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The alarming five-year pin

Five-year pinNot long ago I had a back-and-forth with MPOW’s head of HR, who is a great HR head, by the way (and after my spring HR class my admiration for her role deepened–talk about a complex role people take for granted, like, you know, library work). She told me I would be receiving my five-year pin, and I kept insisting it was too early. But in the end I said ok, I will receive my five-year pin, because the day of the ceremony was exactly six months from my five-year anniversary, and also because she wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.

I was startled to get here. Many people have elaborate career plans such as “I’m going to be the dean of an ARL library” or “I’m going to be the interplanetary guru of electronic resources.” My modus operandi has been more along the lines of, “Hey, that looks good,” or “I’m new in town, do you have a job for me?” This baggy approach to personal career management has had spectacularly uneven results, but it did result in my present position, which is an undeniably good fit for me, even, or perhaps especially, on the craziest days.

Everything I said about managerial leadership two years ago still holds, but I continue to have very good lessons-learned, and not all of them learned the hard way. So in the spirit of the ubiquitous listicles on the web, I present my top ten:

* Campus relationships are key. Some years back I wrote a “guest response” piece for ACRL that took a position — likely in the minority — questioning the value of faculty status for librarians. I would soften that view today to say, after the manner of Pope Francis, if it works for your institution, who am I to judge? However, I do stick by the point lurking under my piece: faculty status is not a substitute for building and maintaining strong relations with all stakeholders on campus–not just the faculty, but key departments such as advising, tutoring, writing studios, orientation, admissions, campus ministry, and especially, campus services. My library may be hurting for a renovation, but it’s clean and, for its age, well-maintained.

* Sticking around has value. Those relationships don’t happen overnight, so another happy re-discovery is the joy of longevity. If you’ve been in the same library thirty years you and I may have different definitions for that term, but this job rivals only my job managing Librarians’ Internet Index (RIP) for longevity, assuming we allow for my military service being a series of smaller jobs within a larger eight-year job. People have arrived, served the university well, and departed, all on my watch, and I’ve seen a lot of change, as well as some things come full circle. And I’m still here, plugging away at the big things and the small things alike.

* Managerial leadership can be learned (parts of it, anyway). I have learned a lot on the job. Nevertheless, the doctoral program is helping me from many angles. There is the direct classroom experience of highly practical classes on human resources, strategic finance, managing in a political environment, fundraising, and so on. Then there is the scholarly aspect: research, reading, and writing (rinse, repeat). While  there is no substitute for integrity, common sense, optimism, and collegiality, learning how to write a case statement for fundraising is not a bad thing at all.

* The organization comes first. This rule manifests itself in many ways big and small. The boss gotta be the boss.  I prefer to ask “How?” or say “Not now, but let’s find a way to do this,” but sometimes “no” is the correct answer. If a key stakeholder relationship has been damaged, I need to repair it, even if I have to grovel (and trust me, I’ve groveled). If constructive feedback is warranted, I need to provide it (though constant positive feedback is crucial, too). Using Heifetz’ analogy, it’s up to me to clamber up to the balcony every now and then to see what’s happening on the dance floor, and then adjust as needed.

* Do what needs doing. Every institution has its own reality. In our case, I found myself writing an evacuation procedure, purchasing additional emergency response gear in case the lower level was not accessible, and leading the entire library, including student workers, in active-shooter training.  I also ensure we regularly update a small printout of everyone’s non-MPOW phone numbers and email so we can contact one another in emergencies. Was all of that “my” job? Yes, some of it was, but more importantly, it is my job to ensure we are prepared for emergencies, and human safety is non-negotiable.

Make sure you’ve fulfilled the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In addition to improving our emergency response, in the last two years I’ve done what I could to make staff more comfortable and productive. The staff area, carved from a former “processing room,” is aesthetically sad, with worn cubicle panels, ugly tile, and hideous cabinets, but I patiently championed adding overhead fans to the staff area, which has increased staff comfort, and this summer the head of library IT and I built a “seated cost” budget plan to help us ensure staff are adequately equipped for their roles, with scheduled upgrades we can plan and budget for each year. Little things — a full-size fridge, a Keurig, a hydration station for filling water bottles — make a difference.

* Do what you can, and keep trying. As I wrote in 2012, I need to be mercilessly optimistic. Management and leadership have a certain household-laundry quality, with perpetual problems and challenges that mean the last sock is never washed. There are some big things that may not happen on my watch. But I don’t stop developing proposals and plans for improving the library that I share with key stakeholders, and this readiness, plus a variety of creative relationships, have led to improvements to the library, beginning with a refresh of the computers in that aging lab, on to a new reading area, to the first refresh of the furniture on the main level in the library’s 56 years. We’ve also increased our workforce in five years, and for that I can be justly proud, because our services define us.

Have fun with the silly stuff. Several months ago, the library — specifically, another librarian and I — were pulled into an elaborate time-sink of a project to secure permissions for an anthology of prayers and poetry the university will be self-publishing. I am here to tell you that most copyright workshops stop short of the truly practical guidance for permissions: how to chase down, stalk, wheedle, negotiate, and beg your way to get permissions for material, or even how to go back in a time machine, to when you first got wind of such a project, to insist that submissions be accompanied by little things such as authors, titles, and publishers. But as much as I grumble that this isn’t what I planned to do this summer, the reality is that our efforts are greatly appreciated, our guru-ness in copyright is further solidified, and the end result will be good.

Get (and maintain) a life. I have a loving spouse, two amusing cats, and a variety of interests, and oh yeah, a doctoral program.  I have heard about directors that work from dawn into the wee hours seven days a week, but I don’t know that their libraries are run any better than mine. I definitely put in my dues; I’m always the director, 24×7, and some periods are busier than others. But I’m no good to the institution if I’m frazzled and depleted. This has  also made me very selective with my speaking and conference activities, in part because I don’t want to be an absent boss, and also because catch-up is hell. Every once in a while I dose myself with “vitamin colleague,” checking in with peer directors for a phone call, Skype, or lunch, because there is some stuff I just can’t share with anyone else.

* Be fully present. Above, I referred to things happening “on my watch.” I have observed some directors take a job with their eyes fixed on their future goal (see above, “wanna be an ARL director”). I have seen others turn into what we called in the Air Force ROADies (for Retired On Active Duty). The sweet spot for me is to get in early every day, be present as much as possible, and be actively engaged with my role as library leader.

It’s possible to renew your present-ness. Last fall was a tough time: the second semester of the doctoral program was grueling, and there were other things going on at work that zombified me. I felt, later on, that I had checked out, even if I still got things done. But that was then and this is now. Nearly every day I drive through the gates of the university with a sense of anticipation;  to quote Thelma in Thelma and Louise, “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” (And if you’re tempted to make the inevitable “driving off a cliff” comment, remember that Thelma and Louise were choosing a life framed by that level of being present.) I am captaining a ship sailing toward our library’s vision, with my eye on the horizon as well as the decks, and I can feel the engines pulling us toward our future. It feels good.

ALA Annual 2014: Go on, Y’all

So some of you have probably heard I’m receiving the American Library Association Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change award, something that simultaneously  embarrasses and pleases me. The Awards Ceremony will be Sunday, June 29, 3:30- 4:00 p.m. – LVCC - N249. I would love to see you there, dear reader, but people have so many places to be at a conference. (Of course, showing up early for the awards means you get a good seat for Lois Lowry!) Your good thoughts are what are most important to me,  after Sandy being there — the most important thing. I am deeply  humbled to get this award and hope to keep honoring it for the rest of my career.

Here’s the rest of my schedule. I’m not on any committees or units until after Annual other than Council and Planning and Budget Assembly.  I’m looking forward to tripping the light fantastic with Sandy at ALA, serving on Council, and catching up with friends. On other fronts: work is good, school is good, life is good. I started my fourth semester at Simmons in late May. Like the third semester, it feels comfortable: a lot of work, but good work, without any confusion or stress.

Events that are a given are marked with an asterisk.

