The End of the Beginning

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill

Today marks the end of our school year at Prairie State College, and the end of my first school year as an academic librarian. In the meantime, I took an online instruction course that emphasized reflective writing. Therefore, as an ACRLog FYAL blogger and in the spirit of reflective writing, I would like to reflect on my first year.

In the beginning of the school year my daughter and I were wrapping up our fourth trimester. She was the only one in the house who was well rested and my husband and I were bleary eyed and foggy. I have ample events that I did things, but I don’t remember doing them. Fast forward a couple of months and by late October, early November she was sleeping through the night.

It took about a month for my brain to work again and I have a better recollection of the end of the fall semester than the beginning. With remote work, regular communication to faculty and students was critical. To accomplish this I picked a number of modalities, hoping that one would “stick.” We now have a monthly faculty newsletter (which apparently are trendy again?), a blog for students with practical tips on how to navigate college, regular social media posts, events (currently done online), and a book club. I attended a number of webinars and a couple of conferences virtually. Between austerity measures at Prairie State and the fact that I’m nursing, I was able to attend these events because they were virtual. My hope is that even after the world is a little safer this will still be an option as it removes some boundaries to conferences.

As far as my role as an instructor librarian, I think my first year went about as well as it could during a pandemic professionally. I’m proud of the work that I have done and think that I have laid a solid foundation for the next few years of “new normal.” (Whatever that means.)

As was evident from many of my entries, personally I struggled. I should say that I am in many ways privileged and even with this, it was a tough and scary environment to launch into my new career. I knew many people who got sick and one who died. We had one COVID-19 scare and have been tested multiple times. I’m not the healthiest person and I was petrified to find out what would happen if I got sick. What would happen to my daughter? My vaccine has given me reassurance and the littlest bit of freedom. My fear though is that we won’t take any lessons from this time and will simply move on as though nothing happened. This brings me back to this Winston Churchill quote. This is the end of the beginning of both the pandemic and my new career. The work continues.

How to avoid spreading myself too thin (and still get tenure)

My position is on the tenure track. Our process is shorter than usual at only three years, but there isn’t an expectation of publication. The tenure process revolves around learning to be a better instructor and librarian. Essentially the process is designed to help you grow into your role. I do not have a PhD, and came to librarianship from a different field, so I don’t have experience with academic publishing. During my first master’s, my thesis advisor recommended publishing a portion, but I felt that nobody would take me seriously and never pursued it further. While I would like to continue some of the work I started in my MSLIS and collaborate with colleagues, I was relieved that I would not be on the hamster wheel of “publish or perish” to pay my mortgage.

I still feel pressure though. This pressure isn’t necessarily even coming from my department. I’m a tightly wound person living in late stage capitalism and I do feel pressure to produce. I also have so many more substantial opportunities in my current position than I ever had in my previous field. I can take classes and attend webinars. I have had the opportunity to attend a few conferences between a scholarship and my alma mater. As a result, I’ve spread myself very thin by joining every committee, attending every webinar, and generally saying “yes AND.”

This school year is quickly coming to a close and I have come to two conclusions from saying, “yes AND” to everything:

1) I have learned a tremendous amount
2) I cannot spread myself so thin and do good work or take care of myself

How can I accomplish this?

By the end of this school year I will have put many programs into place; establishing them is the hard part. Maintaining them will be easier.

I created instructional sessions from scratch. Refining them will be easier.

I should not automatically volunteer and instead pause, and let others go first. (I did this for the first time late last week and it felt strange, but I did not take on anything else.)

Ask, “do I really need to join this committee?” I’m new and it is okay to learn how to do my job before joining everything.

Make big goals for the future and put them on the calendar. I want to collaborate with a certain colleague. I put it on the calendar for 2022. There’s a committee I have been eyeing and I put it on the calendar for 2023. Making goals is wonderful, but there is no need to do everything now.

While I know memes are not facts, my various algorithms on social media keep reminding me that perfectionism and ultra independence are trauma responses. Simply because I was required to be perfect in my past career doesn’t mean that I have to be now. It was in the past that I was relied on to do everything. I am being given the permission and ability to learn to do my job and I need to take that and not run with it.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright. 

A Student (Doesn’t) Walk into a Library During a Pandemic

I’ve restarted the library’s blog to create a space just for students. The idea was to help them navigate the college experience through the lens of the library. Naturally we feature heavily in the messaging. I already have a newsletter for faculty, which they seem? to read, but we didn’t have anything for students. The blog already existed, but hadn’t been used in a while. I’m not convinced this is the best platform, but will keep it until I come up with something better. In the meantime, it doesn’t matter how good the content is if the students don’t know it is there.

