Politics is an Eight-Letter Word

26 Feb

A number of years ago, the librarians at Lamar Soutter Library, UMass Medical School, received the directive, “Get Out!” Our Library Director wanted us out of our cubicles and away from our desks. She wanted us to go to the people that we served. If people didn’t need to come to the Library anymore, the Library needed to go to them. And thus was born our embedded librarian program.

One of the very first lessons that I learned when I started getting out of the Library was that I needed to learn about politics. I remember going to my Library Director and asking if she could give us a lesson on the topic during one of our professional development meetings. Fortunately, she understood where I was coming from and from that point on, was open and willing to answering any questions any of us had regarding who was who and how things worked, politically, at the Medical School.

Our political system has become so broken the past few decades, it’s easy to think of politics as a dirty word. We think of corruption and conniving and backstabbing and the like. But the truth of the matter is that most, if not all, organizations and institutions exist in some sort of political atmosphere. If we’re lucky, it’s NOT a destructive framework, but it is an existing structure all the same.

Reframing 5th coverWhen I was earning my library science degree from Syracuse, I had to take a course on management and one of the required textbooks was Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. The “Political Frame” is one of four organizational frameworks that they present and they describe it as follows:

The political frame views organizations as alive and screaming political arenas that host a complex web of individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:

  1. Organizations are coalitions of various individuals and interest groups.
  2. There are enduring differences among coalition members in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
  3. Most important decisions involve the allocation of scarce resources – who gets what.
  4. Scarce resources and enduring differences give conflict a central role in organizational dynamics and make power the most important resource.
  5. Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among different stakeholders.

(Bolman & Deal, Reframing Organizations, 2nd ed., p. 163)

Now that I work in a different environment than the Library, I’m learning a different political landscape. Different people, different personalities, different programs, different priorities. I’m still in the same institution, so I have a slight head start, in that I at least know the people; by name and position, if nothing else. I also know, thanks to my years in the Library, that walking into situations without respecting the politics is not only naive, but can be downright disastrous to any efforts you’re attempting. It’s a really important lesson and a skill set that’s not necessarily taught in graduate school or in continuing education classes. That’s a shame, because when we pretend that politics doesn’t matter or that it’s a dirty game that we want to avoid, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. Politics is an eight letter word. There’s no need to not talk about it.

In the Bleak Midwinter

12 Feb

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you’re not up-to-speed on the “Golden Snow Globe National Snow Contest Snowiest U.S. Cities” rankings, you’ve missed out on the story about my snowy city’s great claim to fame this season… We’re Number 1! 92+ inches and counting. Many folks are tired of it, but not me. I love the snow. I love winter. And I’m loving being in first place! Midwinter

Perhaps the thing that I love best about a snowy winter is that it forces upon us the time to sit still. Stay home. Be quiet. When I’m stuck at home during a blizzard, once I get past the elation that the Medical School is closed for the day and I don’t have to go to work, I hunker in on the couch with a blanket, my dog, something to drink, and either a good movie or a good book, and I revel in the fact that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself. I get this strange feeling that in another life, I must have been some woodland animal; not the kind that hibernates, but the kind that just knows how to hunker in for a day or two. I can do it, no problem at all. 

 For the record, in my 10+ years working at UMass Medical School, this is the first and only time that the school has closed. Twice now. I’m telling you, we’ve had some snow!

I remember reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir, The Good Life, years ago and being struck by their choice of living. In spring, they planted. In summer, they tended to all of the many chores around the homestead. In fall, they harvested and prepared for the winter. And in the winter, they rested. They read and they wrote and they studied. It was the quiet time of year to do those very things.

Funny thing, though, is that while I love hunkering in at home on a snow day, I struggle with it at work on a work day. 

