We Have Already Made It

I’ve spent the last few weeks of what has been an unusually hectic start to the semester thinking lots about Emily’s post from last month, Breaking the “Fake It” Habit. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you head on over and do, I can wait. Emily writes about fear of not knowing at work, especially topics or workflows that it seems like everyone else knows, and feeling the pressure to present ourselves as knowledgeable and competent (imposter syndrome, for example).

Emily’s terrific post hit home for me, and I’m planning to share it with all of my colleagues in the library where I work. As the director I strive to create an environment where all library workers in all of our various titles and full-time/part-time status can feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, learning and adding to our skill sets. I also struggle with the embarrassment that I’ve felt and feel when I make mistakes, am asked a question I don’t know the answer to, or realize that others around me seem to know something that I don’t. In my best moments I can stall for a bit of composure-regaining time with that classic reference interview opener, “that’s a good question!” But not-knowing is hard: it can make us feel exposed and unworthy, which is an uncomfortable place to be.

In trying to build a habit of being gentle with myself when I’m in that uncomfortable space, I’ve found it helpful to remember that our patrons likely have these same experiences. When we don’t know something we are just like our students, when they come to the library for the first time and aren’t sure how to find what they need. Or our faculty colleagues, who may be newly-hired with prior experience at very different institutions from our own, or who are so busy with their work that they haven’t been able to keep up with announcements about library resources and services.

The university system my college is part of is in the midst of our library services platform migration this year, which, while stressful in many ways, could give all of us the opportunity to build stamina around not-knowing. The system will be new to all of us and used by all of us, from the folx hired just this year to those with 30+ years under their belts, for public services and technical services and everything else our small but mighty library does. No one knows everything, and there are always opportunities for learning in library work. With the migration here I’m hoping we can all — myself included — ask questions when we need to learn more, ask for help when we need it, and be gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons.

Emily concludes her post by discussing a new opportunity she’s taking on at her library, and vowing to ask questions and stand in the uncomfortable space of not-knowing. I’m drawing inspiration from her, pushing back on “fake it til you make it,” and reminding myself that we have already made it, because asking questions is part of the job.

Will this work?

In May 2017, I had an idea. I wanted to create a credit-bearing course, one that would provide students the foundation they needed to be peer research consultants (PRCs) within the libraries. The class would have the same vibes as writing tutor classes that are taught across the United States and called many different names (for example ENGL 250 at Penn State, Topics in Composition at Coe College). As a concept, the class made sense to me. Instead of cramming initial PRC training into a few weeks, we could have the space within a course to really dive into ideas and prepare students. It could also be a way to expose students to research through the lens of librarianship. 

In 2017, I had no clue about how to put together a semester long course, or the process at Penn State to get an actual class on the books. The course was a pipe dream, one that rattled around in my head, and had me jotting down stray thoughts in various notebooks and online documents. I would write out “Week 1” through “Week 16” and attempt different combinations of course content. My first drafts were a bunch of one-shots sessions, strung together, somewhat haphazardly, but with brief moments of clarity.

The more I thought about the class and the more I tinkered with it, the more I wanted to make it happen. About a year ago, I paired up with my colleague, co-teacher, and friend, Claire, and we started to take steps to get the course approved. At a large research institution, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Beyond documentation around learning objectives, assessment techniques, and a rough course outline, we also had to find 15 people to consult on our course. After these consults, we submitted it into the ether and eventually, our proposal made its way up the Liberal Arts chain. Finally, in November, it reached our Faculty Senate.

We found out the class passed with little fanfare. It was approved in a committee meeting and we found out from a colleague in the group who sent us a Slack message. It was December and our immediate thought was, “crap, now we have like six weeks to put a course together.” Luckily, Claire and I had one another, and a framework we had continued to tweak while the course was being reviewed. LST 250: Peer Tutoring in Research was official and on January 14, we taught our first class.

This class is all about turning a research idea around and around. We were inspired by Allison Hosier’s 2019 article in College & Research Libraries entitled “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study: A Proposed Metaconcept and Its Practical Application.” It probably wasn’t an article we needed our students to read in the first week, but it has helped us find the core of the class. We focus our energies on a topic, of our choice, and spend the semester researching it from all angles. The goal is that by the end, the students are really knowledgeable in a topic they care about, and also deeply understand their own research process, embedded within their discipline. If you can understand how research works, then I believe you can help someone else through that process. Of course, the question always is, “Will that actually work as a course?”

