The role of excitement in teaching

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This year was my fourth serving as a mentor for the ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program. If you’ve never heard of the program, it’s a great way for newer instruction librarians to make connections with more experienced ones. Monthly prompts help to facilitate the conversation but the most valuable interactions I’ve had through the program have often been when we stray a little off topic.

One such valuable interaction this year came up when my mentee commented that they weren’t sure if they would ever feel excited about teaching. This made me stop to think about my own feelings when it comes to teaching.

The thing is, when it comes to teaching, I love to make plans. I enjoy the process that goes into taking a topic that I think is worth sharing with my students and planning a lesson that introduces them to that topic and then creating an activity where they get to react to and apply this new knowledge. This aspect of teaching really taps into my creative energy and I get excited about whatever approach I’ve dreamed up. This is probably why I change what I teach so often: to keep the party going.

But when it comes to the actual act of teaching, especially standing in front of a classroom full of students, the feeling I get is something other than excitement.

It used to be that I actively dreaded teaching. I would overplan and overpractice every detail and then be unable to sleep the night before because I was still convinced that I wasn’t prepared enough and that something would go wrong. By the time I got to the actual classroom, my stomach would be churning and my hands would be shaking.

The students noticed, too. At the end of one credit-bearing course I taught, one student evaluation read, “Stop being so nervous.”

Yikes.

These days, that feeling of dread is mostly absent and teaching just feels like another, everyday part of the job. I could probably deliver the entire 50-minute spiel I give in a one-shot session in my sleep. And when things go wrong, experience has taught me that I can pretty much handle it, thanks in part to an improv class I took that helped me learn how to think on my feet and use mistakes rather than fear them.

Still. While I don’t actively dread teaching anymore, I can’t say that I feel excited about it or particularly energized by it, even when it’s going reasonably well.

Considering that teaching is a big part of my job, this might seem like a problem.

That’s because there’s a tendency to believe that in order to be a good teacher, you have to love teaching. You have to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Sydney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, otherwise you’re inevitably Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the principal from The Breakfast Club.

Incidentally, I do find that I identify with that guy from The Breakfast Club a lot more now that I’m adult than I did when I first saw the movie as a kid. You know, minus the part where he shames a student and locks him the closet. But, really. The guy had to come into work on a Saturday just to deal with the shenanigans of a bunch of detention-bound students. I’m sure he had better things to do with his day, too.

Anyway.

The point is, when I’m teaching, if I feel excitement at all, it’s not so much for the act of teaching itself as it is for what I’m teaching. I can’t muster a lot of excitement about teaching databases because I find it personally boring to do so but if you ask me to teach students about the importance and inevitability of being wrong, the role of curiosity in research, or something else I have a lot of enthusiasm for, then that enthusiasm infuses the lesson and the presentation of the lesson.

And if students are responding well to that enthusiasm, then teaching starts to feel almost like a flow state. Flow states are basically magic. I live for flow states.

But getting to that state is a lot more rare than I’d like it to be. Partly this is because I’m obligated to teach about the boring stuff more often than I have the opportunity to teach about things I’m passionate about. Partly it’s because even when I’m not personally bored, students often are and it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm in the face of such intractable boredom. The balloon deflates pretty quickly. Unless you come to class pretending to be a world-famous magician.

I shared some of this thinking with my mentee. Surprisingly, they did not run away screaming. Hopefully this is because I was able to convey that excitement for teaching is not a requirement of the job and you shouldn’t feel guilty or put pressure on yourself to muster that excitement if you genuinely don’t feel it. Because you can still be a good teacher without it. And even the best teachers who do feel a lot of excitement about what they do probably have days where that excitement is hard to conjure.

Which is to say, if teaching was an absolute miserable slog for me and that dread I felt at first never went away, I might have been smart to take that as a sign that I should find a different specialization for myself. But even when there’s no magic flow state to my teaching, I feel like I do just fine.

 

 

Teaching online: lessons learned

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

*

(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.

*

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

Ya got trouble: Library life in the time of coronavirus (so far)

The last few weeks have been a roller coaster and the world has become a strange place.

Things here in New York State are changing about every hour or so. Last week was complete chaos as my campus was among those unexpectedly ordered by the governor to move classes online for the remainder of the semester. Up to that point, we had been thinking they would be online for a couple of weeks at most. Then came the news that even though classes were moving online, the campus was still open and those of us in the library, along with a number of others, were being required to come into work with opportunities for telecommuting limited to just a few special cases which needed to be cleared with HR. There was a lot of back and forth about that but it’s since been resolved. I’m now officially telecommuting until further notice.