One thing about a new job is the requirement that it can put upon you to be quiet, to pay attention, and to read to learn a lot of new stuff. You know the joke about how librarians do nothing but read all day? Well, I’ve read more in my new role as an evaluator in two months than I likely read as a librarian in the past two years! And the strangest thing about that is how I’ve noticed I have to fight the urge to think that I’m not doing anything. Not being busy attending meetings and troubleshooting problems and answering questions and teaching classes and bouncing from thing to thing to thing … well, sometimes I feel downright guilty just sitting here in my office reading! Reading and planning – two things that I never had enough time to do in my previous job. Never. And now that I have the luxury to do so, I feel a little off my game.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe the fact that it’s ingrained into our workaday mindset and values that busy-ness means a jam-packed schedule is why I feel off. We measure productivity more by a full calendar than anything else. We measure our value in accomplishing stuff. Replying, “I’m free all day on Thursday and Friday,” meaning I don’t have any meetings on Thursday and Friday, makes me feel weird. Lazy. Guilty! I’ve realized that it really is a luxury, in this day and age, to sit and think and read and plan. On work time. 

Now that I’ve begun to plan out some projects, to schedule some meetings, to get out and DO something, I’m feeling better. More balanced.

And the fact that I’ve been doing just what I needed to do until now … that’s buried in the snow. 

The Lost Art of Being Frugal

29 Jan

Worcester, Massachusetts got slammed by a blizzard this week, bringing out the hearty nature in all of us New Englanders. What’s a little (34″) snow to dampen our spirits? I made a big pot of chili, watched a couple of movies, read a little, and hung out with my pets while the snow flew. Then yesterday, I joined everyone else in the neighborhood in the first great dig out of the winter. It’s what you do when you live here. No complaining needed. Born out of the spirit of the Puritans that settled here, New Englanders have a reputation for hard work and frugality. Granted, it’s been some time since the days of the Pilgrims, and regional distinctions fade as we’ve become a much more migratory society over the centuries, but we still think of Southern hospitality, Midwestern friendliness, Western pioneers, and hearty New Englanders. And yesterday, we hearty folks were shoveling. 

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While we praise hard work and frugality, these traits also run counter to much that Americans dream to achieve today. Retiring early, becoming a millionaire overnight, achieving fame and fortune by winning a talent contest … these are the ideas behind bestsellers and top rated television programs. We talk the talk of hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, scraping and scrapping and saving for our dreams; these are the bedrocks upon which America was built and, thus, they remain a part of our societal DNA. As one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality.” In theory. But in reality, for more reasons than we can count, they are less and less the walk of America. 

Economists speak of “frugality fatigue” as a driving force behind folks living in debt. As a species, we aren’t always very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want now and we’ve built a society that feeds this human habit in so many ways. Thus, when we also hear the popular mantra “do more with less” in our workplaces and business, it’s not something that we necessarily want to hear. It becomes a very negative thing. It wears us out, after awhile. We get stretched too thin. We simply cannot do more and more with less and less. In this sense, frugality becomes our enemy.

But is it? Was Mr. Franklin wrong? Or is there a way to look at “do more with less” that prompts something beyond stress?

According to Navi Radjou, an innovation strategist in Silicon Valley, the answer to that question is yes. In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits, he outlines his theory of frugal innovation. In this brief talk, he gives lots of examples of people living in conditions where resources are often extremely limited, yet rather than limiting their ability to solve problems, the situation actually enhances their creativity and results in solutions that they would likely never come up with in a land of plenty. 

They can magically transform adversity into opportunity, and turn something of less value into something of high value. In other words, they mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation.

~ Navi Radjou

We hardly need to live in abject poverty to take advantage of this idea. Librarianship, and any profession struggling with finding its footing and value in tough times, can tap into the one resource that’s common in most every situation, human ingenuity. Radjou calls it our most abundant resource. We need to find ways and create situations that foster our ingenuity. Maybe, the pressure cooker of a “do more and more with less and less” work setting can be the impetus for this. Maybe not knowing what’s coming next, not knowing where we belong, not knowing how to define and/or redefine ourselves is just the environment we need to push us towards creative solutions.

In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve entered my new role as an evaluator without a lot of traditional knowledge and background in the subject. Yes, I’ve been reading and studying up on the basics, but lacking the resource of years of experience and know-how, I find that I’m able to come up with some different thoughts and ideas and solutions that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. It’s like the team that enters the big game for the first time. They don’t know enough to know to lose.

One of the great things about evaluating the impact of clinical and translational research is that nobody really knows exactly how to do it yet. This is what I tell myself. It helps me put aside any anxiety of knowing that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and sets me free to try all sorts of things in doing my job. It’s my way of making the most out of my limited resources and thus practicing frugal innovation. And that can be downright exciting. 

