Grappling with My Faculty Identity

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at the Regis University, Denver, Colorado.

When I began applying for academic library jobs late last year, I was introduced to the wild world of academic personnel classification. First, I figured out what tenure was and what that might mean for my own career. I then discovered that there are tenure track librarians on 9 or 12 month contracts, faculty librarians who are not tenure track, librarians who are not classified as faculty, and everything in between. It was complicated, and I didn’t quite understand what my status might mean in the greater context of the university or college I would work for. In fact, I’m still grappling with my identity on campus, what it means in relation to my colleagues, and how rank influences interactions.

In April, I became a faculty research and instruction librarian at a small university. We do not have tenure, but we are on a rank and promotion track, which means that I have service requirements to students and the university and requirements to contribute to the profession through presentations, publications, and research so that I can be promoted. There are a mix of tenure track and non tenure track positions at my university, and the designation depends heavily on the college. Complicating these designations are the histories behind them. There used to be a faculty union for some of the colleges, but that union dissolved. The library used to have tenure, and some librarians still have tenure, but new librarians do not. I learn new information every day about my university’s history, college structures and classifications, and I’m still confused. It’s like a jumbled bowl of faculty spaghetti. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out, and this is just one college campus.

I’m not usually one to care about titles, what I’m called, or what my status is; however, I’m discovering that other people really do care and that has implications for how they interact with me. What I’ve started to care about is how people perceive what I do. It seems that a large part of my job is fixing people’s perceptions of my job and advocating for it in the first place. Veronica Arellano Douglas recently posted an article that helped me reflect on some of my feelings. A lot of times, I think I’m seen as a resource or as something that can be used by others instead of as an educator and expert in my own field of study. There was a conversation on Twitter recently about this idea that librarians are seen as helpers rather than colleagues. This comes across in emails where colleagues ask me to present an impossible list of things in a 20 minute period or introduce me as a magician who can pull resources out of thin air instead of a colleague that studied and practiced and is an expert in her field. Or, there are comments of surprise that the librarians attenda so many events (it’s literally our job and we want to support our students and colleagues), though attending campus events can sometimes be a struggle when we’re left off the invite list.

Which brings me back to labels. What does it mean if I’m classified as faculty but am not always treated as one? What I think it means is that I have to do a bit more work to build relationships and collaborate with other faculty members. When a colleague remarked that it’s nice the library is invited to faculty events, we had a conversation about how librarians are invited because we’re also faculty. If I receive an instruction request that includes too many topics or doesn’t give me enough time to teach, I can push back and inform them how I approach instruction. I’m trying to find my boundaries and tell colleagues “this is what I do” instead of “is it okay if I do this?” because I don’t need permission to do my job. I’m having conversations about my role in educating students, pointing out opportunities for collaboration, and valuing my own skills and expertise. Many of my colleagues are really receptive and great to work with. I’ve had success teaching classes that go beyond the one-shot model because colleagues were open to the idea that we could have more than one class. I’ve also helped colleagues create research projects for students and brainstorm ideas to teach students information literacy topics. Those moments feel like a win.

I’d also like to point out that, as a new librarian, this is all very terrifying. For one, I feel like an imposter half the time, and I’m also a young female that’s mistaken for a student more often than not so talking to seasoned academics is intimidating. However, I’d like to believe, even if I weren’t classified as faculty, that I’d still be having these conversations and building these relationships with my colleagues. I have to remind myself that I know a lot of stuff and I can make a substantial contribution to my university, our students, and the library profession. For now, I’m going to keep learning all that I can about my university, continue building meaningful relationships with my colleagues, and perhaps one day, figure this academia thing out.

How are librarians classified on your campus? What do your relationships with faculty look like?

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,” https://xkcd.com/1053/

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.

Emerging as a Community-Engaged Librarian: Reflections on the Emerging Engagement Scholars Workshop

Context of the workshop

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Emerging Engagement Scholars Workshop (EESW), sponsored by the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. This workshop is meant for PhD students and junior faculty who consider themselves engaged scholars or aspire to be engaged scholars. For those who don’t know about engaged scholarship, just look up Ernest Boyer, he’s the guy around this topic. At its core, engaged scholarship is about academia collaborating with the local community to share and leverage expertise and ultimately, make social change.

The workshop is meant to give participants an inside scoop on the history and current context of the field, connect them with their peers and mentors, and in general, get jazzed around doing community engaged scholarship. All workshop participants brought in a community project, and we had several hours of dedicated mentor time to talk through these projects and make some strides forward. I decided to explore building a community of practice for the undergraduate interns at our library (more on that later).

I have been wanting to participate in this workshop for a few years now, mainly based on a recommendation from my graduate school mentor, Martin Wolske.  I’d say Martin was the one who showed me what community engaged scholarship could like for librarians. He did that through his day-to-day work as a community member and librarian and by bringing me on as a Community Ambassador for the grant, Digital Literacy for ALL Learners, where community-engaged scholarship was the first outside the class thing I did in graduate school.

