Learning a new institution: Three insights from being a department head

In my first two months in a new job, I am feeling all sorts of things. After 16 months of working remotely from my one-bedroom apartment, I’m now back in the office five days a week. I’m commuting and packing my own lunch and wearing a mask and teaching in person. I feel I’m in a constant state of learning and listening. I’m adjusting to leading a department and figuring out what parts of my past coordination role will serve me well and where I need to grow. I’m working to understand the culture of the library and the institution. I’m building relationships with my new colleagues and trying to share how my past experiences make me a good colleague and one they can trust. I’m learning who our students are and how we work with them. 

Needless to say, it’s a lot, and in the backdrop of the continuing pandemic. Some days I feel like I’ve been here for a while and other days I feel like only started a few days ago. I thought for this blog post, I could share three things I’ve learned so far.  

Your day-to-day changes

When I thought about becoming a department head, I knew part of the deal was giving up some of that day-to-day, nitty-gritty, individual project work in order to support and advocate for the folks on our team. I still feel the pull to take on projects, to raise my hand to volunteer for anything that sounds remotely interesting and related to teaching and learning. I’m doing my best to slow down, to wait, and to think more about who is best suited and has the capacity to take on that work. Part of it is knowing I’ve got this great and collaborative team of colleagues, colleagues who are student-centered and willing to do the work. We get to do this together and it has been great to have the team to lean on. In some ways, I appreciate the ways my day-to-day has changed; I get to think big picture and strategize. I get to meet with members of the team and imagine what the next chapter of our department will be. I also get to go out and meet folks around campus and promote the great work the team is doing. 

Ask all the questions

I’m constantly reminded there is so much to learn when you start at a new institution. Instead of trying to figure stuff out on my own, I’ve been asking a lot of questions. Small questions, big questions, and any question in between. Anytime where I don’t confidently know the answer, I reach out and inquire. I’m slowly learning all the ways my colleagues have been involved with this work in the past and I try to get multiple perspectives into the question before making a move. I don’t have it all figured out sixty days into the job and I appreciate having people I can ask these questions to.  

Celebrate the work

It can be tough to be a middle manager. You’re right in the middle of it all — trying to do right by the people who report to you and also working with the people you report to. But despite the challenges, one of the things I’ve learned and enjoyed the most is celebrating the work. I’ll use any and all chances to shout out the team I get to work with. I love getting to know the strengths of each individual, the projects they care about the most, and what they want to do in the future. I’ll deal with the politics because I want to see the team succeed and I want them to have what they need to do the best work. 

All in all, I’ve learned a lot so far, and know I have so much more to learn. I feel lucky to work on a collaborative team, have colleagues I admire, and feel supported through the network I’ve built over the years. I’ve found myself gravitating towards advice for managers (see a recent tweet from the CALM Conference) and doing a lot of personal reflection. I am looking forward to revisiting this post in a few months and seeing what other lessons I can add to this list.


Featured image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Faculty & Mental Health

“I’m sorry to be so disorganized this semester.”

“I am struggling.”

“Somehow Fall 2021 feels worse than Fall 2020 did.” 

“I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you til now, I kept meaning to…”

These are things faculty have said to me in the last week. Morale on our campus feels low. As my coworker remarked to me this weekend, “Everyone was having a hard time quietly at home, and now that we’re all back on campus, it’s pretty noticeable.” No matter our roles on campus, we’ve experienced almost 2 years of slow-burn crisis. It shouldn’t surprise me that faculty in my liaison areas are having another tough semester.

I’ve done trainings on mental health first aid, learned what to watch out for, and how to refer students to mental health services on campus. The relationship between librarian and professor is different than between librarian and student, and that has muddied the waters of my training a little bit. What do we do when we can tell a colleague is struggling?

I recently attended a NAMI In Our Own Voice presentation, which included a mix of video clips and live speakers talking openly about their mental health experience, what helped them, and what habits sustain their recovery. Here are some of the takeaways:

Don’t suffer in silence
I’ve caught myself thinking, “Sure, I’m having a hard time, but so is everyone. I’m not special in my mental health needs right now.” But just because it’s happening to a lot of people, doesn’t take away that it’s happening to you, too. 

Mental illnesses can hit our self-esteem pretty hard, isolating us from friends, thwarting our productivity, over-emphasizing the negative parts of ourselves. One of the speakers, who has ADHD, said “My low self-esteem felt earned,” because her mental illness made her late, forgetful, and sloppy. She didn’t feel like she was worth asking for help. As a result, she hid everything she was struggling with, and worked even harder to make up for it. 

