Real Faculty In Our Minds Alone

Late last week a number of library news sources pointed to the release of report from the Council of Library and Information Resources called “No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century“. The report contains eight essays that identify challenges facing academic libraries, and it offers a number of recommendations for change that may help to ensure the future relevancy of academic librarians. Library Journal described the report as “Harnessing the insight and experience of some two dozen stakeholders…the report offers a forceful call to action, and a penetrating take on the forces shaping the future of libraries and the academic enterprise”. I believe this report’s themes and recommendations will be somewhat familiar to ACRLog readers because we, and you through your comments, discuss and debate them here.

As I scanned the report I found something of interest in the article titled “Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library” by Daphnée Rentfrow, a former CLIR Fellow who has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. In this essay Rentfrow takes on some familiar themes of how to improve collaboration with faculty and obtain more professional recognition within the academic community. As to her qualifications to write an essay on these matters she describes herself as:

someone who finished a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without once meeting my subject specialist (or even knowing what one was), as someone who taught courses without conferring with a librarian and who never encouraged undergraduates to do so, and worked on a thematic research collection without thinking of metadata or preservation until I had a panicked reason to, I also know fairly intimately the failings of, let’s say, “public relations” and “outreach” that afflict academic and research libraries.

You may find what Rentfrow has to offer useful to improve your own public relations and outreach efforts with faculty. But something that caught my attention in her essay was this footnote:

By “faculty,” I mean non-librarian teaching faculty and scholars. While some universities offer librarians faculty status, while some librarians consider themselves members of the faculty, and while some librarians have Ph.D. degrees, anecdotal evidence shows that students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators rarely consider libraries [NOTE: not a typo – it actually says “libraries” not “librarians”] to be “real” faculty, or even intellectual peers. This problem of image is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

One of the reasons I found this footnote of special interest is because I took quite a bit of heat from several ACRLog readers when I explored similar themes in a post I called “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member“. Instead of just referring to “anecdotal evidence” I pointed to some real differences between what librarians do and what faculty do, particularly as our roles relate to student interaction. Perhaps the point is that it might not matter what we do or don’t do, because as Rentfrow points out as far as the rest of academe is concerned academic librarians are faculty only in their own minds. It seems I made the error of stepping directly on the landmind that Rentfrow tiptoes around.

You might conclude that Rentfrow adds nothing new to this debate, and if you read the essay you’ll see that it is about much more than this issue. Yes, we all know that as far as many “real” faculty are concerned we are nothing more than academic support staff no more deserving of faculty status than instructional technologists or IT support specialists. It may also be familiar territory to point to our profession’s failure to promote the ways in which we are equal to the real faculty and worthy of their respect and collaboration. But given my own attempt to inject some hard to accept reality into this discussion of academic librarians as “real faculty” I have to appreciate Rentfrow’s own honest approach and her admission that some of what she has to say will “offend some readers.” She writes:

Having experienced both [PhD and MLS education], I can understand why a scholar would bristle to be told that a librarian has an equal understanding of the rigors of scholarship and full course-load teaching. But I also understand that the average faculty member is largely ignorant of the changes that have affected modern librarianship in recent decades and the ways these changes (should) affect scholarship and teaching.

It may all come down to a question of what’s most important to academic librarians. Is it being recognized as a real faculty member and being deemed their equal? Or is it doing whatever it takes to work with faculty to partner in helping students achieve academic success regardless of what our status is in the academic community? No instructional technologist, learning center professional or IT specialist I’ve ever met seems as remotely concerned about their academic status as are academic librarians. They aren’t busy trying to establish their equality with faculty. But what I do see is that they are busy spending lots of time collaborating with faculty helping them to improve their pedagogy, their use of technology and their ability to bring the two together in connecting with students. Can you say the same for the academic librarians at your institution?

My apologies to Rentfrow for reducing her well-written piece to a few statements about academic librarians and faculty status. You should take a closer look at Rentfrow’s recommendations (63-64) as well as the overall set provided in this CLIR report (pgs. 10-11). I’m not sure they will resonate with frontline librarians and other library workers. I think they will seem either unoriginal, too ivory tower or simply too vague (e.g., “The functions of libraries must be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level. We need to create professional and practice layers that enhance research and teaching across disciplines”). As with the Ithaka report discussed last week there needs to be more attention paid to the integration of academic librarians into the teaching and learning process. This recommendation of Rentfrow’s expresses it best:

Librarians should work with departments and teaching centers to nurture the idea that the library is a part of all teaching initiatives on campus.

That seems eminently practical and of value to faculty and students – no matter what our status is.

