Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The No-Matter-What Rule: Chronic Illness Version

A recent Chronicle article titled "The No-Matter-What Rule of Academic Motherhood" caught my attention recently, not least because a good many of my similarly-aged colleagues around the country have recently become mothers in the past two years. Childless, I cannot imagine the extra work of raising a whole human being while also working the academic track.

After thinking about it some more, I thought perhaps I could add a little something. There is also a No-Matter-What rule of Academic Chronic Illness, though it is less written about, and perhaps less known as a challenge.

I got sick in 2010, but wasn't diagnosed until a complete physical collapse in summer of 2011. Swollen and painful joints, extreme fatigue, complete collapse after working too many hours, or doing anything physical, and constant bouts of colitis finally landed me at a rheumatologist who diagnosed me with Ankylosing Spondylitis and/or Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I worked in a boom-and-bust mode. I was embarrassed that I was out so often, so when I was back at work, I burned the candle at both ends. Which of course led to another flare, another hospital stay.My colleagues tried to rein me in, but I was angry. I was intent on continuing my previous activity rate, and my body was just going to have to get with the program.My version of the No-Matter-What rule of Academic Chronic Illness was that when you were back on your feet, no matter how wobbly, you put the pedal to the metal. No matter what.

Sadly, and as you might expect, bodies do not work that way. The boom-and-bust was a disaster for me. It was very hard on my colleagues.

It took me a few years to figure out--and then accept--what I needed to be and stay well. I need natural, non-processed foods, low-impact exercise, and lots of rest. Lots and lots. I can predict that a flare will happen after a day of extreme activity, or when I'm under stress. Other flares show up with no rhyme or reason. Most recently, a slight flu-ish feeling turned into a full-on bout of uncontrollable colitis, and boom - hospital stay. I wasn't badly stressed. I was excited about my new position, meeting new faculty, and teaching information literacy sessions. My diet has changed for the better, living in the land of produce. It was one of those run-of-the-mill "shit happens" (haha) type of things.

I was horrified. And terrified.

My colleagues made it crystal clear that my "catching up" by working 80 hours a week for the next few weeks was neither expected of me nor desirable to them. I was honest, I told them I felt guilty for being out during the busiest weeks of our semester. Colleagues had picked up teaching classes and covering desk time. I wanted them to know I could be a productive member of the team (and to be honest, did not want them to fire me after only arriving in July!), and I was terrified that I might have to go home early on the week I returned if I had a rough day. They were understanding, but firm: I was to do what I needed to make myself well. If I was too hurt or ill to work, I was to go home and rest. I was afraid to ask for it, but they gave me the permission I needed to take care of myself.

Not everyone has that flexibility, or colleagues that are so supportive. Last week was my first full week back. I'm still moving slightly more slowly than normal, but I've jumped right back into teaching classes, working the reference desk, and building relationships with faculty. Being social is part of my work, really--serendipitous meetings and social gatherings allow me to work my relationship-building mojo, and informal settings are a great foundation for friendships and "let's-do-coffees" that turn into great opportunities to help students. I choose which events to attend carefully, since I know I cannot do them all. I try to make it clear that it is not for lack of enthusiasm!

I've discovered that the No-Matter-What rule for Chronic Illness is different from the mom-version, which is, according to that Chronicle piece, work no matter what. Instead, for me, it is "take care of myself no matter what." If I don't, nothing else--including the work, or quality time with my husband--gets done.

It is a tough balance. I am terminally enthusiastic, and it is hard work for me to limit my engagements. I am much better about it than I used to be. I respect my colleagues and my loved ones, and to give them the best of myself, which is what they need from me, takes very careful work and decision-making on my part.

I am approaching the 3rd anniversary of my original diagnosis, and truly, it has taken me this long to figure things out. From what I have read and heard from friends, this is not uncommon--but I didn't know that until I started to read about living with chronic illness, and until I came out pretty publicly on my blog. Who knew there were so many of us?

And now I am dealing with something else the chronically ill are too familiar with, which is shifting diagnoses. Many autoimmune diseases mimic each other, but the best treatments can vary widely. My current rheumatologist fears I may have been misdiagnosed, and that it is not RA or AS, but fibromyalgia. I communicate some healthstuffs with my colleagues so that they know what to expect, which is my choice--many folks choose not to discuss it at work. Because I know that coming off of all my medications to get a baseline measure of how bad things are will result in my being a little wonky, and that starting new medications can be just as difficult, I try to let the folks I work with know enough so that they know what they can expect from me, and not to be surprised if I put in a request to not teach back-to-back on certain days. It's also a sort of heads-up to myself that my No-Matter-What coping skills will be tested, and may need to be altered.

