Faculty work, librarian work, and life balance

Tis the season. As my professor friends hustle to write final exams and grade them, only to press through to letter grade submission and finally revel in winter break I am reflecting on my absence from teaching. Now three semesters out of the classroom (I cashed my last paycheck as an adjunct in May 2015) I feel more certain than ever that I made the right career choice moving into museums and libraries. In this post I would like to share some observations, incomplete as they are, on my professional life outside the academy.

First, a little professional biography. Prior to moving out of teaching I racked up a lot of hours in the classroom — in addition to being instructor of record at my alma mater I’ve been behind the lectern at a community college, small liberal arts college, and large urban university. I’ve tutored, taught high school, and led service learning. But to be honest my list of courses taught is pretty basic: gen anth, cultural, evolution, food, and gender studies. I never had much of a say in which classes I would teach, such is the lot of a hired gun.

There’s a lot to love about teaching and those thrills, I miss them. I love teaching as performance, standing up in front of a crowd and telling stories, leading discussions. You know, doing my thing. But most of all is the experience of playing a part, however large or small, in opening up a young person’s mind to exciting new ways of seeing the world. Anthropology has a lot to offer! And to be there when a talented student makes that discovery, that’s really special. I even have a small handful of former students I count as true friends.

Obviously there’s a lot I don’t miss about teaching too. Our pet peeves are almost universal, are they not? Grading mountains of papers. Looming deadlines. Answering clueless emails. The dreadful sense that you’re supposed to be doing something productive right this instance. “My printer ran out of ink” and other lame excuses. Of course we teachers can commiserate over all of that together and there’s a certain solidarity that comes with the shared burden. Its always a hoot to pop the cork on a bottle of wine or toss back a couple of beers at the pub and swap horror stories. (My personal best-worst excuse: “I can’t tell you why I missed class because my sorority has sworn me to secrecy.”) In addition to all the intellectual labor there is a huge toll of emotional labor and to me that was the worst part of the job.

Museum and library work offers an interesting foil to academics.

Many of the hangnails of academic life persist in museums and libraries. Like most any profession where you gather together smart, ambitious people there is politics. Perhaps academic politics are a little more bloodthirsty and pointless, but we have them here too. You will not escape departmental meetings nor even meetings about meetings. Semi-clueless administrators will still hold an inordinate amount of sway over your budgets, facilities, and priorities. There is still the neoliberal pressure to commodify outputs and adopt corporate business models (however this is with the caveat that museums really do have one foot in the entertainment business; librarians really do have to worry about customer service, so, in some important respects this is not entirely inappropriate). Additionally there will continue to be annoying technologies/ web platforms that you are obligated to use, ala Blackboard. Arguably this handicap is even worse in libraries than for faculty.

This is neither here nor there, but I’m just throwing it out there. The dress code at work is different. This might be an especially dramatic shift for an anthropologist where casual attire is de rigueur (I once saw Doug Foley deliver a AAA paper in jeans and a denim work shirt). I mean, anthropology is not the business school, okay? Take your enthnographic sensibility into your university library and observe the professionals there. There are different expectations. Now I tuck in my shirt and my belt matches my shoes.

Its no utopia, but there is a lot in museums and libraries to recommend.

The job I do is essentially full time research and that is very fulfilling. Now, granted, the scope of my research is very different than anthropological field work. My job is to catalog the museum’s collection of early 20th century photography. I’m expected to balance output (the quantity of analog information that exists is tremendous) with in-depth history and context. A sense of discovery and serendipity hangs over everything. You never know what will be in the hand you’re dealt for the day. Like, for instance, why is this 19th century prison ship from Australia docked in Louisville, Kentucky? Well, let’s go find out.

Edward Hungerford Collection 02438, The Mariners’ Museum

As I’m writing this my colleague is teaching me about the invention of the ball point pen because Nerd Adventure!

Most of all the pace of work is different in libraries. As my professor friends who have not already unfollowed me on Facebook know I am forever bragging about my work schedule: 9-5, Monday through Friday. I do not get Fall break, Winter break, Spring break, or Summer break. But I do get ample paid vacation, paid sick, and all the federal holidays (plus the occasional inclement weather cancellation). What I remember from my days as a professor are intense periods of work followed by release. ITS CRUNCH TIME AND EVERYTHING IS DUE AT ONCE… ah, and now its a holiday. The library has a different tempo, steady as she goes.

Moreover, I get a lot less email than I did as a professor. In fact our HR department has instructed us only to check our work email while we’re at work. Think about that for a minute: a world where doing email is recognized as work.

Granted both these points about email and work schedules are representative for someone at the start of their career. If I was a director or did research at an Ivy I’d be just as swamped as any faculty. To complicate things further, in some universities librarians go up for tenure. This story I’m telling you now is just where I am today.

Perhaps the biggest change in the way I work as a librarian compared to when I was an anthropology professor is the degree to which I collaborate with my colleagues both within my department and across the intellectual landscape of the museum. In anthropology your collaborators are “out there” in the field, all your important negotiations are with them. In the classroom you are the authority and decision maker. If I want the second half of my gen anth course to be on the Aztec, Maya, and Inca I can do that. And I have.

The library has a much flatter hierarchy than a conventional academic department. We’ve been trucking along without a director since June. How would your department do without a chair? The day-to-day intellectual labor of the work I do is much more interdependent on the efforts of my colleagues than when I was a professor. Just making decisions straight up without bringing others into the conversation is frowned upon. We’re constantly getting up to ask each other questions and check in. Honestly, I’ve committed several faux pas over the past year and a half not because I’m jerk and its my way or the highway, but because I am literally not in the habit of bringing others into certain aspects of my work flow. Then again, people are constantly going out of their way to keep me in the loop and ask my take on things.

So I guess you could say I’m happy. Yeah. Really happy, actually.

Sure, I get nostalgic when my professor friends tell me about their brilliant students or that time when the classroom dynamic hits a sweet spot for an important topic. And I indulge in a little taunting when they have to plow through papers or take a student down for plagiarism. I used to think that museums and libraries would be a pleasant diversion while I continued to pursue the life goal of becoming a tenured professor but it turns out this new line of work suits me better. I don’t want to reach for that brass ring anymore. I’ve got other goals on the horizon and on the whole I think I’ve come out on top.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Faculty work, librarian work, and life balance

  1. Matt, I wish we had had more time to talk when I visited the Mariners Museum with my grandkids. Sounds like you’ve found a great niche. But referring to the topic at hand, during our chat, I heard you mention a three-year contract. Renewable? Non-renewable? How do curators develop long-term careers?

  2. My current position is grant funded for three years through the Council for Library and Information Resources. Maybe the closest analog in anthropology would be the Wenner-Gren? My supervisors already have another grant program in planning, but that can only be a backup plan for me. I am definitely going to be shopping my resume around. I could probably earn a higher salary in academic libraries and I’m looking to do new things, grow different professional experiences.

    Then again, the city public library is across the street from my house. I’d probably be overqualified for a job there. But I could walk to work!

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