What a little bug with a sword taught me about learning

Screenshot from the gameplay of Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight on Steam

These last few months at home, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I started with relaxing ones, like Stardew Valley, tried my hand at some first person shooters like Overwatch (not my greatest strength), and replayed a few old favorites from childhood, like Mario Kart. I definitely do not identify as a hardcore gamer — I play games on Easy mode, I embrace the word “casual,” and I’m really not interested in the gate-keeping ferocity that comes with that identity.

But I found myself at home with a spooky little action-adventure game called Hollow Knight. You’re a little bug with a nail for a sword, exploring a vast underground kingdom. As I played this summer, I saw how video games are a type of learning environment. Here’s some things that Hollow Knight reminded me about learning:

Non-linear Learning

This game is laid out like a big, interlocking web of pathways. Because there’s no one way to complete the game, you can access areas that you’re not strong enough to face yet. It’s easy to get in over your head, but it’s also a chance to experiment and creatively beat the game. Just like there’s no one path to knowledge, you can approach this game in multiple ways and get different results, even different endings to the story.

Threshold Concepts

At the beginning of this game, you are very weak, and the skills you gain build on one another. It’s very satisfying to earn a new ability and then immediately put it to use on the next level. A threshold concept in education is like a portal that opens up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land, 2003). In Hollow Knight, we’re talking about parts of the game that are literally inaccessible until you learn a new skill, like a passage underwater or a really high platform to a new level. You’ve got to jump before you can double-jump, you know? 

Mapping

Concept art for the elaborate map of Hallownest, the world Hollow Knight takes place in

When you enter a new area of the game, you don’t have a map right away. You have to fill it out yourself as you explore. You can even see your little knight scrawling on the map, recording travels and lessons learned. This design adds to the satisfaction of exploration, as Nevada Dru says for video games blog Bits & Pieces: “When you have no map and no idea where you are going in a new area, the world feels dangerous and unknowable. When you finally find that map and see all the areas yet to be explored, finding and uncovering their secrets is exciting.” I love how discovery begets more discovery. This makes me want to incorporate more mapping in my classroom activities.

Patience

I’m notoriously impatient in a video game. As soon as I enter a boss fight, I want to get right up on the guy and finish the battle as soon as possible. But Hollow Knight does not reward this approach — there’s timing to every enemy’s attacks, and you’re going to need a lot more strategy than just “hit him really fast!!” I learned to slow down, pay closer attention, and it paid off. Practicing patience also boosted my confidence; even in tough spots later in the game, I’d think to myself, “I can do this.”

Failure

Patience leads me to another important element of this game: repeated failure. After you use up your health, you die and have to start from your last save point. It’s very easy to fail in this game, especially when you enter a new section or are facing a boss. The number of times I’ve died in this game is probably in the thousands. But aside from sometimes losing your money, the stakes for failure are pretty low — you just gotta get back up and try again. It felt good to persist, to make progress, to do something over and over. And surprisingly, after you’ve done it once, like timing out your jumps perfectly to navigate a room of spikes, you’ve got it and you can do it again.

Walkthroughs

A video game walkthrough is a step-by-step guide to help a player navigate either the entire game or specific sections of it. Sometimes they’re text tutorials, and sometimes they’re video. When I’d get stuck in a tough part, I’d watch someone else complete that area in a YouTube walkthrough, and suddenly I could do it too. I found that watching someone else “do the thing” makes it possible for me to achieve it. It’s like having a mix of a tutor and a role model, and it’s especially helpful when it comes to challenging tasks.

It’s nothing new that video games could have educational purpose. But in a summer separated from my students, it was comforting to find learning in leisure.

How are you doing?

Photo: bradley pisney

Support from friends has helped me keep my chin up in the face of cabin fever and low-key panic, and I’ve been casting about for the same support at work. So I asked fellow ACRLoggers to share how things are going where they work:

What’s the situation at your institution, at the time of writing?

Maura Smale:
At my institution, the library and campus has been closed since mid-March, and with our Governor’s stay at home order currently scheduled through at least May 15th, and summer courses fully online, it’s not clear when we’ll go back to the physical library. Once closures were announced, my colleagues and I were able to get computers with remote desktop access distributed to all full-time library faculty and staff who need them to work remotely. I’m grateful that our library IT team was able to quickly set up laptops from our classroom with everything needed to enable folks to work from home, which has allowed us to continue to support the college community and move forward on many of the projects we had in progress before the pandemic.

Jennifer Jarson:
Currently, classes at all Penn State campuses are fully online and all library locations are physically closed and library faculty/staff have been working remotely since then. Much of our ongoing work has continued but with some adjustments. Like everyone, we’ve cancelled or postponed a number of programs and events, moved others online, and are working on new ideas about how to connect with our students and faculty in this new reality. University administration announced that all pre-tenure faculty will automatically have an extra year on the tenure clock (but can choose to stay on their original timeline if they wish). All librarians have faculty status at my institution and many are on the tenure track, so folks are evaluating the impact of the pandemic on their work and weighing their options.  