When I started this position, I was chatting with Debi, my head of public services, and she admitted to a similar obsession for our work in information literacy--then she reminded me to get out and go home. "It'll kill you if you let it," she smiled. And it would, as I could happily work on instruction-related projects until my eyes fell out of my head. Going home, for me, becomes as important as going to work. It allows me to recharge, spend quality time with my husband, and rest this old creaky bod so that it will work for me the following day. I used to work quite a bit at night from home; now, it really is downtime, and I can enjoy it knowing that it serves me as a health measure.

A mother's No-Matter-What rule may be different, per the Chronicle, and gods bless any parent who can raise children and work full time anywhere, much less academia. Not all chronic illness sufferers will have the same No-Matter-What rule, though "saving spoons" (a euphemism for saving our sparse energy) is likely a major part of their decision-making, too. Do you have a No-Matter-What rule? Which of your priorities does it serve?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Welcome to Fall 2014! An Update from Sunny CA

It has been a busy summer. In late June, my husband and I packed all our things, drugged our anxious Basset hounds Otto and Igor, and headed west. We drove from Chattanooga, TN to Camarillo, CA for our next big adventure.

We decided to splurge on a bigger home than our tiny 1BR back in Chattanooga. We now live in a 3BR, 2.5BA townhome. We made the decision not just for size, but because the property is practically on campus at CSU Channel Islands and is only a half-mile walk to the library where I work. Additional bonuses include a two car garage, and being across the street from the dog walking and running trail. Coming home from errands, we drive through strawberry fields and a lemon/lime tree orchard.

It is beautiful here in Southern California. It seems bizarre to live in a place where we don't allow the weather to dictate what we wear. In fact, we don't ask about the weather at all. It is always sunny and beautiful with azure skies. Always. Constant sunshine, friendly neighbors, and the beach being less than ten miles away makes it easy to remain in a good mood.

I am the newest reference and instruction librarian here at CSU Channel Islands, and will become the Information Literacy Coordinator once I soak up all of Debi's knowledge and training. I'm also part of The Seventeen, as the incoming tenure track class has been dubbed, and we are planning to get together on a regular basis to keep in touch.

My office is in the John Spoor Broome Library, with my colleagues. The library is an intriguing blend of old Spanish architecture (from when the campus was a mental institution) and modern design, with glass front and an infinity pool right before the entrance. Cool fact: the library basement used to be the hospital's morgue. (I think we just one-upped the sinking library urban legend...and ours is real!) My colleagues are phenomenal. They believe strongly in baked goods, so I fit in perfectly. Everyone is enthusiastic about serving our students and faculty, so there is great energy, and everyone is possessed of a great sense of humor. Everyone is welcoming, and energetic, and the veteran faculty (though nobody is too veteran; our campus is only 13 years old) make it clear they want to welcome us new folk, work with us, and plan the future of the university with us. And the future of our University is in our students.

We are a Hispanic-serving institution, with just about 40% of our 5,000 students claiming a Hispanic background. Many of them are first generation college students, and their enthusiasm for starting the school year last week was incredible. I grew up in a school district that had a high Hispanic population, and seeing these students in college warms my heart and makes me feel at home.

I'm full up with new library instruction class preps for classes like Business of Art, University studies, a passel of Pyschology courses, an upper level Spanish course, and more. I've got meetings on the books with a number of faculty around campus, and I'm attending as many open meetings as possible to meet everyone. CSU Channel Islands actually has information literacy written into their academic outcomes, and campus faculty and staff have only great things to say about how the library helps them accomplish those outcomes. In addition to teaching information literacy sessions, I'll be observing my colleagues to learn what works best in their different styles, picking their brains on content and contacts, joining some University committees, and doing campus walkabouts to meet faculty in their native habitats.

In short, it's an exciting time for me to be starting at a new University. I'm full of questions and ideas, and after last week (our first week of classes), I'm even more convinced I made the right decision to come here. Expect more about library instruction and interdisciplinary projects in the next few months!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Re-Visioning Experience: A Librarian's Aside on Gendered Violence

Changing lanes and speaking as a woman-librarian, and not just a librarian:

I feel I can take care of myself. Years of working in customer service have honed my skills of talking folks down from anger and frustration. I'm not a small woman, and I consider myself more aggressive than most. I've taken numerous RAD classes for self-defense, and succeeded in defending myself again one attacker, then two. I went to the 54th largest high school in America in an area still riddled with gang violence, drugs and crime, and managed to stay clean. I worked the second and third shift for a number of years, walking home in the dark, dodging requests for a light, and for other less savory things. I pack a mean right hook and I've got a nasty mouth learned from growing up in NY with a former sailor for a dad. I'm heavy and solid, you probably can't carry me away unless you've got some serious towing power. It takes a lot to rattle me.