Meanwhile, almost all the local businesses are quiet or shuttered completely and there is no toilet paper or paper towel to be had in any grocery store in the entire town.

Not that long ago, I was looking forward to my sabbatical in the fall and excited about the idea of not having to come into the library every day. Now I’m finding myself grieving for my everyday worklife. I miss my office (especially my Buster Keaton poster). I miss my colleagues. I miss my routine. I miss my sweet used-to-be (as Willie Nelson might put it).

So the last week or so has been filled with a lot of negative feelings. Anger, sadness, anxiety. It’s hard not to dwell on the negative when every news headline gets worse and worse with no relief in sight. Instead of adding to that, I decided that I wanted to write a post about good things. Things that are making my happy despite the current misery, things that I’m grateful for, things that I’m looking forward to.

Before I get to my list, though, I feel like it’s a good idea to acknowledge my own privilege. I am lucky enough to be in a job where I am being given (after a bit of a fight) the flexibility I need to protect my health and the health of those around me. At this point, I don’t have to worry about missed paychecks (knock on wood). I have plenty of sick leave accrued if I need it. I have the means to access what I need to make myself feel safe and prepared. Not everyone has those things or even some of them. They should. But for right now I recognize that I am in a very privileged group.

With that said, here is a list of things that are making me happy, that I am grateful for, and/or that I am looking forward to, in no particular order. Some of this is work related, some of it’s not.

Please feel free to share your own happy things in the comments.

*

People are asking each other how they’re doing and they actually mean it: Earlier this week, when I was still going into the office, I would pass colleagues in the hall and they would ask, “How are things going?” or “How are you doing?” This was nothing new—we all ask each other this all the time—but suddenly it was a real question. We actually wanted to know how the people we worked with were doing and how they were coping with the situation at hand. It’s been the same in other places, too. I had a whole conversation with a grocery store clerk the other day (with the proper amount of space between us), someone I had never met before, about how we were each holding up with everything that was going on. This never would have happened before everything changed.

It’s okay to admit that you’re not okay: This goes hand-in-hand with the one above. Before, if someone asked how you were doing, you’d say “fine” and move on, no matter if that was the truth or not. To do otherwise was a serious breach of social etiquette or possibly a sign of mental illness. Or both. Now it’s okay to admit (in a blog post, for example) that you’re anxious or scared or angry or sad or all of those things. True, this can sometimes result in a conversation where everyone feeds into each other’s anxiety by talking about their own. But it’s nice that for once we can all just be open about the fact that we’re not okay, if that’s the case (and that’s okay).

Renewed motivation to get a social life: I mentioned that in the fall, I’m going on my first sabbatical. My goal leading up to that sabbatical (and something I had planned to post about) was to get more of a social life than I have now by going out more and participating in more social gatherings so I wouldn’t become too socially isolated during those six months. I started working on this goal in November and I actually had some good momentum going. I’d started going to some yoga classes, I had a couple of meetup groups whose meetings I was keeping track of and occasionally attending, I had taken the first few steps to starting a writing group at my local library. Then around mid-February that momentum left me and I more or less went right back to where I’d started. I’d set a goal for this month to start things up again but obviously that went out the window when social distancing became a thing. I don’t know if I would have met my goal if the world had stayed the same, but I know now that once this social distancing thing ends, I’m going to take the idea of going out and doing things and meeting people a lot less for granted because of it.

If social distancing had to happen, at least it’s 2020 and not 1918: The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 has come up a lot lately in the news and in my conversations with other people. I admit that I haven’t done a lot of reading about it because I don’t want to scare myself so I don’t know what measures were taken at the time to curtail its spread (if any) but imagine if you lived back then and you were told to practice social distancing. You can’t go out. You can’t see anyone. The internet does not exist. Cell phones do not exist. Telework for those who normally work outside the home doesn’t exist. Video games definitely aren’t a thing. You may or may not have electricity or running water in your home. At least if we have to practice social distancing now, we still have the means to keep busy, entertain ourselves, stay in close contact with people we can’t see in person and practice good hygiene (knock on wood).