Emily Hampton Haynes (That’s me):
My community college campus has also been closed since mid-March, and my director worked hard to ensure that everyone on the library team would be able to work from home. We’ve been working out the kinks of Microsoft Teams meetings and entertaining different scenarios for how the summer and fall might look, based mostly on speculation and hope. I’ve seen a lot of photos of my coworkers’ pets!

What is your day-to-day look like on the job right now?

Jen:
I’m trying to stick to regular work hours right now in an effort to maintain some boundaries and to keep work from taking over the whole day every day. I’m not caring for small children and thankfully no one in my household is ill right now, so I have the luxury of being able to set and manage only my own routine. My daily agenda, though, varies widely just as it always has. I’m the head of a small branch library in an enormous library system, so my job is part administrative, part teaching and learning/public services, and part whatever else needs doing. Of course, all this work is taking place from home. As part of a large organization distributed across the state, Zoom meetings and virtual work were already a regular part of my daily life so the transition to 100% remote work hasn’t felt as jarring for me as it likely has for others.   

Emily:
Like most academic libraries, we were about to launch into the busiest weeks of info lit instruction for the semester. Instead of spending the last month in the classroom, busy but vibrant, I’ve found myself with more unstructured time than I was expecting. Rather than live instruction, most faculty who had library visits scheduled chose to have us create tip sheets (which we make using LibGuides) and database demo videos. I hope these asynchronous teaching materials will be helpful to students, but I miss sharing the same space. I didn’t realize how much physical presence mattered to my teaching. As we consider a hybrid online/f2f fall semester, I want to find more ways to be personable, maybe with video-chat reference appointments or standing office hours.

How have you kept communication going with students, faculty, or other users? 

Maura:
Another major difference since the move to remote work has been the increase in communication between all of the library directors at my university. Our directors’ council typically meets monthly during the academic year, but in the rush to close the physical campuses we convened an ad hoc Zoom meeting on the Friday of that first week of closures. We’ve ended up keeping that time each week since for us to get together less formally, and it’s been useful to share information about common questions and concerns about our budgets, book orders, remote work for our part-time staff, and the status of the consortial library systems platform migration we’re in the midst of (!), among other topics. With COVID-19 so prevalent in New York City we’re all hearing about cases in our campus communities, too, and I’ve been grateful for the support we’re offering each other in this group.

Jen:
Maintaining, or even growing, our relationships with our students, faculty, and staff feels just as important as ever, if not more so. We’ve done some general messaging to students via emails through our Student Affairs office and FAQs on our campus website, but connecting with students feels even more challenging as we don’t have much unmediated access to them right now. Faculty are our most direct route so we’ve tried to highlight to them the role they can play in helping students connect with us, particularly for research and reference consultations. We drafted a general message for students about how to get help and sent that out to faculty, hoping they might copy/paste it into an announcement in their courses on our LMS. We’re working on ways to shift some already scheduled student-centered programming/events online and also to create new online opportunities in collaboration with our Student Affairs colleagues. On a more general level, our campus advising department invited faculty/staff to help conduct wellness check phone calls to students in order to assess how they’re coping, connect them with campus resources and services, and generally offer support. Our library team is participating in this effort, as well.

What has surprised you most about library work during this crisis?

Maura:
One thing that’s surprised me is the amount of (digital) paperwork required for us to all work remotely. The college required all workers — full-time and part-time — to complete a flexible work scheduling form that documents the work to be done while telecommuting, plus additional documentation to complete for those who took library laptops home with them. With 24 full-time and 27 part-time faculty and staff it took a few weeks for us to get the paperwork sorted. At work we all have the same basic computer setup, but at home we do not, and it’s been far more complicated than I expected to address the issues many of us have encountered in digitally signing PDFs requiring signatures from library workers as well as me (as library director).

Emily:
I am reckoning with the diminished mental capacity I’ve had since I’ve started work from home. I’ve seen a few Twitter threads (like this one) that have been validating; underneath whatever we’re trying to make our brains do right now, we are going through collective trauma and processing a constant but invisible threat. I have research plans for this summer that I’m excited about, but I’m struggling to use this “newfound time” on them. This very post took me 2 weeks to write! I’m accustomed to being able to turn a product around quickly, be it teaching materials, a blog post, or an email, and am trying not to be disappointed in myself that tasks are taking me much longer than usual. Veronica’s post from a few weeks ago has been very encouraging to me. Her final sentence bears repeating: Our output may be messier, but it’s “the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.” 

I hope you are all able to stay safe and healthy. Share your frustrations or triumphs with us in the comments, this is a space where we can lean on each other.

Metaphors That Resonate

This Change magazine article, “#HashtagPedagogies: Improving Literacy and Course Relevance Through Social Media Metaphors,” which suggests using social media vocabulary to describe academic concepts that are familiar to faculty and professionals, but not students, has been rattling around my head this month.

