Conferencing while Chronically Ill

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Katie Quirin Manwiller, Evening Public Services and Assessment Librarian at DeSales University, Center Valley, PA.

Travel time, packed schedules, and constant networking can make conferences exhausting for even the most outgoing librarians. For those of us who face mental and physical exhaustion as part of daily life, attending conferences can be a battle. I’m a spoonie librarian who deeply enjoys meeting and sharing with fellow LIS folks, but it takes a lot of extra effort for me to manage my health during professional events. Through navigating various national and regional conferences, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me make conferencing while chronically ill possible.

Some background: I work primarily in reference and instruction at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. I’m interested in assessment, student engagement, professional service, and accessibility in librarianship. I also have a handful of chronic illnesses you probably have never heard of: Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I manage an array of symptoms on a daily basis, such as chronic muscle pain, acute joint pain from dislocations, migraines, chronic fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, nausea/GI upset, dizziness, and exercise intolerance. Sounds fun, right?

Like most chronically ill people, I will struggle with my health for the rest of my life, but the difficulty of that struggle varies greatly from year to year. After my initial hEDS diagnosis in 2013, my symptoms and pain management slowly improved for three years, only to go tumbling backwards in 2017. My health has been largely at a low point since then, which brings me to April 2019, and the inspiration for this post.

I attended ACRL 2019 in Cleveland and as an early-career instruction librarian, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from my peers and be fully immersed in academic librarianship. Unfortunately, my body was not so thrilled. The travel sent me into a POTS flare and I was dizzy with a skyrocketing heart rate every day of the conference. I had a panic attack when someone in a session seemingly subtweeted me after I asked a question and I needed to leave the conference center for a break. ACRL had some helpful services for attendees, like a quiet room, but when my pain was high and my brain fogged I couldn’t even find the room to rest. Long story short, it was hard. Harder than any professional experience of my life.

Since ACRL, I’ve successfully presented at a conference for the first time. And best of all, my experience at ACRL led me to a community of other librarians with illness and disability for which I am deeply grateful (#SpoonieLibrarian or #CripLib on Twitter). I hope to support this community and want to begin by addressing one of my biggest challenges as a professionally-engaged spoonie. Here’s my advice for fellow librarians who conference while chronically ill:

1. Have a buddy. I was able to learn at and enjoy ACRL largely because I had a close friend also attending the conference who has known about my health issues for years. She went to restaurants with me when I was too dizzy to stand in the food truck lines, found a place for me to sit down in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when my heart rate was going crazy, and generally provided emotional support. If you don’t know someone else attending who you feel comfortable disclosing to, let someone in your support network know you will be having a challenging few days and reach out via text, call, whatever when you need to. Bonus tip: share this blog post with that buddy, so they can learn more about what you might be going through and how they can support you.

2. Plan rest time in advance. I do better when I plan rest into my schedule before I arrive at the conference. Plan for a quiet dinner in your hotel instead of attending the dine-out on the same day you traveled seven hours. Schedule time off for the day after the conference to rest and recover. If financially able, stay in the hotel adjacent to the conference center so it’s easier to get to your room if you need a break. If not, scope out the conference map beforehand and figure out where you can rest without having to go all the way back to your hotel.

3. Set reminders for your meds. I easily forget my medicine when I break from my regular schedule, which always happens at conferences. I got a daily pill organizer to keep track of what I have/have not taken, and set reminders in my phone to make sure I take them before heading to a session. Also, bring extra meds and make sure you have some with you so you don’t have to return to your room if symptoms come up.

4. Plan your outfits in advance. This may seem like a basic one but chronic illness makes it trickier. My MCAS flares if clothing is too tight on my abdomen, and my POTS makes it hard to regulate my body temperature. Bring clothes that you feel confident in but that are also comfortable enough to not increase symptoms. Add in a few options in case the conference center is colder or hotter than you expected. And plan outfits a few days in advance – a 10 pm Target run the night before you leave does not do your anxiety any favors (speaking from experience).