 

 

Making Mistakes

15 Jan

The button has been pushed and our proposal for a Clinical Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health is out of our hands. Let the review process begin! 

My part of the writing and work has been done for a few days now, so I’ve been spending much of the past week doing many things that I likely would have done when I started this new job, if only I hadn’t jumped into the grant writing fire. I’ve read all of the Center’s newsletters for the past few years, I’ve taken lots of notes and done a bunch of documentation related to who’s who for each of our core components. I’d drawn a lot of pictures and graphs and maps to help me understand the landscape. My informationist role in the Library prepared me well for these latter tasks, as I’d been embedded in projects and made it my job to know what was going on around the University. Still, it’s a lot of putting names to faces to departments to projects. It’s a lot to learn.

I also need to learn a lot about the role of an evaluator. I knew enough to get the job, but now that I have it, I know that I need to learn a great deal more before I’m proficient in the task(s). I’ve been reading a lot of articles from evaluation journals. I tracked down several good books on program evaluation, and a couple on evaluating biomedical and health research, in particular. I’ve subscribed to professional listservs, been reading daily blog posts by evaluators, and joined a professional organization to have access to needed resources. Lastly, I’ve been working through a few self-guided mini-courses to make sure I’ve got the basics down pat and that I understand the terminology that I’m reading elsewhere. So far, so good.

And I’m planning. It’s true that I worked with the section writers and leadership of the CCTS to develop evaluation plans for the different components of our proposal. In other words, I’ve already written a whole bunch of plans stating what I’m going to do over the next few years. That said though, there’s planning and then there’s PLANNING. The all-caps version is where I am now. I have plans to collect and track certain metrics to answer certain evaluation questions, but now I really need to plan out how I’m going to do all of that. The logistics. It’s a great challenge. It’s interesting and I’m learning a lot. I cannot complain.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It's hung over my desk ever since.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It’s hung over my desk ever since.

One clear thing that I’ve read – and thus learned – over and over in my study ’til now is that the practices of measuring and evaluating are continuous. You need to plan for them from the beginning and, depending upon your goal, assess at different points along the way. It’s pretty much like life in general. If you make that New Year’s Resolution to lose weight, you need to make a plan and part of that plan involves devising a means to track your progress along the way. If you want to go on a trip to Europe, you need a plan to save the money and a way to keep track of what you’ve saved, so you’ll know when you’re ready to pack your bags. 

I am a reflective person by nature. I majored in philosophy during my first time through college. I went to seminary where you hone your spiritual reflection skills well. I’ve spent time with therapists, here and there in life. I’ve been writing this blog for the past few years as a way to reflect upon and keep track of my changing roles as a librarian. For me, it’s a really helpful practice because it keeps my awareness of where I am and what I’m doing and what I’m learning at the forefront. Annual evaluations (and/or quarterly reports) don’t work for me without keeping track of things along the way. This blog helps with that.

I recently re-read something that I wrote last fall for a different blog, Hack Library School. I was interviewed, along with several other medical librarians, about our work. One of the questions asked was what advice I’d give to current students studying library science and my answer, in part, was:

Sell yourself! One of the things that I see happening in settings like mine (an academic medical school and research center) is that there is never a shortage of work for a person who can match his/her skill set to existing needs. And there are LOTS of existing needs. The key is to really know what you know how to do, know what you need to learn how to do (and learn it – ESPECIALLY if you’re weak in the sciences), and then know how to show people that what you bring is uniquely useful to them. I don’t necessarily think that this means you wait around and look for job openings in medical libraries, but that you also keep your eye on other parts of the health care system or biomedical research where what you can do fits. People looking for help often don’t think of a librarian as one who could do the job for them, but I think that’s mostly because we haven’t done the best job of selling ourselves. Know yourself, have confidence (even if you have to fake it at first), and put yourself in places that offer you opportunity.

One thing I could add to this is that developing a practice of self-reflection, evaluation, and/or tracking yourself – however you do it – will put you in a much better position to sell yourself and/or match your abilities to opportunities as they arrive. This is exactly what happened to me last November and it landed me in a great new role. My CV didn’t say a thing about being an evaluator, but I was able to map pretty much every aspect of it to the qualifications needed for the person in this post. The discipline of weekly reflection via this blog made that task easy.

