Category Archives: Uncategorized

Two Whole Years

My sense of time has been obliterated. 

In the BeforeTimes, I would have a pretty good sense of how long things took. I would often know the time without having to check a clock. I used weekly and monthly timelines to help strategize at work, and would say things like “let’s wait until after week nine to start that project; we rarely get any instruction requests after that point in the spring semester.”

Looking at it now, time, and the passage of it, was one of the main organizing forces in my life.

On Monday, March 16, 2020, I worked at my library in the morning, then went home in the afternoon. It was my last day of in-person work and my first day of remote work. To help keep in touch, my department started using an instant messaging service where you could set your current status. (This experience was not entirely unlike AOL Instant Messenger; shoutout to the geriatric millennials in the room!) On that Monday, I set my status to read “Day 1.”

As days became weeks became months, I used that status to keep track of time. Every morning when I logged in, I would update the day. I started Zoom meetings by saying things like “Today is Day 117, how’s everyone feeling?” Acknowledging and measuring the passage of time was important to me that first year.

By mid-March of 2021 I stopped counting the days. The idea of an entire year at home, away from friends and family and museums and restaurants and baseball games was just too much. It was too incomprehensible, too uncanny to contemplate.

So I started leaving my status blank.

I got my first vaccine dose a couple of weeks later, and suddenly it seemed like the world might come back. There would be a time “after” this pandemic. We all know how that turned out, but I still remember that feeling, which I now recognize as naivety, of being excited to “get back” into the world.

I understand the impulse to want to “go back” or “return,” but as I am slowly learning, that’s not how time works. The world didn’t leave, I just stayed inside. Things kept happening, time kept moving. 

Now, as we’re approaching the two year anniversary of those first shutdowns, I find that there are whole months that I can no longer recall. I regularly have to look at the clock and calendar in the corner of my computer screen not to identify the time, or even the date, but rather the year. I think it’s lunchtime at 4 p.m. and have spent several Tuesdays convinced that it was Friday.

I know there are reasons for this. I know that lots of folks are having similar issues.

But as I wrote in my last post, I want to find hope where I can, and here’s what I’ve found: Being unstuck in time has made me infinitely more grateful in the moment. I spent so much of my career, so much of my life, counting up to the next thing. “A leads to B which sets up C and then D.”

And now? Sheesh. It would seem having so many plans wiped out, becoming so unmoored from past practices, has allowed me to gain a degree of mindfulness and gratitude that I wouldn’t have previously thought possible. I’m hesitant to use the phrase “silver linings” when discussing something as awful as the pandemic, but I suppose that’s where I am. And I suppose the rest of my life will be filled with conflicting emotions about these two years.

Anyway, I’m writing this out and sharing it for two reasons: 

First, to encourage others who are struggling with time to try to look at it differently. In other words, if you don’t know what time it is, maybe it doesn’t matter what time it is. You are wherever you are, and that can be enough. Appointments can be rescheduled. Events can be canceled. Somehow, someway, the world keeps spinning.

Second, to state something that is probably obvious, but I didn’t realize until very recently: Even in a world where COVID never happened, the spring of 2022 was never going to look like the spring of 2020. There is no “going back.” Not only is “return” not possible, it never should have been the goal. Instead, my hope is that we collectively engage with our reality in a way that doesn’t rely on notions of “return;” let’s focus on making things better. I know that seems naive at a time when lots of things, frankly, suck. But I have to believe that things can get better.

In order to get there, I think that I, and we, need to push back on the language of “going back.” It’s been two whole years. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, we’ve moved into another future, and we need to acknowledge it.

On Writing and Hope

I tried to keep my last post short because I knew that I needed just to get something out there to help break the writer’s block. But I’m also thinking a lot more about what I write, why I write, and how I share it. Do I really want to keep posting here? Why? Like so many people who have been re-evaluating their work, and their relationship to that work, I keep asking myself “What am I hoping to get out of this?”