5. Skip sessions. The FOMO at conferences is real, especially when it costs $1000+ to attend. Try not to feel guilty about skipping sessions or events when your health won’t permit it. Prioritize certain sessions that you definitely want to attend, and determine what you can skip if necessary. Follow the conference hashtag on twitter to get a recap of the keynote you didn’t feel up to attending. Unless you actually need to meet with a vendor, consider skipping the exhibitor hall. You will probably spend an hour and a fair bit of energy collecting unnecessary freebies to carry around for the rest of the day. Plan to review the conference materials that go online afterward. Take advantage of the online options when you need to stay in your room.

6. Make your session work for you. If you’re presenting, do what you can to make the session cost the fewest spoons. Present with a colleague if possible to delegate responsibilities. Skip a meal out to practice and rest the night before. Arrive in the room early to set up and mentally prepare. Ask for a chair so don’t have to stand the whole time (this is totally fine! Your content is still excellent whether you present it standing or sitting). Incorporate small group discussion to give yourself a break. Plan extra rest before or after your session if you need to. Overall…

7. Be gentle with yourself. This goes along with skipping sessions, but be mindful of your limits. It can be easy to push yourself because you don’t want to miss anything, but in the long run you’ll end up missing more if you completely exhaust yourself. Stop before you get exhausted and before the pain is too much to keep going. That way you’ll not only be able to attend the sessions you want but actually focus on them and not your symptoms. Take a few minutes at the end of each session to check in with yourself, see how you’re feeling, and determine if a preventative break is the best option. You can also take that time to check in with your buddy, grab a cup of coffee, and discuss what you’ve learned so far.

Chronic illness and disability are experienced differently by each individual, so these tips will not work perfectly for everyone. They have made attending conferences easier for me, and I hope they will help other spoonie librarians successfully engage in LIS events. If you have any tricks or tips that have worked for you, please feel free to add them in the comments below.


Applying Counter-Narratives to Academic Librarianship

Beginning notes from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s keynote at IDEAL 2019.

Late July and early August were a whirlwind of travel for me. First up: ACRL Immersion, where I had the privilege of observing the program as a new facilitator. This was followed up by a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio for IDEAL 2019, the Advancing Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility in Libraries & Archives Conference. I’ve been pouring over my notes, doing some personal reading, and reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that connected these two very intense learning experiences. One of those ideas was the concept of counter-narrative.

Counter-narrative comes from Critical Race Theory, and is rooted in the idea that power creates a dominant story that is accepted as Truth. Through counter-narrative, groups of people who have been marginalized have the power to resist dominant ideology and tell the story of Truth from their (our) own perspective and experience. An excellent example of counter-narrative in action is the 1619 Project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times. This project “is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” I had the honor of hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones and Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at IDEAL 2019 and both stressed the importance of the stories we tell and the way that narrative shapes our reality.

There are so many opportunities for us to develop and apply a counter-narrative to our work in libraries, which is influenced by the same ideologies and -isms that plague the world in which we live. We see this in the work of Eamon Tewell, Jacob Berg, and Scarlet Galvan, who turn the resilience narrative so many libraries adopt on its head, highlighting the ways in which it reinforces structural inequalities and shift responsibility to individuals who suffer. It is present in the instruction team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries who seek to dismantle deficit thinking in information literacy education and acknowledge the strengths that transfer students bring to the classroom. The work of Annie Pho and Rose L. Chou in Pushing the Margins, along with that of the many talented librarian researchers who contributed to that excellent volume are all prime examples of counter-narratives by women of color within our profession.

What narratives and ideologies have we bought into in our own work in academic libraries? What have we simply accepted as Truth without bothering to question, poke holes in, and dismantle? There’s this unfortunate narrative that critical inquiry is about posing problems without offering any form of solution. To respond to that, I’ll borrow from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw and say that “There is power in naming.” There is power in storytelling, in pointing out problems, and in developing a discourse of dissent. What can you question? What kind of counter-narrative can you give to our profession?

