Another post on burnout, or A pep talk on cultivating an empathic attitude

I’ve been in this profession long enough to know that it’s often around this time of year that I usually start to feel really burnt out. Looking back through some of my old ACRLog posts, I found one from some time ago where I reflected on this very feeling…and tried to see past it. It makes sense that a transitional period or even a breaking point can follow the pace and workload of the ever-hectic academic year. 

Of course, this wasn’t a typical academic year. The pandemic–and all its related professional and personal stressors and uncertainties–exacerbated the strains we all regularly endure. As a result, I think my sense of end-of-year burnout has been amplified, as well. I’m referring to the sense of fatigue, detachment, lack of motivation, and difficulty focusing that are typical hallmarks. But what strikes me most this time around relates to my capacity for empathy. 

I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person. In recent months, though, I’ve been feeling that my capacity for empathy has diminished. I’m thinking that the course of the last year and a half has made me feel more emotionally strained and, therefore, more emotionally ungenerous or inflexible than I’ve felt in some time. Because I’m closer to my own limits, I feel more emotionally stingy with others.

I’ve generally taken pains to practice empathy and considered it to be a foundational characteristic of my personality and–in my professional sphere–my teaching, leadership, and managerial styles. Empathy fuels my interest in and perspectives on the world: it motivates me, facilitates effective communication, and strengthens collaboration. So to feel diminished in my capacity for empathy feels like a pretty big deal. 

If you’re at all familiar with the research literature, media coverage, or even just the general conversation on burnout, you know that it can show up in different ways or arenas and that strategies to address it may vary accordingly. These range from creating space for breaks and reflection and practicing self-care and compassion to reducing workload and setting and maintaining boundaries and much more. Of course, individual strategies can only take us so far; organizational approaches are needed for wider cultural change. 

While none of these strategies are a surprise, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement or sustain. So as I sit here at more or less the midpoint of the academic summer–lamenting how much of my “break” is already behind me, how much I have to accomplish, and how much of a real break I still need–I’m thinking about how to recharge, assert my agency, and affirm the meaning of my work again, like all the articles say to do. It’s here that I begin to wonder if my symptom might, in fact, also be my solution. Rather than waiting for the stars to align and my capacity to return to me fully restored, I’m thinking instead about how to pursue it–how to intentionally cultivate empathy, even in small ways, and reflect on the value it adds to my outlook, my work, my relationships. If I can re-frame it as a choice to make, a habit to practice, and an attitude to cultivate, then it becomes a path I can follow. Perhaps focusing my attention on taking steps to reclaim my capacity for empathy will be precisely the treatment I need to address my burnout.

How are y’all faring? How do you restore or maintain your capacities when burnout strikes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

How are you doing? (part 2)

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Last April, some ACRLog team members reflected on how things were going in our respective libraries. At that time, we were in the very early days of the pandemic and had no idea what was ahead of us, or for how long. Now, over a year later, we’re all still navigating an uncertain and stressful landscape. We thought we’d pause to reflect again for an updated view of how things are going where we work.  

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

Alex Harrington: All our students are back, although instructors may be using more remote work than they used to. College of Medicine employees are encouraged to continue working from home if they can. There are temperature-checking iPads at the entrance, but nobody is posted there anymore to ensure that people use them. Our library hours were cut and I think they’re going to stay that way, but it wasn’t a drastic cut.

Emily Hampton Haynes: The campus is open to faculty, staff, and students only. As a community college with only a few main entrances, it’s easy to manage access to the campus through two designated screening areas. Most of our classes are fully online, and about 25% of classes meet on campus (prioritizing classes that have an in-person component, such as science labs, art studio, and nursing classes). 

In the library specifically, we work a rotating shift schedule where only one person from each department is on-campus at the same time. For example, I’m on campus for 4-hour reference shifts Thursday evenings and Friday mornings, and the rest of the time I’m working remotely. In the last year, about 95% of the info lit classes I’ve taught have been online, synchronous instruction through Teams, with some tutorial videos and a handful of in-person classes. Teaching through a mask is no joke, I don’t envy those who have to do it every day!

