On Tenure

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.

Privacy, Consent, and the Virtual One-Shot

Guest poster Nora Almeida is an instruction and outreach librarian at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a volunteer at Interference Archive. Nora researches and writes about critical pedagogy, social justice, neoliberalism, performance, and place. You can find her on twitter: @nora_almeida.

In April 2020, when the City University of New York (CUNY) shifted classes and student services online, the one-shot library instruction sessions mostly stopped all together. I sent out a few emails during the early days of the COVID-19 lock down in NYC as I deleted most of the now obsolete notations in my calendar while doom-scrolling and listening to perpetual ambulance sirens. But everyone’s semester had been thrown so wildly off-course and midterms had already ended and the consensus seemed to be to try to get through the semester and then reset for fall. In truth, most of the faculty that I emailed never even replied to my messages.

I did teach two virtual guest lectures in May and thought nothing of the fact that the instructors recorded them—something we’d discussed in advance and which seemed important given the emergency outside of all of our apartments and the very real technology barriers that students at CUNY face.

Then in the summer when both courses ran again and the instructors emailed to ask if I could reprise my guest lectures, they both indicated they could also just use the recordings from spring if I was busy or away. I responded immediately that either was fine as though we all implicitly understood that in virtual education contexts, ourselves and our pre-recorded simulacra are basically the same. Aren’t they?

But then, upon further reflection, I felt a little odd and I began to wonder how many MP4s of me had been recorded or shared since the pandemic had started. I thought of a virtual conference panel I participated in, which I learned was being live-streamed to YouTube only after the session had commenced: “thousands of people are watching right now,” one of the organizers said, proudly. Then in June, I was asked by a faculty member who I’d worked with before to do virtual library instruction for a research-intensive course and was startled to join a Zoom session and see the red recording button blinking before I opened my mouth.

I wondered then, gloomily, if part of the natural progression of higher education in this moment is not only the loss of corporeality but the end of the ephemeral educational encounter altogether. Or perhaps we are all experiencing some kind of temporal implosion in which college exists both nowhere and everywhere, and classes are attended by black boxes on a screen, which may or may not represent the attention and presence of actual students, and the teacher might be ported in from another time and place.

When it became clear that we weren’t going back to campus in the fall, I started to talk about the recording issue with colleagues, suggesting maybe we should create a departmental policy. Then, as the new semester approached, CUNY released their own policy, which importantly considers the privacy of students and requires explicit student consent for video recording of synchronous course sessions. The policy trickled down to the campuses a little late but I believed that perhaps it would make some difference.

In our department we planned to go forward with our usual instruction program with some changes to accommodate asynchronous classes. We provide library instruction for all of the first-year composition courses at our college in addition to discipline-specific instruction upon request—amounting to about 35 sessions per semester for the average instruction librarian. I carefully added language about video recording to the email template that I use to correspond with faculty. If they wanted synchronous instruction, I requested that they let me know if they record their classes (presumably with consent from their students). If they wanted to record the one-shot, I asked them to let me manage and share the recording if their teaching platform allows it (Zoom does but Blackboard, our institutional LMS, does not). If they were teaching using a platform that doesn’t allow a guest to maintain control over recording, I asked to opt-out.

Some faculty have responded thoughtfully to my message and have worked carefully to ensure that student needs are accommodated and that everyone can consent to or opt-out of recording. Some have ignored my message altogether. Some have been confused and thought that I wanted to keep the recordings for myself. Some faculty don’t have the technological capacity to honor my request or to change the settings on their Zoom account to ensure that students can’t record one-another. Some have pedantically referenced the CUNY policy and indicated (incorrectly) that any kind of recording isn’t permitted. Three-times I have joined a class and, after being confronted by the red blinking light, I have requested firmly and politely that I manage the recording and share a link later. This past week, I taught a one-shot for a faculty member who I had to email six times before they sent me a link to access their course and then they recorded me without my consent. I didn’t say anything in part because I felt weird that I had sent this person so many emails. They had acted as though they were doing me some large favor by sharing a link to their course so I could help their students do research and I thought I might alienate them further by insisting I maintain control over my own intellectual property.

