Manda Sexton is the Assessment and User Experience Librarian for Kennesaw State University and co-author of “Tracking and Recording Progress Toward Strategic Goals” in Leading Change in Academic Libraries. She specializes in strategic tracking, adult learning, and methods of alleviating library anxiety. A strong believer in the power of a good story, Manda regularly creates tools of expressing library assessment and value to its users with multiple audiences in mind. Manda enjoys a good romance novel as well as a good streaming binge and can often be found outside getting lost in the woods.
For those unfamiliar with Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is a rather well-known scene in which Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, loses a game to a humanoid named Kolrami. Thinking his circuits were malfunctioning, Data comes to his superior Captain Picard who responds famously, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
As an assessment professional, I have had my share of rejection from both external and internal sources. Sometimes the fear of rejection and failure can cause a paralysis in our successes. Halle Burns dives a bit deeper into learning from our failures in her article, “Learning to Fail”. This reflection details just one of my many rejected assessment proposals to library administration and, more importantly, how I changed my approach to grow from the experience.
Failure vs Feedback
My old mentor used to say there is no such thing as failure, there is only feedback. This rings true for nearly every academic rejection I have encountered. What is important to remember is all incoming feedback can be used for your future growth. As the Assessment Librarian at my R2 university, and the only assessment professional in the library system, it is my job to brainstorm possible new ways of gathering user data. One of my personal favorite methods of qualitative data collection is the focus group. Though many librarians fear (and sometimes loathe) the focus group, it can be an invaluable tool for expanding on the users’ thoughts and comments. For further reading on focus groups, I recommend reading “Focus Groups: ‘We’re (probably) NEVER doing that again’ A Librarian Parlor Series” by Kristina Clement and Samantha Cook.
Time and time again, I have written proposals for student focus groups, and time and time again, library administration has denied my proposals. Each and every one of these rejections really hurt personally. After all, they had hired me to be the assessment professional, why couldn’t I prove myself capable of fulfilling that role? Yes, rejection can and should hurt. Our brains are wired to see rejection from any source as painful experiences. This creation of mine took time, sweat, and toil to create. It is an extension of my abilities and therefore a part of me. I had to give myself permission to feel the failure in order to accept it.
Though this Star Trek quote above from Captain Picard is thrown around several inspirational posters, it continues to arguably another, perhaps more important point. Picard continues, “and Data you will leave your hesitation and self-doubt here in your quarters.” Once I mourned my loss, I had to leave self-doubt to keep moving forward. Dwelling on my feelings of failure and inadequacy contains no positive outlook for myself or for those around me. Being rejected so often informs the research process in several practical ways.
What can I do?
After the initial frustrations, I began to listen to the reasons for the dismissals, rather than the denial itself. This is where active listening comes in handy. After some light probing, three large blocks to success became clear: 1) It was not the best time to put together focus groups, 2) there was no immediate reason for them, and 3) no students would show up anyway.
From this feedback, I tailored the next proposal to exactly address the points in the original rejection. Addressing the second block first, I linked the focus groups to a specific university-required improvement plan. By utilizing the language of the university-wide program, I worded the proposal to make the focus groups not only useful, but essential in our success of this initiative.
The third block also needed to be clearly addressed. I needed to get some background institutional knowledge for this. Why was administration so adamant that students would not want to participate? Had this project (or something similar) been attempted before? As I had only been in the position a bit over a year, I lacked the institutional knowledge necessary to address this issue accurately.
The library system was heading into strategic planning for the next few years and an upcoming reorganization was imminent. It was, indeed, not the right time for this project. In my excitement to start something new (and honestly fun), I rushed what needed to be a well-planned and carefully executed project that would take quite a bit of time away from my given duties in strategic planning for the library system. I needed to take a bit more time understanding the audience for the proposal and tailoring it to their needs rather than what I thought would be best. That is what assessment is, right?
If I were to leave with one clear piece of advice, it would be to speak with the seasoned librarians, formally or informally, about what has been successful or unsuccessful in the past. Many librarians I have met throughout my time in the field have had similar experiences. At the point where I felt the most lost and confused in my research, finding a mentor was the greatest benefit to my future success. More accurately, however, a mentor found me. After much discussion on the institutional knowledge regarding my research, I had a clearer picture of why the administrative barriers existed.
See, my library system had attempted something similar several years ago, and very few students came to the informational event. This, however, gave me the firm foundation upon which to build my case. Prior to the next proposal, I secured several student groups with “study participation” requirements, who could be a valuable pool of possible participants. This addressed the ‘lack of reliable’ participants issue. I also was able to find some hard copies of the last informational event in order to clearly address any points that may have gone against the desired outcome. After all, we are in the field of information. Why not search out the most information from the best sources?
What can be done?
Instead of immediately jumping into the same research process, I submitted the proposal for the following spring, giving ample time for administration to get used to the idea and change any small details they wished. While it may have chipped a bit at my professional pride, the importance of assessment and administrative cooperation and agreement far outweighs any one person’s proposal. Due to the intentional feedback, the (now successful) proposal changed the way I view rejection.
The biggest reason this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation resonates with me is because, like Data, I feel like a rejection signifies something innately wrong about myself and my abilities. The ultimate truth of the matter, however, remains: it is not about you.
That new and exciting instruction opportunity, that assessment initiative, or that possible collaboration could be turned down for a variety of reasons that you may never be told. In order to run a full library with a myriad of programs and functions, administration looks at the bigger picture and long-term timeline. Like the assessment initiative I proposed earlier, perhaps your rejection stems from issues outside of your immediate concerns.
Due to this particular endeavor, my research has focused less on the quantity of information I can gather, but the quality of the information. I have intentionally taken the feedback over the failure, and tailored my work overall moving forward to focus on the quality of my proposals from start to finish.
First, I make sure that there is a qualifying reason for starting an assessment or research endeavor. Sometimes a looming pressure to produce scholarship can push some of us into poorly-constructed or poorly-timed assessments. However, I have learned to avoid that rejection (and poor practice) by making sure that the proposed research applies practically to my library system or librarianship as a whole. I want my work to make an impact.
Secondly, I focus a significant time on the background research before I even begin a proposal. Background research does not only include methodological research, it should include a historical look at your own library context. The best method of gathering this historical knowledge is to find someone who has been familiar with the context for some time. This could be a supervisor, an assigned mentor, or just someone you began talking to around your workplace. I found my best source for institutional knowledge by sitting at the lunch table in the break room and asking informally if the library system had done anything like this project in the past. This foundation probably represents the biggest change in my proposal strategies.
Thirdly, I make sure that all possible barriers are addressed in my proposal, even ones that I cannot initially remove. I used to leave out any issues that could (and probably would) arise because I saw them as something that could work against the success of the proposal. Instead, by not acknowledging potential barriers, my research proposals were seen as incomplete and aspirational as opposed to intentional, impactful, and necessary.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own