To tenure or not to tenure?

I ran across an article some weeks ago online in the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding research and publication requirements in higher education. It has come across my path again in response to several conversations with colleagues and teaching faculty. It is titled, “Teach or Perish” and it addresses a question I have always had with higher education: why are so many college teachers measured on their ability to publish–and therefore not be in the classroom, more than they are on their teaching? And why, as a librarian, are people more critical of a lack of publication than a lack of performance in teaching, reference, and other public services?

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that keeping abreast of current trends and contributing to the larger field is not important. It is vitally important, especially for librarianship as a rapidly changing field, to continue to grow and adapt. It helps the field progress, creates wider conversations and contexts, and informs other educators about the important work being done in libraries. But I also believe there is room, ample room, in the higher education landscape for professionals who want to dedicate their time to their practice, and not to theoretical research. I am one of those people, and I know I am not alone.

On paper, many positions (like mine) do prioritize the responsibilities of daily work over a publication record. But, being short on the expected scholarly activities is much more criticized that failing to meet other requirements. I hold a tenure-track position, which comes with it an expectation of scholarly activity. In contrast to my teaching colleagues, who often have something like a 50-40-10 split (meaning 50% teaching, 40% research and publishing, and 10% service), my position is 70-20-10. That means only 20% of my job responsibilities are to be doing research and publishing. Twenty percent. But what constitutes 20%? How much final product meets that 20% threshold? I can’t seem to find agreement on this among friends and colleagues. I could spend 20% of my time every week (approximately 8 hours assuming a 40 hour week, or one working day). But how much am I expected to produce at the end of the year? If I publish one peer-reviewed article in a year, does that reflect 20% of my effort? Should I produce more? Less? Who gets to decide?

This tension is hard for me to grapple with, because I would much rather be in a classroom or at a reference desk, working and engaging with students, than in my office writing a literature review or designing a survey. When things get busy, the first projects placed on the back burner are research and publishing. I became a teacher and public services librarian so I could spend my time helping students to learn how to do research, analyze information sources, use information responsibly, and a host of other non-publishing activities. One argument I have heard is to then write about my daily practice–talk about teaching successes and failures, pilot new programs and gather data on them. This is all sound advice, but also requires that when I am designing curriculum or programs, I think not just about how best to teach it and assess it, but whether or not the data I gather is publishable or interesting for the larger profession. Call me stubborn or naive, but I simply don’t want to have to bend my practice to make sure it can be written and published about.

This debate is happening among librarians at my own institution, and among librarians at others. There are a number of schools in recent years who have decided to change librarian status to non-tenured faculty. An article in the Chronicle Vitae in 2013 profiled several institutions that had either recently changed or had this model in place for years (Do Librarians Need Tenure? Depends on Which Ones You Ask). One person quoted makes a great point about the higher education landscape in general: “I don’t look at it as any sort of singling out . . . . Tenure as an institution is whittling all the time. We’re [librarians] just the low-hanging fruit.” I think as the higher education landscape continues to change due to things like budgets, shifting priorities, and changes in core demographics of college students, tenure models are going to have to adapt. And it’s true that many faculty and administrators may look at librarians and not see as aggressive research and publication going on than what happens in say, engineering or veterinary medicine departments. Our jobs are simply organized differently. Our research is just as valuable (but of course, I’m biased) to our profession. Additionally, compared to many fields, we’re a fairly new discipline. We may have growing pains.

The fact is, I didn’t take my current job because it was tenure-track. I was actually looking for a position that wasn’t tenure-track because I knew it would be more service-focused, and that was what I wanted. More than that, though, I was looking for a job based on what I wanted to do (teach information literacy) and who I wanted to do it for (Composition programs). The job I secured just also happens to come with research and publishing requirements. I am also lucky to work with a great set of colleagues who support my service-oriented priorities, and who are wonderful guides and mentors on publishing so that I can still meet those requirements.

But, as I said to one colleague several weeks ago when we were discussing tenure vs. non-tenure jobs: If tomorrow my “tenure-track” status went away and I was classified non-tenure track faculty or something similar and offered a three- or five-year contract to keep doing what I’m doing minus the pressure to publish all the time, I would take it and probably do a happy dance. It wouldn’t stop me from want to publish or do presentations or travel to conferences. I would still continue to do those things, just on my terms, and not someone else’s definition of “20%”.

