Being a mentor in weird times

Image by aatlas from Pixabay

Becoming a mentor was something I probably jumped into a little too early in my career. After spending a couple of years on the ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program Committee, which matches mentors with mentees, I’d seen how the program was often flooded with mentee applicants but struggled to find enough volunteers to be mentors. So after I rotated off the committee, I applied to be a mentor even though I was still pre-tenure by several years.

That first year was a little awkward. I got matched with someone who was basically at the same level in her career as I was, so there was only so much advice I could offer because we were in the same boat on a lot of issues. The whole thing turned into more of a networking opportunity than a mentoring relationship. For me, that was okay but I’m sure my mentee would have preferred someone with a little more experience.

A big part of the reason why I wanted to be a mentor is because I’ve been lucky to have many great mentors throughout my life. I’m talking past and present, going all the way back to middle school. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect and I wanted to see if maybe I could play that role for someone else. So it was disappointing to stumble early on.

This past year, though, I felt like I really hit my stride as a mentor. It was my first year post-tenure, which gave me both a real and imagined sense of authority that helped me feel a little more confident than I had in the past. I had an ACRL IS mentee who I felt like I was clicking with. I was also asked to be a tenure mentor to a new colleague as part of a formal program we have here at my home institution.

In my conversations with both my mentees, I felt like I finally had something real to say. Wisdom to share. My experience and perspective was not the be all and end all, but it had a certain amount of value. I felt like I was being of use.

We all know what happened next.

A global pandemic sent everything into a tailspin.

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Going on sabbatical in uncertain times (and other first world problems)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Strange as it is to think about now, it was around this time last year that I was starting to think about applying for my first sabbatical.

Though I’d heard other librarians at my institution talk about their sabbatical experiences, it wasn’t anything I’d ever thought of as a possibility for myself, mostly because I was so focused on the journey toward tenure that I wasn’t thinking much about what would come after. But as I entered the last stages of that process last summer, my department head suggested that I think about it and my dean was also supportive of the idea. If I scheduled my sabbatical to begin in fall 2020, the timing would be perfect.

So I put together an application that detailed a project idea related to my interest in the role of research in creative writing. It felt kind of weird since, at the time, my proposed sabbatical was over a year away and I had no idea what I would want to be working on so far in the future. I worried a little that my project wouldn’t seem important enough or closely related enough to my day-to-day work to pass the test. But when my application was submitted to the Provost’s office, I heard back the same day: I’d been approved for a six month sabbatical starting in September 2020.

I spent all of fall 2019 daydreaming about where I would be and what I would be doing in a year’s time. Fall is usually a busy semester for me and the thought of getting a one-time pass on all that stress to focus on a pet project was a beautiful thing. I thought about what it would be like to have the freedom to structure my own days. No teaching, no meetings, no requirement to go into the office. Just me and my writing and research.

Sigh.

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What I’m reading: May 2020

Between working from home and an upcoming sabbatical in the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

So here’s what I’m reading for work and for fun and some other little stuff as well.

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Teaching the Framework versus Teaching to the Framework

Image by Narin Seandag from Pixabay

As a way of staying in touch while under stay at home orders, my colleagues in the information literacy department have been conducting weekly Zoom meetings to talk about interesting articles we’re reading and research we’re working on.  For one such meeting, one colleague recommended “First-Year Students and the Framework: Using Topic Modeling to Analyze Student Understanding of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” by Melissa Harden(1). The article is an interesting exploration of how to use topic modeling to assess students’ understanding of information literacy concepts.

What I thought was really interesting about the author’s approach, though, was her use of the Framework as a text. Basically, as part of the assignment she was assessing, she asked students to read the Framework, albeit a modified version which eliminated some of the jargon. I’ve seen similar approaches in other articles and my own colleagues have discussed activities they’ve used that involve having students read the actual Framework.

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How things are going

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

So I’ve been at this work from home thing a little over eight weeks now. At the start, I shared some details about how I was approaching the new reality by carefully structuring my days and keeping productive. I reread that post now and I can see how part of me was still in a bit of shock. The world had changed so quickly and yet I felt like I was in a slow-moving apocalypse.

Part of me still kind of feels like that. For all that my state (New York) seems to be past the worst of the first wave of the outbreak, it still feels very much like Winter is Coming. One by one, the universities in my area have fallen to furloughs and layoffs. The budget situation at my own university is…not pretty. We’re being told they’re doing everything they can to avoid job losses and I believe those who are telling us this but, realistically, it’s hard to imagine how we could possibly get out of this without some real damage being wrought to people’s job situations. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, now that we’ve moved from the early stages of this crisis to something that looks more like a middle stage, I thought I’d share some updated thoughts and reflections.

As always, I want to acknowledge that these reflections are coming from a place of privilege for all of the same reasons I’ve cited in past posts.

