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Challenges and Cohorts

By Marta Brunner

Last week, the newest cohort of CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellows gathered at Bryn Mawr College for the annual 10-day “bootcamp” orientation seminar. I attended as a new fellow 8 years ago; this year, I attended the day devoted to orienting supervisors, as I will be helping to guide new fellows at UCLA. Supervisors’ day, which included supervisors or their representatives and all the new fellows, started with facilitated discussions in the morning and a panel of guest speakers in the afternoon. The panelists included Charles Henry, president of CLIR; Donald J. Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications and information technology at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Robert Horton, associate deputy director for library services at the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

During the morning session, we considered the challenges likely to crop up for the fellow or host institution, or both, in the course of the initial fellowship year. Although the breakout groups of supervisors and fellows had no trouble filling butcher paper with lists of anticipated challenges, there was significant overlap across those lists, suggesting that there was already some measure of shared understanding amongst fellows and their prospective supervisors. Rather than reproduce an exhaustive list of anticipated challenges here, I will simply highlight a few that I found interesting from my perspective as a past CLIR fellow and current host institution mentor:

  1. Because, in many instances, CLIR fellows are stepping into hybrid/idiosyncratic/unprecedented/multifaceted roles at their host institutions, all parties involved need to take extra care to articulate early and often their expectations for how the fellowship will progress and what will have happened or been produced by the end of the fellowship. This is especially true for the fellow, her direct supervisor(s), and library administrators, but also for colleagues within the library organization as well as faculty on campus. To what extent is the fellow expected to be a service/resource provider, and to what extent is the fellow going to be a service/resource user? If the fellow will be working on multiple projects, are there different (even competing) sets of expectations for the different projects? These roles can be tricky to navigate but everyone in our discussion agreed that frequent, intentional communication about expectations should help ease these challenges and produce better results for all involved. This leads directly to the next point…
  2. How do we measure the success of the postdoctoral fellowship program? What constitutes success for the fellow? For the supervisor(s)? For the host institution more broadly?For CLIR?The fact that we even asked this question about measuring success signals a shift or evolution in the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. In the early years, conversations among fellows and with supervisors focused on the question of what role(s) the fellows would play in their host libraries and in academic librarianship more broadly during their fellowships. While some fellows did undergo evaluations to get renewed for a second year, my impression is that few host institutions took steps to measure the success of their fellows and the projects they undertook. I recall hearing fellows in my cohort and subsequent cohorts wondering how to tell whether they were on the right track or doing what they were expected to do. What I heard from this incoming cohort and their supervisors was that everyone benefits from having assessment mechanisms in place to help take the pulse of the fellowship work along the way and to make proactive adjustments when necessary to ensure that the fellowship ends up benefiting both the institution and the fellow to the greatest extent possible.
  3. As enthusiastic as we all were about bringing postdoctoral fellows into our libraries and working together to define successful outcomes for their fellowships, we recognized that postdoctoral fellows are finite resources. Most fellowships are two years long: what can reasonably be accomplished in that amount of time, particularly if the first year involves a steep learning curve or acculturation process? Supervisors and fellows agreed that the frequent, intentional communication about expectations mentioned in item #1 above ought to include development of a concrete but flexible timeline with identifiable milestones for assessment.
  4. Of the non-fellows who attended the day’s discussions, only some will actually be acting as direct supervisors for their fellows. While all of us on the “supervisor” side of the discussion helped bring about or craft the CLIR fellow position at our respective institutions, some of us were standing in for direct supervisors who could not attend, and others of us will be working with a direct supervisor in some capacity to guide the fellows’ work at our institutions. For example, at UCLAI will be supervising a direct supervisor for one fellow and acting as a mentor for another. While the variety of participants’ statuses complicated our discussions somewhat, we all agreed that CLIR fellows ought to have a mentor along with a supervisor. Additionally, we thought that it would be ideal for the fellow to report regularly to a direct supervisor “on the ground” and report periodically to an administrator supervisor (e.g., an associate director or associate university librarian) to ensure that the specifics of the project work or daily activities are placed in a larger context so that expectations are met and the larger strategic priorities are kept fresh in everyone’s minds. Also, the types of troubleshooting that a fellow may need will vary and so having supervisors at different levels of the organization will help.
  5.  One of the major advantages that CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows have over other postdocs in academia is the network of colleagues they become a part of when they join the program. The earliest cohorts ranged between 4 and 15 fellows; the current cohort is 27, spread over some 24 institutions across the United States and Canada. That’s a sizable instant community—a vast pool of expertise, knowledge, and energy that will be an oft-used resource during the fellowship term. What’s more, fellows from past cohorts continue to be connected and, for the most part, actively engaged with the CLIR network as members of CLIR’s online community, CLIR Connect. Current and past fellows have collaborated on major research projects and conference presentations, started a journal, and practiced creative problem-solving together. By the end of the day’s discussions, we found ourselves agreeing that supervisors need a cohort, too! In response, CLIR has already created an online forum for supervisors this year and is considering what kinds of conversations, tools, and activities might benefit supervisors during and after the fellowship terms. Once a CLIR fellow, always a CLIR fellow. Once a CLIR supervisor, always a CLIR partner?

We did attempt to brainstorm solutions to the challenges we identified. Obviously, with such a wide variety of positions and roles represented in the newest cohort—including data management and curation for sciences and social sciences, data curation for early modern studies, digital scholarship projects, outreach, research support, and more—we could not find one-size-fits-all solutions for every potential challenge. Nevertheless, our conversations throughout the day, and especially with our afternoon panelists, drove home the idea that the biggest potential benefit of the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is that it enables host institutions to work on local projects and challenges with an eye toward a much broader network of institutions. That is not to say that CLIR fellows should be tasked with finding “universal” fixes to big problems. Instead, perhaps our goal with CLIR fellows should be to have them working on projects that are local but measurably extensible, transferrable, or comparable to related efforts at other institutions. Because the fellows, and now the supervisors, have a North America-wide network of colleagues to collaborate, debrief, and brainstorm with on a regular basis, our local work can more easily be connected to a larger context. It makes me think that we should take a “Lego” approach to our CLIR fellows’ work; that is, we want to aim for being able to build something unique and imaginative on our own, but we always want to be able to connect with someone else’s bricks or reconfigure our collective bricks into something new later.

Marta Brunner is Head of Collections, Research, and Instructional Services in the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. She was a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA in 2006-2007

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