Way back in 2005, I wrote a post about tenure for librarians in which I argued against it. Since then, I’ve spent six years as a librarian with faculty rank and no tenure and three years as a librarian on the tenure track, and I can say that my feelings against tenure status for librarians has only grown stronger.
When I told one of my colleagues that I was leaving for Portland Community College, she said “are you sad you’re not going to be doing scholarship anymore?” Why wouldn’t I? Portland Community College already has 3 Library Journal Movers and Shakers (I’ll be #4!) and faculty who’ve published and presented some really thought-provoking work. I wrote a book and a bunch of articles and presented a ton when I wasn’t on the tenure track. I did plenty of it on my own time and some of it while at work. As a tenure-track librarian, I do plenty of scholarship on my own time and some of it while at work. I know at some places, librarians are told that they can take x% of their time for scholarship or that they can take one day/week for it. At most places, that isn’t the case. You try to fit it into your work week while you’re doing your “real work” and are expected to take it home with you because it’s how you’re going to keep your job. And expectations around time for research change with different library administrations, which can be stressful (says the woman on her third UL and AUL for public services in 3 years).
For me, doing scholarship is actually fun. I’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve written and the research I’ve done. I may not have done all of it had I not been tenure-track, but this kind of stuff is fun for me. However, there are lots of people for whom the idea of research, writing, and presenting at conferences is horrifying. There are even more people who just have no interest in doing it. And this is why we have a literature with a small number of gems amongst a whole lot of of mediocrity. There are many studies that are so poorly designed that they do more to obfuscate knowledge than to advance it. I recently read an article that concluded that an one method of instruction was no more effective than another. The authors had a tiny sample size (one class with each methodology — 2 classes total), had a person teach the class who’d never used one of the chosen methods before, and based effectiveness on recall (using a poorly-designed quiz) rather than the students’ ability to actually do research or satisfaction with the session. In the end, the authors didn’t even seem to have confidence in their own findings. What can anyone actually learn from this??? And yet this was published in one of our profession’s top journals. There are so many articles out there in the library literature exactly like this. Librarians get little education in research design and then are told they must do research to keep their jobs. If we can barely find the time to do our scholarship, is it any wonder that we don’t have time to become good researchers? I would argue that the library literature would be much better (though smaller) if not for the tenure track and that many of those who have published the gems would have done so with or without a mandate to do so.
The idea that librarians need tenure to be on faculty-level committees seems like a red herring to me, because there are so many institutions at which librarians who are not tenure-track (and even not faculty) serve on these committees. I chaired an academic committee of disciplinary faculty members at Norwich and served on another faculty senate committee, all while being “staff with faculty rank.” I wasn’t thought of as less than, but as different. Then again, I’m also ok with being seen as different from disciplinary faculty, which some librarians seem uncomfortable with. I know we are different. I think librarians are much more effective when they show what unique value they bring to a collaboration with faculty than when they try to show how they’re just like disciplinary faculty. We’re just not.
I’ve come to find that we have a lot more in common with some student affairs units than we do with disciplinary faculty. Units like the writing center, the learning/tutoring center, and the career center provide a mix of point-of-need and course-integrated instruction as well as significant outreach. Some even teach credit courses (our College Success classes are taught by student life faculty). The staff or faculty in these units are not tenure-track, yet they often serve on faculty senate committees because they have a valuable POV. The Director of PSU’s Learning Center shares knowledge and presents at conferences. She’s very involved in assessment. I kind of wish more academic librarians would see themselves as having a kinship with student affairs (and vice versa) because there are some valuable collaborations that can happen between those units. We really do share the same goals.
One of the biggest arguments for tenure is academic freedom, but I have felt less free to write and say what I think over the past three years than I did at any other point in my career. I don’t think it has to be this way, but tenure can push people to take the safe route, which Nicole Pagowsky alluded to in her most recent post. I think the tenure process can silence librarians early in their careers when they’re most likely to want to challenge the status quo. By the time a librarian has achieved tenure, he or she has a specific scholarly agenda and most will not likely make a radical u-turn in what they research and write/speak about. Also, over time, it’s easier to become complacent about things that would have fired you up five or six years before.
