Let It Go: A Non-Frozen Story

Editor’s Note: We welcome Hailley Fargo to the ACRLog team. Hailley is the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at Penn State University, University Park campus. Her research interests include peer-to-peer services in academic libraries, critical librarianship, digital and information literacy, outreach, and undergraduate research.

I’ve always had a hard time letting things go. I remember when I was in high school, I was the Student Council (Stuco) president. I got elected as a junior and ran for re-election as a senior. At the time, it was unheard of for someone to be the Stuco president twice. In those two years, I got a lot done, put a lot of things in place, and documented the heck out of what I did (I was using binders before Leslie Knope). I was proud of what we were able to accomplish and was so excited to see where my predecessor would take the group next.

When I came back from my first year in college, my younger brother (who was still in Stuco) filled me in on what had been happening. My predecessor hadn’t followed any of the documentation and took the organization in a completely different direction. I got physically worked up, annoyed and frustrated that all I had done was for nothing. My mom, who always had the right things to say, told me, “Hailley, you need to let this go. You did your best and you don’t have any control over what happens after you. And that’s okay.”

While I reluctantly agreed at the time, I still have a hard time letting projects go, especially the ones I invest a lot of time in. I’ve spent almost 10 years trying to be better at this skill, and I can’t say with full confidence I’ve got remarkably better. This story is all leading up to the fact that even though I had to give up projects when I left graduate school, I had this weird idea that projects in my professional life might be different. That I might be able to hold onto everything I created, organized, and ran.

Boy, I was in for a surprise. Just like high school student council and graduate school, priorities change. People change. Job descriptions evolve. You might spend months or years working on an idea or writing in niche and then, suddenly, you stop doing that. You change directions and move on. Sometimes you ask other folks to step in, to take it forward, other times the project ceases to exist, and sometimes you don’t get the choice and the project is given away. This task of letting projects go doesn’t stop just because you’re not in school anymore. And unlike the luxury of graduating (and therefore moving on to a new location), in your professional life, you might have to watch your project evolve right in front of your eyes. For someone who has a hard time letting things go, this can be tough (and a time suck).

With two years at Penn State under my belt, I’ve had to give up a few projects. My job position has changed, as well as some of my priorities for the job I’m currently in. I can’t say it has been the easiest process for me, but I’ve had good bosses to help me navigate this new terrain. In conversations with them, they have reminded me that when you give up a project, it should be able to be carried on without you. You want to have created a project that people can get fired up about, and have left the project in such a way that folks feel empowered to make it their own. I just have to stop letting my perfectionism get in the way of their work once I hand over the reins. I’ve also been lucky in the fact that I’ve had plenty on my plate, so giving up a project is tough, but does open the door for me to devote my time on something new.

Recently, I’ve felt myself go back into my old habit of getting all worked up about a project I’ve given up. In some deep reflection (and channeling my mom), I came to a realization about projects like these. At the end of the day, projects are just made up a bunch of ideas strung together. These ideas might be connected by a vision, by a context or history, or by a person with some serious spunk. Ideally you want a project that reflects, builds, connects, and responds to the context but ultimately you want a vision to drive those ideas forward. A vision you can pass on, a person, on the other hand, is a little harder to pass on. As I think about the leader I want to be, I need to make sure I’m creating projects that have a vision and don’t need me to be successful. I have to find ways to set up that framework, and trust my colleagues they can take the project where it needs to go. When I spin projects that way, it opens up the possibility of me using some of my best strengths — organization, documentation, and intentionality. So, in theory, it becomes a win-win for everyone? I sure hope so.

I also think what my mom was getting at was that I was spending too much time and energy worrying about a project I no longer have control over. Time and energy that could be spent in better ways, working on new projects, spending time with new people coming up with new ideas, and in general, not working myself up into a tizzy. There are only so many hours in the day to work on these projects. The more time I waste spinning my wheels, the fewer opportunities I get to do the work currently on my plate. It’s a lesson that I’ll still be learning today, tomorrow, and next year. But I’ll keep trying to just let it go.

Do you have a hard time letting go of projects you start? Do you have any good strategies for dealing with this sort of change? Comment on this blog post and let us know!   


Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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.

