Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Catching up on some professional reading

I've been working for a long time trying to figure out how to cogently and coherently express my concerns about the volume production of archivists and grad programs with archives courses vis a vis the number of actual positions open.

Only it turns out I don't have to do so. Nancy Villa Bryk, in the May-June issue of Museum magazine in their "In My View" section, did it for me. I was lucky enough to have the text forwarded to me by a subscriber friend, but unfortunately the American Alliance of Museums has put all the content of their magazine behind logins. (Um, guys? I know you're a professional association and benefits to membership are very important, but please consider sharing at least the op-ed stuff more widely?)

Seriously, it was everything I wanted to say about the archives field, just delete museums and fill in archives and my job is done. She talks about the plethora of graduates, the expansion of new programs, the addition of museum-type courses to other degrees, makes suggestions that graduate schools learn from the law profession (yeah, that caught my eye, too) and actually make placement statistics--real and meaningful placement statistics--available to anybody considering enrolling. And asks us to really think about what the future holds for our graduates today: not just their employability in a statistical framework, but in terms of the skills they'll need to get those jobs and to continue in them successfully for some time.

At the heart, it's all student-centric, Bryk says, and I can do nothing but nod my head in passionate agreement. It's all about being respectful of students in school. Being respectful of their time, their debt loads. Being respectful of their professional needs. Making sure that they have all the information they need to make their decision as to whether or not this is the right thing for them. I mean, let's face it. Many are going to ignore the gloom and doom. That's human nature. I did. But at least I can't get accusatory now and say "but nobody ever told me." They did. I chose to believe I'd beat the odds and be able to make a career out of this. It took a while, but I did. Really, the Bryk op-ed is a spectacular piece and I hope it gets wider distribution. In the meantime, ILL it. It's great.

And now for the Attila addenda.

Here's the thing. Almost every archives prof I've ever spoken with says they tell their students there are no guarantees on the employment scene. Almost every student or recent graduate I've spoken with says they never heard any such thing. Why is this disconnect occurring? What I start to imagine is this: the profs may say it. Maybe once. Maybe even twice. Maybe more. But it's being drowned out by so much else of the student experience with graduate school (which, let's face it, the profs teaching the curricula rarely control). What the students are seeing is a university and a graduate program that makes admissions to the programs simple, quick, and easy. No quotas, no waiting lists, no limits on enrollment. Glossy brochures or websites that say "rapidly expanding professional opportunities" or that say "lots of retirements are coming!" Sure the costs are high, but that's what student loans are for, right? And it's not like they're that hard to get.

And somehow through vagueness or obfuscation, some places suggest this is learning that can be covered as an add-on to something else, but may not require much of the students in time or effort. Glossy brochures that promote not only this degree, but the addition of various elements of it as electives in other programs.  Or nothing on the program website that references professional requirements or anything else that would suggest that there's a significant canon of theory here to be learned, a canon of professional practice. [Some would argue there isn't one. I disagree. So be it.] So the student is left with the impression that this degree is just some sort of a piece of bureaucratic red tape to polish off, and why would you have a pointless piece of red tape to cut unless it were there as some sort of elitist attempt to keep you out of this heaven known as the archival career? That's what those pieces of red tape serve as in almost every other piece of their experience. An arbitrary obstacle. How else to explain those financial aid forms?

I wandered off to the SAA page on graduate archival programs. I was curious about 2 things: did those program webpages a) mention abiding by the SAA guidelines for graduate archival education and b) provide placement stats? 39 schools listed there individually. I started at the bottom of the alpha list and went wandering around the web. (Note: US-centric here.)

Here's some details about the links and sites I looked at: Don't assume the SAA page descriptions are up to date, I saw a few discrepancies as I was zooming by. The Murfreesboro one took me around in circles on the SAA site but I eventually got there via Google. With South Carolina's, Kent State's, and St. Johns' pages, I couldn't find any mention of an archives degree or focus at all. Austin & a few others took some digging from the landing page.  By the time I hit the broken link for the Montreal program, I was sufficiently weary not to go looking for the program which pretty much took Wright State out, too since no link was provided there. Simmons, Clayton State, I could find the grad school easy enough despite a broken link, not true for Loyola. Some of those listed? Don't have anything resembling a dedicated site to archival studies. In some cases, it's impossible to tell there's an archives program there. Maybe those are schools that just offer an archives course or two as part of another program? Here's a question for the Internet age and Academia: can it really be a degree program/concentration if it doesn't have its own website?

