Transitions is an occasional series where community members reflect on the things they have learned while moving from one institution to another or one role to another.
By Cheryl E. Ball, Wayne State University
I’m still searching for the correct terminology to describe my previous life in the academy: For almost 20 years, I worked towards and then became a professor (little P), both tenure-track and tenured, in English departments at three different U.S. universities. (I used to just say I was “faculty” but since librarians can also be faculty, I’ve found that terminology confusing since I transitioned to library-land.) As a grad student and professor, I taught multimodal composition, print production, web design, and in the latter years a lot of digital editing and publishing classes that built on my industry and academic experience in publishing. I was also researching multimodal composition practices–essentially the classroom-based version of the editorial work I was doing with authors at the scholarly multimedia journal Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. While editor, I’ve been able to study how authors are mentored and revise their work, how webtexts are peer reviewed and design-edited, how editorial workflows for scholarly multimedia are different (or not) from print-based publishing workflows, how the infrastructure of independent digital publishing is made possible (but not necessarily sustainable) on no budget, how the foibled preservation tactics of most born-digital scholarship is disastrous for the scholarly record, and more.
My research kept pushing me towards building an editorial management and publishing platform for journals like Kairos, and after years of struggle, pondering whether that was the right course, I began working on the Vega publishing platform–thanks to a Mellon grant I received in 2015. Working on Vega meant that I was spending half my time teaching in the English department and half my time researching and building things in the library, focusing on scholarly communications work (a phrase unknown to most faculty members outside of library-land). It was work I loved and wanted to do more of, but didn’t have the time as a faculty member. The outreach efforts that working from within the library opened for me–to reach out to faculty and students across campus, instead of “just” in my home discipline–satisfied my mentoring orientation regarding knowledge-making in the academy. So when the opportunity arose in late 2017 to transition into full-time library work, focused on building publishing infrastructures through Vega at Wayne State University, well, I did not jump at the chance. I was in the middle of my “critical” year in applying for Full Professor–the golden ring of academia.
Giving up the tenured life was a HUGE thought-experiment in ego crushing for a few months while I wrestled with the decision to take the job at Wayne State. Ultimately, I knew that moving to Detroit would mean the flourishing of the things I loved and wanted to focus on: Vega would have a team of digital publishing librarians to help support it; I would have time to focus on publishing pedagogies and scholarly outreach; and my ability to participate in what I would learn to call anti-racist activism both in and outside the academy would potentially have greater impact. So I quit the tenure-track mid-year and moved to Detroit on December 31, 2017. I have not once regretted the decision.
As Director of the Digital Publishing Collaborative at Wayne State University, I now get to help shepherd faculty members, students, and staff from across the disciplines to a better understanding of publishing, open-access, copyright, editing, scholarly multimedia, and all the other research and teaching issues the library publishing team can provide support for. I work with an outstanding, kind, generous, and humble team of library publishers who are eager to support each other in innovative thinking and boundary setting. I get to “think big” about new projects, collaborate across campus and community boundaries to make scholarly publishing a right not just a privilege, and create plans for managing existing and new publishing projects that fit a larger schema so we can better communicate our work to the campus and international library publishing community. And, the work I’ve been able to take up with the Library Publishing Coalition has made me feel at home in this new community–a difficult feat for even the most nimble of scholars after having been entrenched for 20 years in a totally different (if related) discipline, with differently disciplinary standards, jargon, intellectual discourse, goals, and values. I am thrilled to be here, and I often talk with other professors who want to make the leap from tenure-track land to library- or academic-staff-land. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last three years.
Things I’ve Learned From Library-Land
- MLIS vs. PhD: I put this one first because it was an immediate ‘thing’ at my new job that I had to learn to mediate. I knew that hiring library folks without library degrees is a hot-button issue in library-land, and so I do everything I can to respect the expertise of librarian colleagues who know oodles more about the inner workings of libraries than I do. The on-the-job training of librarians is righteous. But I also know that making space for folks with non-library PhDs in library-land can be useful to librarians, such as when I can use my research expertise or even just degree title (for those extra rude-to-librarians faculty) to create powerful research collaborations quickly on campus. I gingerly walk that mediation line, leaning into the things I can do differently for the betterment of my work and the library and otherwise swiftly acknowledging the things I don’t know and/or want to learn, or get out of the way of what my MLIS colleagues bring.
- Discourse Communities: Within the first few months of working in the library, I interrupted a colleague to ask him to define what a “CV Review” meant on our Scholarly Communications website. It was not at all what I had imagined, given the decades of mentoring I’d done with graduate students to review their CVs for job market and fellowship applications. Out of that respect for my colleagues and to better learn their discourse, I enrolled in Wayne State’s MLIS program. I wanted to know more rigorously about collections development, metadata schema, indexing and cataloging and other library things that seemed tangential but relevant to my digital publishing work. And I wanted my colleagues to see that I was trying to meet them halfway, even as they all assured me this was unnecessary. (I was sad to drop out of the program during my first semester and would be happy to share why with anyone who’s interested. Mostly, but not exclusively, it was time-related.) What remains is that there is a language barrier between library-land and other parts of academia, and we need a crosswalk to better communicate.
- Imposter Syndrome: See both items above. I didn’t realize this issue existed for library staff just as it does for faculty members and graduate students. Sigh. We have a LOT of collective work to do to bolster each other in community support.
