What a little bug with a sword taught me about learning

Screenshot from the gameplay of Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight on Steam

These last few months at home, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I started with relaxing ones, like Stardew Valley, tried my hand at some first person shooters like Overwatch (not my greatest strength), and replayed a few old favorites from childhood, like Mario Kart. I definitely do not identify as a hardcore gamer — I play games on Easy mode, I embrace the word “casual,” and I’m really not interested in the gate-keeping ferocity that comes with that identity.

But I found myself at home with a spooky little action-adventure game called Hollow Knight. You’re a little bug with a nail for a sword, exploring a vast underground kingdom. As I played this summer, I saw how video games are a type of learning environment. Here’s some things that Hollow Knight reminded me about learning:

Non-linear Learning

This game is laid out like a big, interlocking web of pathways. Because there’s no one way to complete the game, you can access areas that you’re not strong enough to face yet. It’s easy to get in over your head, but it’s also a chance to experiment and creatively beat the game. Just like there’s no one path to knowledge, you can approach this game in multiple ways and get different results, even different endings to the story.

Threshold Concepts

At the beginning of this game, you are very weak, and the skills you gain build on one another. It’s very satisfying to earn a new ability and then immediately put it to use on the next level. A threshold concept in education is like a portal that opens up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land, 2003). In Hollow Knight, we’re talking about parts of the game that are literally inaccessible until you learn a new skill, like a passage underwater or a really high platform to a new level. You’ve got to jump before you can double-jump, you know? 

Mapping

Concept art for the elaborate map of Hallownest, the world Hollow Knight takes place in

When you enter a new area of the game, you don’t have a map right away. You have to fill it out yourself as you explore. You can even see your little knight scrawling on the map, recording travels and lessons learned. This design adds to the satisfaction of exploration, as Nevada Dru says for video games blog Bits & Pieces: “When you have no map and no idea where you are going in a new area, the world feels dangerous and unknowable. When you finally find that map and see all the areas yet to be explored, finding and uncovering their secrets is exciting.” I love how discovery begets more discovery. This makes me want to incorporate more mapping in my classroom activities.

Patience

I’m notoriously impatient in a video game. As soon as I enter a boss fight, I want to get right up on the guy and finish the battle as soon as possible. But Hollow Knight does not reward this approach — there’s timing to every enemy’s attacks, and you’re going to need a lot more strategy than just “hit him really fast!!” I learned to slow down, pay closer attention, and it paid off. Practicing patience also boosted my confidence; even in tough spots later in the game, I’d think to myself, “I can do this.”

Failure

Patience leads me to another important element of this game: repeated failure. After you use up your health, you die and have to start from your last save point. It’s very easy to fail in this game, especially when you enter a new section or are facing a boss. The number of times I’ve died in this game is probably in the thousands. But aside from sometimes losing your money, the stakes for failure are pretty low — you just gotta get back up and try again. It felt good to persist, to make progress, to do something over and over. And surprisingly, after you’ve done it once, like timing out your jumps perfectly to navigate a room of spikes, you’ve got it and you can do it again.

Walkthroughs

A video game walkthrough is a step-by-step guide to help a player navigate either the entire game or specific sections of it. Sometimes they’re text tutorials, and sometimes they’re video. When I’d get stuck in a tough part, I’d watch someone else complete that area in a YouTube walkthrough, and suddenly I could do it too. I found that watching someone else “do the thing” makes it possible for me to achieve it. It’s like having a mix of a tutor and a role model, and it’s especially helpful when it comes to challenging tasks.

It’s nothing new that video games could have educational purpose. But in a summer separated from my students, it was comforting to find learning in leisure.

Performance

We have tents and grand speeches, branded masks and slogans, rehearsals and schematics and all of the plans that accompany major performative events. And to be honest, that’s exactly what college, university, and academic library reopenings feel like to me: A Performance.

We’re reopening because of political pressure and financial need, not because it’s suddenly safer to do so. We can’t talk about closing after reopening; in fact we pretend it’s not even an option. We only talk about cutting services, socially distancing, limiting crowds in the library, and cleaning and sanitation. We suspend disbelief so that we can say it will all be as safe as possible because this is the story we are telling; this is the performance we are giving. We see some universities cancelling these performances, but most of us are persisting.