What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member

I can’t help but wonder if the real faculty at those institutions where librarians are on the tenure track roll their eyes, snicker among themselves or just plain get annoyed by their library colleagues who refer to themselves as faculty members or carry ranks typically associated with faculty (e.g., assistant professor). Blaise Cronin certain thought they did. In his classic opinion piece “The Mother of All Myths” he obliterates the concept of tenure and faculty status for academic librarians (Library Journal 126, no. 3, February 15, 2001). While I never agreed with all of Cronin’s arguments, tenure may indeed hold some benefits for academic librarians, lately I’ve been thinking about the differences between the work of librarians and faculty. I don’t doubt that even my use of the phrase “real faculty” is going to set off a minor firestorm among those tenured librarians who think of themselves as faculty or even “teaching faculty” owing to the occasional bibliographic instruction sessions they conduct or the seat they hold on the faculty senate. You might understand why a faculty member would ridicule or be angered by librarians who think they are true faculty if you can imagine an individual who refers to him or herself as “librarian” because he or she oversees a room full of books (I encountered such a situation at a past job), but has no professional library degree nor is responsible for many tasks common to our profession. Do you think of that individual as a librarian or an imposter who’s use of that title devalues or even mocks your status as a professional academic librarian?

My regular reading of faculty blogs the last few months has given me a new appreciation for what is involved in being a member of the regular faculty and the challenges and responsibilities it involves. Take for example this post and discussion about frustrations of dealing with students at the blog A Ianqui in the Village. I’m tempted to write that faculty librarians rarely if ever get involved in these types of situations, but I fully expect that a reader will share a tale of a difficult student situation. Yes, I’m sure it happens from time to time, but certainly no librarian is likely to experience the range and regularity of complicated situations (students, chairs, other faculty) with which faculty have to routinely cope. If you regulary read the career commentaries published in the Chronicle you would likewise wonder how many library faculty deal with these situations. Crazed or scary students. Psychopathic senior colleagues. Backstabbing junior colleagues. Isolated experiences one would hope, but these are likely just the tip of the iceberg stories we hear. All librarians, tenure track and otherwise, also must deal with superiors, peers, and subordinates who create frustration. To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member at an LIS program for a number of years. I refer to myself in any written or oral communication or interaction with students or colleagues as “adjunct instructor”. I avoid the pretense of calling myself “professor”. I’ve never felt the need to inflate my title for my own ego or to create window dressing in the hope other faculty will see me as their equal. I know they wouldn’t anyway, and I don’t care if they do. I’m only in it for the joy of teaching a subject about which I’m passionate. But when I do teach I feel much more like a faculty member than a librarian. What makes the difference? The enormous responsibility attached to working with students, even at the graduate level, and playing a role in their lives and their careers. This happens in a way that I or most librarians would rarely encounter during the course of our library careers. The nature of that relationship goes beyond grading papers or devising assignments. Yes, there are academic librarians who do this. But I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty. And if and when such relationships do occur, they are just as likely to happen to both tenure and non-tenure track librarians. And there may even be academic librarians who have dealt with a troubled student or a serial plagiarizer. But I doubt that this, along with developing and planning new courses, advising students as majors in one’s discipline, working with fellow faculty to build the curriculum, sitting on the occasional doctoral committee, even comes close to equating the totality of what it means to be a full-fledged faculty member.

Debating the value of or need for tenure for academic librarians is something I’ll pass on in this post. Besides, those who want more on that debate can always get hold of the one between Murray-Rust and Carver in the September 30, 2005 Chronicle; they do a fine job. And whether I’m ultimately a supporter or opponent of tenure for academic librarians matters little. Those who feel strongly about the need for it are welcome to seek out a position in an institution where they’ll be on the tenure track. Those who wish to avoid it have many institutions to choose from as well. And I certainly have no intention, as did Cronin, of mocking or devaluing the work and contributions of tenure-track librarians.I know librarians at both tenure-track and non-tenure track institutions who do great work and even establish beneficial relationships with students. The point here is not whether librarians need tenure or not. It is how they refer to themselves when they are on the tenure track or have obtained tenure, and how that is perceived by our faculty colleagues. My simple proposition is that tenure-track and tenured librarians should take more time to read faculty blogs. Get inside the head of your faculty colleagues and then think reflectively about the difference between what you do and what they do. If that doesn’t leave the feeling of being a bit like the imposter librarian who simply monitors a room full of books without the full range of librarian responsibilities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to hold a faculty rank. Then again, what’s so wrong with just being an academic librarian.