This article explores the relational practices that comprise the feminized work of instruction coordinators in academic libraries. It is a continuation of research originally presented at the 2017 Association of College and Research Libraries Conference. Through the lens of relational-cultural theory and social constructions of work, this expanded research analysis names the specific relational practices instruction coordinators adopt in the workplace, examines their relationship to supervision and authority, and investigates their impact on the well-being of instruction coordinators. This article makes recommendations not only for improving the structure of this specific job role, but as a first step towards reimagining library work in a way that values relational activity and practice as highly skilled work.
The skills and labor involved in library instruction coordinator work–developing pedagogical training, coordinating information literacy (IL) curricular integration and assessment, and training teaching librarians–includes an intense investment in the quality of relationships with others (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2011). Maintaining these relationships takes tremendous effort, largely invisible in our organizations yet crucial to our programs, and these efforts exact a real toll. As library instruction coordinators ourselves, we started this project due to a sense of incompatibility regarding the work we were doing and the way library instruction coordinator positions are described and understood. In January 2017 we conducted an exploratory study into the emotional and affective labor involved in the mentoring, supporting, and collaboration work that are central to building and sustaining a library instruction program. Through this qualitative research we learned that this type of work was relational in nature, coded as feminine in a gendered workplace, and therefore undervalued (Arellano Douglas and Gadsby, 2017).
After this initial study, we wanted to further explore the relational practices that comprised the feminized work of instruction coordinators in academic libraries. Our initial analysis identified evidence of relational belief systems within this position: Instruction coordinators engaged in activities that centered relationships as the means for getting work done. But was this done intentionally, or was it a consequence of the role’s lack of supervisory authority ( i.e. instruction coordinators supervise programs, not people), greater structural issues, or some combination of both?
We continued this research through additional interviews with instruction coordinators in the United States and a secondary analysis of previous interview transcripts. With this expansion of our study we seek to name the specific relational practices instruction coordinators adopt in the workplace, investigate the impact of supervisory positions on the role ambiguity felt by coordinators, and determine whether relational practice at work impacts the well-being of instruction coordinators. We will use this evidence to not only make recommendations for improving the structure of this specific job role, but as a first step towards reimagining library work in a way that values relational activity and practice as highly skilled work.
Our study of instruction coordinator work and relational practice exists within the framework of relational-cultural theory. Relational theory, first described in the 1970s by feminist psychologists at the Stone Center at Wellesley College, reconceptualized the psychology of women as one rooted in the primacy of relationships, and posited that growth and development will occur best in a context of connection (JBMTI, 2019). This framework later evolved into relational-cultural theory in order to move beyond the dominant narratives of white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied women and to acknowledge the context of oppressive systems and the impact of social values. Relational-cultural theory allows us to give voice and priority to stereotypically feminine attributes that prioritize the connection and relationships between people, such as mutuality, empathy, and sensitivity to emotional contexts (JBMTI, 2019). To be relationally competent means creating and fostering connection with others, moving others toward growth, empowering others, and valuing service to the community (Jordan, 2004).
Gender and culture at work
The workplace is not exempt from gendered and cultural expectations and stereotypes, and our organizations are shaped by the inequalities that accompany such (Risman, 2004; Brody, Rubin, & Maume, 2014; Anantachai & Chesley, 2018). These social constructions of work take their cues from constructions of gender and race/ethnicity. The gendered dichotomy of the public and private sphere splits the world into public or work life, which is associated with men and idealized masculinity, and domestic or private life, which is associated with women and idealized femininity (Fletcher, 2004). The main tenets of relational theory prioritize the characteristics more common to the private sphere, such as interdependence and collectivity, and move away from those associated with the public sphere, such as individuation and autonomy (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, et al, 1991). These stereotypes not only allow the workplace to assign different levels of value and rewards to behaviors coded as masculine, such as rationality, and feminine, such as displaying emotional or nurturing behaviors, but decides the level of appropriateness for the behaviors in work and home life. In addition, workplace structures that devalue the attributes designated as feminine or private also hamper our ability to enact a feminist organizational culture. Silencing the feminine has not allowed us to fully examine what could be possible, what could be theorized (Fletcher, 2004).
