Tenure! A Failure In Our Field? by Sara

6 Aug

Everyone and their mother is talking about Librarians and tenure.  Ok, I am exaggerating.  Three really big blog posts have come out in the past 2 weeks regarding academic librarians and tenure.  It started with Meredith Farkas, followed by Barbara Fister, and most recently I found Wayne Bivens-Tatum‘s take on the topic.

Here is the very, very fundamentals of the issue: some academic librarians have tenure track positions and others do not.  Requirements for tenure vary from institution to institution.  Is it really important for academic librarians to have tenure?  Those who say yes focus on mutual respect from faculty, better position to push info lit into curriculum, and a chance to participate in scholarship (publish scholarly articles).  Those who say no focus on the publish or perish mentality, that we are more student support department than an academic department, and that we can become stagnant in our positions (a common complaint against tenure).  No, no citations.  Read the three above posts.

I write this as someone who has spent the past 10 years of her career at 2 different libraries that both had/have me on tenure track. In fact, I got tenure at my previous position and gave it up for a new experience.  My experience and point of view mirror more what Fister wrote about than Farkas and Bivens-Tatum.  That being said, all have important and valid points.

My first tenure experience was different from what my faculty colleagues went through.  I was not expected to publish and my packed was based around the impact I had on campus, with faculty, and with students.  It relied heavily on community involvement (on and off campus).  In my current position, it is very different.  I am expected to publish and not just book reviews.  I need to get grants, complete a second masters degree, get the support of my colleagues (both librarian and teaching faculty), and get support from outside the institution from people who don’t know me.

I never thought I would publish anything when I started at my current position 4 years ago.  I was working on the second masters already and knew small, easy grants I could get.  It was the publishing element that took me 2 years to even get an idea about.  That being said, once I got one idea, three more came very quickly.  This institution does give me time to work on my tenure commitments.  While working on the degree I got a small workload reduction and it was critical to have this as I worked on the thesis to finish the degree.  I have also been granted a pre-tenure sabbatical/work-load reduction to give me time to work on the research and papers I need to finish.  Is there a number of how many articles?  No.  Is there a certain type: qualitative, quantitative, success sharing?  Nope.  The advice from my tenured colleagues is that it should be published in a peer-review journal and the higher the impact rating, the better.  No, my previous institution did not require all of this so I didn’t need the time to complete it.

All three authors touch on the publish or perish aspect of tenure track.  Bivens-Tatum talks about the very important issue of librarians having no idea what they are doing with research and publishing.  10 years ago I had the option of a management class or a research class.  I picked the management class thinking this was the bigger priority.  I should have been require to start publishing while getting my MLS.  We all should have been.  Even though I run surveys, try to quantify my efforts, and do real qualitative research, I know I am not doing it exactly right.  This is because I have only been trying to actually do this for 2 years.  I agree with Farkas when she says we have more in common with student affairs.  I see myself as support for the faculty.  I have a very good relationship with the faculty in the departments I support.  I think most respect me primarily because of the work I put into our relationships and not because I am working toward tenure.  I don’t think tenure really makes a difference in the faculty impression of me.

I think the heart of all three blog posts is this: giving librarians tenure isn’t right for every institution, but the process may be wrong for those who are participating in the process.  If we are going to be faculty with tenure and expected to publish then we need to consider workload differently.  Faculty get a day a week for research and all summer off.  They get full sabbaticals and work-load reductions (depending on what they need to do).  They have a certain number of hours they work a week and flexibility in their scheduling.  Either librarians get the same considerations or the tenure process is different for us.  It can be a combination of methods to madness.  Do all the librarians need to be tenure track at an institution?  No, there can be a choice to participate or not.  Should we, as a field, put more emphasis on research and publishing?  Yes, especially for those of us who do know we are going into academia.  Academic advisors should be helping us do this and mentoring us through the process when we are working on our MLS.  This is what happens in other fields.  Undergraduates at my institution are already learning this.  Faculty advisors are already mentoring them through publishing and research.  Many have told me about how they are going to be co-authors with their advisor.  If we want to be publishing academics, then we need to learn how to do this better.

This is a great moment to have this discussion as many libraries and librarians try to redefine their role on their campus and as Info Lit is redesigned.  If we ignored what academic libraries and librarians are now and had to rebuild, what would the new librarian look like?  Would he/she need tenure to fulfill that role?  What does she/he need to learn to be that librarian?  What can we learn from the failures and successes of the tenure process?

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