Ask the Experts: Discover key strategies for successful academic library fundraising
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 08:30am – 10:00am
Caesars Palace – Pompeian I

Executive Board Meeting (GLBTRT) – stop in to observe
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 08:30am – 11:30am
Las Vegas Convention Center – N229

ACRL President’s Program: Financial Literacy at Your Library
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 10:30am – 12:00pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N255/257
Presidents program

Assessment Discussion Group
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N110
Discussion/Interest group
Join us for a lively discussion about assessment and its role in academic library success!

* ALA Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 03:00pm – 04:30pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

* LIAL11 Meetup
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 05:00pm – 06:30pm
Firefly, 9560 W Sahara Ave, Las Vegas

* Simmons Reception
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 07:00pm – 08:30pm
LVH – Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, Suite 2983 3000 Paradise Rd.

* Super-secret Dinner Group
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 07:30pm – 10:00pm

* ALA Council I
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 08:30am – 11:00am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

* Award Rehearsal
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 11:45am – 12:30pm
LVCC – N249

* ALA Planning & Budget Assembly (PBA)
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Pavilion 04

* ALA Award Photo Session
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 02:15pm – 03:30pm
LVCC- N263c

* ALA Award Ceremony
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 03:30pm – 04:00pm
LVCC – N249

* ALA President’s Program featuring Lois Lowry
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 04:00pm – 05:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N249

* Awards Reception
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 05:30pm – 07:00pm
Las Vegas Convention Center Room – N263C

* Social (GLBTRT)
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 06:00pm – 08:00pm
The Center, 401 S. Maryland Pkwy, Las Vegas, NV 89101

http://www.thecenterlv.org/

ALA Council Forum I
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Ballroom F

* ALA Council II
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 08:30am – 11:30am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

Stonewall Book Awards Brunch (GLBTRT)
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 10:30am – 02:00pm
Paris – Champagne 1

Speaking About ‘The Speaker’
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N253
Program

* Beverage with A.
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 05:30pm – 06:30pm

ALA Council Forum II
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Ballroom F
Other
This meeting allows councilors an opportunity to discuss issues that they will face during this conference.

* ALA Council III
Tuesday, 07/01/2014 – 07:45am – 09:15am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North
Other
This is a meeting of the governing and policy making body of the association.

 

Next steps for PBA: Thoughts from one of “these people”

I had three sustained comments regarding the survey and analysis conducted this spring on the future of ALA’s Planning and Budget Assembly. The first comment, from an ALA thought leader I deeply respect, was to consider providing recommendations — hence, this post. The second was a thoughtful reflection on the Connect post.

The third comment, from a BARC representative, had me take a deep breath for a month:

“Honestly, I am incredulous that so much effort has been exerted on this issue.  Do these people have nothing more useful to do?”

As I politely explained to Mr. Big Britches, that is precisely the point. As one of “these people,” I do have better things to do than shuffle into a meeting room, spend nearly an hour in “introductions,” and then hear the same high-level budget information I just heard at Council.

In its current incarnation, PBA is intended to  be seen and not heard. This is an assembly that provides the gloss of transparency with none of the pesky mechanisms for meaningful input. As currently structured, PBA is a meeting designed (unintentionally or otherwise) to preclude meaningful analysis, discussion, and input. Requests for even the simplest communication mechanisms are rebuffed: though 97 percent of current PBA members believe a discussion list would be useful, again and again we are given quibbly reasons why it hasn’t been created. The only other communication mechanism provided to PBA is  a Connect group. My goodness, if I established the Tote Bag Roundtable, ALA would give it a list.

PBA meetings are time in my life I’ll never get back again. I am not expendable, and neither are the 85 other people who agree to serve on this assembly.  We don’t need to be condescended to with a sinecure; I look around at PBA meetings, and these are people who are making ALA happen. Equally meaningfully, I do not believe ALA’s budget and planning process would be harmed by more input from informed stakeholders.

Finally, ALA is not in any financial position to hang on to things that aren’t serving the needs of the membership. As I have said in countless keynotes, times of financial hardship offer opportunities for “controlled burns,” where we can kill off anything that isn’t relevant and can’t be coaxed into relevance.  The survey makes clear that PBA needs to improve or die — it’s that simple.

Here are my personal thoughts about the future of PBA. But what do others think? I’d like to hear from current and past PBA members, former treasurers, BARC, and Board members, what they think. Is it time to ask the big question: kill it or improve it?

If PBA is retained, it needs better ROI for its members and for ALA:
  • Establish a discussion list (97% of current PBA members agree ALA should do this
  • Provide new-member orientation
  • Restructure the assembly to create a leadership role
  • Hold PBA “town halls” prior to ALA; save meetings at ALA for real discussion
  •  Provide more, and better, budget input
  • Restructure PBA so it has a leader
If PBA is dissolved:
     There is value to disseminating high-level budget information to the stakeholders described by PBA.  Hold budget and planning “town halls” prior to ALA. Invite the same groups, just don’t call it an assembly, and dispense with any claim that PBA has a role in the budget and planning process.  If an opportunity comes up to engage a broader group of stakeholders, do it on an ad hoc basis.
I am contemplating a resolution for ALA Council to dissolve PBA. The reason I hesitate is I cannot find any positives to state in the “whereas” clauses. Whereas, ALA suffers from a surplus of informed input? Whereas, you are wasting our time?  Ironically, I may not be able to attend PBA, as I’m attending an awards ceremony on Sunday, but of course, there are no repercussions for not attending PBA — which tells you something right there. I’ll definitely be at Council, of course.
Comments? Thoughts? Oh — and big thanks to two other “these people,” Aaron Dobbs and Dr. Karen Downing, for their work on delivering and analyzing the PBA survey. Mr. Big Britches is correct: we all have plenty of other things to do with our time, and it took an extra huff of effort to get this survey analyzed before ALA’s spring meetings. But we care enough about ALA — the institution, and the people it represents — to dig deep and find that slice of time to make this happen.

FYI on PBA at ALA

Liberty Bell - from Wikipedia

Liberty Bell – from Wikipedia

I stayed in Philadelphia past ALA Midwinter for my third-semester doctoral program intensive until today, Sunday, February 2, so I’m just getting around to my post-ALA blogging.  What I’m writing about tonight, on my flight back to SFO, is a bit wonky. But stick with me, because if you’re an ALA member, it matters.

ALA has a unit called the Planning and Budget Assembly. Despite serving three previous terms on Council, I really never gave PBA much thought until last summer when I agreed to run for a position as one of its ALA Council representatives, who are elected by our Council peers. My interest was really piqued when an ALA member I respect greatly took me aside to warn me not to waste my time on PBA. I almost took that advice, but in the end, I’m glad I pressed on anyway.

I was swept into office with a grand 93 votes–hey, you laugh, but I was the top vote-getter. (I recited that from memory while composing this over  sluggish in-flight wifi, and now I am worrying there will be a scandal in which it turns out I actually received 91 votes and will have to go on an Apology Tour.)

The charge to PBA is “To assist the ALA Executive Board and the Budget Analysis and Review Committee (BARC), there shall be a Planning and Budget Assembly which shall consist of one representative of each division, ALA committee, round table, and five councilors-at-large and five councilors from chapters.” There are other fiscal units–besides BARC, a very important fiscal unit is the Finance and Audit Committee of ALA’s Executive Board–but PBA does, after all, exist, at least on paper.

First, I’d like to point out how huge PBA is. At least by headcount, it’s about 80 delegates, not including ALA staff. Additionally, the PBA assembly, taken together, is comprised of some of the best, most seasoned minds in ALA. I am in complete awe of the potential force of this assembly, and in theory, I could learn quite a bit from the questions they ask or the observations they make. Based on both their ALA work and the work they do in their libraries, they are extremely well-positioned to provide commentary and planning advice on ALA’s next steps in light of the fiscal challenges ALA has faced in the past five-plus years of recession and changing information patterns: staffing cutbacks, frozen salaries, creeping workload, sinking revenues.

