Conferencing while Chronically Ill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Work weeks, schedules, and supporting students

Recently, Facebook reminded me of a picture I posted when I was in undergrad. It’s a picture of my Google calendar, in the fall of 2012. I was a busy undergrad, especially that fall, but my caption when I reposted this picture was something like, “If only 2012 Hailley knew what 2019 Hailley’s calendar would look like.” 

A screenshot of a Google calendar, with many appointments, from 6 AM in the morning until 9 PM at night.
My 2012 calendar

Between working in Admissions, being a writing tutor, sitting on two committees, being a part of student government and a literary journal, taking four classes, and clarinet lessons, I was never bored. Back in 2012, it was normal for days to stretch from 8 AM until 9 PM. The day wasn’t even officially done at 9 PM: that just meant it was time for readings, homework, or hanging out with friends. I felt busy, and at times, busier than than my friends, but overall, the pace of my schedule felt normal and what it should be like as an undergrad. 

These days, a meeting ending at 9 PM seems “late.” I was on campus walking with friends to a play and overheard a student say they had a meeting starting at 9 PM. My friends and I shared a look that said, “I would not want to start a meeting at 9.” College can be a time when traditional 9-5 is lost. If you’re awake, a meeting can happen. 

As the Student Engagement Coordinator, working with undergraduates is a fundamental part of my job. It has always felt normal for me to stay late, to host a workshop after dinner, meet with a student group, or run a Pop Up Library. And when I saw that Facebook memory pop up this time, I started to think about who else (faculty, staff) had to stay late when I was in college to support my student engagement. In some ways, it’s all coming full circle, as I stay late to support a new group of students. 

I also feel like there is an expectation that I’ll stay late. Part of that pressure is internal, because I remember what it was like to be a student and trying to find time to meet with faculty or advisors during the day (see calendar above). Part of that is my personality, and the ways that I let my personal and professional life bleed together. Part of that also comes from my first experience at Penn State, where I worked from 1-10 PM and saw how the library changed after 5 PM, when the “day folks” left and something new settled in its place. Part of that pressure comes from my conditioning to be helpful, as a woman in a service-orientated profession (Harris, 1992; Hicks, 2014) and some of that pressure is probably imagined.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this pressure and how my ability to stay late is partially built on my identity. I’m a young, single lady with no dependents. I’m often (in both positive and negative connotations) told that I have a lot of energy. The undercurrent of some of these statements imply that with that energy I’m well-suited to work with undergraduates. I feel that these characteristics make people think that of course, I’ll always stay late, handle that evening workshop, or be okay with an after-dinner meeting. They assume that my lack of any dependents means my evenings are always open. If this is the logic, what does it mean when my life inevitably changes? Does the pressure go away? Do I stop staying late or doing workshops on the weekends? Is it implied that eventually I’ll move away from “after hours”? If I move away from that work, will I lose touch with the undergraduates I serve? And if I do stop staying late, how will that change my work (and impact) with undergraduate students? 

In a recent study, Lily Todorinova (2018) examined job position descriptions for undergraduate and first year librarian positions. In this process, she discovered that between 2014 and 2016, these types of positions were on the rise. Many of those positions were listed as entry-level and were offered entry-level salaries, for example, lower than the average salary in 2016 (Todorinova, 2018, p. 209). What does this trend mean for the profession? If we want these positions to recognize and respond to movements within higher education and find ways to integrate the library (broadly: information literacy, instruction, services, etc.) more meaningfully into student life, how are we supporting these new professionals? And how are we being flexible in that support, so that these colleagues are not regularly working 12 hour days, as they accommodate both the traditional work hours and the student hours? Do we allow for time to be flexed in these positions? Do we force our colleagues in these positions to “grow” out of them?

These structures and this tension aren’t limited to academic librarians in engagement and first-year positions; student affairs professionals also have a high burnout rate (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016; Mullen, Malone, Denney, & Dietz, 2018). Many of the reasons why student affairs professionals leave are due to long hours and the struggle to maintain a work-life balance (Marshall et al., 2016). In a study done on new student affairs professionals, one respondent mentioned the long hours were a sacrifice that would result in long-term payoffs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). But that also feels problematic, especially in thinking of a library setting: if I set a precedent, what structure am I putting into place for those who do this work after me? Is that a tradition I want to instill?

So, what helps keep you student-centered, while setting boundaries and without it consuming your entire schedule? My thinking these days is remembering what it was like to be a student, who posted that picture of her calendar on Facebook because she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and academically. To remember those people who supported me in college and find ways to give that back, to a new group of students. And probably most importantly, to keep asking questions to the students I work with about their day-to-day. What does it mean to be a college student at Penn State? As Todorinova discovered, many librarians in engagement positions feel that they responsibility is to leverage student experiences (something I strongly agree with), and there has to be a way to get that insight, both within traditional working hours and sometimes, after 5.