Yet it is not possible to talk about gender at work without talking about race, ethnicity, and culture, and the ways in which these identities intersect and complicate the workplace experience. The patriarchal systems that impact gender expectations and performance at work are white patriarchal systems, which make them exponentially harmful for women of color. As hooks states, “sexist norms…[can] be mediated by racial bonding,” which can make white women complicit in upholding gendered constructions of work that are harmful to women of color and themselves (hooks, 1994, p. 95). Additionally, conversations around workplace cultural fit “play a huge role in keeping many industries homogenous and preventing people who do not match the dominant culture from climbing the career ladder” and in libraries, the dominant culture is white (Farkas, 2019, para. 2; Bourg, 2014). This creates a workplace rooted in white masculine norms, where women of color are forced to either “shrink” themselves at work to fit in, or “cope” with actively pushing against these expectations (Brown & Leung, 2018, p. 340). Relational-cultural theory seeks to call out the differences in experience for women of color, create space for conversations and growthful conflict about race and racism through relational practice, and ultimately allow individuals to fully represent their authentic selves (Walker, 2004, p. 91-99).
Defining Relational Practice at Work
Our definition of relational practice at work comes from the research of Joyce Fletcher, whose four-year long study of women at work at a technology company in the Northeastern United States created a framework for identifying relational behavior characteristics, assumptions, beliefs, and values in an organizational setting (Fletcher, 1998, p. 168). By drawing on relational-cultural theory (at the time of her writing, it was only relational theory), social constructions of work, and a poststructural feminist analysis of the gendered nature of work, Fletcher identified four categories of relational practice:
- Preserving: Actions that “preserve the life and well-being of the project;” typically task oriented (Fletcher, 2004, p. 272).
- Mutual Empowering: Activities that “enable and empower others” to contribute to the project (Fletcher, 1998, p. 169).
- Achieving: Self-initiated actions that use “relational skills to increase one’s own effectiveness and professional growth” (Fletcher, 2004, p. 272).
- Creating Team: “Activities associated with building a collective” that create a sense of team where work can flourish (Fletcher, 1998, p. 169).
Fletcher argues that these practices stem from a fundamentally “different belief system about what leads to growth and effectiveness” in life and at work (Fletcher, 2004, p. 270). This belief system centers connection and relationships over independent heroics and lone efforts, and is typically associated with women or feminine ways of being. By naming these practices, Fletcher sought to detail the intricate, intentional, relational work women carried out in the workplace (Fletcher, 2004).
Examining Relational Practice in Instruction Coordination Work
Building on Fletcher’s work, we wanted to extend the examination of relational practice from a masculinized workplace–a technology company–to a typically feminized one: the academic library. Within the academic librarianship, teaching, or as it is more commonly referred to, instruction librarianship, is a highly feminized subfield within our already female-intensive and feminine-coded profession (Fox & Olson, 2013). With that in mind, and with our previous analysis of instruction coordinator interviews revealing coordinator work was indeed relational, our continuation of this research project focused on four main questions:
- What specific relational practices do instruction coordinators adopt in the workplace?
- Do instruction coordinators who supervise other librarians still adopt these practices or does their managerial status prevent the need for this kind of behavior?
- How does relational practice impact the well-being of instruction coordinators at work?
- What structural/organizational changes would help improve the working conditions of instruction coordinators?
We pursued a qualitative method of study, the semi-structured interview, to answer these questions and capture the thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences of librarians in instruction coordinator roles. For our first round of interviews, we identified an opportunity network of 19 potential participants at 17 different higher education institutions in Maryland. Each of those potential participants performed the work of instruction coordination even if their titles did not explicitly reflect this role. From this opportunity network, 8 instruction coordinators were interviewed via Skype. After this initial round of interviews, additional instruction coordinators outside Maryland were solicited for interviews using the Instruction Coordinator Slack Channel, an online community created for and by instruction coordinators in academic libraries. An additional 7 instruction coordinators were interviewed via Zoom for a total of 15 coordinator interviews to analyze. Of these 15 interviews, 13 were recorded and transcribed. The recording mechanism failed during 2 of the interviews, so interviewer notes were used in our analysis of those conversations. Through the course of interviewing one participant, we discovered that this individual was not actually doing to the work of an instruction coordinator. This interview was eliminated from our set, leaving us with a total of 12 interviews and 2 interviewer notes to analyse for our study. Two of these participants were librarians of color (one woman, one man), and 12 participants were women. This representation is a very typical slice of librarian demographics (overwhelmingly white women). We pulled participants from two existing groups (our Maryland professional network and Instruction Coordinator Slack Channel), rather than being more intentional about a diverse group of participants, which is an unfortunate limitation of our study.
