Middlebury professors call for books to be returned to campus bookstore

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The Middlebury College bookstore doesn’t look much like a bookstore anymore. The textbooks that once lined its shelves were cleared out earlier this year, making room for more Middlebury-branded sweatshirts, T-shirts and coffee mugs.

The bookstore, like many others at colleges across the country, had suffered from declining sales and stiff competition from large online retailers such as Amazon.

Bookstore manager Erin Jones-Poppe said it simply didn’t make sense for the store to keep stocking books.

"We cannot afford to continue in our current trajectory," she told the student newspaper, The Middlebury Campus, in 2017.

Last spring the bookstore switched to an online-only book ordering system, offered through MBS Textbook Exchange — a company that was acquired by Barnes and Noble Education in 2017. Under the new system, students can still pick up their books from the bookstore — they just have to order them online first. The system is supposed to provide better value for students. But faculty members at Middlebury say they want the old system back.

In a letter to the college administration, published in The Middlebury Campus on Oct. 11, faculty from the English and American literature and theater departments and 12 individual faculty members from other disciplines said the new online system had “a significant negative pedagogical impact.”

Students won’t order books in advance of their first classes because they are unsure of their schedules, the professors wrote. When the students do order their books, it can take up to three weeks for them to arrive.

To get the books to arrive faster “costs our students extortionate amounts in shipping costs,” they said.

“Professors are spending valuable time during the early weeks of the semester photocopying materials and trying in other ways to help increasingly anxious student chase down books,” the faculty members wrote. “The whole situation has a significant negative impact on the central thing — teaching — that we do. It undermines the process and experience of teaching and learning, as well as sending a message that course materials are devalued or irrelevant.”

Don Wyatt, John M. McCardell Jr. Distinguished Professor of History at Middlebury, said he signed the letter because it’s hard for students to achieve an appreciation of the importance of books “without access to them.”

Since the system changed, many more students have shown up to class without their books, he said.

Because of the “emphasis on the close reading of texts” in humanities studies, the delayed arrival of textbooks is “extremely disadvantageous,” said Wyatt. “Students are behind almost before they begin.”

Antonia Losano, a lead author of the letter and chair of the Department of English and American Literature, said after the letter was published numerous members of the college administration got in touch to “express concern and commitment to working on this.” Many members of the administration also teach regularly, so this is “not an abstract issue to them,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Middlebury College declined to comment while discussions between faculty, staff and administrators are ongoing. Losano said a meeting between the relevant parties has been scheduled for mid-November.

Bill Dampier, executive vice president of MBS Textbook Exchange, said he "understood the concerns of Middlebury faculty" and would be working with the college "to ensure students have access to the materials they need for success in the classroom."

Students who buy directly from MBS’s inventory are offered a low rate on second-day air shipping, or they can pick up their purchase from the Middlebury bookstore without any shipping cost, said Dampier.

However, many students at Middlebury chose to purchase their books from individual sellers in the MBS marketplace — where items are shipped by the seller and not by MBS, often at lower cost.

"It is clearly stated on the website at the point of purchase that the shipping window can be up to 18 days," said Dampier.

Middlebury College is not alone in eliminating books from its bookstore in recent years.

Robert Batyko, social media and digital manager of the National Association of College Stores, said a few hundred institutions have moved course material ordering and delivery online. Nearly all the others do some combination of both online and physical textbook ordering and delivery, he said.

Institutions that move book sales online "generally do so in response to the increasing number of students who purchase online, and increasing usage of digital materials," said Batyko. "Additionally, some institutions have moved in this direction for financial reasons, as it allows them to repurpose the space for other offerings."

Going online-only is "complex, and if not well executed, susceptible to difficulties," said Batyko. "The most common complaints center around delays in the ordering and delivery of course materials, along with the shipping fees."

Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire switched to an online-only ordering system from MBS in 2016.

Administrators at Colby-Sawyer initially “got a tiny bit of pushback” from faculty who didn’t like the new system, said Beth Crockford, chair of the business administration department. “It was a challenge for a few faculty members, but now that we are used to it, I have not heard complaints,” she said.