- Racial Justice Work: I came to this job and immediately started telling my old faculty colleagues just how impressive librarians were for being the real social justice warriors in the academy. Seeing librarians in action to promote anti-racism made me realize how little action many scholars, myself included, had taken in support of racial justice. It took me stepping out of my faculty life to see that when faculty colleagues insisted on their racial activism with words of theoretical support (e.g., quoting one Black scholar as evidence that they support Black Lives Matter), it meant nothing when they simultaneously upheld white body supremacy in their teaching and mentoring. I did this too, to be sure, but being around colleagues in the library who are encouraged to take that theory into everyday practice–and practice that is not just situated here in Detroit, as evidenced by all the Library Publishing Coalition colleagues I also get to work with nationally and internationally–has helped me become a better anti-racist activist. Of course, what I’ve also learned is that it’s not all glorious racially sensitive (white) librarians in library-land. Every place has its secrets, and we all still need to do better.
Things I Wish Faculty Knew About Library-Land
This section could be a LOT longer, and I’m sure many of you would have plenty to add here yourselves! But since faculty aren’t the primary audience of this already-too-long blog post, I’ll keep it short:
- Librarianship is Scholarly: This is one phrase, in various forms, that I began hearing even before I started working in a library, and as a praxis-oriented faculty member, I totally get it. In addition to any scholarly articles librarians might write, the intellectual work of library outreach in forms such as administration, university and community or disciplinary service, project management, pedagogical touchpoints, editorial and development/production work, and so on all require expertise that goes far beyond how faculty members might “write off” librarianship as throw-away service work (which is how some, but not all, faculty members view service).
- Alt-Ac Work: The best part of my job now is that all the stuff I used to do on nights and weekends–my passion projects as a faculty scholar–editor–are now the things I can do as part of my day job. I have transitioned away from the job mentoring I was known for in my home discipline, where I helped grad students get tenure-track jobs, instead encouraging them to drop out of their PhD programs and pursue MLISs instead. The field of writing studies (my home discipline) is particularly well-suited to MLIS work because of its attention to academic writing, delivery, circulation, technical infrastructures, digital humanities methods and production, and other rhetorical tenets that pair well with information sciences. (And while the tenure-track job market in writing studies has been historically strong, the long-term health of the market caused by too many PhD programs makes TT life precarious at best.) I wish more faculty members recognized the relationship between writing studies and information sciences. I acknowledge that sending PhDs to work in libraries as alternate-academic jobs off the tenure-track can be problematic or unwelcome by some libraries, but it is true that some libraries welcome PhDs who can do the work of librarianship, particularly in relation to reference inquiries, scholarly communications, and digital publishing work.
- Labor: It’s OK to go home at 5pm and not work again until 8am the next day. This is the first academic job I’ve ever had where I wasn’t expected to work 7 days a week. Working oneself to death is a terrible way to prove oneself. Timecards are obnoxious, but having the assured ability to take a set amount of vacation time and not check email shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for folks with union contracts. (I am not part of the union since I’m “middle management,” but I grew up in a union household, and I recognize the union’s importance at helping the librarians I work with establish work–life balance, so I have followed suit.)
Things I Wish Librarians Knew About Faculty Lives
I should have made this the entire blog post and made it much, much longer, but here are two (related) items that I wanted to share:
- The Neverending Pressure: I thought I was fairly well grounded and had a good sense of self-reflection until I gave up tenure for my library job. It only took a few weeks for me to recognize Just. How. Much. competition is built into faculty positions–not just in terms of how much research they are asked to produce but also in terms of teaching. I didn’t realize until after I left that I had had a running dialogue in my head for the entire time I was a grad student and professor: How MUCH do you teach? How WELL do you teach? How MUCH do your students love you? Oh, you teach with an innovative pedagogy? WE HATE IT EVEN THAT’S WHY WE HIRED YOU. Oh, you’re a woman or nonbinary person or person of color? TOO BAD. The same faculty colleagues will commiserate with you over cocktails and trash you in the annual review meeting. (I’ve heard of this happening in library review committees, too.) I register this as a learning point here because I suspect librarians have little clue the extent to which faculty at their own universities are berated, belittled, patronized, and gaslit by their own colleagues when trying to get the basic tenets of their job done. It’s exhausting and detrimental to the whole university culture, and it’s no wonder faculty have zero bandwidth to hear about our open-access mission.
- Faculty Translation: A good part of my work these days feels translational with faculty–using my own experiences as a research and teaching faculty member to teach them about Open Access, help them write research for different venues, guide their digital humanities work with some project management tips, suggest placement of their research in our repository, etc.–all with their own best (tenure) interests in mind. That is work that my having a PhD and having gone through the academic tenure system at multiple school types and produced research in a publish-or-perish model helps me know deeply. I understand faculty’s concerns about publishing in an embodied, emotional way because I’ve been there. I recognize the perils of Tenure Brain because I have lived through them, and now I do everything I can to assure and mentor faculty that we are here to help them succeed in their tenure cases (as needed) while also helping them realize they have many more options available to them within their rights.
I think there’s a long way to go to create understanding between the way libraries, library publishers, and research faculty talk and think about scholarly publishing. Library publishers have an incredible amount of knowledge here, but so do faculty–and they need to somehow meet in the middle. I am grateful that my current position has allowed me to transition into that kind of work–making the connections needed between faculty and librarians and publishing so that we can begin to change the scholarly ecosystem to one that is more emotionally and physically (and technically) sustainable, accessible, and equitable. I am here for that.