But PBA’s rather exceptional group of people is not actually empowered to do anything other than be herded into a room twice a year and then read condensed highlights from various reports (reports, no less, that a number of us have already had read to us at Saturday’s Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session).

It’s diagnostic of PBA’s dilemma that there is no onboarding for PBA, its charge is vague, and there’s no direction for what PBA is to do once it has attended these twice-yearly meetings. For ALA Midwinter, a PBA meeting that everyone knew would attract strong participation, we had a one-hour session in which we were squeezed into a  room for a group half our size, asked to do introductions (which of course took a while), then read to from reports that had been read from at Saturday’s . We had exactly 5 minutes at the end for “discussion.”

Structurally, there’s no way this assembly of close to 100 people can use this format to “assist” other ALA units.  Symbolically, the message is clear: PBA is to be seen and not heard.

Other shenanigans have bordered on silly. PBA members have no easy method for communicating as a group. We are emailed in a couple of reply-all batches. When I asked ALA several weeks back to create a Sympa discussion list for PBA, I encountered pushback.

I get that every new mailing list creates overhead, but PBA is the only governance unit denied such a list, and far more human labor has been spent stonewalling the creation of this discussion list than would have been expended just making it happen. Why, you’d think they were concerned about some activist PBA member stirring the pot and encouraging PBA members to, you know, talk amongst themselves about the future of PBA! I was assured at Midwinter that ALA will in fact create a discussion list, and I’ll let you know if that does or doesn’t happen.

In any event, it’s time to make PBA useful or kill it off. As I wrote on Council list, “I don’t want to speak for everyone on Council, but it seems safe to say that there was general agreement that the Planning and Budget Assembly has untapped potential, and that its present composition and charge and how that charge is interpreted and acted upon are not useful to ALA or to the members of the assembly. In particular, to paraphrase something Mary Ghikas said months back, PBA’s potential role in planning has not been leveraged. To be more blunt, you’re welcome to dismiss me but don’t also waste my time while you’re doing it.

But the good news about PBA is, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, there is a fork in the road, and we plan to take it.

Council has informal sessions it calls Forums. These sessions, which are open meetings, are opportunities to discuss matters before Council in a relaxed, conversational manner, outside the framework of parliamentary procedure. Council Forum II, held Monday night, concluded with an extremely resonant, thoughtful, and engaged conversation about PBA.  Maybe it’s a question of my own personal motivation—I have spent a year asking questions about the ALA budget, starting in January 2013 when I expressed concern about projected revenues from RDA—but I felt really attuned to the conversation that flowed among  former treasurers, Executive Board members, BARC-ers, and new and seasoned Councilors.

I originally thought I would head to Council Forum II with a proposal for a presidential task force on fiscal communication. But I forced myself to spend a few hours reviewing earlier ALA presidential task forces, and I learned something worth heeding: if you want to keep membership at bay on an issue, form a presidential task force. Let them have their meetings, their special sessions, their lovely dinners. Let them spend years crafting their long, carefully-considered reports. The recommendations rarely get implemented. It was disturbing to confirm another Councilor’s observation that one task force we had served on for two years had simply disappeared into an ALA Vortex.

Thinking a presidential task force is going to “fix” an ALA issue is like thinking a dues increase is going to have a significant impact on ALA’s fiscal situation. You do realize that the long-debated dues increase voted in last year will only marginally affect the ebb and tide of ALA’s revenue/expenditure stream? Ah, maybe you only thought dues made a huge difference.  Dues matter, but only to a point, and are eclipsed by other revenue streams. For example, almost half of ALA’s revenue comes from publishing.

Instead, I dialed back to a proposal for a simple resolution specific to PBA to be brought to Council, and that, among many other things, is what will be moving forward. LITA Councilor Aaron Dobbs and I are co-workerbees on this project, and we’ve already begun developing timelines and deliverables. There will be widening circles of engagement and crowdsourcing, from us to PBA to Council and beyond. A rough preliminary goal is to have a resolution ready for BARC and other units to discuss at ALA’s spring meetings in April. In addition to round-robining versions of this resolution, we’re hoping to hold a virtual Council Forum session before then to get additional input.

There are ancillary ideas that may emerge in parallel with this work. For example, I keep floating the idea of holding the Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session online, at least two weeks prior to ALA. We have the technology to do this, and “flipping” this session would give people a chance to hear, process, think, ask a few questions, and come prepared to have real conversations about ALA.  In the Council Forum discussion, wise librarians of all ages also shared ideas and insights about what they would like to see from fiscal documents, and we were also reminded of the excellent ALA Financial Learning series of short videos.

 Not everyone thinks my focus on PBA and ALA’s fiscal condition is a good idea; I heard as much from one colleague at Midwinter.  But I can tell you that based on the phone calls and email and meetups I have had over the past year with people I truly respect—many of whom have currently or previously held distinguished positions among the ALA membership—engaging with the problem of how members engage with ALA in the budget and planning processes is an honorable investment of effort.

 

 

Conduct Unbecoming (a Library Conference)

Samuel Johnson ponders ALA's Code of Conduct

Samuel Johnson ponders ALA’s Code of Conduct

A passel of librarians just did two very cool things. First they pulled together on their own to synthesize existing American Library Association policies to create a code of conduct “statement” for ALA conferences — an action that makes ALA a safer space for people vulnerable to harassment. Then these librarians worked through the system to get ALA’s Executive Board to approve the statement. Andromeda Yelton, ALA member, was the lead “macher” for the CoC.

For an excellent round-up of current and contextual articles and commentary on the CoC, see Lisa Rabey’s blog post.

Needless to say, once these cool things happened, Complaints Were Voiced. These complaints fell into  three categories:

  • ALA policy should ONLY come through ALA Council
  • A code of conduct is unnecessary
  • A code of conduct conflicts with ALA’s principles of intellectual freedom

Point 1: On statements versus policy

I begin with the first objection, which surfaced on the ALA Council list, only so I can immediately correct the errors of fact. As any number of people have pointed out, the Code of Conduct is not “policy.” It is an amalgamation of existing policy and procedure reinterpreted to apply to conference behavior. ALA has a long tradition of developing interpretations of existing policy and procedures, and it would seriously hobble the work of committees and other ALA units if every interpretation or statement had to be voted on, particularly by a body, such as ALA Council, which meets twice a year and spends far too much time in its own version of Groundhog Day, flogging the same toothless resolutions for hours on end.

There was a sub-objection under the “policy” discussion that the conversation about the CoC should have been brought to Council’s attention.  Another error of fact: Executive Board was aware of this conversation and voted on it to boot, as it votes on many things that need attention between ALA conferences or is otherwise on their agenda. The Executive Board “is” ALA to a great extent; the Executive Director reports to the EB, and Council elects EB to do that work. The “conversation” argument also has poor moral standing because Council does not go to great lengths to make its own deliberations accessible, as I have been pointing out for many years.

In terms of political strategery, I’m divided. On the one hand, bringing more people into the fold on the discussion might have made the CoC less of a bad surprise and reduced the NIH (Not Invented Here) reaction of some Councilors. On the other hand, I have seen Council take something lucid and spot-on and timely and either send the poor thing into indefinite and infernal referral Purgatory or hack it into unintelligible word pudding. (Or both.)

If I got my modified Delorean DMC-12 out of the garage, I would drive back to the moment where the statement was almost ready (which I was oblivious to at that historical moment, having a few months back said “oh yes, such a thing needs to be done,” and then trotting off to other things while Andromeda et al actually DID it). Then I would  encourage Andromeda et al to launch a sotto voce campaign among a broader circle of ALA folk, using those ancient but honorable mechanisms of email and even telephones to share ideas, if only so that some of us would not end up simultaneously absorbing and defending the CoC. But this isn’t a criticism of the CoC, only an observation on building buy-in.

