comment 0

New Department Head Energy

I haven’t written a lot about becoming a new department head in a new department mostly because of lack of bandwidth and time, but also because as a manager, a lot of stories are not mine to tell. One story I can tell, with the help of our department’s assistant head (Mea Warren), is how we started off our time together as a new Teaching & Learning department after our liaison program (and Liaison Services department) was dissolved. Mea and I presented at the Conference on Academic Library Management (CALM) on April 28 about the development of our new department. Our slides are above, or, if you’d prefer to watch a recording you can do so via the CALM YouTube channel.

I didn’t enter librarianship with the desire to one day be a manager or administrator, and quite frankly I don’t know a lot of librarians who do enter the profession with an eye towards middle management. So many of our library structures are flat, leadership opportunities exist outside of positional authority, and there are only so many supervisor jobs to go around, particularly if you’re an instruction or liaison librarian. My first supervisory role was as an Instruction Coordinator at UH Libraries, where I was fortunate to have a wonderful and small team of teaching librarians who put up with my learning on the job. My mantra going into management has always been, “Don’t be an asshole. Try to be a decent human being.” My hope is that I’ve accomplished that as a supervisor overall, knowing that there are days when I’ve likely messed up.

But as a new department head, the stakes feel much higher. I’m fortunate to have Mea as our assistant department head, which, as one of the participants in our conference session alluded to, helps ease some of the loneliness and stress of being in charge. Ultimately though, it’s my responsibility to advocate for my department members, represent our interests in library managers’ meetings to my peers and administrators, understand the holistic mission of my division and the libraries, AND be a decent supervisor.

It’s a lot. It’s more than I thought I would ever do in my career. On top of all of that is the knowledge that I have the power to make people feel safe and content at work or miserable. The desire to submit a proposal to CALM came from months of planning and community building in our department. Mea and I both knew that without a solid team our new Teaching & Learning department would flounder. The librarians who chose to move to Teaching & Learning were motivated to teach, work with undergraduate and graduate students, and facilitate learning throughout the university experience. It was up to me to make sure they felt (and continue to feel) empowered to do so. Our presentation is primarily about our first year as a department and all of the community building, planning, training, and work we’ve done and will continue to do. Our Teaching & Learning department is amazing and I feel an enormous sense of pressure to ensure their continued job satisfaction and growth as professionals.

I am struggling to figure out what all this means for me, though. Am I still a librarian or am I a manager now? I have less time to teach and meet with students. I still do both, but not to the degree that I used to as an Instruction Coordinator or liaison librarian. I feel like I am pick pick picking at a million different projects and yet don’t have BIG RESULTS to share. The administrata is intense and real. I have the trust and faith of my associate dean, which makes a huge difference, but ultimately, this is my program to shape, in collaboration with Mea and our department members. So in the words of RuPaul (sorry, I had to), how do I not fuck it up?

comments 3

On Motivation and Management

tired hippo laying in the sun
Photo by Tim De Pauw on Unsplash

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on this site. To say it’s been a rough few years is so much of an understatement that it hints at the absurd. But I keep going, as we all do, in our own ways, despite all this.

I feel constantly at odds with myself as a new department head and manager. My job is to support and motivate others but I often struggle with motivation myself. I’ve always enjoyed my work. I love solving problems and helping others and learning new things. I derive satisfaction from good work and have always wanted to make a positive contribution to my workplace and professional community. I know I am not my work and my family is most important and this is just a job. I don’t think the problems we face in academic libraries are unique to academia or libraries and in many ways we have it a lot easier than people who do so many other kinds of work. I need to work to pay for life and hospital bills and speech therapy and a special school. But I also work so I can have fancy coffee and cute shoes and new books and silly earrings.

And yet it is feeling like such a drain these days.

I don’t mean to get all woe is the life of a manager with our bigger paychecks and greater positional authority, but like, maybe a little? I think there is something to be said about adjusting to a new leadership role. It’s awkward and exhausting. I make mistakes all the time. I will admit to wanting to nope-out of decision making, but that’s not really an option. So I keep on keepin’ on, apologizing when I don’t know the answer, struggling to understand new things because by the time 3pm rolls around my brain is muuuuush, and doing my best to support my truly wonderful team.

