Hopes and worries for the coming academic year

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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.

It could be fine. Or it could be a disaster.

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Sabbatical on the horizon: Thinky thoughts

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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)

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The case for keeping Zoom teaching simple

Image by Th G from Pixabay

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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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.

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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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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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Teaching online: lessons learned

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Now that the coronavirus crisis has forced a lot of faculty members to move their classes online, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my own online teaching. I’ve been teaching asynchronous online information literacy courses in one environment or another since about 2012. In fact, I’ve been teaching my course exclusively online for the last five years.

My earliest experience teaching online was one in which I had to convert a course I’d planned on teaching in-person to an online one somewhat unexpectedly (because I was moving out of state) but I had plenty of time before the course’s start date to make the change. That was stressful enough. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be for professors (and their students) to be converting their classes so abruptly now and in these circumstances. Likely my own reflection will be of limited use to instructors in those situations, but I thought I’d share them now anyway because they’re on my mind and they might come in handy for someone, somewhere.

Simple is better: The first two times I taught online, I adapted a format of instruction that was intended to imitate the Team-Based Learning model created by Larry Michaelsen, which I’d used with some success in my in-person courses. The format I came up with worked well enough that I got my first peer-reviewed article out of it back in the day but from the student point of view, it was a bit of disaster.(1) There were too many moving parts: individual quizzes due on one day, team quizzes due another, individual activities that needed to be completed, and team projects that needed to be coordinated. And everything had to be done in a set order. It was too much to keep track of, for my students and for me.

The structure I have now is one that I came to after many iterations. It is much simpler. Each course module has its own folder, clearly labeled with a beginning and end date for that module. The folder becomes available on the first day of the module and remains available for the rest of the course. In the folder is everything that students will need to complete by the end of the module. The items are listed in the recommended order of completion but everything is due on the same day so the students have the flexibility to decide for themselves which tasks they want to tackle first. There are no group projects but there are discussion activities.

That’s it. That’s all there is. To some, this may sound like an obvious way to organize things but it took me a long time to get here and overall the student response has been positive. They appreciate that this structure respects their time and makes clear where their attention should be in a given week. They also really, really like having a single due date for everything in the module.

Civility can’t go out the window: My second time teaching online, I had a student who would write me long, angry screeds multiple times a day using capital letters, bold fonts, and different font colors telling me everything he hated about the course and why I was a terrible teacher.

As I said, my first few outings with online teaching were less than successful, so he had good reason to be irritated but the speed with which this turned into harassment really caught me off guard. Soon, he had recruited other students in the course to his cause. Many of them were worried that the glitches with Blackboard and the wonky setup I had chosen for the course would negatively affect their grades. Several even used the “my tuition pays your salary so you should give me the grade I want” line of reasoning in outlining their complaints against me.(2)

Good times.

I’m certain that this level of vitriol never would have happened in an in-person course, no matter how poorly designed that course was. Because in an in-person course, the instructor and students are more than just names on a screen to each other: they’re people you have to look in the eye at least once or twice a week. It’s a lot harder to reach this level of outrage when that’s the case, which is a big part of why it took me by such surprise when it happened.

These days, I have a strict policy in my syllabus about online civility. At least once a semester, I respond to a student’s angry e-mail by acknowledging their right to be upset but also informing them that I won’t address their concerns until they revise their original message so that it adheres to this policy. For the most part, this has been a successful strategy for me and is one I would strongly recommend for anyone teaching online.

The importance of boundaries: In an online course, there is a lot of pressure to be available 24/7. Students’ questions can appear in your inbox any time of the day or night and since you won’t be seeing them in person, it feels like you need to answer right away. At least, that’s how I felt when I first started teaching online. As soon as those long, angry screeds I mentioned before appeared in my inbox, I would go to work responding to them. Sometimes it would take me hours and the next one would appear while I was still in the middle of responding to the first one.(3)

I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I state clearly on my syllabus that when students e-mail me a question, they can generally expect a response within one business day. I also tell them that I don’t respond to work e-mails outside of normal work hours, which are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. So if they e-mail me over the weekend, they won’t hear back from me until Monday.

And then I hold myself to that rule.

Which is to say, if I happened to check my e-mail on a Saturday and saw that the students in my course were having trouble accessing that week’s quiz, I wouldn’t wait until Monday to fix it and respond to them. But generally speaking, I’m pretty strict about keeping to those stated boundaries. Let me tell you: it has saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

And for the most part, students are okay with it. In fact, the feedback they’ve given me seems to indicate that they like having such clear information about when and how I’ll communicate with them.

As long as it doesn’t affect their grade, of course. Because there really have been times when students couldn’t access a quiz or other assignment and I don’t know about it until late in the game. Along with my hours of availability, I also state in the syllabus that students’ grades will never be negatively affected by any delay in response from me. So if a quiz can’t be accessed, the quiz gets an extension. If a student needs clarification on the expectations for an assignment in the hours before that assignment is due and I don’t get back to them in time, I give them a little extra time to complete it if they need it. It only seems fair that this is the case.

 

It’s all a learning experience: Anyone who teaches knows that the act of teaching is in and of itself a learning experience. Getting it right takes time, no matter whether you’re teaching in person or online. Professors who have found themselves teaching online so unexpectedly may not experience the level of disaster I did when I first started teaching online. Or they may experience problems I haven’t even thought of. But I know it always helped me to remember that the inevitable mistakes I made were opportunities for growth. Some things will go well. Some things won’t. It will all be useful.

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(1) I have it on good authority that this is the case because one of the students in that class is now a colleague/friend at the library where I work and it comes up in conversation sometimes. Luckily, his experience in the course was not enough to scare him away from the LIS field altogether.