When I first started this website, I was living in a small community, working at a relatively small university, and, other than a conference every year or two, my main interaction with the profession was through blogging and social media. It was a way to say “Hey, I’m over here working on this thing. What are you working on over there?” It made me feel connected in a way that my geography didn’t matter.

When I moved to a larger library, in a larger city, things changed. I started to meet library friends in-person. I had the resources to travel to far more events, to the point that I sometimes referred to my conference work as “being on the circuit.” I was now working in an instruction department with more than a dozen colleagues, and getting feedback on a lesson plan was as complicated as walking ten feet.

At the same time, I had moved off of the tenure-track when I switched jobs, so I started publishing less scholarly stuff and spent more of my time writing stuff that I could post on my personal page. I found a freedom to say things here that I couldn’t necessarily get past Reviewer #2 or whatever. Looking back at what I wrote in that time, including the stuff I never shared, I stand by some of it and cringe at a lot of it. I was a work-a-day public services librarian who had enough job stability that I felt comfortable calling out issues in the profession. I thought things could be better, but I see now that my writing accomplished very little.

By 2018, though, I had moved into a new role, and was now solidly in middle-management. I’ve been a “supervisor” or “coordinator” of some sort for the past 15 years, but becoming a department head meant that sharing my experiences had greater consequences than it did when I was mostly just teaching one-shots. I could have an off-day in the classroom and write “wow, I just had a terrible class!” and move on. Sharing a similar sentiment after a personnel meeting or whatever is a very different, and much more delicate, matter, so I didn’t write for a while.

And I missed writing in this way. I think that some of my best work as an instruction librarian came out of participating in a larger conversation with colleagues, and I was hopeful that I could have a similar conversation about management that I had had about other parts of my career. I was also hopeful that I could be, as much as possible, transparent about my experiences. I wanted other people to see what this kind of job was like, and encourage others to share their experiences, because I quickly learned that middle-management can be terribly isolating.

So I tried writing a bit about what I was doing as a manager: Trends I was seeing in administrative decisions, practices I was implementing to help my department establish and maintain boundaries. It didn’t come naturally and I don’t know that it was successful, but I’m glad that I tried being open about it.

Then the pandemic. More on that in later posts.

And now I’m much less concerned with the profession, and rather bothered by how much of my life I devoted to it. To be clear, I still very much enjoy library work, but so much of the past two years has exposed the gaps in our organizations and institutions, and I often feel distant from the “extracurricular” parts of my career that were once fulfilling. Instead my focus has been much more localized, especially as it relates to keeping my department connected and informed during incredibly difficult times, and I don’t think I’ll go back to how I used to do things.

But there are things that I want to write about, that I want to say and share. I still want to be transparent about my personal experiences, and I still want to try to move things forward. I also recognize that this is a very different world and I’m a very different person, so I don’t know what to expect. Mostly, when I ask myself “What am I hoping to get out of this?”, the answer is just that: Hope. I want to be hopeful again. I want to write in order to help myself feel some hope.

All of which is to say, I’m going to try writing some things down and sharing them. Some will be about libraries, though I’m aspiring not to be so myopic, and to speak to other topics as well. As much as I can, I want to write from a place of possibility, rather than frustration and fear. We’ve had enough of those emotions lately.

(It’s also entirely possible I delete everything I’ve written up until this point, and this website instead becomes nothing but vegan air fryer recipes and reviews of Blue Note vinyl reissues; I contain multitudes.)

The Time We Left

This marks my first post in over two years. It’s been wild to see how much the pandemic has consumed, and continues to consume, so much of my energy and focus. It’s been harder to read, harder to write, harder to engage. During a work meeting a couple of months ago, a group of us was asked “What are you excited about?” and I was stumped. The fact that I couldn’t answer the question on the spot really gnawed at me, so I thought about it for a while and talked about it with some colleagues, and eventually landed on this answer:

I’m not excited about things, but I am hopeful. 