Jen Jarson: We don’t have many students on campus at this point. Most classes are still happening online this semester. Some classes have in-person components that bring students to campus–a few classes that are regularly scheduled to be fully or partially in-person and some that occasionally require students to come in for exams or particular learning experiences. Our campus doesn’t have any residential facilities, so while students are welcome to come to campus to make use of spaces and resources, they are rarely just incidentally hanging around. As a result of all this, traffic in the library has been very low. Our library space is open, but on a reduced schedule because of COVID protocols related to staffing (although there isn’t demand for more hours given the very low on-campus traffic). Our information literacy instruction program is entirely online–and working quite well that way, thankfully. Same for reference/research consultation. Our institution is still requiring that we quarantine returned materials and we have restrictions in place regarding accessing/borrowing print materials due to our agreement with the HathiTrust to enable their Emergency Temporary Access Service. So collections-related services (like physical course reserves, a big deal for us) have taken the biggest hit, I think.

Maura Smale: Our campus is still mostly closed — there are two buildings that have some face to face classes, mostly in the allied health departments and a few other hands-on lab classes, with probably less than 10% of students coming to campus this semester. The library is within a complex of 4 connected buildings that aren’t open to students, and our space is still closed. We’re still providing all library services online, including 100% online instruction and reference, and haven’t yet started accepting returns of or circulating print materials; our textbook reserve collection, which has historically seen heavy use, isn’t available. Some library faculty and staff are coming in to work in our offices on a voluntary basis, mostly for the change of scenery (that’s definitely the case for me, and I’ve been working in my office one day/week).

Veronica Arellano Douglas: Our main library remains open, but with limited hours, while our subject libraries are open Monday-Friday only, again, with limited hours. My colleagues in Access Services are the people keeping the building open, while a few folks from other departments come in once or twice a week to work on tasks that can only be in the building. My department, Liaison Services, is still working from home. The university’s Spring semester classes just ended, making the campus seem even quieter than it already was earlier in the semester. Most classes were online this spring and that will continue to be the case for the summer session. 

What do you anticipate the Fall will look like for your library?

Maura: As of this writing my university (the City University of New York) is aiming for 25% in-person instruction in the Fall, with each college making its own specific plans. I’m really hoping that CUNY will require all students who will be on campus in the Fall to be vaccinated (and honestly I’d prefer that requirement for employees, too), but there’s been no decision on that yet. For CUNY a big concern is public transportation — nearly all students and employees travel to our almost-entirely commuter colleges on subways and buses, and many folx are still understandably hesitant to return to mass transit. At my college it’s likely that the majority of face to face courses will remain in the two buildings that are currently hosting classes, and it’s not clear yet what parts of the buildings where our library is located will be accessible to students. In the library we are moving forward with plans to begin circulating print materials again (grab and go); instruction and reference will stay fully online in the Fall. It seems unlikely that we’ll be open for study space or computer use (there are other computer labs on campus that will be open), though our plans may change over the Summer as (hopefully) more of NYC is vaccinated. 

Jen: At this point, my institution is planning to return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person instruction. (Of course, that’s dependent on the status of the pandemic at that point.) It’s unclear how social distancing guidelines will be revised, though. If the guidelines stay at 6 feet or are only partially reduced, we won’t be able to accommodate that many in-person classes given limited classroom sizes at my campus. Those decisions will impact how many students are on campus, but either way we’re expecting to expand our library hours back to normal, or near-normal. We anticipate that mandates to quarantine returned materials and other restrictions on collections will be lifted, so we’re excited at the prospect of restoring our physical course reserves service which so many of our students count on. We still have a lot to figure out–our information literacy instruction program, our space, our staffing schedule, and more–because so much of that hinges on what expectations the university sets about distancing and other COVID-related guidelines. 

Veronica: Honestly, I have no clue. Right now we are very much in an information vacuum. Being a public institution means that so much of our administrative design making is based on state-mandates and given the governor’s propensity to open everything it seems likely we will be on campus in the fall barring no major changes in the medical situation (which is a huge unknown). We’re trying to plan space arrangements within the library and our classrooms and encourage faculty and librarians to continue to use online lessons and online synchronous instruction. In some ways my biggest fear is that we will just go back to work as it was pre-pandemic, having changed nothing about the ways in which we accommodate worker needs to create safe, healthy work environments. We’ll see, I guess. 