(2) Lucky for me, I was not on the tenure track at the time, so the evaluations from this course weren’t included as part of my tenure file when the time came.

(3) These days, I’m a little more secure in myself as a teacher and in my professional standing and would never put this much work into responding to this level of incivility, except in the manner I mentioned above: refusing to address the concern until the student rewrote their message so that it adhered to the relevant course policy.

 

Staying productive while working from home

Image by Pavlofox from Pixabay

So I’m officially on Day 8 of my telecommuting exile and it has been…a challenge. Like I said before, I miss my office. I miss my colleagues. I miss my routines. Generally, I just miss the way things used to be.

Still, like everyone I need to do what I can to stay productive even as it sometimes feels like the world is falling apart. I thought I’d share here some strategies that I’ve been using so far to do that that are working for me.

As always, I want to acknowledge that I’m speaking from a place of privilege as someone with a job that is allowing me the opportunity to continue to work through all of this and the flexibility to practice social distancing to keep myself and others safe. Not everyone has that right now. Also I’m privileged in the sense that my time and my space are my own—I don’t have to share them with anyone on a day-to-day basis except for an occasionally pushy cat. So the point of view I’m writing from is someone whose only responsibility at the moment is herself (and her pushy cat).

That said, here’s what I’ve got on how I’m staying productive:

Limiting exposure to the news: Like most people, when this thing first started, I was pretty much glued to my favorite news sites. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I’d check the headlines from the New York Times. Then when I got to work, I’d read through the various local and national newsletters I receive in my inbox every day. Then I’d check some headlines on some other news sites I like just in case. Then I’d go back to the New York Times in case anything had changed. Before I knew it, I had fallen into a black hole of anxiety and stress and hours had gone by with no work getting done. Pretty much the same thing would happen when I got home at night. Before I went to bed, I’d check the number of new infections in my area (in New York State, where the number of known infections is now said to be doubling every three days) and then not be able to sleep.

The thing is, compulsively checking and re-checking the news made me feel like I was doing something. As if by informing myself about what was going on, I was somehow taking action. I wasn’t. I was just freaking myself the f*ck out.

A certain amount of freaking out right now is probably healthy, given the sheer magnitude of everything that’s happening. And staying informed is definitely important. But not at the expense of living life.

So now I’ve limited my news intake. I put my phone in another room while I sleep so I won’t reach for it first thing in the morning. Instead, I wait until I open my work e-mail. I look at the newsletters I’m subscribed to, absorb this new information as best I can, and then I put it away. I don’t look at the news again until I’ve finished my work for the day. I definitely don’t look at it right before I go to bed. It’s not easy but if I want to do anything besides spend my day worrying, it’s necessary.

Creating a structure to my day: One of the things I’ve always liked best about my job is the near-complete autonomy I have over how I spend my time. Sure, there are meetings and reference shifts and instruction sessions. And of course I have to check in with my supervisor regularly to account for what projects I’ve been working on and what progress I’m making. But overall, the layout of any free time in my day has always been pretty much up to me.

Luckily, I’ve always been pretty good about managing time. Like, I have a color-coded spreadsheet that lays out what tasks I want to get done on which days for an entire week and I generally manage to stick to it. But what order I do things in and how long I spend on them has always been a bit loosey-goosey. Mostly I just drift from one item to the next based on what I feel like working on in a given moment or what I know I have to get done. This system has worked well for me the last five years or so that I’ve been using it. Which is to say, I managed to get tenure a year early by organizing my time this way.

Except it turns out a system like doesn’t work as well in a full-time WFH situation. I mean, I still have a color-coded spreadsheet but drifting from one task to another like I did before leaves too much room for that compulsive headline-checking I talked about above or getting distracted by non-work related things. So now I have a schedule for myself, which lays out the order in which I will work on my tasks throughout the day and between what hours. That order is the same every day and I’ve been forcing myself to follow it as much as possible—especially the part where I stop and put all of my work away before dinner in the evening.

To be clear, this structure is not one of nonstop work. Full disclosure: my color-coded work task list has never consisted entirely of actual work-related activities. I always have a few spaces for “personal” activities like the twenty minutes I would use to work on a personal creative writing project at lunchtime. Those personal activities are now things like a short walk in the morning and a 10-minute Headspace meditation in the afternoon. It may seem ridiculous to include stuff like that on a to-do list but I feel like these are things I really need to be doing right now to keep my sanity and I know myself well enough to know that if I didn’t put them on the list, I wouldn’t do them.

Connecting with colleagues: I am a loner introvert who lives by myself and there are frankly ways in which this social distancing thing was made for people like me. I mean, before all of this happened a weekend in which I didn’t leave the house and didn’t talk to any other people was, like, a good weekend for me. That was something I looked forward to.(1) Now I’m a little worried that by the time all of this is over, I’ll have forgotten how to talk to other human beings and will instead start talking to my co-workers the same way I talk to my cat. And this is all assuming that I remain healthy while I’m doing the social distancing thing.

So I knew I would have to take steps to make sure this didn’t happen. I contacted some colleagues I was social with (in a work-related way) in the past and invited them to regular virtual coffee and chat sessions where we can talk about what we’re working on and check in with each other in a more general way. I did the same with my research/writing partners on a recent research project and some former library colleagues as well. This way, I can practice social distancing without becoming too isolated.

 

So, yeah. It may be that I need to change all of this up as things continue to develop, but this is what’s working for me right now. If you have any strategies for keeping yourself productive and sane right now, feel free to share in the comments below.

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(1) I told my therapist this once. She was not impressed.