Overall, the workshop, and corresponding conference, was great. I did learn a lot, found some new language to talk about my job, and connected with new people. While I made an initial stab at my thoughts post workshop on Twitter, below is an expanded version of what I took away from participating in EESW.

Questions of identity

The workshop was billed as a space for PhD students and junior faculty (me). PhD students outnumbered junior faculty at least 2-1, which was not usually the case at previous iterations of this workshop. I was also the only librarian at the workshop, which meant I got to have a lot of conversations about what I do and why I was a participant with EESW.

At times I felt a little out of place. As with any space where you’re the sole librarian, there are questions about what we’re doing in that academic space. Do we actually do scholarship? What does an LIS research agenda look like? Can we really achieve tenure? As expected, talking about my faculty status, my ability to achieve tenure, and my research interests was the way in, and I definitely opened up some eyes. I will say that this space was incredibly welcoming; I had thoughtful peers who wanted to ask questions about my job and share experiences they have had with their subject librarians. My assigned mentor, Diane Doberneck, was also amazing. She’s doing great work at Michigan State and had such insightful feedback for my project around building a community of practice.

This workshop also reminded me that I do know a lot, more than I give myself credit. For example, we spent one section of the workshop talking about the tenure process and how to write about engaged scholarship in your dossier. While some PhD students had never discussed what tenure looks like, I felt prepared for the conversations and actually made good strides on my dossier (draft due soon!). Or, in one of our mentoring sessions, we talked about frameworks that supported our community projects and I was able to share reading suggestions (like Dorothea Kleine’s Choice Framework and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s many articles on intersectionality). In those moments, I felt like a librarian, passing along information, while also showcasing a bit of my expertise.   

Where do I want to go? And why am I doing this work?

As the workshop progressed, a few questions kept popping up for me. The first was, “Where do I want to go with this work?” And that question was quickly followed by “Why am I doing this work?”

Bottomline, I want to be a community-engaged librarian scholar. In learning about librarianship, it has always been in relation to communities – the community of Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, New York City, Urbana, IL, and now, Penn State. As a librarian, I do my job better when I listen, include, leverage, and support communities. Decisions about services, resources, and programs should be made with the community, not on behalf of the community. Communities can be vibrant, complex, come with a lot of baggage, embrace a rich history and traditions, or be ready for change. I love discovering all those threads as a librarian.

Furthermore, I see community engaged scholarship as a foundation of my research agenda. The work I’ve been doing as the Student Engagement Librarian has been building relationships, getting to know the various communities I engage with; these relationships will allow us to conduct meaningful research. To be a community-engaged librarian scholar means that understanding and working with communities not only drive forward my day-to-day, but influence and shape my research. Everything I do should be in service to or connected to the communities.

Finding the language and lingo

Recently, as my second-year tenure documentation due date looms, I’ve been low key freaking out. Some of the freak out was due to the me wanting to be intentional about how I build my dossier and the words I use to describe my work. I wanted to paint of picture that both my tenure colleagues AND my non-librarian colleagues can understand. This pressure, totally put on by myself, stopped me cold from getting some of that legwork for my dossier completed.

This workshop was exactly the push I needed to think about that language again. Our pre-readings and then workshop conversations highlighted how I could use community-engaged scholarship lingo to describe my work. I am grounded in community, and for me, I define and work mainly with communities connected to Penn State – undergraduate students, library student employees, undergraduate and student affairs professionals, and my Commonwealth library colleagues. I am hoping framing my work through a community engaged scholarship lens will resonate with others (we shall see!).  

What’s next?

Well, I have emerged as an engaged (librarian) scholar. I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate in the workshop and know those conversations will stick with me for the next few months. I would encourage others to consider applying and attending this workshop, especially for those who work closely with communities, in academia or with the local community. Does anyone else do engaged scholarship at your institution and if so, what does it look like? I’m always trying to find more community engaged librarians!  


Featured image by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Recommended Reading: White Fragility

I spent most of last weekend home sick with a cold, sniffling under blankets and cats, though the unexpected bright spot was the time to finish a book that was so fantastic that I can’t not recommend it. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, floored me with its honest discussion of the role that we white people play in maintaining the racist systems in our society.

From the first page of the first chapter DiAngelo pulls no punches: “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage.”

DiAngelo makes a compelling case for why white people must push through our discomfort and learn to talk about race. She reviews the history of racism and white supremacy, and points out that the focus on individual acts of racism as perpetrated by bad actors sets up a binary that prevents white people from discussing racism at all. Throughout the book DiAngelo shares examples from her work in antiracist trainings to highlight the ways that white people — including herself — behave in conversations with people of color and conversations about race. Most importantly, she reminds us that “the antidote to guilt is action” (p. 143), and shares concrete suggestions to help white people resist white fragility and white solidarity, and to push back against racism in our society.