Each participant was asked about their official and unofficial job titles, duties, and responsibilities; day-to-day work; challenges and opportunities in their job role; perceptions of teaching within their library and larger academic institution; attitudes towards teaching librarians on the part of librarian colleagues and faculty; perceived value to their colleagues and organization; and suggestions for improving the working conditions of library instruction coordinators. Although we followed a script of questions, we allowed room for follow-up questions and related conversations as a means of capturing the whole experiences of instruction coordinators and the information they wanted to share with us. Interviews ranged in time from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.
As we reflected on our methods during our analysis, we realized that we did not ask specific questions about the impact of participants’ identities (race, culture, sexual orientation, etc.) on their work. Because of the context of relational-cultural theory in which we are working, we should have intentionally incorporated this into our interviews and created space for this kind of discussion. This is, again, a limitation of our study.
Transcripts and interview notes were first coded using a modified version of Fletcher’s categories of relational practice, which were adapted to the library workplace based on our previous study:
- Preserving: This describes the practice of taking on administrative tasks, doing the library housework (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2017, p. 270), and picking up slack in project work. This work is done for the good of the instruction program overall.
- Mutual Empowering – This describes emotional support of fellow teaching librarians and library school students or interns (if applicable). This practice helps colleagues feel good about themselves for the good of the work, because the instruction coordinator recognizes that individual efforts and motivation contribute to the instruction program’s effectiveness.
- Emotional Strategizing – This was adapted from the “Achieving” behavior described by Fletcher. These actions include building and sustaining relationships so that the coordinator can do their job effectively. This involves being relationally aware and on high alert to other’s emotions and actions to “keep the peace” and maintain connections needed for the health of the library’s instruction program.
- Creating Team – These are actions that creating an open door policy and safe space for teaching librarians, library school students, and/or interns, where their feelings are validated. Through these behaviors, instruction coordinators cultivate a sense of team in tone and feeling.
Because Fletcher’s site of inquiry was a technology company, much of the language used in her descriptions of relational practice focuses on the project team as a central organizational unit. We recognize that not all libraries operate on a team-based structure, however, we still see value in Fletcher’s characterizations of relational practice as they apply to organizations like libraries that also operate within gendered constructions of work (Sloniowski, 2016). In addition, our first study of instruction coordinators revealed that a team-based structure is very much present in instruction work in libraries, where teaching librarians are often a subset of the library’s overall workforce (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2017).
Transcripts and interview notes were then coded a second time using elaborative coding, or codes generated from our first study through initial coding (Saldana, 2016, p. 256). These codes included:
- Workload: Mentions of overwhelming, heavy, or unsustainable amount of work in their role as instruction coordinator.
- Role Ambiguity: A lack of clear, consistent information regarding rights, duties, and responsibilities of the instruction coordinator’s position.
- Staffing Challenges: Mentions of understaffing in the library or expression of the need for more teaching staff.
- Negative Power Dynamics: Instances of power negotiations between coordinator and librarians or coordinator and faculty that emphasize the ambiguity and inequality of these relationships and produce negative feelings.
- Dismissiveness: Instances of colleagues both in and out of the library demonstrating a lack of understanding of the instruction coordinator’s work, its value, and the amount of effort that goes into that work.
In addition to two rounds of coding, all transcripts and interview notes were assigned descriptors that indicated whether or not the interview participant was an instruction program manager, subject liaison, and/or supervisor; as well as a descriptor that characterized each participant’s teaching load as low, medium, or high.