So far, I think so. This week we wrote research questions on whiteboards and made concept maps. We explored databases we recommend students “try first” and talked about how that could set us up for a certain research journey. We also read LIS articles that spoke of students in strange, disconnected, deficit-like ways around their ability to do research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about the students we teach, how we think about their research process, and how those attitudes influence our work. This class seems like a natural extension to the work I’ve been doing with students and finding ways to keep them in the center. 

A friend asked, “How’s it going professor?” and while that still feels weird to be a professor, things are good. We’re four weeks in and I have a much better understanding of what readings will work than I did a year ago. While the first few classes felt like 75 minutes was too much, we’re now scrabbling at minute 70 to finish class on time. I haven’t taught many one-shots so far this semester, but I imagine my presence will be different. I feel more confident in leading a class, and some of that is probably due to regularly teaching twice a week. The course is a challenge, and I need that in 2020. I feel lucky that I get to tackle the course with Claire and we can navigate these credit-bearing waters together. I can’t believe it has been almost three years since my initial idea; a lot has changed in the evolution of the course, but I look forward to where the course will go. If you’ve taught a credit-bearing class before, do you have any advice? What has worked for you in the past? What do you wish you would have known before you started? 


Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Being okay with confusion

I do a one minute paper for most of my library instruction sessions, where I ask students: what was the most useful or interesting they learned, what remains confusing or unclear. I also give them the space to add any additional comments or questions they have. Most leave that section blank, or provide quick feedback, like good job! Or thanks for the presentation! One time, a student wrote that the session made them more confused and more stressed about their upcoming assignment than before — I felt awful, and worried that as an instructor, I failed the student.  

When I’m feeling insecure about my teaching, I worry about this a lot. I worry that I’ve made an information literacy concept too complex and too hard to digest. My worries aren’t limited to classroom teaching. I worry too, when I’m providing reference help, particularly when it feels like I did not give the student the answer or solution they were looking for. 

In response, I’ve thought a lot about how I can communicate more clearly, and simplify my explanations. I’ve worked to incorporate more examples and make my lessons easier to understand. But after this past month of teaching multiple information literacy sessions on source evaluation and identifying scholarly sources, I’ve been thinking a lot about how learning doesn’t necessarily lead to more clarity. 

Many of the undergraduate classes I visit, specify what type of source students should use for their assignment. These sources are also described in multiple ways: scholarly sources, academic sources, peer-reviewed sources, secondary sources, primary articles, etc. I find myself trying to interpret what each assignment requirement means, and it varies depending on the class and discipline. For example, are textbooks scholarly sources? What if your textbook is a scholarly monograph that’s designed for use in undergraduate classrooms? Is a peer-reviewed student journal a scholarly source? Is a research article a primary or secondary source (why does it change depending on the discipline)? If a theoretical text doesn’t have citations, is it not a scholarly source? Although I know what these sources are, the answer can be complex, involving a critical understanding of disciplinary context and how academia and society value specific types of authority. 

In an effort to make identifying scholarly sources easy to understand, I fear that a potential takeaway of my lesson was the sources (peer-reviewed articles) you need for your assignment is good and other sources are bad. If that’s the case, even if students feel like they have a clear understanding of scholarly sources, I feel like I’ve failed them as an instructor. 

I want to bring complexity and critical thinking into my classrooms, but I also don’t want students to be discouraged or lost when doing their assignments. Since I usually only see the students once, I feel added pressure to get it right (you get one shot!).  I think discomfort and confusion are part of the learning process, but how do you know when the confusion is not generative?  

With a semester of teaching under my belt, I thought teaching information literacy would become easier. I am more confident about teaching in some ways, but more confused and uncertain in other ways. I’m grappling with my own feelings of confusion and discomfort — particularly, when I feel a class or reference interaction didn’t go well. 

I’ve been experimenting with journaling and recording my reflections, and in that process, I’ve been reminding myself that even if it felt like the class didn’t go well, that doesn’t mean that learning didn’t happen. Learning is complex and messy for both instructors and students. I’m working through embracing the fact that confusion is stressful, but wading through that discomfort can be rewarding and transformative!