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Information literacy skills: wherefore art thou?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In the time since I started writing about the contextual nature of research and research as a subject of study, I’ve noticed that I have a habit of using the phrases “information literacy skills” and “research skills” more or less interchangeably. But really IL and research aren’t one and the same. So I’ve started wondering lately where exactly the line is between them and wanted to spend some time thinking through this issue.

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Thoughts on the contextual nature of research and public libraries

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

As an academic librarian, I tend to think about the contextual nature of research mostly through the lens of the academic library environment. Specifically, information literacy, since that’s my specialization.

But before becoming an academic librarian, I spent some time in public libraries: three years as a clerk at a small public library in my hometown and then two years as an intern at a larger public library in the suburbs near where I went to grad school. As an intern, I spent some time at the reference desk and helping out with programming.

Some recent conversations have gotten me thinking about how all this talk about the contextual nature of research might apply not only in the academic library environment but also in public libraries. Thinking back on my own experiences working in public libraries as well as my continuing experience as a public library patron, I actually think public librarians are in many ways better primed to address the importance of context to the research process than academic librarians are.

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What I’ve learned about information literacy from teaching it

Image by Wilhan José Gomes wjgomes from Pixabay

Recently, someone paraphrased a famous quote to me that the best way to learn about a subject is to try to teach it to someone else. Partly this is due to the inherent challenge of having to learn something well enough to be able to explain it to another person but it also gets at how your understanding of a topic can grow and change through the act of teaching it.

I don’t know who the quote was originally from (my friend didn’t either) but the idea stuck with me. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned about information literacy as a subject in the time that I’ve been teaching it.

What I came up with was this:

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On Naming What We Know by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before but I wanted to spend a little time talking about Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, a book by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle which was the main inspiration behind the research I’ve been doing related to research as a subject of study.

The main reason I originally picked up Naming What We Know is because the ACRL Framework had recently introduced the idea of threshold concepts into thinking about information literacy and I was still trying to get my ahead around what threshold concepts even are. I’d read a bunch of stuff by Meyer and Land, the researchers who originated the idea, but a lot of the examples used in those books are from economics, biology, and other fields of study that are outside my expertise. So I was excited to find a book on threshold concepts for writing studies.

As an information literacy librarian, writing studies is considered outside of my professional realm but there are some connections there. For example, at my institution, our writing and critical inquiry program has a close relationship with our information literacy department (or, more accurately, my colleague who is the liaison to that program) because as part of those courses first year students have to write at least one research paper, which means that in addition to this being their first encounter with college-level writing, it’s also their first encounter with college-level research.

Besides that, I also have a Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, so I have at least some understanding of research in that field. At least more of an understanding than I do in some of the other more technical fields where I’d seen threshold concepts discussed.

Reading through Naming What We Know is what sent me on my current research path. Here are some thoughts.

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Title policing in libraries

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

In a couple of places on this blog, I’ve felt the need to include special notes where I’m using the word “librarian” as a catch-all for anyone who works at a library, whether they are a MLS-holding librarian, a library clerk, a page, etc. The reason I do this is because there are a lot of people in the library field who place a lot of importance on drawing the distinction between “actual” librarians and those people who just happen to work in a library because members of the non-librarian public tend not to be aware that there is, in fact, a difference.

Like many librarians, I got my start in the field as a clerk. Meaning I was the person behind the desk who checked books in and out and answered patron questions. Because the library I worked in was small, everyone on the staff was a clerk of one level or another. In addition to staffing the service desk, we also did shelving, book repair, book processing, etc. The only “actual” librarian in the place was the library director, who of course oversaw all of the administrative responsibilities and also collection development.

I spent three years in this position before moving on to grad school where I worked as a student assistant in the campus library and at the local public library as an intern. It wasn’t until 6 years into my library career (about a year after finishing grad school) that I got my first librarian job, one that required me to have the standard Master’s degree in the field. My first opportunity, in other words, to be on the other side of the equation when it comes to those who can call themselves a librarian and those who can’t. Until then, I was always on the “can’t” side of things and some of the people on the “can” side definitely let me know it. One such person told me that letting a patron call me “the librarian” was akin to a receptionist at a doctor’s office letting a patient call them “the doctor.”

Which, okay. Sure.

I am not that person. Even now that I’m in a librarian position and have tenure, I am not someone who goes around correcting people on this particular matter. Personally, I just don’t get fussed about it.

But some people do and while I think those people are kind of snobby, I also understand why they do it, even if I don’t feel a need to. A lot of it has to do with how our work is valued (or not).

Note: I originally wrote most of this post before our current coronavirus reality, but I think some of the issues involved here are even more relevant now that jobs have become more vulnerable and questions about personnel cuts, when they need to be asked, always hinge on whose work is valued most.

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