Findings & Discussion
Relational Practice Everywhere
As expected based on our previous study, evidence of relational practice appears in every participant interview. Emotional strategizing was an integral component of all instruction coordinator’s practice in the workplace. All but one participant described enacting mutual empowerment practices in their day-to-day job, 85% engaged in preserving activities (n=12), and 78% exhibited behaviors associated with creating team (n=11). Yet how these activities appear in practice and how frequently they are enacted differs based on the coordinator’s supervisory status (or lack thereof), relationships with colleagues in the library, perception of librarians and teaching outside the library, and structure of the library’s teaching program. We’ll take some time to examine each practice and their relationship to these factors.
Emotional Strategizing, whereby instruction coordinators maintain relational awareness to build and sustain connections advantageous to advancing the instruction program, was the most frequently applied code to all participant interviews. Instruction coordinators exhibit a heightened sense of interpersonal dynamics, maintaining an awareness of not only their relationships to colleagues in and out of the library, but of their colleagues relationships to one another and their work. One participant described facilitating frequent instruction-related discussions among teaching librarian colleagues to “discern how…colleagues, librarians, feel about how we are viewed” by faculty in an effort to develop interpersonal interventions to solve instruction-related problems. This participant recognized the importance of feelings in relationships and how they contribute to the ability to carry out the collaborative work of teaching librarianship. Instruction coordinators wanted to figure out “how to connect with one another through conversation or facilitation” in order to set goals and direction for the library’s teaching program.
This particular relational practice was the behavior of choice for instruction coordinators who did not hold supervisory positions. Instances of emotional strategizing appeared more frequently in their descriptions of work practices, in large part, because, as one participant noted, “I don’t supervise anyone, so I have to get buy-in. I have to do things thoroughly and sort of persuasively in a way that those who are going to see it through to conclusion [are brought] on board.” The intralibrary politics of instruction coordination without supervisory authority are tricky, and variations on “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes” were noted throughout the interviews of non-supervising instruction coordinators. Of particular difficulty was the task of effecting change in the teaching practices of people whom the instruction coordinator did not supervise. One participant discussed facilitating a training series after being tasked to create an instruction program:
“One of the things people have felt very harassed about is being told you’re not doing enough, or you’re not good enough, or your teaching isn’t good enough…[which leads to] this very defensive posture…So I’m framing it as…opportunities to talk more about your teaching.”
On the surface it seems simple enough–rename “training” to “conversations,”–but what this action emphasizes is the coordinator’s a) awareness of their colleagues feelings and attitudes; b) intentional practice of emotional strategizing; and c) conscious effort to improve the instruction program. This kind of strategic, intentional thought process and action was seen again and again in descriptions of work by non-supervising coordinators. At least two participants described cultivating a strong, positive working relationship with their supervisor and how that relationship was leveraged to influence teaching colleagues. Those in non-supervisory coordinator roles were keenly aware of the lack of traditional power at their disposal–one participant described it as “baked goods and goodwill,” another as “all carrots, no sticks”–so they relied on the connections and relationships at hand to make programmatic improvements and positive change. Not surprisingly, instances of this relational practice most frequently co-occurred with descriptions of role ambiguity. When instruction coordinators felt unsure of their authority and place within the organization, they frequently relied on emotional strategizing to do their work.
For coordinators in supervisory roles, emotional strategizing was more about facilitating connections (between librarians, between librarians and faculty) and then delegating the work associated with those connections. One supervising coordinator noted, “I see myself as starting those relationships and then figuring out well, who fits where for those relationships.” There was a noticeable lack of negotiation in their emotional strategizing activities. Although all coordinators viewed relationships and interpersonal connections as essential to doing good work, those who supervised were in a better position to effect change among teaching librarians and within the program itself without engaging in what many instruction coordinators described as “deals,” i.e. If you teach these two classes I’ll take 5 next week.
