From the Other Side of the Table: Academic Search Committee from the Inside

This guest post comes to us from Ruth Monnier, who is an Assistant Professor and Learning Outreach Librarian at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. She provides reference and instruction services and engages with the greater campus and community.

Last year, I was job hunting and, like many others, was worried about CVs, resumes, cover letters, tracking jobs, and application deadlines. Recently, I served on the other side of the table as a search committee member. In books, blogs, and Twitter feeds, everyone has advice to offer to the job seeker, and most of the advice is good. However, just because advice is given, does not mean the advice is taken. After being on the other side of the table, here are six pieces of advice I offer for anyone who is job searching.

  1. Reading Truly Matters

It seems obvious based on our profession’s stereotype, but it bears stating again: reading carefully truly matters. We, as a society, are trained to skim any text (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf). The committee can tell who is skimming the job posting, and particularly the job description. The job description lays out the expectations for the role and is the guiding document of the search. The committee uses the job description as a template for interview questions and to create a rubric for evaluating each candidate’s response. You should directly answer every job duty raised in the job description via CV or cover letter, especially if there are any unusual or nontraditional job duties. By directly addressing the listed duties, you eliminate any doubt committee members might have on your ability to complete job-related functions. The more uncertainty committee members have about a candidate, the less likely it is for the candidate to move on in the search process.

If you are a job seeker, take time to review your application documents and ask someone else to review them as well, especially if you are using a base template to apply for multiple positions. Do your cover letter and CV address every duty in the job description? Did you spell the institution’s name correctly? Does the job title match? Is your contact information correct?

  1. Selection of the Committee

Honestly, when I was a job seeker, I did not think about how individuals became a part of the search committee. However, understanding the search committee’s composition can assist you in the process. At my institution, per department policies, it is required that there be at least one staff person and three faculty members elected to the committee. The search committee makeup and the process will vary by institution. The important takeaways are to recognize that not all committee members will have a master’s degree in the field nor know all of the position’s day-to-day tasks. With your knowledge of the search committee composition, you can better understand their overall perspective on the institution and library department, terminology and acronym usage, and whom some of your questions should be directed towards. Be mindful of who is on the other side of the table throughout the interview process.

  1. Little Things Matter

Time and care should be taken to craft the initial interview documents, such as your cover letter, and to the interview process as a whole. Search committee members are interviewing multiple candidates back-to-back. Even with taking notes, candidates’ information can run together, which makes the little things stand out. Being prepared can help you stand out.

If you are interviewed, have questions ready to ask the search committee and for a campus interview, have questions to ask anyone. Also, feel free to re-ask previous questions from earlier stages in the interview to different individuals.Before the phone interview, write out key points and activities that you want to highlight to the committee, particularly for those commonly asked questions.It is easy to freeze up or stumble if you are nervous or not used to the technology. If possible, practice a phone/video interview with a friend or Career Services and use what you plan on having for the actual interview. During the phone interview, take notes on the questions asked and your responses as well as ask for time to process a question as needed. As the interview process changes due to budget constraints and a global pandemic, be prepared and familiarize yourself with multiple technology platforms. If you go for a campus visit, remember that you, as the candidate, are always being interviewed unless you are left completely alone. Your conversations in the car, at meals and breaks, and walking on campus are all being used to evaluate you, just as you are evaluating the position, committee, and institution.

  1. Take a Break

If you have an itinerary, check it. Are there breaks for you? Do you need to ask for anything to ensure a smoother interview? Whether participating in a phone interview, multi-hour video call, or visiting in-person, ensure breaks for yourself. For a phone interview, this might simply mean having water to drink while the committee is asking questions. For a longer interview process, advocating for a couple of quick breaks by yourself allows you to recharge. If you are given the opportunity for a break, take it. Breaks also allow search committee members an opportunity to check their email or complete other quick tasks. Depending on the candidate’s schedule, the search committee can feel fatigued too. Breaks benefit all involved to process information, relax, and recharge for the next portion of the day.

  1. Expenses

Typically, your expenses are paid if a search committee brings you physically to the campus. Frequently your expenses are reimbursed after the fact versus at the point of purchase. Before you arrive on campus, ask for clarification on the expense process (reimbursement or otherwise), including who is responsible for meals, receipts needed for reimbursement, and any other questions you have. If it is a financial burden for you to travel to campus and any of the related expenses, talk to the search committee’s chair. There may be ways to ease the up-front financial burden depending on the institution.

