Embracing Teamwork and the Limited-Term Initiative

Embracing Teamwork and the Limited-Term Initiative

In his 2012 article, “Embracing Hybridity: The Merged Organization, Alt/Ac and Higher Education,” CLIR Distinguished Presidential Fellow Elliott Shore urged library administrators and other leaders in higher education to invite “differently positioned and credentialed individuals into the world of libraries” and to work “together with computing organizations to create temporary structures within which to revise ideas and approaches to our work,” [1] thereby advocating both a rich, textured staff as a means of working across, rather than within, existing structures, and the possibilities for meaningful growth and change inherent in limited-term, focused teamwork. As one who has been fortunate to participate in several interdisciplinary initiatives, I would like to reflect on the meaningful personal growth and change that can occur when a humanities PhD opens herself to intensive work on discrete collaborative projects.

As a CLIR fellow at UCLA, I was fortunate to work with a host of talented colleagues on the NEH-funded, Open Access publication, the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Not only was I deeply engaged in the day-to-day work of the project in a variety of capacities (Egyptologist, copy editor, TEI-XML encoder)—which was already more than I could have hoped for from my fellowship—but perhaps even more importantly, I had a front-row seat to the intensive discussions among the editors and technical staff on the intricacies of producing and maintaining an Open Access publication. Centering on the changing nature of academic publishing, the sustainability of Open Access, the entanglements of copyright and intellectual property, and the future of the humanities as a whole, these conversations were as enlightening as they were prescient. Looking back, I can see how vital it was to have the right people in the room at precisely the moment when their skills and expertise were needed most, how important it was for project leaders to have both the big-picture view and a sense of the daily work involved, and how crucial deadlines—and the enforcement of deadlines—were for a project, both for ensuring outcomes and for the personal satisfaction of those involved. I was also amazed at how diverse my roles on that team were compared to what I had envisioned my first job would be like. By the end of my participation in the project, while I was certain that I had learned many practical and interpersonal skills and had contributed the best of what I had to the initiative, I was not yet convinced that my future lay in the hybrid world so eloquently described by Shore.

Thus, I continued to chase the conventional dream of the humanities PhD, a tenure-track faculty position. I taught a host of courses as an adjunct faculty member—a wholly different and, frankly, not recommended form of limited-term employment—and have been struck most recently by how lonely that endeavor really was. Adjuncts see so much of what needs to be adjusted, altered, and augmented in higher education, but they usually have no outlet or platform from which to implement any change. Just one of the many opportunities unavailable to most adjuncts is participation in collaborative decision-making. Rarely, if ever, do adjuncts get the chance to bring their skills, knowledge, and experience to college- or university-wide committees seeking to enact real change of the kind advocated by Shore. For this reason and so many others, it is difficult to embrace adjuncting as a fulfilling career choice, even if limited-term employment in theory allows one to accomplish one’s goals in a well-defined timeline. This is, after all, only satisfactorily achieved if compensation is commensurate with education, skills, and experience.

Fortunately, the contacts I have made beyond my field of specialty, beginning with my CLIR fellowship, have afforded me the opportunity to see beyond the contingent faculty option and to join numerous diverse teams of visionaries and thinkers, including the “Observations on Scholarly Engagement with Hidden Special Collections and Archives” research team and, most recently, ARL’s Strategic Thinking and Design research work stream. Participating in these initiatives has not only allowed me to apply my own critical thinking, writing, and reasoning skills to discrete inquiries in the research library environment, and to build on what I have learned about teamwork since my CLIR fellowship, but it has also allowed me to recast my thinking about my career. There are tangible benefits to working within the collaborative, multidisciplinary environment articulated by Shore, and these should be strongly considered by the many skilled doctorates and near-doctorates facing the realities of today’s tenure-track job market. First, teams that are diverse yet complementary in their makeup, with a variety of subject specialties, technical skills, and project management experience represented, allow for both vibrant exchange and the acquisition of new skills, even while the project is ongoing. Second, when all participants are driven by a like-minded desire to tackle what most needs addressing in higher education, and are committed to doing so in a timely fashion with an end goal in mind, such teams can effect change by producing meaningful insights, recommendations, tools, and systems. Finally, teams like those of which I have been a part are treated by their managers as professionals in every sense of the word. When one works on a team in which every voice is heard, every skill is applied, and every member is respected as a professional, the dream that many of us nurtured in graduate school can indeed become a reality: having a challenging, interesting, and fulfilling position in the realm of higher education, with supportive colleagues, appropriate compensation, and the opportunity to research, write, publish, and present.

Groups like CLIR, ARL and others recognize that recent trends in higher education have created a freelance economy of humanities PhDs. Taking this a step further, they recognize that it is far better to engage these scholars in meaningful work across institutions, not only as a means of disrupting the pattern of contingent faculty appointments, but as a practical way for the institutions to address the challenges facing higher education from a wide variety of perspectives. For, as CLIR’s many initiatives demonstrate, there is so very much work to be done.

Elizabeth Waraksa is an Egyptologist, archaeologist, independent consultant, and bibliophile. She was a CLIR Postdoctoral fellow at UCLA from 2007-2009.



[1] Journal of Library Administration 52(2) (2012) 189-202. DOI:10.1080/01930826.2012.655602

 

 

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