But I have been rattled.

Years ago, I reported an employee for dishonesty and arranged for a meeting with my boss, the employee, myself and Human Resources. Upon learning that I had reported him and was following up on the issue, the man's response was to stomp into my office, close the door, loom over and across the desk I was sitting at, jut his index finger down at me and tell me "You're gonna pay for this," spittle flying, his face red with anger. My adrenaline spiked, and I managed to say, "Please leave. We will discuss the issue at the scheduled meeting." He spat, "Bitch," spun on one foot and left.

This was in my office, beside a very large and heavily-trafficked public service desk, in an academic library, in a major city. Bright lights. Lots of people. White-collar job with air-conditioning and holidays, high heels clicking on tiles and students filling water bottles at the fountain just past my office.

It was not a place I thought I would ever feel fear.

My heart was still beating hard. He was gone, but I was still shaking, my mind was still flying through permutations of what-would-I-do, he was between me and the door, and the closest defensive weapons I had access to were a handful of books, my computer monitor, pens. Eventually the panic faded, and what took its place was anger.

I told my boss about what happened, how angry I was. She asked me if I had contacted Human Resources. I hadn't; I knew we would be seeing HR about the dismissal and felt there was no need for an additional meeting or report. I can take care of myself, and nothing really happened, I think I said. My boss asked me what I would have done if the man had acted the same way with my staff, two young women, petite, and I realized I would have feared for their safety and immediately phoned security or HR. What would I have done if this man had done the same thing to my sister in her workplace? Of course I would report it and pursue the biggest punishment possible. I would have been terrified for her until he was off the premises.

But then I see the Elliot Rodgers killing spree, and I wonder how many women turned the other cheek at his aggression. How many figured that his behavior didn't merit intervention since he didn't actually hit them. How many did not have a wise friend like my boss who could highlight that whether or not I was okay, that such behavior was not okay, and that someone in a position of power needed to know about, and act upon, it.

There is more to violence against women than being punched in the face, or raped. There is the male assumption that women owe them anything. There is the assumption that part of the rites of manhood includes what-you-can-get-from-a-woman. There is the fact that women must always be on edge and prepared for violence, prepared to cross the street, prepared to diffuse a man's anger with a smile and pleading tone, prepared to defend their reasons for declining physical contact, prepared to defend her choice of clothing, prepared to defend her right to say Don't touch me. We live in a society where it is assumed that a man can tell you not to lay a finger on his fresh-waxed sports car, but where a man laying hands on a woman--against her will--is grounds for arguments about "gray areas."

I was cornered against the seasick-green brick wall by the science labs once by a boy in high school who wanted to kiss me, his hands on the wall at either side of my head. I have walked, intoxicated, five miles home in the dark because my then-college-friend would only drive me home if I had sex with him. I have been whooped at on the street by construction workers while walking to class when I was in graduate school in Atlanta, and I have been called a cunt on the sidewalk for not adding some change to a homeless man's palm. Lawmakers have compared me to cows and pigs. I have had to beg a male coworker to walk me back to my hotel at a professional conference after an after-hours get-together, and still we argue over whether our conferences need a statement of appropriate conduct. I have been cornered in my office, with my desk and an aggressor between myself and the door.

And still, until I thought about it, I never considered myself a victim of gendered violence. I have never sported man-made bruises or broken bones. No man's fist had made contact with any part of my person. And now with the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, I find that I've actually turned a blind eye to my own experience, owning it as normal, part and parcel of life. Reading the paragraph before this one, replacing myself with my sister, mother, aunt, best friend, is terrifying. I would be furious on their behalf if any of then told me just one of those experiences. But maybe that's why they don't stand out for me - they are not just one experience, they are many, and they span my childhood to my present mid-30s.

Several of my best friends have given birth to little girls in the past year. While I smile, knowing these little girls have the models of their fierce and wonderful mothers, I also wince a little bit every time new parents break out the pink booties. This world is not safe for you, yet, little ones. Be wary, be fierce, and learn from your mothers.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Librarian At Your Service

The Friday of a long week, where I was ill and out of the office on Monday, taught some advanced research classes, and had more than my usual in research appointments. Aside from Monday, it was a bang-up week. A graduate level Education class has a rowdy and fun instruction session Tuesday night, and actively interested students populated the upper-level undergraduate History instruction session on Wednesday afternoon, despite the classroom being near-85 degrees. Yesterday's research appointment showed up on time, and left feeling empowered to find what she needed. Today's research appointment for a student studying linguistics went beyond well, fleshing out research strategies for two different research papers. Five minutes ago, the Political Science department just called to ask if I would spend some time with each of their candidates to talk about library services and resources. (I did this for them in their last search, and apparently got good reviews. Hooray for successful selling of the library!)