Be an advocate for yourself and communicate with the committee. Remember you are interviewing the committee as much as they are interviewing you, and no one wants an awkward or uncomfortable situation.

  1. Thank you

Common advice for any job seeker is to send a thank you note. The typical advice given is to send a handwritten note, but if a handwritten note will not arrive in time an email is also acceptable.

By being on the other side of the table, I was surprised at how few thank you emails and notes were sent. Thank you notes reiterate your interest in the position, provide an additional opportunity to clarify an answer to an interview question you may have not answered to the best of your ability, and can make you stand out to the committee. It is one more time that the committee is seeing your name and interest in the position.

Each institution is different, but being prepared and following through gives you the best opportunity of landing the position. Good luck!

Virtual Holiday Parties

With the holidays starting, yet another surreal “I guess this is COVID” moment is upon us: we’re really going to go a whole December without office holiday parties? Did we ever think we would miss such a thing?

I have only worked in three libraries, but I have been fortunate enough to work in three libraries with amazing cooks and bakers. Missing out on a library potluck is a top ten COVID-year bummer for me. But we’ve gotten pretty good at this remote celebration thing, right? Here are some ideas for how to safely celebrate with your library staff (and maybe some of these will work for your family non-gatherings as well):

  • Games:
    • Many in-person games translate well to Zoom or other video chat platforms:
      • Pictionary (using the whiteboard feature)
      • Charades (no risk of accidental talking; just mute yourself!)
      • Trivia (use the hand-raising feature or chat to “buzz in”)
      • Scavenger hunt (pick items people are likely to have at home)
      • Themed hunt (for example, have people pull from their bookshelves at home the oldest book, longest book, book with a blue cover, etc., and compare your finds! Other themes might be the fridge, things within reach of where they sit when they work from home, or clothing.)
      • Online scavenger hunt (find pages/links/information instead of objects)
      • Name that tune (play instrumental versions over host’s mic)
      • Buzzword (each person gets a holiday-themed word; if you catch them saying it during the virtual get-together, they’re out!)
  • Contests:
    • Ugly sweater contest
    • Holiday costume contest (get elaborate, you don’t have to wear it in public!)
    • Gingerbread house contest (send out kits ahead of time)
  • Gift exchanges:
    • A virtual gift exchange (gift card codes, for example)
    • If everyone lives in the same area, arrange for them to pick up a gift from a local shop
  • Other activities:
    • Holiday playlist (share screen with audio sharing enabled)
    • Holiday photo booth (create your own props, interact Brady-Bunch style!)
    • Take an online class together, either live or a pre-recorded class
    • Recipe exchange: share what you would have brought to a regular potluck, or have a theme, like cookies

Keep these important considerations in mind when planning your celebration, some of which you should already consider when planning in-person, in-office celebrations, and some that are new this year:

  • Keep employees’ diversity in mind:
    • Know the dates of holidays you’re not familiar with; someone may be taking the day off to celebrate. Try to find a date everyone is available and that doesn’t conflict with other celebrations.
    • Be aware of holidays with food restrictions, like daytime fasting or abstaining from certain foods. It’s easier to not include food in a virtual celebration.
  • Keep employees’ privacy in mind:
    • While a tour of everyone’s holiday decorations sounds fun, not everyone will want to show you the inside of their home.
    • Remember to schedule your celebration during work hours, just as you would an in-office celebration.
    • Gift exchanges are nice, but some people may not be comfortable sharing their mailing address with colleagues.
    • If playing an online game together, choose one that doesn’t require the sharing of personal information to access it. Games that don’t have to be downloaded are preferable, too.
  • Keep employees’ needs in mind:
    • If you’re doing anything food-related, remember to consider allergies and dietary restrictions, as you would for an in-person potluck.
    • So many people are on their second, third, twentieth wind of Zoom fatigue. Don’t try to do all of these things; pick one or two and do them well.
    • Be considerate of everyone’s time: the party is over at the designated time.
    • December is a busy time for the whole family. Some employees may be caring for others who also are participating in holiday-related activities. Be understanding of those who can’t dedicate extra time and energy for activities like the suggested costume or gingerbread contests.

One last idea: Anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard several of my friends express that something they really miss about working in person together with their colleagues is the casual conversation time. Remotely, that’s something you have to carve out time for and decide to do, since you don’t bump into each other in hallways or stop at the desk or a doorway to chat. Maybe your staff would really just like to get together and have an hour of dedicated casual chat time?

