From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Better Work Habits Through… Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Remember March 2020? We didn’t really know what to expect from the next weeks or months, and sought comfort where we could find it… some baked bread, some finally learned to play guitar… I’m one of the ones who chose Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ve played almost every day since its release on March 20, 2020, and my island is still my happy place. The other day, I realized that it has taught me some good habits I can apply to my work, so I wanted to share these insights. Don’t worry… if you don’t play, it’s still good advice.

Welcome to Xanadu 1 (My husband named it before we knew we had to share an island, don’t judge me)

Keep Your Tools on You, and in Good Shape

A lot of what you do on your island requires tools (bug net, shovel, fishing rod, etc.) and you never know what opportunities you’ll run across while walking around, so you should always keep your tools in your pockets, so you’re prepared for anything. Also, your tools will break after a certain number of uses, but you can reset that clock by customizing them, so if you keep on top of that “maintenance,” you can vastly prolong the life of your tools, and have to buy or craft new ones less often.

This advice overlaps with the number one lesson I’ve learned from years of watching Food Network: mise en place. Set up your physical AND mental workspace with all the tools you use frequently close at hand and ready to be used. Sharp pencils, fresh notebooks, a fat stack of Post-Its… and for your mental workspace, dust out the cobwebs with a brain teaser, or write down the to-do list swirling around in your head. Whatever you need to get the job done, have it ready to go.

Hard work pays off… my first lily of the valley appears!

Ten or Fifteen Minutes a Day Is Enough to Keep Things Tidy

Most days, I just do a single pass around my island to pick up fallen branches, dig up new fossils, pull any new weeds, and check on things in general. This takes about ten minutes (unless it rained the day before and there are a ton of rogue flowers springing up everywhere). It’s enough to keep the island tidy and earn me rewards, like the particular flower that only grows if your island is in really good shape. I don’t have to rearrange houses or build a new waterfall every day.

I also spend ten or fifteen minutes every workday morning just tidying up… my calendar, my to-do list, my email inbox, my desktop (both physical and virtual). Dedicating that time every morning keeps things tidy enough to make room for the actual work to happen. I wouldn’t start construction on my island without pulling weeds and transplanting flowers that are in the way; I don’t start work projects until my schedule and email inbox are under control.

Greta gives the best advice

Skipping a Day is Okay; Skipping a Lot Is Not

(I’m not talking about vacation… Use your days off, they’re part of your compensation!)

Sometimes, if I have a busy day, or I go out of town, or I’m just not feeling it, I don’t log into the game, and I skip a day on the island. No big deal. There will be a few more weeds the next day, I miss an opportunity to buy things from a particular vendor who only comes once a week, it’s fine. But if I don’t log in for weeks, I get cockroaches in my (virtual) house, the weeds overrun the island, and the animals that live on the island start to think I don’t like them anymore and get upset.

Having a light, easy day at work when you need it is like skipping a day in the game. When you can, give yourself a day where you’re not working on big, heavy projects, and do whatever type of work you find relaxing and easy. (In my case, schedules and agendas are very relaxing work.) But if it turns into procrastinating and never tackling the difficult work, your island (work) will be overrun with weeds (projects) and the villagers (your coworkers) will get made at you (will get mad at you).

Sometimes mental health looks like a pocket full of scorpions

Visit a Mystery Island for More Resources

You can collect a lot of usable resources on your island: stone, gold, clay, wood, weeds, flowers, etc. But your island is a finite space, and sometimes you can’t find enough resources there, so you can buy a ticket to fly to a “Mystery Island” and collect resources there to bring home.

In this metaphor, the resources are your patience, inspiration, creativity, and sometimes literal resources like people to work with or space to work in. If you’re in a rut (out of resources), try visiting a different space. I know that, where COVID restrictions are still in place, this can be difficult, but if you can’t pick up your laptop and go work in another room, building, or campus, try rearranging your office. Even if you can’t move the furniture, redecorating your desk can make it feel like a new space. If possible, go work in a coworker’s office with them for a while. If you’re working from home, move from the living room to the dining room (or my favorite, the porch on a nice day! Soak up that beautiful fall weather, if you have it!)

