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.
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.
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.
I don’t have a title for this post, so I will simply call it, “The December Post.” Our semester finished at the end of last week. While I remember the academic calendar particularly from my high school and undergraduate years, I’m still getting used to it at work. Things slowly ramp up with two peaks: midterms, and then the end of the semester. The last couple of weeks after Thanksgiving were a race to the end that still took me by surprise. Now we can rest, except I can’t really unwind for a number of reasons.
During a normal semester we close up with Finals Fest, which is part celebration of the end of term, and part coping mechanism for all of us. While this event is aimed at students, but we can all use hot chocolate. There is periodic programming, like games and tutoring. I hear that by the end the library staff are full of sugar and then leave in a haze of chocolate.
Since we can’t do any of these things this year, I did my best to replicate the whimsy remotely. I’m proud of this, though turnout was not high:
Virtual Finals Fest Fall 2020
I realize that when I wrote, “As the character Arthur Dent says in the book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “‘Don’t Panic. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day’” I was trying to reassure myself just as much as our students. I’m scared right now, and I didn’t need to take tests during a pandemic!
I remember dry heaving on a test handed to me by my scariest professor, Dr. Adams (name changed) my freshman year. I remember after a semester of studying, staying up late to make that final push. I never pulled an all nighter, but I remember getting little sleep. I remember working in the computer lab (that was a thing) to crank out papers since I wasn’t sent to school with a computer. Lastly, as was common for me, once the stress ended, I got sick first and then a break second. I remember this time of sheer panic well.
My college experience wasn’t ideal in some ways, but I didn’t have to go through this period of time while worried about friends and family. I wasn’t grieving the loss of people who died of this disease, maybe, while getting sick myself. I wasn’t living with extended family who one, by one passed the virus around. I can only sympathize, but haven’t lived this experience. I have to say to our students: you made it. You finished, and that is enough for now. If you are able, get some sleep.
My position is on the tenure track. This is something I find a mixture of daunting, humbling, exciting, and embarrassing. Part of me is still looking for the adult in the room and then realizing it is me. The other part wonders why I have so much cartilage damage in my knees because balance is important.
I’m preparing the documentation for my first tenure review, which is at the end of November. The process is less of the hazing you hear about in many institutions and more focused on growing in your role. This was my goal anyway, and I feel grateful that the process supports my professional development. Having lacked many opportunities for professional development in my previous career, I’ve been taking to every chance possible like a fish to water. I love that I have a job where I am paid to learn so that I can help others do the same. The trouble is that there is so much to learn and so few hours in the day, but this has given me empathy for the information overload that so many of our students experience.
Still, the process of documenting everything I’ve done in four months’ time is daunting. I think that I’m coping with the pandemic by staying busy. Maybe if I pour myself into my work, then I can forget that as of this writing, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center says that 251,029 Americans have died. That’s such a mindboggling number, and I have the magical thinking that if I stay home and work hard, then maybe this isn’t happening.
So, I have collected all of the committee work, webinars, a LibGuide, several videos, social media, a marketing plan, emails, newsletters, memberships, and webinars to show that I’m moving along. The good news is that I am doing just that. I’ve found the process of structuring instructional sessions with learning outcomes first and then working backwards rewarding. The process has been an empowering one, but I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t understand why I get to do meaningful work and be (relatively safe) in the face of so much suffering.