The case for keeping Zoom teaching simple

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In the lead-up to a fall semester that will look very different from past fall semesters, I’ve seen a lot of librarians wondering how to translate the active and engaging instruction they’ve designed for one-shot sessions to a platform like Zoom. If we have to teach it this way, how do we make it more than just a boring lecture/demo combination?

Now, I’m generally in favor of using active learning to engage students in the classroom. In my own one-shot sessions, I like to use simple improv games to keep things lively and fun. Some of my colleagues use much more elaborate escape room-type activities to help students learn about research and the library. It’s fun to spice things up and it makes the experience a little less boring for both ourselves and the students.

But when it comes to finding creative ways to engage students over Zoom, I can’t help but feel like what’s needed is a simpler, more straightforward approach rather than trying to find a way to translate the fancier more fun approaches that we might use in person.

I think this feeling comes from my past experiences with teaching online.

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Initial takeaways from 10 years of Writer’s Digest author interviews

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So I’ve been spending some time lately reading through the last ten years’ worth of author interviews from Writer’s Digest magazine. This is a sort of follow-up to a project I did last year where I read 10 popular writing books in search for some insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. What I found as a result of that project was interesting but a few colleagues who read an early draft of the resulting article felt that more was needed.

My first idea for what “more” would look like was to identify and examine writing books that were more “academic” in nature. Unfortunately, that stalled when my access to my library’s print collection was disrupted by the pandemic.

I turned instead to Writer’s Digest for a couple of reasons. First, the Writer’s Digest brand is pretty explicitly aimed at helping aspiring writers learn the “how-to” of writing. Second, I had digital access to back issues through my library.

In all, I read almost 70 author interviews in search of information about research. I was surprised by what I found.

But not that surprised.

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Talking about priorities

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A few weeks ago, I published a post about a time when I got overloaded with committee work, intended as a cautionary tale. As part of that post, I mentioned that the experience necessitated a conversation with my department head about how to prioritize my time. With everything that I was working on, there was no way for me to do it all without burning myself out. As a pre-tenure librarian, I needed to know what to focus on in order to get me to that next step.

I’m lucky enough to work for someone who is receptive to conversations like this and that the people above her are also reasonably understanding when it comes to issues about workload. But I was still scared to do it even as I recognized how important it was to do so.

So I thought I’d share a few details about why I decided to have that conversation and how I approached it for anyone who might be thinking about doing the same. We live in weird times but I feel like a lot of this is still applicable if you find yourself feeling overloaded with work, especially as the pressure to do more (or even the same amount) with fewer people builds with hiring freezes and other job cuts.

Let’s start with the why.

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Faculty activity reports and what I did this past academic year

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Every year by June 30, faculty on my campus have to submit something called a Faculty Activity Report which recounts their various activities throughout the year, from classes taught to special projects worked on to committees served and articles published. The exact purpose of this report, which is a long form rather than a narrative as in my past library job, is a little…vague. But it’s a good chance to reflect on the year’s accomplishments and set goals for the coming academic year.

This year, as you might expect, has been a little different. With the shift to working from home, my teaching stopped. Many of my work-related projects stopped. My committees kept going but learning how to do committee work virtually was a learning process, to say the least. My focus shifted instead to my writing and research projects.

While it’s always good to have writing and research projects to list on a FAR, I was afraid that the sudden halt to other activities would make my report look emptier than usual. It wasn’t until I started looking through my weekly notes on things I’ve been working on that I remembered just how busy last summer and fall were for me. It was as if the craziness of the last few months had given me some kind of amnesia for everything that came before. I couldn’t believe how thoroughly I’d forgotten the bigger projects I was working on less than a year ago.

Here’s some of the stuff I accomplished this year:

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Favorite library conference memories

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Like a lot of campuses, the budget crisis brought on by the pandemic means that funding for travel has been suspended at my library for the foreseeable future Which seems okay since it might be a while until it’s safe again for people to gather in large numbers at events like these. And it might be a while after that before anyone actually feels safe doing it.

There are people in my library who are big fans of conferences, both for the networking opportunity and as a chance to present their work, and they feel this loss keenly. As for me, I’m a little relieved. I’m both a nervous traveler and a nervous public speaker, so conferences for me have always been experiences to be endured more than enjoyed.

That said, some of my favorite professional memories and most notable professional experiences have happened at conferences. Below are a few that come to mind.

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Update on research and writing projects

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Late spring and early summer are typically times when my focus shifts from teaching and service to research and writing. That shift got something of an early start this year due to the pandemic but amidst all of the weirdness, it took me a while to get myself organized. Now I’m on a little bit of a steadier track and wanted to share some updates on where I’m at with some projects I’m currently working on, including a book project for ALA, a follow-up to “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study,” and not one but two articles related to the role of research in creative writing.

Here’s what I’ve got.

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Committee work: A cautionary tale

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When it came time to write my narratives for my tenure packet, I was surprised to find that the hardest one to write was the one about service. In both my teaching/librarianship statement and my scholarship statement, I’d been able to reflect meaningfully on how I had grown in these aspects of my work over the years, tying the pieces together into a surprisingly coherent, cohesive story. I knew not only where I had been but where I wanted to go next.

Service? Not so much.

Which is to say, I have a lot of service under my belt, mostly as a member (and sometimes chair) of various committees at the library, campus, state, and national levels. Yet I had no idea what to say about any of it.

Partly this was because there was just so much of it. When I first started, I was the first new tenure track librarian in public services that my library had hired in quite some time. And though we soon went through a time of pretty active hiring, there was a period where I was the sparkly new thing who got asked to fill in a lot of vacant committee slots. Before long, I was overloaded.

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Being mentored in uncertain times

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A week or two ago, I posted some thoughts on the experience of being a mentor in uncertain times. I mentioned in that post that one of the reason I wanted to become a mentor was because of my own experience as a mentee. I’ve been lucky to have many great mentors, going all the way back to middle school. Some of my career-related mentoring relationships as I (hopefully) move down the path toward becoming a full librarian are still ongoing. I currently have two mentors.

For me, the current pandemic is the first time that I’ve had to deal with a high level of uncertainty in my professional life.  So just like being a mentor right now is bringing up some new and unexpected things, so is being mentored. Suddenly, my anxieties want to be a part of the conversation in a way they never were before and I find myself having difficulty knowing how much to let them insert themselves into these interactions.

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They just keep moving the line: Peer review and the follow-up to “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

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For a little over a year now, I’ve been going through a review process for the follow-up to my previous article, “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” The new article is an investigation of how prevalent the study of research is in core LIS literature, touching on a variety of specializations and research areas.

It’s not going well.

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