Steering Share: Respect the student employee

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This mid-year post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

In my last Steering Share, I spoke about my concerns on archival labor. This is an issue that is being discussed more and more, including in Courtney Dean’s recent Steering Share and in Fobazi Ettarh‘s piece, “Vocational Awe and Librarianship.” For this post, I’m going to take this to a slightly more positive place (and prep for a presentation that I’ll be giving on the topic in April!) So…

Let’s talk about ways that archival professionals can maximize student positions and internships for the betterment of the student, while hopefully also getting some benefit out of it for our institutions. Please note, for the purposes of brevity, I use the word “student” as a general stand-in for employees, interns, or volunteers who are enrolled in a degree program and hoping to find a professional position in the library, archives, or museum fields.

My student workers tell me, and I like to believe them, that I’ve been extremely valuable in helping them find full-time employment. Can we all agree that one of the main goals of a student job is to find a professional position? Unfortunately, I feel that’s not how many pros out there view it. Mostly we view student employment, internships, and volunteer work as cheap labor to help us do what we need to get done because we’re all underfunded. But, while ‘getting stuff done’ is important, training and mentoring the doers in the process of the doing is much more valuable.

What I’m talking about is not all that revolutionary, but it does seem to be a little abnormal. Look at these student positions as mentorship opportunities, rather than cheap and temporary labor.  Some of the more concrete ideas you can try out in your own institution are listed below: 

  • Train students in archival practices. I was surprised to learn that students were often not trained for other jobs they’d had. Think of the job as a long-form class in archival processing and management, teach skills to help students negotiate complicated decision making and to know when to ask for help.
  • Be flexible when possible. If students don’t have public service duties, allow for flexible scheduling. If you have work that can be done offsite, consider allowing students to work from home from time to time.
  • Aid students in the job search process. Review resumes and cover letters; offer in-person and online interview practice sessions; recommend jobs they should apply for. If your institution has open sessions or presentations for job applicants, invite students to attend – it’s great experience to watch other people interview for jobs.
  • Expose students to a wide variety of job functions: exhibit planning, cataloging, reference support, physical and digital processing, project planning, etc.; the skills will come in handy for applying to a wide variety of jobs.
  • Support professional growth and scholarly output. Get to know students’ goals and interests. If possible, allow some work time for research. Offer financial support for meeting or conference attendance as possible, or help find a roommate, rideshare, or other cost-cutting measures. List students’ names as authors on finding aids; this helps during the job interviewing process. Where possible, instead of describing them as a “Student Assistant,” try “Archives Assistant” or no title at all.
  • Involve students in everything. I’ve learned students love new experiences and also getting away from their desks – the bonus for them is learning more aspects of the profession. Bring them everywhere: donor meetings, records pick-ups, hunting expeditions in the stacks, etc. Encourage students to attend relevant trainings being offered or events on campus. Allow them to serve on committees if they are interested, but don’t pressure them into it.

These are some concrete actions you can take, but more important is the work environment that you cultivate. Try to create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and voicing opinions. This helps them develop and feel a part of the work being done, but also empowers students to bring up new thoughts on how to tackle problems. Don’t be afraid to learn from your students! Allow your ideas and common practices to be challenged by someone with a fresh view. Build trust with your workers and allow them autonomy to learn and grow; you should also review their work and offer feedback and critique when needed.

In assembling these ideas, I talked to my student workers and heard from them that one of the best things I’ve done for them was to not be condescending. Apparently they get a lot of condescension in both classroom and job settings. So I recommend that we try being more respectful or deferential, and more approachable and welcoming. I like to think that’s a simple place to start, and the rest can grow from there.

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One thought on “Steering Share: Respect the student employee

  1. Pingback: Respect the Student Employee (I&A Steering Share) – Steve Duckworth

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