In our original study, we characterized much of instruction coordinators’ administrative tasks as “doing the library ‘housework,’” (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2017, p. 270), drawing from the literature on women’s tendency to take on the responsibilities of administrative assistants in workplace situations, regardless of their actual job role (Grant & Sandberg, 2015; Kark & Waismel-Manor, 2005; Williams, 2014), which also impacts women of color in the workplace more frequently (Williams & Multhaup, 2018). Preserving behaviors are an extension of this idea, in that they also involve taking on additional work and responsibilities for the good of a project, or in our case, the good of the library’s instruction program overall. Like emotional strategizing, preserving behavior was more often enacted by instruction coordinators who did not supervise the people in their programs.
“I think a good and bad thing is that I’m often known for getting things done, and so, a lot of my job is making sure things get done,” stated one participant. What exactly does “getting things done” look like? How is preserving expressed by instruction coordinators? In describing their responsibilities and actions, participants all described day-to-day tasks like scheduling classes, which include numerous emails between faculty and librarians; mediating library instruction requests that come in via online forms; compiling instruction statistics; scheduling and facilitating teaching team meetings; and maintaining classroom spaces. This is the kind of work that, as one participant put it, “creates an infrastructure for the rest of the stuff to happen,” and it’s the kind of work that can take a toll on the instruction coordinator.
“I feel like I haven’t done anything. I’ll look up at the clock and realize that it’s 11:00am and I’ve been here since 8:30am, and I haven’t done anything except email people and build out numbers on a spreadsheet. Even though I know it’s important and I’ve been working non-stop, I feel like I haven’t done anything.”
Beyond these administrative tasks, preserving also takes shape in instruction coordinators taking on the work that no one else wants to do. As one participant stated, “There’s this expectation that if random, wild professor so and so can’t be ‘tamed’ by any other librarian, the coordinator will take that on.” There was an unwritten expectation that instruction coordinators who did not supervise were there to either a) do the lion’s share of the teaching; b) teach the classes no one else wanted to teach, which were frequently lower-division or first-year level courses; or c) do the hard work of lesson planning and assessment for not with their colleagues. In fact, almost all of the coordinators with “high” instruction loads were those who did not supervise other librarians.
In addition to taking on greater teaching responsibilities, several participants described the extra burden of thinking about teaching for others. “I feel like many of my colleagues expect me to come up with lesson plans or activities for them to just drop into their own instruction,” lamented one coordinator. Other participants described how colleagues deemed them “experts” in the same breath that they then asked for the coordinators to do their assessments for them. These were prime examples of dismissiveness on the part of the coordinators’ librarian colleagues, who didn’t seem to understand the amount of work needed to create teaching materials–lesson plans, activities, and assessments–from scratch. Or, in the words of one participant, “In some ways, if you’re a good coordinator, then your work should be invisible..It’s only when things go wrong that you’re noticed.” This echoes Roxanne Shirazi’s concept of “shadow labor,” whereby librarians reproduce the academy without acknowledgement for their work (2014) as well as the idea of “frictionless service” introduced by Mirza and Seale (2017). Instruction coordinators, through preserving behaviors, facilitate the work of others but are often dismissed, ignored, or, in the case of one participant, characterized as “nagging.”
Actions encompassed by the idea of mutual empowering depend heavily on the concept of mutuality introduced in relational-cultural theory. “Mutuality involves profound mutual respect and mutual openness to change and responsiveness” (Jordan, Hartling, & Walker, 2004, p. 3). In providing emotional and professional support of their fellow teaching librarians, or students, or interns, instruction coordinators are able to improve their program’s effectiveness. This practice differs from simple mentoring, in that it assumes reciprocity; by helping others feel good about themselves one will also feel good. Everyone will gain a better sense of connection to each other and the work and feel validated. Mutual empowering is intentional and strategic, and in our interviews we saw it used by both supervising and non-supervising coordinators alike.
Supervising coordinators were slightly more likely to engage in these behaviors, particularly when working with early career teaching librarians or graduate students. One coordinator expressed how they were “trying to build expertise and confidence” in their colleagues so that they could “position [themselves] as teachers.” For many participants, this took shape as not only creating professional development and learning opportunities, but spending significant amount of time in conversation with those they supervised. In their job descriptions, coordinators will often see words like, “mentor” or “facilitate professional development,” but as one supervising coordinator put it:
“‘Will mentor grad students’ is a bullet point but in real life, it’s a lot. it’s hard to quantify those things when you’re writing an annual review. I spend a million hours talking to grad students about their feelings.”