I thought I’d have no problem sailing through the tenure process since I give a lot of talks and have no problem writing a lot (as you’ve probably noticed), but then I learned that it wasn’t just about having x# of presentations and peer-reviewed publications (in fact, I got dinged for giving too many presentations in my first year). It was about doing it all the “right way.” And figuring out what the “right way” is can be just about impossible, because what’s right is in the eye of the beholder. One person may value being on certain committees more than scholarship. Someone else may feel entirely opposite. For some it’s about national service and for others it’s local/state service. In some cases it may be about how well-liked you are. For me, having a blog with a national audience was more of an albatross than an asset. I’m ashamed to admit that I considered shuttering this blog after my last promotion and tenure review, because the feedback I received was so vague that it wasn’t clear to me what specifically I’d done wrong and how I could fix it. I felt paralyzed.
At Norwich, I did write one or two things on my blog that got me into trouble. My Director was a great protector of intellectual freedom, so she didn’t sell me down the river when a vendor rep called her to complain about a blog post I’d written about them. But when I did write something my Director or a colleague didn’t like or felt was inappropriate, they discussed it with me directly and was able to talk it out and apologize for anything that might have been inappropriate or hurtful. And I learned from those experiences how to be more politic in writing about work. I still don’t know specifically what I wrote over the past three years that was wrong and who was bothered by it. I wish I did because I’d gladly apologize to them and improve based on their feedback.
I believe that academic freedom can be protected contractually. If it’s in your contract, it’s law. At PSU, we’re union-represented and if something is done that violates the union contract (which includes academic freedom), we can file a grievance. Even without a union, a contract is a contract. And let’s not forget that tenure seems to be no guarantee of full academic freedom (see Kansas, the University of Saskatchewan, etc.). Also, what good is academic freedom when it only protects a small percentage of the workforce? Oh, I deserve academic freedom, but my fixed-term and adjunct faculty colleagues don’t?
It can be exceedingly difficult to do things on the tenure track that are daring or controversial or that run counter to what is valued in your library. At my current job, lower-division instruction is greatly undervalued. While these are the students with the greatest needs and at the greatest risk of leaving college, focusing on liaison instruction to upper-division undergrads and graduate students and outreach to disciplinary faculty is far more valued. As the person who coordinates our lower-division instruction and also has four disciplinary liaison areas, I constantly felt pulled in two directions by what I knew was right and what I knew was valued. I tried to find a balance between things like outreach to get my faculty to deposit their work into PDXScholar (our repository) and providing outreach to our college success classes, but I often found myself thinking about what will look good to my colleagues and I can’t say it never swayed my decisions.
I also find it strange that in the tenure process, you’re often evaluated by a group of people who may not supervise you, report to you, or have much of anything to do with your work. My direct reports were never on my P&T committee because they were not tenure-track faculty (they were fixed-term), nor were they asked for their opinions on my performance as a manager. I’ve heard horror stories from other institutions about people using the promotion and tenure process as a weapon against people they don’t like. It’s certainly a process ripe for abuse by those who are passive-aggressive or grudge-holders because so much of it is essentially about one’s personal feelings about a person and their body of work. I know there is great variety in how the tenure process is structured at different institutions, but I’ve heard too many negative things to believe it worth whatever minor gains in status we may (or may not) get from it.
From talking to people about my impending job change, I get the sense that a few people see it as a step down from what I’m currently doing. One person looked at me quizzically and said “and are you happy about this change?” Moving away from the tenure-track is not a step down in any way. In fact, I feel a freedom I haven’t felt in a long time to focus more fully on student success. I feel the same thing with the move to a community college. When you’re at a former college that is trying to become a world-class research university, you don’t have the library staffing to focus enough on either the research mission or the teaching mission. I’m so excited to be going to a place where the priority is clear. This is why I went into librarianship; not to do research or be thought of as faculty, but to teach, support teaching, and support student success. I’ve worked at a small private rural teaching university and a large public urban research university and I feel like a large urban community college combines all of the things I loved most about each of those settings.
Photo credit: Carrot And Stick by Allan on Flickr