We have a long way to go

The value of tenure status — heck, FACULTY status, even — for academic librarians is a debate that seems never-ending.  I had an experience last week that demonstrates yet again that we have a long way to go.

Let me reiterate upfront that I am not a fan of tenure, period. And I’m not a proponent of tenure status for academic librarians.

Having stated that, though, let me describe the incident, starting with a bit of backround.

For the past several months, I have participated in a new faculty orientation program. In this program, all new faculty at Wheaton College meet about once a month and are introduced both to each other and to the ways and means of the institution. We covered all kinds of topics during those meetings, and I feel blessed that the college placed enough of a priority on this to spend the extra time and effort to orient its faculty in this way. It’s not something I take for granted. Kudos to them for having such a program.

Yes, librarians at Wheaton College have faculty status. But we are not tenure track (although that used to be the case sometime in the past).

I’ve operated in a tenure track system before (at Taylor University), although I had to leave for family reasons before I came up for tenure review. I must admit that I had serious reservations about the process then, and I still do. Prior to that, when I was at The University of Chicago, I had achieved the pseudo-faculty-ish status of associate librarian. Librarians there were not considered faculty at all but had a similar sort of progression as faculty, from assistant librarian, to associate, to librarian. I don’t know if that still holds true.

I actually like the present arrangement I find myself in, where I have faculty status but am not tenure track. It seems like a good fit.

Now, back to the incident that prompted this post. At our final orientation meeting last week, we discussed a current hot topic on our campus: general education revision. One of the other new faculty brought up the topic of a discontinued effort called the “freshman experience” which was part of the general education requirements some years ago. As a Wheaton alum, she highlighted the fact that some students who participated in that program thought it was the best experience they had at Wheaton, whereas other students had a much more negative experience.

A longtime faculty member spoke up at this point and mentioned that he had been deeply involved in the decision to stop the “freshman experience.” He acknowledged that it was a very difficult decision but went on to say that the program failed in large part due to the fact that there wasn’t enough participation by teaching faculty. As a result, course sections had to be filled by anyone at Wheaton who was willing to teach it, and this included everyone from janitors (or service staff) to librarians. More was said about how negative this was, but I won’t get into that.

I sat there, a bit stunned, as the discussion rolled on. Perhaps I should have said something then and there, but I honestly didn’t know what to say. Here was I, a librarian and a faculty member, listening to a discussion that seemed to assume and accept that librarians’ teaching role is inherently of lesser quality than other faculty members. The other side of this that really hit me negatively is that staff at Wheaton are quite frankly, often the best that Wheaton offers in terms of providing examples to students of faithful, committed service. I was not happy about the negative inferences about them, as well. I am not sure the person who voiced these opinions really grasped or understood the negativity of what he said. But he should have known better.

Was I, am I, being too sensitive or touchy on this topic? I’ve debated this over and over again in my mind and the conclusion I’ve come to is, no, I don’t think so. The irony of this experience is that I sat there in a room full of new faculty, with more teaching experience, and at a higher level (graduate, not just undergraduate), than several of the people there. Moreover, many of my librarian colleagues at Wheaton are very accomplished teachers and I felt the tone of this discussion was a disservice to them.

The other thing I’ll mention here is that this was not the only time during the new faculty orientation process when I felt out of place, since I am not a tenure track faculty member. And the interesting thing is, I was not the only one in this situation. There were 3-4 other participants (out of a group of about 14 people) who were in the same status situation as me. Again, I deeply appreciate the commitment Wheaton makes to new faculty; it is wonderful. But not all of us are the same, and this program should not assume such.

What, then, is the answer? Is it to strive for tenure status? Is it to go back to school to obtain a PhD in the hopes that then I would somehow be accepted as an equal in this group? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what the right answer is, or even if there is one. My plan is to just keep moving forward, building and fostering relationships that strengthen the library’s teaching mission. If I ever do move forward with a PhD (and I think time may have run out on that idea), it’ll not be because of some sense of inferiority. Rather, it’ll be because I am deeply interested in and passionate about something, and I feel a clear sense that God is calling me to pursue it.

Fortunately, I think situations like the one I described are not at all the norm. I am generally quite happy with where I am and enjoy the people with whom I work (in and outside of the library).

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