What have we learned during the pandemic that may enrich our work practices as we transition toward a time when in-person, on-campus engagement is more common?

Angie Rathmel: There’s been very deliberate attention to this question at my campus, which aims to resume mostly in-person learning this Fall. My library colleagues noted how successfully we have collectively been able to provide our services, even with the majority of our workforce remote. I supervise a unit where remote and onsite work during the pandemic split out at about 85% – 15% respectively. This small but essential in-person staff presence forged unofficial leadership channels, required a more deliberate communication style, and created a distinctive experience of collective trust. All of these I think can enrich our practices as we are more increasingly together in person. One would think these successes, combined with the practical and technological efficiencies and productivity gains, would lead us to normalize remote work in ways we haven’t previously. But I’m discovering how counter that idea runs to the prevailing notion of “returning to normal”. I’m still trying to reconcile this disconnect, but feel strongly that enriching our work practices requires us to do more than overlay these lessons onto a former normal. The lesson that I feel we need to keep learning through practice is the awareness of how our decisions and actions impact others.If we were to practice more generous thinking as we try to answer this question, it might look less like “what did I learn?” and more like “what did I learn about your experience that was different than mine?” or “How did my experience shape yours and vice versa.” See also “how can we best support one another…”

Hailley Fargo: As a librarian who helps to host events and workshops outside the classroom, the pandemic really pushed me and my colleagues to think more intentionally/strategically about what events we could support in an online environment. We worked more closely with student clubs and offered smaller scale events like zine workshops. It allowed us to learn more about the student pandemic experience and host events where every participant was really jazzed and excited to be there. I hope we can take this lesson and bring it into a more hybrid and or in-person situation. It’s nice to be able to focus on meaningful outreach while also coming to a better understanding of our student community.

Veronica: I’ve learned how important childcare, eldercare, and other kinds of full-time caregiving (which includes K-12 school and caring for adults with special needs) is to all of the work that we do. Without it, our work is extremely difficult to impossible. My biggest hope is that we start to pay caregivers what they are worth. Secondary to that, I’d like to continue to see flexible scheduling for all employees who are caregivers and parents, who suffer from illness, who have disabilities, and who need the kind of flexibility we’ve had this year to do the kind of work that keeps our libraries running. I take a break from work everyday to pick up my son from school at 3pm because there is no after-school care in a pandemic. When we get home I fix him a snack, get him set up with something to do or watch, then I go back to work. This would never have happened pre-pandemic, but what will happen post-pandemic? Will I still be able to pick him up and continue my work at home everyday? 3 times a week? Once a week?

What practices do you want to keep when you return to campus? What do you want to leave behind?  

Alex: I very much want to continue to work from home some of the time. The extra time in close proximity to my cat and the ability to get up and do a housework task in the middle of the day (so I don’t have to tackle it when I get home) has done wonders for my mental health. Certain work is easier to get done at home. Also, in March 2020, we implemented weekly check-in meetings on Monday mornings, to update the rest of our location’s library employees on important matters, and to make sure everyone is doing generally okay. I think we should keep them, because it connects us and makes sure nobody misses important information or deadlines, and gives us a chance to share the good and the bad.

I won’t mind leaving behind virtual-only instruction. Some workshops and orientations, I just do better in person. I like to walk around, gesture a lot (which gets cut off by my webcam), and see reactions to my jokes. (I fully support turning off your camera if you Just Can’t Right Now, but I also feed on laughter and need to be validated while I teach.)

Emily:

  • Want to keep: The slower, contemplative pace for planning instruction. The creativity and problem-solving of making online learning materials. The awareness and respect for colleagues’ and students’ lives outside of the workplace.
  • Want to leave: The isolation from my coworkers, the confusion and hurt feelings from all-virtual communication, the two hour Teams meetings with no stretch breaks.

Jen: I agree with what my colleagues are noting here about compassion and flexibility. Additionally, I’m grateful for the new techniques that teaching online has given me an opportunity to explore. I recognize that I might be an outlier here! I’m as Zoomed out as anyone, of course. But the challenge of trying to engage students in the online classroom has actually helped me think about how to revitalize my in-person instruction, too. I definitely plan to sustain (and hopefully grow) some of the techniques I’ve been using. 

