Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Academic Freedom! Huh! What is It Good For?

There's an interesting conversation on Twitter lately about the role of tenure and academic freedom in academic librarianship. 
I've not yet put my oar in, so to speak, and it's because I've been formulating my thoughts on the topic. That embedded tweet up there really caught my attention, and it pushed me to write something finally. Fair warning, though: my thoughts are still a bit jumbled and they are 100% biased by my professional experiences.

You see, I've never had "academic freedom" in the form that tenure is supposed to provide. I've always worked at institutions where librarians were either seen as professional staff or staff/faculty hybrids, and as a result I've never even had the option of tenure nor that kind of academic freedom. I've thought a lot about it over the years, and my emotions are still somewhat mixed. Tenure has always seemed a double-edged sword because I don't have the golden ball-and-chain tying me to a job, but I do have to watch what I say.

Before you voice any doubt about me watching what I say, in light of how outspoken I can be, trust me when I tell you that I do filter. I filter a lot. For instance, there are certain trends in higher ed and in libraries in general that I think are complete bull poop, show poor pedagogy, and are tremendous wastes of money/time/effort, but I've not said anything because of self-censorship and circumspection. In addition to always having been professional staff or staff/faculty hybrid, I've also always worked as an "at-will employee." This means that the difference between me employed and me unemployed is the five minutes it would take the head of security to confiscate my keys and escort me to my car. Don't get me wrong: I do still shout pretty loudly about some things, and I don't let that "at-will" thing get me down too often. However, at a purposefully not described point during my ten years in higher ed, a colleague of mine in a different college department was let go pretty much because s/he had publicly disagreed with the institution's administration. That memory informs a lot of what I will and will not write on this blog.

Another piece of my jumbled thought process/experience is that I've never had tenure-driven academic freedom, but I have had tremendous professional freedom. This blog is one example of that. The whole purpose of this blog is basically to thumb my nose at the current state of affairs in MLIS education. Another example of professional freedom is how I've gotten to push my agenda in my work. But, if I'm going to be completely honest with you, there are some days when professional freedom feels like a consolation prize. I have so many things I would say if not for the self-censorship. If you think I'm opinionated here, just ask some of the people with whom I have deep librarian friendships what I'm like out of the public eye.

All of this goes to say that I see Chris Bourg's point in the tweet I shared above. I haven't yet added my voice to the conversation because I don't want people to think I'm making a broad generalization. I'm not. I see the blacks and the whites and the grays of this issue and of my brother and sister academic librarians. There are fierce tenured librarians out there fighting the good fight, but it seems like a small number. I really do feel that academic freedom for some tenured academic librarians is like youth being wasted on the young.

Again, I say: Chris is correct. Academic freedom! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing... unless it's used. So here's a piece of advise from someone who doesn't have it: academic freedom is a right/privilege, and you should exercise it if you do have it. Or, in Chris' words, "librarians who have [academic freedom should] wield it fiercely & often."

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