I'm happily looking ahead to next week, with another instruction session for Education grad students, some statistics crunching, article edits, and POLS candidates in the mix. But today tastes like success! And illicit Poptarts from the vending machine. But mostly success.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Go Forth and Do What You Love (A New Project Aside)

I've been working lately to redistribute my time to better fit my goals. This includes accounting for time for swimming and physical therapy (good for my joints), time for cooking (I feel much better having started a new restrictive diet), time for funning with my husband and hounds (good for my mental health and love life), time for good sleep, time for keeping up with the library instruction and pedagogical perspectives world now that I'm teaching again, and time for hobbies, which were the first things I dropped when time became scarce. This commitment to balance has had an interesting (but probably not surprising) effect: I engage in fewer activities, but I believe I do them to a better quality. (Transitioning to fewer but higher-quality activities is something my colleagues and friends have advocated for a few years now, I'm just a stubborn ass who refused to think I couldn't do-and-have everything I wanted. So, hat tip to those who are wiser, and a double-tip to everyone for having patience with me while I worked it out in my own head.)

One of my former hobbies - crafting, and specifically crochet - has become a staple of health, both physical and mental. Physically, crocheting keeps my fingers from freezing up, which happens a lot in the colder months; mentally, I feel like I am doing something productive in otherwise wasted-time spaces (traffic, waiting rooms, tv-time, lunch). I have decided to grow my skills by learning how to knit and quilt as well, and gamble and see if it can survive as a small business. I do the crafting anyway, might as well give it a nice outlet, right?

And thus, Colleen's Craftworks, Inc. is born. Not only will I have a small online storefront, I'm going to use funds from sales to begin teaching free crafting classes for the community, with materials provided by the wee business. I am very excited about this, since it will allow me to combine my love for lasting handicraft (another hat-tip to the blankets made by my mother and grandmother) with my love for teaching people useful skills.

How does this cross over into librarianship? Surprised the heck out of me, since I might have said "Nothing," before this, but there are a few ways. I now better understand the burden placed on our business and entrepreneurship students and patrons to understand all of the necessary steps for choosing a type of business, making a number of decisions, and getting the paperwork together for it. I am building libraries for the business, a reference library of books and online videos focusing on crocheting, quilting, and knitting techniques and patterns, a materials library of yarn and quilting fabric, and a tools/notions library (sewing machine, rotary cutter, crochet hooks, knitting needles, etc.), which is a fascinating change from the traditional collection development I am familiar with. I've bought a domain and hosting, and I will be working on my first-ever Wordpress installation. I'm going to dust off my hands and dip into webwork to develop the site and create an area for craft blogging (in the hopes of having guest bloggers, as well as sharing my own tips, techniques, and projects), setting up an online storefront (I'll probably cheat an use Etsy to start with), a section for craft tutorials, and a rotating gallery section where crafters I know and love can display and/or sell some of their work. There will be an instruction side, as I'm hoping to encourage the creativity of others through free workshops targeted to different age groups via the public library and community centers. So, a lot of new skill-building for me that is relevant to my work *and* my play, and some using of old-skills in new ways.

I am not planning to blog about the business stuff here in my librarianship space unless something relevant to librarianship pops up. (Something else I've discovered is that separating my work/life spaces from each other makes me much happier.) If you would like to follow the progress of my crafty and business side, you can:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Conscious Effort to Live Joyously

I am blessed beyond belief. I have a husband who is a veritable unicorn, family that love me, friends who support me, a good job, a good education. So why am I always bitching?

I've been listening more this year. To birds, water, the wind outside the car on the interstate. To my husband's voice, my friends enjoying their new children, the assorted gurgles, snorts, yelps and barks that make up basset hound communiques. To myself.

I found myself complaining a lot. Some of it was general life-stuff that passes quickly - traffic, costs, a run in my tights, a dog-stomped toe, rotten salad in the fridge. Some of it stems from larger sources: work, finances, futurestuffs. Being chronically ill means a near-daily inventory of aches, pains, and difficulties so that I can properly report developments and improvements to the docs. There was a lot of complaining. I am also the sort of person for whom the immediate rage/rant response comes naturally, with thoughtful parsing of situations coming only after the initial flare. I'm passionate about a lot of things, and I tend to run hot. This doesn't mean I can't be thoughtful, just that it tends not to be my first response.

I got tired of listening to myself. I didn't really want to be me anymore. Which made me wonder how on earth my friends and family must feel.

And so I decided to start living joyously in a very conscious way. The things I complain about that I can do something to alleviate, I will. The things I complain about that I have no control over, I am working to let slide over me with less hateful reaction and little mention.

