Pesky Interview Questions

Interviewing for a job is, at the very least, weird. It’s like dating but professional instead of romantic. You meet people with very different expectations that you; and you hear some very strange things. You might even say some of those weird things as nerves and sheer exhaustion addle your brain.

Some of those weird things are questions (and the answers).

I remember a Skype interview I was on where one of the interviewers asked me, “Do you consider yourself a team player?” There was only one way to answer that particular question. Yes. My one word answer elicited an awkward pause, before the interviewer asked me to elaborate (which I did).

Like the question I was posed, people get strange or strangely worded questions posed to them.

One that I see popping up time and again in interviewing advice is some variation of: “What is your greatest weakness?” On forums and in blog posts (including this one), people puzzle out how to answer this question.

I have decided that this question and others like it are non-questions. People ask them to put you on the spot. And you quickly find that any answer you give 1) sounds dumb or 2) doesn’t really fully answer the question. I’ve decided: THAT’S OKAY. In your interview, you do not want to lie or falsely represent yourself, but you’re also showing your best side. You do not need to self-sabotage.

Plus, it would take a very introspective and perceptive individual to truly know the answers to some of these questions.

So, here are how to respond to these pesky non-questions.

  • “What is your greatest weakness?”
    “I am very hardworking and sometimes it’s exhausting to put so much effort into your work. But I always get the job done – with time to take care of myself and my apartment too.”
  • “What will be your biggest challenge in this position?”
    “[Something entirely innocuous.]”
  • “Tell us about a time you had a conflict with a supervisor, and how you resolved the issue.”
    “I can’t recall a time I had a conflict with your supervisor.”
  • “Tell us about a time you had a conflict with a coworker. How did you handle that situation?”
    “I don’t think I’ve ever had a conflict with a coworker.”

 

On Writing

ghost writing on laptop
By SlimVirgin – Own work, CC BY 3.0.

I remember being in high school (and all the grades before that); and writing was so easy. My mother and I joked that all I had to do was click print. Writing just came that easily to me.

Then, I went to college. I had to spend a lot more time on my writing – developing a topic, thinking about what I wanted to say, finding evidence, writing a draft, structuring my ideas, rewriting, sitting on it for awhile. So, the writing took more effort and more thought. And it was “hard” in certain ways if you were tired or didn’t want to write or got anxious about your grades, how your professor would react, etc.

And then I went to grad school and writing became dumbly easy again. I had developed good habits from undergrad – so I was a bit more thoughtful during grad school than I had in high school. But I wasn’t crying tears of blood or typing my fingers raw. Not in the slightest. I used a writing tutor in undergrad on occasion; there was absolutely no reason to use one in graduate school.

So, now, I have my first professional gig. And it requires scholarly publication.

I’ve learned quite quickly that writing, in this context, is really hard. Like undergrad, I get to pick my own topics…so I start with a fire under me, a passion for what I’m talking about. Unlike my English, Creative Writing, and History classes in undergrad, Library and Information Science literature has a fetish for statistics and numbers – and pretentiousness. I find myself more often analyzing data, statistics, etc. than text. And some times that’s fine: I love me some circulation statistics. Ebook and e-jounal download and view statistics too. But I would probably get bored – and my readers too – if I only looked at circulation statistics in every single article or chapter I write.

Then, there are the soul-crushing reviewers required in peer-reviewed journals. My first attempt at submitting an article turned into a strange flip from “We like this and want this” to “This will never be up to our publication standards.” So, when you eventually pick yourself up and brush yourself off from that kind of rejection, you second guess every edit you’re making.

And then I have the existential crisis of knowing that most library literature is pointless. There are plenty of people in my position – writing peer-reviewed articles in order to keep their jobs and/or make tenure. I do not want to write pointless literature, and yet I know full well that I am likely going to contribute to the mush – because I need to in order to progress in my career. Then I begin to wonder if what I am currently writing is slush or not – and how hard I should work to make it not-slush.

So, in the end, writing has become a lot harder than it once was.

When Presentations Go Wrong

I have a feeling at least 50% of librarians get performance anxiety. Why so many of us still go to conferences and present is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery to me why I do it – when writing an article would be less stressful. (Maybe because presentations are quicker to do.)

Anyway, most of us with stage fright go up to the podium and give perfectly decent presentations. Except for a few “ums” or a misspoken word (that we quickly correct), our presentations go smoothly and as painlessly as possible.

