Virtual Events are Awesome! Here’s Why

I became an academic librarian in February of 2021. Starting a new position during a pandemic is… weird, to put it lightly. For one thing, I’ve only done one in-person event. Everything else has been virtual. If I want to be honest about it, I kind of want it to stay this way.

Don’t get me wrong! As a former children’s librarian, I know the euphoria that happens when you have a good preschool story time or you can see, in real time, children growing from the services you’re providing. Nothing made me happier than watching kids learn and appreciate art in my Art for All Ages program. There’s a certain energy to in-person events that you can’t capture online.

The author with middle school students at a recent literacy outreach.

That’s not the point of this blog post, though. I’m writing this to tell you that virtual events are, in their own way, totally awesome. They’re unique and they have their own advantages, and every time I think about what we’re capable of now thanks to technology, I’m blown away.

Let me break down why virtual events are totally awesome into four of their many benefits:

  1. You can get presenters from anywhere. I’m lucky in that I have a budget that would allow me to fly people in from other places and put them up in hotels. But is that the best use of those funds? Especially now, because tickets are so much more expensive and flying is so complicated. Webinars skip that whole step. Just this year, I’ve hosted lecturers from Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey. I didn’t have to worry once about booking a hotel or what would happen if a flight got canceled. My goal is to eventually get someone from a different continent. Imagine hosting a webinar with someone currently in Paris or Barcelona or Tokyo! How cool would that be?
  2. No masks or social distancing necessary. My friends and colleagues in public libraries know well the struggle of getting people to wear masks. Students at my campus have been incredibly courteous about wearing masks in our library and about campus, but it only takes one confrontation to ruin the atmosphere of an event. Then there are the logistics that go into limiting attendance and social distancing. No worries about that when everyone watching on their own devices in their own spaces. And if you plan for 50 but 200 show up, cool! Not as muh when you have limited seating in a real-world auditorium. Been there, done that. It wasn’t fun even pre-pandemic.
  3. Accessibility. Yes, I know the digital divide can make this a struggle—My college is in an area where there are large gaps in connectivity in communities. Thankfully, we’ve been awarded grants to address these issues. We distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops now.

    Once students have those resources, our recorded webinars can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. This is a benefit to students with demanding schedules because of jobs, families, other classes, or any number of responsibilities they’re juggling. Webinars are also an excellent way to include students who continue to take classes from home because of mobility issues, vulnerability to COVID, or because online learning is the most convenient form for them. Students with hearing difficulties have access to subtitles and captions. They can replay portions of archived webinars if they need or want a refresher. YouTube also allows students to slow down or speed up a video to match their own pace. I love webinars for the same reason I loved e-books as a public librarian: the technology makes for a more accessible and user-friendly experience.
  4. Your audience is the world. This is especially true if you offer free webinars and advertise them on social media. We have had people tune in from all over the globe for a Shakespeare presentation in April, and it’s so neat to see attendees type in the chat that they’re tuning in from far, far away. Again, the excitement is different from watching a live audience absorb an idea or having a patron thank you in person, but it’s still thrilling.
Zoom Webinar held on September 1st, 2021, as archived on the South Texas College Library Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNLbMCUVaVk&t=7s&ab_channel=SouthTexasCollegeLibrary

Job satisfaction can be hard to come by in a virtual world, especially if you’re not someone used to cultivating relationships online. That said, webinars can still give those of us who have been seeking out that feedback a bit of what we lost when libraries shut down. Even once our situation changes, which (depending on who you ask) could be years into the future, I don’t see virtual programs going away. I’m certainly not going to stop. I find it too valuable a resource for our students and faculty.

I will definitely do in-person events again, but mostly for local presenters and programs that don’t translate well to online formats, like anything that involves food. I might be able to find job satisfaction through Zoom webinars, but until someone figures out how to digitize pizza, popcorn, and cookies, it’s just not going to have the same draw for our students. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll be able to share a virtual pizza with a class while they listen to someone lecturing about cloud computing from Trinidad.

That sounds totally awesome to me.

From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Transitions

Please join us in welcoming Ramón García, Resident Information Literacy Librarian & Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado, as a new First Year Academic Librarian blogger for the 2021-2022 year here at ACRLog.

Library schools do their best to prepare their students for the countless aspects of librarianship. From conducting reference interviews to cataloging and everything else in-between, I left my program feeling well-rounded and ready to come into my own as an academic librarian. Yet, I found the biggest thing library school didn’t prepare me for was making the tremendous transition from full-time graduate student to full-time librarian.

