As I mentioned at the end of my last post, eighteen months ago I moved into a new role as the head of my library’s instruction department, and now I directly supervise nine faculty librarians. I spend markedly less time talking with students and much more time in meetings, and am still figuring out a few things. Some parts are fun and some parts aren’t, but I’m fortunate to be surrounded by smart, supportive, and engaged colleagues in my department, without whom things would be much, much more difficult.
I’m posting this now because as I’ve made this transition, the conversations I have with other people in the profession have become very different. I spent about a year effectively “cleaning out” the last of my information literacy-related research projects, and now I find myself spending a lot more time talking to and hearing from people who are managing. Understandably, a lot of these conversations are on back-channels, but I want to write something from the perspective of a manager who is actively trying to improve the working conditions of their employees. I also want to be clear that I am still learning how complicated and taxing that is.
Apologies in advance for how narrow this post is in its scope, but what can I say? I’m a one-shot librarian managing a one-shot department, so I’m writing about one-shots and the discord they can sow.
The long and short of it is this: The one-shot model puts undue stress on library faculty and I want to try to fix it.
By “undue stress,” I mean that one-shot librarians largely operate in a space that has been structured to cause anxiety, self-doubt, and burnout. I don’t know who benefits in the current system, but I sure as hell have suffered it over the past decade, and I know I’m not alone. To that end, I spend a lot of my work time these days trying to get at the root of how we’ve ended up in this situation, and how to get out, and I have a few ideas.
The main reason we’re here, I think, is tied to the origins of academic librarianship as a service profession (and the accompanying misconceptions around that work). We are told that, historically, we were on campus to house books and support the “real” faculty (by which I mean faculty who conduct research and teach credit-bearing courses), and while our duties shifted and we took on new and more-involved responsibilities (including research and teaching), the perception of what we do and who we are didn’t keep up with the changes. At this point instruction librarians do nearly all of the same work as other faculty on campus, as well as some more specialized stuff, and yet we’re still expected to defer to the expertise of others.
This outdated perception has very real consequences. It’s left us in a place where librarians have been conditioned to assume that other faculty know exactly what they’re doing, and it’s up to us to “catch up.” So we get additional graduate degrees to establish subject expertise, we engage in professional development activities to improve our pedagogy, and we learn new research methods and publish articles to demonstrate our credibility.
Yet after all of this, I still get the sense whenever I’m in a crowd of instruction librarians that we’re somehow “behind.” There’s a collective feeling that we still don’t know enough, or have enough experience, to question other faculty. This leads to a blame game, with folks hanging this perceived deficit on their MLIS program, their institution’s lack of professional development funding, their inexperience with teaching credit-bearing courses, their lack of a Ph.D., or myriad other possibilities.
But this deficit is bogus. When it comes to what to discuss in a classroom, I know of no other discipline that spends as much time discussing pedagogy as information literacy librarians, and that includes faculty in education departments. We have multiple annual conferences to discuss library instruction exclusively, and even at larger meetups, like ACRL, the program is full of sessions dedicated to teaching. This is on top of the ever-growing body of research literature and professional documents dedicated to library instruction, all of which goes back decades, to say nothing of informal networks for learning that exist in online and in-person communities.
Meanwhile, few graduate programs in any discipline offer courses that address pedagogy or instructional design, and despite increased awareness of the role of effective teaching in higher education, many graduate programs continue to put a heavy emphasis on research, rather than pedagogy. This has been a lingering problem that hurts both faculty and students, but I appreciate work like An Urgency of Teachers that is beginning to address these issues.
Still, the status quo is one in which “the real faculty” know what’s best and the librarians are expected to accommodate their demands. This often leads to suboptimal, and occasionally abusive, interactions with colleagues on campus, where we’re told at the last minute to change our class prep. Where we’re interrupted in the middle of teaching to talk about a non sequitur. Where the extent of faculty engagement in planning a session is to ask that we “work our librarian magic.” And I know that these slights are felt even more acutely by library workers whose identities have not historically been welcomed by the academy.
While I wish that I could ascribe these conditions to some calcified biases of yesteryear, I have seen them perpetuated recently. Perhaps the most glaring example was when I was forwarded an email from a member of my department. This person has multiple graduate degrees and several years of teaching experience, but a second-semester grad student had rejected their lesson plan and informed them that “students just need to see the databases.” Please note, my issue isn’t with that second-semester grad student who had minimal experience—it’s with their faculty adviser or other members of their department who had communicated to them that “the library works for you, you know more than them.”
