By Meredith Farkas | October 17, 2011
This summer, I was engaged with quite a few projects (several of which I was in charge of), but was able to make time to focus on scholarship just about every Friday. Part of that, in my opinion, is this blog. This is how I engage with the profession, share my ideas, and have professional conversations with others. My writing here is certainly different than it is in the article I just turned in to a peer reviewed journal on the impact of the changing information environment and participatory technologies on pedagogy and information literacy, but it’s no less important (to me at least). And thank goodness I got that article submitted before the Fall quarter started, because I’ve been buried at work.
It’s a good kind of buried though. This is my first Fall at PSU and I’m trying to immerse myself as much as possible in our instruction program so that I can get a feel for what needs to be worked on. To that end, I’ve been trying to teach a diverse array of classes by offering to cover classes for some of my colleagues. And it’s been fun! The students at PSU are, for the most part, very motivated, probably because so many are non-traditional students and/or are paying for college themselves. I actually had a bunch of students in a class I taught last week request my PowerPoint slides (and another student was furiously writing down everything I said). It’s been fun. I’m also working on a whole bunch of projects designed to bring a culture of assessment to the library’s instruction program. I’m attending Assessment Immersion next month which has like 4 pre-assignments and a giant pile of readings. And I’m on search committees for three positions, one of which is our University Librarian, which I couldn’t be more excited about. This position is so important to our library and I’m glad to have the opportunity to help the University to select a great leader for us.
But one result of being buried (even in a good way) is that I don’t have enough time for blogging and traditional scholarship. I have about a gazillion books and articles on the next topic I want to research, but no time to read them. I’ve got about a dozen ideas for blog posts that are practically burning a hole in my brain, but no time to get my thoughts down on the screen. It’s a funny thing, because scholarship is so central to whether I get tenure (and thus stay in my job), and yet it’s the first thing that goes when I (and so many other tenure-track librarians) get busy. But what else does one drop? I can’t not serve on the search committees I’m on (well I guess I could, but that also would not be good for my tenure portfolio). I can’t stop working towards a final draft of our library instruction learning outcomes which have an administrative deadline. I can’t choose not to work at the reference desk or teach classes. I can’t drop the other things that have regular meetings and strict deadlines. So I drop the one thing in my work for which there are no specific goal-posts or deadlines (other than that final one when I turn in my tenure packet and cross my fingers).
I don’t know about the tenure track at other institutions, but the requirements for achieving tenure here are extremely vague, which can be quite nerve-wracking in that you don’t know what each committee members’ expectations might be. On the other hand, I doubt most people would want some strict pronouncement like “you must have five peer-reviewed articles accepted and give 10 presentations” because that straightjackets you to a single measure of success and doesn’t allow for alternative visions of professional and scholarly contribution. But that vagueness contributes to the issue, because I have no idea how many peer-reviewed articles I should have written, presentations I should have given, and service I should have done before the end of my first year. But I do know concretely what the expectations are for everything else I need to do.
Over the past five years or so, the requirements for librarians to get tenure at my institution have increased. One colleague told me that back in the day, if you got one peer-reviewed article published, you’d be fine. That is far from the reality now. We’ve been having conversations at the library about how to support people on the tenure track, because right now, the only benefit in terms of time that we have are 5 research days per year. Not exactly enough for the kind of scholarly productivity we’re expected to have. I was advised by our former UL to work on my research every Friday (since meetings are not usually scheduled then), but I’m now finding that isn’t possible much of the time and we’ve been told that it’s problematic for reference desk scheduling. But the rest of my week is packed with teaching and meetings. In other departments, tenure-track faculty have 1/3 less of a courseload than tenured faculty, so they have an additional 33% of their time to devote to research. It’s not so easy to make such accommodations for librarians, but I think if the library both wants to be seen as faculty “like everyone else” and wants to produce the scholarship at (or even near) the level of other departments, something has to change.
Last week at a faculty meeting we discussed making time for scholarship and it became clear that this was both a very important conversation that needs to continue and one in which clear-cut guidelines for support are not likely to appear. While everyone wants to support scholarship, the visions of what that looks like are myriad. There are people who feel like we should have clear expectations (like 20% of your time should be devoted to research), but some people feel like that’s 20% of a 40-hour work week and others feel that’s 20% of a 60-hour work week. Others feel like tenure-track librarians should have fewer reference shifts and should be asked to do reference shifts on Fridays less often. Still others seem to feel that yes, we should take time during the week for research, but that it’s up to the individual to carve out that time themselves. And the tenure-track librarians, in the middle of this, keep on keeping on with the anxious feeling of being pulled in a thousand directions. It’s certainly in the best interests of the tenured librarians for the tenure track librarians to achieve tenure and continue the strong relationships they’ve built with their liaison areas (not to mention it means fewer search committees), but does that mean they should provide explicit support to those seeking tenure?
In a service-centered profession, it can feel wrong and callous to be selfish, but it’s exactly what you need to be if you’re going to get tenure and continue providing service to your patrons. Somehow I have to find a way to choose my scholarship over things that will benefit my patrons, but honestly, I don’t know what to give up. I know I’ve taken on a lot this year, certainly too much, and that I’m going to be pretty well-buried until June, but I’m so used to making choices that are best for the library rather than making those that are best for me. At Norwich, I could do that, because my work was 100% about the library. But now, I have to think about my own career, and when tenure decisions are so strongly based on one’s research, I may sometimes need to put research above doing things that will further my goal of building a culture of assessment at the library. That is so antithetical to my vision of librarianship but clearly I need to find a balance where I can still be true to my values and get tenure.
And while thinking about all of this (actually, right in the middle of writing this, since I never get a post done in one straight shot anymore), I saw this great post in Scientific American entitled The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar. In it, the author talks about having a plan for what you want to have achieved by the time you get tenure:
This point was largely inspired by a breakout session led by Dr. Mary Dankoski. In it, Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.
You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.
Related to Turner’s point about bringing your whole self to the job, Dankoski asked what we cared most about in order to create a career plan around it. She created a great handout to force us to write a Career Development Plan. The first step was to write on the following prompt:
“It is 5 years from today. If you were wildly successful in your work and personal life, what will you have achieved?”
So, have a goal and make it a big one. Make a plan, ground it in your personal values. Dream big, form actionable steps towards those dreams, and put some thought into how your dreams and the mission of your institution intersect. Any time you can convince your employer that your dreams are good for them will make it easier to make them happen.
YES!!! While this doesn’t necessarily help with the “making time for scholarship” thing, nor the “institutional/collegial support for scholarship” thing, having a plan does help us to chart a course for what we want our scholarship and service to look like. For many years, I’ve been taking on things based on what I’ve been asked to do. I don’t say yes to every writing opportunity/presentation request/committee, but I’ve sort of fallen into some of my “research areas” because those are what I’ve been asked to write/talk about. I don’t have a clear vision of what I want to influence and achieve in the next 5 years. And I should. And having a clear plan will not only let me know what I should and should not say “yes” to; it will also help me to determine what I need to get done each year to reach my goal.
One thing I didn’t mention in this post is the equally (if not more) stressful issue of balancing being on the tenure track with family. That would have swelled this post to an epic size, so it’s probably best left for the future. But it is discussed at length in that blog post from Scientific American and it’s worth a read if you’re struggling with this too.
As you can see, I don’t have a lot of answers to all these issues; not for myself nor for the tenure system in libraries. So I’m very interested to hear about other people’s experiences. Do/did you have a clear plan for achieving tenure? How do/did you make time for scholarship? How does/did your institution support tenure-track librarians?