Again, this work is done for the health and well-being of others, but also for the good of the supervising coordinator who is also responsible for the health and well-being of the instruction program.
Coordinators who didn’t supervise also engaged in mutual empowering out of both concern for colleagues and the program. One participant stated, “I’m careful about what I’m asking everyone to do because…I’m obsessed with not burning us out…I want this to be a socially just program, internally. Externally, too.” Instruction coordinators are intimately familiar with the demands of teaching, and recognize the need to “build up” colleagues so that the program can flourish in a sustainable way. This is achieved by, as one participant described their work, “being a cheerleader for a lot of ideas that other people have,” spending hours in observation of others teaching and being observed teaching, and creating opportunities to improve as instructors, Again, this is not purely selfless, altruistic behavior. Mutual empowering, like all relational practice at work, is an intentional behavior rooted in the belief that “growth, development, and achievement occur in the context of connection” (Fletcher, 2004, p. 277). As one non-supervising coordinator put it,
“Now that I’m a coordinator, it’s not just individual relationships that matter. It’s the relationship between me and my team of librarians, both individually and as a program, to other programs and other teachers on campus.”
But what happens when the expectation of mutuality breaks down? This tends to be expressed in terms of negative power dynamics, where instead of respect and appreciation, coordinators’ attempts at mutual empowerment are met with dismissal or hostility. One coordinator describes serving on a campus-wide curriculum-related committee to help further the university’s educational mission and the work of the teaching librarians, only to be introduced at the first committee meeting as “one of the library girls.” “That offhand remark is demeaning and disrespectful in such a complex, concise way. It highlights the coordinator’s femininity, equates it with the library, and dismisses her work…as unimportant and not real work” (Arellano Douglas, 2019). It moves beyond interpersonal negative power dynamics into one that takes on the trappings of sexism, gendering the work and disappearing it, and ageism, reducing the coordinator’s experience and expertise. For women of color, this kind of marginalization is easily compounded by racism (subtle or otherwise), lending an even more toxic slant to potential negative power dynamics.
Other participants shared stories of being asked to help colleagues improve their teaching practice, only to be met with resistance or outright hostility. One participant was told “I don’t want any feedback on learning outcomes, any advice. What I’m doing has worked for so long…so I don’t want anyone to observe me in my class.” There is no possibility for mutual empowerment in situations such as these, which were shared by multiple respondents. Without an openness to change or expressions of respect, mutuality cannot occur, leaving the instruction coordinator unable to do their job effectively. Yes, they will often revert to emotional strategizing to circumvent this kind of negative power dynamic, but this results in even greater emotional labor on the part of the instruction coordinator.
Many instruction coordinators are tasked with creating instruction teams where none previously existed. For several of our participants, their positions were created to meet the needs of increasing library instructional efforts that required coordination. In order to cultivate a sense of team tone and feeling, instruction coordinators encouraged sharing and information exchange. “I have so many emails of people sharing, ‘Oh! I just read this interesting article,’ or ‘Oh! I just tried this new assignment!’ I think that’s really good,” stated one participant whose team thrived on this kind of back-and-forth. Other instruction coordinators devoted regular meeting time to discussing instructional efforts, issues, and plans but also recognized that their colleagues often needed one-on-one conversations as well. “I have an open door policy,” shared one participant, “So they come and sit in my office and we talk about whatever.” Collaboration was the goal for the instruction coordinators we interviewed, who all wanted to create a team that would not only share ideas but create new teaching materials and initiate new teaching efforts together.
