By Meredith Farkas | September 7, 2011
It’s been extremely challenging to post here regularly (though I’m getting better about it!), not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a lack of down-time. Summer came late (like mid-July!) to Portland and we’re trying to make the most of it before the days of endless gray descend. I’m lucky that I don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder, but I still do have to struggle to find fun things for a toddler to do while it’s cold and rainy. It’s been a joy being able to do all sorts of fun things with my little guy in the sun. Whoever calls the two’s “terrible” clearly doesn’t know my son.
I don’t think words could describe how happy I am here. My supervisor told me that most people who apply for jobs at PSU want to move to Portland, but I honestly had zero interest when I came for my interview. I knew next to nothing about Portland and I’d never wanted to live on the West Coast. But I am so glad I came. If you can get a job here (and there’s the rub because unemployment is HUGE here), Portland is an amazing place to live. Portland is a city for people who hate cities. It’s quiet, friendly, not smelly, but still with great cultural activities, food, etc. I can actually drive to work after dropping Reed off at daycare and park a block from the library. My commute is easy and mellow. There is so much to do in the area — beaches, farms, wineries, mountains, cool neighborhoods, amazing parks, great museums and the zoo. The diversity (not ethnic, but in every other way) amazes me. And it still feels a lot like Vermont with its passion for local (businesses, food, etc.) and mellow pace of life.
The biggest change has been in my work environment. While I do miss having my hand in just about every project, as I did at Norwich, I really appreciate being able to focus. At Norwich, “Head of Instruction” seemed to mean “person who does the most instruction.” Here, my job seems to have been purposely designed to avoid that, and I appreciate having time to focus on the macro-level instruction work. Building an instruction program from what previously was a group of liaisons doing their own things takes a lot of time and relationship-building. We’re lucky to have such a strong liaison program with deep relationships with academic departments, but it’ll also be nice to see ourselves as a unit, working towards common goals and supporting each other. To build a sense of cohesiveness and a learning/sharing culture, I’ve been holding brown-bag lunches and monthly instruction meetings. So far so good!
I’ve also been working on a lot of projects related to instruction. I led a team this summer to implement LibGuides (create best practices, do trainings, customize the look, etc.) and to develop learning outcomes for the library instruction program, among other things. We’re planning on doing a big push this year to create learning objects, and hopefully soon I’ll be hiring a part time (non-librarian) instructional design position to help support the liaisons with this.
Probably the biggest difference between Norwich and PSU is in communication — specifically offering feedback and criticism. At Norwich, it was challenging to get feedback from people. You’d send an email out asking for feedback on something you did and you’d be lucky if you heard from one or two people. At Portland State, it is the absolute opposite. Everyone has an opinion. It’s interesting to be in meetings where people have such strong feelings about things. At Norwich I felt like the pushy person; at PSU, I feel like the polar opposite.
I really appreciate the fact that my colleagues here are so passionate in their beliefs and so willing to offer feedback. Sure, there are moments when I feel like people are arguing over things that are really not worth the agita, but one person’s molehill is another person’s mountain. Probably the thing that has been most challenging is the fact that, because I really didn’t get much criticism of my ideas at Norwich, I got used to being able to go full-steam ahead with very little intervention. It’s been a good exercise for me over the past 4 1/2 months to get used to accepting criticism and to develop better skills in building consensus and letting go. Here are a few tips that helped me with that:
1. Remember that they are criticizing your ideas, not you – When you become personally attached to an idea and someone puts it down, it can hurt. You can feel like it’s a personal affront. Unless the person is a real jerk, they probably didn’t mean for it to hurt you personally, and I have had positive interactions with all of my colleagues, so I don’t think any of them have ever said anything designed to hurt me. I think when you see your colleagues as people dedicated to making things better and reframe what you’re hearing in that light, criticism can be painless, if not useful. #2 can also help.
2. Don’t get emotionally attached to your ideas unless you really think they’re worth it – I have lots of opinions, but only a few things that I feel extremely strongly about. So I pick my battles and do not get wedded to anything that’s not worth it. With the learning outcomes for our library instruction program, I developed a lot of the outcomes and we then refined them as a committee before taking them to all of the instruction librarians. We received a lot of criticism and suggestions at the instruction meeting and I accepted them easily and pushed back on just a few things. I just wanted a good product and didn’t get attached to the wording or any specific outcomes. And my colleagues had a lot of great, smart, helpful things to add. When you’re too attached to an idea, it can be difficult to hear and accept legitimate criticism that would make the thing better. On the other hand, sometimes an idea is actually worth being attached to.
3. Picking your battles ensures that people take what you say seriously – people who constantly have to put a wrench into things, who never have a positive word to say, who argue every point are thought of as contrarians. When one develops such a reputation, they become “the boy who cried wolf”; easy to ignore, even when they have a legitimate case. It’s so easy to blow off someone’s suggestions (even if they are great suggestions) just because the person has shown themselves to be a contrarian in the past.
4. People can be wrong – Remember that when someone criticizes your idea, it’s just one person’s opinion. It may be a good opinion and it may be crappy. It may be shared by everyone in the room or it may be shared by no one else. You need to figure that out rather than uncritically accepting every suggestion. A colleague here gave me a piece of my advice when I first started: always ask several people about anything. When I first talked to a colleague about being on the tenure track, I got the impression that there was no way I’d be able to work on my research during the workday. A second colleague I talked to made me think that the only things that count towards tenure were single-authored, peer-reviewed articles. Another told me that they fit research into their work hours without incident because they viewed it as a required part of their job, just like instruction or reference shifts. And my experience may be totally different (so far, I’ve had no trouble carving out time for research, but we’ll see what I say when I’m in the thick of things this Fall). People’s perspectives are based on their own experiences and they may have different experiences, time-management skills, job duties, etc. than you. It’s good to take criticism with grace, but like anything else, look at what they’re saying with a critical eye.
5. You can be wrong. GASP! That can’t be true! My colleagues are really smart and have a great diversity of experience and bodies of knowledge. I don’t know everything and sometimes I’m wrong about things I think I know. I really appreciate that I have a group of colleagues willing to set me straight when I need it.
It’s funny that in a more mellow library environment, I was the person voicing my opinion on everything under the sun, but here, where every little point seems to merit discussion, I’ve become much more Zen. And I have to say that I like this more relaxed me a whole lot more. Viva letting go!