Seven years later

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 Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.

In 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of being a First Year Academic Librarian blogger for ACRLog. As part of this “where are they now” series, let’s talk about the years since I last blogged here.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to blog is I had absolutely no professional network as a new librarian. Librarianship was a second career and I worked in a lab while taking courses online at night. We had class meetups in Nashville, but the department was in Knoxville and things like collaboration, mentoring, and research opportunities were a step removed from campus. ACRLog got me the attention of people I still call friends. As a new and rootless academic librarian on the tenure trail, the blogging experience was incredibly helpful to me.

Since I stopped blogging in 2013, a lot of things have happened at University of Akron, many for the bad. Our enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students total which caused predictable Survivor-style winnowing of the workforce via layoffs, not filling positions, and buyouts. There are about half the library faculty as when I arrived and a liaison system seems unrealistic given staffing levels that cannot support the number of subject librarians one would need to do the idea justice. I personally am liaison to nine departments, about 120 faculty and around 1,900 students. I remember being at a conference and someone saying they had 700 students they were liaison for and the room gasped. I was jealous.

I have had, as of now, five university presidents, three provosts, and two library deans. There were many retirements, one of which was my direct supervisor who retired at the end of 2015. I was asked if I would be interim head of the Science & Technology Library, which I agreed to and began in January 2016. A colleague who was more experienced turned down the opportunity, and I was the only other faculty in the branch at that moment. I took the job and had absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian duties as physical sciences librarian.

I had more than five years of management experience going into the job, so the mechanical parts of management (budgeting and HR stuff) were pretty easy. But it was difficult to leave the faculty bargaining unit, my spot on Faculty Senate, and in general go over to “the other side”. I maintain that my most significant accomplishments as Interim head of the S&T Library are helping relocate the engineering tutoring program physically within the library and getting snack machines put outside the library entrance so students wouldn’t have to leave the building after hours for food. I believe students are more appreciative of the latter accomplishment. After a calm and relatively successful time in this position, another colleague left library management at University of Akron for library management at Harvard University – a career downgrade I still don’t understand. (Don’t send that email, it’s a joke.) Given the particular personal and professional dynamics of the workgroup, I was offered the opportunity to take over leadership of yet another unit. I accepted and became an assistant dean (“ass dean” of course) in December of 2017. If you are following along at home, this is lab rat to assistant dean in less than five and a half years. At the beginning of this position I had two staff, two contract professionals, and seven faculty librarians as direct reports.

When I took this new role, there was absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian or interim department head duties. I was, quite simply, doing what had once been three jobs (actually more than three jobs, as the S&T Head had absorbed a third of a job before retirement). Also, I was on the tenure clock trying to produce an appropriate number of articles, presentations, and accomplishments in professional service to meet our promotion benchmarks. In this I was successful – I got tenure and promotion in July 2018. I would be curious to learn of other tenure track assistant deans who had the position without tenure yet. I gather it’s a very rare occurrence, but is also a sign of how much upheaval was happening at my place of work.

This is when burnout started to set in. I could do the job, or the three jobs, but I could not do the three jobs well. I was spinning plates, putting out fires, and other notable metaphors for spasmodic action. This period really sucked because working hard to be adequate is a poor trade. Department chairs had a group that met regularly and talked about common issues, not so with assistant deans. I felt my social world constrain at work, and being a manager is hard emotional labor. I learned about the fears, difficulties, illnesses, and family situations of my colleagues at a deeper level than I really wanted. Shouldering all that personal grief and pain for everyone was difficult, more so because the universe of people I could talk to about it was so, so small.

I also started having clashes with coworkers – sometimes about performance issues, sometimes about claims unbacked by facts, sometimes about the direction of the university and the library. It was honestly a miserable experience that I stayed in too long because of money (pro-tip – you make extra money in administration) and not wanting to abandon my dean who also has a huge workload. The final breaking point was an interim president seemingly hell-bent on making the worst decision possible, implemented and communicated in the worst and most aggressive way possible. I mulled it over for many months and asked to step down at the end of July 2019. When I told my wife about the decision, in part to apologize because we would be living leaner, she said, “Oh thank God.” The person who knows me best had been wishing for me to get out of the situation for months and was overjoyed.

The classic union song, “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. My dad was an autoworker and union activist and I remember seeing Pete Seeger sing this evergreen tune live in Detroit. To say that unionism is part of my life is an understatement – it’s a bedrock element of my identity. Increasingly, while a dean, I felt that I was on the wrong side. The university response to economic crisis was, to me, authoritarian and inexplicable, explanations didn’t make sense and discussion was not welcome. The herky-jerky management led to a lot of wasted effort around the university as plans had to be discarded almost as fast as you could attempt implementation. If you do go into academic leadership, you are carrying water for the upper leadership and their decisions – you don’t get to hide when you disagree and leaving the position is the most honest thing you can do if you don’t like what’s happening. I think the only thing I really miss is the occasional (and very flattering) head hunter emails I used to get. Right after I left management, we hired a new university president who is, so far, “pinch yourself, am I dreaming” good. His wizardly move? Running the university like other institutions.

Since leaving management I have become union liaison for University Libraries and was then elected to the Akron-AAUP executive committee. Guess I just like being in the middle of things. I’ve been able to refocus on my librarianship, which I only had three years to figure out before taking on managerial duties, and reconnect with faculty friends. I’ve been able to refocus on previous projects I had to drop before – like learning more about data. I am happier and get more enjoyment from my job. Ultimately, my stint as an assistant dean didn’t suit my values and that internal conflict started leaking out in my disposition. I don’t think the state of Ohio or the university is well-served by eliminating traditional majors and steering students into class delivery modes, and possibly majors, they don’t really prefer. Right now there’s a risk of universities outsourcing their teaching to a cyborg nightmare of Pearson, Cengage, and Blackboard due to financial desperation. That is a future worth fighting against.

