This spring, I’ll be teaching a section of my eight week credit-bearing information literacy course starting in late March. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this course in over a year thanks in part to the chaos of COVID and also my sabbatical this fall, which will soon be coming to an end.
Because I was on sabbatical and focusing on my research during what would normally be the planning period for spring, my plan this year was just to teach the course the exact same way I did last spring. Back then, I’d rearranged the course a little from previous iterations and used a new version of my usual annotated bibliography project that was reasonably successful. So I decided that I would make minimal changes this time around in order to squeeze as much as research and writing time as possible out of my remaining sabbatical.
In some ways, that was easy to do. My course has been fully online for quite a while now so there was nothing I needed to do to convert the materials I already had to the new situation. Teaching the course this year should have been an easy copy and paste job. Easy peasy.
The problem with this is that I’ve never been very good at copying and pasting my course from semester to semester. I’m always making changes. Between fall and spring, these are usually small changes. I generally save bigger changes for the fall semester so that I have the summer to plan them.
But now a whole year has passed since I last taught this course and the world looks very different from the way it did last time I did this. So while a copy and paste from last year to this year would have been possible, it didn’t feel right. I ended up doing yet another overhaul.
(Note: The following post contains a description of a scene in The Boondock Saints that involves violence against an animal. If you would like to avoid that description, skip down to the big asterisk.)
As an information literacy instructor, I spend a lot of time talking to students and library patrons about authority. As the ACRL Framework tells us, authority is both constructed and contextual. So someone who’s considered an authority in one area or situation might not be one in others. And who we bestow authority on also depends on a number of indicators, both emotional and objective. Like, not only what credentials this person has but also whether or not we feel like we can trust what they say.
Authority has become a complicated thing the last few years as mistrust in expertise keeps rising but I think this year has been especially challenging because the COVID situation has been one where a big reason people stopped trusting the experts is because what the experts were saying kept changing. Like with the mask thing. First we didn’t need them, then they became important and now they’re thought of as essential.
Of course, there are political reasons behind at least some of this inconsistency. It doesn’t help that the person in the United States who is supposed to be viewed as most authoritative of all is…well, we know who he is and what he’s like.
But there’s also the fact that the reason authorities and experts changed their advice over time is because our understanding of COVID changed over time. The whole reason COVID was such a threat at first was because we didn’t know how it worked or how to treat it. But the experts had to tell people something. So they worked with the information they had and gave what recommendations they could: wash your hands, sanitize surfaces, etc.
And I don’t know about you, but having some information about what steps I could take to help protect myself made me feel a little less anxious at the time, even though the advice we’re being given has changed a lot over time.
In some places, the fall semester has already started but here classes don’t begin for another week or so. It’s hard to believe the summer is already over even though it seems like it lasted a million years. Time has definitely gotten weird.
The plan for the fall semester here looks more less like it does on many other college campuses. Some classes will be offered in person, most will be online. Some students will be staying in the residence halls but there will be a lot more restrictions on what dorm life will look like than there has been in the past. A lot of the usual campus activities will either be held virtually or scaled back or cancelled altogether. Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of moving parts to this thing and no one really knows what’s going to happen.
My sabbatical is only about a month away and my plans for it are starting to come more into focus. Of course, when I submitted my proposal a year ago, I had no way of knowing how much the world was going to change between then and now. So even as my overall plan has stayed the same, my vision of what my sabbatical will look like has had to change quite a bit and my feelings about it are a little more mixed than they might have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened or if the United States had gotten it under better control by now.
The truth is, this sabbatical was always going to bring with it things to be excited about and things that would be challenging. But there are a couple of items in each category that have been on my mind as the start date approaches.(1)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.