Being mentored in uncertain times

Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

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.

While I’ve had a lot of anxiety for my own health and the health of the people I know and love pretty much since the beginning of this whole thing, it took a little longer for me to start feeling anxious about the professional and economic aspects of it. Not until people I knew started getting furloughed and laid off and other colleges and universities in my surrounding area began to cut jobs. That was when I really started to lose sleep.

Luckily for me, both of my mentors are people who have been through uncertain times before. I mean, it goes without saying that the current pandemic is pretty unprecedented so that past experiences is only so useful but it helped a lot for me to have access to two people who had been through past crises and career changes and survived to tell the tale.

The problem was, I didn’t know if I was allowed to ask. Which is to say, I’d talked about job security with them before but those discussions were always framed in terms of the tenure process. This was different.

It didn’t help that as a person with anxiety issues, I’m never sure how “real” my anxieties are. If I asked about possible furloughs or job losses, were my mentors going to think I was crazy for worrying so much? Or were they going to think I was crazy for not worrying earlier? Or were they going to be frustrated that I’d even asked given that there’s only so much anyone can know or share at this point?

In the end, I did ask. I cited the local headlines about other universities in the area and asked, “How worried should I be?” In doing so, I learned a lot about strategies the university has implemented in the past when facing financial difficulties. Whether the university would need to use those same strategies now, or different ones, or none at all was a question none of us could answer. But knowing more about how the university had weathered hard times in the past helped ease some of the worst of my fears.

The other issue that I’ve had trouble bringing up is productivity. I’ve been working from home since March and it seems, based on information coming out at the state level, that that’s likely to continue at least until mid-July. As a self-directed person who’s pretty good with time management, I haven’t had trouble finding projects to work on but what those projects look like is a lot different from what I would be working on if I was working from my office as normal.

Which is to say, between the many (many) meetings I’ve been attending, I’ve mostly been focusing on research and writing. On the one hand, it’s been nice to have the opportunity to make progress in these areas. On the other, I feel weirdly guilty.

Normally, this is a time of year when I’d also be making plans for my fall courses (an online information literacy course and a freshman seminar that I teach every year) but there’s no need to do that now because I’m scheduled to be on sabbatical starting in September.

It’s also a time of year when I’d normally be reviewing and updating our library’s tutorials. This summer seems like an especially good time to start making some new tutorials since it seems likely that a large chunk of instruction in the fall (if not all of it) is going to be done remotely and there might be a need for some new videos to help fill some expected gaps. But the software I use to create tutorials is on my office computer. Even if I had money (or was given funds) to purchase a new license to work on tutorials from home, my home computer isn’t powerful enough to tolerate having a program like that downloaded onto it very well.

Given all of this, I don’t know why focusing on my research and writing feels so selfish.  Maybe because for tenure and tenure track librarians, the time and space to work on these aspects of our work is often treated as a luxury even though it’s actually a necessity (especially pre-tenure). It’s okay to carve out some time to work on your scholarship but librarianship and service are supposed to be your bread and butter.

Which is to say, this isn’t necessarily the attitude of either of my two mentors, who are both active in scholarship and have always encouraged me to do the same. It’s more a general attitude of the profession as a whole that’s burrowed itself into all of our collective subconscious.

Like with the job security issue, I wasn’t sure if this was something I should bring up in my conversations with my mentors. What if they thought I was spending my time poorly or that  the work I was doing wasn’t enough to support students or the library or campus?

When I finally got the nerve to bring it up, I found out that at least one of my mentors feels pretty much the same way I do about how strange it is to not be working on the things that we would normally be working on right now, mostly because we can’t. We’re not shirking our responsibilities by focusing on our writing and research for the time being. We’re just doing what we can within the limitations of a situation that’s not in our control.


Despite all of this I still can’t help but wonder: Am I crazy for worrying so much? Or am I crazy for not worrying more?

My mentors can’t answer those questions for me but even though none of us knows the future, being able to talk to them and learn about their experiences is perhaps even more valuable now than ever before.

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