Supervising coordinators were concerned with how to “make it easier on all of [their] staff to work collaboratively.” Their expressions of creating team involved creating a strategic vision, handling the day-to-day work of managing people, and setting a unified direction for their team to pursue. Non-supervisory coordinators recognized the need to create team in order to elicit buy-in for their instructional program goals and also to facilitate the work of the instruction within their library. One coordinator honestly stated, “The kind of coordinator work I’m doing, I need my faculty librarians to do with me. And I don’t want to supervise them. I want them to be colleagues who are on the team and are happy to do it.” Building that kind of dynamic takes time, a high degree of relational awareness, and a keen understanding of group dynamics. A dysfunctional team is difficult to ignore, but one that works well together doesn’t demand as much attention or intervention. Thus the instruction coordinator’s work at creating team is often taken for granted or ignored, as is much of the relational work already mentioned.
Workload & Staffing Challenges
When work is not characterized as work, as is the case with relational practice, instruction coordinators are left in a precarious position. All but one of the instruction coordinators we interviewed expressed concern over their workload, which was often exacerbated by challenges in staffing (librarians leaving, positions not being refilled, not enough people available/able to teach). All of the coordinators we interviewed were managers of instruction programs, and in addition to that work, 75% reported a moderate to high teaching load, 64% maintained liaison responsibilities, and 57% continued to do reference work at their libraries. One coordinator expressed feelings of burnout after doing half of all of their library’s teaching in one semester, and 3 others stated that they were liaisons to departments with high teaching loads. The work of liaising with faculty, teaching, and reference is the work of an instruction librarian, but many of the instruction coordinators we interviewed did that work as well as the work of building and sustaining both an instruction team and an instruction program. One participant described their job as being three jobs in one: “the instruction part is one, the assessment part is one…and now supervising,” while another expressed a desire to “cut back on my liaison assignment so that I have time to do this other stuff.”
Coordinators were in agreement that “to think long term, and strategically, and really build a program, I have to have uninterrupted blocks of time, and that’s not something I really have.” They felt pulled in various directions–teaching, liaising, doing reference work–and unable to devote the time and care necessary to do the work on instruction coordination well. This is further complicated for instruction coordinators in faculty positions, who must also find time to engage in the scholarship needed for promotion. In short, the work of the average instruction coordinator without supervisory responsibilities is the work of 2-3 people.
Conclusion & Recommendations
Library instruction coordinators spend a tremendous amount of time engaged in intentional relational practice, specifically categorized here as emotional strategizing, preserving, mutual empowerment, and creating team. What does this mean for their work, and for their organizations, particularly when these practices are not named or recognized for the intense labor they require? Miller (1976) described the ways that many women are carrying the burden of holding up and maintaining their organizations through invisible relational work, making it look as though this work is not actually needed. We find this is true of much of the work library instruction coordinators are doing, making the program appear seamless (Higgins, 2017; Mirza and Seale, 2017), which creates a need for further emotional labor on their part.Much of this work is not only unrecognized or undervalued, but is often also exploited or misunderstood. Relational ways of working can be mischaracterized as a person’s individual attributes, like being “nice” or “helpful”, rather than intentional competencies designed to enable, empathize with, and empower others (Fletcher, 1999). These behaviors line up with gendered expectations of the private sphere, which reflects idealized femininity, and therefore are expected of women without reward or recognition. Despite the likelihood that the application of a relational belief system would be actively discouraged by an organization, and disappeared by traditional evaluation and metrics, this way of working can provide alternatives for moving beyond the hierarchical, masculine workplace (Fletcher, 2004).
The power of naming this work
Relational work, related to mutual growth and connection and often coded as feminine labor, receives less attention and is actively devalued or suppressed in organizational definitions of work (Fletcher, 1998). These practices are neither intuitive nor easy to learn; it involves highly skilled work, and should be named specifically as desired qualifications in job descriptions, and described fully as evidence of a well-managed program in annual and promotional reviews. Fletcher (1999) describes ways to name relational practice by using a “language of competence” as well as the intended outcomes. In order to claim the power and intended effectiveness in the relational activity inherent to library instruction coordinator work, we should describe the work of collaboration and relationship maintenance on a regular, ongoing basis. By doing this, we move beyond the idea that this work is related to personal attributes, and ascribe it to cultivated competencies.