I don’t know exactly what I’m worried will happen with the videos, which are not exciting and I can’t imagine many people rewatching. I certainly would never rewatch them, in part because they are, with some small deviations, almost identical. In the background are small personal details-—a framed May Day poster a friend designed, a dying succulent, my swimsuit drying on a door-knob, my husband walking by. Parts of the videos are potentially dangerous out of context in that they are mildly political; almost all students in first year composition courses are researching social and political issues. It’s unlikely but not impossible that pieces of the videos could be recontextualized and weaponized by alt-right cyber-trolls who spend their days harassing and doxxing liberal academics and students of color (the majority of students at the CUNY campus where I work are Black and Hispanic).

Certainly, the videos could be reused later, without my consent or when the information they contain is out of date. Zoom, the primary platform that faculty at my institution are using for remote instruction, can also access videos and other content that is recorded and stored on their cloud servers (or the cloud servers they license from 4th parties, mostly Amazon). According to their privacy policy, Zoom does “not guarantee that any customer content you or any user provides to the Services will not be viewed by unauthorized persons” and even they recommend that we “should be cautious about the access [we] provide to others.”

Beyond these privacy concerns are larger, scarier labor concerns. While I am a full-time (untenured) faculty member at CUNY with enough job security to write a blog post like this, many of the people who teach one-shots in the CUNY library system are adjuncts. The post-COVID fiscal crisis has severely impacted CUNY and New York state, which the university counts on for 60% of its operational budget, has opted to only release funds to the university on a month-to-month basis. This funding model has put contingent employees within the libraries, in an especially precarious position. If an adjunct librarian teaches an instruction session that is recorded this week, and they are fired at the end of the month, their video simulacrum might actually replace them. As increased austerity seems likely and rumors of more layoffs and retrenchments circulate, it seems important that we all consider how the digital learning objects we’re creating can and might be used by the university in the future. Even if CUNY’s IP Policy indicates that our pedagogy belongs to us, the policy does nothing to address circumstances where our own IP isn’t even accessible to us. 

At the end of a day when I teach two or three one-shots to the void of Zoom boxes that may or not be listening, I feel perhaps that I’m not all that different from my simulacrum after all. We repeat the same phrases. We tell the same jokes. We have the same teaching assistant (my cat, Goose). Today we are more animated or tired. Today some of the Zoom boxes contain videos of real students. I hear some of their voices. Some of them type in the chat box and I type back. But these are small signs of engagement and even before the pandemic, I had my doubts about the one-shot. Most of these students have never even been on campus, many of them have never used an academic library and it’s unclear how much an hour-long virtual instruction session really helps. It’s hard to be interactive or check to make sure students are following along. Sometimes mid-session, when I feel like I’m truly just speaking into the void, I ask, are you guys still with me? Some days I wonder: if I shared my screen and just pressed play on a pre-recorded one-shot would anyone even notice?

I wonder why I feel so protective of something that probably matters so little. Especially when so few people around me seem to share my concerns. Perhaps my little cloud folder of carefully labelled un-downloadable videos that will become unavailable on the last day of final exams is a way for me to assert control during a time when so much seems far beyond my control. Or perhaps my attempts to control recordings of my teaching is a small protest against a culture that devalues and erases library labor and the labor of contingent workers.

If nothing else, I hope that by making some noise about these issues more people will start to think about privacy, consent, and labor in relation to digital education. I hope that more university systems will create spaces for faculty to discuss and learn more about privacy and consent. And I hope, most of all, that more educators start to talk about these issues with one another and with their students.

Facilitating Class Conversations: Learning to Listen

Last month, my institution hosted a workshop on facilitating discussions on difficult issues, specifically in the classroom. We discussed how to engage in constructive dialogue and practiced handling unanticipated remarks that fall outside of our comfort zone. 

The first half of the workshop focused on active listening. The facilitator acknowledged that listening is hard; it’s a low-incentive, low-reward task, but it’s important. She shared a few tips for being a better listener:

  • Slow down. Aim to contemplate ideas, not to come to agreement in one conversation. Tell yourself, “Nothing has to be settled tonight.”
  • Give your full attention. If it’s a controversial or personal subject, put your phone on silent and try to be present.
  • Work from the assumption that all voices have something valuable to contribute. Be sincerely curious about and even grateful for what they have to say.

She also shared tips for speaking to be heard:

  • Be transparent about your own positions.
  • Slow down. Again, aim to explain, not persuade or convince.
  • Use your own language and where possible, ground your ideas in stories about yourself, that connect your ideas to your underlying values.
  • Move away from media talking points.

We also discussed the characteristics of a Brave Space, as coined by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. We want to foster a space of respect for one another, where students are listening to understand, and are willing to experience some discomfort so they can learn. 