I spent a whole weekend last October blocking out every blank space of grass on the island, so the randomly-assigned rocks would pop up where I wanted them. A. WHOLE. WEEKEND.

Planning Terraforming Is More Fun than Actually Terraforming

This is an ongoing joke in the Animal Crossing community. You have a lot of control over the layout of your island… you can build up a second level above the ground, dig up waterways, add inclines and bridges, and move buildings around. But many players have found that planning major changes like this is more fun than pulling out your shovel and actually digging it up, because it can be tedious.

Don’t get stuck in planning stages. It’s a problem I frequently have: I love a list, a plan, and a schedule, but getting to the actual work is a whole different story. I have read a little about how you get dopamine in the planning stages and for some people, that’s sufficient and they (we) no longer feel motivated to seek the dopamine from accomplishing the planned-for goal. Don’t give in; do the terraforming!

This would not have been possible without visiting someone else’s island… Get by with a little help from your friends, as the Beatles would say.

Get Help from Friends to Accomplish Your Goals

When you first start your island in the game, it is randomly assigned a native fruit (peach, apple, orange, pear, or cherry). You can find two of the other fruits by visiting Mystery Islands (see above), but the other two will never show up for you naturally… you must visit other people’s islands to collect them. There is no way to collect all five fruits without help from another living human being.

The lesson here, of course, is: teamwork makes the dream work. Expecting yourself to accomplish everything alone is not realistic (and sometimes, like in the fruit example, literally impossible), so bring in outside help when you need it. And know that everyone else is in the same situation; sometimes you can trade fruit (help) with someone, win-win!

The tambourine makes me happy, it makes the cat happy… best in-game item, if you ask me.

It’s Your Island

Do things your way. Not everybody logs in every day. Not everybody participates in the world events. Not everybody buys and sells turnips (it’s called the Stalk Market, you can extrapolate from there). Not everybody plays all parts of the game, and that’s fine… it’s your island, play it your way. I carry around a tambourine in my pocket because it makes me really happy to pull it out and hit it sometimes. I put up signs naming my waterfalls and bridges, and not all of them are family-friendly. It makes me laugh. You do you; it’s your island.

The flip side of “it’s your island” is that it’s your responsibility, too. Nobody else is going to log in and move those trees around the way you want them. The villagers aren’t suddenly going to dig up that rose garden you made a year ago and are sick of now. You have to change it if you don’t like it.

So do your work your way (within the confines of the rules of the “game,” of course), but also take responsibility for it.

Short Cuts for the Easily Distracted

I’m a couple of weeks later than I’d hoped to be with this blogpost, one result of what’s continuing to be an unusually hectic and unusually uncertain semester for me (and probably for many of you, too). But I had a thought on my morning commute-substitute walk today: why not write small amounts on a few different library topics that have been bouncing around my brain recently? So here are some short cuts, for (and from) the busy and distracted.

Hybrid is not the same as remote or onsite

This semester at the college where I work, library faculty and staff are working partially in person at the Library and partially remote, a situation that we usually describe as hybrid when referring to classes. I will admit that one of the things I’ve learned since the pandemic began last year is that I don’t prefer a 100% online job, and I’m grateful to be working in my office on campus 3 days/week. But it’s been surprising to me how much administrative overhead our new hybrid work environment involves. Last year when we went into lockdown it seemed to take ages for us to figure out some of our new processes and workflows; I especially remember the pain point of trying to figure out how to get PDFs signed and shared between multiple people who were all working on different devices at home. There are definitely administrative advantages to being on campus part-time — three cheers for easy access to printing and scanning! But it has taken more time than I anticipated to fully grasp which tasks are best done onsite and which I can still easily complete at home. On the (very) plus side: as long as the weather holds it’s possible to have face to face meetings outside on days when my colleagues and I are in at the same time, and that has been amazing.