The past two years have been devastating. So many plans have been dashed. So many things I thought possible never came to fruition. And sometimes in the foreground, always in the background, has been the constant hum of loss. Lost friends, lost family members, lost jobs. It’s fully been two years, and I don’t really know where we are anymore. It’s hard to be excited.

Still, I remain hopeful. There are glimmers, here and there, that it might not always be like this. I’m fairly certain that we’ll never get to the “post-pandemic” life we were promised, but I do know that it can’t stay like this forever. Some things will get better. I don’t know exactly what and I don’t know exactly how, but there’s no way we could have gone through these years and not learned anything.

With that in mind, my plan is to start posting semi-regularly again. I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, though I haven’t always realized it at the moment. I’m hopeful that by reflecting on what’s happened, writing it down, and sending it out into the world will help me gain a better sense of where I am. And, in the process, maybe it’ll connect with what some other people have been thinking and feeling.

Colleagues

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.

Austerity Forever

My university is cutting its budget. This fall we didn’t meet enrollment goals (off by 344 students) and are consequently making reductions across departments. I’ve attended several meetings on campus to hear from administrators, and while the situation is far from dire, I learned a couple of weeks ago that the specific dollar amount reductions for the current fiscal year have been set.

As I tweeted about at the start of the semester, we knew this was coming, and nationwide we can expect this sort of thing to go on… forever? There continue to be stories about declining fertility rates in the U.S., and so long as university funding is contingent on enrollment (rather than supported by state funding), we can assume that we’re moving into a phase where we cut budgets every year.

Of course I’m concerned about these cuts. I’ve seen how budget shortfalls can destroy programs, burnout faculty, and force students to pay still more in tuition and fees. But I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve seen this sort of thing everywhere I’ve worked. Going back to Florida in 2008, when the housing market dropped and state support to higher education cratered, every institution for which I’ve worked has had to make substantial, painful cuts. We’ve cancelled subscriptions, slashed acquisitions budgets, frozen salaries, eliminated student hourly positions, lost vacant lines, and been told to “do more with less.”

My last university went so far as to provide buyouts for early retirements, then proceeded to eliminate vacancies and eventually laid people off. I was on the university’s budget board when those cuts happened, which was both educational and, frankly, demoralizing. I understood why things were happening and how we had gotten there, but also saw that there were no easy solutions. It was the origin of my interest in higher education funding models.

The funny (and by funny, I mean sad) part is that amidst those cuts, I launched a national job search in the spring of 2014 and endured a pretty rough rejection from a private liberal arts school. My thinking at the time was “I need to go work at a private school that doesn’t rely on state funding.” Earlier this year, however, I learned that, had I gotten that job, I would have been faced with a similar round of budget cuts and layoffs. Again, it would seem that there are no easy solutions.

I mention all of this because there are doomsday predictions being thrown around regarding the year 2025, and what it will mean for higher education funding. I’ve reviewed the numbers (I find the WICHE statistics to be very helpful) and agree with the conventional wisdom that, absent substantial state support, we’re moving into a wave of austerity, especially at regional institutions like mine. But honestly, it’s been austere for as long as I can remember? I’ve worked full time in academic libraries since the summer of 2006, and we’ve always talked about not having enough resources to do our work adequately. Perhaps there was some nebulous time a few decades ago when every academic library had a 40 person reference department that sat around having money fights all day(?), but it hasn’t been that case for a really, really long time.

Here’s a game I used to play when visiting other academic libraries: I would walk through their bound periodicals and see what year each run of a journal stopped. You could see the budget cut years play out in a visceral way, as an eighty year run of a journal came to an abrupt end in 2002. There were similar years at different libraries I visited, usually corresponding with recessions and declines in state support for higher education, and it was helpful to see that so many libraries had faced similar issues. Of course most academic libraries have dumped their print runs, or otherwise moved them offsite, so we can’t play this kind of game anymore. Still, it’s enough evidence for me to know that we’ve been cutting for a couple of decades.