Breaking the “Fake It” Habit

You ever start Googling “[library topic] for dummies,” desperately trying to find some blog post from 2007 that explains what a threshold concept is, or how a proxy server works? It’s particularly awkward when you get the sense it’s a 101 topic that everyone around you seems to understand. That scenario makes me feel like I’m in an old cartoon, where I’m a cat dressed up in a dog costume trying to mingle with other dogs without getting caught. 

The first time I noticed myself doing this as a librarian was with my first mentor and manager. She’s sharp, well-read, and has a background in education so she’d mention things like critical librarianship and I’d pretend to know what she was talking about until I could get back to my office and Google it. Looking back, I could have admitted my ignorance and been fine, but trying to keep up with her fierce intellect did bring my librarianship game up.

The second time I realized I was a penguin tap-dancing on increasingly fractured ice was when I took over managing electronic resources at an old job. When database links would break or there’d be authentication issues, I’d start the same process of answer-seeking — piecing together information from OCLC’s website, the notes my previous manager left, and my own trial and error. Eventually I learned enough to be confident, but in both of these examples I notice a troubling tendency: tell NO ONE you don’t know what you’re doing, and try to muddle through it on my own.

Image of a black labrador with a white badminton birdie on his nose, amongst a group of black ducks with white beaks

I don’t think I’m the only person who operates like this, and there’s plenty of reasons why we fake it. Sometimes you feel like there’s no one you can ask. Your library might not have another expert, or that person might not be very approachable. Maybe it’s something you said you understood in the interview process, thinking you had it under control, and finding the task more complicated than you expected. (See: every meme about pretending to understand Excel.)

Sometimes the reason you hide your lack of knowledge is because you fear being exposed as ignorant or undeserving. There’s a sense of shame that accompanies this. Not knowing things seems acceptable when you first start a job, but a year in, you feel more shy about admitting what you don’t know and asking questions.

The problem with this approach is that you’re on your own, and you don’t have to be. Even if you’re a solo librarian, there’s ALA listservs, library Twitter, and simply reaching out to someone at a nearby library. Lately I have been trying to think of myself as I would a student. Would I judge a student for not knowing what a database is the first time they walk into the classroom? Would I make a student feel stupid for asking a clarifying question? Writing this blog post is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you: it’s okay not to know things. Asking your manager to explain what an acronym stands for doesn’t reveal that you’re an impostor and don’t deserve your job.

All this is coming up because I’ve taken on an exciting role at my job, planning and executing a photo digitization project, and taking charge of the college archive. I studied archives in my MLS program, but as I get into the weeds of this project I realize there are gaps in my knowledge and that’s scary. But this time, I’m not going to try to hide it. This time, I’m going to ask for help.

If you feel this is a safe space to confess something you feel like you should understand by now but still don’t really get, share! I promise I won’t judge, and maybe we can help each other out.

Maintaining the Day Away

I’ve been back at work after Winter Break for 17 days now. The Spring semester started 10 days ago. I’ve scheduled classes, emailed instructors about their scheduled class details, assigned classes to librarian colleagues, and added those classes to calendars with relevant details about assignments. I’ve replied to questions over email, asked questions over email, made phone calls, and answered them. I’ve spoken at orientations and lead a workshop. I’ve written performance reviews and drafted annual goals. I’ve checked on classroom computers, projectors, markers, and erasers.

It’s not glamorous work. When my son asks what I do at work all day I usually say “I’m teaching,” but that’s not really true. It’s just easier to say than all of the above, which means nothing to an 8 year-old. Most of my time is spent on maintenance. It’s absolutely critical to my job, to our library’s instruction program, and to my own ability to get through the day.

It sometimes feels like a whole lot of nothing, but as Maura Smale has written time and time again, “much of the work that we as librarians do is…about maintenance.” It is work that is made invisible, because the innovative projects are shiny, and the work that goes into making things shine isn’t photogenic. No one is going to take a photo of me in my office with lukewarm coffee and a container of Oatmeal Squares cereal toggling between a spreadsheet, calendar, and email as I figure out how many people to schedule to teach each day while listening to ambient remixes of Legend of Zelda music. (Yes, that is a true scene from my work life.) But with this work, classes are taught, time and space is created to work on new initiatives, relationships are built, and innovation is given a foundation.

Let’s start sharing what library maintenance work looks like. What does maintaining the day away look like to you? What would stop happening if your maintenance work stopped? How can we highlight this as real work, rather than the stuff we have to get off of our plates before we start to do the real work? It may be dull. It may be tedious. But it is absolutely necessary.