Finally, as I said on the Council list, Andromeda et al. did exactly what ALA members should do: they gathered together to take action on an issue, leveraging both their own group processes and their ability to communicate within ALA’s bureaucracy. They did it in a modern meetup style, coalescing around an idea, creating ad-hoc virtual space, and finishing their project on a timeline that met their other objectives, and that’s how these folk roll.

Note that this form of activity has interesting implications for considering the recruitment and retention of future ALA members. The traditional committee structure has its value, but the maxim that for each and every idea or project there must be an equal and opposite committee should be looked at very closely, particularly as we seek ways to streamline ALA so it can rebuild itself to fighting strength and also to help ALA attract and retain newer librarians. John Chrastka had a fresh mindset during his tenure as head of ALA’s member development and proposed different ways of involvement, but I got the sense he wearied of fighting City Hall.

Point 2: on the necessity of a code of conduct.

Besides, if anyone on Council felt that invested in a conference Code of Conduct, they should have made themselves useful and taken this on a long, a very very very very very VERY VERY VERY!!!!!! long, time ago — this, the governing body that only takes action at ALA’s annual and midwinter conferences. How typical of Council to emulate Samuel Johnson’s view of patrons of the arts: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?”

Johnson aside, the initial and subsequent reactions from some pundits explains why this CoC is necessary: because they thought otherwise.

When the CoC was announced, Will Manley posted a blistering renunciation of the Code of Conduct to his blog, which his inner circle of devotees lapped up. No surprise there. I can’t link  to the post, though Lisa Rabey has a cached version, because after the tables began turning, and people used the comment function on his blog post to defend the CoC, Will finally surprised me: he shut down his blog.

Nobody asked Will Manley to shut down his blog.  I’ve been ruminating about his action for some time. What I get from his action, in the end, is that codes of conduct work. They work by pointing out that not all conduct is ok. They work by speaking truth to power. They work by shaking up mindsets. They work by acknowledging historical wrongs. They work by saying, no, this is not your space, it’s OUR space, and we have a right to be safe in that space. We have a right to that space. All of us.  And if you do that thing you know is wrong to do, you are now accountable for your actions. When that is said out loud, there are those who will gather up their toys and go home, and to them I say: don’t let the door hit you in the butt.

You don’t have to know explicit sexual harassment to get what I’m saying about “space.” The sexual action is just a mechanism; aggressive space cooptation takes all forms.  If you’ve ever had to squeeze your female body into a bus or airline seat next to a man who was sitting legs akimbo, jiggling his foot in your face, pressing his elbow into your bosom, you know what I am talking about. If you’ve ever sat on a committee or participated in a discussion list where you had to fight to be heard because men immediately commandeered the airspace (“Yes! Feminism is important! Let me spend the next 20 minutes explaining why…”), you know what I mean. If you’ve ever had the uncomfortable realization on a subway train or bus that the object pressing against your behind was not someone’s flashlight, you are nodding with me.

I have never experienced harassment at a conference other than heckling (which I’ll get to a bit later). But as a woman and a lesbian, I know harassment exists, and I’ve personally experienced it in a variety of settings.

The most blatant harassment I ever experienced happened in the military, when I was a captain stationed overseas at an airbase where the current regime was morally bankrupt. The harassment I experienced was a weirdly indirect “forced viewing,” in which a senior officer would habitually make highly sexualized references about two enlisted women in their, and my, presence, fully confident I wouldn’t talk back to a senior officer. When a new commander took over promising to right a lot of wrongs, I reported this captain’s behavior and requested a move to another unit. The move was granted without comment. Fortunately for the two young women left behind, the captain had orders for another assignment, and quickly left. Within a year he was promoted to major.

My story is hardly unique, and that’s the point: harassment is endemic to our culture. People who harass do so knowing this, and knowing that in many cases, they will not be held accountable. People have been harassed at ALA conferences for being female, transgender, differently-abled, of color — you name it. Andromeda brought this issue to her ALA peers because it had become a crusade in the tech conference world, where women were pushing back on the many ways men had used sexual power to diminish the space for women at conferences and in their profession. It wasn’t even a new issue for library conferences; Code4Lib, for example, had created a CoC a while back. It was just new for ALA conferences.

Point 3: The code of conduct and intellectual freedom

Boy howdy do I love it when men assert their right to pinch women’s behinds and frame it in the context of keeping information free.  This brain-free nattering underscores exactly why codes of conduct are important. If you make the tremendous effort to actually read the 575 words in the Code of Conduct (which I have pasted at the end of this post, copied from my registration form for ALA Annual), you will see that as long as you aren’t a butt-smacking, “flashlight”-poking, sexist-comment-making galoot determined to make restrooms inaccessible for transgender attendees (and yes, that happened at an ALA conference, by a contractor for a conference center), you will be empowered, not limited, by the CoC. If you are such a galoot, guess what: you’re on notice.

Finally, a word about heckling. My first take on the CoC’s statements about heckling were that it too strong. I have been heckled twice at library conferences. Once was during the Internet Filtering Wars, when in a talk I proffered my opinion that filtering computers used by very young children was not a bad idea, which ran up against the “all filtering: BAD” position of ALA’s intellectual freedom establishment. It was helpful to see how strongly these opinions were held (strong enough that a woman stood up, I assume so her lungs could gather enough air to REALLY TELL ME HOW SHE FELT), and frankly, the heckling caused me no damage.

The other heckling incident was at Code4Lib, where a man began shouting at me when I compared open source software to free kittens. He did not yell “Liar!” in the manner of Wilson insulting the President, but he was clearly angry and in disagreement, and felt that his opinion needed to be made available to the (largely white male) crowd, right there at that point in my talk. In the time since that has happened I’ve approached it with a sense of humor, but the farther I get from this incident — and it has stayed with me a long time — the more I wonder why I couldn’t be allowed to finish my keynote before we had a Time of Sharing.

Someone on Facebook (I don’t remember who) commented that the difference was whether the heckler was “punching up.” In the first case, an ALA member with strong feelings shared her opinion. In the second, it’s sometimes hard to say where “up” is, but if you’re one of a handful of women in a room with several hundred men, it probably doesn’t rest with you.

Finally, I know the CoC is important because as soon as it was announced, a man who hadn’t done anything on this project immediately took credit for it. No really — that happened. It happened in a private discussion that shall not be quoted from, and as soon as it happened I did that thing I hate doing, which is how I know it needs to be done, which is to say “No, actually, it happened this way, and these people were involved,” and that of course was enough to nip that in the bud. But hey, the CoC was an idea worth stealing.

ALA’s CoC is not set in stone. Like all interpretations of policy, it can and will change as we and our world change. You don’t have to agree with every word of the CoC to pick up your registration badge and participate in the conference. But the world is just a little better, a little more right, a little more safe, because ALA’s CoC exists.

The ALA Code of Conduct (copied from the ALA Annual online registration form) 

The American Library Association holds professional conferences and meetings to enable its members to receive continuing education, build professional networks, and discover new products and services for professional use. To provide all participants – members and other attendees, speakers, exhibitors, staff and volunteers – the opportunity to benefit from the event, the American Library Association is committed to providing a harassment-free environment for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, physical appearance, ethnicity, religion or other group identity.As an association, ALA is strongly committed to diversity, equity and the free expression of ideas. These values have been repeatedly delineated in ALA policy (for instance: Policy A.1.4 – Core Organizational Values; Policy B.1.1 – Core Values of Librarianship; Policy B.1.2 – Code of Professional Ethics). Taken cumulatively, the values and beliefs delineated within ALA policy describe conduct based on a firm belief in the value of civil discourse and the free exploration of competing ideas and concepts – with a fundamental respect for the rights, dignity and value of all persons.Within the context of ALA policy and the professional practices of librarianship, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment. Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all.

Some behaviors are, therefore, specifically prohibited:
Harassment or intimidation based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status.
Sexual harassment or intimidation, including unwelcome sexual attention, stalking (physical or virtual), or unsolicited physical contact.
Yelling at or threatening speakers (verbally or physically).

Speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others. Participants may – and do – exercise the “law of two feet.” [kgs edit: I added a link, as I was unfamiliar with this concept.] Exhibitors must follow all ALA Exhibits rules and regulations and ALA policies.

All participants are expected to observe these rules and behaviors in all conference venues, including online venues, and conference social events. Participants asked to stop a hostile or harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.

Conference participants seek to learn, network and have fun. Please do so responsibly and with respect for the right of others to do likewise.Please contact Conference Services staff in the ALA Office at conference if you believe you have been harassed or that a harassment problem exists. All such reports will be directed immediately to the Director of Conference Services, who will determine and carry out the appropriate course of action, and who may consult with and engage other ALA staff, leaders and legal counsel as appropriate. Event security and/or local law enforcement may be involved, as appropriate based on the specific circumstances. A follow-up report will be made to individuals who report being harassed.Prior to each ALA Midwinter Meeting and ALA Annual Conference, ALA Conference Services will make the following information available:
Information on how to report incidents of any sort to Conference Management (telephone, room location)
Emergency contact information:
Venue (convention center, hotel) security
Local law enforcement, emergency and non-emergency
Local emergency and non-emergency medical information
Local taxi company(s)
Other local services, e.g. hotlines

Postcards from the underworld: Doctoral program, semester 2

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map

Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map

I was told this, my second semester, would be the hardest, and by gum, they delivered. For a lot of reasons, this was a heck of a time, an overload of schoolwork in the midst of a crisis at work that left me sleepless and scrambling for weeks on end.

But I’m done. When I received my grade on one overwhelming project I expressed relief to one cohort colleague, who replied, “Welcome to the Fraternal Order of Slackers.” Yes, it was not a grade commensurate of my other academic achievements. But I advanced to the next semester and this is my last degree and I’m too old to be grounded, so I just don’t care.

The big lesson I was reminded of for this semester came from a recent grad in our program with a gift for summarizing our experience: “Perseverance through high drama.”  I can dig it! The second big lesson: during this break I am lowering the flame under the kettle, but I’m not turning off the stove. It was wonderful to “have a life” after the first semester, but it’s a doctoral program, not elementary school. I need to keep my brain, and my projects, at a steady simmer, percolating away at various activities, and  ready to kick it up a notch when the third semester begins.  So along with resting and celebrating and whatnot, I’ll do some research and thinking and reading.

The three really big plusses for me for the second semester semester were first, getting into the groove on topics that excited me, second, having a Hail-Mary save on an assignment I had no background for (thank you Kara, amazing stats tutor at Holy Names), and third, having yet another Hail-Mary save just five days before my big assignment was due when I realized — in a flash of insight while driving on the Redwood Highway near Guerneville, an epiphanal moment so deep and striking I had to pull over — that this 45-page article proposal  had major structural flaws and needed to be reorganized from soup to nuts. I could even see how it needed to be reorganized: my brain, in this moment, was my own private Marauder’s Map.

I also traveled deep, deep into the heart of grounded theory, as well as into theories of social influence. Though maybe the most delicious moment came when my research converged with the writings of Rensis Likert, who deserves a better Wikipedia page than the one I linked to.

Once upon a time I learned about Likert scales when I met a consultant, Dr. Alison Head (before her Project Information Literacy days), who helped me develop surveys for the project I managed. She knows far more than I ever will, but I learned a little. It never occurred to me that “Likert” was a real person, and one who on paper, at least, seems like a mensch.

Studying Likert in the context of his era is interesting. I have been delving into the literature of leadership in the context of the LGBT experience, which is a very small body of literature indeed, though that has its advantages.

I became interested in grounded theory when I realized that far too many leadership “theories” felt specious, particularly when viewed by anything other than a “majority” perspective.  These theories either have an innate emptiness — q.v. “resonant leadership,” in which leaders benefit by practicing “mindfulness, hope, and compassion,” a cheerful thought, but one that cannot be reliably traced along an evidentiary path explaining the origins of these three emotional behaviors  – or fluffily prescribe practices such as “Bring more of yourself to work,” which rests on assumptions that are almost laughable when viewed through the lens of race, gender, sexual identity, or other “otherness.”

LGBT status is a “concealable difference” (at least in theory), and a fascinating area to study. (I am fighting the urge to add a footnote or two here.) People who elect to conceal their differences do so for many reasons, but one reason is to present one’s self as the de facto standard, that is, the norm — which proves the power and privilege issues raised by Cecily Walker in an elegant blog post.

Cecily was responding to a blog post written in what I think of as “Should-Speak,” in which someone from the “default” tells others what they “should” do (if a pointing finger is not actually present, I see one in my mind). In this case, the blogger had warned librarians that “if you step outside of the people’s expectations as to how [insert your kind of librarian] should look it’s going to take work to show them that you are a competent professional.”

Andy Woodworth was probably referring to things like unusual hair color or dress choices, but the twist on that statement, however casually or facetiously made,  is what it looks like from other sides of the power struggle. As Cecily argues, in the case of immutable distinctions such as race, “When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.”

LGBT leadership research is interesting to me for more than just the most obvious reason (I love to research myself, just as I love watching myself on those TV cameras in store lobbies–after a while, Sandy shouts, “Stop watching yourself!”).  It’s also an area of research that inevitably overlaps with many other conversations, such as the one Cecily launched. When you research “otherness,” you open doors into entirely new ways of looking at the world.

One of my favorite discoveries during the research process this fall was a dissertation about openly LGBT university presidents. The investigator, Eric Bullard, had intended to use the lens of Queer Theory for his research, a theoretical approach that is too complex to describe here but includes the idea that sexual identity is constructed. I’ll resist the temptation to comment on the dangerous allure of the poststructuralist sirens to junior researchers, and focus instead on Bullard’s conclusion that “Queer Theory may not have been the best theoretical lens through which to view the experiences of out gay and lesbian higher education presidents.”

Bullard noted that the presidents were heavily invested in being perceived as “just like their heterosexual counterparts.”  I chuckle every time I re-read this, because it makes perfect sense that these smart, striving higher-ed types were invested in being LGBT equivalents of Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver (I recently viewed the first episode of Leave it to Beaver, so I speak with great authority on this matter). It takes a lot of emotional, intellectual, and physical labor to demonstrate that you’re university president material, and it’s even harder to do that when your innate self is not congruent with “people’s expectations.”

That said, major props to the author for even taking on this topic, and for being attuned to the intersectionalities that surfaced in the research process, particularly gender and sexual orientation. It was very moving to hear the stories of university presidents, such as the gay male president who was mocked for “redecorating” after implementing a physical plant improvement early in his administration, and the female president’s conclusion that “sexual orientation is really about gender. It’s misogyny. The problem for [lesbian] women is how can you get along without a man? And for [gay] men the problem is someone is perceived as acting like a woman.”  I know there were many criticisms of Denise Denton, the UC Santa Cruz president who was young, inexperienced, and openly lesbian, but however flawed her leadership may have been — and I have no real insight into the matter — whether or not she outwardly acknowledged it, she was shouldering quite a burden during her tenure.

Twenty years ago, in our field, library science, James Carmichael was soldiering on with research and findings similar to Bullard’s; in a random sampling of male members of ALA, Carmichael found that nearly two-thirds of the 482 respondents agreed that they “recognized a male librarian stereotype which corresponded to the negative female stereotype” and was “effeminate, probably gay.” There’s a whole lot of confirmatory research on the extent to which people confound gender and sexual identity, but it’s impressive that a researcher in my field was working on this problem two decades ago. (Whoops, had that footnote urge again.)

Anyway, my last thought I’ll share via this potluck blog post has more to do on the meta level. It’s so wonderful we have self-publishing avenues such as blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. There’s  a constant slipstream of thinking and discussion that just wasn’t available prior to the Internet. I’ve been blogging for over a decade, and though my blogging is something I now squeeze between semesters, I appreciate the ability to write and be read outside of the “scholarly” canon, and I appreciate the discourse.