The MBS system allows students to buy used, new or digital books, and offers to buy back print textbooks once students are done with them.

“It’s a wise business move for small schools,” said Alison Seward, manager of the Colby-Sawyer college store. The system might not be perfect, but she wouldn’t go back to putting books on the shelves.

“I vote to keep the online ordering system,” she said.

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As Halloween approaches, another university faces a blackface incident

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Last week saw another national discussion over the racist nature of blackface after Megyn Kelly defended it on her now-defunct NBC show as something other than racist and as appropriate for Halloween costumes.

For higher education, discussions of blackface are hardly new, but the reality is that students and others continue to appear in blackface, to the frustration not only of black students and faculty members, but many educators.

At Brigham Young University last week, the university was holding a symposium (in collaboration with historically black Morgan State University) on the 50th anniversary of the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. But even as the university focused resources on that event, word spread on campus that a white student had appeared at a Halloween party in blackface. Many students were shocked, and black students (about 1 percent of the student body) were reported to be particularly upset.

The student was part of the communications school at Brigham Young, which was coordinating the Kerner symposium’s focus on press coverage of the events of a half century ago.

Edward L. Carter, director of the communications school, said he had several meetings Thursday and Friday with students upset about the blackface incident, and with the student who wore blackface. Carter via email said that the student has apologized via a Slack group to communications students, but that the issue is not over.

In a letter he sent to students and faculty members, Carter said that wearing blackface was inconsistent with the values of the university, which involve respect for all. He also said he and others would "be working with the student who wore the costume. While I am reserving judgment on the outcome, I will say that this kind of behavior appears to be out of line with the School’s Professionalism Statement and that repercussions could include warning, suspension or removal from the communications major."

Brigham Young is far from alone in higher education in facing blackface incidents. In the last few years, some of the colleges and universities facing blackface incidents have included Albright College, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Oklahoma State University, Purdue University, University of Central Arkansas, University of Nevada at Reno, University of North Dakota, University of Oregon and University of Wisconsin at Whitewater,

While the use of blackface is almost always condemned by leaders of the colleges involved, many times it is not formally punished, in particular at public institutions, where it is viewed as a form of free expression, however offensive it may be. Most of the blackface incidents become public because students not only wear blackface, but post photographs of themselves on social media, such as the image at right featuring University of North Dakota students.

While many colleges and universities discourage students from wearing costumes that make fun of people’s race or ethnicity, most of those actions by colleges are a matter of discouraging, not banning, which probably wouldn’t be legal at public institutions.

But a constant meme among those who consider themselves warriors against political correctness is that colleges have "costume police" who regulate costumes. And that’s how Kelly started off her show last week, repeatedly saying that the student union at University of Kent, in Britain, was trying to "ban" certain costumes.

The university press office said that there is no policy at Kent about costumes. What Kelly was reacting to was a draft of recommendations being considered by the student union to encourage students not to offend in their costume choices. But Kelly was apparently quoting from the draft and didn’t note that Kent students ultimately are making their own choices about costumes.

The Kent Union issued this explanation of why it is drafting recommendations for students ("fancy dress" is a Britishism for "costume"): "Over the past few years we have witnessed incidents where student groups have worn inappropriate fancy dress clothing which has caused offense to some of our students at our university. Our values as a union are to be bold, inclusive and supportive and therefore it is a priority for us to promote an inclusive campus and to be respectful of all students, taking into account their lived experiences and points of view and that is what we should be focusing on here.

"We are being proactive in looking out for all students whilst empowering them to have a great time at Kent and this is the narrative which is seemingly being missed in the headlines. We are aware that students generally have an understanding of these issues, and most fancy dress events are not problematic, but we believe it is important to raise awareness of potentially problematic themes and work with our student groups to ensure successful student run events."

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What white faculty members can do to support diversity efforts (opinion)

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When we faculty members from underrepresented groups assume our first tenure-track position, our more experienced academic colleagues quickly tell us to avoid too much service before earning tenure. They warn us that the service demands will be greater on us because we are members of underrepresented groups and that we must find ways to balance participation in our university communities with learning to say no.

