Faculty should mean more than that…

Steven Bell has a post on ACRL Log today about tenure, librarians and faculty status.  I reacted to it fairly strongly and I need to tease out why.  Many of the individual things he said didn’t bother me, but taken in aggregate — well, there’s a lot here that’s not making sense to me.  So I’m going to do what I do when I can’t make sense of something — try to write it out.

Those who know me know that I reserve the right to change my mind about stuff as I go along …

Bell’s basic point seems to be that librarians, even when they have faculty status, are not "real faculty" because they don’t work with students in the same way that "real faculty" do:

To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.

While this may seem simple, and even obvious, I’m having real problems with it. 

I’m going to leave aside his use of the term "real faculty" because it seems clear that he’s being intentionally provocative with that and focus on the other assumption in the sentence – that real faculty is someone determined by one single thing and one single thing alone and that that is the nature and quality of contact with students in the disciplines.   (I know this quotation above doesn’t mention the disciplines – I’ll deal with that below).  Basically, I think he’s just being way too narrow.  With this incredibly limited view of what it is that makes ‘real faculty’ Bell’s throwing out more than faculty librarians.  Not only do I think that’s a naive and problematic view of the academy, but I think if we were to accept it, it would make what we do as librarians a whole lot harder.

Off the top I should definitely say that contact with students, supporting them through the learning process, is what got me into higher education to start — first as a student in the disciplines (history) and then as a librarian.  That’s what I want to do – that’s the part of faculty culture that appeals to me.  And I don’t disagree even a little bit that my contact and work with students as a librarian is profoundly different than it was as a teaching assistant or teaching associate in the disciplines.  My problem isn’t with the idea that contact with students should be one of our core values in higher ed, or that teaching faculty do it differently – it’s with the flying leap to the conclusion that this student work, then, is the sum of what being faculty means.

As I said, I started out in the disciplines with every intention of becoming a professor.  And the reason that I didn’t end up becoming a history professor was largely because I believed then, as I still do now, that the kind of teaching I wanted to do — I could do better as a librarian.  When I was a historian, my main focus was helping students develop the skills they needed to become lifelong learners and informed citizens.   I simply did not have the focus on the disciplinary content to be a great history professor – if they got the dates 500 years off, but still "got" the significance of the connections between the events I was happy.  If they made smart connections between the oral history transcript we’d just read and the secondary monograph we read last week, but got the subject’s name wrong – I didn’t have enough of a problem with that. If they took me off on a tangent unrelated to the topic the professor wanted them to write about, but they had learned something important about how to do history – I hated marking them down.  When I started working in the public library and teaching at the reference desk, I realized that this — THIS was the kind of teaching that I wanted to do.

Directly helping students develop those lifelong learning, critical thinking skills that will help them engage in public life for the rest of their lives. 

And the hardest transition I’ve had to make as a librarian has been losing that week-to-week or even day-to-day contact with students that you get in the disciplines. I frequently use the analogy:

emergency medicine is to family practice what library instruction sessions are to credit courses

I was a really good history teacher at the end there, and I’m still figuring out how to do this one-shot thing. As a graduate teaching assistant in history I can point to student after student upon whom I know I made a direct and lasting intellectual impact.  But here’s the thing – that didn’t make me faculty then.  And it’s not what does or doesn’t make me faculty now. 

What bothers me about Bell’s post isn’t that I don’t value what he says he values in this post — it’s that according to his thinking — an awful lot of other people aren’t "real faculty" either.

And I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty

First, in this post he seems to be valuing the teaching in the disciplines above all other kinds of faculty teaching.  I can say from experience, that he’s leaving out a lot of insanely good teachers, who are also some of the most student-focused faculty members in the business by doing this. Here’s the thing — faculty, even teaching focused faculty, aren’t all motivated by the same thing.

When I was in graduate school, and in the years since, it has become really clear to me that there are two kinds of teaching-focused faculty (of course, this is a deep oversimplification – go with it).  There are those of us whose passion is the brand-new scholars — our excitement and passion for teaching comes from helping students make that transition into academic thinking, scholarship, research, and expertise.  We like to help the first- and second-year students take their first steps at creating new knowledge for themselves.  My friend Mark and I had a long conversation about this when I was working at the University of Portland libraries.  He was talking about why he loved teaching (Poli Sci) at an institution like UP so much – more than he thought he would at a school that focused on graduate study, or even at a highly selective school where he would be spending most of his time working with advanced undergraduate majors.  That just wasn’t for him, and it wasn’t for me.  Not like working with the first-years was.

Then there are the scholars and researchers who really want to work with advanced majors and help those students move from creating new knowledge for themselves, to creating new knowledge — full stop.  They want to teach major seminars, capstone courses, advise theses, they love the relationships they build with their advisees… my husband is one of these teachers.  We knew in graduate school that while on the surface we were both teaching- and student-focused academics, we had this difference in what really excited us about academic teaching. 