And instead of questioning why we’ve been treated this way, I’ve seen how instruction librarians have internalized it into a collective professional anxiety.
I want this to stop.
So the phrase I’ve repeated to myself and people in my department a few hundred times over the last eighteen months is this: “Is this how colleagues treat each other?” Whenever we have an instructor ghost us on email, fail to show up for class, interrupt us to question our judgement in the middle of a session, we ask ourselves: “Is this how colleagues treat each other?” Thinking about the answer to that question has helped me make a lot of decisions as a department head.
You might be wondering what I mean by “how colleagues treat each other.” Here’s an example:
In our current paradigm, biology majors need literature searching skills, so biology faculty contact the library and tell the librarians what to teach. We take their directions, put together a database demo, teach the session, and hope that the professor is happy and the students maybe learn a thing or two.
The thing is, though, biology majors also need chemistry skills. But the biology faculty aren’t calling the chemists to tell them what or how to teach. They’re not interrupting them in their labs or lectures and saying “I wish you did it this way instead. Just do it my way.” Instead, they defer to the expertise of their colleagues in another discipline and then contextualize those concepts for their own setting. The same goes with writing, math, and basically all of general education, and while it’s far from perfect, it is a functioning model. It’s a given that course instructors rely on other instructors to convey content and help students succeed.
Outside of library instruction, though, I know of no other relationship in which faculty in one discipline are routinely told what to do by faculty in other disciplines. We aren’t trusted to be professionals, or experts, or (in some cases) even competent. I have now seen or heard direct accounts of faculty members who thought it appropriate to yell at library instructors, make fun of their voices or verbal tics, throw papers, storm out of classrooms, and call for terminations because they didn’t like the search examples that were used in class.
This is not how colleagues treat each other.
I’ll tell you, I saw some heinous stuff happen when I was personally teaching 100 one-shots a year, but now that I’m running a department that teaches closer to 500? It’s been stunning.
So here’s what I’m doing about it: I’m taking incremental steps to reframe our power dynamic on campus. It isn’t all that flashy or innovative, but in consultation with my department we’ve been updating our scheduling processes, exerting our expertise, and spending a ton of time engaged in professional development. We’re now insisting on seeing syllabi and course assignments at least two weeks before a session takes place. We’re setting firm dates on when we’ll work with a class within a semester (no more visits in the first two or last four weeks of the term). We’re setting limits on how many sessions we can teach in a week.
And maybe the most impactful thing is that we’re telling people “no.” We’re telling people who think they can ridicule a librarian in-class “we won’t work with you anymore.” We’re telling faculty who want a session in week 15 because “I’m out of content but I figured visiting the library is a no brainer” that we’re not in the “no brainer” business.
Honestly, can you imagine a physics instructor contacting the philosophy department in week 15 to ask for a guest presentation about the Allegory of the Cave because “it couldn’t hurt to learn about this”? By that same logic, we could argue “everybody has a limbic system,” yet we’re not asking neuroscientists to give a guest lecture to our FYE seminar before drop-add is even over.
Why is it like this? Why was it ever like this?
Anyway, I want to wrap this up by saying that my department works with hundreds of classes and instructors each semester, and the vast majority are positive, collegial, respectful, and productive. We have some excellent instructors on my campus, and we certainly have some excellent instructors in my department. I’m writing this because I’m fairly certain that library instructors all over the country have been forced to put up with some really obnoxious people, and outside of conference happy hours and Twitter DM’s, we almost never talk about it.
I think we, all of us teaching in higher education, need to talk about this. Like that Inside Higher Ed article about the guy with over 700 books checked out yelling at library staff? Yeah, he works at every single university in the U.S. Anybody who has ever worked circ in an academic library knows that guy, much in the way that everyone who has taught a one-shot knows the instructor who holds one-on-one conferences with students while we’re trying to lead a group discussion. And while the faculty outside of the library might chalk it up to “some people are jerks,” it seems to me that librarians have often absorbed this kind of behavior into our professional identity.
Time to make some changes to this structure, I think. We’re colleagues too.