Scenes from the start of the fall semester

I work at an institution with no mask mandate and no vaccine requirement. The emphasis is on personal responsibility, sphere of influence, and individual liberty. Our Access Services workers have kept our building open over the last year and a half while I and my other liaison services colleagues have been able to work from home, parent at home, teach virtual school to our children from home, etc. We returned to the library part-time this summer and full time now that the semester is in full swing.

The fall semester started on Monday. Masked and unmasked students enter the building in a surging mass looking for computers between classes, a place to sit and study, a break from the oppressive heat, or a working printer. I’m sitting in my office with my door closed fielding class requests from instructors who may or may not want a virtual option. Because of our institution’s politics it’s a weird dance of “we can offer…” and “what are your options?” We can’t come out and say “That’s way too many unmasked students in a classroom built for 30.”

I have virtual meetings with colleagues down the hall. We get together to go on masked walks–unmasked if the crowds are thin–and it’s odd but better than nothing. We are all in sneakers or birks and our comfiest workwear. Everyday brings a new administrative email about vaccine incentives, testing options, contact tracing, flow-charts for classroom instructors, temporary remote work guidelines, etc. We all feel at turns hopeful, fearful, gaslit, angry, and exhausted.

I don’t know what fall semester will look like in 2 weeks much less 2 months from now, and I mean that in terms of work, family, health, and general well-being. I don’t do well with broad uncertainty (hello, anxiety!) but it’s the way of life right now. I’ll take joy in a well-placed LEGO set, an iced coffee, or a day off work to go to an empty beach with my family. I will do what I need to do to do my job well and keep my family safe and healthy.

What is your fall semester looking like this year?

Trust and Teaching

In late April I (virtually) presented alongside Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Elvis Bakaitis at the CUNY Mina Reese Library’s event, Towards a Critical, Decolonized Pedagogy: An Interactive (Re)Visioning. Shawn presented a thought-provoking and compelling search for ancestral connection through pedagogy, while my portion of the workshop centered on the idea of trust in critical pedagogy.

I view trust in an educational context as both essential and fragile. It’s difficult to build and sustain and can be easily broken, but without it we don’t have the kind of connected needed in critical, engaged learning environments to foster transformative learning. One of my favorite definitions of trust comes from Judith V. Jordan, who describes it as “confidence in the relationship.” Seeking help and connection and expressing vulnerability is scary, and it’s what we all do as learners: share what we don’t know, ask for what we want to learn, and hope that we’ve connected enough with others (our peer learners, our teachers) for them to support us through the process. If there is no confidence in the relationship between learner and teacher or learner and learner, then there is no trust that this is an educational experience where everyone learns and grows as people.

A few weeks after this talk I received an unsolicited email from a sales representative at an academic-adjacent company touting a new software product that would help teachers track and record the “time [students] spent reading, working with sources, [and] taking notes” online, all in the name of good assessment. Shortly after receiving that email I learned about faculty who review hundreds of video recordings of students taking exams because the proctoring software flags them as potential cheaters for not looking at the screen. These are students who are working out complex problems on a sheet of paper at their desk. After that eye-opener, I then attended a pedagogical discussion that devolved into a lamentation over cheating (not the point of the discussion) and the inability for instructors to preserve the integrity of the test. And just last week I reviewed dozens of syllabi for a curriculum mapping project where the tone and language used automatically assumed students were going to cheat or try to scam their course professor.

The trust that could/should have existed between learners and teachers or learners and learners has instead been placed in browser lockdown software and surveillance technology. Students are assumed to be scammers, professors have to protect their exams, and any energy that could be put towards meaningful learning is instead diverted to cheating prevention. I know this is not the norm in every class or with every professor at every campus. But it is a mindset that I find particularly insidious in higher education.