And then there are those, and there are a lot of them, who get into the academic game for the research.  To create new knowledge themselves.  They might like working with graduate students, or the occasional talented undergrad, with whom they can engage with the big questions of their own tiny subset of the disciplines — or they might not even want that.  They go into academia and they end up teaching because it is part of the price of admission for doing research for a living — or they end up as research scholars on the tenure track and they don’t teach at all.  So are all of us — the foundational teachers, the teachers in the disciplines, the researchers — faculty?  I think so. 

The interesting thing to me here is that Bell is reflecting a very typical attitude about what should be valued in higher education – and that’s an attitude that inherently devalues what librarians, and writing faculty, and basic math instructors, and tutors, and gen-ed teachers with mostly undeclared students, and a lot of other people on our campuses do.  The idea that the teaching in the disciplines is the "real teaching" is exactly what leads to the devaluing of the undergraduate core.  It’s what leads to huge general education courses taught by harried adjuncts and graduate assistants.  It’s what leads to students who lack the basic skills – and I do count information literacy as one of those basic skills – to really succeed in their academic life.   And it’s what leads to students who never get the help they need to develop those skills because those skills don’t have a strong disciplinary home. 

In other words, I think there are a lot of people that would agree that teaching in the disciplines is what "real faculty" do – but I think that they’re wrong and not only wrong but destructive when it comes to my goals of creating lifelong learners, critical thinkers and informed citizens.

Larry Hardesty is the place to start when it comes to librarians understanding faculty culture.  And where Hardesty is most useful, in my deeply personal and idiosyncratic opinion, is in the how he clarifies this concept  – the focus on the disciplines is, in a crucial way, one of the key barriers keeping foundational skills like information literacy (and writing, and basic numeracy) from being supported as institutional goals should be:

Faculty culture emphasizes research, content and specialization. It de-emphasizes teaching, process and undergraduates – even at the liberal arts colleges where I have spent most of my career." (Hardesty, 1999, p. 244) Faculty do not think in terms of setting goals and objectives to measure development of "the independent lifelong learner" (Hardesty, 1995, p. 356). 

Basically, if developing relationships with students was every "real" faculty member’s main goal, then I think our job as librarians would be a lot easier.  And  think it would be a lot easier for us to think of ourselves as "real" faculty.  A lot of our faculty don’t have that as a goal because it is not valued by those who have power over them professionally (most of them don’t get tenure because of their work with students) and a lot of our faculty members don’t have that as a goal, because that’s not why they got into the game in the first place.  And while that’s not me, I don’t have a problem with that. 

Our colleges and universities are in the business of knowledge creation — and some of our scholars don’t do that with students.  They’re not good at it, or they don’t value it.  That doesn’t make them less faculty members.  Some of our campuses have teaching loads that leave their faculty working with 30 to 40 students a year, with TA’s to do the grading.  Some of them have teaching loads that bring them together with several hundred.  Some departments have teaching/research loads skewed at 80/20 — some the exact opposite.  My campus has extension faculty who work entirely with the broader community.  The point is, all of these people are faculty. By telling librarians that because they don’t do everything typical teaching faculty in the disciplines do they aren’t "real faculty" Bell is lumping librarians in with everyone else who doesn’t do what typical teaching faculty in the disciplines do — and I just don’t think we want to be making the case that none of these people are faculty.  It’s a too-narrow view of what higher ed does, and a too-narrow view of librarians’ role within the academy.

And then I totally agree with Bell’s conclusion – that academic librarians should take the time to read faculty blogs.  (But I think we should be reading research blogs as well as those that talk about teaching and work with students.)

The key difference between us is that where he seems to think we should read them so that we can understand how we are not real faculty, I think we should read them to see what we have in common, across the academy.  What better way to find new partners, and new ways of talking to those partners, than to listen to their voices?  The great thing about this was, I have been trying to figure out a way to fit this blog post in to one of my posts and now I can.

This is an academic blogger who wrote a post recently on why she, at a particular kind of school with particular kinds of students, thinks it is important to teach literature.  This post really resonated with me as a librarian because I think she’s talking about those things I value – how what she does gives her students the foundational skills and understanding they need to engage in public life.

(Full disclosure – my husband decided to riff on this post in his own blog – I think it’s also well worth reading on this topic)

Like Stephen Bell, I don’t really care about the titles.  I don’t call myself an assistant professor now except in cases, like my dossier, where I have to.  When I started at OSU I was a "professional faculty" rank employee, and now I am a tenure track faculty member, but the way I approach my own work hasn’t changed at all. I’m fine with being "librarian faculty" because I think we’re all real faculty — all of us different kinds of faculty who are engaged in the business of teaching, learning and knowledge creation.

3 thoughts on “Faculty should mean more than that…

  1. Thanks for this. You said much of what I didn’t say in my comment at ACRLog. I get tongue-tied when biting my tongue so hard it hurts the next day.

    Thanks, too for the link-throughs to you huband’s post and the “why I teach literature” posts. Both terrific. (And I love the LT links! More to add to my tottering to-be-read pile.)

  2. Brava! This is so well said. And not only because my own path to LIS from ‘the disciplines” mirrors yours so closely.

    Thanks for taking the time to spin it out in long form!

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