Project Info Lit and the “Ginormous” Problem

 

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Project Information Literacy has once again dug deep into information behavior, turning some of our assumptions upside down while showing that others have grains of common-sense truth. (Full disclosure: I’m on the PIL Board; my compensation is the ability to say “I’m on the PIL Board.”)

As a librarian, my default approach is that more is always better: more books, more metadata, more databases.  In my doctoral studies, more, for me, is wonderful, and I’m unfazed, indeed delighted, by the sheer width of the river of information I’m fording. Navigating all that stuff is the least of my problems. In fact, looking back at the doctoral program orientation, I recall turning up my nose at a handout listing a few useful but rather obvious databases, because, for heaven’s sake, I know that stuff.

But PIL’s latest study, “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,” underscores that more, from the perspective of an incoming freshman, is a complex, scary, and not necessarily good thing. The report notes, “In their words, the college library had a collection that was ‘ginormous’ and there was ‘a ton of stuff,’ including both online and on-site resources.”

The sheer scale of the difference between high school and college is illuminated through students’ own words: “the majority of freshmen used dichotomous pairs of words to describe their  feelings: overwhelming and exciting, overwhelming and amazing, scary and exciting, and  stressful and competitive.”

What can we do better during this critical period? It caught mey attention that “Freshmen said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research.” We know from earlier PIL studies, quoted in this report, that later in the university experience, librarians rank 17 out of 18 among resources students will turn to for help.  Somewhere in that transition is a lost opportunity.

I particularly admire how the study confirms the “ginormous” problem by comparing the limited array of resources available to high school students to the resources available in universities. Barbara Fister notes that we “already know” that the college experience is much more complex, but we tend to “forget” this fact.

Without data, this exponential increase in complexity is only a truism; but PIL’s research confirms this as an actual problem. A high school library may have a couple of databases; where I work, we trumpet that we have over sixty, and if we were a fancy school, you could multiply that five-fold. Even if high school students wanted to ramp up to college-level work, they don’t have the tools to do so. Furthermore, they have no awareness of the scale of college-level information resources.

It had never occurred to me that when we crow about the bazillion resources we offer, we might be scaring the pants off students, and yet, without any context for all this new stuff, how could it not? This may be even more true in California, where there is no mandate for school libraries in public schools, and funding for school libraries is abysmal.

By the time students get to college, the report notes, students have been strongly acculturated to relying on Google and other non-scholarly resources, a process that they may associate with success — because, after all, they made it to  college. But as we know from instruction and other interactions with students and as this report makes clear, freshmen are ill-equipped to formulate search queries or evaluate information — a situation only exacerbated by rolling out barrels of “stuff” and heralding this as exclusively a good thing.

The report’s chart comparing the resources students have in high school versus college nails this sobering reality and gives us a concrete reminder that those students are complex human beings undergoing a huge, jolting life transformation — one that a one-shot instruction session can only begin to address.

The report also made me reflect on the importance of convincing faculty of the value of information literacy. Students interact with instructors far more than they ever will with librarians, a level of influence we cannot hope to match.

Like most libraries, where I work we are not uniformly successful in persuading instructors of the value of our services. I once tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a particular professor of the value of having a librarian come to his class to share how to find and use information for the assignments (I know, crazy concept, right?). After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the professor said, as if to prove his point that such a session would be useless, “Look, I bring them to the computer classroom and tell them to search for an hour, and at the end of that hour they aren’t any better at searching!” Yet I wasn’t able to convince him to once, just once, embed a librarian’s session in his class to help his students become “better.” Perhaps this report can be a pathway to a new conversation.

There are excellent recommendations in this report, and each one struck a bell. The first recommendation talks about building bridges between high school and college experiences. Our university has an “early admit” program which helps prepare students for the higher-education experience. A couple of years ago, when the program was getting started, I suggested we embed librarians in that process. I’m going to reopen that suggestion–this time, armed with a report that helps me make this case–and see if I can get some traction.

The second recommendation boils down to Patti Ianuzzi’s advice: don’t teach the databases; teach transferable skills. Of course, that means focusing on how librarians teach. Like many library directors in universities where the focus is on student learning, I care deeply about information literacy, and 100% of our instructional librarians have attended the very high-quality “teach the teacher” program, ACRL Immersion (yes, that means all two of them–but still!).

Immersion is not the only path to enhancing instructional skills, but it’s an important one. I’d dearly like to see a regional Immersion in California, and I know a couple more administrators who feel the same way. I’ve tried through a couple of avenues that didn’t quite pan out, but I haven’t given up on the idea; I’ll just keep beating on this problem with a stick. Let me know if you’d like to pick up a stick and join me.

The final recommendations in the report call on us to “reframe … expectations of today’s freshmen.” Thank you, PIL! I wish I had a nickel for every time the phrase “digital native” cropped up in promotional material for universities. You don’t hear librarians using that phrase because we understand how ridiculous it is. Refreshingly, PIL’s report strongly discourages this mindset — “It is incorrect to assume that because most of today’s freshmen grew up with a thriving Internet at their fingertips, they are naturals at college-level research” – and recommends bringing more comprehensive research instruction across the curriculum, asking,”Why not integrate advising and training into the course from librarians?”

Many of us see this as a goal, and we chip away at it, but the assumption that college students do not need early and persistent guidance in the use of information, coupled with a lack of understanding of the value librarians bring to that equation, lies sotto voce under too many practices in higher education.

One of the things I appreciate about working in a teaching university is that, paradoxically enough, the fact that we are not a research institution makes teaching research skills more important; we’ve made inroads with information literacy that might not have been possible in a university where student learning — the presumed end-goal of higher education — was lost in the shuffle.  I just passed my four-year anniversary at my job, and as I watch the renaissance of the library and the impact we have on student learning, I am increasingly convinced that all roads lead to information literacy. If I can’t map a service to student learning, we might as well not be doing it.

At the same time, all of us can do more, particularly with finding methods for embedding librarians in students’ research workflows.  A parishioner said in church this Sunday, “We are very good at being welcoming, but we are not so good at being inviting.” Similarly, for many libraries, the model of support is based on actively reaching out to faculty members through a liaison model for instruction, but research help (aka reference) — the more informal relationship outside of the classroom — frequently has a more passive design.

Even where libraries do everything they can to build relations with the campus community, when it comes to diagnosis and treatment for information “problems” — the hallmark of a profession, so saith Andrew Abbott in The System of Professions — by and large, librarians wait to be approached by students. Yet PIL’s data on the disconnect between librarians and students during the course of a four-year education suggests this model isn’t working for us.

The director of our university’s new, and highly successful, advising center recently spoke to our faculty senate about the relationships they had built and planned to build. The library was on their “to-do” list, which pleased me. As the director talked, I reflected that the center’s existing relationships are based on a model of diagnosis and identification: for example, math and writing problems are referred to math and writing tutors.

After the presentation, I approached the director and commented that the library could come up with methods for clarifying when and how to make a referral to a librarian (an “information tutor”). This idea was well-received, and I brought it up on the ACRL College Library Section email list, where it had more discussion. This is just one small example of how librarians can rethink how we reach out to students grappling with all the challenges the college experience introduces, “ginormous” and otherwise. And we have PIL to thank for providing us robust data and head-turning insights to help us get there.

Lessons Learned from the First Semester

Tater tot

Tater tot

So I’ve been planning a catch-up post following the conclusion of my first semester in the doctoral program. All is well… learning and growing… though there are some lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Have a life between semesters. Before the first semester I “studied” things that ultimately didn’t prove relevant. When the semester ended, I made sure I had my textbooks purchased and articles downloaded for this semester, then shifted my focus to my personal life, where I did everything from museum trips to replacing the little bulbs over the stove to tossing files to making gallon batches of bolognese sauce and three-gallon batches of coconut porter. I bought a car. I read a pile of books. I cleaned carpets, updated my office wardrobe, saw movies in a real theater, and had oysters on the Embarcadero with Sandy. And oh right, got married!  That left plenty of time for a reentry period where I could read assigned materials and reflect about the upcoming semester.