This mindset sees rampant cheating as the real problem, not the 300 person classes students have to take their first year at college. This mindset characterizes students as dishonest and unmotivated to learn, when really they might be juggling work, school, and family and struggling to buy books. This mindset assumes professors are just out to catch you when do something wrong, rather than help you get what you need to learn. It’s a mindset without trust or connection, one that is easily monetized by education-adjacent companies whose profits grow as learning suffers. The inertia of practices in higher education is strong, and I fear that we are hurtling towards more distrust in teaching and learning. But I find solace in the small moments of trust I have with learners and teachers, in the instances of grace that others extend to me and that I can reciprocate, and in the small spaces after class (that are all virtual these days) where students ask questions and we can just talk as people, connect, and trust.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.

What Does Engagement Mean?

Our library now has an Inclusive Pedagogy Community of Practice (CoP) spearheaded by my excellent colleague, Emily Deal. Next week we’re meeting to discuss Not Enough Voices, a chapter from An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. It’s such a rich chapter that I fear I won’t do it justice by summarizing it. But one part of Morris’ chapter has stuck with me this week:

Today most students of online courses are more users than learners. The majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines…We believe that efficiency is a virtue…But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Sean Michael Morris, Not Enough Voices

I think about these lines, and the ways in which Morris, himself an instructional designer and teacher, ties so much of instructional design to operant conditioning. We want so desperately to set up the right conditions for learning– the settings, learning management systems, virtual classrooms, and online learning experiences that will best help the greatest number of students engage in learning and succeed. In working towards what we think is best for all we have a tendency to standardize, to teach towards the “average learner” (whoever that might be). Yet learners are not a uniform body, nor is it possible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

By approaching our teaching using universal design for learning principles, we attempt to make learning environments, systems, and experiences as accessible and positive as we can for as many people as possible. But is it enough? We’ve created space for greater numbers of learners to engage in learning, but what does it mean to engage?

In the forward to An Urgency of Teachers, Audrey Watters writes:

We all spend much of our day now clicking on things, a gesture that is far too often confused with “engagement.” (“Engagement” — a word that has come to mean “measurable” and “marketable.”)

Audrey Watters

This hit a little too close to home. As an instruction coordinator and teacher I’m building asynchronous lessons, videos, research guides, and other teaching materials. I strive to be inclusive in my creation of these materials, but what kind of engagement am I hoping to achieve? Does making something interactive and clickable automatically make it engaging? Do we measure engagement by how many students watched a video or went through a lesson? Are they truly “engaged” when they do so or are they just going through the motions. Click here. Watch this. Submit your answer. Repeat.

Those who see learners as users as Morris mentions in his chapter would have us focus on fostering engagement by eliminating barriers to entry, ease of use of interfaces, and simplifying actions like accessing course materials and submitting assignments. An LMS with a good user interface is helpful, but it’s not all that’s needed for learning. Learning isn’t a UX problem to be solved. It’s not about personas. It’s too complicated to generalize because it is so individual. Engagement is individual. The way one student engages with material, with their instructor, and with their peers may be radically different than the next student. One student listens intently, another asks questions, still another writes and draws and ends up with copious pages of notes. Engagement can be so many different actions–some visible, some not.

My team and I have invested hundreds of hours over the past 6 months on creating online learning experiences that we hope will engage students, make them think and help them clarify their own thoughts and knowledge. Yes, we wanted to make them interactive, but we also wanted to give space for students to reflect, digest, and brainstorm. This has meant relying on offline methods like worksheets, reflection questions, and pauses to brainstorm. Sure, they can turn these in to their instructors for “proof” that they did the work, but that’s not what’s important. For us, what’s important is that they spend the time engaging with the material in a meaningful way. It’s probably not always going to happen, but we want to create the space for it to happen.

One thing we’re still wrestling with is how to foster engagement among students in an asynchronous library world, because there is so much students learn from one another in synchronous learning. We’ll continue to ponder this as we strive to make our online learning experiences more inclusive, more robust, and more engaging than just clicking.