And there are other times that your presentation…doesn’t go according to plan.

I was recently at ER&L. (It’s Electronic Resources & Libraries, for the 15 people who asked me what it was.) I watched everyone else go before me without a hitch, so I was quite sure that everything was all nicely set up for me to go.

But it wasn’t. For some reason, my slides had not been pre-loaded onto the presentation computer. Luckily, I had sent the slides to myself via email. So, I went to my email and pulled up the message. Unluckily, when I tried to open my PowerPoint file, it crashed the browser. So, I tried again. And it crashed the browser. On the third attempt – and third crash – I decided that I would probably never get the damn thing to open.

So, I asked my audience if they were okay with plain old lecture format. And off I went.

I got about a third of the way through by lecturing and describing what I had meant to show them. Then, the technical support strode in. My audience started pointing at them. It was the reason I realized they were standing awkwardly behind me. So, I paused my presentation and let them work their “magic.” On the second try, they managed to pull up my slides. And…I had to go about trying to find my place in my script again, without confusing myself or the audience. I got a little tongue-twisted for a few seconds here and there. But I did manage to make my way through the whole presentation.

I wasn’t disappointed in myself. But I was quite glad there were only about 10 people watching.

So, that’s a story of when presentations go wrong.

©hat and Copyfraud

For those of us back from Spring Break, welcome back. Some of us were very, very bored without you. And envious.

copyright symbolAnyway, while I was cleaning out an old email account, I found out that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)’s University Library has started a podcast on copyright called ©hat. I am not in anyway a copyright librarian or copyright lawyer, but I find copyright and licensing to be fascinating due to long times spent 1) thinking someone was going to “steal” my writing and 2) seeing how different e-resources functioned due to different licensing agreements. My director also knows that I’m interested in copyright and licensing and so pushes the occasional copyright question to me. So, when I learned the provider of my graduate education was putting out copyright podcasts, I decided I would take a listen.

The Copyright Librarian at UIUC Sara Benson talks to experts on copyright. For the first episode,  she interviews Jason Mazzone, a Professor of Law (also at UIUC).

In the podcast, Benson and Mazzone discuss the concept of “copyfraud.” Copyfraud is a concept that describes when individuals or institutions falsely claim copyright ownership to content in the public domain. Copyfraud is also used to describe circumstances where publishers, museums, and creators claim rights beyond that which copyright law allows. Mazzone found himself interested in the topic while he was doing historical research and archives that required access agreements that restricted Mazzone from quoting or reproducing archival material that was in the public domain. These agreements and restrictions were, as he says, “bogus”: if the material is in the public domain, as were the nineteenth century documents he was studying, these restrictions cannot be enforced.

And thus, Mazzone decided to vent. It started with an op ed piece. And, as these things apparently go in academia, it progressed into a monograph – Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law.

The podcast ©hat was short but interesting for someone who is interested in copyright. Listen to episode one here.

“Professor C”

Musing over an empty glass because I had drank all my water and didn’t presume to ask for or go get more, I was sitting on a packed, screened porch with a dozen people who self-identified as “writers” in the middle of the Midwestern United States. As someone who writes fiction, I somewhat self-identify as such. But it always seems pretentious to say “I’m a writer” or “they were writers” – so let’s just call a possum a possum: they were college professors. (And that one chef.)

“I hate going around hearing ‘Professor H,* Professor H,'” said the man sitting next to me. “I just want to go someplace once and be called Carl.”

“Have your students call you that,” I said.

“No, the whole German* department requires our students call them ‘Professor so-and-so,'” he replied. “Otherwise the students get too forward with the female professors.”

***

During grad school, I wanted to make small talk with the one professor I truly admired at the program. So, I asked, “Shauna, did you get time to relax over break? Or did you have to write the entire time?”

My professor gave me a strange look, though she eventually answered.

I think that looked stemmed from wondering why I can called her “Shauna,” and not “Professor Jones.”

***

In the first class of my undergraduate education, my professor asked the class to call her “Ms. O’Neale.” Calling someone “Doctor” or “Professor” sounded too stuffy.

I found that the rest of my professors followed similar – or even more informal patterns. 90% preferred their first names. The others preferred a Ms. or Mr.; one preferred more of a nickname.