I started my search for my first academic librarian position back in the Fall of 2020. From my mentors and library Twitter, I learned that the hiring process at academic libraries is a long and drawn out one. So, early on, I started preparing myself to apply for several position. This meant drafting countless cover letters, pouring over my CV, and constantly asking my mentors for feedback on both. Once Spring 2021 came around, I had my foot in the door and found myself a first-round candidate for multiple positions. Flash forward to a week after graduation and I had my first official offer from the University of Northern Colorado! Success! But, what was next?

Up to this point, I’d lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since I was four so this would not only be my first time living in another state but my first, big out-of-state move. Figuring out the logistics of the move alone could’ve been a course in library school: Hiring movers for the first time, planning a driving route, finding housing that wouldn’t charge my partner & I an obscene amount of pet rent, and, of course, towing my tiny hatchback with a U-Haul loaded with all our belongings. This was all in addition to the regular tasks that come with a move like setting up utilities and realizing that we own way more stuff than we thought. Thirteen hours and 800 miles later, we made it to our new temporary home. Little did I know that the transitions were only just beginning.

A picture containing text, road, tree, outdoor

Description automatically generated
My mother-in-law, Elizabeth, & all of our stuff

I like to think about this transitional period in two ways: the transitions in my personal life and those at work. The most immediate change for me was going from being a graduate student to a full-time academic librarian. This meant a few things. Gone were my days of working part-time for two different libraries while balancing school with my personal life. I now found myself unsure of what to do with my newfound free time. My 45-minute commute by car (on a good day) became a ten-minute bike ride. Making work friends was another challenge. Why doesn’t anyone tell you how hard it can be to make new friends when you’re an adult? Gone was the need to hide indoors from Texas’ infamously oppressive heat and humidity. The new struggle was getting used to higher elevation (I had no idea elevation baking was a thing). But, I was ecstatic to be able to enjoy being outdoors during the summer. In fact, since moving, my partner and I have become big fans of taking day hikes throughout Colorado’s numerous state parks and, of course, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The transitions in my personal life were challenging but compared to my work life, it was a piece of cake. My first month at my new position felt like a whirlwind of brand-new information that just seemed to just keep growing and growing. From meeting countless library staff and faculty members to getting accustomed to a brand-new library catalog system, there was tons for me to learn and get accustomed to in a short of amount of time – I started in July, so the beginning of the semester was right around the corner. But, perhaps the biggest challenge I had to face was preparing myself to teach a credit bearing information literacy course.

Like others in the field, librarianship is my second career. Before libraries, I spent four years teaching various levels of English at a public high school. I’m no stranger to the classroom, but I can’t say the same for my new subject. The class I was scheduled to teach this semester was LIB 160: Library Research for Criminal Justice Majors. My undergrad degree is in English so I’m probably one of the last people you’d want to talk to about criminal justice. Luckily for me, the purpose of the course is to help students write the literature review portion of their research proposal for their research methods course. On top of that, I was fortunate enough to have one of my wonderful colleagues guide me through the course as she’s taught it multiple times. Yet, all of this support wasn’t enough to keep me from sweating bullets on the first day of class. Imposter syndrome much anyone?

At the time of writing, I’ve made it to week nine of the academic year and my partner and I have officially been living in Colorado for almost four months. I still get a little nervous every time I teach, but I now have a solid group of work friends – Our Teams chat’s called The Lunch Club. I’m still enjoying my bi-monthly hikes, but I also made a quick Labor Day weekend trip home to ward off homesickness. I’ve officially met everyone who works in my building, but I’m still learning more and more about our newly adopted kitten, Hubie (yes, he’s named after the movie).

A cat lying on a blanket

Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Hubie “Halloween” García-Socall

In the spirit of transparency, I don’t have any quick solutions for embarking on the transition from grad student to librarian. But, there are few tips I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. When it comes to feeling homesick, FaceTime is a life saver. While not a permeant fix, regular video calls with my family have helped me stay connected and close to what was happening in their lives.
  2. Temporarily embrace (some) discomfort. As an introvert, feeling uncomfortable in new situations is a given, but accepting lunch invites from colleagues and taking risks to share myself helped me find my circle at work.
  3. Having a confidant makes a huge difference. Whether it’s a previous mentor, a friend from grad school, or a partner, having someone in your corner that can listen to your complaints and worries about your new profession goes a long way.

There are plenty more I could add to the list, but these three pieces have helped me the most so far on my new journey called librarianship.

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.