I've surprised myself at how quickly this changes the tenor of life.


This Attack of the Polar Vortex makes things difficult health-wise, since my rheumatic disease does not respond well to changes in pressure, temperature, or humidity. But the past month has been transformative.

I had some luck with going gluten-lite, and before Christmas my doctor recommended the Virgin Diet: No corn, eggs, dairy, gluten, soy, peanuts, or sweeteners. While I can't say I'm 100% virgin (hahaha), I'd probably come in at about 95%. And I can definitely tell the results. My historically histrionic digestive tract has become positively mellow (minus the recent bout of antibiotic-induced illness). I thought the research and arguments about sensitivities to those seven ingredients made sense when reading Dr. Virgin's book, but the physical results have made me a believer. Post-script: you would not BELIEVE how many foods have unnecessary additions of corn, soy, gluten, and sweetener in them. My husband and I now deal only with real food, with only the occasional M&M or gelato slip.

I've finally realized the power of planning, something my mother has advocated since I was wee. I've found that preparing lunches for the week on Sunday, making sure we're stocked with good food (or prepping dinners via crockpot on Sunday), keeping frozen fruit and coconut milk around for breakfast smoothies, and having a supportive spouse help immensely. Having that breakfast smoothie keeps me sated until lunchtime. Eating a real lunch (usually consisting of 1/2c brown rice, 1/2c black beans, 1/2c chopped chicken breast, 1/4 chopped avocado) keeps me sated until dinnertime. Forcing myself to take 30 minutes dedicated solely to lunch makes me feel better and keeps me feeling good through the end of the workday. Knowing we have the ingredients around for dinner keeps us from scrambling, and keeps me from making poor (*cough, curly fries, burgers, pizza, cough*) decisions. Yes, I realize that this is a "duh" realization, that this is a simple thing to do, but it requires the effort of Past Planner Me to make the life of Future Me healthy and easy. It's a discipline, and one I haven't had before now.

Swimming has been an incredible way to get my exercise in. I have been disappointed at regular workouts, and how the RA/AS limits me. I feel unfulfilled, even working with a trainer, because everything has to be low/no-impact on my joints. (Let me be honest. Working out was a way for me to burn of my various rages. I *LIKED* flipping that huge tractor tire. I *liked* huffingly and puffingly conquering the elliptical. A bare sheen of sweat from low impact exercise made me feel like time in the gym was a waste of time, because I didn't feel wasted.

Along came swimming. I discovered that Speedo makes suits for us long-torsoed (read: big bellied/butted) women. I found that my gym has a heated lap pool and a hot tub. I discovered that that switch from doggy-paddling to swimming was minor, and the rewards from hauling back and forth the pool were major. It's a whole-body workout that doesn't make me overheat, since I'm already in the pool. I'm too busy trying to both move forward and breathe-not-drown to pay attention to whether anyone is looking at me. I feel light in the water. I can feel all of my muscles working - shoulders, legs, arms, back, sides - and it makes me happy. Super bonus: while it lends itself to a good all-over muscle ache and great sleep, it doesnt just not hurt my joints, it makes them feel lubed up. I can tell my range of motion has improved, and weather-induced inflammation isn't as bad when I've been swimming. And so, I'm doing both doc-ordered water aerobics and my own lap swimming. And when I finish my laps, I am *proud* of myself. Bummed that I haul out of the pool fully tired at fifteen or so minutes, I calculated it and that's how long it takes me to swim just over 300 yards. Three football fields. I can make my body swim that far, and I'm not in any good shape yet. I am excited to see how that will improve, and I am proud because it is more than the zero I could have done, and more than I would have guessed I could do.

Free Time?

I have been very conscious of downtime lately, both because I need it and because I hate feeling lazy. Thus, dilemma. My schedule has more downtime in it than many folks', largely because overextension (a habit of mine) has deleterious effects on my health. I don't want my free time to be wasted time. I have the good luck of having found an incredible partner - I want to squeeze every last drop from our time together. I want to be present and engaged. I wanted to find something non-stressful that I could do in the evenings while sitting with my husband, talking, catching up on our preferred shows, and snorgling the basset hounds. This past autumn I dusted off some old craft skills to start crocheting again, and rediscovered my love of creating things.

This is something I can do to engage my creative side while still paying full attention to my little family. I carry it along in the car. I occasionally stitch at lunch. I've found myself creating up a storm, which now needs some outlet. I can crochet square things, and am now stretching out into using new stitches. Knitting is on the list to learn. And I've become obsessed with quilting - designs, fabrics, how-to books. I now have a sewing machine and a fabric library. It's odd how similar quilting and crocheting are to poetry. It brings me joy to bring something to life, especially things like blankets. I adore blankets. I usually have at least one wrapped around me at any given time at home. It makes me smile to think that something I made while thinking happy thoughts will warm someone's home, body, and heart. I have fond memories of being wrapped up in my mother's handmade blankets, and I take the opportunity to snuggle them whenever I make it home. There's something missing from a manufactured piece, fancy as it may be.