After several years on the tenure track at a major research university, I have learned that, in some ways, such advice could not be more accurate. The demands on us are certainly greater, yet service work often gains scant praise at annual review time. If your research agenda is not on track, the many nights you did not get home until 10 p.m. because you served on a panel or attend a student event do not matter much.

But it is also true that faculty members from underrepresented groups are filling crucial needs on campus when they “choose” to become involved in various forms of service. Those needs exist not only because few people like us are on the campus, but also because we often work with those who don’t treat campus diversity issues with the seriousness that such issues deserve.

Thus, over time I have also started to think about how other faculty members — those who are not members of underrepresented groups — can become more involved in improving the campus climate. There a few key things they can do to become more engaged in diversity and inclusion efforts. If you are one of them, I recommend that you:

Diversify your professional networks. Whether or not it is for a speaker series, a job search or student recruitment, universities’ efforts at diversity and inclusion often fail because faculty who are not members of underrepresented groups do not have a network that includes a large number of underrepresented scholars or students. As a result, they seem to be less likely to generate diverse pools for key institutional events and activities. The burden, once again, falls on members of underrepresented groups to point out that the speakers on the conference panel or the interview finalists are all white and male. When pools are not diverse, it also means numbers of faculty from underrepresented groups will remain small, increasing our feelings of isolation and alienation.

Thus, you should take time to learn about the work of scholars from underrepresented groups in your field. For example, go to conferences that high numbers of scholars from underrepresented groups usually attend (e.g. the Association of Black Sociologists, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). Many of these conferences are designed to ensure that scholars from underrepresented groups have spaces to convene, network and gain support, but that should not stop you from attending panels and taking time to get to know the work of students and faculty members whom you can recruit to your university. Once you do this, you will find that while there are fewer scholars from diverse backgrounds, there are enough to diversify your speaker series or job-applicant pool.

See diversity as an asset. Research on organizations has shown that diversity can provide a number of important benefits. For example, companies with more diversity have been found to be more profitable, because more diverse teams in workplaces can be more innovative when conducting various tasks. When I look at my own field, most of those programs consistently ranked in the top 10 have more than one faculty member from an underrepresented group. They also have more than one or two graduate students from underrepresented groups. That undoubtedly fuels their ability to produce innovative research and to constantly draw interest from students and scholars around the world. So fostering diversity at your university is not simply a way to pacify disgruntled groups or a way to resolve liberal guilt. Instead, diversity improves the quality of the university. Your department, program or area of the campus will be limited in how successful it can be if it is not composed of a representative group of people.

Get to know your campus differently, especially if you are tenured. Students from diverse backgrounds often ask faculty members from underrepresented groups to be on panels or to advise projects because they are looking for mentorship from individuals with similar backgrounds. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, we are just the only faculty members whom they find visible and approachable. Students are often excited about meeting with faculty members from a variety of backgrounds who simply show interest in what they are doing and make an effort to understand their college experiences. If you attend events hosted by students from underrepresented groups and spend more time in student spaces, those students will see they can connect with you and other faculty members. That’s particularly helpful if you’ve already earned tenure and can spare a few more hours a week than your junior colleagues who are desperately trying to respond to various student requests while finishing research requirements for their tenure packages. It will also improve the campus climate — which, in turn, improves recruitment and retention efforts.

Perhaps most important, treat diversity and inclusion efforts with the urgency that you treat other institutional issues. When the final lists of candidates for a job search, admitted graduate students and campus colloquium speakers somehow contain no scholars from underrepresented groups, consider the points I’ve made. A lack of diversity has a lasting impact on the campus — from the quality of life for students and faculty members to the ultimate success of the institution. Instead of falling back on old, tired excuses — like you were simply unable to find good candidates — act with an urgency that ensures your university remains a competitive, nationwide leader.