Maura: We were a 100% onsite all the time workplace before the pandemic, and I’m hoping we can keep some flexibility in all of our work moving forward. This is likely to be complicated by the different classifications that library workers hold at my university: we have library faculty, what the university terms professional staff, IT staff, and civil service staff, represented by two different unions. While of course we haven’t been able to offer every library service remotely during the pandemic, everyone has had work to do and everyone’s contributed to keeping library resources and services available for our patrons. I’m committed to advocating for all library workers to have the flexibility to do some work from home in the future.

I do look forward to seeing my colleagues in person again, and to having meetings where we’re all in the same room. I’ve tried to be very mindful about communication this year, not calling a meeting when an email will suffice, and not sending too many emails if I can help it. But communication has still been a huge challenge, especially considering all of my colleagues’ different commitments, with some folx more Zoom-bound than others. Once we all have a more regular presence in the physical library I hope that communication will get easier.

Hailley: I want to keep the boundaries I have been able to create between my work and my personal life (including hobbies!). I don’t know why the pandemic has aided so much in creating that separation but I hope to maintain it as we return to in-person work. Similar to Emily, I’m excited to leave behind the solo work; I’m so excited to run into colleagues in the library and have those spur of the moment chats that can result in a new idea or collaboration.

Veronica: I want to continue to offer virtual options for student consultations and classes. I think it  meets a need we’ve always had as a large urban university where so many students and instructors commute long distances. It takes into account everyone’s personal needs and life situations.

How can we best support one another as we prepare for and navigate this transition back to campuses? 

Alex: Flexibility in all possible ways. It is very important to remember that everyone is going to recover and transition in their own way, in their own order, and at their own pace. Communication, too, will continue to be key. This includes: asking others about their comfort level with certain procedures, letting people know where you are in the transition process, and expressing your needs and boundaries while hearing others’.

Angie: I keep thinking about how the pandemic has reinforced a practice for how our individual actions and responsibilities primarily protect and support others more than ourselves — my mask protects you and your mask protects me. Keeping this “other” focus in our communications, in our decision-making reflections, and in our individual actions is the best way I see to collectively support one another and collectively prepare to transition back to campus (or in any change, maybe). 

As a sort of “other” when it came to in-person-work, introverts gained a level of ease and privilege in remote-work.  Those who have been working in person throughout the pandemic (both introverts and extroverts) are now that “other” as the majority transition back. If we don’t provide opportunities to surface the nuanced needs of each “other” in all kinds of circumstances, we won’t know how to support or fully benefit from our learning.  Creating space for both those shared and distinctive experiences could be a particularly healing act we all need right now.

Emily: “Grace” is going to be my refrain as we transition back to campus. We don’t know what Fall will look like at our community college yet — although administration wants us 100% in person, their decision will be based on numbers and recommendations from the county health department. So as of now a lot feels still up in the air. And that’s why having grace for one another is such an important guiding principle for me. What this could look like in practice:

  • Flexibility around arrival time – We’ve all gotten used to our 30 second commute, and transitioning back is going to be an adjustment. I’d like to see redundancy in scheduling for the first hour of the day, so that opening the library is not on the shoulders of just one person.
  • Social support for using vacation leave – I discussed this in my last post, but with the return of students and our old routines, PTO will be an essential form of self-care. I want my coworkers to know that I’m willing to cover for them if they need a break at the desk or a full day off, even when the semester gets busy.
  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt – I could see friction arising around sharing work space again as we return to campus. But let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt when they inconvenience us, or when a comment lands weird in an email or note left on the reference desk. I intend to not take things personally, to ask for clarification when I’m confused or hurt, and let the little things go when I can.
  • Patience with students – Sure, there are things that bug me about student behaviors in the library: students that wait til the last minute and stress me out with their urgency, ask me to do their homework for them, or make appointments and don’t show up. I want to extend them grace too, and remember that this will be a big adjustment for them as much as it is for me, after a year of profound trauma and chronic stress.