I’ve always admired supervisors and leaders who are so in control of their feelings and words, who always seem to know what to say or do in any situation. Are some people just better at knowing themselves and others? Or am I just seeing them at the end of years of trial and error? I worry sometimes about sounding like a total disaster. I worry about not giving the folks I supervise the support they need. I worry about being a good advocate and a decent human being. I also didn’t expect to be this uncertain at 40. But maybe that’s what happens when jobs change?

Whenever I take those management profiles/work personality tests/corporate horoscopes I never get the equivalent of THE BIG IN CHARGE, the color or acronym or number that means you are decisive, a natural leader, charismatic, and driven. I hear all the time that people who end up in management or leadership roles were promoted up past their point of effectiveness, and maybe not being THE BIG IN CHARGE personality type means that’s me. Or maybe I am just a different kind of manager and leader. I want to inspire confidence and find ways to motivate those around me and make them proud of the work they do. I think at this point in my career I am struggling to find my managerial motivation. What is going to keep me going in this job? What is going to sustain me in the hours I have at work and make me feel like I’ve done a good job? Maybe this is a question for my managerial / supervisory peers: What keeps you motivated in this role?

comment 0

Reflection vs. Urgency

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

I opened Outlook this morning, as I do every morning, to check my email. As I scroll through my inbox past publisher spam, updates from the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed, and calendar invitations I see emails with words like ASAP, URGENT, IMPORTANT, FEEDBACK NEEDED, DEADLINE, etc. There is a strong sense of urgency in each of these VERY IMPORTANT emails that upon close reading, as really just questions. They are questions that people would like answers to, and, in some cases, might even need, but they are often phrased as demands that are URGENT URGENT URGENT. So I slowly triage my email, determining what actually needs my immediate attention, sorting messages into folders, and getting ready to reply with calm, polite, measured responses. What I really want to do is clear all messages from my inbox and blast myself into the sun but that is neither safe nor productive. The sun seems like a poor choice of a vacation spot.

I am struck by how much of our jobs as librarians is shaped by the urgency of a few–the class that needs to happen on Friday, the reference question that needs to be answered ASAP, the professor who needs their materials yesterday–rather than the needs of our greater community. As a profession we pride ourselves on embracing reflective practice, that set of questioning, thinking, and shaping future action that we know will help us improve our teaching and research. We encourage students to take their time and think through their work because we know that thoughtful research is better research, but we often practice the complete opposite. There are moments, despite our best efforts at intentionality and reflection, where we have to simply react react react. And where does that leave us? It leaves me feeling exhausted, emotionally and mentally drained, and prone to making mistakes and bad judgement calls.

I try to offer others the benefit of the doubt, and remind myself of the concept coined by Harriet Schwartz, “asymmetrical primacy,” which is the difference in weight/importance that people place on the same interaction. Schwartz writes about visiting her doctor as an important moment where she would like the doctor’s full attention; but for the doctor, Schwartz is one of many patients they see throughout the day. The person messaging me with a strong sense of urgency may indeed see that email to me as extremely important, while to me, that message is just one of dozens that claim equal importance. They turn into background noise. The chorus of URGENT URGENT URGENT constantly playing in my head all day long. When things get that noisy it’s almost impossible to sit and just think, much less reflect.

I do, however, have sympathy for the ASAP email crowd. This is a big university and a large library and they have likely learned that the only emails and phone calls that garner a response are those that are urgent, or threatening, or desperate. I get it. I really do. But it doesn’t make those emails any less exhausting. So how do I/we balance the urgency of demands against the need to reflect and spend time thinking about our work? I am fortunate enough to work in place that values time spent thinking and planning, so I know that I have administrative support to set aside so-called urgencies for a time. I try to encourage my team to do the same. Yes, it will upset some people, and lead to more follow up phone calls than we care to answer, but if we don’t take time to think, reflect, and plan, our work suffers. Urgency is the enemy of good work in librarianship and I wish we would push back against the urge to react and instead spend time reflecting, planning, and creating change.