Which side are you on?

On the Mend: Falling Into and Out of Overwork

I’d meant to write this post earlier in the week. Actually I’d meant to write an entirely different post earlier in the week. But after weeks of avoiding the winter cold going around at the end of last semester, and weeks of colder than usual temperatures where I live, last week my time was up. I’m fortunate that I don’t tend to get sick all that often, and fortunate to have paid sick time, too. Which I needed last week for multiple days of bundling up in blankets with congestion, fever, coughing, and aches.

I’m mostly better this week though still playing catchup from having been out. So I want to write a bit about self care and overwork and libraries. We’ve written about the importance of self care on ACRLog in the past. Quetzalli’s post a couple of years ago highlighted both the need for self care and some of her own strategies. And Ian’s post from a bit earlier reminds us that just as we may be dealing with issues that are invisible from the outside, so too are other folks, and it’s important to practice self care and have a generous heart (a lovely term).

I am not always the best at self care. Historically, I’ve sometimes struggled to use my sick days (when I’ve had them) for anything but the very worst illness. Some of this is my own internal work mindset — I’ve worked in academia for a long time, and the siren song of just one more project/article to read/grant or conference to apply for can be tough for me to resist. I’ve tried to be much more intentional about self care in the past few years. Some of this is a natural side effect of getting older, but also because I do feel that self care is important for everyone, as much as I still sometimes struggle myself. I need to use my sick days when I’m sick, not only because it’s better for me to rest and recuperate (and keep my contagions to myself), but also because I want to be sure that my coworkers feel comfortable using their sick days, too. A sick boss is not the best boss, on multiple levels.

Last week Abby wrote about vocational awe and our professional identity as librarians, discussing Fobazi Ettarh’s terrific recent article in which she defines and explores vocational awe in libraries (a term she developed). Fobazi and Abby both point out that vocational awe can lead to overwork and burnout in libraries, and I agree. Vocational awe contributes to making it hard for me to use my sick days. I’m working on it. I’ve been thinking a bit about bibliographic emergencies — the library is not a hospital, and there are thankfully very few situations or issues that cannot wait while someone takes a sick day. Our work is important, but it’s also important to put our own masks on first before helping others.

Summer doldrums: Regenerating some mojo, or How sweet it really is

The end of the semester / start of summer can be a difficult time. A hectic and demanding (and fun, to be sure) semester can be draining, and my motivation sometimes wanes. I’m not the only one plagued by this lethargy. It’s a common complaint for (and bond between!) those of us in higher ed. In late April and early May, June shines brightly as a coveted reward for us academic folk suffering from a touch of burnout. The promise of its wide-open schedule is alluring and sustaining. Yet June never really delivers, does it? Summer’s to-do list isn’t any shorter than the semester’s. In some ways, it’s just as demanding. The many projects and priorities set aside for more dedicated attention come summer pile up rather quickly. And the overflow from the semester quickly floods into summer, too. The fact that I started this blog post in early June and that it’s already the beginning of July by the time I’m publishing it is perhaps the perfect illustration of the tension between fatigue fallout and the heft of summer project lists.

So what to do when the feeling of weariness weighs me down? Time off, no doubt, is a restorative. But perhaps also taking stock of good fortune can revitalize me. When I look back on the decisions that led me to librarianship and my place in it now, I recognize more than a few riches.

It was in college, knee-deep in research for my senior thesis, that I first saw librarianship as a potential fit. I recall a rather clear moment of self-recognition: I was sitting down to yet another PsycINFO search at a library computer, my list of search terms and my pile of collected articles before me. (If only Zotero had existed then!) In that moment, I identified energy and empowerment in the joining of exploration and discovery with (what I hoped was) skillful use of tools and sources. The enjoyment that I now see I derived from the process of my research project marked my future.

Up to that point, I had been largely on track to pursue a career in clinical psychology. But a library path quickly started to feel like a better fit. It satisfied my hope to work in a helping profession, although in a different way than as a psychologist. And librarianship felt like a chance for perpetual learning. I loved this idea and still do. As a librarian, I thought I could satiate my desire to dabble in a wide spectrum of topics while helping others pursue their inquiries. The chance to help people and the chance to learn are what got me here, more or less, although it feels banal to say so. But these choices and these values have held true for me and still motivate me. It feels like a truly lucky thing to be learning something every day, to understand something today that I didn’t or couldn’t understand yesterday or last month or last year.

When I set my sights on a future of librarian-as-lifelong-learner, it was the acquisition of information itself I anticipated. But what I think I’ve actually learned most about are people and process. Sure, I gleaned interesting and important information about the impact of China’s water policy on human rights during a recent research consultation with a student. But what resonated still stronger with me was trying to understand what that student needed to advance his thinking in that moment, learning how that student learns and how best to mentor him. In helping him conceptualize his research questions and information needs, we uncovered and mapped his and others’ thinking. Through connecting users with information, I’ve learned about what we need and want, about how we teach and learn. It’s thanks to such close work with users and such frequent collaboration with colleagues that I’ve learned about how we think, behave, and communicate.

Given my inclination toward psychology, perhaps it’s not unexpected that I often see and interpret the world through this lens of mind and behavior. And no doubt that time and experience have facilitated my perspective, too. But there’s something unique about the nexus of people, content, and process in library work that affords such a vantage point. It’s with this outlook that I feel fortunate. It’s from here that I can feel my momentum regenerating.

What views does librarianship afford you? What do you call upon when your motivation flags? Let me know what you think in the comments…