Combatting Imposter Syndrome with Comradery and Critical Pedagogy

One of my friends from my graduate program is currently an instruction librarian at another institution. At the beginning of the academic school year, he asked if I would like to join him in reading partnership centered on instruction and pedagogy through a critical lens. So far this year, we have read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While reading these books we have met weekly or biweekly to discuss the contents of each chapter. I am as sick of Zoom as the next person, but these meetings were often the highlight of my week.

During these sessions we have shared our experiences, opinions, and instruction strategies as they relate to the work of hooks and Freire. It is hard to select just one topic from hours of lively conversation, but one common theme has been resonating with me as I reflect on last semester and look ahead to the new one – the complicated student-teacher relationship.

Both authors problematize the traditional hierarchical classroom setting where the teacher is always the leader of the classroom and students are often stripped of their agency upon entry. Rather, hooks and Freire explore the ways in which it is necessary for teachers to empower student agency, and to enter into a teaching and learning relationship with the students.

Creating a classroom where students have agency, and their experiences and voices are truly valued is demanding work that becomes more complicated when applied to the library one-shot instructional model. Part of this complication comes with the course instructor/librarian relationship. If the course instructor teaches with a traditional lecture model, and does not see the value of centering student voices and experiences in the classroom, librarians may not feel empowered to create this environment, or may even run the risk of not being asked to return.

As a new librarian at a new university, building relationships with teaching faculty has been one of my primary goals. Through my various communications with faculty in my liaison areas, I have not encountered any strong push back to my instruction style. However, and this may be completely in my head, I often feel that there is an expectation that I will come into the Zoom room as the Expert and fill the students with my Librarian Knowledge. This unspoken, and perhaps fully imagined, expectation feeds into something I have written about before – imposter syndrome.

This is made worse by the fact that I am what some of my colleagues like to refer to as a “generalist” – I do not have a master’s degree in any of the fields with which I liaise. This is where student experiences, voices, and expertise come to play. My reading comrade and I have been discussing strategies that implement hooks’ engaged pedagogy and Freire’s dialogics – essentially centering student voices and experiences in the library one shot.  

In reality, I am not a generalist. I specialize in library pedagogy and information literacy. When I give over half of the classroom time to the students to share their thoughts, experiences, and even expertise on information literacy topics, I am seeking to empower student knowledge, and allowing for them to teach and learn from each other. Of course, I bolster their ideas with additional perspectives where and when it is helpful. By creating a learning environment that centers students, I am able to bring together my subject expertise and their knowledge base.

Learning to navigate classrooms norms and pedagogical power structures is something instruction librarians are always participating in. In conversation with my reading comrade, I have developed several new strategies for this. It is my hope that as I push and break down the boundaries of the hierarchical classroom, my new colleagues will see the value of this practice.

Institutional and Departmental Diversity Statements

Your institution probably has a diversity or DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion) statement. Take a minute and go read it, even if you’ve seen it before. Now check the diversity statements of a few other institutions; they’re pretty similar, aren’t they?

This is not a bad thing. The purpose of an institutional diversity statement is mostly symbolic: to publicly state support for DEIA initiatives and make members of marginalized groups know that the institution is paying attention and working to be better. The statements you just read probably accomplish these goals.

But they’re vague, aren’t they? That’s okay. If your institution is really on top of things, you might also find a diversity strategic plan (or maybe DEIA efforts are incorporated into the general strategic plan). If you take a look at one of those, you’ll see more specific – but still institution-wide – information about how the goals of the statement are meant to be achieved.

(Also, I know I’m making some broad generalizations. I’ve been working on a project which has involved reading a lot of diversity statements, so I know they aren’t all the same… Take a look at my own institution’s statement here; the bullet points have the specificity usually reserved for a diversity strategic plan.)

I say all this to get around to this point: While you and your library are beholden to the institutional diversity statement, that doesn’t mean it should be the only one you use for guidance. I am here to encourage you to create a library diversity statement, assuming you don’t already have one. (If you do: well done! Keep up the good work. Continue reading to see why you’re awesome.)