***

Now, I will stand in front of classes as the instructor or co-instructor. And the primary teaching faculty will introduce me as “Professor Ciota.” I don’t correct them. Sometimes, I try the moniker on for size. It has a minor thrill to it for a moment.

But I really don’t want to go around being called “Professor Ciota.” “Ms. Ciota” is fine from time to time – it feels more like me. But I really am “Rebecca,” first and foremost. So why shouldn’t students call me by my name?

Like the professor during my first undergraduate class, I find “Professor” too stuffy, too pretentious. I don’t see education as including a “Sage on the Stage” – like a “Professor” or a “Doctor.” (Though, I do think appropriate amounts of either experience or education should be required for professorships.) I want students and faculty to learn alongside each other. Learning is a discussion, not a lecture.

Yes, I want the students (and my colleagues) to respect me and my value as an instructor and scholar. But I don’t particularly care for a constant reminder that I am some lofty being that my students have to crane their necks to loo up to. I want to be alongside them, watching them learn and steering them when appropriate.

I’d rather just be “Rebecca.”

*Names and departments have been changed.

The People’s Knowledge

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration placed a gag order on certain federally-funded scientific organizations, like the EPA and the National Parks Service. While these “gag orders” might be common and temporary, occurring briefly at the beginning of each new administration, there has been a public outcry over censorship.

I’m trying to keep my head about me between hyped up news about “normal” political transition, the more radical leanings of a more radical conservative party, and the outright not-normal political maneuvers – and then craft my responses to each. Plus, there’s the everyday stuff like planning a systems migration at work, or making sure that my horse is happy and healthy. But in light of this “gag order” for scientific organizations, I started to think about what information the public would not be getting.

And I realized gag orders on federally-funded scientific research prevent the public from accessing information they paid for.

I could talk about the various ethical implications for gag orders and other restrictions on the dissemination of information, but that’s for another time. This blog post is about money.

The majority of employed individuals in the United States pay the government a significant portion of their wages or salaries. The government uses that money (idealistically) to fund various public services. Among those public services is scientific research. So, we paid for that scientific knowledge. Now, I understand that certain research might affect national security – but for the majority of research, it should be right in the hands of the citizens who paid for it.

While librarians haven’t been necessarily focusing on governmental gag orders on scientists, we have been considering who pays for information. I worked for acquisitions in a major R1 university; I knew we were paying millions for access to scientific (and humanities and social science) scholarship. And even when we paid millions and millions and had the second largest academic library in North America – we still couldn’t afford everything. Smaller institutions have it much worse. (I know. Now, I’m stranded without even half of what I had at the University of Illinois.)

To mitigate this information gap, librarians (and other education professionals) have been pushing the idea of “open access” – where anyone anywhere can access scholarly information. Several journals and monographs are now widely available online for free. Still, there is plenty of literature trapped behind paywalls.

Librarians push open access with ethical, logical, and pragmatic arguments. Again, these are interesting reasons – but I’m focusing on the money.

As an acquisitions librarian, I am used to paying (a lot of money) for information. And that information comes with lots of DRM. And then, the next fiscal year, you pay more – for the subscription or for database maintenance. I’m so used to the financial aspects of information, this back and forth transaction, that I forget that some of the stuff the library was paying for…I had paid for as well.

I have paid income taxes in Illinois for six years. And those taxes paid for the state universities, which fund researchers. (Plus, plenty of my federal taxes went to those state universities as well.) The research coming out of the Illinois university system, at least for those six years, in part belongs to me: I funded it, I paid for it. So has every other resident of the state. So, now that I’m in Iowa, I’m funding Iowa’s state universities and their research. Why should all that research I paid for be behind giant paywalls?

Maybe it shouldn’t be. (It’s a long argument. I don’t necessarily think all the paywalls should go away. I am, after all, part acquisitions librarian from a large R1 university who is used to paying for the stuff. And open access comes with its own pitfalls.)

But I’m giving a shout out to those publicly-funded institutions that are making their research open and free to the public. NASA gets a special shout out because of their new PubSpace.

Hacking History

Computers in Libraries circulates around the staff at work. I was pointed to Marshall Breeding’s piece on systems librarians. But of course I would not find the article most pertinent to my job to be the most interesting article. Instead, I was immediately paging to Felicia A. Smith‘s “Should Libraries Even Consider Hacking Back If Attacked?” (January/February 2017). (The answer to the titular question is: “probably not.”)