With my husband's full support, I've started a wee little business, less to make huge profit than in the interest of sharing little tangible bits of happy. I have the materials inventory, and am working on building up some saleable items. I'll be fiddling with my first Wordpress install here in the next few weekends, getting the site and Etsy shop up and running. A side-project, but one that brings me great happiness. I'll let you know when it's up and ready.

The Connection Between Self-Care and Joy

All of this self-care in terms of diet, activity, and time planning strikes me as incredibly selfish. It's a lot of time spent on myself. But:

  • I can be fully present in the moment, and enjoy time with my husband and dogs. They light up my life, and when I am out of commission, even if I am in the same room with them, I miss them.
  • I can call friends to talk about their lives without feeling guilty about being a downer.
  • I can be energetic at work, tackle new ideas and improve old ones.

  • I am rediscovering old loves - writing, crafting, reading, teaching. I feel more like my old self, the happy, active self.

Joy is work, a matter of changing old habits and patterns and re-wiring my brain into new patterns. But the results, while good for me, are also good for others.

  • It's good for my husband when I am healthy, and we can spend our time together without illness and pain tying me to the couch.
  • It's good for my friends when I feel good, because I can be a better and more involved friend, more active in contact and more pleasant to talk to.

  • It's good for my coworkers when I am healthy, and can attend to work without impinging on them for coverage.
  • It's good for my students, when I can fully concentrate on them and help them find small pieces of happiness in accomplishing their work.
  • It's good for all the people who care about me, who dislike seeing me in pain, to see me return to the happy person they knew.

And so I am done with feeling selfish for doing the things that need doing to keep me healthy and sane. I need to prioritize my energy-spending, so that instead of doing fifteen things poorly, I can do five very well. Those activities with the biggest impacts on my health - diet, exercise, and planning - take a considerable amount of time and energy. I am making a conscious effort to celebrate this instead of resenting it (my past thought-pattern), since spending the energy on these things actually begets more energy. I have the unwavering support of my husband, my constant cheerleader, and of the friends I trust.

This is not to say I don't complain anymore. I do. On occasion a stressor comes up, and I flare. But I am taking a step back, deciding what to spend my energy on. That very act has me making better decisions than I used to. With time, I hope this becomes second-nature. I can already see how being happier bleeds into my work in the classroom, with students, faculty, and library colleagues.

I wish you joy, and the courage to do what you must to pursue it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Anatomy of a Mid-Career Library Job Hunt

As noted in my previous post, I will join the library folks at CSU Channel Islands as an instruction & reference librarian in July. Since I've been asked about the job search by various folks through DMs, PMs, and IMs, I thought I'd throw some information out into the internet for those who are interested. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I'll answer as I can. (I wasn't quite brave enough to Open Access Job Hunt while it was in-process.)

Let me preface all of this information with two things: (1) I was incredibly, incredibly lucky and I know it. This may not be what the job hunt looks like for everyone, I am relating my own experience. YMMV, and widely. (2) See (1).

What & Where

Between 7/15/13 and 9/24/13, during evenings and weekends, I submitted 46 job applications. All but four of those were for academic reference and/or instruction positions (those four were for 9-month teaching faculty positions in Education and LIS departments, known long-shots since I'm still ABD). All of the library positions I applied to noted significant instruction responsibilities, which (as noted in a previous post) is my professional interest; because of my advanced degrees and research experience and interests, I applied to a number of social science and humanities librarian positions in addition to general R&I slots.

Because my husband and I are pretty flexible in terms of where we are willing to live, those 46 applications spanned 23 states. There are a bare handful of states we refuse to live in, but we have friends and family scattered widely across the country and only the two dogs to worry about disrupting, so that helps. It also helps that Jed is currently working as a contractor, doing his doctorate from a distance, and can work/study from anywhere. I'm convinced that geographic flexibility was really the major factor in having so much luck on the job hunt - while Kentucky would be an easy first choice for us in terms of where we want to live, job postings for a mid-career instruction librarian there were few and far between.

Cover Letter Habits

I'm a little weird about my cover letters; mine tend to run longer than average. After a brief intro paragraph, I let the search committee know how I meet the required and preferred qualifications. I bullet-point and bold the text from the ad, and then try to briefly describe how I meet each bullet. This is a habit I've developed after serving on search committees where we worked from a rubric. If you meet a requirement, you get a range of points, if not, no points. I don't want the committee to have to guess whether I meet a stated requirement. Again, having served on many committees, things become a blur quickly. The folks who make it easy on committee members, through the two extremes of throwing themselves out of the pool or making an excellent case for their candidacy, are usually much appreciated.