Stigma compounds the harm of mental illness. If it’s you that feels lonely or worthless, know that there’s no need to go through it alone. Reach out to a friend or if that feels too revealing, try a text hotline. You’re worth it.

Sometimes all you need to do is listen
If you notice your coworker’s jokes have gotten way darker than usual, or they seem discouraged, check in with them. I’ve found asking, “How’s your semester/week going?” is all the opening someone needs to let a little emotional steam out.

You don’t need to have the right words. You don’t need to fix it for them (which is good because you probably can’t!). Listening is a gift we can give each other right now.

It’s okay to be kinda cheesy
We know the things you shouldn’t say when someone is grieving or struggling, like “everything happens for a reason,” or “I know what you’re going through,” and that can leave us at a loss for what to say. It can feel awkward to come right out and talk about mental health. It’s easy to joke about it or just avoid the subject out of discomfort. 

Sometimes all I’ve said is “That sounds so hard.” Other scripts that hold space for someone without giving advice or useless platitudes:

  • “It’s unfair, and it doesn’t make sense.”
  • “You don’t deserve to feel this way.”
  • “Thank you for sharing what you’re going through.”
  • “I care about you.”

Conclusion
We hear a lot about mental health awareness this time of year, with September being Suicide Prevention Month. Writing this feels a little like “Of course people know this stuff, it’s everywhere.” But someone might be looking for one kind word, one thought, one person who would miss them if they didn’t come to work. And if this post is that kind word for someone, then I’m glad I wrote it.

You matter to this world. It is good that you are here.

Pandemic Planning: A Balancing Act

Please join us in welcoming Heather Bobrowicz, Programming Librarian at South Texas College, as a new First Year Academic Librarian blogger for the 2021-2022 year here at ACRLog.

2021 has been an interesting year so far. I began my first academic librarian position this year, in February to be precise. I’ve been spending a lot of my time in webinars and trainings, reading about the challenges and unique experiences academic libraries face, and generally adjusting to a new environment. I’m not new to librarianship. I earned my MLS in 2014 and have since worked in two different public library systems, both as a “substitute librarian” and as a children’s librarian. Now I’m settling in to a community college as a programming librarian, and I’m running in to one itty bitty, teeny weeny problem.

How in the world can I plan for the future when everything is so uncertain?

Being a public librarian meant I had to go with the flow a lot. I moved between branches when I worked in Albuquerque, and I had to adjust to the different settings and communities I served. One branch was in an affluent area full of seniors, another was practically next door to a high school, and yet another was kitty-corner to the city’s main bus station. Every branch had different needs, and I bounced between all three on a weekly basis. While my schedule and my working conditions were on the chaotic side, I had reliability. Book clubs, technology help, and knitting groups were popular at the library with a lot of seniors. Teen programs actually got some attendance at the one near the high school. And with the bus station one, I just held on for dear life and was ready for anything. I made a lot of guest passes and visitor cards.

I’m running into a very different situation in my community college job. The pandemic has made everything unpredictable. One moment I’m planning in-person programs that I will also stream online to improve access and archive the recording, and the next the kibosh has been put on any face-to-face at all. My campus put off in-person classes for the first two weeks, and everyone is holding their breath to see if we’ll keep our in-person numbers through the rest of the semester.

I’ll be clear: I like online programs. I like that I can get people from all around the world to come talk to our students, staff, and faculty. I like keeping an archive of the webinar for faculty to use in their classes. I like the simplicity of not having to set up a space. However, I miss that energy an in-person program can carry. I miss having options for interactive events that just aren’t possible to rig up with Zoom Webinar, even with all its fancy features like breakout rooms and polls.

Most of all, I miss predictability. Yes, there are always contingencies, but I’d rather plan for “oh no, we didn’t buy enough snacks” than “oh no, the whole campus us shutting down because of an outbreak.” It’s a silly thing to complain about in comparison to all the other terrible things going on in the world, but I feel like it needs to be said: This is hard, and those of us who are struggling to get it done deserve a pat on the back. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a new librarian in these circumstances. Hang in there! It isn’t always this wild!

I guess the main thing 2021 is shaping up to teach me is to make all my plans in pencil, and never take for granted having steady ground beneath my feet. You never know when the world’s going to shake things up and you’ll be left scrambling in ways you never imagined, and honestly couldn’t prepare for back in Library School.

This field really is about learning as you go, especially now.

Better Work Habits Through… Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Remember March 2020? We didn’t really know what to expect from the next weeks or months, and sought comfort where we could find it… some baked bread, some finally learned to play guitar… I’m one of the ones who chose Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ve played almost every day since its release on March 20, 2020, and my island is still my happy place. The other day, I realized that it has taught me some good habits I can apply to my work, so I wanted to share these insights. Don’t worry… if you don’t play, it’s still good advice.

