By Meredith Farkas | April 26, 2012
Yesterday was my one-year anniversary of working at Portland State. I’d wanted to write a post yesterday reflecting on it, but I was driving three hours (to Bend, OR) to give a four-hour preconference. Since the whole experience was accompanied by a migraine that just wouldn’t die, I crawled into bed as soon as the preconference was done. Today I’m still in Bend for the Oregon Library Association Conference and I’m really excited to meet more of my Oregon colleagues. This was good timing because I could really use an opportunity to get out of the institutional bubble and hear some new ideas.
I didn’t leave Norwich because I was unhappy (quite the opposite; I loved my colleagues there and miss them still). I didn’t leave for a promotion. I left because I was looking for new challenges. And challenges I’ve had; perhaps more than I’d bargained for. Actually, definitely more than I’d bargained for. There have been days where I’ve come home feeling like a failure. I recently went and looked at my cover letter for the job at PSU to remind myself that I did actually accomplish a lot of important things in my last job, so it’s not just about me. I think a lot of the problems I’ve had this year stemmed from the fact that there was a lot of baggage around decisions made before I got here re: instruction that didn’t actually have any consensus at all. I came in being told that “this is what had been decided just before you got here” and laboring under that assumption until, recently, a colleague was kind enough to take me to lunch and give me the whole history. Now I’m realizing that we really need to reboot our instruction program and start from scratch; not continue to follow a model that has little-to-no buy in. I’m actually really excited about that opportunity. Next week we have a meeting where I’ve asked my colleagues to imagine that we never had an instruction program, we have no time constraints, and there are no expectations from disciplinary faculty regarding instruction. What would we want an instruction program to look like? I’m hoping that once we have identified what we want in the ideal, we can find ways to approach that in reality. I hope this will help get all of us excited about the possibilities for better meeting the needs of our students and faculty in a sustainable way.
In spite of the challenges, I really do like it here. I love that my colleagues are passionate and super-engaged with the profession. The amount we accomplish given severe staffing and budget limitations is awe-inspiring. I appreciate how motivated many of our students are because they are putting themselves through college and want to get as much out of it as possible. I love working with the disciplinary faculty here. While we had “quasi-faculty status” at Norwich, I always felt like support staff in my dealings with disciplinary faculty. Here, I feel like an equal and a partner. I serve on two faculty senate committees — Online Learning and Assessment. I have really enjoyed seeing all of this from a macro level and working together with other faculty members to try and come up with strategies for dealing with important University problems. I’ve made some great relationships which I think will soon lead to some important faculty outreach and assessment of student infolit partnerships.
And I have gotten a lot done. I was in charge of implementing LibGuides this past summer and did the bulk of the work on that, from training staff, to coordinating getting content migrated, to developing best practices, to working with a committee to determine the look and feel. And I think the finished product is lovely. I worked with a task force to develop learning outcomes that describe the breadth of our library instruction program, and then worked to build some buy-in with the instruction librarians. While there is still some controversy over them, I did meet individually with concerned library faculty to ensure that their concerns were taken into account with the final version. Still, it’s a living document, and I’m having everyone record the outcomes they teach to in each class (whether on the list or not) so that we can reconsider the outcomes at our summer instruction retreat in light of the reality of what we teach. I’m now working with our distance learning librarian and our newly-hired instructional designer to develop a two-tiered model for deploying learning objects (one for students to drill down to just the content that meets their information need and the other for faculty to easily embed learning objects — with suggested assessments and lesson plans — in their courses). I think one of the biggest failings of libraries in developing learning objects is that we put a ton of effort into creating them and very little into ensuring that they get used (whether that means embedding them in classes, putting them at users’ points of need, or marketing the heck out of them). I talk about this, and our model, in the most recent Adventures in Library Instruction podcast.
Here, I am the liaison to Anthropology, an academic area in which no librarian had taught a class in years and years. They haven’t had a strong liaison relationship with the library and, when I started, it seems like they really saw the library as “the folks that cut our journals.” When I started my liaison role, my first job was to cut 50% of the journal budget. Yikes. I tried to soften the blow by developing a spreadsheet that provided them with extensive collection data so that they could make well-reasoned decisions. I also developed a list of all of the anthropology journals we had access to in full-text regardless of funding stream and demonstrated to the faculty that we actually had quite a significant collection that is outside of their budget line (though packages). I have really made an effort to build connections with this department and have already taught classes for four of the faculty members in the anthro department and have a session lined up in the research methods class in the Fall. YAY!
And I’m also pretty proud of my role as a manager. This place has not just been tough for me to get thing done in, and I’ve really worked with my direct reports to support them and help them find projects and foci that make them feel effective and give their job coherence. And I’ve also tried to advocate for and support the instruction librarians, from getting LibTech to leave the classroom laptops out and tethered, to getting library faculty software and headsets for creating screencasts, to creating a guide on assessment techniques.
I’m also looking forward to seeing what this place is like with strong vision and leadership. A month before I started, the AUL I was supposed to be reporting to left. A month after I started, the UL (interim, but an awesome interim) announced that she’d taken another job. The interims we’ve had in these positions have been lovely (our interim UL has been so supportive of me and a fierce advocate for the library), but it’s hard to do a lot of leading when you know you’re keeping someone else’s seat warm.
If I could go back in time one year, here is what I would do differently. I’d question everything, not just accepting and implementing decisions that were made before I came here. Early on, I should have had that “what if we never had an instruction program? What would we want it to look like?” conversation with the library faculty. I’d wait a year before pushing any sort of change agenda that came from above. Small change or projects are one thing. But some of the things I was asked to accomplish in my first year (like building a culture of assessment!) really required someone with significant political capital. At Norwich, it was easy to move into my Head of Instruction role and create change because I’d already been there a few years in another role and people trusted and valued me. Here, I came in and very quickly started to work with the library faculty on some pretty disruptive change projects. Knowing this now, I can’t go back and do it differently. I can only find ways to support my colleagues and build a shared vision for the future of library instructional services.
I think I also need to find ways to deal with my own stress and feel good about my work. I need to have more experiences where I connect with other people dealing with similar struggles or people who get me out of my own head. I LOVED doing the Adventures in Library Instruction podcast. I wish I could do it every week. It was a great conversation and I felt so energized by the experience. I love going to conferences (though I hate being away from my family). Online NW helped spark the idea of applying for a grant to do an ethnographic study of the research habits of returning students. There are several talks at OLA that I’m equally excited about. Being on the tenure track and the demands of my job have made me actually connect less with the people who have been in my online professional social network for years. At a time when I need them most, I have the least ability to connect. I think I need to find ways to make time for that, because I can see that burnout is a real concern if I keep going the way I have been. I think I also need to keep reminding myself that, while I’m the head of instruction, all of this isn’t solely on my shoulders. This is a collaborative venture and I can’t do any of it by myself.
So, one year in, I’ve probably learned more about librarianship and myself than in several years at Norwich. It’s been a challenging time for me, but that’s what I was looking for, right? Be careful what you wish for folks!