Interview with Annie Downey, instructor for Academia 101: A Crash Course on How Colleges and Universities Work

Annie Downey tught a class for Library Juice Academy recently, titled, Techniques for Creative Problem Solving in Libraries. Next month she will be teaching another one for us: Academia 101: A Crash Course on How Colleges and Universities Work. She did an interview with me to give people a sense of her background and what would be covered in the first class, and now she’s agreed to do a new one about the class being offered in September.

Annie, thanks for agreeing to this interview. You told us about your background in our previous interview, so now I’d just like to focus on this new class we’re offering next month. What is this class and how did it come about?

The new class is Academia 101: A Crash Course on How Colleges and Universities Work. My idea for this came about from two main experiences. First was my experience when I was taking my coursework for my doctoral program in higher education. I have been a working academic librarian for the duration of my program and when I first started taking courses, I was immediately struck with how helpful those classes were for me to be able understand why teaching faculty and administrators work the way they do, why they prioritize some issues over others, why the university was going in certain directions, and so on. It also really helped me be able to talk to them in their own language. Secondly, I’ve worked with people through the years that have come into academia as new librarians or from other types of libraries, so I know that understanding the academic beast can be a challenge because so much of your job as an academic librarian is working with these other groups outside of the library. Not understanding how it works can be extremely frustrating. So my idea for this course is to help people understand how higher education works organizationally and how that will impact your work as a librarian.

So what will that actually mean in terms of what the course covers?

It will basically be broken into three sections and start with a broad focus and work down to the more narrow levels of detail. First, we will look at general culture and governance structures of higher ed broadly so participants will know the differences between research universities, state schools, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and some of the little nuances in between these big categories. These all operate differently; they have different organizational and governance structures and different expectations of their faculty. This section will also include big trends and issues that everyone in higher ed should know about so you can be “in the know” at committee meetings and when you run into people on campus.

The next two sections will be focused on administration and faculty, and I’ve designed these sections to be kind of like a “choose your own adventure,” depending on what you want or need to get out of the class. I like my classes to be super practical and I’m also mindful of the amount of time people have committed to the course. So we’ll do some overview talking about administrators, including the different types, what their jobs are, what they care about, how you may want to approach talking to them, and then people will have the option to choose one type of institution to focus in on more deeply. We’ll do the same with faculty, in that we’ll talk about faculty work generally, the teaching and research cycle, other responsibilities, some disciplinary differences, and then again, people will have the option to delve more deeply based on institution type and/or discipline.

We will also focus on communication and the librarian’s role in all of this at every step, which will be reflected in the assignments and course discussions.

That sounds very interesting. I wonder what kinds of readings you will be assigning as a part of the work in the class?

The readings will be a mix of classic studies on higher education organization and governance, some very current policy and trend documents, and case studies looking into faculty and administration issues at different types of institutions. In order to save time, I will provide summaries of some of the more dense academic pieces, along with the citation information for anyone that wants to read the whole thing.

That sounds good, sounds like those readings should be good fuel for discussion.

It has occurred to me from time to time when I was an academic librarian that within the structure of the university, the faculty are the most important allies of the library. That may be true all of the time or only some of the time – I don’t know. But it seems to me that one value of your class will be to help clarify what the relationships are within the university so that you can have a better sense of how librarians have a role on the campus that is political. Is that something that your class gets into much?

Absolutely! Finding your place on a campus is extremely important and it is a big determinant of your success. And there is a political aspect to that when you work for a college or university because they are highly political places, which makes sense if you think about how much of it is driven by committee on the inside and by actual politics on the outside. One of the scholars we will look at, Robert Birnbaum, argues that there are four organizational models that most colleges and universities fall under: collegial, bureaucratic, political, and anarchical. In all of these types, there is a lot of politicking going on, even though how it is done and how obvious it is can be different. We will look at these different types and talk about how librarians may want to approach things differently depending on the type they are in.

To further complicate matters, librarians are often in a strange place because they are usually part of the academic arm of the organization, but sometimes are classified as faculty and sometimes as staff. Some schools even have both faculty librarians and staff librarians. So librarians have to align themselves with the faculty and make allies there as much as possible, but they also need to know what decisions are being made by administration and what decisions affect them. It’s a messy business with a lot of layers. So yes, clarifying those relationships and helping students see where they may fit and where they may be able to make the most impact is definitely a goal for the course.

Well it sounds like this class is going to be useful to people in a variety of ways, as there are multiple ways that librarians interact with other groups on the campus. So thank you for proposing and developing this course for us, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I hope the class goes well and that participants all add a lot from their own experience as well.

Thank you! I am looking forward to it.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Annie Downey, instructor for Academia 101: A Crash Course on How Colleges and Universities Work

  1. Pingback: Library Juice » Interview with Annie Downey

  2. Gayla Byerly

    I worked with Annie at UNT. However it was an Assistant Dean at UNT that sent an email to all library employees suggesting they look at Annie’s new course to see if they find it useful to their work. I am pleased that Annie is continuing in her career path as a what we call the “rock star librarians” who are changing the way librarians are perceived.

  3. Jennifer Jackson

    I work at UNT from 2000 to 2008 as a Student Assistant and evenally a Library Assistant 1 at the Eagle Commons Library formly known as Sci-Tech Library. Annie may not remember me, however I am so proud of her.


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