Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.

On Being A Faculty

This clip from Spies Like Us is a great introduction to my topic for this post:

The line at the end – we’re not doctors – brings me back to my first post here in October where I touched on the idea of feeling a bit out of place with the wider faculty – something like a pretender. Still, being librarians in the wider academic community of campus is an important part of our roles.

Indeed, making use of these collegial connections is important to our success as members of the academic and library communities. My mentor and I attended a faculty lunch this past Friday where I knew several of the more senior faculty members there from across many colleges on campus. These connections not only give one an opportunity to be a representative for the library and share pertinent tools and services the library might provide to teaching faculty and students, but these connections can also foster cooperative research across the colleges. Beyond these immediate benefits, being more “plugged in” to the wider campus makes the librarians more visible in general, and keeps subject specialist librarians aware of current trends in research not only on the local campus, but within their wider respective disciplines.

Moreover, being a faculty – a whole faculty – creates a sense of community for all the involved parties – faculty, staff, students, and administration. This faculty community is responsible for the teaching and learning aspects of campus life, and so should come together not only to talk about the pedagogical aspects of that life, but also the scholarship aspects as well. Teaching faculty have many formal and informal opportunities to be a larger community, but librarians can be left out of this process if we don’t make sure we take part.

So my challenge to you, fellow academic librarians, is this: make an effort this week to be a bit more plugged in. Have lunch with someone on campus whose research you admire (an academic’s favorite conversation topic is their research). Reach out to someone in your discipline, or to another discipline entirely. Your effort will help the library be an even more integral part of campus and academic life. Perhaps a more immediate reward is being able to attend one of the most exciting events on campus: commencement. To my mind, commencement is a time of reflection and a time of beginnings. Being able to attend these as a member of the wider campus faculty is an honor, and a joy – to come together with one collective voice and express joy and pride in our graduates. It is with this collective faculty voice in mind that I want to close with this photo:

Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville

Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Getting Started with Instruction

This semester marks a significant step for me as I’m finally getting into doing instruction sessions on my own. Throughout last fall, I observed a lot of instruction sessions from several librarians and across a range of subjects. I also co-taught a handful of classes with a colleague, but it wasn’t until this month that I took on my own instruction sessions. I’m really glad I did some co-teaching already, because I was definitely nervous at the time and it’s good to have that out of the way now (for the most part).

In a short span of time I have done a handful of sessions, and not one of them the same. I started writing detailed reflections of all the instruction I have done so far – what I did, what worked, what didn’t work, what I would do differently next time, etc. – and while that is incredibly useful for me personally, I will refrain from posting the entire detailed accounts here! However, I will give a quick run-down:

  • So far I have done one-shots for two sections of Rhetoric, a course that’s required of all undergraduate students, but which can vary a lot depending on the instructor. For one section, their assignment was concept-mapping and researching potential careers based on their majors; the other section needed to find images to use for a visual analysis. Like I said, interesting stuff going on that was fun to work with!
  • I did a workshop in collaboration with TRiO, an organization that works with first-generation students. Part of the goal was to send them out into the stacks in a safe, no-pressure situation, so that they can avoid the “panic moment” later on when they really need to find something. Attendance was pretty low as expected, because it wasn’t required for a course, but some good discussion came out of it nonetheless.
  • Large groups of middle school students visit our library throughout the year to do primary research for the National History Day competition, and on one occasion I gave a 15-minute introduction. I kept it simple with just basic information and demonstrating SmartSearch – it was fun to switch gears for a bit for a much different audience than usual.
  • And most recently I gave an Express Workshop on how to use and make infographics. Express Workshops are weekly 30-minute workshops held in an open area in the Learning Commons, with a different topic and presenter every week.

I’m glad to have such a variety of classes to work with – for one thing, it keeps things interesting, and for another, I think it’s more challenging (in a good way) than if I were repeating basically the same session. However, the planning has been difficult at times.

A lot of the difficulties may come down to time management and figuring out my own process. I planned ahead as much as possible, but often felt like I was really getting prepared when time was down to the wire. I wanted to have lesson plans laid out a good deal ahead of time and prevent the stress of procrastination, but it was difficult for me to focus on future sessions when there were others to take place first – especially since these were my actual first instruction sessions ever. I think my planning problems stem in part from the fact that this is a much busier time of year than I expected it would be!

I can’t wait to get to the point where I’ve done enough instruction that I’m more confident with the whole process, from planning, to delivery, and assessment. When planning a session I consider many possible options and what would be most effective, and then still tend to question my decisions on what to include and how to conduct the session. I already feel a little more confident in my teaching abilities than I did even a month ago, and I know that the rest will take some more time and practice.

Does anyone else have similar concerns? Do you plan ahead, or do you work better under pressure? How much time does it take to plan a session?

Fitting In Reading

It seems like every year one of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more. Read more? But I’m a librarian, I read all the time, right?