I, like many of you, am not great at this performance. I can’t “Yes, and…” these plans as I sit safely working from home for the next few months. I am not putting myself at risk but my colleagues are going to be doing that everyday. It’s a dangerous performance set on a foundation of hopes, best laid plans, willful ignoring/ignorance, and government incompetence. I don’t know how long it will run–2 weeks? 2 months? a whole semester?–but it’s not a show I thought we would ever be performing. It feels like living in a McSweeney’s essay or an article from The Onion.

I am grateful to have a job / part to play in this performance. I am grateful to have health insurance and meaningful work I can do from home. I am grateful for my paycheck. But do I love this performance? No.

An Ode to My Library Friends and Colleagues

This is my last post as a blogger for the First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience series. My first year as a librarian has been a whirlwind. I just finished writing my annual self-evaluation report reflecting on my year, and I’m reminded again that reflection is hard and challenging work. I’ve strived to be a reflective practitioner, and I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to externalize my reflections over the past year through monthly blog posts. 

If I had to answer the one minute paper I give to students in class, “what is the most meaningful or useful thing you’ve learned,”I would say that building relationships and getting support from my network have been crucial to navigating my first year of academic librarianship. My fellow FYAL blogger Karina Hagelin too recently  pointed to the importance of “asking for help” and “building community.” Melissa Dewitt similarly stated that “relationships are the most important thing.” I relate to their words so much. Here are some of the specific ways that my library friends and colleagues have supported me:

Being generous with feedback.

As a new librarian, receiving positive affirmations and feedback made a huge difference. Each and every “thank you” and “great job” elevated my confidence and made me feel that my work was recognized and valued. Whether it was a colleague relaying kind words from a faculty member about a class I taught or a reply-all thank you email about a document I shared, these small acts made me feel supported and motivated. Some folks have also been profuse and loud(!!!) with their support, hyping me up whenever I have doubts or concerns. Their generosity has inspired me to be more proactive in vocalizing my gratitude for my colleagues and their work, particularly those early in their career. 

Gently pushing me to opportunities.

I applied to write for the ACRLog because my manager encouraged me to with a simple tweet. I’m not sure if I would have applied if they hadn’t specifically pointed me to the opportunity. Through emails, newsletters, listservs, social media, and googling, there are lots of different ways that I become aware about professional development opportunities. However, often what would push me to apply or pursue an opportunity was a colleague. For example, one colleague wrote me an email about a call for participation in a research institute, which was previously circulated in another library-wide email. In this email, my colleague not only encouraged me to apply but also offered to answer questions about the opportunity and share their experience as well. As a new librarian, these nudges and pushes have prompted me to consider opportunities that I may have been hesitant to apply for or ignored, thinking that it is out of my reach. 

Giving me real talk. 

I’ve asked for advice from a lot of my colleagues, and I am grateful for their honest and thoughtful responses. From helping me understand and navigate organizational culture a.k.a “unwritten rules,” to advice about my career, many of my colleagues have been candid and forthright about challenges and the realities of the current environment. This real talk has not only helped me make more informed decisions but also be more honest and vulnerable about where I’m at. I didn’t feel the need to hide the fact that I was looking for other jobs throughout my contract (and may even leave early if need be!) and was able to have conversations about my career beyond my current place of work.  I’ve also been able to talk about navigating and working in a pre-dominantly white institution and profession, and folks have been generous with me in sharing their advice and experiences.

Building friendship

While I have a lot of friends and support outside libraries, it’s been wonderful to build friendships with those who understand my experiences within librarianship. Moreover, as someone who moved to a new city for work, I’ve naturally looked to my colleagues as a local support network. While I’m wary of any rhetoric around “work as family,” I’ve found the intertwining of personal and professional relationships to be meaningful and valuable. Some of my colleagues actively and intentionally reached out to me, inviting me to social events and asking about the non-library parts of my life. These are colleagues I happily call my friends, and getting to them on a personal-level has made me appreciate them even more, personally and professionally.

One of my favourite things to read in a book is the acknowledgements section, where the author names all the people who have contributed to the writing and production of their book. I’m not going to name names, but to my library friends and colleagues, you have been an integral part of my first year as an academic librarian. I don’t know how I would have done this without you! Thank you for providing me with an example of how to be a librarian that supports and lifts up others. As I move throughout my career, I hope to be that source of support and friendship to others within the library community!

