Nora Almeida is a Brooklyn-based writer and librarian. She works at the New York City College of Technology and is a volunteer at Interference Archive. You can contact her through email: firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter: @nora_almeida.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about academic freedom and fear. During the decade I have spent in higher education, I have always viewed research and writing as an avenue for working through professional uncertainty. I have assumed, without giving much thought to the ways certain perspectives and forms of scholarship are privileged within institutional and scholarly environments, that I was free to research what I wanted to research and write what I wanted to write. Then, three years ago, after working in contingent positions and as a non-faculty librarian, I started a tenure-track job and started to think about my scholarship a little differently. While I now had institutional support—in the form of mentorship, time, and some funding—and a kind of scholarly blueprint to follow, I felt new pressure to be productive. I no longer had the freedom to pursue research that might lead me to a dead end. I could not write myself into a hole and then throw weeks of work into the garbage.
The Pull of the Practical
I began to think that the kind of research that I am most interested in—interdisciplinary, political, theoretical—was perhaps too slow to produce and not sufficiently practical or connected to the ‘actual’ work I was doing every day in my library. I traveled to some national conferences and attended impressive presentations featuring colorful data visualizations, line graphs, rubrics, and metrics. I participated in college workshops for new faculty where we talked about documenting our scholarship and accounting for our own institutional value. I suddenly wished I knew more about quantitative research methods. I began to use phrases like ‘interoperable platform’ and ‘measurable efficacy’ and ‘baseline assessment’ in conversations with colleagues. In short, I became more and more convinced that being a good academic librarian and scholar was inextricably linked to what David James Hudson describes as a professional “imperative to be practical.”
“I said yes for all of these reasons and I said yes because I was suddenly afraid, now that I finally had the job I had been working towards for my whole career—a job where I had the time and space to do research—of all of the ways my research wouldn’t measure up.”
It was around this time that I started saying “yes.” Yes, I would love to collaborate on a study. Yes, I’ll be on this committee and even volunteer to take the minutes. Yes, I’ll design this survey. Yes, I’ll compile this institutional report. Yes, I’ll contribute to this white paper. In a 2016 ACRLog post on Saying No Quetzalli Barrientos outlines some of the reasons that new librarians say yes: there’s the fear of missing out, the fear of disappointing a supervisor or colleague, and most of all, the fear of limiting possibilities for advancement. I said yes for all of these reasons and I said yes because I was suddenly afraid, now that I finally had the job I had been working towards for my whole career—a job where I had the time and space to do research—of all of the ways my research wouldn’t measure up. My fear felt self-imposed but it was actually the product of all of these institutional signals that I had absorbed and professional norms that I had internalized. This kind of fear creates workload problems and, perhaps more problematically, has the potential to isolate us, limit the kind of scholarship we engage in, and potentially, erode our academic freedom.
The more I said yes to projects, the more I became overwhelmed and the more I felt unsure about my own identity as a scholar. At the same time as I worried about how much work I was committing too, I also worried that my research trajectory was too scattered. Some of my colleagues were experts—they had carved out a niche and they wrote articles and gave presentations and led college seminars on their particular areas of expertise. They were, I thought, real academics in a way that I wasn’t.
It is paradoxical that we feel pressured as new academic librarians to say yes and also to clearly define who we are as researchers early in our career.
How do we contend with this paradox? How do we say no when we need to while still giving ourselves the capacity to explore different kinds of research? How do we distinguish between the work we want or need to do and the work we feel we should do?
“We might discover that professional and institutional environments are imperfect and full of contradiction just as we are imperfect and contradictory. “
I think we need to start by getting comfortable with making mistakes and recognizing when our decisions are driven by fear rather than by genuine interest. Then, perhaps with the help of a mentor or a scholarly community, we need to stop being afraid, which for me involves analyzing the institutional and professional environments that scare me. We might discover that professional and institutional environments are imperfect and full of contradiction just as we are imperfect and contradictory. We might even make these contradictions the object of our research or the subject of discussions we have with colleagues or even our supervisors. We might explore, from within the relative safety of a tenure-track position, the idea that “academic freedom is a notion that is deeply bound up with academic containment.” We might take the minutes at an assessment meeting and subtly raise some questions about institutional surveillance. We might question how authority operates in a classroom while also acknowledging our position of authority within that space. We might know that the way our profession values practicality inherently shapes the scope of intellectual inquiry in our field at the same time that we know we can use data to advocate for funding or to improve library services.
The first time I said no to a project, I was so underwater that I felt like saying no was less risky than saying yes and not being able to fully commit to the project. One of my colleagues, whose writing and approach to teaching I really admire, reached out about the possibility of collaborating on a book chapter—a case study about assignment design for an interdisciplinary course we both teach. I thought the project was interesting and practically related to my ‘actual’ work and I didn’t want to pass up a chance to write with this colleague but I also knew:
- I didn’t have time to take on a new project
- The project wasn’t related to any of the other research or writing I was doing
- I had promised myself I’d carve out some time for theory and creative writing
When I wrote to my colleague to let her know I couldn’t commit to a new project, I was surprised to find that saying no wasn’t a big deal and that she was open to having a conversation about scholarship labor and research priorities. I walked away from the interaction feeling good about my decision and about the prospect of collaborating with my colleague in the future when the project was right and the timing was better.
Taking the Long View
The arc of research is long and our work as academics is fraught and complex. If we take the long view and stop letting fear determine our scholarly priorities, we’ll learn how and when to say no. But first we might say yes too often, make a lot of mistakes, get overwhelmed, and do a bunch of research that isn’t that interesting to us. And that’s also okay. Research identities are the product of experimentation and they evolve and change as our experiences and interests do. If we are driven by an authentic desire to learn, to expand the scope of what scholarship is and does in our field, and to be better librarians and human beings, then we might discover that we don’t need to know where we’re going as long as we know who we are.
Keep the Conversation Going…
How can we invite critical conversations about scholarship labor and research priorities in our institutions and within scholarly and professional communities?
What is the best way to challenge the way our profession values practical research or to push back against research environments that are constraining?
How do we work together as a community of professionals to confront the fear that limits the scope of intellectual inquiry and erodes academic freedom?
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