On Accountability

Each one of us regularly produces written summaries of our day-to-day activities that serve as evidence for our productivity.  Below is a word cloud of my bi-weekly reports for the past year.

weeklyWordle

I seem to have attended a lot of meetings. I also see a melange of technical terms, people, and verbs that attest to diverse activities. I prepared, submitted, organized, wrote, implemented, reviewed, consulted, installed, coordinated, tested, drafted, and inquired.

There might be little doubt that I have been doing something. Alas, the nature of our work makes it challenging to assess. With our offices sprinkled all over campus we are out of the direct reach of our supervisors, our projects per se are not Stanford Library projects, but rather faculty driven, and our efforts are often hidden behind the scenes.

Faculty feedback

Clearly, those who are most closely familiar with what we do are the faculty we immediately engage with. They know that if they send out an email for help late Saturday night, that they will get a response late Saturday night. They know that they can enter a classroom charged with super-technologies and without worrying that things won’t work. And they know about our many contributions to proposals, papers, and research projects, that will count towards their tenure, academic fame, or both.

However, often this knowledge does not reach our supervisors. “We don’t have direct contact to your faculty”, I hear – yet for the Stanford Libraries it is quite important to know how patrons feel about their “services”.

All the ATSs agree, though, that the best advocates for our program would not be us, but our faculty. We might feel reluctant to “brag” about what we do, particularly as the line to the faculty owned part of the project is often blurred. However, none of us – of course – would want to put the burden to speak for us on the faculty.

Collaboration with librarians 

We all extensively collaborate with our colleagues from the Stanford Libraries. Over the last two weeks alone, I taught a workshop with my colleague from the Branner GIS library (attended among others, by Anthropology graduate students and faculty), co-hosted with my ATS colleague Vijoy Abraham a luncheon for the Social Science librarians, discussed the integration of library resources into student projects for a class on the Anthropology of Globalization with subject librarian Regina Roberts and met with the DLSS Services Manager Hannah Frost to advise me on long-time archiving of archaeological 3D bone models.

Despite our formal affiliation with the Libraries, relationships with other librarians are not formalized. In fact, collaborations are often unstructured, serendipitous, and based the librarian’s or ATS’s own initiative. We would very likely collaborate with librarians, even if we were not formally affiliated with the Stanford Libraries, because we must do so to be successful in our work. The informality of the interactions though makes a communication flow uneven and can leave librarians unclear about our role within the Libraries.

Performance

There are several reasons why our performance assessments can be more challenging. Firstly, ATSs quite frequently do not produce highly visible deliverables. ATS efforts often go into multiple projects at a time. As my bi-weekly reports illustrate, this entails a whole slough of activities. ATSs are a special kind of problem solvers in an academic world. This requires creativity, highly diverse networks, and the ability to quickly pick up something new, thereby constantly maintaining the focus on delivering the desired result as fast and as efficiently as possible. But a lot of the learning, the negotiating, the head-banging and the late hours remain unseen, at times even by the faculty.

Secondly, we are hard pressed to predict deliverables as performance goals. Since most ATS projects are in collaboration with faculty and therefore driven by factors beyond our control, projects that we anticipate to be working on may very well be replaced by new projects which can emerge at any moment.

And lastly, while a lot of collaboration goes on within the ATS team and among the ATS Program Managers, this is only a small part of the entire picture. The majority of our day to day interactions is with non ATSs. We do not work within an established, persistent group of colleagues, instead collaborations can be transient and tend to fluctuate, based on the demands of the projects that shift from faculty to faculty. So qualities in working with others are more difficult to assess.

Accountability

Even though the Stanford ATS program has existed for many years there is no established process for an appropriate assessment and a proper communication of our contributions, which takes into account the idiosyncrasy of our positions that encompass technology and academic discipline and are anchored in – but outside of – the Libraries. So who are we accountable to? The faculty? (definitely.), the Libraries? (of course!), our supervisors? (certainly), the departments and programs we are affiliated with? (absolutely). It is the precisely the wandering between those which gives us the space to succeed. Being prompted if we are a researcher, a programmer, a teacher or a librarian, our answer frequently is: “yes — but no … see, we are different”. This post is an attempt to tease out the implications of that difference for the recognition of our value to Stanford.

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