Embracing the Coordinator Role

Earlier this week, my boss went into our HR system and changed my title. I went from the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian to Student Engagement Coordinator. The change happened for many reasons, some political, and others, more practical. As a whole, the change recognizes the work I have done in this role the past two years and signals to others how my position is set up. My scope of work and job responsibilities don’t change, but I feel confirmed. 

Upon reflection, I think I’ve seen myself as a coordinator for a while. When I was preparing to go “on the road” in order to meet up with my colleagues at other campuses to discuss student engagement, I created this slide: 

Slide of a highway with the words "Coordinator" "Facilitator" and "Bridge Builder" on it

I told my colleagues that I see myself as a coordinator, facilitator, and bridge builder. This signals that I cannot do everything on my own, but I’m here to help connect us, bring us together under a shared understanding of student engagement, and advocate for the resources we need to make our ideas a reality. This work is mediated through librarianship, and provides the lens through which I tackle projects. Librarian might not be in my title anymore, but it provides the foundation for the work I do within the world of student engagement.  

And I have done a lot of coordinating while I have been the Student Engagement Librarian. I coordinate an undergraduate research award, the Short Edition dispensers, a library internship program, a student advisory group, and several committees with my colleagues to help get this work done. It’s work, but it’s something I enjoy and like to think I thrive at.

Of course, as my title changed (and I updated all the appropriate places online), I took a minute to look at the formal definition of co-ordinate, from OED. When used as a verb, this was one of the definitions:

To place or arrange (things) in proper position relatively to each other and to the system of which they form parts; to bring into proper combined order as parts of a whole.

This definition resonated with me because I think bringing things together has always been a strength of mine. I like knowing about what people are up to, programs happening around me, and the context for which these things occur. For something like student engagement at Penn State, it’s big, wielding, nuanced, and complex. I love the challenge of finding and connecting the various pieces within this system. It’s exciting and I like to imagine the little gears in my brain turning and tumbling, connecting and imaging new possibilities.  

As I fully embrace the word “coordinator” in my title, I’m also starting to look more closely at the literature out there. In libraries, my first thought is the research done on library instruction coordinators. I immediately went back through work by Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby, like their ACRL 2017 contributed paper and their more recent In the Library with a Lead Pipe article. I’m excited to re-read and reflect, with my coordinator hat more firmly on. There’s lots at play and I want to be conscious of how I navigate and investigate this as I keep moving forward. 

For me, this blog post is a starting spot. I don’t have any grand conclusions or big ideas to leave you with. But I’m excited, for this title and for embracing the coordination. 

Do you coordinate in your role? If so, tell me more! I’m curious at the ways we think about this and do our work around this title.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Decorative image of a sun and clouds.

Photo by Tanishq Tiwari on Unsplash

At my community college, we’re piloting new information literacy instruction for English 101. The director hopes to move away from powerpoint lectures to give students more hands-on opportunities, and since I’m the liaison for the English department I’ve been spending a lot of my summer on this project, brainstorming, reading, and chewing the ends off all my pens.

We saw that students felt overwhelmed by the content of our traditional English 101 session, both in volume and complexity. So we scaled our learning outcomes for the one-shot way back — students don’t need to leave their first visit to the library as proficient searchers. We’re establishing a foundation of info lit concepts, and even more importantly, initiating a relationship between student and librarian. What this will mean in practice is two class visits: one informal, where we evaluate sources together with space for discussion, and one where we get into the specifics of database demonstrations and work on actual research for their assignment.

Earlier this month, I presented what I came up with to the rest of the teaching librarians. It was well-received, but funnily enough, someone who’s been at the institution awhile said my plan resembles what they used to do way back when.

I’ve only been in the library biz for about 4 years, so hearing that my “bold new ideas” echo the early 2000s gave me pause. Am I on the right track? Or is there some yet-undiscovered and perfect way to introduce students to types of information and help them tune in to their own critical thinking instincts? I came to the conclusion that there really is nothing under the sun, and we might switch up the methods of delivery as the information landscape evolves, but the goals of information literacy instruction remain the same.

In fact, focusing on the foundational concepts of information literacy is appropriate for English 101 students. I am learning that a good teacher doesn’t flood a student with way too much information on new subject. I have to have faith that the students who want to know more will return, or that another teacher in the future (someone I may never meet) will build on the knowledge I’m helping them create now.

And if our new program is really a callback to a few decades ago, that tells me that technology is not always the perfect tool for learning. When a row of computer screens come between me and the students, I’ve noticed that students are more reluctant to take an active role in the class. Sometimes a worksheet or the chairs pushed into a circle is the simplest way to get students talking.

So after all this research and my fantasy about the elaborate games and software I could use to “transform” the way instruction is done, I came back around and landed where we’ve always started. That was humbling, but I’m excited to start this new year with an open mind about what I can learn from past librarians and future students.

Am I Productive or Just Busy?

Since I’m new to medical libraries / academic medical centers this year, my summer takes a slightly different shape from what I’m used to. We get waves of new users starting at the end of June when the new residents show up, then a new group (nursing, PAs, etc.) every few weeks or so until we also get new undergrad students when the rest of the university does. So we still get the cycle of, “Summer is here; I can finally get everything done; wait, where did the summer go?” but it’s condensed. Late July feels like summer outside but like September in the library!

So I was thinking about how college librarians tend to think of summer as this magical time when we “won’t be busy” and can “get things done.”

I started thinking about this several years ago, when I was just starting to pick up bigger projects, earn more responsibility, present at conferences, etc. Everyone was always talking about how busy they were, and how tiring and stressful it could be, and that they couldn’t get anything done because they were so busy.