Welcome to Xanadu 1 (My husband named it before we knew we had to share an island, don’t judge me)

Keep Your Tools on You, and in Good Shape

A lot of what you do on your island requires tools (bug net, shovel, fishing rod, etc.) and you never know what opportunities you’ll run across while walking around, so you should always keep your tools in your pockets, so you’re prepared for anything. Also, your tools will break after a certain number of uses, but you can reset that clock by customizing them, so if you keep on top of that “maintenance,” you can vastly prolong the life of your tools, and have to buy or craft new ones less often.

This advice overlaps with the number one lesson I’ve learned from years of watching Food Network: mise en place. Set up your physical AND mental workspace with all the tools you use frequently close at hand and ready to be used. Sharp pencils, fresh notebooks, a fat stack of Post-Its… and for your mental workspace, dust out the cobwebs with a brain teaser, or write down the to-do list swirling around in your head. Whatever you need to get the job done, have it ready to go.

Hard work pays off… my first lily of the valley appears!

Ten or Fifteen Minutes a Day Is Enough to Keep Things Tidy

Most days, I just do a single pass around my island to pick up fallen branches, dig up new fossils, pull any new weeds, and check on things in general. This takes about ten minutes (unless it rained the day before and there are a ton of rogue flowers springing up everywhere). It’s enough to keep the island tidy and earn me rewards, like the particular flower that only grows if your island is in really good shape. I don’t have to rearrange houses or build a new waterfall every day.

I also spend ten or fifteen minutes every workday morning just tidying up… my calendar, my to-do list, my email inbox, my desktop (both physical and virtual). Dedicating that time every morning keeps things tidy enough to make room for the actual work to happen. I wouldn’t start construction on my island without pulling weeds and transplanting flowers that are in the way; I don’t start work projects until my schedule and email inbox are under control.

Greta gives the best advice

Skipping a Day is Okay; Skipping a Lot Is Not

(I’m not talking about vacation… Use your days off, they’re part of your compensation!)

Sometimes, if I have a busy day, or I go out of town, or I’m just not feeling it, I don’t log into the game, and I skip a day on the island. No big deal. There will be a few more weeds the next day, I miss an opportunity to buy things from a particular vendor who only comes once a week, it’s fine. But if I don’t log in for weeks, I get cockroaches in my (virtual) house, the weeds overrun the island, and the animals that live on the island start to think I don’t like them anymore and get upset.

Having a light, easy day at work when you need it is like skipping a day in the game. When you can, give yourself a day where you’re not working on big, heavy projects, and do whatever type of work you find relaxing and easy. (In my case, schedules and agendas are very relaxing work.) But if it turns into procrastinating and never tackling the difficult work, your island (work) will be overrun with weeds (projects) and the villagers (your coworkers) will get made at you (will get mad at you).

Sometimes mental health looks like a pocket full of scorpions

Visit a Mystery Island for More Resources

You can collect a lot of usable resources on your island: stone, gold, clay, wood, weeds, flowers, etc. But your island is a finite space, and sometimes you can’t find enough resources there, so you can buy a ticket to fly to a “Mystery Island” and collect resources there to bring home.

In this metaphor, the resources are your patience, inspiration, creativity, and sometimes literal resources like people to work with or space to work in. If you’re in a rut (out of resources), try visiting a different space. I know that, where COVID restrictions are still in place, this can be difficult, but if you can’t pick up your laptop and go work in another room, building, or campus, try rearranging your office. Even if you can’t move the furniture, redecorating your desk can make it feel like a new space. If possible, go work in a coworker’s office with them for a while. If you’re working from home, move from the living room to the dining room (or my favorite, the porch on a nice day! Soak up that beautiful fall weather, if you have it!)

I spent a whole weekend last October blocking out every blank space of grass on the island, so the randomly-assigned rocks would pop up where I wanted them. A. WHOLE. WEEKEND.

Planning Terraforming Is More Fun than Actually Terraforming

This is an ongoing joke in the Animal Crossing community. You have a lot of control over the layout of your island… you can build up a second level above the ground, dig up waterways, add inclines and bridges, and move buildings around. But many players have found that planning major changes like this is more fun than pulling out your shovel and actually digging it up, because it can be tedious.

Don’t get stuck in planning stages. It’s a problem I frequently have: I love a list, a plan, and a schedule, but getting to the actual work is a whole different story. I have read a little about how you get dopamine in the planning stages and for some people, that’s sufficient and they (we) no longer feel motivated to seek the dopamine from accomplishing the planned-for goal. Don’t give in; do the terraforming!

This would not have been possible without visiting someone else’s island… Get by with a little help from your friends, as the Beatles would say.

