Unturning all the stones

I began to fantasize about sabbatical when I was preparing my tenure papers in 2015.  I had been working towards tenure for what felt like forever. I was hired in 2006 as a visiting librarian and in order to prove I could work at the level necessary, I treated my position as if I were a tenure track librarian. This meant that I began a research agenda, took regular research time, published several articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings, and searched for ways to contribute to national service. Getting tenure at Illinois means that we have to meet all the same standards as disciplinary faculty across campus and our tenure dossiers are reviewed by a campus committee. (If you’re interested in the details of our process, you can review more here.)

My visiting position was renewed several times until I hit the max at three years. At that point the library had to run a search because of the manner in which I was hired (I had applied for another position that I didn’t get so the library could hire me into a visiting position without an entire search process but that meant I would have to apply for my job just like any candidate when the time came). Once I was hired into a tenure track position (2009), and since we were off cycle (it was October), I was given the option to choose a 0Y appointment instead of a 1Y appointment (the tenure process is six years long and measured in Y’s as in 1Y, 2Y, 3Y – with 6Y being the year awarded tenure). Several of my colleagues advised against this because they felt I had already accomplished quite a bit towards tenure. However, I choose 0Y because my daughter was just entering elementary school and I felt the extra ten months to prepare my tenure dossier would be time well spent. (For the record, I don’t regret that decision.)

So, in essence but not technically, I had been working towards tenure for the past ten years.

In our library, and probably like most with a tenure system in place, we try to protect the untenureds from too much administrative work so the focus can be on research (at least I hope your administrators are trying to do that!). Once you’re promoted, however, we all realize that there is work that will be assigned: standing in for others on sabbatical, agreeing to be interim-whatever in order to fill a gap in our faculty, serving on tenure and promotion committees, running search committees, and much more. I knew this. I also knew that most of my colleagues usually wait a few years after getting tenure to apply for sabbatical or would have requirements in their positions that kept them temporarily from applying for a sabbatical. I also understood that it was unusual in our culture for anyone to apply for a sabbatical at the same time as putting forward a tenure dossier. But I also knew my colleagues would support me and I was TIRED (can I tell you more about that at a later date?) A final note – it is common for teaching faculty on our campus to apply for a sabbatical immediately after being granted tenure so in that way, this was not unusual.

In another post, I will talk about the ins and outs of the sabbatical application process in more detail. For now, I want to share how my research agenda developed over time and how I designed my sabbatical project.

For the first three years while I was in visiting status, I explored several research ideas. I had varied interests and in my position as an instruction librarian, I had lots of options that would tie into my daily work. At Illinois, we are encouraged to consider tying our research to our librarianship but not all of us approach the tenure process in this manner. In fact, we do have a couple of librarians that do research related to their PhD work instead of librarianship related issues.

That being said, I dipped my toes into research related to teaching and outreach of ESL students and distance learners. I collaborated with a few of my colleagues as well as wrote several pieces with graduate assistants from the iSchool that I supervised. It was interesting enough to me but nothing cutting edge or terribly exciting. I did have one major stumbling block: similar to many of my colleagues, I had a terminal degree of Master of Science with no real research component required. I also didn’t do formal research as an undergrad. To say the whole process was intimidating was an understatement. I was required (and wanted!) to do REAL research and do it well and while I had some guidance from an assigned mentor team of two senior librarians, their job wasn’t to teach me how to do research.

So how did I turn that corner? I got lucky, honestly. (Or maybe life is serendipitous?) One of my colleagues, Sarah Shreeves (University of Miami) and I had been talking about a unique undergraduate research program on our campus, the Ethnography of the University Initiative. As the coordinator of our institutional repository and scholarly communication program, she had interest in seeing students submit their work into the IR and she came to me to talk about the instructional component of this outreach. I had been serving as the liaison to EUI for three years at this point and I was excited by the prospect of working with students as content creators. From there, as they say, one thing led to another.

And it snowballed quickly. Sarah and I collaborated with Stephanie Davis-Kahl (Illinois Wesleyan University) to investigate libraries’ commitment to supporting undergraduate research. We had an excellent response rate, near 40%, so we knew we were onto interest within our community on what eventually became referred to as the “Intersections.” As we mapped out our agenda, we began to talk about other stakeholders who might care about students and information literacy and scholarly communication including campus coordinators of undergraduate research programs, students, and faculty. We wrote two articles together and I wrote three additional for a total of five for me in this research area specifically. Stephanie and I co-edited an ACRL volume on the intersections of IL and SC and I looked for ways to contribute to the conversation through national service. I won’t go into all the details here since you can look at my CV, but suffice it to say, I took my colleagues’ advice seriously – I worked tirelessly to tie all of my daily work together.

{As a side note, if you’re reading this while on the tenure track – one of the best things things that happened to me was finding like-minded colleagues that were willing to mentor me through the research process several times. They helped me think through research questions, design surveys, analyze data, and improve my writing. I am forever indebted to Sarah and Stephanie who not only were excellent colleagues but are now my dear friends.}

By the time I had to sit down and write my librarianship, service, and research statements, I had quite a bit to draw from to construct a narrative that reflected our campus strategic plan to support undergraduate research, a commitment that was re-emphasized by campus leadership in the middle of my tenure process.

But there were still stones left unturned in my mind. My research led me to new questions . . . when doesn’t it?

To perform an ethnographic study of faculty mentors of undergraduate research programs examining their information literacy expectations for students, which impacts effective library instruction programs; and to design pilot instructional materials and complete scholarly journal articles and/or conference presentations. (From my sabbatical application, 9/24/2015)

Throughout my research, I explored several perspectives on information literacy and undergraduate research: librarians, students, and campus coordinators. I also worked with a past GA on instruction with primary resources and archival literacy. However, there was a giant missing piece – talking with faculty mentors about their information literacy perceptions and expectations for students participating in undergraduate research. With the implementation of the ACRL Framework (I served on the task force that developed the Framework), I also had an interest in talking with faculty about some of the concepts presented in the frames. 

From my perspective, this all seemed like excellent timing. The fourth and final piece could be covered during a sabbatical and when I returned I could write a summary piece that pulls all of this research together. Maybe I’ll take my message on the conference circuit?

My initial research questions:

  • What expectations do faculty mentors have for students related to information literacy as they enter an undergraduate research program within their discipline?
  • What are faculty mentor perceptions of information literacy? How does this align/not align with librarians’ understanding?
  • How do faculty mentors perceive student preparedness throughout the research cycle including conducting literature reviews, information management skills, and the knowledge necessary to publish and share their work?
  • What successes do faculty mentors report in student use of library research tools and services?
  • Where are the areas for collaboration between faculty mentors and librarians within information literacy instruction and undergraduate research curriculum?

You can read my entire sabbatical application here.


Next time :: My first month on sabbatical – what did I do?

dlhNote :: As you’re reading my posts about the tenure process at Illinois, you may have questions that I didn’t address. It is true that Illinois is stringent in its tenure processes and if you’d like to learn more, you can review our documentation (which is quite thorough!). I’m also happy to answer questions through the comments below or your can email me at mhensle1[at]illinois.edu.

Image: My daughter, now aged 17

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