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“Devaluing” the MLS vs. respect for all library workers

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I’m sure some of you remember the big push last year and early this year to require the MLS for the Executive Director of the American Library Association (ALA) — if you don’t, here is an article, column, and blog post about it. One big argument I kept hearing was that we needed someone who understood and had experience in libraries. What I found interesting was a lack of recognition that someone could be a leader of major libraries or library consortia and not have an MLS. It was almost as if there was no understanding of the fact that we have people who spend their entire careers in librarianship who do not have an MLS. Many, many ALA members do not have an MLS, yet somehow the idea of someone without an MLS representing the ALA was repugnant to some (and to others signaled the death knell for our profession). What became clear from this debate was that a good number of people — those nearing the end of their careers seemed to be the most outspoken — felt that we needed to defend our professional credentials against those who do not value libraries and do not see us as a profession. Here’s what John Berry of Library Journal said on the issue:

Now a growing chorus of “experts” from outside the field tell us that libraries and the professionals who administer them are obsolete. In truth, the profusion of information sources coupled with the erosion of the quality of the information they provide has added urgency to the fundamental work of the librarian. We collect and disseminate the facts of humankind after careful evaluation of sources as to their currency, accuracy, depth, breadth, biases, and prejudices. No other profession has that mission. The MLIS credential is one signal that the holder has at least studied and considered these issues and understands the need for an institution and a professional cadre to serve and protect the rights of all people to accurate information. ALA’s leaders, and indeed all librarians, must be holders of that important degree. We must not abandon it now.

How the Executive Director of the ALA not having an MLS actually detracts from our professional cred is still beyond me. The people who say libraries are obsolete are not thinking of librarians at all (or if they do, they are old ladies with buns) and many probably don’t even realize we have a professional Masters’ degree. I assume the search committee would make sure the Executive Director can adequately communicate the value of the profession to others. Whatever the argument, the motion did not pass in the election and the MLS is now a preferred qualification for the position.

But that sense of our profession being under siege and needing to barricade our professional doors was echoed in other things I’ve read recently and in experiences I’ve had. And, frankly, that attitude makes me ill.

I first read Peter Murray’s “Anxious Anger – or: why does my profession want to become a closed club” in which he describes a far-from-inspiring closing keynote at the Re-Think It conference given by Julie Todaro (just past past-president of ALA) and Jim Neal (just now past president of ALA):

I started taking notes at the beginning of their talks expecting there would be uplifting ideas and quotes that I could attribute to them as I talk with others about the aspirations of the FOLIO project (a crucial part of my day job). Instead, Julie kicked things off by saying the key task that she works on at her day job is maintaining faculty status for librarians. She emphasized the importance of credentialing and using the usefulness of skills to a library’s broader organization as a measure of value. Jim spoke of the role of library schools and library education to define classes of people: librarians, paraprofessionals, students, and the like, and that the ALA should be at the heart of minting credentials to be used (I think) as gatekeepers into ‘professional’ jobs.

Peter goes on to say that he knows many people working in vital roles in libraries who are well-steeped in the values and ethos of the profession and don’t have the MLS. I do too. And I’m frustrated as hell that people think that we need to create and enforce class boundaries in our field in order to protect our own status. People might have different roles in our libraries based on their skills and credentials, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated like full and valued partners in the growth and improvement of the organization. Too often though, librarians feel like we need to protect our turf by marginalizing our colleagues without the MLS. And how is that anything less than discrimination?

I remember working as a library assistant while I was working on my library degree and I remember how marginalized those of us in the position were. I worked in circulation (at the check-out desk and upstairs information desk) at a small city public library in a county that had a branch in another part of our city. Often, if we didn’t have a book, we would end up looking to see if the county library had it for the patron. I had the simple, non-earth-shattering idea of creating a computer shortcut to the county library catalog on the circulation and information desk computers; an idea that my colleagues in Circ were in favor of as a helpful time-saver. I remember suggesting it to my supervisor and how tremendously dismissive she was of the idea and me. It was clear to me that I was in a class of people who were not paid to think of ways to improve the library, but just to do the tasks associated with their job. It was demoralizing.