I found her discussion of hacking ebooks to be more interesting than hacking people back. Coming from a giant library (the 2nd largest academic library in North America), I’m used to hackers coming to steal. I experienced one excellently timed cyberattack the day after Thanksgiving where someone with a Chinese IP address broke into our ScienceDirect accounts and downloaded thousands of articles. MIT experienced perhaps the most famous hacking theft in 2013 when activist Aaron Schwarz cracked MIT’s JSTOR archive. Cyberattacks against libraries often have a financial aspect; the bigger it is, the bigger the story.

But cyberattacks against libraries aren’t always for those big ticket database and journal subscriptions. Sometimes they are mystifying. My coworkers and I still can’t explain why a Ukrainian IP address decided to scrape our OPAC for only the MaRC. What they got out of it, is anyone’s guess.

Felicia A. Smith also points out that cyberattacks against libraries can be assaults against intellectual discourses. This could be altering a database to change experimental data; or it could be cracking an ebook in order to change the arguments. What struck me most was the potential for cyberattacks against the historical record.

Libraries and archives keep primary documents. Paper or vellum have their own risks – but in many regards it requires physically accessing a document to alter or destroy it. For born-digital materials, it is plenty easier to manipulate them from a distance. A hacker intent on altering the historical record can potentially access the target documents from any computer. An undetected attack can irrevocably alter what information future scholars have access to.

As I mentioned, I am more likely to think of hacked libraries in terms of people stealing ebooks and journal articles. I never considered that our institutional repository and digital archives might come under attack by hackers trying to change historical or experimental information.

I’ll need to keep watching our systems for security threats.

Speed Friending

At the moment, I am not an outreach librarian. I’m not much of a public services librarian either, having been mostly in technical services for the past three years. But I still know a good outreach idea when I see one.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has created an outreach program called Culture Bridge. This tripart outreach program focuses on “connecting international and domestic students.” This program includes a talent show highlighting cultural diversity, a “speed friending” event (think speed dating but with less romance and with more information literacy), and a photo contest.

I’m too much of an introvert with stage fright to be much of a fan of talent shows, but the other two programs have my attention.

The photo contest would leverage the library’s existing social media accounts, primarily the library’s Instagram feed. And it would get our students to think about how other cultures, nations, countries, etc. think about information – how do they store it? how do they disseminate it? do they have libraries and librarians? is there information digital or print or verbal? Even I don’t get the time to think enough about how different cultures handle information – and I’m a librarian. So, having students thinking about this stuff is cool. Plus, we get to see pictures of cool places.

The speed friending event is what especially caught my eye.

I think convincing students to participate might be a challenge. The librarians at the University of Colorado at Boulder noted that food was an incentive. I might suggest doing this speed friending event during Orientation, because the first-years and transfer students would want to make friends.

But once we overcome the issue of getting students to participate in the program, I think this program would work well. From my experiences during my undergraduate education, I learned that my personal and intellectual life was enriched by knowing and being friends with people from a different background than me. I also found second languages to be a powerful tool to make connections across cultures. In graduate school, I found that having a school with a large international population suddenly opens up new avenues.

A five minute chat would not be comparable to the sitting in cafes with a Chinese grad student and comparing how our respective countries and cultures viewed the world. (“Why do you [Westerners] think dragons are evil?” is a question I have yet to be able to satisfactorily answer.) A five minute chat would not necessarily mean an evening in the dining hall discussing how people view their economic statuses – and how that affected their outlooks. But it might be a start.

If the library can start intercultural conversations, I say we should try.

Location and Academia

pink townhouse
By Beyond My Ken – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47207023

Happy New Year (a bit belated). I know it’s been a few weeks (I think I took off the whole of December from my blog), but I am back at it.

Throughout November and December, I had a main theme on my mind: location.

There is a pressure to find a home for most newcomers to the area. A mortgage is cheaper than rent. And one of the employers in town helps with a down payment and promises to buy the house should they relocate the employee. The housing market is also “just so” that yuppies like me can afford the American Dream (whereas, I couldn’t in my hometown). With this pressure, you start to wonder about what part of town you would live in. Or if you want to skip out on the overpriced town where your employer is and move to a nearby “bedroom community” or the bigger town 30 minutes away.

