The Shoes We Wear

Today’s guest post is by Anne Leonard, a colleague of mine at City Tech, CUNY.

The morning after the presidential election of 2016, I was alone in my apartment, and I was nearing the end of a year-long sabbatical. My spouse was traveling for work, my running buddy was out of town, and I hadn’t made any plans, figuring I would meet up with friends at the spontaneous festivities I envisioned as we Brooklynites took to the streets to celebrate the ascent of the first woman leader of the Free World. As that gray morning pushed into midday and afternoon, I realized how much I missed my City Tech colleagues, who surely grasped the gravity of the new regime and the threats to our freedom to write, speak, assemble, teach, learn, and research, etc. etc. etc. that lay ahead. I didn’t know it yet, but after that day I was ready to return to college routines and rhythms. Earlier I wrote about a big walk that was the crux of my sabbatical experience. Within a few months I went from lacing up my hiking shoes daily to filling big shoes as I moved into the role of interim chief librarian and department chair after a year of sabbatical leave.

A wise friend and colleague assured me that the most angst-inducing part of returning from sabbatical were the few moments spent approaching the college entrance, crossing the threshold into the familiar college building, swiping my ID, and finding myself in the swirl again. Our urban campus is experienced as entering a megastructure shared by 17,500 students and thousands of staff and full-time and part-time faculty, not stepping onto a grassy quad. Once I crossed that threshold, I was forevermore in the select elite who had gone on sabbatical. I was also surprisingly at ease in familiar surroundings.

I anticipated a steep learning curve upon assuming interim boss duties. What follows is an annotated list of things I am grateful to have learned and experienced while doing a new and much bigger job for six months.

I quickly acquired super meeting stamina for super long meetings. Within a week or 2 of the start of the semester, I discovered that 2+hour meetings are nothing to fear, resist, or dread. They’re fine! And eventually they come to an end. Translating my notes from the meeting into something concise and digestible to share with my colleagues at the next department meeting — now, that is a skill I am still working on.

Even before I laced up my boss boots, I anticipated asking if not the dumb questions, then the naive questions. I thought my six months as interim chair and chief would be an ideal time to use my inexperience to my advantage and ask questions like “How come we still do ____ this way?” or “How do you get permissions in the system to do  ___ ?” (fill in the blanks with myriad tasks related to personnel processes or the online integrated resources and services tool). When I asked for help, colleagues were so thoughtful and generous with their time! Still, I wish I’d asked even more naive questions in some of those super long meetings. They would not have made those meetings much longer.

Early on, I noticed that a misstep led to a ripple effect; my mistakes in the boss role were much more time-consuming to correct and contain than missteps I made in my role as instruction/information literacy coordinator. Containing the ripples took much more time than doing the task correctly the first time; as a result of this experience, my attention to detail improved.

It was a time to use my power benevolently. I made ample use of the phrases, “It’s fine to tell me later” or “Take a few days and get back to me” when I asked colleagues about committing to a project, joining a committee, or taking on extra work of various sorts. Sabbatical offered me a new perspective on how time progresses — more slowly than I had thought. My work as interim chief and chair taught me that not everybody makes decisions the same way I do.

I also learned to ask for a reply-by date in emails, and I learned some finer points of email etiquette. I still make very sparing use of the high importance ! tag in emails, relying on the words in my message to convey importance. After a colleague expressed confusion about an email I’d sent on a weekend, I began to use the low importance tag when I used email for routine communications outside of work hours.

I got a bit smarter about routine scheduling. Something I learned to do in my first days as interim chief and chair — and I wish I’d been doing all along — is scheduling all meetings of a particular flavor for the semester at once. It clarified colleagues’ availability for the reference and instruction coordinators, allowing those folks to move on those scheduling tasks with greater ease

I learned that the library runs because non-librarians do their jobs consistently and with sincere investment in contributing to the highest quality student learning experience that we can provide. I’m  in awe of the talent and dedication of officers, administrators, assistants, student workers, and other staff who make the college and library function better because of their daily, reliable, genuine work.

Recognizing that certain attitudes and mindsets would contribute to my success (and maintenance of sanity) more than others, I strove to be always engaged, yet to maintain a certain detachment. I realized that mental energy spent worrying about ongoing, institution-wide budget and personnel complexities fully out of my control (or colleagues’ reactions to those complexities) was energy I would not have to actually solve the problems or communicate my concerns coherently.

I like to think that my time in the interim chief and chair role helped me become a little more adept at seeing large-scale patterns, and with them, upcoming plot twists, such as policy or personnel changes and budget inconsistencies. To use this aptitude advantageously is to consider a range of possible future developments and how the library will respond, rather than obsess or ruminate overmuch about calamities that haven’t happened yet.

Some days I almost regret not having more time in the role of interim chief librarian and department chair. With more time, I might have found some relaxed mental space to hatch the good ideas that fill in the big picture goals and help us move towards the library we envision.