I’m sure there are people working in staff positions in libraries who don’t see it as a career, but I know so many who do. And what do we do for those passionate, dedicated people working in our libraries who do not have the MLS? A friend of mine recently left libraries for a non-library job. She was an incredible go-getter who was full of ideas and committed to doing the work to make them happen. Only she rarely was in a position to make her ideas happen because she was a “paraprofessional” and in many libraries, paraprofessionals are not empowered to suggest projects or improvements the way “professionals” are. She was an exceptional employee who couldn’t afford to go to library school, and there weren’t really opportunities in her job for her to take on new challenges or get more autonomy, much less to advance. In a situation like that, what’s a dynamic, passionate, improvement-oriented person to do?

Kendra Levine has written three brilliant posts about people working in libraries without the professional credential and our responsibility to stand up for their rights in solidarity as library workers:

Her posts are on fire with their righteous awesomeness!! Here’s just one excerpt from her second post:

Librarians need to eat crow and apologize for past slights and insults. We need to begin with reflection and self education. Recognize the importance and dignity of all work, and embody that belief. Libraries are complex systems and operations that need lots of different kind of workers to function. When I hear librarians laughingly plead ignorance about bib records because why should they actually need to worry about them, it’s embarrassing and offensive. (And also reflects the deprofessionalization of tech services…) So think about what you are going to say and be careful with how you say it. I know for a profession of people who tend to be driven by words, we can often be very pedantic and precise with our own, but also carelessly punch down. So much that I think most people don’t think they’re going to do it.

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen people punch down at people in non-faculty positions, faculty librarians without tenure, and people in “paraprofessional positions.” I’ve seen people get their backs up when a “non-librarian” makes a suggestion about something that is the librarians’ domain and yet librarians in non-supervisory roles feel perfectly comfortable telling people in access services or technical services how to do their jobs better. I’ve probably been guilty of being territorial myself and I feel no lack of shame for that. I’ve seen the class divides everywhere I’ve worked, even when I’ve worked with people who were warm and wonderful and all liked their jobs. These divisions keep libraries from being a team environment where everyone feels like they are working towards a greater goal. Workers who are marginalized tend to focus only on their small area of the big picture because they aren’t empowered to think beyond it. They may have valuable insights and ideas that we will never learn about because we don’t value them.

Being territorial with our colleagues is not going to strengthen our profession or our libraries. If anything, it kills library workers’ passion for their work and their sense of being a member of a team. And if treating our colleagues with dignity and respect and advocating for them to get a decent wage will make people decide not to get an MLS, I think it’s on MLS programs to assert their value or improve what they offer. We shouldn’t have to prove the value of our professional credential by shitting on our colleagues.

I feel like Kendra’s third post speaks to my friend’s situation. The best supervisors learn what an employee’s goals are and help equip them for and move them toward that goal. Not all libraries have ample advancement opportunities, but I think a manager can do a great deal to support a direct report in developing leadership and other experiences that will help them move to a better job elsewhere. My library director at Norwich University absolutely saw this as her role and she gave me so many opportunities to grow and lead. This should not only be something that managers do for those with an MLS — all employees deserve to be seen as whole people with the desire to grow.

I honestly don’t know why those without the MLS are members of ALA, an organization that does not seem to have their interests at heart if the past two presidents’ attitudes are any indication. Frankly, I’ve always been puzzled by ALA’s lack of focus on the needs and labor issues of people working in libraries. ALA wants to strengthen the institutions (libraries) and the structures (our professional credential and the caste system it creates), but there’s little focus on the the rights and well-being of library workers (and thank you, April Hathcock, for suggesting that change at ALA Council). ALA-APA (which is supposed to be focused on library employees) is an unempowered, undersupported afterthought, but it doesn’t have to be.

Those of us who work in libraries are all professionals. We may work in different roles, but we all deserve equal dignity, respect, and a valued voice in our workplaces. We will strengthen our libraries by making sure that everyone working in libraries is valued and that doesn’t require “devaluing” the MLS.

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