Get Help from Friends to Accomplish Your Goals

When you first start your island in the game, it is randomly assigned a native fruit (peach, apple, orange, pear, or cherry). You can find two of the other fruits by visiting Mystery Islands (see above), but the other two will never show up for you naturally… you must visit other people’s islands to collect them. There is no way to collect all five fruits without help from another living human being.

The lesson here, of course, is: teamwork makes the dream work. Expecting yourself to accomplish everything alone is not realistic (and sometimes, like in the fruit example, literally impossible), so bring in outside help when you need it. And know that everyone else is in the same situation; sometimes you can trade fruit (help) with someone, win-win!

The tambourine makes me happy, it makes the cat happy… best in-game item, if you ask me.

It’s Your Island

Do things your way. Not everybody logs in every day. Not everybody participates in the world events. Not everybody buys and sells turnips (it’s called the Stalk Market, you can extrapolate from there). Not everybody plays all parts of the game, and that’s fine… it’s your island, play it your way. I carry around a tambourine in my pocket because it makes me really happy to pull it out and hit it sometimes. I put up signs naming my waterfalls and bridges, and not all of them are family-friendly. It makes me laugh. You do you; it’s your island.

The flip side of “it’s your island” is that it’s your responsibility, too. Nobody else is going to log in and move those trees around the way you want them. The villagers aren’t suddenly going to dig up that rose garden you made a year ago and are sick of now. You have to change it if you don’t like it.

So do your work your way (within the confines of the rules of the “game,” of course), but also take responsibility for it.

Short Cuts for the Easily Distracted

I’m a couple of weeks later than I’d hoped to be with this blogpost, one result of what’s continuing to be an unusually hectic and unusually uncertain semester for me (and probably for many of you, too). But I had a thought on my morning commute-substitute walk today: why not write small amounts on a few different library topics that have been bouncing around my brain recently? So here are some short cuts, for (and from) the busy and distracted.

Hybrid is not the same as remote or onsite

This semester at the college where I work, library faculty and staff are working partially in person at the Library and partially remote, a situation that we usually describe as hybrid when referring to classes. I will admit that one of the things I’ve learned since the pandemic began last year is that I don’t prefer a 100% online job, and I’m grateful to be working in my office on campus 3 days/week. But it’s been surprising to me how much administrative overhead our new hybrid work environment involves. Last year when we went into lockdown it seemed to take ages for us to figure out some of our new processes and workflows; I especially remember the pain point of trying to figure out how to get PDFs signed and shared between multiple people who were all working on different devices at home. There are definitely administrative advantages to being on campus part-time — three cheers for easy access to printing and scanning! But it has taken more time than I anticipated to fully grasp which tasks are best done onsite and which I can still easily complete at home. On the (very) plus side: as long as the weather holds it’s possible to have face to face meetings outside on days when my colleagues and I are in at the same time, and that has been amazing.

Terrific award news

Library Twitter blew up on earlier this week with the news that Safiya Noble, among lots of other amazing and smart folx, has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. If you’ve not read her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, I strongly recommend it, or you can search up videos of one of the many, many talks she’s given in recent years. I remember being so disappointed that I had to miss her invited paper at the ACRL Conference in Portland in 2015 because my own session was scheduled at the same time, and my City University of New York colleagues and I were delighted that she gave the keynote at the CUNY IT Conference in 2017. Noble’s work is timely and necessary, and this recognition is so well-deserved.

Thinking about teaching and libraries and interdisciplinarity

As soon as I saw the MacArthur news I posted it in the Slack workspace for the course I’m teaching this semester in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program. We’d started the semester reading Noble’s chapter Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities which provoked a robust discussion in class, and our students are looking forward to returning to her work later in the semester too. I’ve blogged a bit in the past about teaching in this program; students come to this program from graduate departments in a variety of different disciplines, and the course is a great opportunity to think through using technology in teaching and research from multiple perspectives. I appreciate that I always seem to learn so much every time I teach it, both from my coteacher (this semester, a colleague in English) and from our students, who are often also teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY colleges themselves. This is my first time teaching the course fully online, and I’m also appreciating the opportunities to have even more discussion about open digital pedagogy and scholarship than we do usually, and to be able to bring the work of libraries into the course as well.

Ending with gratitude

It’s a tough semester all around on campuses and in libraries, I expect, with the pandemic far from over, and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the things I’m grateful for, large and small: the clouds and sky on my walk to work in the morning, sharing physically-distanced bagels in the library with colleagues last week, and the time I carve out (almost) each day for meditation (thanks to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I took last year). And I’m aiming for a longer, less-distracted cut here next time around.