Gavia Libraria

Unpacking “faculty status”

There’s been quite a bit of news and commentary lately, some of it quite good, on the question of whether librarians need, much less deserve, faculty status. It seems to the Loon that at least some of the commentators are talking past each other, however, so she’d like to unpack the question in her own way.

Taken down to essentials, what the Loon believes we’re arguing over is job security, social status, certain kinds of protection, and voice in campus governance. Let’s look at those one at a time, and because the Loon is perverse today, let’s do so in reverse.

Voice in campus governance

Policy decisions on university campuses are not (despite efforts) the exclusive province of campus administrators. Quite a few decisions, including on library-relevant issues such as open access and data stewardship, are made by collections of people with “faculty status.” No faculty status, no voice; that’s just how academe’s caste system works.

It would be better if the caste system were considerably looser, to be sure. Since it isn’t, the Loon cannot but think it better for librarians to have and employ that voice wherever and whenever they can, and to raise hell when voice is stripped from them. If there’s another way than faculty status to have actionable voice in campus governance, wonderful—but where there isn’t, loss of faculty status is indeed significant.

Protection

What’s called “academic freedom” is (in Margaret Atwood’s trenchant taxonomy) both “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Freedom from curricular meddling, from overall program design down to individual instructors’ decisions on individual courses or lesson plans. Freedom from having to toe particular political lines. Freedom to speak one’s mind publicly, with one’s colleagues, and in the classroom, within (compared to most other employers in the US) fairly broad and reasonable limits.

The Loon need look no further than the ongoing Dale Askey/Edwin Mellen Press case to demonstrate the necessity of such protections for librarians; instruction librarians, of course, know all about this already. She’ll also remark that since the BAE left a librarian position in a library where librarians do not have faculty status for an instructor position that carries it, she has already felt the chill breath of administrative censorship pass overhead. If she’d still been a librarian… well, things could have gotten ugly, because the Loon would have had no more (likely less) protection than Askey. Things didn’t. Protection matters—protection from outside and inside interference.

If faculty status isn’t the right way for us to protect ourselves, what is?

Social status

Academe is a caste system, and though the highest caste—tenured faculty—is shrinking steadily and inexorably, it still wields immense social power. (As they say, if the faculty ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.) Administrators as a caste, depending on the institution, wield as much power as faculty, or even more.

Another feature of academe’s caste system is, unfortunately, abysmally poor treatment of, and low to nonexistent respect for, lower castes by higher ones. This is not universal, and can sometimes (by dint of considerable effort) be overcome when it appears; nonetheless, the Loon is far from the only librarian to observe faculty treating librarians like serfs. The knowledge that Ph.Ds treat their own better than others is also part of what’s behind recruitment of Ph.D holders to library positions.

The Loon does not subscribe to the belief that if we’re visibly shiny excellent effective librarians, we’ll receive the respect and collaborative attitude we deserve from impressed faculty. Occasionally this works, though generally on an individual rather than collective basis. Often it doesn’t, either because faculty are savage snobs, because individual librarians aren’t visibly shiny enough, or because it simply isn’t possible for librarians to be visibly shiny enough, individually or as a group, to earn sufficient faculty respect to do what libraries and librarians need to do.

By and large, the Loon leans toward the lattermost phenomenon as possessing the most explanatory power, though both the others do occur and cause serious relationship damage. She can explain neither the narrowminded faculty attitudes in Ithaka’s surveys, nor widespread faculty ignorance of common library services, only with faculty snobbery and librarian inadequacy. Something larger is at work. The Loon thinks it’s caste privilege, though she’s open to better explanations.

(Incidentally, faculty and researchers? Kindly forgive the Loon a momentary rant: Shut the everliving hell up about how libraries need to market services better; the Loon is well beyond weary of that tunnel-visioned, privileged excuse for your refusal to pay attention. Take responsibility for local environmental awareness. Poke your noses out of your labs and offices. Talk to your liaison librarian, those of you who have one, now and then—and if you don’t know who that is, finding out should be the work of a moment’s web browsing. Thank you.)

Given caste privilege and the very real discontents of lacking it, the Loon is loath to give up a valuable collective status-booster without a fight. The real question in her mind is whether what librarians have to do to achieve that collective boost in status is worth it. Usually that means research and tenure hoop-jumping. The Loon believes that academe heavily overprivileges research (including useless research) and underestimates praxis, so she has no pat answer. She does, however, believe that formulating the question as a set of tradeoffs is likeliest to lead to an effective answer.

Job security

The Loon is of several minds on this, as always; she is keenly aware that fools, including library-internal fools, deeply desire devaluation of academic-library labor, but she is also keenly aware that academic libraries have a considerable burden of staff and service malinvestment to deal with. If there are easy answers to this dilemma, the Loon doesn’t know what they are.

Once again, though, the most useful frame for the discussion seems to be tradeoffs. Job security, at the expense of considerable time spent jumping tenure hoops? Job security versus staff agility? And what would a profession look like in which the terms in the previous question do not oppose one another?

No answers, none; but the Loon hopes better, clearer questions might help.