What’s different now, though, is that there is a new generation of department heads and managers coming up for whom it’s always been a budget cut year. My colleagues and I, by and large, have never assumed that budgets would bounce back. We’ve always worked in libraries where we knew that we needed to repair the stapler’s spring, or clean the photocopier’s roller, or (re)tape the dictionary’s spine, because we couldn’t count on the money to buy replacements. We’ve spent time practicing our elevator pitch so we can talk about the good work happening in the library at a moment’s notice. We’ve spent a decade struggling to find ways to quantify things that are inherently not quantifiable so that we can send “the numbers” to the budget office when they start to make cuts, hoping that they would see our “value.”

The biggest lesson for me, and the one I’m most hopeful is shared by my colleagues in middle management, is that we need to take care of the people in our departments. I’m not saying that people and staplers are the same (really, I’m not), but the underlying sentiment is similar in that we have to be careful with our resources. If salaries will be frozen and positions will be eliminated, we need to reject the idea of “doing more with less.” We instead will, quite plainly, “do less.” And in the process of doing less, we must be thoughtful about where we will expend our limited resources. We can certainly take on new responsibilities, but we need to be careful about what we commit to doing, because each new initiative will mean ending an old one. Which is fine! It’s part of doing the work. But it’s something we have been hesitant to acknowledge for too long.

I’m fairly certain that in order to do this work well, managers need to create more space to be thoughtful (as recently noted by Lawrie Phipps), which is how I’ve been spending the last several months. As the head of a library instruction department, I’ve been soliciting feedback and establishing procedures that will reduce the number of one-shot instruction sessions we teach in a way that (fingers crossed) doesn’t completely frustrate the campus. It started a year ago with a few small changes here and there, and is now ramping up to include limits on when we teach in the semester and how many sessions we can lead in any given week. These changes are not monumental or particularly innovative, but I think this kind of work is what will allow us to be more thoughtful about what we do (and do not) want to be working on.

The drag for me is that this sentiment is very rarely shared by campus and library administrators. As I mentioned a few months ago, the impulse for the past two decades has been to build our way out of enrollment declines. New dorms, new recreation centers, and, yes, new libraries were seen as an effective way to encourage enrollment and move forward.

But as enrollments fall into a steeper decline, the thing that keeps me up at night is the thought that our administrators haven’t heard the news, and somehow think that the solutions of the past two decades will still apply now. So they’ll borrow private money against inflated enrollment projections in order to finance new construction, then repeat the rhetoric of “we’re all sharing the pain” as they layoff faculty and staff to payback their lenders. I’ve seen this movie before, and it sucks.

Where I find hope in all of this is knowing that there is a new wave of administrators coming. People who have spent the past decades not just “making tough decisions,” but rather the people who have seen in very stark terms the ramifications of those decisions. I don’t think we’ll necessarily make better choices when we’re faced with still new kinds of hardships, but I’m confident we won’t rely on rhetoric that calls for “innovative visionaries who can efficiently pivot resources to actualize student achievement in the 21st century.”

Instead, I think we’ll probably be a lot more careful. We won’t commit to things we can’t support, and we’ll know that budgeting decisions are indeed strategic decisions. We’ll know that every new thing we build this year is two things we won’t be able to repair next year, so make damn sure we really need to build this thing.

Goodness, I hope we’re more careful.

I should close by mentioning that this is the first thing I’ve posted in nearly two years. I moved into my new role 18 months ago, and I haven’t been sure how to write about it. That said, I have learned a lot about people, organizations, libraries, and priorities in this time, and I’m hopeful that sharing some of those lessons will help others. There’s a lot that I’m not comfortable writing about at this point, but I’m still going to try to write more.

Stay tuned.