This brings me to my main challenge…
We continue to struggle to communicate with students as a library. I understand that this was a challenge in the past, but not at this scale. Our library and entire campus is remote. We aren’t even lending books this semester to keep all of us safe. The library is fully virtual, and I have enjoyed communicating this with my fellow faculty members, but getting the message to students has been an uphill battle.

Foot traffic to the library in “the before times” wasn’t an issue and I have heard that it could get downright crowded. This meant simpler forms of communication worked well- word of mouth, a chalkboard, flyers, and bulletin boards. A candy jar with small advertisements attached and bookmarks both worked well in previous positions. None of these methods work right now.

Our students don’t read their emails. Well…I guess I don’t know if that is based on data, or something we anecdotally suspect. I will continue to email them from time to time to cover all of my bases. Email may be the easiest, but I don’t think it is the most effective means of communication for them.

We do know that students aren’t liking our social media posts, but fellow faculty and staff members have. That’s not a problem exactly, but it does mean that we should use Facebook to communicate with our colleagues, not students. About a year ago we started an Instagram account, which has been fun for me as a new user (I learned long ago to cut myself off from more social media, but that’s a different discussion entirely), but we get the most responses from other libraries. Again, this isn’t a problem exactly, but we should use Instagram for that purposes and not assume that our messages will reach students. Twitter is the same way. I’m hesitant to open a TikTok account since as someone approaching middle age, the more I try to be cool, the more I resemble this. I also have privacy concerns about making videos in my own home.

Prairie State College uses D2L as our learning management system for remote classes. Since I am the liaison librarian for a few classes, I can see that students are active and engaged in that space. We have a link to the library and at our request, instructors can put our content there too. I think there is some potential, but the library isn’t a “class” that students have to access via a course shell to participate. It might take some creative thinking to see how we can easily deliver library messages that way.

I’ve also been meeting with departments one by one to share with them what the library can do for them and their students right now. They are always gracious and seem to welcome our services into their virtual classrooms. It is a roundabout way, but one I think has some potential to communicate with students.

I think that there won’t be one way that we better communicate with students right now. It will be several and I need to find the best combination of reaching out via their professors, over D2L, on our own website, via student leaders, and potentially over different (new) forms of social media. This isn’t a problem that I have to solve today or even all at once, but it is something that we can measure and track, which will give us immediate feedback about what works, and what doesn’t.

Your Personal Librarian

My daughter has a book called, Your Personal Penguin by Sandra Boynton, which is one of my favorites. In the book, a penguin follows a hippopotamus asking for its friendship. As with other children’s books, there aren’t many words, but the illustrations hint at the potential for a great friendship. I’ve found Sandra Boynton’s books to be endearing without being saccharine and they have brought light to a dark time.

In the meantime, our library started using a liaison model for instruction this semester. Students seeking degrees are required to take two classes covering the research process. It made sense to assign individual librarians to these sections so that they had one point of contact. We also thought it would make the library less of an abstraction since students can’t set foot inside. As a newbie it would also allow the chance to really get to know a few sections of students and be their personal librarian.

I am working with English and Communications classes. Last semester I did a one-off for a Communications class, but my instruction opportunities were limited as I had only started. That won’t be the case this semester as I have the chance to collaborate with another faculty member to talk about information literacy; how cool is that!? I feel equal parts overwhelmed and excited.

Even though I taught music for years before becoming a librarian, I’m still always amazed by the amount of preparation that goes into even shorter sessions. (Teachers need to be paid more.) I digress; I have a process for instruction, though it is evolving. First, I look at the instructor’s syllabus and create learning outcomes. My learning outcomes have the basic ingredients: an action verb, content, and context. I will admit that mine are a work in progress. It is too easy to create a bad learning outcome, “Learners will understand the thing at the place = success!” Ideally everything supports the learning outcomes, but if they aren’t up to snuff, nothing else will be either.

I want to create activities that reinforce the learning outcomes. I’ve been guilty, especially in my early days of teaching music, of creating activities that don’t justify the outcome. I also need to work on creating just enough scaffolding to provide context without giving the students information overload. Students don’t need to know everything inside of my head. Especially for brief sessions, a surface understanding is enough.

We are still working on assessment in this environment. During more typical semesters, paper surveys are handed out to students. That isn’t a realistic option and we still need to create standardized Google forms exclusively for library instruction. It surprised me though that I have enjoyed creating them.

The more I do this process, the more I can perfect it, and the more I can pivot in real time. Having plans is wonderful, but I want to have the flexibility and the experience to make changes when they aren’t working. As a newer librarian, I’m trying to follow best practices, believing that I need to both know and master the rules before I can break them. That time will come.

My hope is that this liaison model will allow me to be their personal librarian. Unlike the plucky little penguin, I know that we won’t go on adventures together, but I do hope that I can help them on their journey through research. I want to be a face and a name that is reliable and can be counted on. With any luck this model will translate back on campus, allowing the library to represent these same qualities.