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.

Time out! In defense of taking vacation

During a bit of downtime last week, I sat down with my calendar and penciled in a few long weekends and a full week of vacation this summer. 15 whole days! During most of 2020, it felt “pointless” to take a vacation if I couldn’t go anywhere new or visit anyone I loved. At most, I took a personal day here and there, and one family trip in August when Covid rates in my area were low.

So as the summer approaches, and many of us in academic libraries anticipate quieter days in the stacks or our home offices, let’s talk vacation. 

No-Vacation Nation

First, you’ve probably heard that in general, Americans don’t use most of their vacation. Our country doesn’t guarantee paid leave and paid holidays, and those who do have jobs with PTO leave a lot of days unused every year. Even if we do take time off, a lot of us struggle with guilt around using vacation time, or truly unplugging while we’re away.

For most of us, the summer is the quietest and easiest time to take vacation. And yet I still felt kinda funny requesting off, worrying how it would affect my colleagues’ workloads, whether it was even “worth it.” I thought I’d share the anxious objections that came up when I considered PTO, and how I addressed them:

It’s unfair to my coworkers

Do you feel like when you take a day off, you’re screwing over everyone else in your office? If the culture in your library is a microcosm of the “No-Vacation Nation,” it can make it really difficult to take guilt-free time off. But I’ve noticed that taking vacation is contagious (in a good way). When one employee (especially a manager!) ensures they use their leave each year, it affirms that it’s okay to take a break.

At my library, we work a hybrid of remote and in-person shifts on a rotation, which means there is a little extra coordinating to do if someone wants to take a week away. My fellow librarians have been great about communicating and covering for each other. Could you team up with a trusted coworker, and plan to cover for each other while the other person takes a needed break?

There’s too much work to do / If I leave, the whole place falls apart

Let me gently remind you that we work in libraries. The work is not life or death. I know you care very much about your work, your students, and your colleagues, and that care is a beautiful thing. In order to keep giving that authentic care, you’ve got to avoid burnout, and taking scheduled leave is one way to help with that. As Alex wrote recently, you gotta fix your own mask before you metaphorically help someone with their own. 

Also, girl. It is not a virtue to be so irreplaceable that you can’t leave the office for a few days. 

Working from home is restful enough

Do I even need to entertain this hesitation? If the tone of ACRLog’s blog posts this year is any indication, we’re all working longer and more stressful hours this year, and just because we’re doing it in sweatpants doesn’t mean it’s rest. 

I can’t go anywhere

If you can’t travel, which most of us can’t, how can we make a staycation actually restful? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Unplug: I intend to sign out of my email on my phone, and tell my partner about the intention for accountability.
  • Plan something: Get some pleasure reading, or devote a day to exploring an outdoor space you’ve never been before.
  • This article from the Chronicle had some other great ideas for restorative breaks at home. 

My family can’t take off with me

My spouse has very little PTO, and uses most of it for their creative career. I’ve had to accept that I could either only take time off when they can, or become comfortable taking more breaks on my own. In past years, I’ve used my solo vacation time to visit faraway friends, do long-haul craft projects with my mom, and spend the time on activities my partner isn’t interested in. These have been some of my most rejuvenating experiences in the last few years!

Do I deserve a vacation? (Spoiler: Yes!)

I recognize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege, as someone with a full time job and good PTO. If you’re in the same boat, remember that vacation time is part of the calculation of your compensation. As Renee Graham wrote directly to my anxieties (and for the Boston Globe, I guess): “Don’t leave your vacations on the table. You’ve worked for it, and it is owed to you. In these difficult and disorienting times, a vacation taken is not a vacation wasted.”

To be honest, I was nervous to ask off for the dates I did, and I was nervous to write this post. The academic culture of burnout and overwork as a signal of your virtuous commitment to education is really hard to push against. But please take breaks. Real ones, where you pretend your library doesn’t exist for 3, 4, or 5 whole days. Do it for your coworkers, so they feel inspired to take breaks too, do it for your students, who need models of healthy academic life, and do it for you.

Working Like Normal?

Nelly Antoniadou on Unsplash

Man, am I struggling. 

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.

Facilitating Class Conversations: Learning to Listen

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!

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.