LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Notes from the far side of tenure: a reflection

Picture of a side mirror of a car with the phase, "Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear"

Sarah Laleman Ward is the Outreach Librarian at Hunter College – City University of New York (CUNY). Her research interests are many and varied, but the thing that gets her out of bed in the morning is the opportunity to work with students on demystifying the research process. She currently lives in upper Manhattan with her husband and two daughters, which is a long way from her home state of Illinois.

“It is a fragment of the whole picture of my work, but it is how I am judged by my institution and external reviewers, the yardstick by which my career is measured.”

I have just achieved tenure and promotion at my institution. As of September 1, 2018, I am an Associate Professor, with tenure – “a permanent member of the instructional staff of the City University of New York.” I understand, empirically, that this is a major accomplishment and something of which I should be very proud. And yet … when I look back at the things that “count” for tenure at my institution, I don’t see an accurate picture of who I am as a scholar-librarian. What I see is a series of hoops through which I adequately jumped, without always challenging myself to make an impact on the field in a personally meaningful way. This is not to say that I haven’t done good work – I have, and most of it has been in collaboration with trusted and respected colleagues which is its own kind of reward. The work itself is solid, but it doesn’t represent who I believe myself to be as a librarian, or what is most important to me about the work that I do. It is a fragment of the whole picture of my work, but it is how I am judged by my institution and external reviewers, the yardstick by which my career is measured. What follows is an overview of and reflection upon my time as a tenure-track faculty librarian, and how I arrived at a place of peace with the body of my work that may not represent the whole me. As with all things, your mileage may vary, but I hope that my experiences can shed some light on what it means to be a (recently) tenured person in the field of librarianship.

Where I started

When I started this job ten (10!) years ago, in August of 2008, “the tenure clock” seemed like such an abstract and far away thing – I knew it was the thing that I should want, and that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to prove my mettle in this time-honored trial.

After spending three years acquiring a second master’s degree (a requirement for tenure-track librarians in my institution) in Educational Psychology (Spring 2011) and giving birth to my first child (also Spring 2011), my clock started in fall of 2011. I spent 2011-2013 floundering as I tried to find my way as both a new parent and an academic. These were not the productive years I thought they should have been, and instead I was keenly aware of the time slipping away from me. My second child was born in early 2013. I didn’t stop my clock (which I had the option to do) because by this point I couldn’t see spending more years pursuing tenure and I figured if I just buckled down and got some things published I would still have plenty of time. By the time I came back to work after my leave, in fall 2013, I did have projects in the works, but nothing in publishable form at that point. For those keeping score, this is two years of the clock down, five to go, and I really felt like I was just getting started.

Mind the gap

“It felt a bit like I was up against impossible odds, trying to do the work that mattered to me and to my institution while also trying to get things published that would prove that I was indeed a scholar. “

There is a conspicuous gap on my CV between 2012 and 2014, where it appears as though I did nothing of scholarly merit. As recent Librarian Parlor contributors have written about, at that point I knew, and I was told by my Dean, that I just needed to get something, anything published (see  Griffin, Moeller, Seeber). It is not that I wasn’t working, but that the work in which I was engaging, aside from my day-to-day responsibilities, was not the kind that counted the most in my tenure portfolio. I was building relationships, connecting with colleagues at my institution via presentations and workshops through our center for teaching and learning, attending local conferences, and getting to know people doing interesting work. It was important work, but not the kind I could point to on my CV as “scholarship.” It felt a bit like I was up against impossible odds, trying to do the work that mattered to me and to my institution while also trying to get things published that would prove that I was indeed a scholar. This is not a new story, and I am not the only person to struggle with this.

What counts?

Of the five peer reviewed publications on my CV (the ones that “count” towards tenure) only one was a project that I believe made a real difference in something other than my career advancement. That work, a lengthy archival research project ( which culminated in the relocation and subsequent preservation of a collection of artworks and yielded (so far) two presentations and one published article, took me five years from start to finish. Unfortunately, the seven years of the tenure clock don’t allow the time and space for the kind of research that can’t be predicted and scheduled.

