It’s felt like a day of mistakes, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t seen my boss or colleagues in person for weeks. I’m isolated, and suffering from a lack of structure and routine. Deadlines are sneaking up on me and I’m remembering meetings at the last second, tying up my hair in an attempt at professionalism while frantically opening Teams. This isn’t me. I’m normally very organized and an efficient worker.
But what is normal? What should we be expecting of ourselves, of each other, as this miserable pandemic rounds its first anniversary? The chorus last March was “Have grace for yourselves and each other, this is a traumatic event and no one should be expected to carry on as normal.” And yet, students have research papers, so we have reference questions. Committees continue to meet, timesheets continue to be due. Liaisons gotta liaise.
It reminds me of grief. Some workplaces grant bereavement leave, usually around 3 days to deal with funerals and other logistics. And then what? You’re back at work on Monday, and even if your coworkers give you some leeway for your emotional recovery, you’ve still got emails waiting for you.
When you’re the grieving person, it seems so inappropriate to be carrying on as normal. After a great loss, you walk around in a fog and it’s hard to believe that the people around you are having great days. You feel like screaming, “My person is gone. How can I be expected to bag my groceries, let alone present at a faculty meeting?”
Even if you haven’t lost loved ones to Covid, we’ve all suffered great losses this year. Financial, emotional, social, professional. And our society (I’m inclined to blame capitalism, personally) leaves no room to stop and grieve these losses. As if 10 months of constant, universal loss is something we can get used to.
I can get used to the feeling of a mask on my face, to the sensation of teaching to a webcam. But I will not get used to the daily loss of thousands of citizens, nor will I become numb to frightening attacks on our democracy, like at the beginning of this month. Resilience may get us through this catastrophe, but who will we be after?
I don’t know about you all, but I still need grace. And I will be continuing to dispense it to my students and colleagues this year; no matter how long it’s been, this is not our new normal, and our hearts know it. This post has more questions than answers, but it’s my attempt to hold space for loss, even as a new semester swirls around us.
Last month, my institution hosted a workshop on facilitating discussions on difficult issues, specifically in the classroom. We discussed how to engage in constructive dialogue and practiced handling unanticipated remarks that fall outside of our comfort zone.
The first half of the workshop focused on active listening. The facilitator acknowledged that listening is hard; it’s a low-incentive, low-reward task, but it’s important. She shared a few tips for being a better listener:
Slow down. Aim to contemplate ideas, not to come to agreement in one conversation. Tell yourself, “Nothing has to be settled tonight.”
Give your full attention. If it’s a controversial or personal subject, put your phone on silent and try to be present.
Work from the assumption that all voices have something valuable to contribute. Be sincerely curious about and even grateful for what they have to say.
She also shared tips for speaking to be heard:
Be transparent about your own positions.
Slow down. Again, aim to explain, not persuade or convince.
Use your own language and where possible, ground your ideas in stories about yourself, that connect your ideas to your underlying values.
Move away from media talking points.
We also discussed the characteristics of a Brave Space, as coined by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. We want to foster a space of respect for one another, where students are listening to understand, and are willing to experience some discomfort so they can learn.
But when someone says something problematic, either before class or as part of a class discussion, it can be easy to freeze and not know how to respond. I know my first instinct is to correct the record as quickly as possible, but that may shut the student down or make them feel ganged up on, which is not productive.
The workshop suggested that in a moment of conflict, suggest to the whole class, “Let’s take a moment to breathe.” Inserting a moment to pause before responding is important, and gives us a chance to choose the best response.
If you’re like me and you devour advice columns like sugary cereal, you may be familiar with the idea of “scripts” for awkward social situations. What do I say when my neighbor makes a weird comment about my body? How do I ask my boss for a raise? This workshop shared strategies and scripts to address unpopular comments from students:
“I understand why you’d feel that way/That’s a common view. But what if…”
“Under what circumstances might you feel/act in the same way?”
“It can be tough bringing up an opposing view. It helps us better understand why this is such a difficult issue to discuss.”
“I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of that comment, but that stereotype is harmful because…”
Validate someone’s feelings even if their perspective is not based in fact.
Focus on what was problematic in a student’s comment, rather than calling someone racist or sexist.
Address your comments to the class as a whole, rather than zeroing in on the student who spoke.
There is clearly a difference between dissent and bigotry. The workshop emphasized that expressions of hatred or contempt are not to be tolerated in the classroom, and when a student uses slurs or other microaggressions, that should be interrupted. For example, you might remind the students of the established rules of engagement for the class: “Using a word like that is not showing respect to your classmates.”
Their final takeaways:
Accept that you can’t make everyone feel comfortable all the time.
Accept that you may not be able to change a student’s values.
If you offend someone, own it and do better next time.
Don’t expect to be a perfect facilitator all the time: We are all unlearning and growing!
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?