February 16, 2018

Staying Focused On the Good Work We Do | From the Bell Tower

You can respond to the purveyors of doom and gloom two ways – get defensive in an attempt to prove them wrong or stay focused on the good work you do. Good sources of inspiration can help us stay focused on what matters.

It’s a scenario familiar in higher education. Someone writes an essay or opinion piece that, with the help of sweeping generalizations, either condemns educators for maintaining a dismal status quo or predicts the imminent demise of the entire enterprise. Give up now we are told because the future looks dim. I’m fine with any critic who wants to share their views about challenges that may be holding back our progress, but I expect more than negativity. Let’s hear more about the possible solutions. Too often those delivering their message of doom and gloom are content to tell us where we’ve failed and why we are now doomed to obsolescence, yet neglect to share their brilliant thoughts on how we get back on the right track. That’s why I’ve largely decided to stop paying attention.

Blinders removed

It’s far from a case of burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring an important warning. There’s always value in being reminded that our community members have new and different expectations, that there are innovative competitors racing from behind to disrupt our traditional methods, and that we ignore all of this at our own peril. Both higher education and the library organizations that serve it have much room for improvement. We get it. In fact, if we need negative messages to motivate us to change, we have already lost the battle to maintain our relevancy: Any organization worthy of serving its community is already taking action to create the change that will make a difference in the lives of the community members.

In recent weeks, faculty across the nation were riled up by an essay that claimed they had it too damn easy, and librarians were once again reminded that Google is eating their lunch. There’s no point in linking to these articles because they neither offer ideas for improving how the public perceives our work nor recommend strategies for meeting the challenges of a changing higher education environment. What I will do is remind you that in higher education there are still opportunities for people with great ideas and determination to make a difference.

Creating opportunity

There is ongoing debate about the value of a college education, and whether it really pays to invest the time in earning a bachelor’s degree. One thing that can make a difference is creating more opportunity for academic and lifelong success in fields where it is unavailable to students. A good example is computer science, especially for female students. The one person at any college who can create change is the president, but with so many competing priorities small issues may go unnoticed. That’s why the story of Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, captured my attention. Recognizing how few female students major in computer science, Klawe decided to turn things around at her institution. As a scientist herself, Klawe was concerned about the declining number of women entering computer science, and decided to do something about the even more abysmally low number of female computer science majors at Harvey Mudd. According to a profile of the changes she instituted, the college is now turning out a far greater number of female programmers.  The curriculum change, a set of computer science and programming courses specifically designed to reduce the intimidation factor that scares off female students, is now being adopted at other liberal arts colleges. We rarely read about these types of success stories in higher education, and we should all be inspired by leaders, like President Klawe, who decide that innovation is the best way to improve the quality of education and society.

Good work all around

There are all sorts of inspiring stories in the world of higher education. One of my recent favorites was about the Penn State student who traveled to New York City in order to ride the subways where he tap danced to raise money for his tuition. Many people were captivated by this student’s creative method of financing his education, although it’s a poignant statement on the decline of public funding for higher education. For all the negative opinion pieces about higher education, there is a counterbalancing abundance of encouraging news that can sustain our belief that we do good work in higher education.  What about in our academic libraries? While it may be rarer to find these types of inspiring stories in the media, in the course of our work and travels we come across them all the time. The latest LJ Movers & Shakers profiles several academic librarians who are doing great work for their communities. If you needed some reassurance that our profession is in good hands, those stories ought to do the trick.

One person at a time

The Library Machine

The Library Machine

I suggest you take a look around. Local and regional conferences are another great way to reinvigorate your spirit. When I attended the Illinois ACRL conference last month, I was impressed by the great ideas being shared in the sessions, and I discovered at least three good ideas worth stealing at the poster session (e.g. “the library machine”, shown).

There may even be inspiration right in your own backyard. There’s a satisfaction survey in progress at my library, and the comments are enlightening. Yes, there are the usual complaints about photocopiers, noise and not enough of this or too much of that, but I’ve been reading so many wonderful comments about the quality of the library’s service. The credit for that goes to our great staff and their commitment to delivering the best possible library experience. It is all too easy to allow the bad news and dire predictions for higher education frustrate us. Let’s remind ourselves that we need to focus on what’s most important – making a difference for a student, faculty member or colleague. Pushing ourselves to stay focused on creating the best possible library today and working on making it great for the future is hard work. Who has time to listen to doom and gloom?

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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