We hope that by naming and describing these strategies as necessary for the job, we can push for practical rewards such as additional compensation, relief of additional duties, and career advancement. Many library instruction coordinators take on these responsibilities in addition to the work they are already doing without a raise in pay, falling into a coordinator trap that is responsible to multiple stakeholders, but has little to no authority, budget, nor infrastructure (Gavia Libraria, 2011). As our analysis showed, even those who are hired into this position still do the work of two to three people by maintaining instruction, reference, assessment, and collection development duties as well as the coordination work.
Doing invisible work impacts career progression negatively (Fletcher, 2004; Neigel, 2015), and while relational skills would be especially valuable for administrative and supervisory work, instruction coordinators rarely advance into this kind of role. While supervisory status doesn’t negate the need for relational practice, we did observe less of a need for emotional strategizing and negotiating if the coordinator supervises librarians on their team. Adding in the authority of a supervisory position doesn’t resolve all of the issues coordinators face, but it does help to delineate clearer job responsibilities. The problem of role ambiguity permeates coordinator work, causing emotional exhaustion and burnout. In university libraries where people can’t supervise due to flat structures or rules in the faculty contract, then the role of the coordinator needs to be explicitly spelled out by library administration. Many of the participants in our study indicated that they didn’t necessarily want to supervise, but they wanted their roles to be made more clear within their organization.
Changing the structures
The structures and behaviors in a white masculine workplace, which many of our libraries and universities embody, are incompatible with the idea of forming growth and connection. They prioritize independence and autonomy, uphold stratified systems, and prevent open conversation and growthful conflict (Fletcher, 2004; Walker, 2004). When library instruction coordinators are purposefully engaged in behaviors that reflect a relational belief system, they are actively subverting racist, patriarchal power structures. They are engaging in what Fletcher calls “an active although unobtrusive exercise of power” (1998, p. 164). During Baharak Yousefi’s keynote at CAPAL 2019, she discussed how a trauma-informed approach can help us shift away from a narrow focus on efficiency and accountability to our employers, and toward intentional slowness, and collective responsibility toward one another and our communities. Changing workplace structures to highlight, value, and reward relational practice at work is a slow, but necessary process, and one that could eventually shift our accountability to ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons instead of institutions that are hostile to this work. Individuals need to experience mutuality in order to successfully work relationally, and they cannot do this without a supporting structure. Relational leadership ascribes value to those who foster connection, which needs to occur at all levels of an organization for change to happen. This would mean a big change in organizational norms, which can be started in small groups and built outward in a collective manner. Instead of focusing on the big, attention-getting projects that are more easily quantified and submitted in a report, we start to build our power by and through connection and reciprocal relationships.
Moving toward authentic connections and reciprocal relationships requires increased vulnerability and mutual empathy. However, without recognition of pervasive systems of oppression, such as institutional and individual racism, these connections will fail and growthful relationships will not thrive. If people at work are to experience connection that leads to mutual empowerment, they must first acknowledge the discrimination that stands in the way of successful empathy and mutuality (Tatum, 1993). Our collective histories impede the process of moving beyond the power differential without acknowledging and ultimately working through it. We need to be intentional about facilitating relational practice and recognize that it is an ongoing process requiring commitment, persistence, and supportive organizational and interpersonal structures (Coll, 1993).
With this research we hope to bring further attention to relational practice as performed by library instruction coordinators in order to show its inherent value as an alternative way of working within librarianship. Like Fletcher, we are not merely interested in highlighting feminine or relational values in the existing hierarchical structure of the library and the university, but in challenging the structure itself to reassess what it values. Organizations like universities and libraries are often eager to discuss adopting change for the future, but they actively disappear behaviors that are involved in making this change happen (Fletcher, 1999). To create change in our organizations we need to actively prioritize and reward actions that create supportive structures in our work. Relational practice is the force that moves individuals and institutions forward. Good work is rooted in good relationships at work, and to make this happen, we need organizations where individuals are emboldened to focus on relational awareness, mutual empowerment, and meaningful connection.
We would like to thank everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this project. We appreciate your trust, openness, and vulnerability in sharing your experiences with us. We’d also like to thank Shana Higgins and Sofia Leung for their thoughtful feedback and encouragement, and Annie Pho for overseeing our publication process and understanding when things didn’t go quite as we planned.
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