I used my introductory paragraph to briefly note why I wanted to move from access services back into reference and instruction work - a move I knew might raise some folks' eyebrows. Might as well answer their un-asked questions outright, and let them know that I still heavily dabbled on the instruction side. I use the prose in answering the requirements to let some personality shine through.* My cover letters ranged from 2 to 3 pages; no one seems to have had an issue with the length of them, though I know some folks cringe at letters going over 2 pages. The letter should get the job done, in my opinion, and I have enough experience at this point that a one-page letter is rarely appropriate. I try valiantly to keep it to 2 and to let my CV deal with the details. I'm happy to share cover letters (both successful and not), so feel free to comment or email to ask.


Out of 46 applications, I was eventually rejected outright for 7 positions, with automated letters. These were mostly sent by email, though I did receive two by post.

I was offered 12 phone interviews and 5 Skype interviews** (these spanned 14 states). Two libraries skipped the phone interview stage entirely and offered me on-campus interviews out of the gate, which I thought was both bizarre and incredibly flattering, knowing how resource-intensive it is to bring in candidates. I was dumped (in a most friendly manner) by one place after the phone interview. Due to the timing of my offer, I ended up cancelling on 9 phone interviews.

I was offered 10 on-campus interviews***, and attended four. One I had to cancel due to an unexpected hospital stay. (Talk about worst interview experience ever - calling a search chair at 7am to report that I would not be on a plane since I was in the hospital and in unpretty condition now tops my list. Major hat-tip to those libraryfolk for being kind and understanding.) Five I canceled because of the in-hand offer that wouldn't hold long enough for me to make the scheduled visits.****

I received two incredibly attractive offers. One I turned down due to a downturn in my own health that would have complicated a fast move. I was lucky enough to receive another offer with a later start date at CSU Channel Islands.

An Aside: Actually Enjoying It

Aside from the stress of ERMEGERDINTARVIEW, I have to say that this job hunt was an incredible experience for a number of reasons.

First, the support I received from my colleagues and references who knew I was hunting was invaluable. I also have a secret cabal of fellow library ladies that I consider my mentors, and they were incredibly supportive.

Knowing that you made the top-three or-five list for a position is an incredible compliment. These places were all places I would have been happy to work, with good people and energetic students and faculty. Instead of spending time stressing out (because I was stressed over personal factors elsewhere in life), I decided to take an "I'm cool, you're cool, wouldn't it be cool if we were cool together?" approach. I had the luxury of being employed while looking for a position, which was part of it. The other part was that I've started at enough new library jobs at this point in my career that I want a semi-comfortable transition into new and exciting work, and a not-uptight workplace.

I had fun with the process (if not the airport travel), and asked questions I might have been too timid to ask as a n00brarian, such as "What are the library's weakest services and relationships as they relate to this position?" and "What is your honest assessment of the Library's relationship with its Provost/Academic Affairs Office/etc.?" Because I have more time under my belt, I have better answers for questions about both my successes and failures. (I've noticed the failure stories don't get really good until you're given some major responsibilities. Heh. Don't be afraid to fail big and learn from it - if nothing else, a search committee will remember that you were interesting.)

Another Aside: The Un-Secret Disability

I have what is considered an "acquired disability" with my rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. The last time I interviewed, going on four years ago, I was not afflicted. This go-round, things were a bit different. My current library dean asked if I was planning to remove my previous blog post discussing my difficulties getting my health under control. I did not delete or hide the post. I felt that search committees should know what they were getting. I work damned hard. I am incredibly dedicated to my work and my faculty and students. I am interested and engaged. But occasionally I need some help. The committee may not be able to legally ask about it, but the information was out there for them to see, if they came across my blog. (This was against the express instructions of my mother, who wanted me to have the best chance possible at finding a new gig.) For all my in-person interviews, I used a cane, necessitated both by good sense (no sense in breaking a hip during a campus tour) and because traveling and being corralled through airports tends to be extra-hard on my joints, even on good days.

If I Could Award Prizes...

Prize for coolest interview set-up was easily won by a university that took its interdisciplinary and diversity mission seriously. Candidates for positions across the university are all brought in as a batch over two weekends, and the candidates interact with each other as well as with their home departments and faculty and staff from across the university. A little weird, but fun, and not at all cutthroat as one might expect. Another library candidate and I even struck up a friendly email exchange.