Accessibility and Universal Design: A report on the BTAA Library Conference

This month, along with several others from my library, I was able to attend the Big Ten Academic Alliance Library Conference. Every year, the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) chooses a topic of interest to libraries, finds experts and organizes speakers, and holds a conference on that topic. This year, the conference was about accessibility, and since one of my secondary job responsibilities is accessibility, I had the opportunity to attend. This was my first BTAA conference and my first conference that didn’t offer breakout sessions, so I was excited to see how it would play out.

There was a keynote each day, from Jay Dolmage and Amelia Gibson. Both were fantastic. Dolmage began by discussing the design of buildings, including libraries, with several examples of buildings designed around stairs. Though there may be a ramp or elevator available, it is not the focal point of the building. Of course, then, we must ask, “Why?” Why is universal design not prioritized? Why is universal design not the norm? Taking the buildings as an example, Dolmage then moved on to discussing universal design in other contexts, especially with regard to teaching and learning. Dolmage stressed the importance of “positive redundancy,” ensuring that there are multiple modes of engagement, such as having information for a lecture in slides, in a handout, and in an electronic form.

Amelia Gibson touched on similar themes as Dolmage, such as the existence of internalized ableism that must be identified and worked against. Gibson advocated for moving beyond ADA requirements and instead focusing on meeting individual needs, beginning with the premise that anyone who is at a school is there because they can succeed and that it is our job to help them succeed. Gibson also discussed the fact that identities, including disability identities, are intersectional. This means that challenges can be even greater for people of color who also have disabilities. Gibson asked us to consider the various reasons that people might not seek information or help from a library, citing cases where potential library patrons have faced ridicule for their child’s behavior because their child was on the autism spectrum, or cases where black patrons have been thrown out of libraries. For some people, concern about being in library spaces is real and justified.

Finally, a point brought up by both Gibson and Dolmage and throughout the conference was how often people with disabilities are asked to disclose their disabilities and how detrimental this is. People with disabilities should not be asked to disclose their status; instead, we should be creating inclusive spaces that do not retroactively try to account for disabilities but instead are designed to accommodate various needs right from the beginning. For example, there is no need for publishers to require an individual student disclose their disability before an accessible version of a document is supplied. Electronic publications could be accessible from the start or, if remediation is necessary, the extra step of disclosing a disability does not need to be mandated. There are also numerous reasons that people might not disclose their disabilities, be they financial (getting diagnosed is expensive) or out of fear of repercussions. Again, designing with accessibility in mind is key.

This brings us back to the idea of universal design. These principles can be applied in any library space, from making library instruction more welcoming to people with a variety of learning styles to working with vendors and publishers to ensure that content is readable not only for screen readers but for users who want to change the font size or color to suit their own needs. We cannot make everything completely accessible immediately; in many cases, accessibility will be an iterative process, with changes made over time. However, we can strive to bring principles of accessibility and universal design into our own individual practices as librarians to begin making changes today.

Overall, I found this conference extremely worthwhile. I often find myself a bit untethered at conferences, unsure how to choose which sessions to attend from a long list and drawn in several different directions because of all my different interests. This conference provided a more concentrated experience and, because of the more focused theme, there was enough time and space to delve into library accessibility in more detail than I’ve experienced in other conferences. Now it’s time to refocus, take what I’ve learned, and find more ways to incorporate accessibility into my work on a daily basis.


For more on universal design, get started by looking at the UDL guidelines website.

Read more about the BTAA’s e-resource testing initiative.

And check out the conference hashtag, #BTAALib19, for more on the conference.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections from MILEX

Last month I attended MILEX, a Maryland library conference. The subject was Culturally Responsive Teaching in Libraries, and it gave me a lot to think about. The timing was great: I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on my teaching practices this summer. As I’ve written in the past, library school did not prepare me for productively thinking about pedagogy, so I’m always eager to learn about different approaches from my peers.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) was a new term for me (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this conference). Ashleigh Coren, the keynote, asked us to write our own definitions of CRT before sharing an “official” one. This exercise showed me that most of us intuitively grasp what culturally responsive teaching must include: understanding your audience, inclusive language, and Universal Design for Learning. Coren shared Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition: “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” with these main characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

We spent the rest of the day exploring applications of CRT, discussing teacher efforts and exercises that successfully make space for multiple perspectives as well as those that were less successful. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

