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Peer mentoring (comes free with rant: “why you don’t need an Old Members Roundtable”)

I know I said I’d write about web stuff. I’m getting to it. But I am also going through my “to blog” list and trying to write up the coolest things. This is one of those cool things. (Yes, there’s a rant tagged on to the end. That makes it cooler, right? Right?)

I work at an academic library, which means I’m part of the tenure system. (Cue the booing and hissing. I don’t entirely disagree with you; rock on.)

Traditionally, the library’s tenure files have been among the best in the university. I think because we’re different from faculty in other departments, we work extra hard on our files. Everyone agrees that the library peer review committee is the toughest level of review to get through. They do want to see candidates for tenure be successful, though, so we have a mentoring system in place, and the library peer review committee gives some unofficial, off the record advice, in addition to the formal advice that stays with the candidate’s file. As part of this whole ethic of perfection, we have a tradition of doing “practice files” (which is exactly what it sounds like: put together a file, before your real file is due, and the library peer review committee will review it). There were a series of minor kerfuffles over that process over the past few years, I think because the library’s a little out of practice in dealing with new librarians/academics.

The current crop of untenured faculty—at six people, this is probably the most untenured faculty the library’s had in a very long time—have taken this whole “get used to faculty status” thing into our own hands, by agreeing to meet just with each other semi-regularly at a bar near campus, so we can share ideas and talk in a lower-pressure environment than the library’s all-faculty meetings. (We call this group “Junior Faculty,” but you’ll see me write around that term all through this post. It’s a traditional way to refer to untenured faculty, but I don’t like it much.) The beer helps keep the meeting informal, and the off-campus location means our future peer reviewers won’t hear our questions; we don’t have to worry about sounding naive or accidentally stepping into organizational politics. We can each take the group’s questions back to our tenured mentors and get the information we need, semi-anonymously.

It’s a good system, and it’s been pretty successful, so far. I feel like I know my library faculty cohort (those of us who are new at the same time, as opposed to those who were new at the same time 5, 10, or 15 years ago) much better because of it, which is doubly good since we span five different departments.

And, sure, it’s unsurprising that I like the idea: I’m pretty clearly on the record as being in favor of new librarians getting together and librarians of all kinds socializing outside of work. (I’m not alone in this.) To be clear, though, I’m just a participant, not the founder—three or four of us stumbled upon this plan, together, one afternoon. I think that makes me like it even better—no one person feels responsible for making sure we all get together (an increasingly difficult job, since our free afternoons don’t seem to overlap).

Anyway, we’ll see how this works over time, both with the scheduling issues and, over a longer period, with turnover. Three of us go up for tenure in the next three years. Each of us will have to leave the group when we get tenure; those are the rules we’ve agreed to. And, of course, by then, the library will have hired a couple more people, too. I’ll be interested to see how the group changes over time, as different people join, and whether it holds up—or whether it has to. By the time the first three of us have been through the whole tenure process, the organization as a whole will be back in practice with helping new people through tenure. (That said, I hope they keep doing it!)

The faculty, over all, have been very supportive, for which I am grateful. I think people are glad to see us newbies informally mentoring each other, and probably anything that increases inter-departmental communication is seen by the library at large as A Good Thing(TM).

Just here for the rant? Start here.

A couple of people have expressed a feeling of exclusion, that we don’t invite tenured faculty, and we feel bad about that. But, on reflection, I don’t think we should feel bad about it. For one thing, there are other opportunities for socializing outside of work. But, more importantly, we aren’t the only faculty members to hang out. Several members of the previous cohorts spend time together outside of work. I think it helps them work together better, just as it does for us. I remember hearing about people going out berry picking together, or shopping together, or having book clubs together, when I was very new, and feeling super left out. I guess that’s where the instinct to feel bad comes from—it sucks to feel excluded.

But here’s the thing: I was excluded, by virtue of not knowing these folks as well as they knew each other—basically, by being new. And that’s totally fine. They had no obligation to invite someone from a professional context, whom they barely knew, along for social events. They invited some other coworkers because they already knew each other well. They had their own mini Tenured Faculty Group, if you want to look at it that way, though thank goodness it wasn’t formalized. To generalize it and be more accurate, they already had their [workplace] networks built.

But that’s the value of the Junior Faculty group. And of the New Members Roundtable. And of any group for new people to an organization. We don’t yet have our networks built. We are excluded by virtue of not already knowing people. It’s not a deliberate exclusion. There’s not anything malicious in it. It’s just a fact of life: most people want to spend some time with the people they already know. I mean, I almost didn’t write “we” in the sentence above, about having networks, because I’ve done the same thing at conferences: there are people I am pleased as punch to see, and I go out of my way to talk to them. Which probably means I miss the opportunity to talk to some perfectly nice people that I don’t already know. Like I said, life. And not malicious.

But that’s why I get so incredibly frustrated and angry when people say things like “We need to form an Old Members Roundtable.” Guess what, folks. You already have that. Why would you make it even harder for new people to get to know you than it already is? Why would you formalize the sense of exclusion that new people to an organization inevitably feel?

Now, I don’t think anyone was serious about an Old Members Roundtable. (A Retired Members Roundtable, I think, might have been a serious proposal. That’s different; retired members have a distinct set of concerns, abilities, and interests from the rest of us. Rock on, retirees, I support you!) I think I got super angry about what was, in all likelihood, a joke. At least, I really hope it was a joke.

</rant>

Which is all to say, I empathize with the coworkers who feel excluded by the Junior Faculty group. I just also happen to disagree with them that there’s anything bad about this group getting together, or unreasonable about not allowing tenured faculty/peer reviewers to join us.

But I hereby cordially invite them to come hang out at Interlibrary Lush, instead. We’ll be at Uncle Joe’s Pizza, on Tudor, on 11/10, at 7:30pm. I hope they start showing up: it would be cool to get to know more of my colleagues outside of work!

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