After reading so many institutional diversity statements that say pleasant but admittedly bland things about what the institution wants to be with regards to DEIA matters, I have decided that they don’t say much at all. It’s like if Dasani started putting “gluten-free!” on its labels… all the other brands of bottled water would have to do it too, so it wouldn’t seem like they had gluten in their bottled water. An institution needs a diversity statement to make it clear that they don’t support oppression and prejudice. (What a world we live in.)

I think the role of the departmental diversity statement, though, is more practical. It’s more like the diversity strategic plan, because it can get more specific. A library’s diversity statement can refer to the accessibility of library spaces, diversifying the collection of resources, and other library-specific concerns. Other departments would address different specifics: the library wouldn’t address the cultural diversification and dietary needs compliance of the menu in a cafeteria, but dining services would.

Additionally, a departmental diversity statement gets the people in that department more involved. The vast majority of people at an institution had nothing to do with the writing, editing, and approval of the institutional diversity statement. They feel less connected to it because it was made elsewhere, by others, and they probably first saw it in an email announcing its implementation. While I like our statement, I don’t feel involved in it. The library’s diversity statement feels closer to me. It feels like the difference between seeing your state and your city being mentioned on national news. I hear, “In Pennsylvania,” and I pay slightly more than average attention; I hear “In Hershey,” and my ears really perk up. That closer connection creates more buy-in from the individuals in the department.

In that same vein, a departmental diversity statement can take a different tone or voice than the institutional statement. Go back up and read the Penn State statement again, then read our libraries’ statement. The libraries’ statement has a stronger upstanding, more active tone. It is a call to action, while the institutional statement is a description of what the university would like to be: both important, compatible, but different approaches to the same goal. I see in the libraries’ statement a fist held high in the air, and in the university’s statement, open and welcoming arms.

If your library does not yet have a departmental diversity statement, I encourage you to advocate for one. You can make concrete the abstract intentions of your institution’s diversity statement, lend the library’s unique voice to the conversation, and put a “gluten-free!” sticker on the bottled water that is your library.

Starting Anew, but not Starting Over: Finding Academic Librarianship from Other Career Pathways

This guest post was provided by Deborah Cooper, Digital & Special Collections Librarian, Mann Library, Cornell University (dsc255@cornell.edu) and Hannah Gunderman, Research Data Management Consultant, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries (hgunderm@andrew.cmu.edu).

One of the oft-repeated clichés of librarianship is the variety of experiences that are welcomed into the profession, such as customer service in retail, teaching in schools or wrangling spreadsheets in business. It seems an accepted norm that library workers are people at all stages of life and with a variety of backgrounds. Yet, there has been little exploration into the experiences of colleagues who join libraries after previous careers.

The topic of second-career librarianship can initially seem like it may not offer up much in-depth avenues of inquiry. Surely, coming to librarianship with other experiences under your belt can only be a positive! “Transferable skills” are not only desirable but will set you ahead in a highly competitive job market! While this is often true, the experience of being a person who shifts from one, or even several previous career paths into librarianship is not always as linear and uneventful as one might think! In our personal experiences, this circuitous journey from previous career paths into the academic libraries environment has certainly had its share of surprises and unique challenges. 

Hannah and Deborah first began their collaboration through a professional network. As they began collaborating, they discovered several overlapping research interests. However, they soon also found another unexpected similarity: they both came to academic librarianship from different career paths. It became evident that their status as second-career librarians had influenced their experiences in their respective libraries.

Before entering graduate school for her MLIS, Deborah worked in the publishing industry as both a writer and editor for over a decade. She travelled quite a bit and became a parent. While not the oldest student in class, she definitely was not the youngest. All of these previous experiences informed her entry into the profession. At the same time, when she graduated in 2014, the upstate New York region was still in the grips of recession and there were few jobs in her chosen niche of youth librarianship. After several false starts she eventually landed at a NY State university library as an adjunct, working eight-hour reference shifts in the evenings and weekends. It wasn’t part of the plan but it was a solid place to land. 