And all of the end results below? Shouldn't be taken as carved in stone. Figure the whole + and - statistical thingie with all of the below. Honestly some of those schools may have had placement scores included, I just didn't see the link. And why would Canadian universities reference SAA guidelines?  II probably missed direct references to the guidelines in several US schools, but even if I didn't, some of them had extensive explanations of student learning outcomes that could be taken as parallel or sufficient justification. It's just that to compare would require far more digging or synthesis than I was interested in or willing to do after 10:00 pm on one or two weekend nights. Any misses based on my laziness, that's a fair cop.

Here's the results:
  • 39 schools, 8 of which I either couldn't find a program reference or links were problematic, leaving 31.
  • Of those 31, 4 specifically mentioned the SAA guidelines on graduate education (Arizona, Maryland, Middle Tennessee, and WI-Madison). As I said, that may be a non-starter as a stat since some had other language that probably paralleled.
  • Of the 31, 3 provided placement stats in some form (San Jose, British Columbia, and WI-Madison). UBC's was a pretty interesting read, and a model for others, I think. 
Graduate educators? Please do some user studies on your websites that take into account both the lessons your potential applicants are learning from them and what their potential employers might be learning too. Don't do this to the employers who are trying to figure out if your degree passes their check-off list of "masters degree in archival studies." Check the currency of your entries on the SAA site. If you're not on the SAA site, get on the SAA site. Okay, so I know there's no one-stop-shop for this kind of information and so I don't rely on it, but it would be nice if I could. [Get a grip, Attila, you say. I know, I'll try.]

And grad students? Why aren't you asking? If you're truly treating this as a "get a degree to get a job" even if it's "get a degree in this field because this is what my heart is set on doing," why aren't you asking the programs what their placement rates are? Are you looking at the job ads and calculating what they require and how you might get that?  Are you talking to employers?

And even as I say that, I know well it's not crystal here. There's no finger of blame to be placed squarely in any particular quarter. Not when I hear from job candidates and recruiters both that job ads don't necessarily reflect the KSAs needed by the employer or the job on offer. That's not very helpful, either. How can they produce what you want when you're not only not telling them what you want, you may be misleading them? Recruiters: job recruitments should equally be the most exciting and scary times in your professional lives. How careful are you when developing the KSAs and interview questions to make sure they really reflect the ongoing needs of your organization? Are you taking this opportunity to think about the way your place functions? I know, it's not always that easy. Organizations tend to function on precedent and sometimes you can't make changes. As I said, not crystal.

And then one last thing. Here's where my heart is torn on this whole topic, and it is, I think, fundamental--and worse, preliminary--to the discussion even though I've been completely ignoring it because I just can't make it fit together as a coherent whole.

I know I presented all of the above within a "teaching to the workforce" context. That's probably not something we can ever escape with a professional degree. It's certainly driving an awful lot of academia these days. And there's a lot of specific things to learn in developing as an archivist. But deep down, I'm insulted and offended and downright scared by what seems to me to be an almost all-consuming focus on workforce development as a motivation for graduate training. Shouldn't school be more than just job placement training? Shouldn't it be about exploring at least a portion of the world, developing critical thinking skills, passion and intellectual curiosity and the development of a mind that will forever be in learning mode? Does it have be about "You can be a processing archivist at the completion of this 9 month program?" What happens when the Spotted Owl shows up in our logjam of descriptive projects and suddenly the jobs as we've been doing them are no longer there? Will that archivist be able to move along with the change, learn what needs to be learned, and oh, please, possibly even be spearheading that change because they have the vision, the foresight, the comprehensive understanding not only of their day to day tasks but of the larger world around them so they can see what needs to happen and start figuring out how perhaps to get there?

And suddenly with that last bit I realize I've accomplished basically nothing with this blog post, other than to spend way too much time looking at graduate school websites. Insomnia, go figure. And if you want to waste time, there's way better ways to do that on the net (or off the net) than reading this. Go do them. Be happy. Learn something weird. It will make you a better person, probably.

But, you know, it wouldn't hurt to brush up on Posner, too.