We always encounter times in our lives where evaluation is forced upon us, whether it’s that mandatory annual review or a major life event. My mother-in-law is in hospice care now and nearing the end of her life. It’s a time of reflection for her and everyone in the family. “Did I live a good life?” is likely the ultimate evaluation question. You hope for the answer, “Yes” and you hope for lots of reasons to be sure of your answer, since it’s basically too late to change much. Driving home last night after visiting with her, I thought a lot about how all of these things fit together. There’s no need to wait until the program is over, until a career is over, or until a life is over to ask, “Did I do a good job?” When we plan to track, measure, reflect, and evaluate along the way, I’m fairly certain we’re better off in the end. 

January 9th – ALREADY?!

9 Jan

It’s a good thing that I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions related to my personal writing, because I’d have to report a failure already. That said, the CTSA grant proposal that everyone has been working ’round the clock on for weeks now is very close … oh so very close … to being put to bed, which in this case means submitted. And then I’ll be able to start focusing on how to approach doing the new job that I’ve been hired to do. Up until now, I’ve only been writing what I’ll do. Next stop, figure out how to do what I said I’d do. I’ve already joined the American Evaluation Association and signed up for one of their upcoming coffee break webcasts.

An aside… I think the idea of coffee break webcasts – 30-minute weekly sessions that focus on a particular topic, led by different members of the organization – is a TERRIFIC idea. I know that I belong to a few organizations that are struggling to define and/or create the real benefits of membership and such a simple thing as a regular, free, short-and-sweet-yet-interesting webcast is just that sort of thing.

For today, I at least wanted to send up a post with a few fun things I’ve come across over the past couple days/weeks – some delayed candy canes, if you will:

  • The Spudd – it’s The Onion of medical and pharma news. Hilarious. I discovered it just this very morning, thanks to a hilarious post shared on Twitter by my friend, Dean Hendrix. 
  • How Reddit Created the World’s Largest Dialogue between Scientists and the General Public is a very good blog post by Simon Owens. I’m fascinated with scientific communication and, in particular, efforts to bring the scientific community together with the general public. We are a scientifically illiterate culture at our own peril. I love what’s happening on this online community and so I’ve set up a Reddit account and plan to follow along for awhile. 
  • Finally, for anyone curious about public health and/or epidemiology and NOT interested in returning to school ever again <hand raised>, I came across an on-demand course from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I confess that I’ve signed-up and failed at several MOOC’s, mostly because of timing. I’m really happy to find a relevant, on-demand one and hope to work through it soon. I have a feeling that doing a course on my own, at my own pace, and at my own convenience will work well for me, especially now as I juggle all of the new tasks of a new job.

Back to the grindstone here. Happy New Year to all of my readers and followers! You make blogging fun.

My 3 New Year's Resolutions for 2015. No progress yet!

My 3 New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. No progress yet!

The Great Candy Cane Caper

29 Dec

There I was merrily absorbed in the holiday spirit, running my daily Jingle Bell 5K and sharing a candy cane a day with my dear blog readers, when all of the sudden …

SCREECH!!!

It may be more appropriate to say that my two feet hit the gas pedal - VAROOOOOOM!!! - than the brakes, but regardless of how you see it, my holiday streaks were tossed off the rooftops and my blog posting has been MIA for 2+ weeks now. That said, I refuse to let 2014 close without one final post, so here goes:

If you read my last post (12/15), you know that as of that date I began a new job as a Research Evaluation Analyst for the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science. I still work at the UMass Medical School campus (right down the hall from the Library), still enjoying all of the relationships I’ve built over the years. In fact, it’s those very relationships – both around the campus and in the larger academic medical library world – that helped me land this job. And while it’s immensely different in so many ways from the work that I’ve been doing for the past years as an embedded research librarian and informationist, it’s also a position that will allow me to expand on many of the skills I honed during that time.

So what am I doing now? That’s a question pretty much everyone, with the exception of my new colleagues in the UMCCTS, has asked. Right now, I’m working madly with the rest of the grant writing team, pulling everything together before the January 15th proposal deadline. The UMCCTS is funded through a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health, a 5-year grant that expires this year. As you can imagine, I came on board at one heckuva time to come on board. I’ve been playing catch up and keep up at the same time; reading accepted, past proposals from other universities, reading articles on the state of evaluation of the CTSA program as a whole, reading articles on different evaluation research from individual CTSA awardees, and reading the many different components of our own proposal in their many different iterations. 