Hannah found academic librarianship after working in a geography research setting for several years, under the impression that she would pursue becoming an Assistant Professor of Geography at a higher education institution or work as a geographer in industry. It wasn’t until partway through her Ph.D. program that she realized she did not want to pursue those career paths but wanted to remain in a setting where she could help others conduct research. She found the world of academic librarianship, and for the next several years took a circuitous route to land her job in an academic library. By that time, Hannah had amassed a set of skills that served her well in a geography environment, yet at times she felt her skills were not up to par for working in an academic library.

When we first began discussing our personal experiences it was striking to us that, even with our vastly different career paths, our experience of shifting from one career to another was similar in its positives and negatives. We began to wonder if this was something that more people experience throughout the profession but wasn’t spoken about more widely. And why isn’t this addressed? Is it just a coincidence that two random strangers found similarities in their struggles? Or, is this a conversation worth having? We have indeed struggled in both similar and different ways. We decided to put our personal experiences to paper to reflect on what these experiences have meant for us and our careers, and bring the discussion to a wider audience.

In this reflection piece, we offer the following tips for navigating a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career in academic librarianship:

  1. You are not starting from scratch! Leverage the skills you already have:

When entering a new career path, you may find yourself wanting to do all the things to prove your worth. For Hannah, especially coming from a domain-specific environment where she felt very comfortable in what she was doing and the skills needed to succeed in her role, being in a totally new work environment sometimes led her to feel as though she was starting from scratch. However, you are not starting from scratch when you find academic librarianship from another career path. Leverage your transferable skills! Even if you are new to librarianship, you absolutely have skills from your previous career to contribute. These are beneficial and can help bring new perspectives into your library. 

Wherever you were before, you have valid and real experiences that are going to help you in the library. As we mentioned in the introduction, any job involving interaction with the public is a great help, whether as a barista, working in retail or answering phones. And, if you just graduated with your MLIS, remember those awful group projects in grad school? Yes, a lot of the challenges you may have encountered with those are actually good preparation for all of the groups, committees and collaborative work you’ll encounter in all libraries. If you are headed for behind-the-scenes work, for example in technical services or collections, being able to juggle multiple competing projects, track budgets or creatively problem-solve are all excellent applicable skills. 

  1. From skillsets to mindsets: 

It is not only your skill-set that’s important but your entire mindset. Even if you are only switching environments within the library profession, eg, from public to academic, the culture and expectations can be vastly different. While you may have a set of clearly defined tasks and responsibilities that you will soon learn on the job, the subtle nuances of the specific department and the wider institution may take several months to make themselves known. First, allow yourself several months to absorb the variations. Academia has a language of its own. The names and ranks can be confusing and acronyms abound. (At Deborah’s institution there is a Wiki containing a glossary of acronyms!)

A big part of building your new mindset in an academic library is finding a community. We recommend inviting your new colleagues to coffee (or in our virtual world, a Zoom chat) to start to better understand the culture and identity of your library. Depending on a host of factors, this may initially be a scary undertaking (especially if you have social anxiety!), but most of your colleagues will be flattered that you asked and only too happy to get to know you better. And subsequently having a familiar face in meetings may help ease the “new person” feeling. Some libraries also have a mentoring or buddy program for new hires and these can also help you find your feet, especially if you are more comfortable asking newbie questions to people outside of your immediate colleagues and supervisor.

  1. Embrace Your New Identity:

The life experiences that you bring with you into your daily work are a deep well you can draw on in times of need. How you obtained this experience isn’t the most important aspect but if you have worked in different fields, travelled, volunteered or have clearly grown in life because of situations you’ve experienced, you are going to be more resilient in the workplace. Your cumulative experience will not only help you in your day-to-day work but give you something to draw upon when faced with tough situations. Being able to reflect on how you successfully navigated a path through various past challenges will sustain you through your current issues. 

Don’t compare yourself to others who have entered directly into the profession in a linear path.