Staying physically and mentally healthy: I wrote not that long ago about how this time of year is when I  usually restart my running habit because I get tired of working out indoors. Unfortunately, it’s not warm enough yet for outdoor runs where I am (at least not for me) and I have no access to a treadmill at the moment, so running isn’t an option. But the fitness platforms I always use (DailyBurn, Fitness Blender, Yoga with Adriene, and Popsugar) are still available to me right now, so I can still stay active which helps me maintain not just my physical health but also my mental health. And in between therapy appointments, I’ve been using Headspace to help me deal with my various emotions. I restarted my paid subscription but right now they’re offering a set of meditations and videos for “Weathering the Storm” for free to anyone who uses the app. I’ve also liked Calm in the past and they’re currently offering free resources as well.

An excuse to indulge in things that are comforting: I tend to read a lot of entertainment news sites like Vulture and AV Club. Those sites have been coming out with a lot of lists lately about comforting television or movies to watch or music to listen to or books to read while you’re trying not to go crazy from everything that’s happening. For me, I’m spending a lot of time rewatching Stargate Atlantis for the first time in maybe about ten years and so far it is working wonders for me in that department. I also started rewatching The New Girl, which I didn’t love the first time I saw it but seemed like a fun, mindless piece of entertainment to return to right now. And because I heard Nick from The New Girl is now on a show called Stumptown, I started watching that too and I’m enjoying it so far. What I’m saying is there’s a lot of TV-watching going on for me right now. But where before I might have felt bad for watching six episodes of a dumb sitcom I happened to enjoy in a row, I feel like now it’s okay to indulge a little. Which is to say, I’m still doing what I can to maintain a normal, productive routine but it’s nice to be able to give myself permission to lose myself in some guilty pleasures when I need to.

 

So that’s my list for now. I hope that wherever you are, that are you are staying safe and well and that you have your own list of happy things. I know this blog doesn’t get many comments, but if you feel like sharing any of your happy things, I hope you will.

As for this blog, my plan right now is to continue to post regularly. I already have enough posts written to last me through about mid-May. Of course, these were all written pre-coronavirus, so they all seem like a bit of a time capsule now. I’ll also write some new posts about current events as needed/inspired in case that information might be of interest.

Until then, stay safe and well and feel free to keep in touch through the comments or the contact form.

 

 

 

 

 

Libraries in pop culture: The Station Agent

Image source: https://outtake.tribecashortlist.com/escape-and-companionship-in-the-station-agent-ae9f31f9b58d

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of space talking about what pop culture gets wrong about libraries. The natural question is: are there any good or accurate examples of libraries in movies, books, or TV shows?

On the whole, The Public, a recent movie by Emilio Estevez, does a good job because Estevez took the time to do actual research about actual libraries—he even came to the ALA Conference in New Orleans a few years ago to talk about it. But the situation in that movie is both fictional and heightened. Except for a few short scenes early on, you’re not seeing the library as it would function in an everyday sense. (Although the questions the patrons are asking the librarian at the beginning are 100% spot on.)

A better example is probably a brief scene from The Station Agent.

The Station Agent, if you haven’t seen it, is a movie starring a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage along with Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Canavale. In the movie, Dinklage plays a quiet guy who seems to prefer solitude (basically the opposite of Tyrion Lannister) but gets drawn somewhat unwillingly into a tentative friendship with Clarkson and Canavale’s characters (Olivia and Joe), who are also both alone and/or lonely in their own ways. There is also amateur train chasing and a brief lesson on the origins of the phrase “right of way.” That probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but it’s really a lovely movie. Highly recommended.

Anyway. In the movie, Dinklage’s character, Finn, is new in town. He goes to the library to find a book about trains, a subject for which he has a great deal of passion, to put it mildly (he literally lives in an abandoned train depot). He goes to check out the book. In doing so, he startles Emily, the librarian played by Michelle Williams.(1) She screams in surprise. After recovering, she asks him if he has a library card. He doesn’t but wants to get one. She asks if he has a piece of mail with his address on it. He doesn’t. She tells him that to get a library card, he’ll need proof of address. Olivia arrives and offers to check the book out for him on her card. Finn refuses the offer and leaves. “Oh my God, I just screamed in his face,” Emily says to Olivia, embarrassed. The scene ends.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

What makes this such a great library scene?

So many things.

Read More »

Off for the holidays

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite past posts in case you missed them.

Thanks for reading and see you in the new year!