Terrific award news

Library Twitter blew up on earlier this week with the news that Safiya Noble, among lots of other amazing and smart folx, has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. If you’ve not read her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, I strongly recommend it, or you can search up videos of one of the many, many talks she’s given in recent years. I remember being so disappointed that I had to miss her invited paper at the ACRL Conference in Portland in 2015 because my own session was scheduled at the same time, and my City University of New York colleagues and I were delighted that she gave the keynote at the CUNY IT Conference in 2017. Noble’s work is timely and necessary, and this recognition is so well-deserved.

Thinking about teaching and libraries and interdisciplinarity

As soon as I saw the MacArthur news I posted it in the Slack workspace for the course I’m teaching this semester in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program. We’d started the semester reading Noble’s chapter Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities which provoked a robust discussion in class, and our students are looking forward to returning to her work later in the semester too. I’ve blogged a bit in the past about teaching in this program; students come to this program from graduate departments in a variety of different disciplines, and the course is a great opportunity to think through using technology in teaching and research from multiple perspectives. I appreciate that I always seem to learn so much every time I teach it, both from my coteacher (this semester, a colleague in English) and from our students, who are often also teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY colleges themselves. This is my first time teaching the course fully online, and I’m also appreciating the opportunities to have even more discussion about open digital pedagogy and scholarship than we do usually, and to be able to bring the work of libraries into the course as well.

Ending with gratitude

It’s a tough semester all around on campuses and in libraries, I expect, with the pandemic far from over, and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the things I’m grateful for, large and small: the clouds and sky on my walk to work in the morning, sharing physically-distanced bagels in the library with colleagues last week, and the time I carve out (almost) each day for meditation (thanks to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I took last year). And I’m aiming for a longer, less-distracted cut here next time around.

The impossibility of tying up loose ends

This week, I’m writing this blog post from a new location and from a new job. Since April, things have been hectic and frantic and frankly, (not to be dramatic but) life-changing. I wrapped up a job I had been in for four years, moved eight hours to a new city, and started a new job. I survived the first week and am excited about what week two will bring. 

As I was packing up and getting ready to leave, I was struck by all the things I could do and felt like I should do in preparation for my exit. This pressure also came from the legacy of those who had left my institution in prior years; I thought of the laments and frustrations and eye rolls colleagues (including myself) had when someone left pieces without instructions. I wanted so badly to do right by my job, the projects I had started, and most importantly, by my colleagues and the students involved in our work. 

In the month I had remaining at my former institution, I was appreciative to have Jenny Ferretti’s tweet thread from a few months ago when she changed roles. I spent time writing out the context, the stakeholders, the dreams, and the processes for my work. I connected colleagues and reassured folks that my job during that final month was to make sure all the pieces were in place for future success. I created new SharePoints, walked people through past reports and systems, and set up meetings to talk about these transitions. 

At the beginning of that final month, I felt on top of things. I finally had some space to work on some projects I had set aside for the time being. My calendar wasn’t filling up with new appointments and requests for future work. However, the closer we got to those final days, the less energy I had to devote to tying up work projects. I was moving and had all the things a move creates — new addresses, cancelling services, starting new services, reserving UHauls, seeing old friends before you go, and deciding what stuff I wanted to move. I just didn’t have the brain space to tie EVERY single loose end. 

On my final days of work at my former institution, I tweeted about the loose end emails I knew I would have.

It was comforting to hear folks affirm that tying all the loose ends is impossible and that others were going through similar transitions. I hope that things go okay for the projects at my former institution and that my colleagues there will give me grace for the things I might have missed. 

So now it’s onto a new chapter. I’ve got a small inbox and a clearer calendar. Excited to dive into my new role and thankful for the work I was able to do at my former institution. Can’t wait to share more about my work as a department head on ACRLog in the coming months. 


Featured image by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash

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.