Reflections on one year of librarianship

It has been just over a year since I began my first professional library job, and it has been a wonderful year for me professional and personally. I have stretched and molded and am still settling in to my own professional identity, but it feels so good to be in a place where I feel like I can do those things, and be supported by my coworkers to explore, engage, and learn. As I think back over the last year, there are a few things that stand out as experiences that will help me continue to shape myself and my career.

The first experience that stands out is attending and presenting at conferences. I attended 3 conferences, all different sizes and purposes. The first was ALA Annual in Las Vegas (VEGAS!). It was only my second year attending ALA, and my first trip to Vegas. It was great for all the right reasons: big presentations, small networking opportunities, and social gatherings. It was wonderful to attend the conference as a librarian and have this secret feeling that I was part of “the club.” I could introduce myself and my job, talk with others who are just as nerdy and excited as I am about teaching and libraries. I also got to meet Lois Lowry and have her sign my book. It. Was. Awesome. The one drawback to something like ALA is that the sheer size makes it easy to feel like you never have a real, deep connection with what’s going on.

My second conference experience was a smaller gathering, the Oregon and Washington chapters of ACRL’s combined conference. For two days, I saw the same people, we ate meals together and played games together, and I felt, again, like I was finally part of a group. This was also the first presentation I did as a librarian (I have presented a paper I’d written before, at a small, regional literature conference). I honestly did not believe that my proposal would be accepted, but I submitted it anyway. I take almost any opportunity that comes my way to submit presentation and poster proposal. The worst they’re going to say is no, and I get the experience of putting together abstracts, titles, etc., that could compel someone to say, “I’d like to hear more about that!” So I did a presentation about using concept maps in library instruction (PDF of the slides available on my Portfolio page). It was a 2-minute “shock talk” but I heard good comments afterward, and it gave me a little boost of confidence to keep going.

The final conference I attended was a one-day local conference on information literacy. Smaller still than the last, all the attendees could fit in one room. I did not present at this one, but again, had great conversations with people from all different backgrounds, giving me a lot of food for thought to take home with me.

All three of these experiences were valuable for me for various reasons. I’m glad I was able to experience three very unique conference formats, big (HUGE), medium, and small. I’ve met some wonderful colleagues, been challenged as a professional, and learned what makes a compelling talk, poster, small group discussion topic, etc., to apply to my own proposals.

The second experience was writing my first paper for publication. And I can say it went really well, as it has been accepted for publication in the fall. I was invited by one of my colleagues to collaborate on writing a paper about an assessment project he had worked on during a sabbatical. I was happy to assist in any way. It feels amazing to know something I helped write is going to be published, and the experience of going through the research, writing, and now revising process is so, so great. I am working on some outlines for potential papers now, and I feel like I am better prepared to tackle this, having had a great guide through my first experience.

The final experience is more personal, and that is the decision to move somewhere completely new. I am the definition of an introvert. So new situations, people, and places riddle me with anxiety. While I have worked hard to overcome my natural tendencies to avoid crowds and new situations, I am still a work in progress. Part of my job now is to be a liaison and outreach to various campus groups. That’s hard when your natural reaction to meeting new people is to not. And small talk? Nope. Not even. But moving to a town where I literally only knew the one person who was coming with me (the hubs), and had met, once, a few of my future colleagues while visiting for my interview, has presented me with a challenge. I had to re-establish relationships I took for granted (like a hair stylist, a dentist, a doctor), and I had to learn how to forge friendships (this is my biggest struggle, TBH). I am still learning how to do those things. How? I pay attention to the questions other people ask me or others when they’re just meeting. I default to things I can (and like to) talk about: my job, the library, the local farmers’ market, the weather. I have improved over the last year, and am more comfortable sitting down and talking to a complete stranger, but I still have a tendency to carry a book with me everywhere, in case I need something to occupy my untalkative self.

There are more, smaller experiences that have been wonderful this past year: supportive colleagues, finally feeling like I have found my fit in librarianship, Captain America 2 and Mockingjay Part 1 coming out, having my husband and dog with me under one roof again, and on and on. It’s been a good year. Here’s to the second year being even better.