Starting today, I’m moving into a new position – Head of the Teaching and Engagement department at OSU Libraries. Long-time friends might ask, “isn’t this your fourth job in this same library?” And I would answer, “why yes, yes it is.”
It’s complicated in that I still have my third job (Franklin A. McEdward Professor for Undergraduate Learning initiatives) though the tenure-track piece of that position is on hold while I serve in the 4th.
Long-time friends may also be asking how long this position will last, in that Head of the Teaching and Engagement department requires there to be a Teaching and Engagement department — and my departmental homes have combined, re-combined and changed their names every couple of years as long as I’ve been here.
(The most memorable iteration? Undergraduate Learning and Library Information Access.)
This question is important, though, in ways that aren’t semantic or job-title related. We, like most libraries (I suspect), have always hired people specifically to be division or department heads – we’ve hired in people to manage with the expectation that management will be part of their job description. When the departments have shuffled around and moved there have been challenges – especially when the number of departments has been decreased – but when you are primarily hired on as a manager for management skills, it’s maybe not such a weird thing to move to manage a slightly different combination of people? Maybe?
But in this case, that would be a little odd. Not insurmountable odd, but odd. Because in a real sense, I’m not just taking this on to do new things and be a manager, but to manage this particular department and to work with this group of colleagues. We’re thinking about how to manage ourselves in a new way – and I think we’re kind of in it together. And that aspect of it is big reason why I wanted to do this, and why I think it’s such an exciting opportunity (that also happens to show why I really, really love working for this library).
So what’s this about “new ways?”
Well, I did a full faculty interview for this position, just as I would have if I had been applying to be the new head of Teaching and Engagement for always and ever. The difference is – I’m not. For my part, the plan is that I’ll do this work for the next few years, and then when those years are over I’ll go back to my faculty position and professorship and pick up with the research and teaching I will have to downscale while I’m department head.
(Note – I’m going to stop typing “Teaching and Engagement.” We call it TED for a reason)
For the department’s part, the plan is that someone else will step out of their faculty position and pick up TED’s administrative reins when I rotate back to my professorship. This might sound similar to the way most academic departments share their own administration and there’s a reason for that — that is the model we’re looking at.
Why are we trying this? Well, there are several reasons. One is to give as many people as possible a chance to develop leadership and management skills. Like many libraries, we’ve lost people in the past who might not have wanted to leave but who felt they had to because the opportunities for advancement weren’t going to be available here for a long time. This model allows more people to take on leadership roles — and finding ways to do that is high on our library administration’s priority list.
But this is tied up with the second reason – and a piece of this that is important to me – we’re not just talking about the department head position as the only path to leadership — we’re also talking about building a structure that builds shared governance into what we do. In other words, I’m department head now and I won’t be forever is one change. But another change is that we start doing some of the decision making, goal setting and management together.
We’re hoping we can create a model where the department head takes charge of administration, plays a strong advocacy role (both inside the library and out), participates in management of the library as a while (and brings a big-picture, library-as-a-whole perspective back to the department decisions and discussions). But at the same time, decisions that should be faculty decisions – what we teach, what we need to develop and share our expertise — will be shared.
I hope so, even though I don’t think any of us can tell you exactly what this is going to look like.
One thing that is true is that this new model actually reflects the way work has already been done in our department for a long time – the people in this department work very collaboratively (we’re librarians after all) but there are also structural reasons why we’re very independent in what we do – TED is 7/8 faculty and 1/8 evening reference supervisor (and as a former evening supervisor – you have to be independent to handle that work. She’s pretty much in charge for most of the hours she’s here).
We have our own things we track and are in charge of, and that’s been true for a long time. We already have a graduate coordinator, a beginning composition coordinator – faculty members running point on reference services and classrooms (and a lot more). This new model provides a way to codify that, to recognize that leadership and to recognize that leadership development is an important thing for the department and the library to support.
Most importantly – it allows us to think about what our department looks like moving into the future in new ways. The way I see it is this – we’re not rejecting the idea of vision and leadership so much as recognizing that we have vision and leadership here in spades here at home — we’ve been moving forward for a long time in teaching and instruction and reference, and we know where we want to go. Shifting to a rotating system of leadership means that we still add new people, new voices and new ideas when we can — but we don’t look to them for a vision or direction for the department — we think about the skills, the expertise and the research agenda we need in our department — and build in the idea that everyone shares in the governance, the success and failure of the unit from the start.
(You too will someday be department head!)
We were already well along this path before Menucha last fall, but we were inspired a lot by Barbara Fister’s description of shared governance at her place of work. One major difference between what we are doing and what happens there is that we are a unit within the library and they are the library. Of course, what we’re trying won’t work without the help of library administration. We’re not going to figure it all out right away – we’ll need the freedom to try and fail and figure things out.
But that said, I think that allowing us to try represents a pretty extraordinary amount of trust in us. In my interview when I got the classic question “where do you see yourself in 5 years” — my answer started with “I don’t think I’ll be the department head anymore.” I think it’s safe to say that no successful candidate for a department head position at OSU libraries has ever given exactly that answer before — and everyone’s willingness to accept that idea – embrace it even – and engage in real conversation about what it might mean was really exciting, inspiring and why I love working here.