All of the presenters touched on the importance of disclosing a bit of who you are at the beginning of class. This might seem 101, but I truly never considered meaningfully introducing myself to students in a one-shot. I feel pressed for time and I assume they don’t really care who I am or why I do this work. I just launch in after a quick, “This is my name, this is what librarians can do for you” spiel. But CRT isn’t just knowledge of the identities, learning styles, and values students bring to a classroom, but an awareness of my own identity, worldview, and blind spots. These students are going to meet me for 50 minutes one day, and if I don’t share anything about myself, why should they trust my expertise? Why should I expect them to feel comfortable approaching me or admitting they don’t know something if I remain a complete stranger to them? This conference helped me see how the disclosure of personal information (to the degree that you’re comfortable) can build trust with your students.

For example, several people at the conference suggested sharing your pronouns as part of your one-shot introduction. I know a lot of librarians already do this, or have pronouns in their email signature or name badge. This not only reveals something about your identity, but also communicates a degree of inclusion, even safety, in your classroom. Again, this must be to the degree you are comfortable, but as a cis woman I see this as a simple change I can make starting today.

Another lightbulb moment for me: reach out to the faculty ahead of the one-shot and ask about the classroom culture. I never think to do this. I ask for assignment instructions, resource requirements, and maybe potential topics, but it would be great to know ahead of time if the class is shy, prefers small-group work, or has lively group discussions. Asking the instructor about her classroom culture also shows that I care about her students’ comfort enough to adapt my one-shot to resemble their classroom environment.

For me the best part of CRT is student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a facilitator rather than sole bearer of knowledge. For librarians looking to make one-shots more engaging, I recommend turning over some control to the students. For one thing, it introduces a little bit of the unknown to your classroom, which always spices things up. But also, as Coren said after her keynote, “students think they know less than they do.” In the reverse: they know more than they think they do, and I believe they know more than we think they do.

CRT demands awareness of the student perspective, but also appreciation for their insights and experience. No one is a blank slate. Anyone who has made it to college has encountered information already, using strategies that work for them. I don’t want to be an instrument of assimilation, telling students that there’s one right way to navigate ideas, that there’s one right way to measure truth. My way is not a blank slate either; it’s informed by my identity, my education, and my privilege. I want to foster a learning environment where students bring their own instincts and cultural values to the research process.

I wanted to end with specific strategies to make your classroom culturally responsive and welcoming to all, because the practical takeaways are always my favorite part of a professional conference:

  • Create a safe place for students. Disclose pronouns and establish ground rules for group discussion.
  • Introduce yourself and explain where you’re coming from.
  • Spell out library jargon. Specifically, write the words you’re defining on the board or in your slide.
  • Repeat directions. Go slowly.
  • Allow time for small group discussions before asking people to share their answer with the class (think-pair-share style). Lindsay Inge Carpenter suggested that collectivist cultures might favor this approach; it also helps shy people feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Make your classroom a “no stupid questions” environment. Tell students they won’t be punished for asking about plagiarism or other topics they might be nervous about.
  • Regularly do peer observation with colleagues.
  • Know that cultural competency is not a box to check, but a skill to build over time.

Correction: Originally I had misattributed Ashleigh Coren’s quote about student knowledge to her keynote. The quote came from the Q&A that followed, not from her formal address. This post has been updated to reflect this.

Preparing for #ACRL2019

The time has come, our slides and posters are hopefully published online, our bags are (mostly) packed, preconferences are about to begin, and we are ready to be in Cleveland this week. It seems a little wild to me that it’s time for ACRL again. In 2017, this ended up being a pretty pivotal conference for me as a new professional to the field. In 2017, learned a lot in Baltimore, met the ladies who I would co-found The Librarian Parlor with, and met others who I consider good colleagues today. So needless to say, I’m excited to be in Ohio catching up with colleagues, learning about new programs and initiatives, and meeting new librarians.

However, as much as I’m excited about ACRL, I also know this can be an overwhelming conference. There are so many sessions, things to do, and a city to explore. It’s great to have so many choices, but also can feel like too much all at once. With that in mind, I wanted to bring together some tips and tricks for making the most of this conference as well as highlight some great ways to meet new folks.