The author, Micah Oelze, models his strategy by choosing a central hashtag for lectures and discussions, and teaches students to apply Instagram vocabulary, like hashtags and @ signs, as note-taking symbols in the margins of readings. He says, “By borrowing language from social media, longstanding critical reading strategies can be taught in a way that feels intuitive for students of the millenial and Z generations.” I like how he repurposes the @ sign (used on Instagram to tag other users) to relate another author’s ideas to the text at hand, which supports the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame.

Oelze says this social media language is second-nature to many students, which is why the metaphor is so successful.

“When educators point out the overarching principle and label it with #, something powerful happens. As an automatic reflex, students recognize this is no longer actual text, but rather a concept, one that is distinctively searchable and can be applied to any number of relevant cases.” 

In the classroom, I’ve compared subject headings to hashtags, particularly the hyperlinked subject headings in many of our databases. But I like that this article takes it a step farther, having students organize and “curate” class topics by choosing the hashtags themselves. This is no different than creating metadata or assigning subject headings, but without the scholarly name for it. 

In order to comprehend new information they’re reading, students must be able to make connections that are text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Forming connections between the reading and oneself is one of the easiest to teach, and there are excellent prompts to get students thinking about how a text might apply to the world. But I see students struggle to master synthesizing sources with other texts and their own arguments in papers. Using hashtags to track overarching concepts is one great way to practice this text-to-text connection.

A student’s research process, the way they organize information, is an important component to their success. I’m interested in the literal ways that they go about a school project: Do you use Google docs, or citation managers like Noodlebib? Do you write your draft on paper first? Do you outline, or highlight as you read?  I’ve found that the students that have some type of research process, a routine they consistently follow for each project, are more prepared for assignments and able to build on their skills over time. 

In the one-shot classroom, I encourage students to consider their research process. “How I organize my research might not be the best way for you to do it. But it’s important for you to discover the way that works best for you.” When students take ownership over their process, confidence and efficiency emerge. 

If hashtagging your way through a scholarly article helps you connect the concepts, that’s great. A single metaphor won’t resonate with every student, so I’m always looking for new ways to describe this important part of college success. This article got me thinking, and I recommend checking it out! 

Are there ways you communicate scholarly concepts to students so that they’re less intimidating? What are some metaphors you’ve used to translate academic jargon into relatable language?

Image: Pexels

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.

Room to Breathe

Open notebook with a pencil on it
Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

I like working in an academic environment because it follows a predictable emotional pattern—busy times in September and October, a little lull before Thanksgiving, the quietest January in the world. Of course, this depends on your job roles and how your school structures semesters, but I like knowing that across institutions, we’re all on a similar track. 

For me, library instruction has dropped off significantly for the semester at this point. I find more room to breathe, and with that there’s a little space to think about my performance. I’m a big fan of reflective teaching, but in the thick of back-to-back classes, there’s no time to assess myself. Then when I finally have a chance to think, I can’t remember the specifics of good and bad classes; they’ve pretty much become a blur of students and computer labs.

This year, I tried keeping a brief teacher journal. I didn’t worry about capturing much about each class, because I wanted the journal to be something I was able to keep up with. I just recorded the class, date, what went well and what I could improve. I tried to write about each session the same day or the day after, while the details were still fresh. 

Journaling isn’t a new practice for me—I’ve been keeping a personal journal since I was 13, and I’ve accumulated 30ish diaries of all shapes and sizes in my basement. (Sometimes I think, “Gee, what’s my endgame for all these journals? Ritual burning? Ah well, that’s a problem for my descendants!”) Every now and then when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll flip through a few.

The best part of having a 15-year record of your thoughts and feelings is that you can review them and see how you’ve grown…this can also be the worst part of having that much of your brain on the page. Insecurities I’d been obsessing over when I was 21 are total non-issues now. I read entries where I felt like my career was going nowhere, and it’s nice to “know what happens.” I’d say the main trend in my personal diaries is me learning to become comfortable with change.

And I saw trends in my teaching journal from the last year, too! Here’s a few:

  1. This was my first spring and fall semester at this new job. I see myself getting acclimated and learning about various faculty personalities.
  2. A repeated challenge for me was when I’d begin a class and realize that I’m the first person to talk about this assignment with the students. It throws me off when the teacher hasn’t introduced the research project to the class ahead of time. No one has had time to start thinking about a topic yet! I am still working on how to make the most of those classes.
  3. I noted the instructors whose teaching style I admired; I’ve come to know some of those instructors better since I started here, and it’s nice to see I was identifying role models early on.
  4. This line made me laugh: “I am finally in a groove, and I felt like I communicated things in a fun, easy to understand way. Just in time for my last class of the semester…” 

How’s this semester been for all of you? If you’re still in the thick of it, good luck! I hope you find some room to breathe soon.