And I’ve been writing; writing a section on the measurement and evaluation program for our Center as a whole, writing annotated versions of the evaluation pieces for the individual components, writing tables and charts, and writing my list of all the people that I’ll send Christmas presents and/or cards to after the middle of January. What I’ll be doing after the grant goes in (and, fingers crossed, gets awarded) is working on all of the evaluation pieces and projects that I’ve spent these weeks describing. I’ll also be working actively with other CTSA award sites, in particular their evaluation teams, on collaborative research projects that will help us determine the effectiveness of the program on a national level. It’s in this latter part that I’ll get to maintain a number of librarian connections, as well as build some new networks of colleagues (and, if evaluators are like librarians, friends).

Do I like it? That’s the other question I get of late. Honestly, I don’t know yet. I like the subject of evaluation and measuring the impact of research. I like the bits that I was able to dabble in while working in the Library. I like research. I like reading and learning new things. I like seeing UMMS from a different perspective. I like the people. I even like the change of pace, even in its whirlwind form. I’m glad that I followed-up on an opportunity and that it’s come to be what it is right now, but it’s still awfully early in the change; too early to give a definitive “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” 

My highlighted, coffee-stained notebook from that year of hard study. Despite the years, I've never been able to throw it out.

My highlighted, coffee-stained notebook from that year of hard study. Despite the years, I’ve never been able to throw it out.

However, what this early experience reminds me most of is being in graduate school. In particular, it reminds me of the amount of time and effort and work that was involved in learning all of the systemic and cellular physiological mechanisms of exercise for the two courses I took on that subject. I can clearly remember one very bright, sunny, Saturday afternoon in late fall, sitting at the conference table in the room on the 2nd floor of the health sciences building (outside the grad students’ office) with my good friend and classmate, Suzanne Connolly (say it with an Irish accent), working our way through every little step and every confounded enzyme and every change in positive or negative ions to open this or that Calcium channel … all to make one heart beat happen. I can remember talking it through over and over, drawing pictures on the white board, trying to get it, to understand the process, to put all of the pieces together in my head until finally …  BLING!! … the lightbulb went on. And I remember feeling REALLY satisfied. Because it was hard. It was hard, but I’d stuck with it until I got it. And I think that’s why this study day memory stands out so clearly in my memory bank.

I’ve felt that way at other times, too; learning a particular riff on the mandolin or learning to cross-country ski. It takes focus and effort. And it’s about learning, not necessarily about competence. I was (am) a very competent librarian. There was certainly a period of time, early in my career, when I had to put forth a good bit of focus and effort to learn something new, but whenever you’ve been doing something for a good while, the amount of effort you have to expend towards the work decreases. You may still spend the same amount of time and you may still have the same amount (or even more) tasks to attend to, but the amount of effort is different. You’re efficient at what you do. You may not be completely on auto-pilot, but you can probably get to and from work without always remembering the drive.

My first couple of weeks (less a 2-day Christmas break) have been about learning. I’m a long way from being a competent evaluator. The learning curve is steep and challenging, but when I feel overwhelmed, I remember that study day and I remember piano recitals and I remember cruising along on the successes that came from the hard work of learning to be a good librarian. I remember the satisfaction that came with those experiences and I trust that in time, I’ll enjoy the same in my new role. 

Between here and there, I’ll keep sharing the journey. After all, a librarian by any other name is … still a librarian.

 

 

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Candy Store

15 Dec

If you’re curious about what happened to the daily candy canes over the past few days, here’s the scoop. Starting TODAY, I’m the new Research Evaluation Analyst for the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Yep, I’ve left my former position in the library and venture off into a new world. Since it’s Day One (officially, though I’ve been doing some work before today, catching up), I have to put my focus here, but I’ll be back very soon (later in the week) with updates on the job and candy canes galore!!

Please stay tuned. “A Librarian by Any Other Name” remains the name of this blog for good reason. This librarian is now going by the name, “Evaluator.” :)

New Digs

New Digs

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