Whatever you and your staff do, I hope you do it safely, comfortably, and happily, and that you get to do it in person for the 2021 holiday season.

Seeking Creativity in the Pandemic

I have always struggled with forced creativity. Working in an office, working at a desk, working at a computer have always been stifling. Good thing I chose to be a librarian, right? Of course, I have developed several strategies to help cope with this and inspire creativity and positivity in my work: multitasking, going for short walks, breathing exercises, and perhaps most importantly, listening to music. In high school I discovered that I did my best, most focused school work when I blasted music.

Music sooths my anxiety, allows me to focus, and inspires creativity when I need it most. This has led me down some fascinating music rabbit holes and to develop quite the record collection. As the pandemic began and I transitioned to working from home, I quickly realized a silver lining: I’d be able to listen to my records while working. In fact, I am currently spinning David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Working from home has opened the door to other new paths to inspiring creativity. A couple of weeks ago I attended an LIS Pedagogy Chat moderated by Lisa Hinchliffe. I have been extremely grateful for each LIS Pedagogy Chat that I’ve been able to make this semester, but there were a couple of discussion points from this one that really hit home. The session titled “What’s Going Well?” encouraged all sixty or so participants to share what had been working for them this semester. I didn’t have the energy to weigh in during this session, but listening to the successes of the other participants was a nourishing experience. For me, the question that brought out the most inspiring and relatable answers was, “What environments bring out your best work?”

The answers to this question included a variety of environments and actions that ranged from taking a nap after an instruction session to baking cookies while brainstorming. The librarians sharing their experiences not only portrayed these practices as legitimate but in some cases as necessary. This broader understanding of work environments and practices has been helpful to understanding the ways in which I work best.

Throughout the work day I often get urges to get up and cook, water my plants, take a shower, walk my dog, or generally get out in nature. In the past this has felt like some kind of breach of professionalism. And, while I have felt apprehensive about giving myself over to these meanderings, I have found that my most productive and creative brainstorming frequently occurs in environments that do not include the cold light of my computer screen. Taking a moment to unpack this, I realized that the act of doing something creative but relatively mindless, like cooking, triggers my creativity in ways that a standard work environment does not. Alternatively, less creative, but physically active measures keep both my mind and body from stagnation.

I’ve felt guilty about my wandering path to creativity and productivity, but hearing from other librarians that this can be a legitimate strategy has allowed me to embrace that work can take different forms and my best work doesn’t always happen in the conventional work environment associated with academia.

Finding the “yes and…” and getting out of my head

As the semester and end of the year approaches, I find myself reflecting on this question more frequently:

“Am I currently just trying to make it through the day or do I have the capacity and bandwidth to do other things?”   

I, like many of you reading this post, am tired. I feel like I’m doing just enough to stay a few steps ahead of everything. My best days are when I focus on one project and make slow and steady progress. I’m frustrated and anxious and that has bled into the ways I feel about work and the people I work with. I have felt stuck, in many ways, this fall. The jazzy Hailley some of you know can be a bit harder to find some days. 

What I’m slowly realizing is that my best strategy for handling these feelings is to step outside the library. Earlier this week, I attended another meeting of the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, a group funded by our center for teaching excellence and led by faculty members who also are founders for a local improv group, Happy Valley Improv (HVI). 

Now, for some context, you should know I took an improv class with HVI at the start of 2020 (which seems like another lifetime ago). I had several motivations for taking the course, but mainly I wanted to try something new and was able to take the course with a close friend (shout out to my gal, Giorgia!). What I didn’t expect was that I truly loved doing improv. In an improv space, you’re asked to trust the people around you, get into the flow and energy of that group, and know that you’ll be accepted for whatever ideas you put forward. Everyone has agreed to the “Yes and…” philosophy and you make it work, with whatever you have been presented. While taking the in-person classes, I found it refreshing to turn the part of my brain that thinks about the next 10 moves and tap into my creative side, coming up with stories and backstories on the spot. I enjoyed the class so much, I had signed up for level 2 but obviously, the pandemic got in the way. 

So when I got the email about the fall meetings for the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, I figured this was my way back into improv. I attended a session about a month ago and left the session feeling happier and more energetic than I had been in a while. It wasn’t a large group of us, no more than 12. We talked about our position at the university and how it’s related to teaching, and what we were experiencing in our virtual classrooms. During that first happy hour, we played a few games, where we got to rename ourselves, pass around the ball of energy, and dream up some new characters. 