I feel strongly that this book should be required reading for all white librarians. As has been much discussed in recent years, librarianship remains over 86% white, despite years of advocacy and efforts to attract and fund students of color in LIS programs and hire librarians of color. And while librarianship remains predominantly white, the undergraduate population in the U.S has only continued to diversify. I work at a large public college that primarily serves New York City residents, and our student population is reflective of the city we’re in. It’s critical to my work that I learn about and practice antiracism. I’m also a chief librarian, and I want to especially urge my fellow white library directors and managers to read this book; we are responsible both to our campus communities and our library colleagues to interrupt our white fragility and strive for a more inclusive workplace.

There are lots of ways to learn about racism and antiracism. I am still learning, though I can share what’s been helpful to me. A few years ago I attended a three-day antiracism workshop that was a good place to start with both learning more about the structural racism of U.S. society and to begin having conversations about race. I also read a lot (probably not a surprise!) — as librarians, we are terrific at doing research, finding resources, and extending our learning. Searching online for antiracist resources should bring up numerous lists of resources on race and racism generally. Twitter has afforded me the opportunity to listen and learn from people of color in librarianship, academia, and activism. I also attend a white antiracist discussion group which I find incredibly valuable because, as DiAngelo demonstrates so well, talking about race is hard for white people, and we need to practice in order to get comfortable with our discomfort.

This is so important — if you’re a white librarian I hope you’ll take the time to read this book, too. At just over 150 pages it’s a quick read, and DiAngelo is a clear and thoughtful writer. And if you’d like to get familiar with her work before diving into the book, I recommend this video:
Deconstructing White Privilege
and this article:
White People are still raised to be racially illiterate. If we don’t recognize the system, our inaction will uphold it.

Finding My Voice

Editor’s Note: We welcome Emily Hampton Haynes to the ACRLog team. Emily is a Reference and Education Services Librarian at Hood College of Maryland. Her research interests include information literacy, pedagogy, and outreach.

After grad school and learning on the job, I have been trying to ease into the discourse of our profession. One big step for me was to co-present a session at a local library conference (TCAL in Maryland). Our session was called Self-Care Isn’t Selfish: How Mindfulness Practices Can Benefit Librarians and Library, and discussed how mindfulness can improve an employee’s workplace wellbeing and performance, particularly in fields requiring emotional labor. Presenting at my first conference was an incredibly satisfying experience, from the support of the conference committee to presenting with a colleague I have a lot of chemistry with. But there was one takeaway I hadn’t expected: the feeling of having a voice in librarianship.

I’ve been to several conferences during and since library school, and I walked into them with wide eyes and the expectation that I’d be meeting loads of library folks between sessions and during meals. Up until TCAL, I’d exchanged as many business cards as I’d had meaningful conversations (zero). What was that about? Was it me, that I couldn’t overcome the shyness I wear comfortably, like an oversized sweater? Was it that conferences take a lot out of people, and most of us just want to check our phones (aka refresh Library Twitter) and drink water between sessions? Or was it something else?

Scholarship as a Conversation, has always been the ACRL information-literacy frame that resonated with me most. I was introduced to the Burke metaphor my third year of undergrad, in a literary criticism class. To hear as a 20-year-old that I am in conversation with Brontë critics (and maybe even Brontë herself) was a shift in mindset that transformed the rest of my time as an English major. And it took about two and a half years on the job to feel that same shift as a librarian.

Growing professional confidence seems to have come to me in stages: first, I had to understand the lay of the land at my first job. Then I learned to connect the day-to-day responsibilities with the theories and values I’d studied in library school. Following library listservs, bloggers I respect, and formal library research was a way to listen and learn. And the process of researching, proposing, and presenting a talk was the next major step. I entered the parlor, I listened for a while, and I contributed my own thought to the “unending conversation.”

TCAL was so welcoming largely because it was a local academic library conference designed to facilitate that warm conversation between peers. But I’d attended TCAL a previous year, and I’d perched on the edge of my chair and spoke very little – not even to ask questions. The difference for me this year was great: I felt like I had a seat at a table I didn’t realize was too tall for me before. Moving through a space as Someone Who Has Something To Say shifted my sense of belonging, and for the first time I experienced the satisfaction of real participation in my field. And that was thrilling.

The sensation of having a voice unlocks new thresholds of confidence in me. Until I stepped into the classroom, I didn’t think I could teach students only a few years my junior. Until I submitted a proposal to a conference, I didn’t think it would be accepted. Until I spoke in front of colleagues, I didn’t realize I was part of a larger professional community. I believe it could be the same for you. Until you try it out, you may not realize that you have a voice here. Join the conversation.