Sessions

With so many panels, papers, roundtables, posters, and lighting talks, it can be hard to decide on where to go and what to attend. Here are a way fews to think about choosing your sessions:

  • Before the conference, I like to take a look at the schedule, mark any and all sessions I’m interested in, and then choose a few that I will attend, no matter what. These might be sessions my colleagues or friends are presenting at, a topic I’m really interested in, or something I’d like to learn more about. Having a few concrete sessions helps to create an outline for each day and then the rest, is up in the air, and based on how I’m feeling and who I run into.
  • Create some learning outcomes for what you’d like to accomplish and learn about at the conference. Use the learning outcomes to guide what sessions you choose.
  • Experienced conference go-ers recommend choosing one session/activity for the morning, one for the afternoon, and then setting aside some time to meet up with colleagues you do not see on a regular basis.
  • Attend the First-Time Attendee Orientation on Wednesday evening to learn more about ACRL and get a sense of what you might like to attend later in the week.

If you want some guidance on which sessions, we have had a few folks put together some lists of related sessions. These can be great ways to create your own theme to the conference, or find people who are interested in similar areas of librarianship.

Now, I know looking at all those sessions makes you realize there is so much you will miss. It’s important to remember that you won’t make it to everything (and that’s okay). Some recommend attending sessions for things you do not know much about, in order to make the most of your time at ACRL. For all those sessions you miss (or want to know more about), you can review any contributed papers on ACRL’s website, download slides and handouts from the online conference program, and send an email to presenters to learn more. You’ll see what you’ll see at ACRL, but that doesn’t mean the conversation has to stop once you leave Cleveland.  

Twitter & sharing resources

At a conference like #ACRL2019, Twitter can be a great way to learn more about what’s happening, connect with other colleagues, and share resources. Some folks will live tweet the conference, and others will tweet out their slides, surveys to fill out, and questions for the general #ACRL2019 community. It’s definitely worth following the hashtag and contributing tweets. The hashtag can also help you decide what sessions to attend. Along with Twitter, sometimes folks will create digital community notes to gather insight from sessions and share resources. For example, LibParlor has a shared community notes document where we’ll discuss a few sessions throughout the conference. These can also be great documents to return to once the conference is over.

Snacks, hydration, and breaks

Fun fact about me: I’m very pro snacks. I would highly recommend having a few snacks tucked away that you can have throughout the conference. We all know that conferences like ACRL can take a lot out of you. Knowing this, it’s important to take breaks and stay hydrated. Sometimes you just need to go to a quiet corner of the convention center, or take a little walk outside. Trust me, you’ll feel better when you do.

Outside the conference

Personally, I think some of the most memorable times at a conference isn’t necessarily in the sessions themselves, but during all the time before, between, and after sessions. ACRL hosts both an exhibit reception (Wednesday) and a conference reception (Friday, 8 PM, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), which is high-energy and a nice way to celebrate the end of the conference. Beyond the ACRL reception, there are a variety of other social events. ACRL has organized a dine around for Thursday evening, some iSchools host a get together for their past and current students, and interest groups might put something together near the convention center. All of these events can be opportunities to meet new people, or connect with colleagues. I will shout out two Thursday evening events:

  • WOC + LIB Social Hour: Last week, a great new blog launched to showcase women of color in librarianship. Join co-founders LaQuanda Onyemth and Lorin Jackson to discuss future collaborations with the blog.
  • LibParlor Meet & Greet: Join me and the rest of the LibParlor Editorial Team at ACRL. Learn more about the blog, discuss all things research, and discover ways to get involved!

Other tips

I know I’m not the only person who has put together a list of tips and tricks for making it through conferences like ACRL. Take a dive into these posts here at ACRLog and over at Hack Library School. If you have more tips or questions, feel free to comment below.

Safe travels to all and I hope to see some of you at ACRL. Oh, and with spring weather in Ohio, it’s always a good idea to pack an umbrella!


Featured image by DJ Johnson on Unsplash