But when someone says something problematic, either before class or as part of a class discussion, it can be easy to freeze and not know how to respond. I know my first instinct is to correct the record as quickly as possible, but that may shut the student down or make them feel ganged up on, which is not productive. 

The workshop suggested that in a moment of conflict, suggest to the whole class, “Let’s take a moment to breathe.” Inserting a moment to pause before responding is important, and gives us a chance to choose the best response.

If you’re like me and you devour advice columns like sugary cereal, you may be familiar with the idea of “scripts” for awkward social situations. What do I say when my neighbor makes a weird comment about my body? How do I ask my boss for a raise? This workshop shared strategies and scripts to address unpopular comments from students:

  • “I understand why you’d feel that way/That’s a common view. But what if…”
  • “Under what circumstances might you feel/act in the same way?”
  • “It can be tough bringing up an opposing view. It helps us better understand why this is such a difficult issue to discuss.”
  • “I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of that comment, but that stereotype is harmful because…”
  • Validate someone’s feelings even if their perspective is not based in fact.
  • Focus on what was problematic in a student’s comment, rather than calling someone racist or sexist.
  • Address your comments to the class as a whole, rather than zeroing in on the student who spoke.

There is clearly a difference between dissent and bigotry. The workshop emphasized that expressions of hatred or contempt are not to be tolerated in the classroom, and when a student uses slurs or other microaggressions, that should be interrupted. For example, you might remind the students of the established rules of engagement for the class: “Using a word like that is not showing respect to your classmates.”

Their final takeaways:

  • Accept that you can’t make everyone feel comfortable all the time.
  • Accept that you may not be able to change a student’s values.
  • If you offend someone, own it and do better next time.
  • Don’t expect to be a perfect facilitator all the time: We are all unlearning and growing!

Librarianship in the Time of COVID

As I write this, I’m entering my third month as an Outreach and Engagement Librarian. I’m excited to be starting this new position in a new field, but must admit that this is a strange time to be starting anything well…new. Yet, 2020 has been nothing but new adjustments in our household as we also welcomed a baby in the spring during the height of the pandemic.

It has now been eight months since the pandemic began and the campus remains quiet as students learn remotely. Faculty are teleworking, and with little reason to be there, most students are scattered as well. This means that I’m doing outreach and engagement from my bedroom rather than on campus. I quickly realized that I was presented with a challenge: I need to “put myself out there” on campus without being there.

I realized that to do my job I needed to be proactive and reach out to others rather than simply walking over to their offices. This has involved reaching out individually to campus members who typically work with the library, like the writing and student success centers. I’ve looked into a social media plan and am dusting off our old library newsletter. What has been far more challenging is finding ways to replicate online the student experience in the library. This is something that I continue to mull over in my mind. How can I create an online experience that is even a shadow of the one in person?

It is an honor to work with these students and I can’t believe that I get paid to talk about the library. Still- I can’t help reflect about the bizarre and terrifying situation unfolding in parallel with my work. I’m trying to ensure that we highlight the ways that students can receive basic care: counseling services, food assistance, help with utilities, alongside information literacy and citation help. My brain almost can’t process this dichotomy, but I suppose there is no time like the present to start trying.

Re-envisioning an Instruction Program with Critical Information Literacy in Mind

My name is Kevin Adams and I am one of the new First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) bloggers! My pronouns are he/him/his. I am interested in critical information literacy, pedagogy, all things punk, and a bunch of other stuff. I am so happy to be writing for this blog and I hope that by sharing some of my experiences I can spark some fun conversations or just brighten somebody’s day.

I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Alfred University. Alfred University is a small private university in a little village in upstate New York. The closest city of note is Rochester. Because Alfred University is so small, I am one of eight librarians (including the dean and director). I don’t want to speak too much to other librarians’ workloads, but suffice to say we all have a lot of different responsibilities. One responsibility that we all share is instruction, and in my new position I find myself leading the instruction team. In this post I want to share my experience navigating reconstructing an information literacy program shaped by Critical Information Literacy. I hope to share what my goals are, what some of my strategies are, and the challenges I have faced.