Prize for best attendance at a candidate presentation goes to a midwest university. Standing room only to hear a presentation about social science data? Incredible feeling as a candidate to see them care so much about who they hired.

Prizes to almost all the places I interviewed with for having faculty from outside the library represented on the search committees and throughout the interview days, for being warm and welcoming, and being forthcoming about both opportunities and challenges facing the library.


*Successful letters included such gems as, "While I wouldn’t boast that my Spanish is entirely fluent anymore, it is workable enough to get me around in Madrid and San Juan for a few weeks at a time, my Italian is passable enough for the folks in Rome to understand me, and both have helped me engage international students in Library programming on campus. (My French, on the other, hand, is terrible and generally draws sympathetic laughter from our Haitian students)", and "I have the passion for the subject, the experience working as a collaborator, liaison, and collection developer for subject faculty, and an unabashed love for the Oxford comma (which I’ve found is an excellent way to bond with English faculty)." I'm too far along in my career and in having had my real-self exposed to other libraryfolk to pretend that I don't come along with a bit of cheek. As a committee member, I always appreciated seeing a bit of personality coming through a cover letter. This can, of course, go horribly awry, but I don't want to work anywhere that the librarians would be offended and clutching their pearls if I referred to my "awesome library instruction voodoo."

**A note about phone interviews: I find them more, not less, grueling than in-person interviews, despite them being shorter in length. Having been on the search-committee-side of them, I know how easy is is for verbal tics, tone and energy level to influence committee member opinions, and how easily a thorough answer becomes perceived blathering. As the interviewee, I am always fully dressed in business casual, sitting at a desk or table in a room where I am the only occupant with a pen in my hand and a notepad with my own questions, items that I want to make sure to hit from my experience that match the position, and room for me to make notes about long questions coming from the committee. Skype interviews add the visual and technology aspects to interviewee stress. My advice to other interviewees: plan accordingly, ask friends to help you test your equipment and sound. And for the love of all that is holy, beg, plead or steal to get yourself a quiet solo space. I was on a (non-library) campus search committee where one candidate Skyped from his local Starbucks that he referred to as his office-away-from-office. It was loud, incredibly distracting, and created an immediate unflattering picture of the candidate's planning and common-sense skills.

***A few notes about on-campus interviews: Many (most, in my experience) academic libraries will bring in candidates the day before the interview, expecting the candidate to dine with the search committee that evening before the next day's all-out full-day interview. Some places will make all the travel arrangements, others will have the candidate make the arrangements and offer reimbursement. (Smaller places and community colleges may expect candidates to pay their way with no promise of reimbursement.) Make sure you are clear on the expectations - the person handling the arrangements will expect the question, and it is not at all rude to ask and clarify expectations to prevent expensive misunderstandings. Other things to consider when visiting: try to get it all into a carry-on; there's nothing sadder than a candidate whose luggage has been lost. (Truly, it happens. Ask Chadwick over at NCSU.) I recommend the Samsonite 18" - it fit easily beneath the seat in front of me even on the smallest propeller planes, was easy to maneuver even with a purse and cane, and it easily fit 2 sets of business clothes, a set of comfy travel clothes, 4 thick paperbacks, 1 set of shoes, and a 15" laptop with its cords. Make traveling as easy on yourself as possible. Bring comfortable shoes. I have never cared if a candidate wore ugly shoes (though I appreciate funky ones), but I have considered it poor planning if they were limping and/or barefooted with blisters at the end of the day. Finally, the daylong interview is intended to give both you and the institution as much information as possible within that daylong timeframe. You'll answer the same questions over and over - don't worry about it. People will joke about the interview being long and grueling - smile and keep your energy and humor up. The interview is as much a test of your stamina as it is a test of fit.

****About cancelling interviews: With attractive offers in-hand from places where I quickly felt a good fit, I debated attending some of those interviews just to see the other libraries in action (and because I had applied since I wanted to work there!). Decency got the better of me, and I called the search chairs as soon as I knew I wouldn't be able to wait on them to interview and make a decision. As the candidate, I stressed over whether the chairs would hate me for putting them out of a ton of effort (and in some cases, funds, when the plane tickets were already purchased). To a one, every single person I contacted to cancel (both phone and in-person interviews) was gracious. As the candidate, it gave me a panicky feeling -- I didn't want to come across as ungrateful, I had applied because I truly was interested in working with those folks, and I didn't want to burn any bridges. Now, as a search committee member and chair, I have had people cancel on interviews due to receiving other offers, and it is simply part of the process. Sometimes the timing isn't on the search committee's side. I never took it as a personal affront. I don't know why I was concerned that might be the case when the shoe was on the other foot, but I was relieved when they wished me well and thanked me for letting them know. Shout-out to libraryfolk, the polite professionals!