m in the best position to provide feedback to either group and translate each other’s needs to one another.  

At your library, how do you (or others) support the supervisors who oversee your student employees? Do supervisors meet on a regular basis? Are they given chances for professional development or ways to gain new supervisory skills? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!


Featured image by Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels

Digital Musings on the High School to College Transition

This year my kid is a senior in high school, and we’ve spent the past month recuperating from the flurry of college application activity last fall. As should not be a surprise, college admissions have changed lots since I applied to colleges in the pre-internet era, though I somehow still found parts of the process surprising.

It’s 2019, so of course all colleges use online applications. All of the schools my kid applied to accepted one of the common applications, which allow applicants to use one platform to submit the same application to multiple schools. My kid took the SAT and several subject tests, which required registering and sending scores to colleges via the College Board’s website. We were also required by his high school to use an online platform to manage their part of the application process — sending teacher recommendations and transcripts — by linking up that platform to the common application platform. And don’t even get me started on the FAFSA.

There are about 1,500 students in my kid’s senior class, and four (4!) guidance counselors. He attends one of New York City’s public specialized high schools and lots of students apply to selective schools, each of which require additional essays, video uploads, or other materials. Throughout this whole process last fall — which we were fortunate to be able to complete in our apartment where we have broadband internet access and laptops — I could not stop thinking about all of the kids in his school who don’t have that kind of access. They’re filling out college applications in the school library, the public library, maybe at their parents’ workplaces. They may have questions; they definitely have questions, it’s a complicated process on platforms that are not always intuitive to use, and they might have to make several appointments with counselors to have their questions answered.

Throughout my kid’s high school years I’ve thought about the digital divide. The classes he’s taken have required multiple accounts on multiple online systems, some provided by the NYC Dept of Education, some homework systems offered by other entities, and of course the everpresent Google for his high school email account. From talking with other parents in and outside of NYC it seems like most K-12 students are required to use multiple different digital platforms throughout their schooling. In our experience there has been little guidance or training for students or parents on how to use these systems, and no way to opt out of their use.

While I’m concerned with digital literacy, and the assumptions that the persistent “digital native” trope encourages us to make about how students use these required platforms, I’m also concerned about data privacy. My kid’s high school and all of these various college application systems have so much information about him and created by him. Each college he applied to required him to set up an account on their system to communicate admissions decisions. How many schools — primary through higher ed — have digital information about students who are no longer enrolled or perhaps won’t even be admitted? Yes, educational institutions retained student (or prospective student) data in the past, but file cabinets full of paper applications in an admissions office don’t have the same information security implications as a digital database.

While it’s certainly been cathartic for me to write out my frustrations, how does this connect to libraries? I continue to keep in mind our students’ experiences with technologies, remembering that they’ve likely had varying exposure to training on digital platforms for school use, as well as varying access to the technology needed to use those platforms. Not every student has a computer with broadband internet access at home. It also feels ever more urgent to me for libraries to strengthen our data privacy practices, a huge issue that we don’t have complete control over, with so many of our digital platforms controlled by vendors. I’m cheered that there are librarians and others doing great work on data privacy issues, including the National Web Privacy Forum (which I was fortunate to participate in), focusing on how we might protect patrons from third-party tracking, and the Data Doubles project, which is examining students’ perspectives on data collection by libraries and institutions of higher ed. I’m looking forward to digging into the results of this work as these projects progress. And in the meantime, perhaps I’ll work with my kid to see what data we might delete from all of these systems once he no longer needs them to have it.

Celebrating friendships in academia

I first saw this tweet in a direct message between myself, Chelsea, and Charissa, after we got back from a little writing weekend in Austin. It seemed so appropriate that would see that tweet after spending four days eating breakfast tacos, running through the rain, and writing our LibParlor ACRL paper.

In the following days, I couldn’t stop thinking about that tweet. So, I want to spend this post creating a little space to talk about and celebrate friendships in academia. Spoiler alert: the goal of this post is to confirm that yes, these friendships are important. For me, my friendships in academia are also bound up in the fact they almost exclusively female friendships, so this post also seems apt with Galentine’s Day approaching.  

When I think about who knows the most about my day-to-day, it’s friends who are either are at the institution with me, or at another academic library somewhere in the United States. The common thread that  pulls us together is how we, as professionals, navigate the ecosystem of higher education. What we’ve learned through our friendship is that despite being in different places, departments, or stages within our careers, there is still a lot we share in common as we figure out how to work within and disrupt this system. And from that common thread, our friendship expands, into the rest of our lives.  

Last year I read Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship by Kayleen Schaefer. I couldn’t put it down, mainly because Kayleen’s thesis of the importance and recognition of female friendship really resonated with me. In seeing that tweet about friendship in academia, I immediately thought of Kayleen’s book. I think a lot of the conclusions she comes to could be transposed into an academic context.  

For example, Kayleen states that, “We’re reshaping the idea of what our public support systems are supposed to look like and what they can be” (6) through female friendships. Both in graduate school and now in my job at Penn State, I look to my gals to celebrate successes and work through challenges. When I first “became” a librarian, I use to get frustrated that my family didn’t understand what I was doing. I had been taught that a close family meant they would understand all the intricacies of my job. I finally realized that my family wouldn’t get why I did outreach, would not understand the full extent to which I tried to build community in an academic library, and would forever to fuzzy with what tenure was and how I was trying to achieve it. That is okay. Instead, I realized it was more meaningful to turn to my friends who are also in this academic space. They are my support system; they keep me in check, talk through ideas, cheer me on, and show up when I need them. And in being each other’s support system, we all find ways to show up for each other; if they shine, I shine.  

To bring these ideas together, I do want to share one friendship in academia story. When I first started at Penn State, I was lonely. I didn’t work typical, 9-5 hours or even the normal Monday-Friday work schedule. In the beginning months, as I stayed true to my hours, I missed opportunities to get to know other librarians who were in my department and across the library. However, as I got acquainted with the library during those off hours, I also got to know my closest friend at the library: Rachel. Rachel works in our Lending and Circulation department and in those first months, she taught me so much about the library. I could count on her to help me with just about anything — from looping her employees in on how to get a hold of me, to understanding the ins and outs of closing the library, and more. It was nice to have a gal working similiar hours. Eventually we our work friendship became just a good old friendship. While my job doesn’t overlap as much with hers anymore, we still find ways to collaborate and since she has just as much passion as I do around training student employees, we have found our own ways to make our jobs cross paths. If something is bothering me at work, you know she’s the one I’ll send a Slack message to or hope that I see her when I go pick up a book at the desk. Our friendship is one big part of my work-life narrative and I know my thoughts about the library would be different if we weren’t friends.     

And Rachel’s wasn’t the only story that came to mind when I saw that tweet; I’ve got a whole little collection of friendship meet cutes stories. I feel lucky to know so many wonderful women, doing great things in academia and I’m glad I get to be there to watch it all unfold. In the beginning chapter of Text Me When You Get Home, Kayleen says, “I look to my friends for the kind of support that comes from wanting only to be good to each other”(5). This idea feels important for academic friendships, especially when we are in an ecosystem that can be competitive, especially between women. Female friendships within academia can be a way we can subvert that competition aspect. Sure, at times we might be in competition, but these friendships remind us that at the end of the day, we want the best for one another and need to show up for our friends. Having good friends who can help you through academia does count and does make a difference. So, what does friendship in academia mean to you? How do you celebrate these friendships? Let’s keep this conversation going.  

 

Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?