Remind yourself that your unique, non-linear progression is just as valid and worthy. Librarianship attracts a healthy number of career-changers. Your life experience and exposure to different communities and ways of working will help you to stand out.  Imposter syndrome can sneak in when colleagues who entered the profession directly from college are rapidly climbing the promotion ladder–you will get there, too. Accepting your identity as a late-comer is important or you will forever feel behind. There’s no catching up and no need to. By focusing on your strengths and the merit of your work, you can build your confidence.

4. Exploring and innovating within your role to build confidence

One thing that Hannah and Deborah had independently found helpful was realizing that holding back and not going outside our comfort zone only exacerbated imposter syndrome or feeling less worthy. A great piece of advice we received was to focus on work that feels personally fulfilling and then direct your energy towards it, as much as your other work will allow. We’re cognizant that some roles in an academic library may not allow for full flexibility to choose projects, but in areas where you can experiment, it is useful to identify meaningful projects. When you feel invested in projects it helps build your confidence and allows you to talk about it, present on it or generally discuss it at meetings with enthusiasm. Gradually, your colleagues will start to recognize your specific area of expertise. This goes double for non-traditional roles, such as newly created positions that cover emerging areas of librarianship and evolving roles. 

Building a Community of Interest

If you found yourself entering academic librarianship as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career and have had similar experiences and see yourself reflected in what you have read, please get in touch with us! We’re looking to build a community around these experiences and delve deeper into the question of how librarianship is influenced by career-changers and how career-changers are themselves affected by their switch. We’re hoping that this community can also serve as an informal support network for anyone who is feeling unmoored and wanting to better understand and grow their identity within academic librarianship. Academic librarianship is a rewarding career path that’s not without its challenges, and we hope that building a community of other career-changers can help enrich all of our experiences as we navigate this career together. 

Planning with Uncertainty

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Zoë McLaughlin, South and Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries. 

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Virtual Minnesota Institute, which was a condensed form of the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians that was organized once it was clear that meeting in person wasn’t going to happen. As part of the institute, participants were asked to think about where they would like to be five years from now, along a variety of axes—professional and otherwise.

I found this exercise to be surprisingly eye-opening. While many of the things I want to have accomplished professionally over the next five years were easy to identify, I had a much more difficult time putting the pieces together into one cohesive narrative. I’d like to develop more subject expertise and significantly improve my abilities in a few regional languages and become involved in national conversations about accessibility. I’d like to contribute meaningfully to the professional organizations that have really supported me and engage community members and work seriously with librarians from overseas. All of these things are connected, but many of these things are connected only because they are all interests of mine.

In my final post for ACRLog in the first year academic librarian experience series, I wrote that one lesson I learned was to be intentional in selecting and agreeing to projects. Putting this lesson together with the five-year visioning exercise, I’ve come up with a new method that I’m at least trying to use to organize and prioritize my projects.

My job responsibilities are already organized into three main categories: collections, cataloging, and accessibility. I spent my first year trying to figure out how to balance these different responsibilities, and if I’m being honest, I’m still working on it. What I learned, though, is that it helps to really break down my projects into these separate categories so that I can make sure I’m spending time on everything. The new layer I’ve added on to this system is to think about goals within these separate categories. What do I want to have accomplished in my collecting five years from now? What competencies in accessibility do I want to have developed five years from now?

Thinking of concrete, long-term goals has been made trickier by the realization that nothing is certain. Back when I wrote my final blog post, I did not think that I’d be spending a year working remotely. Sometimes goals have to change. Imagining the long term, however, has also helped me to realign my work with my values. What will I be proud of accomplishing five years from now? That’s likely much more aligned with my values than all the emails I should be writing that I keep ignoring.

So then how have I moved from thinking about goals and values to organizing my day-to-day work? Essentially, every time a project or task comes up, I ask myself whether it advances my progress toward one of my goals. If it does, great! I say yes to working on the project and I make a note of which goal the project relates to. If something isn’t actually related to my goals, then that’s a good sign that I should be saying no. Of course, I can’t say no to everything (I really do have to write all of those emails), but it is a way to make me feel a lot better about declining to participate on another committee or deciding not to submit to a semi-interesting conference.