So Long, Farewell: Reflections + Takeaways From My Diversity Fellowship at Cornell University

Art by @grlpwrgang

My diversity fellowship at Cornell University has been such a transformative journey, with so many opportunities to learn, grow, and expand as an academic librarian. I spent the first six months of my fellowship working as an Assistant Archivist in Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). During this time, I worked with the Human Sexuality Collection (HSC), cataloging visual resources to improve access and description for researchers and community members, processing collections, and working alongside the curator, Brenda Marston, to grow the HSC’s Instagram presence. Serving on RMC’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Task Force, I also co-authored a 40-page report on recommendations and best practices on our commitment to social justice (something I am passionate about and see as an integral common thread to all of our work).

I spent the rest of my fellowship working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell’s library serving the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences students, staff, and faculty. Here, I rediscovered my passion for teaching (especially with zines!) and put my community organizing background and skills to use through creative outreach strategies and innovative programming. For example, I founded and facilitated a makers night for women, transgender, and femme makers – communities that have often been excluded from and left out by Makerspaces – at the mannUfactory (Mann Library’s Makerspace). This biweekly event introduced students to our Makerspace to build their skills (and confidence) as makers. I directly sought out the expertise and experiences of LGBTQ+ students on campus so we could plan projects they were enthusiastic and excited about, such as a gender-inclusive fashion night. I also built interdisciplinary, cross-campus, collaborations with staff, faculty, and graduate students to bring together a diverse array of skillsets, knowledges, and experiences. 

Another project I undertook was co-founding the Equity and Empowerment Reading Group, a social justice reading group for librarians and library workers, with two of my amazing colleagues, Eliza Bettinger and Wendy Wilcox. Together, we created a set of collective guidelines to facilitate our discussions, picked an initial topic (recruiting diverse candidates for library jobs) and selected a few articles, booked a room, ordered food, and sent out an invitation to the library’s listserv. At the end of our first meeting and discussion, we solicited feedback from everyone about topics they’d like to read about and discuss in the future. Before COVID closed down our campus, we met at Olin Library, with anywhere from a dozen to twenty librarians and library workers trekking across campus to meet each month. Since then, we’ve begun meeting and facilitating the reading group via Zoom, which has been a successful experiment and transition. Together, we’ve been able to create a community within our library system that pulls people together around social justice across physical and disciplinary boundaries. I’ve had the opportunity to present on topics ranging from zines as an intervention in trauma recovery to queer worldmaking through art, as well as to teach webinars on trauma-informed librarianship and supporting survivors in libraries. And of course, to blog here at the ACRLog as a First-Year Academic LIbrarian blogger. During my year blogging here, I’ve explored topics such as trauma-informed librarianship, dealing with rejection, and radical vulnerability and empathy in libraries. As my year blogging at the ACRLog comes to a close, I want to reflect on – and share with you – the lessons I’m taking with me from my fellowship to wherever I may land next (I’m on the job market and excited about instruction, outreach, and student success positions in the Northeast).

Art by @hellokitty

Lesson #1: Ask for help

Asking for help is a sign of bravery, strength, and wisdom. I want to acknowledge that asking for help is really hard to do, especially as academics. However, I’ve found the benefits of reaching out for support far outweigh the challenges, both personally and professionally. Whether you’re having a hard time learning a new technology or struggling with your mental health, it’s important to reach out and ask for the support you need – and deserve. 

For example, during the month of October, my post-traumatic stress disorder always worsens. Last year, I asked for help before the month started by reaching out to a person I felt safe and comfortable with, my supervisor, about getting accommodations for my disability. Not only was I able to get the help I needed to succeed professionally, my supervisor also looped in colleagues (with my consent) to set up a collective care document to help me through the month. Instead of just surviving that month at work, I was able to truly thrive as an academic librarian.