Maura: I am +1 on everything that my fellow ACRLoggers have said: flexibility, patience, compassion, and just overall emphasizing care in all of our interactions — with each other, with students and others on campus — is what I’m keeping top of mind as we start getting back into the physical library. I’m so proud of the work we’ve all done, we’ve all supported each other through this very difficult year, keeping safety at the forefront. And while I know there are many challenges ahead, I think we’re in the best place we could be to address them. I’m also going to continue to encourage my colleagues (and myself!) to use our vacation days — even if we’re not going to be traveling during the summer, I hope we can all take some time to rest.

Veronica: I think that we need to understand that not everyone is going to acclimate to post-pandemic life in the same way. Be kind and understanding to your colleagues, or as Emily put it, show them a measure of grace. Some folks might not be comfortable sitting in a small meeting room, others might not want to go to lunch as often, and still others may want to hug everyone they meet. Faculty and students will need time to adjust to in person relationships again and our virtual connections may start to suffer a bit. We will just need to remind ourselves that everyone is adjusting in their own way.

How are you doing? How are things going at your library? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

A hook to grab onto: Creating context cues in online instruction

In a recent meeting, I found myself yet again wondering if I had already shared a particular bit of news with my colleagues or was I thinking of the previous meeting? My schedule, probably much like yours, is usually full of meetings. In the pre-pandemic world, my schedule reflected a mix of online and in-person meetings that were peppered in among the classes I taught (almost exclusively in person), hallway chats, and so on. A meeting frequently also meant a change of scenery, whether just down the hall or across town. These days, my physical surroundings from meeting to meeting are largely unchanged: I’m typically at the makeshift desk in my makeshift home office. Just the link that I click on changes. Even on the days when I’m physically on campus per our rotating schedule, meetings still happen online from my office. 

It’s no great surprise that the sameness of my physical environment contributes to my sense that time is simultaneously sticky and slippery. Yet it felt like a moment of realization to first recognize its impact on my ability to recall–or perhaps situate is the better word–details. In such moments of memory lapse, I’m struck by how much I have typically relied on context cues from my physical space to trigger my memory. I might think back to how a room was configured, where I was sitting, where my colleagues were sitting, and so on in order to make a connection or dig up a detail. As I frequently find myself in the same chair at the same desk overlooking the same window, I no longer have such easy triggers to help me differentiate. 

As my information literacy instruction schedule kicks into high gear for the semester, I now find myself wondering how the sameness of physical space is impacting students. My institution is currently offering in-person and online classes. We’re doing all of our information literacy instruction online. Of course, the impacts of the pandemic on student learning are broad and deep. Here I’m thinking, though, specifically about the physical space from which students are engaging in their online classes and its impact on their experience, as well as their perception of their experience.  

This all makes me think back to an interaction I had with a student at my former institution a number of years ago. In that library, we frequently scheduled information literacy instruction in the library’s main computer lab. Often, then, students would visit the same space for any research instruction. On one occasion while chatting with a student before class began, he said to me that he already knew what we were going to do that day because he had been in this lab before. When I probed further, I learned that the student had attended sessions led by different librarians for courses in other disciplines. Yet the student assumed that he already knew what our class would entail. This student’s comment could mean many things, of course. Perhaps the comment suggests that the student was already able to transfer important takeaways about the research process from those sessions to the project at hand. Or perhaps the comment suggests that the student perceived all library research tools and strategies as the same and wasn’t able to distinguish between them in the nuanced way that librarians perceive them. But the student’s comment specifically referred to the association he was making between the content/learning goals and the physical space leading me to infer that the sameness of the space primed the student to think that he was about to learn the same material or participate in the same activities. 

With this new lens on my own online experience, I’m thinking anew about this student’s comment. I’ve often reflected on how a physical classroom, meeting room, or library area is arranged to promote (or inhibit) engagement and communication or guide behavior, but I haven’t before given much thought to how our spaces (whether physical or online) perpetuate a feeling of sameness or carve out a feeling of uniqueness. As our students connect to what may feel like an endless string of Zoom rooms and with no ability to influence the physical spaces from which our students are connecting, I’m now thinking about the small moves I can make to help create a hook for students to grab onto–the little things I can do to help situate a memory, trigger recall, and facilitate connections. In addition to thinking about the learning goals to guide our session and the active learning experiences to achieve them, then, I’m also thinking more about how I pose questions, design slides, format handouts, even modulate my voice to help facilitate context cues and triggers for students. How do you create hooks for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.