Adriana Flores is one of our participants in our Year in the Life series, which follows new archivists in their first professional position. We will be following Adriana for a year. You can read her previous posts here.
As a university employee, the ebbs and flows of campus life drastically affect my day-to-day duties. Coming up on spring semester and graduation is always an exciting time to be on campus; unfortunately, seven of our student workers will be graduating this year. We usually employ twelve to fifteen student workers in the Acquisitions department, so losing seven of them, especially seniors with years of training, will be a tough adjustment. To soften the blow we hired five new students, which means February has been a training intensive month. Since student training and supervision has consumed my professional life this past month and a half, I thought it was an appropriate subject for my post.
When I was originally preparing to start my full-time position at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, I was terrified of supervising students. Supervision is one of the largest differences between most pre-professional and professional positions and they don’t teach classes on it in graduate school. There is no way to prepare for every bad scenario that can happen, but I’ve found that the more I supervise, the easier it gets. The thing that has helped me the most is having colleagues who share the responsibility and make it fun.
Our work study students have multiple responsibilities: they assist in processing, creating finding aids, retrieving and returning boxes for patrons, running office errands, working at events, and assisting in assorted office-wide projects. Needless to say, they have a lot of responsibility and we rely on them to help keep our office running smoothly. However, it is very important to Jane (my co-supervisor) and me that our students have fun and enjoy coming to work.
We try to foster an environment where students build friendships, laugh, talk about their lives, and have fun learning about our collections as they work. We even have a running quest to try every flavor of Oreo released; when a new one comes out we bring them in for all the students to try on their breaks and keep a list of them all (we’re currently up to 49 flavors!). While we encourage a relaxed work environment, we are not relaxed about workplace safety or having a healthy school/work balance.
In order to communicate our expectations of students, we hold an orientation each semester for new and returning students. At these orientations, we cover some HR basics (scheduling, timesheets, absences, etc.), dress code, break policies, supervisor contact information, general workplace safety, the department disaster preparedness plan, and we finish with an emergency exit tour of our building. These orientations introduce our new students to our office rules and gives our returning students a chance to refresh on some office basics. While we strive to instill positive professional habits in our student employees, we also emphasize that schoolwork and personal health come first; we always encourage students to miss a shift if they have any school or health concerns. This overall atmosphere was developed long before I started at HGARC, but it is something that is important to all of us and I have strived to maintain as a supervisor.
Overall, there are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way that I think are important for all new supervisors to know. First, take your time learning students’ strengths and then play to them. It sometimes takes a while for students to open up or to fully adjust to their new position, but once they do it is important to adjust your management style accordingly. Not all of our students want to pursue careers in history or archives, but for those that do we can push them a bit further in their training. Similarly, some of our students are wonderful leaders and we often lean on them to keep the workflow moving when Jane and I need to focus on other tasks. I’m often surprised by the amazing skills our students bring to the table, so taking the time to learn more about them is well worth the wait.
My second takeaway is learning the importance of team building. It sounds so cliché, but it is really important that our students trust each other and know how to rely on one another if Jane and I are not available to help them. Part of the reason we foster a relaxed work environment is to encourage bonding between the students. When they build relationships with one another, they begin to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can begin working as a team. The work our students do cannot be done individually or silently; they need to constantly be working together to get the job done. Our office provides a great space for students to learn the importance of team building and I believe it greatly benefits them down the road as professionals in their own fields.
Last but not least, I have learned to be patient as a supervisor. Our students are not information professionals and they are often not interested in pursuing a library science career, which means that sometimes our lessons in archival basics take a little longer to sink in. Also, they’re in college. Their brains are being pushed and pulled in a million directions and remembering what metadata to collect from a folder of correspondence may not be the most pressing thing on their mind. So I constantly remind myself, especially during training, to be patient because archival work is not second nature to most.
As I’ve grown as a supervisor, there have been some bumps along the way. First of all, it’s really awkward supervising people who are older than you. During the summers, when most of our undergraduate workers are away, we often employ PhD and Masters students who are often older than I am. I keep my age to myself for the most part, but it sometimes comes out and it can be a source of awkwardness and tension. Most of the older students I’ve supervised are cool about it, but it’s something to prepare for if you’re a young professional. Additionally, it’s hard to admit to students when you’re confused or don’t have the answers to their questions. I’m lucky that I have experienced colleagues who I can turn to, but it can still be tough to show a crack in your armor. I’ve found that staying calm and being honest with my students goes a long way when trying to find answers in a difficult situation. Although being a supervisor has challenged me, I absolutely love it.
Supervising students is the best part of my job. I love being a co-supervisor with Jane, getting to know our students individually, and supporting them throughout their college careers. It’s fun to watch friendships develop amongst the students and occasionally we even become friends and mentors to them after they graduate. Training and supervision can sometimes feel like it distracts from the rest of my work, but in the end I’m happy to work with my amazing students. They keep me immersed in campus life, up-to-date on student interests, and they make me a better archivist. Training and supervision are tough skills to learn, but now that I’ve experienced them I feel much more confident as an early professional.