When the next happy hour came around this past week, I thought about skipping it. There was a lot of library drama this week and I felt weighed down by everything. However, I reminded myself that I would probably feel better if I logged on. So, as 4:30 rolled around, I got onto Zoom and as soon as I got into the room, I started to smile. What struck me about this happy hour was that it was refreshing to talk to people not deeply interconnected with the library. Widening my group of colleagues gave me a new perspective I needed. As we sat in that Zoom room, we were all educators, sharing our experiences, testing out some games, solving problems, and thinking about our teaching pedagogy and how improv plays a role in our work. Sure it wasn’t quite the same as standing in the ballet studio HVI used for their classes but the way the happy hour helped me and my brain definitely felt the same. I feel lucky to have this teaching community and am appreciative that this space is available to me.

Upon further reflection, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the ethos of “Yes and…” plays into my student engagement and outreach work. I’ve always seen myself as a connector and the “yes and…” helps bring new ideas, events, and workshops to life. In two meetings this week, after the improv happy hour, I found myself taking the “yes and…” stance. The first came in a conversation with two groups of colleagues, where we were connecting two peer mentoring services and imagining new ways to bring them together and provide instruction. The second was with two colleagues in Outdoor Adventures, as we began to finalize a semester-long Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to increase the coverage of POCs who are involved in the outdoor industry. In both situations, I felt that spark of making connections and building something I didn’t anticipate when I entered the meeting. It will definitely be this sort of work that sustains me, during this pandemic and beyond. And this week has been about clarifying what that dynamic is, so I know how to get back to that space when I need it.  

I’m curious if any readers have something like improv that helps you? Both for getting out of your head but also might have applications to your work? Would love to hear how others are continuing to grapple with today’s reality (and if there are any other library improv folks out there!).  

Similarities and Differences

I’ve spent all semester struggling with writer’s block here at ACRLog, feeling a lack of both focus and ideas. Which is not at all surprising (or unique to me) given the many crises unfolding simultaneously in the U.S. and the world right now. I think what I keep getting stuck on is the desire to write something useful, a piece with practical suggestions and ideas for how to make our experiences in our libraries and institutions this semester just a little bit better and easier, for us and our patrons. I sometimes feel like I should be writing more here about library leadership, shining light on my day to day tasks as a library director. But there have been so many terrific articles and blog posts and twitter threads about managing with compassion during this time of remote work and multiple crises. What could I possibly have to add to the conversation, surely everything has already been said?

At my college and university our physical libraries are still closed, and my colleagues and I are all working remotely. It strikes me that while so much of what I do in my day to day is different with our continuing remote work — from spending hours figuring out how to share and sign PDFs across each of my and my colleagues’ different home computer setups, to trying to figure out at least semi-reasonable lighting for my many zoom meetings — lots of what I do is the same as in the beforetimes. I still meet monthly with each library faculty and staff member I supervise, to catch up on their projects and see if there’s anything they need (and brief meetings are still okay). We still have a meeting for all library faculty and staff, and I still share as much information as I can about the budget, campus planning, and the promotion and tenure process. My tenure-track and promotion-seeking colleagues and I still try to hold coworking space for a few hours each month to support each other as we make some progress on our research, writing, and scholarly reading.

There are differences, though what’s feeling most different right now are mostly the details. I send a very brief update email to my colleagues each morning to let us all know if anyone’s scheduled out and to share other information when I have it. We’re now having our all library meeting every other week rather than once a month, just to make sure we all have a chance to share anything that’s coming up in our day to day (and if those meetings are brief that’s fine). Zoom fatigue is real, so it’s not ever a requirement for my colleagues to turn on cameras or to be participating in meetings on a computer — calling in is just fine, listening is just fine. I will admit that one detail I didn’t consider at the beginning of the semester when scheduling meetings is what it would feel like to me to have multiple back-to-back zooms. That is not a mistake I will make again next semester, for sure.

I appreciate all of our work in the library to support our patrons while remote. But it’s still hard, even 8+ months in. The college and university where I work decided several weeks ago that next semester will again be held overwhelmingly online, and like most of the other campuses our library will not be open to patrons next semester, nor will library faculty and staff be required to work onsite. I’m so grateful that we’ll be able to work safely off-campus next semester, though I miss working in person with everyone, so much.

I’m not sure that I’m leaving us with anything useful at the end of this post, despite my intentions. It’s easy for me to focus on the differences, the difficult differences in the ways we are all having to work together now. Though in writing this I’m reminded of how much is the same in our work, a reminder that’s helpful to me, and perhaps to you, too.