 

Expectations of Expertise

With the slower summer days I’m better able to keep up with library and higher education news, blogs, and Twitter, though I have to admit that sometimes I wish I didn’t. I’m not going to link to the very snarky, and, frankly, mean piece currently making the rounds in which a researcher belittles the work of archivists. I guess it brings in the pageviews and ad dollars, though as a commenter noted, I can’t imagine that any archivist who comes across this essay will be welcoming to that researcher in the future. I’ve also been bothered this week by what seemed like a summary dismissal of a librarian’s concerns about textbook publisher access models in response to a faculty member’s question about the potential for student savings. The librarian pointed out that this very sort of vendor leasing model had often ultimately resulted in higher costs for libraries, as the vendors in question increased their prices every year.

All of which has me thinking about expertise. Librarians have it — why don’t many of those outside of the library seem to expect it?

Academia has a hierarchical structure, and academic librarians like all academic workers are embedded in it, which I’m sure influences perceptions of expertise. Last Fall Veronica wrote about the power dynamics in academia that affect the ways that faculty don’t recognize the information literacy expertise of librarians. This is a familiar and frustrating experience that I imagine all librarians who teach and do reference have found themselves in (myself included). Veronica noted that:

we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy

Veronica specifically highlighted expertise in information literacy in her post, and I also think that there are many ways in which the expertise of workers in all areas of the library isn’t acknowledged. We’ve been trained and have worked to develop our practice in our libraries, often earning one or more advanced degrees as well. What is it about librarianship that leads otherwise smart people to assume that expertise is not required for our jobs? While I’d been a heavy user of libraries before becoming a librarian, I can’t ever remember thinking that librarianship was an unskilled job, or that librarians weren’t necessary in order for the library to function.

This summer I’ve also finally gotten around to reading Roma Harris’s book Librarianship: The Erosion of a Women’s Profession, which has provoked lots of thinking about expertise and gender. Harris notes that librarianship, like other female-intensive professions (examples include nursing and social work), has long had the perception of being low-skilled and requiring little training, and that low status and pay follow from these low expectations. Some aspects of librarianship that Harris discussed were less relevant to the current state of the profession, now 25+ years after it was published, though it was somewhat disheartening to see that some things have not changed. Not long ago I added “Dr” to my Twitter handle in solidarity with academic women in expressing their exasperation at having their research questioned or even explained to them by folks who assume a lack of expertise until otherwise demonstrated.

We have expertise as librarians, and I expect it of myself and my colleagues, who work hard to provide resources, services, and space for our academic community every day. I also expect that I will continue to need to share that fact with others to shine a light on the terrific work we do in and beyond the library.

Telling the stories of our spaces

Space is a challenge in my library. With limited square footage, we sometimes don’t have enough seating for the number of students seeking to use our space. We can’t accommodate all the furniture types and configurations we need for students’ assorted library space uses. We’re further challenged by the competition of different space uses (read: noise levels) in such close proximity. It’s not a surprise, then, that space improvement is a topic that’s on my mind quite often. We’re working to address these issues and needs with both small enhancements and larger-scale improvements, thinking about adjustments to our existing footprint while also advocating for an expansion.

Collecting and using data effectively is vital to our ability to identify, plan, and implement improvements. Relying on our assumptions about how students use and feel about space and services won’t cut it. So we’ve been using a variety of methods, both formal and informal, to inform our understanding of students and space–and how it could better meet their needs. Quantitative data like gate counts and service transactions document foot traffic and usage patterns. Occupancy rates show how many (or how few, as the case may be) seats we have in the library in relation to how many students we have. Enrollment trends and projections for our campus provide important context. Qualitative data–gathered through informal focus group meetings with student government and clubs and through questions posted on whiteboards in the library inviting students’ comments on space use and needs–contribute important, albeit selected, student perspectives to our understanding. And there are surely more data pieces we could gather and fit together in this puzzle. All this data can help us understand our current physical constraints and usage patterns and plan improved spaces.

Of course, space is tight on our campus for many departments and needs, not just the library. And competition for money is stiff. Funding for these improvements hinges, at least significantly if not entirely, on sharing the data in a meaningful and compelling way and effectively demonstrating our students’ needs. I’ve been searching around a bit for some inspiration or insight into how I might best tell the story of our students and space and stumbled across this from Jonathan Harris at just the right moment: “I think people have begun to forget how powerful human stories are, exchanging their sense of empathy for a fetishistic fascination with data, networks, patterns, and total information… Really, the data is just part of the story. The human stuff is the main stuff, and the data should enrich it.” Right when I was drowning in all the data visualization best practices and software recommendations–helpful in their own right to be sure–this timely reminder re-focused my view on the students at the center of our space story.

What has helped you tell the story of your students and spaces? How have you made your story and advocacy most compelling? Your planning most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

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.