Over the 7 years that I’ve been a librarian I’ve heard that misconception all too often upon meeting new people. “Oh, you’re a librarian? You must read all the time/love to read/spend your days reading!” Of course the context of that statement ultimately determines my response (and I am always polite, even when slightly exasperated), but in truth the answers are no, yes, no. Of course I love to read, as I always have, even before I was a librarian. But the amount of long-form, focused reading that I typically do during my workday is very, very small. Not that other forms of reading don’t matter — I can usually keep up with my work-related RSS feed and the newspaper, and like most office workers I read many many MANY emails each day. But sit down in my office with a book? Not often.

While I’ve found blogs and other online sources to be useful in keeping up with the academic librarianship and higher education more generally, lots of scholarly research and practical information is published in books and journal articles, too. Reading a book about information literacy, or the latest issue of C&RL, or a book about student retention that specifically addresses commuter colleges is totally, 100% relevant to my job as Coordinator of Library Instruction at a non-residential college.

So why is there a stack of books and articles 8 inches high on my desk? And a book due back to ILL tomorrow that I haven’t even cracked open?

Reading, and especially reading in print, is tricky in an office environment. To me it has the appearance of being simultaneously uninterruptible and leisure-like, which I realize are somewhat at odds. The focus that someone reading a long-form text brings to the task, perhaps taking notes as they read, sometimes makes it seem almost rude to bother them. But that’s contrasted with the popular image of a professor with their feet up on their desk, surrounded by books, just waiting for students to stop in with questions. I’ve exaggerated both of these scenes, but I think there’s a grain of truth in each.

If I’m reading at work, will folks not stop in because I seem focused and they don’t want to interrupt me? Or, on the flip side, if folks do stop in will I lose track of the thread of the reading? And, perhaps the core of the issue, is reading “work” in the same way that other office-bound tasks we may do at our jobs are “work”? Or does reading at my desk make it seem like I’m not working, especially if there are other tasks that need doing on my to-do list? Alternatively, I could bring work-related reading home to tackle on evenings and weekends, but then I’m shortchanging my opportunities for leisure reading (which I never feel I have enough of anyway).

Keeping up with the scholarly and practical literature in my field is professional development, and as such it’s an important and worthwhile undertaking. So maybe it’s as simple as that — reading for professional development is a work-related task like any other, and I should add it to my to-do list for each day.

Do you read books and articles while at work? How do you find the time and space to keep up with longer form professional reading?

Hurry up and Reflect! February’s Dynamic Duality

February, the shortest month of the year, has always seemed pretty rushed and hectic to me.  Holidays and observances like Superbowl Sunday (yay Seahawks!), Groundhog Day, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day jostle for our attention.  Students at my university are studying for midterms, and the Research Commons is starting to get busier and noisier at the quarter progresses.  We also have all of our largest public events of the quarter scheduled in in February; on the docket this month we have installments of our Scholars’ Studio and CoLAB programs, as well as a session in a popular speakers’ series.  A lot of people I know have February birthdays, including myself and my boss.  Oh…and I’m scheduled for jury duty next week, so there’s that.  Where’s a leap year when you need one?

Is it possible to find time for reflection in all of this chaos? At many institutions, February marks the mid-point in the academic year, so reflection is not only appropriate, but necessary. Since my position is not tenure-track, I don’t have codified avenues for evaluating and reviewing my performance so far this year.  But I can benefit from many of the tools that my tenure-eligible colleagues use.  Updating my CV, maintaining a file of thanks and kudos I have received, and beginning to plan conference proposals that illustrate my work so far, are important tasks that I need to make time and space for.

My earlier mention of Groundhog Day perhaps seems a bit silly and off-handed, but in fact, it provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind the moment.  Our current rodent-based divination ceremony is often presumed to derive from other, more ancient festivals, like Imbolc, which celebrated the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and marked an occasion for reflection, scrying, and omen watching.  My aforementioned litany or February holidays can offer a series of fruitful starting points of small acts of contemplation; on the nature of community, on social justice, on bringing love and passion into our daily practices, on grounding oneself in the foundational values of our American institutions.

A typical February contradiction:  The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it's freakin' cold!

A typical February contradiction: The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it’s freakin’ cold!

On a more personal level, I feel grateful that I’ve settled in to my position now to the extent that my daily routines are becoming more natural and comfortable.  I know when the best times for me to arrive at and leave work are, and what times of day I am most productive.  I’ve figured out which yoga classes work best with my schedule.  Always at the back of my mind is the notion of bringing more contemplative practice into my daily work.

The time for learning the ropes of my position and department has more or less passed…it feels like the second half of my first year as a professional librarian will be a time for action.  The spectre of “imposter syndrome” is still strong… I don’t expect to ever fully rid myself of it, but I do now feel comfortable enough in my role to embrace the rare quiet moments at work as times for reflection and passivity, rather than panicking because I don’t have enough to do! I’m looking forward to the second half.