This summer, I’m going to hit three years in this position, which means that I need to start thinking about promotion and tenure. My hope is that in conceptualizing my day-to-day work in terms of long-term goals, I’ll also be able to build a cohesive and logical promotion/tenure dossier. Thinking about how each task I complete relates to a larger plan means that all my tasks are building upon one another and that I am continuing to make progress, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

So where am I now? Like everyone else, the past year has hit me hard. But I’m lucky enough to still have a job and with a fair amount of security and the space to work from home comfortably. I’ve had to make adjustments and relearn aspects of my job when I’d only just felt like I’d gotten my feet under me, but I do feel like I’m learning and growing and am more confident in my work. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.

And for you? It’s a new year, so now might be the perfect time to look at your own goals and consider the ways in which you can make your everyday work align with your values.

Lost in Exigency, Baby.

As a researcher of organizational communication, I have spent much of the past year observing and analyzing crisis communication by university and library leadership. Often I’m in the minority, praising communication and transparency I’ve observed from university responses to the pandemic, where others have been quick to find fault. Far from an apologist, my unpopular opinion just as often puts me at odds with leadership, especially when presenting views of those further removed from the hierarchy.

Kansas stirred up quite a bit of crisis communication last week as its Board of Regents (KBOR) unanimously passed a policy suspending University tenure protections aimed at addressing immediate budget challenges due to COVID-19. While no University is required to implement the new policy, KBOR gave Universities 45-days to respond with criteria and a process for invoking such a policy.

University administrators’ reaction to the policy was swift, either seeking broader input or acknowledging they would not implement. An open letter also quickly circulated, criticizing the policy as well as administrations who hadn’t joined in denouncing it outright. Without diminishing this alarmed response — the policy and its adoption are certainly worthy of it – my first and strongest impulse is always to ask questions.

One important question being asked is “why is a new policy needed?”

When KBOR’s Governance Board met to present and discuss this policy (around 19 minutes in), Regent Kiblinger asked this very question, in context and comparison to KBOR’s existing “financial exigency” policy. The response she got highlights several distinctions, while justifying it against other COVID-specific policy changes the Board has made.  The first key distinction, though, really struck me.

“It treats everyone the same.”

KBOR General Counsel, Julene Miller

The new KBOR policy (6.b.ii) creates a COVID-specific exigency (if you will) applicable to any state university employee without the declaration of financial exigency as a prerequisite. Who is affected is the current focus of both the response from Universities and indeed the essence of how this policy “treats everyone the same”. It is admittedly more complicated , but deceptively that simple.

This sentiment — a takeaway from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s very timely visit to my campus this week discussing Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press) – has bolstered an uncomfortable hunch I have about this current situation in Kansas.  Fitzpatrick calls for a radical rethinking of how we participate in our collective values as communities of learning with a “duty of care”. While faculty loudly address the failure of leadership to make clear or understand the value of academic freedom and shared governance promised by tenure, we fail recognize and acknowledge how its structures like tenure and governance have also been built and broken down in ways that no longer live up to the values they intended to secure.

The key differences in the policy getting the most attention have to do with who has input throughout the processes and changes to the advance notice, process of appeal, and the affected employees. These explicit limitations on who is consulted, their representation and due process do raise justifiable concerns on a number of levels, one of which may be the further erosion of academic tenure in and beyond Kansas.  But, remedying these concerns through a narrow lens of tenured faculty rights, just hits wrong. It misses the larger point, an opportunity even, that could be driving new and more equitable policy. Ironically, it misuses the privilege afforded by that which actually needs defending here.

What’s driving the policy?

The next set of distinctions the KBOR Governance Board outlined in its meeting mention the expedited timeline the new policy provides and an executive-centric role in the process. While financial exigency lacks as explicitly specific a process, it does ensure the executive role is shared with governance. We’ll come back to this.