Goals

The United States is a hell scape. Late stage capitalism is siphoning money from the working and middle class folks in this country to support billionaires’ and corporations’ hoarding habits; cops are continuing to murder innocent black and brown folks with no significant repercussions; climate change is driving natural disasters that are forcing people from their homes; innocent immigrants are being held in concentration camps where agents of the state are carrying out forced sterilizations; over 200,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19; and the list goes on. I am aware of this, my colleagues are aware of this, other teaching faculty at my university are aware of this, and students are ABSOLUTELY aware of this. So, creating a standard information literacy program that doesn’t recognize what is going on in the world felt totally useless. For this reason, and others, I am trying to create an information literacy program that integrates Critical Information Literacy (CIL) throughout the instruction design and delivery process.

CIL is not the answer to all of the problems that I have listed above, but it is an approach that does not actively ignore the situation that we find ourselves in. CIL is an approach to information literacy that is informed by critical theory and critical pedagogy. It recognizes that information is not neutral or objective; rather, it reflects social, political, and economic power systems and privileges. CIL engages with learners as contributors in the classroom to investigate, understand, and use the contours of information structures and manifestations (Wong and Saunders, 2020). In many ways, this is an approach to information literacy that uses a social justice lens. 

This approach has two elements: 1) a deep understanding that information and libraries are not neutral, and 2) a centering of students in the classroom stemming from an understanding that students are important, active agents in the classroom. This agency allows students to contribute their ideas, experiences, and even expertise.

Strategies

When I applied and interviewed for this position, I centered my commitment to an inclusive information literacy program that, if possible, would implement CIL. Keeping this method front and center in my communications with potential new colleagues set the stage for me to have challenging conversations about neutrality and the role of instruction librarians as I began my new position.

Fast forward to my first month on the job. After getting acclimated to the new culture and climate of the position as best I could over Zoom, I started putting together a written Information Literacy Plan. I found myself in a unique position. Due to some shifts in the library prior to my joining, the previous instruction models were still primarily based on the ACRL Standards. This created a need for a new plan that centered the ACRL Framework. In filling this need, I saw an opportunity to incorporate CIL as a basic tenet of the Information Literacy Plan.

In order to tie the Information Literacy Plan into the values of my library and university, I consulted the strategic plans and mission and values statements for each. Alfred University strives to be “outside of ordinary” and uses language about inclusivity and diversity, affecting individual students, and changing the world for the better. While this type of branding sometimes leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth, it has allowed me to connect the CIL goals of social justice and inclusivity to the broader goals of the university. This has proven to be a failsafe as the White House has released statements that attack Critical Race Theory, an important theoretical foundation for CIL.

Implementing a plan for information literacy that negates that libraries and information are neutral from the very first page might not be possible at all institutions and might be highly controversial at others. In addition to creating a plan that ties in the values of the university, I worked closely with library administration. The Dean of Libraries at my institution is very sympathetic to social justice issues and information literacy. He has provided ample support for this idea from the outset. This has been extremely helpful in drumming up support for the idea amongst the other librarians, all of whom have been very receptive.

CIL does not exist in a vacuum. I was thrilled to find that AU libraries were actively working on a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression. In this commitment the librarians showed that they were already thinking about many of the concepts that inform a CIL approach, for example anti-racism, false neutrality in academic spaces, the history of white supremacy in libraries, etc. Finding ways to talk to fellow librarians about these topics created fertile ground for the seeds of CIL.

Challenges

A little over a month ago I introduced the librarians to the Information Literacy Plan. The plan is still a living document and will be adapted as necessary, but it lays out a shared groundwork that can inform each librarian’s instruction practice. The plan was so well received that I nearly cried after sharing. It can be difficult to find high points this semester, but that was certainly one of them.

In spite of how well received the plan was, explaining and implementing it is and will continue to be challenging. Most of the instruction practices at my institution have, up until recently, been primarily informed by the ACRL Standards. Updating the program to include both the ACRL Frameworks and CIL is a dramatic shift. While working with fellow librarians that are excited and curious, I continue to find myself asking and answering new questions about how to best connect with and platform students in the classroom.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that all our instruction sessions have been online this semester. Centering students in a meaningful way during a one shot can be challenging in any circumstance. Add to that Zoom fatigue, frequent technical difficulties, and all the social, political, and environmental challenges weighing on our minds in 2020. JEEZE. It is not easy, and feeling encouraged by or excited about a session is becoming a rare occurrence.

I am still figuring out new strategies to overcome these challenges. I am excited to continue to share about this and other new developments in my first year as an academic librarian! I would be thrilled to speak with anyone about what this process has looked like, share strategies, or just commiserate. You can reach me by email, or hit me up on twitter @a_rad_librarian.