And then there’s the decision that really needs to be made: am I ready for property ownership? and will I stay long enough to warrant purchasing property?

At faculty get-togethers (there have been a few because of the holidays), I’m always asked, “How do you like [the town]?” I always say that I like it, “but it’s a little boring.” People laugh and then try to suggest that I head away to the nearby “cities.” Still, I think everyone realizes this location has its drawbacks.

The theme of location also presents itself due to relationships. At the beginning of November, my partner moved away to pursue his own career. A town of 9,000 can suddenly become lonely when you no longer have a constant dinner date and “partner in crime.” I currently love my job, and I love the opportunities a small town provides (it takes 7 minutes to drive anywhere, there’s free parking, rent and mortgages are cheaper than in larger towns, etc). But this is a place for families, not a singleton in a long-distance relationship. I kinda feel like a saltwater fish in freshwater.

But I’m not the only one in this boat. (Lots of water metaphors here.) As I meet more of the faculty, I find other “halves” of relationships. One visiting professor wants to find a career in the southeast to be with his partner, who has a stable job in North Carolina. An academic professional left behind her husband in Texas to forge a career in snowy Iowa. A couple moved here for a post-doc; when a second post-doc came up, the wife moved to Arizona and left her partner here. I learn of a professor who is in a long-distance relationship with her daughter, who lives on the east coast with her father; the parents are still married, but have tenure-track jobs in different geographical locations. After more than a decade, one professor is taking a new job to live closer to their sweetheart who lives halfway across the country. There are a lot of us in this location, with loved ones scattered in other locations.

This separation seems to have two roots. First, is my location. There just aren’t that many employers, and those employers only offer certain types of jobs and at certain prices. For my partner, with aspirations to work for a tech company, he had to leave this town. Second, is academia. Maybe people in higher education just complain about it more, but location does seem a rather integral problem to academicians’ personal relationships. So few of us can get our partners a job when we move for a new position. It’s nearly impossible to get two tenure-track positions at the same university, let alone the same department (though some are known to split lines). For a double-academic couple (or triple or quadruple, however the relationship is structured), finding careers in the same location looks impossible.

I am glad I’m at where I’m at. But contemplating the concept of location and academia presents several trains of thought.

Age and the Library and the University

When I arrived at my first job out of grad school, I became an Assistant Professor. I participated in New Faculty Orientation, sit on division meetings, attend faculty meetings, etc. Yes, I am a full faculty member. But I have something unique about me: I am the youngest faculty member. And, aside from some of the coaches, I’m about 4-6 years younger than the other professors.

Thus far in my career (and I know it won’t last long), I have always been one of the youngest. I was the undergrad among masters students in my two internships; I was a 22-year old graduate assistant in a department where most people were thinking of retirement. I’m used to being the youngest.

Most of the time, it doesn’t matter.

But the age difference between myself and others of my rank can cause interesting reactions and interactions at the university.

  • I’m sitting with another librarian and one of the college’s IT professionals at a faculty barbecue. One of the teaching faculty comes to sit with us and asks my partner and I, “How old am I? You look like students!”
  • I’m at yet another faculty barbecue and a professor I work with asks me when I graduated from Oberlin College. I tell her. The shock and realization is slow and very apparent on my colleague’s face.
  • I enter a classroom, ready to teach, and the students say, “There should be a librarian here.”
  • I enter the dining hall in order to go to French Table; as a professor, I can sign in without paying (if I’m going to a language table). The person monitoring the desk says, “Honey, you need to swipe your card.” She goes pale as I pull out my faculty ID.

I always spin these interactions in a positive way: I’m successful in ways no one expects from someone in my age group; I remember well what being an undergraduate is like, so I can teach to them and develop systems that cater to them.

I do realize though that I may be challenged more, as I am exposed to more people in the campus community. Because I’m young.

And then, I think of all the people (women especially) who are not in the same predicament. I think about my colleagues who are considered “old.” They exist in a world that thinks they don’t have much use after 55. They have younger generations demanding that they step down, to make jobs for younger people. Women especially become nagging crones or harmless grandmothers after a certain age; when they’re angry, they’re going through menopause (because they couldn’t possibly have another reason for anger or stress).

Society holds age against us, no matter what our age is. Some of us are young, naive, inexperienced, don’t know how the real world works. And the rest of us are old, curmudgeon-y, have outlasted their welcome.