Aside from that project, the work that is most meaningful to me – the work that I believe defines who I am as a librarian – is my teaching and the relationships I’ve built over the years with students, faculty, and staff. This is the heart of my professional identity, and it is also the work that is most undervalued in academia, even in the female-dominated profession of librarianship. For an excellent exploration of this phenomenon via the lens of library instruction coordinator roles, see Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby’s work on this topic.

Even though relationship-building and making connections with people are by far the biggest part of many librarians’ jobs, in my experience that work carries very little weight when it comes to measuring success on the path to tenure. By way of example, two colleagues and I have presented widely about a curriculum we developed together for a summer program at our institution, and which we continue to teach every summer since 2015. The work is exciting, interesting, and gets people talking and thinking whenever we share it with others. It is also a tremendous amount of work to pull it off each year, due to the high-touch, hands-on nature of implementing the curriculum, and leaves little time for us to write about it in an academic way that is publishable in a peer-reviewed journal. It seemed to the three of us that the writing we did about our teaching wasn’t considered “scholarly” enough for many of the journals we submitted to, and we were not interested in trying to shoehorn our work into someone else’s idea of what was “scholarly” because that wouldn’t be true to the work. After four years of working with this curriculum, presenting about it, and refining our work, we were able to get a peer-reviewed article published about it that will come out this December. The editors of the journal that accepted the work seemed to get the tone and essence of our work, and for that we are grateful. Once again, though, the tenure clock doesn’t allow space for this kind of work. The published article came too late for me in the tenure process, but I am glad that my other two colleagues will be able to count it towards their tenure.

What comes next?

In thinking about and writing for this post, my feelings about my scholarly profile have changed. I started off disappointed that at the end of this long and arduous process, my CV didn’t reflect my most meaningful work. However, I see now that it’s okay that my CV isn’t a perfect picture of me as a librarian – in reality, no piece of paper can capture the essence of who a person really is, how they work with others, and what their most valuable contributions are to the field or even simply to an organization or to a colleague. Now that I have tenure, what is next for me is to continue my work contributing to the work of other folks on the journey. That might mean putting in some more work that I don’t necessarily have on my dream list, but it will be in service to the greater good. This is a different kind of service than what we typically talk about when discussing the three pillars of tenure (scholarship, teaching, service), but I would argue that it’s of equal importance to other types of service. Serving the profession, and the institution, by giving other folks a leg up is probably even more important than serving on many and varied committees.

I have the privilege of time now to pursue those lengthier projects that got put on the back burner during my years leading up to tenure. I have the option to take a sabbatical (what?!) and perhaps I will in order to pursue areas of research that I couldn’t before, due to time constraints.

I also have other obligations. Raising my children and maintaining a healthy relationship and self-care are the most important things in my life, but are also demanding of time and attention. Somewhere along the line I decided I was okay with less-consuming scholarship in favor of a healthier home life, because the alternative was leading me towards burnout and constant feelings of inadequacy on all fronts.

Everyone has the capacity to create their own path through the murky process of tenure, and given the benefit of hindsight I’d probably do things very differently. But I’ve made peace with my journey and thought it might help others who were struggling and feeling uncertain to know that they are not the first, nor the last, to feel this way. In my case, living and breathing my scholarship is overrated. I’m a good librarian, a good colleague, a good parent and a good partner. I’m not the best at everything, and I don’t need to be, but I work really hard at all of it most days, and some days I don’t. I’ve done what I needed to do to get to this point, and that is fine – this is my job, my profession, but it is not all that defines me. From the far side of tenure, I see now that I’ve earned space and time to breathe, regroup, and take stock of what I am doing and why. Tenure means that I can choose for myself what matters and what counts moving forward.

Featured image “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” by Peer Lawther, via Flickr

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The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “Notes from the far side of tenure: a reflection

  1. Pingback: The Wobbly Tripod of Library Faculty-Ness: Librarianship, Research, and Service – Katherine Crowe

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