Lesson #2: Find pleasure in the process. My pleasure is a) the relationships with other students and faculty, and b) the relationships with others in the research communities, and c) learning in general. When I read something that strikes a chord, I write the author and thank them, and sometimes that sparks an interesting conversation on its own. (This is why I found it odd when a professor at MPOW told me the process was lonely. Writing is a conversation… a very long conversation at that.)

Lesson #3: Cooperate and graduate. Also known as, “It’s all about the tam.” It’s like Officer Training School: there are many times when mine is not to question why (and attending two military training camps in my life has been useful for that lesson). Either the guidance and direction will prove correct in the long run, or it won’t, but it is what it is.

Lesson #4: Take care of my body. It’s physically challenging to work full-time and be a doctoral student. I did everything I could to carve out time for moderate exercise, even if I felt like a zombie on the treadmill. But being sedentary adds up. Two weeks after my last paper I was 5 pounds lighter, thanks to a brief no-carb regimen and overall more activity, and I felt better overall. I suspect that will be a cycle throughout the program. What can I say? The occasional Tater Tot lightens the darkness.

Lesson #5: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. I’ve had all kinds of advice about when to do schoolwork. I’ve tried getting up early (keep in mind I get to work by 7 am), staying up late (9 pm is late for me!), spending one or two weeknights in a coffee shop… what works for me is to slog through work during the week, ensuring I have a minimum of weekend spillover, and then knuckle down over the weekend. I start early and work until almost-dinner, and then I knock off. My body has its own rhythm, and barring the occasional midweek emergency edit, or a second wind on a Wednesday when I can do a couple hours at Starbucks, that’s that.

Lesson #6: Be forthright about my delicate condition. Early in the semester, a respected colleague at another institution with whom I was collaborating on a work-related project began writing me on Saturday mornings, and it became clear the weekend was his preferred time for working on this project. I finally said, I cannot do this on the weekend; that time is now allotted for doctoral studies. He took it in stride. (I think.) I bring my day-job work home when I have to, including the weekend, and I work a full day and then some, but working-as-a-fun-weekend-hobby has ended for me, if it ever existed.

I also let other people know that I’m more tired and less focused than usual. (My boss says PhD stands for “Pooped, Harried, and Distracted.”) They deserve to know what they’re dealing with.

Lesson #7: Throttle back. I was invited to an event marking the 10-year anniversary of the decision on the Children’s Internet Protection Act. I struggled with complicated feelings and turned to a respected colleague who pointed out that I was asking permission not to go. These conflicts are hard for me; I want to be on the dais making references to all the important work I did back in the day. But I have one body, one job, one family, and only so many hours in a day, and I had been given very good advice to Not Take On Anything New (waving at Candy and Jennifer). In the end, not going ensured I had that extra chunk of time, energy, and focus I needed to get to the finish line my first semester — a little early, in fact.

Lesson #8: Retrieve and organize anything remotely useful. Refworks and Dropbox are my dear, dear, DEAR friends. (Dropbox has been for a while.)  I am already reaping the rewards of this discipline.

Lesson #9: Don’t bop around from topic to topic. This is not my personal advice; this comes from nearly everyone I know who has a PhD, or is a doctoral student. Thank you and so noted.

Lesson #10: Librarians rock. There’s this librarian at Simmons who has offered the most amazing help! I consider myself a reasonably decent searcher, but there are times when I hit a wall or need affirmation that I’m in the right direction.  If you can imagine how much a librarians’ librarian needs to know, that’s the kind of resource she is. Thanks, Linda!

 

Our surfer-dude wedding

So nearly 22 years after we met and almost 9 years to the day our marriage was invalidated, Sandy and I were married on August 30, 2013, at the foot of the surfer dude statue in Santa Cruz, an event officiated by our friend Dinah, witnessed by her spouse Gail, and accompanied by Sandy’s pastor friend David, as people waved and clapped from cars rolling by on West Cliff Drive.

Marriage Dinner

Marriage Dinner

Friends can be forgiven for thinking we were already legally married. We did marry in San Francisco in 2004, but that marriage was invalidated several months later when it was determined that San Francisco can do many things but preempting state law is not one of them. I actually agree with that conclusion in the broader sense. But I also believe we wouldn’t be married today if Gavin Newsom hadn’t taken the law into his own hands. Those 4,000-some licenses are now historic relics, preserved by the city library, though I have ours as well, tucked into a folder.

Some friends wonder why we didn’t marry in 2008 (or assume we did marry), when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California. We were living in Florida and knew our marriage wouldn’t be recognized by Florida. I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would change at the federal level. I am greatly pleased, but also amused in a devilish way, by the fact that two people can marry in a freedom state such as California and have their marriage recognized federally in their home state, however backward it may be.  If we had to return to a state that thought otherwise, the IRS, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Defense have our back.

People keep asking me if I feel different. I feel the same; it’s you folks who are different. As I wrote in my essay The Outlaw Bride, I never fully recognized the invalidation of our 2004 marriage. I have felt for nine years like a left-wing version of a Sovereign Citizen (except I paid taxes and obeyed laws because I’m prudent that way); I did not intellectually recognize the invalidation of our marriage. But the world caught up with us anyway when all kinds of people, from everyday citizens to Supreme Court justices, allowed themselves to evolve.

We had some discussion about what to call ourselves, and we decided on “spouses.” The term “partner” is one of those weak-coffee terms to use for people who can’t or don’t wish to marry. As for “wife,” we’re in agreement that while we’d like one,  neither of us want to be one. (Those of a certain generation may recall the feminist plaint, “I want a wife.” ) Younger women may be wondering what the fuss is about, but it is just too loaded a term for us. “Spouse,” meanwhile, has lovely foundation that recalls the commitment marriage represents, as the dictionary notes (plus a little celebration to boot):

Middle English, from Anglo-French espus (masculine) &espuse (feminine), from Latin sponsus betrothed man, groom & sponsa betrothed woman, bride, both from sponsus, past participle of spondēre to promise, betroth; akin to Greek spendein to pour a libation, Hittite šipant-

I admit I am a little concerned by the many friends who have wished us well with the caveat that they hope our marriage continues to be legally recognized. It’s my assumption that the engines of change have pushed us too far forward for backsliding to be possible, particularly as most reasonable people realize, if they have not done so before, that two people marrying, regardless of their gender, has absolutely no impact on the quality of their own lives, and that a world with more love and more commitment is better for everyone.  There will be dissenters, with Justice Scalia as flag-bearer, but it is now clear that the reason so many states passed laws against same-sex marriage before it became legal is the fear that once marriage equality became a reality, it would be glaringly obvious what a non-issue this issue has been.

So, we are married. I cannot imagine my life these past 22 years without Sandy, and we are blessed to honor our love not only as a private matter between two people, but as full citizens in the eyes of our state and country.  Yet we have not given up on all outlaw aspects of our marriage. All love is a little bit outlaw in its magic and its extravagance. We love more generously than we think is possible, more powerfully than we realize, with a oceanic depth than can subsume us in grief in its loss. A friend sobbed on the phone to me as his wife lay dying that he didn’t understand why anyone married, because it hurt so much to lose the one you love. I was without words because I could not disagree. Therein lies the paradox of the greatest emotion we are privileged to experience.

All the lonely MOOCers. Where do they all come from?

So about that math MOOC I took earlier this year. It can be easy to focus on the technology aspects of online instruction, since so much  hinges on adequate access to and support for hardware, Internet connections, software, operating systems, and even peripherals, q.v. the widespread chuckling last year over the meltdown of the Coursera class on online learning. Despite careful piloting and design,  the MOOC I was enrolled in had a tough first week, caused by four days of service interruptions for their learning management system, on top of problems related to the course webinar product they were using, which relies on Java. Due to upcropping security issues, Apple blocked Java, later providing an update to the iOS operating system… it was a hot mess.