None of us can do this work all on our own, alone, or in isolation. I believe wholeheartedly in interdependence, which is one of the ten principles of disability justice. In an interview with writer and organizer Mia Mingus, she states that interdependency is “thinking about how […] we build relationships and how […] we build in such a way that really pushes back against the myth of independence and this myth that we can and should be able to do everything on our own. Or even this myth that that’s what everybody wants to do, that that’s what everybody desires, is to be independent.” Approaching our work and lives through the lens of interdependency acknowledges that we all bring unique experiences, wisdoms, and knowledges to the table, that we all have things to offer, and that we value everybody – because as people, we are inherently valuable. As I often remind my friends and colleagues (and myself!), you are not your productivity.

Art by @quotesbychristie

Lesson #2: Find your niche

When I started my diversity fellowship at Cornell, I had no idea what I wanted to do, outside of being an academic librarian. My past work experiences included managing an LGBTQ+ resource library, organizing library and information science conferences, and making my university’s special collections accessible as digital collections. It wasn’t until after I started teaching and doing outreach at Cornell that I realized that was what I wanted to do! I had always loved teaching but stopped pursuing an education degree due to my identity as a (gender)queer disabled femme after learning the realities of what queer, trans, and disabled K-12 teachers experience. Working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian helped me rediscover my passion for teaching. 

My background as an interdisciplinary artist and zinester led to me teaching classes from a variety of disciplines, ranging from communications courses to pre-med ones, using creative instructional tools and feminist pedagogies. I ended up receiving tons of instruction requests based on my reputation as the “zine librarian” at Cornell. This, in turn, led to receiving paid opportunities to educate professors about using zines as feminist pedagogical tools within their college classrooms.

Within my professional community, I began taking courses on and writing about trauma-informed librarianship. My work is informed both by my experiences as a survivor and by my education and professional research. Talking, writing, and even tweeting about trauma-informed librarianship led to paid speaking opportunities, such as webinars for professional library organizations. Having a niche can lead to a plethora of opportunities, including ones I hadn’t imagined for myself. Who thought I’d receive honorariums to talk about topics I love and am deeply passionate about? I certainly hadn’t!

Art by @amberibarreche

Lesson #3: Build community

As an early-career librarian, it’s been especially important to build communities of practice and support. Twitter has been an invaluable tool in connecting with other librarians for me. While I was earning my MLIS, I knew that lots of librarians were active on Twitter, so I began following folks doing research I was interested in, who had jobs that seemed like something I wanted to pursue, and/or who shared identities with me and could relate to some of the struggles of being in this profession as someone who is trans, queer, and/or disabled. I reached out to folks, tweeted regularly, and built relationships, even friendships, with other librarians who have continued to help me as my career shifts, transforms, and evolves. As my fellowship comes to an end, so many other librarians have sent me relevant job opportunities, offered to help me practice interviewing, and edit cover letters, my CV, and so on. It’s easy to feel isolated within academia. Having a community, even an online one, is incredibly important. 

Art by @nikkimiles_

Lesson #4: Explore the world outside of your bubble

Establishing your niche is important – but so is getting outside of your bubble! Academic librarianship can be so siloed; it can sometimes be difficult to break outside of our expertise or speciality area. I’ve found some of the best learning and professional development opportunities I’ve had, though, have happened when I stepped outside of my comfort zone to try something new. 

If you have the funding available, make a case to explore a conference, class, or workshop outside of your area. I’ve found attending conferences like Creating Change, an organizing and skill-building conference for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies, and Allied Media Conference, a conference focused on relationship-building across issues, identities, organizing practices and creative mediums, to be incredibly useful for shaping my practice as an academic librarian. (Bonus: the Allied Media Conference typically has a Radical Libraries, Archives, and Museums track too!) If attending a conference outside of your field is out of the question, try exploring an offering at a conference you’re already attending that sparks joy or interest for you. 

Unfortunately, many of us are having our professional development funding gutted or  lack this crucial resource altogether. If you’re in a similar boat, I suggest checking out blogs, articles, or Twitter chats on topics that may not seem to be directly “relevant” to your work but are something you care about. Jessica Dai, a Resident Librarian at West Virginia University, has graciously put together a directory of free webinars and trainings for academic librarian workers, organized by topic, that you can learn from as well! 

My fellowship has taught me so much – and I hope that I’ve been able to teach my amazing colleagues at Cornell a few things too.

Thank you all for reading along with my adventures – and struggles – this incredible year at both the ACRLog and Cornell. I want to leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Anaïs Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.