Wait… if you’re busy, shouldn’t that mean that you’re getting things done?

Well, no. This may seem obvious, but for confirmation, let’s turn to our good friend, the OED:

  • Busy, adj. “Occupied with or concentrating on a particular activity; actively engaged; doing something that engrosses the attention.”
  • Productive, adj. “Having the quality of producing something, typically through effort or work; that produces, esp. some significant amount or result; creative, generative”

So being busy (without being productive) really is a problem. Playing Sudoku or binge-watching “Stranger Things” counts as “busy.” But to be “productive,” I need to actually be getting things done… with the added caveat that they should be things that need to get done, like research, writing, answering reference questions, teaching classes, etc.

Whenever I catch myself about to say, “I’m so busy!” or “What a busy day I had today,” I stop and ask myself, am I busy or am I actually productive? Ideally, I’ll be able to say “productive” more often than not, and it feels so much more satisfying than saying I’m just busy. Everyone has days where they keep spinning their wheels and nothing gets done. Maybe the internet goes out and prevents you from getting anything done, or there are a lot of little fires to put out. And that’s okay. The goal is to have more actually-productive days than just-busy days.

How you go about making that a reality is, ultimately, up to you. There are as many systems for organization and task/time management as there are people. I, for example, combine the forces of Google calendar, Outlook, and bullet journalling to create a monstrosity of planning that intimidates most who see it. However, when I have too much on my plate, or can’t focus for one reason or another, or have had too many “just-busy” days and not enough “actually-productive” days lately, I condense everything into one Post-It note with five things I really need to buckle down and get done that day. (It’s worth mentioning that I usually combine work and home tasks on Post-It days… for example, one day this week I had this Post-It: “Outline conference proposal; edit ACRLog post; meeting; clean cat litter; mail rent check.”) But this won’t work for everyone, so if you don’t already have a way to keep yourself productive, there are a ton of systems for you to try.

I also use other strategies, like the dedicated Spotify playlist I listen to if I’m writing or editing, getting up and taking a walk, and occasionally when I really need to get something written, Write or Die, which I found thanks to NaNoWriMo a few years ago… you set your own parameters (amount of time, how much needs to be written, and the consequences (like annoying sounds) or rewards (like photos of cute puppies)).

Better bloggers than myself have touched on this topic before right here at ACRLog, so I recommend checking out When Busy Leads to Block; Self-Care: Focusing on You; to consider the difference between busy and productive in the context of meetings, A World with No Meetings?!; and one of the posts that got me thinking about this topic several years ago with the sentence, “Busy-ness is just another social competition,” Lost Time Is Never Found.

What techniques work for you? What have you tried and found wasn’t a good fit for you?

Thoughts on the OWL/Chegg partnership

On the ILI-L (Information Literacy Instruction) listserv, there’s been a discussion of the relatively new partnership between the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Chegg, the for-profit textbook rental company (also the creator of the Citation Machine service). The folks on the listserv caught me up on the implications of this partnership and Chegg’s reputation.

Until this story, I didn’t know that Chegg offered more than textbook rentals. They own Citation Machine, but they’ve also acquired BibMe, EasyBib, and Cite This For Me. Looking at these websites and seeing “a Chegg service” at the top of each page unnerved me. The top 4 Google results for “citation generator” all come from the same for-profit website. How had I never known this before? I was about to learn even more about how students use Chegg.

Educator and blogger John Royce’s post, “Not such a wise OWL” captures my reaction to this partnership. “Chegg makes me feel uneasy. It advertises “24/7 homework help,” online tutors and other study help and solutions manuals (solutions to problems posed in textbooks).” These tutors and study tools are behind a paywall, so I don’t have personal experience with them, but this makes me feel uneasy, too.

Another librarian shared this presentation about Chegg, which explores Chegg’s reputation for helping students cheat. The researcher links to college student tweets about Chegg’s homework help; “while Chegg claims to help students do their homework, students on Twitter are very clear that they use the site to do their homework for them.”

I wondered what this partnership would actually mean for the reliability of the OWL. Visiting the OWL’s MLA formatting and style guide, there’s now a widget at the top of each page that offers to cite your source automatically with MLA, disclosing underneath the box that it’s powered by Citation Machine. I noticed the OWL does link to a page about using citation machines responsibly, but I doubt many students would click or read that warning.

At my community college library, source documentation is a major instruction focus. Our institution uses NoodleBib and our own handouts, so I wouldn’t recommend Chegg’s Citation Machine either way. But I’ve used the Purdue OWL for answering particular or unfamiliar questions about citation styles; it’s a quick search and has plentiful examples for students to model their citations after. When you’re pressed for time, an online tool is easier than thumbing through a citation manual.

This integration of Chegg services into OWL guides reminds me of native advertising. I imagine many students wouldn’t notice that disclosure under the automatic citation box. They have come to trust the OWL for those late-night writing questions. Librarians (like myself!) have also relied on and trusted the OWL for precise citation information. This is my opinion, but I see Purdue incorporating this for-profit tool as a betrayal of that trust.

Anytime I teach information literacy, I encourage students to ask, “Who published this and why?” We talk about how advertising and sponcon have a clear self-interest that should make a user think twice about the impartiality of that information. So what to do with the OWL? The ILI-L listserv suggested a few OWL-like alternatives, like this one from Excelsior College and this Massey University resource. Other folks say they still link to the Purdue OWL on their research guides, but with a word of caution for the citation generator. I’m very curious about other library workers’ thoughts on this. Is citation education a part of your library’s responsibilities or priorities? What do you think of Chegg and/or this effort to monetize the OWL?

What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.