I largely missed this episode because I was at a conference for most of this ordeal. I don’t know whether this techno-crisis had any impact on student retention, because for the most part, as was true throughout the class, student engagement was almost nonexistent.

Though I sense that enrollment was in the hundreds (based on a math problem posed in an early video), there were fewer than 20 students in the one synchronous online session I attended. Most of the posts to the discussion board were from the initial “introduce yourself” phase. The “Math Assistance” section of the discussion board had 13 posts, the last one, from mid-March, asking, “Any body around?” (There was no response.) Questions from students went unanswered. For most of the class, I was as solitary as when I crammed for the GRE last fall — 7 weeks of manic cramming for the GRE, a period filled with flash cards and study guides and endless exercises. In other words, it was self-study, with videos.

Course Design

The math MOOC I was in offered weekly synchronous sessions through Collaborate and open drop-in hours. The weekly sessions, which were recorded, repeated the concepts offered through a series of smaller videos, homework, and quizzes.

The short videos were competent walk-throughs in which questions were posed and answered. A typical session included a problem, a “Chalk Talk” video where an instructor walks students through the solution, a brief “more info” slide, and a slide with two or three  additional practice equations (though the answers were presented right on the same screen, forcing me to put a hand up while I scribbled the problems on a piece of paper).

Often the Khan Academy video on the topic was included on a separate tab, I assume as a form of alternate reinforcement, although I find that Khan often talks too fast and scribbles too much; I preferred the slower pace of the MOOC instructors and I also found it easier to follow their handwriting.

The homework was similar to the material I used for GRE self-study — stolid, reasonable math problems.However, the 10-question quizzes used to determine eligibility to move to the next math section were sheer frustration. We were given scores, but not results. To quote another student, “It is immensely frustrating and annoying that we are not told which questions we got wrong at the end of each quiz.”

I know this issue has had some press, and in response some have bandied about the idea of peer review or that students don’t need grading or whatnot. Certainly that may work in some settings.  But in a math class, students need clear answers, preferably with some underpinning of what went wrong. One plus one is never going to be “you decide.”

When I wrote the program to express my concern, I was told, “we want you to continue working on the material until you feel you have mastered it.  If we provided that feedback, participants could just guess their way through a quiz.”So in other words, rather than develop a testing structure that enabled students to get real feedback, use the limitations of the system to excuse poor pedagogy.  If I don’t know where I am having problems, how can I work on those areas?

In contrast, the excellent quality of the one real-time online class I intended was instructive. The instructor knew her stuff, both the subject and how to teach it, and when the class ended and I was staring at a problem, pondering its ineffable algebraic logic, the instructor intuited I was not done and asked if I had questions, then spent another 10 minutes clarifying a concept I had struggled with not only in class but in my self-study last year.

But those online classes weren’t built for success. As I found out after I had enrolled, the classes were mostly offered during the day, staggered around the week, and with meetings and such, I was not able to attend another session. I tried watching a session I hadn’t attended, but it was hard to stay tuned to an hour-long recording of a class I hadn’t participated in.

The MOOC offered generous drop-in hours for online tutoring, but no similar drop-in technical assistance. The one time I dropped in, I had a question about submitting the homework, but the tutor knew math, not the MOOC environment, and wasn’t familiar with the course I was in per se, so no luck there.

So after investing dozens of weekend hours to complete 5 modules, what do I think?

First, if we’re going to offer (let alone require) online classes to college students, their technical preparedness needs to be a priority so every student begins the class on an even playing field. Despite all the blather about “digital natives,” what I see every day where I work are students with a wide range of technical abilities and network operating environments. The for-profit MOOCs are looking at higher education and licking their chops. These students should not be at their sacrificial alter.

If you look at successful online programs such as SJSU SLIS or UIUC LEEP, they make no assumptions about the skill levels or equipment capacity of the typical graduate student–well, actually there is an assumption: as a LEEP  page says, “The Instructional Technology and Design Office (ITD) is here to help bridge the gap between the learner and technology in the classroom setting.”

As that sentence explicitly acknowledges,  this gap is real, not theoretical. This gap can be an issue for even reasonably competent students, as I learned from an online LIS graduate (not LEEP) who told me he didn’t participate in class discussions for his last year in school because the audio on his laptop had become misconfigured and he didn’t know how to fix it.

The tech gap was real for everyone my first week of class, and persisted for a while for those of us on Apple platforms, and persisted for me when I had a technical issue that couldn’t be answered when I sought help, and cropped up repeatedly whenever I had technical issues at home or when I traveled. I spent a few hours configuring my mother’s guest wifi network, including time on the phone with her Internet provider, just so I would not miss my homework that weekend–and that presumed a level of expertise and equipment not everyone has. (My mother wasn’t aware she HAD wifi.)

Online engagement takes effort, especially among strangers who have nothing in common other than they are taking a free online math class. Yes, I had a reasonable reasons to drop out of my math MOOC; I had learned pretty much what I needed to know, and I needed to divert time to getting other tasks out of the way before I started school. But beyond sending one email when I took more than a week to return to my studies, there wasn’t a strong effort to keep students going. Sure, it’s self-study, and it’s a massive class, etc… and yet. If this is the future of education, then education has effectively ended.

The instructors at one point commented on the discussion board, in response to student complaints about course design, that this MOOC was designed largely for research purposes, a strange thing to tell students who are supposedly there to learn math, but revealing all the same. When these educators produce their research, as they inevitably will, I hope they conclude that, for example, simply providing a discussion board does not actually create discussion.

It’s not the online-ness of MOOCs that concerns me. I took three online writing courses several years ago through Stanford Continuing Education, and in these small, discussion-focused classes, participation and retention were quite strong. But these were courses led by instructors who understood that there was more to instruction than providing a discussion board and leading a weekly class session, and that they–or their delegates–needed to be an active presence for the duration of these classes. It helped that the subject, writing, is a low bar, technically, and that writers tend to be good at communicating.

It’s not even the “massive” part. I co-managed a very large discussion list for close to two decades, and it’s actually possible to have substantive conversations among 10,000 people, given the right people and effort. It’s also possible to have bad instruction in a much smaller class.

My concerns are that as the MOOC bandwagon has rolled into town, its wheels have kicked up huge clouds of dust that obscure reasonable questions about what constitutes good course design, with an emphasis on student performance and success. It is one thing for a well-educated librarian to sample parts of a math class and conclude she is ready to move on. It is quite another to assume the same environment will work for at-risk and/or digitally tenuous students.

I have struggled for months to pinpoint the crux of the problem, and as is usually the case, I have concluded it has little or nothing to do with technology. Bad online instruction  has the same problem as bad traditional instruction: a serious lack of attention to molecular engagement with the student learner.

In the MOOC I took, had I been a student struggling with technology, I would have been gone the first week. Had I been an at-risk student for other reasons, I would have been easily spun off the course by the combined centrifugal force of the Potemkin village that was the “discussion board,” with its unanswered pleas for assistance; the classes held during daytime hours, when presumably I would be working or, if unemployed, pursuing work; the “tutors” who could not offer technical assistance and were only marginally familiar with the course itself; and the assessment design, which gave me no serious feedback about progress or the lack of it. And of course, no advisers, peer mentors, or other champions for my success. In the end, I was not a student with real needs, struggling to learn; I was somebody’s “research.”

And I am deeply bothered that these students will become even more invisible and even more underserved in the online environment, and that as their faces disappear behind the digital curtain, their needs will take a back seat to everything else — greed, political expediency, the privileging of “research” over education — even as their advocates are pooh-poohed as old-fart Luddites for expressing even the tiniest soupcon of concern on their behalf.

I have tried to wrap up this post for over two months now, but have been in the undertow of my first semester “back to school.” (I have to thank Andy Woodworth for goosing me into wrapping this up.) One of the comparison points I can now offer is that in a five-person cohort, I have been kept busy, engaged, and on track for nearly two months — exactly the experience I didn’t have in my MOOC. Students deserve a real education. Education matters. If it’s not happening, no bells or whistles can make up for its absence.