But, first, the gist of the financial exigency. The Kansas Reflector summarized the policy even more succinctly [my emphasis inserted]:

Under existing Board of Regents’ policy, a state university must formally recognize a financial exigency that [has already] required elimination of non-tenured positions and operating expenditures. With the declaration, the universities could move ahead with reductions in tenured faculty positions.

By the open letter responding to this new policy asserting at the outset that, “procedures already exist to make decisions according to financial exigency as part of shared governance”, its authors acknowledge the similarly dire circumstances that concern both policies. KU’s rules and regulations for shared governance of financial exigency further emphasizes the gravity.

“Only as a last resort after all possible alternatives calculated to preserve the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning have been in good faith examined, and utilized or rejected, should the University consider the release of any tenured member of the faculty on the basis of Financial Exigency.

https://policy.ku.edu/governance/USRR#ArticleVII

If urgency of the circumstances are justifiably similar and this new COVID-19 specific policy is something clearly different than financial exigency, then how we talk about those differences matter.

The positive difference in the policy of financial exigency (shared governance) has already been noted. My question is why would we defend a policy that requires Universities to explicitly begin eliminating non-tenured lines before any tenured lines?

Because…tenure?

Like crises before it, COVID-19 has been both a global equalizer and a stark reminder of disparities resulting from all kinds of privilege. For KU employees COVID-19 has already forced temporary salary reductions across all employee types, additional hiring freezes, and top-down realignments that have resulted in administrative promotions and demotions, unpaid additional labor, and the voluntary and involuntary loss of good people and expertise.

Values and standards can certainly be upheld during unprecedented upheaval. The open letter reminds us “the statements of core values and standard practices [of academic freedom and tenure] were composed during moments of extraordinary societal upheaval and unrest—during the worst economic depression and the deadliest world war”. We must acknowledge they also occurred when “in some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.” Can we honestly say today, under circumstances similar or unique from crises of the past, that explicitly prioritizing the elimination of non-tenured faculty or staff actually “preserves the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning”, but eliminating any tenured faculty doesn’t?

What actually needs defending here?

What if Universities responded to the call for developing this framework with a generosity inherent in “it treats everyone the same”? What if a framework did include shared governance, adequate notice and appeal privileges, and did so (as the policy requires) for any state university employee?

Wouldn’t that be better than defending currently inequitable alternatives like financial exigency, or narrowly focusing on the academic freedom afforded only to tenured faculty?  Wouldn’t it be better than an institution publicly declaring they are (for now) not planning to submit criteria or implement the new policy as is?

These questions prevent me from defending an alternative of financial exigency as it exists. In posing these questions, I also acknowledge that KBOR’s approval of this policy without shared governance and transparency is indeed unprecedented in a manner that “degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students”. At the same time, I can see the issues it is attempting to address gives unprecedented opportunity for more equitable approaches to “save the university”.

Having worked for the State of Kansas in the KBOR system for more than 20 years, I have experienced the political and budgetary challenges to employee salaries and benefits from the vantage point of different employee statuses – classified and unclassified staff, tenure track and non-tenure track, and tenured faculty administration in which I have supervised or mentored all of the former. This given me access to perspectives some of my colleagues may not as readily share.

Clearly this issue has shaken more than the foundational principles of tenure. It has us questioning ourselves, our professional relationships, and our leadership at all levels. Ultimately, though, this is a good thing.  And while manifested poorly, both these polices, and at all times our privilege, should be open to further critique.

Shared governance is a privilege students, staff, and faculty can and should exercise on behalf of the most vulnerable. It calls us to use our collective voices not in self- or self-identifying preservation, but for giving unprecedented voice, participation, and due process for all employees. KU’s chancellor has publicly and internally sought input from governance, administrators, faculty, and staff across the university to determine this process, despite any requirement of the KBOR policy to do so – as he should! In addition to this invitation, it is our right and obligation to demonstrate how equity becomes and remains a prerequisite part of any policy.

Let’s get to it.