At the end of the day, students will still meet at the end of their day. In wanting to support students, folks in these positions will work outside the bounds of 9-5. What we can do, both as employees and supervisors of these types of positions? I don’t have any firm answers but I do have a lot of thoughts. Currently they include:

  • Articulate our values and how those plays out in our work. If we want to be student-centered, what does that look like, for us as an organization?
  • Understand that just because you have “engagement” or “first-year” in your title, doesn’t mean that you’re the only person who can support the entire student population. This work has to be done collectively and not placed solely on one individual. 
  • Recognition that everyone’s time (ours, others, students, etc.) is valuable. It’s not a competition of who works the most, but instead an understanding that we all have things we care about and want to pursue outside our work responsibilities.   
  • Identify your colleagues that work outside the bounds of 9-5. Articulate why that is (position type, job description, population to serve, etc.) and reflect on something you’re doing to support their schedule. If you’re not sure of your answer, ask that person what’s one new way you can support their schedule.

I see and feel the tension, and don’t know exactly how those feelings and tension will change over the next few years. But I’m reflecting on these structures and trying to sort it out. I’m curious about what others think about these ideas and strategies around this topic.


Reference

Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Hicks, D. (2014). The Construction of Librarians’ Professional Identities: A Discourse Analysis / La construction de l’identité professionnelle du bibliothécaire?: Une analyse de discours. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 38(4), 251–270. https://doi.org/10.1353/ils.2014.0017

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359

Mullen, P. R., Malone, A., Denney, A., & Dietz, S. S. (2018). Job Stress, Burnout, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intention Among Student Affairs Professionals. College Student Affairs Journal, 36(1), 94–108. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0006

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing New Professionals: Lessons for Graduate Preparation Programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022

Todorinova, L. (2018). A Mixed-Method Study of Undergraduate and First Year Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries in the United States. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.02.005

Introducing Yourself When You’re a New Librarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Yoonhee Lee, Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian at McLaughlin Library at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

“So, tell me about yourself…” is a question that I dread. Whether it’s in an interview situation or when you’re meeting someone for the first time in a professional or personal setting, I struggle with how to introduce myself in a succinct but engaging way. I’ve been introducing myself a lot the last couple months, as I’ve started my first academic librarian job. I’ve been meeting library colleagues, faculty, staff, and students in the hallway, meetings, orientation events, and classrooms. Depending on who I was talking to and the situation, I introduced myself in various ways, ranging from just saying my name to talking about my job as a Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian.

While in library school the importance of having a 30-second elevator pitch was stressed throughout my studies, particularly in relation to looking for work and networking. I’ve tried to hone my “I’m a library student looking for a library job” pitch while participating in networking events, attending library conferences, and going to interviews. Fumbling through answering questions about my new role, I realized that I needed to develop something similar for my new professional identity as an academic librarian. But I found it challenging to sum up what I do when I wasn’t sure or comfortable with this new identity yet. Even saying “I’m a librarian” still felt foreign to me.

A lot of the questions I have surrounding how to introduce myself is rooted in anxieties about my newness. Not only was I new, but due to my appearance, I’m often mistaken as a student. I wanted to present myself as someone who is confident and authoritative, particularly when I was talking to faculty about coming into their classrooms and providing library instruction. Trying to transition from library student to a professional librarian, I was super focused on presenting myself professionally.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to think about introductions differently during an orientation session for new faculty. In the morning, we did typical introductions, which involved going around the room sharing our name, department, and field of research. Many folks also shared their academic history, including previous institutions, degrees, and current projects. Feeling a bit conscious about not having research interests yet (imposter syndrome strikes again!), I quickly said my name and the subject areas I support. Later in the afternoon, during a session with the Office of Teaching and Learning, we were asked to reintroduced ourselves to the person sitting beside us. But, instead of listing our research interests, we were asked to introduce ourselves through discussing our parents and grandparents. This exercise was an intimate experience, as we shared our personal lives and journeys with one another. It was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

I felt awkward sharing about my Korean immigrant parents, which usually only my close friends know about — not my work colleagues. I felt vulnerable and a bit exposed. My family, however, is an integral part of who I am and how I view the world, not just personally but as a librarian too.

I’ve been inspired by the many librarians who’ve been discussing vulnerability, like sharing personal experiences or practicing supported vulnerability. Engaged and transformative learning involves taking risks and being vulnerable. In my library instruction classes (and at the reference desk), I ask students to share their previous experiences with library research, including challenges they’ve faced. I ask them to share what they already know and what they don’t know. I’m asking students to be vulnerable. But I also understand that I can’t ask students to be vulnerable without being vulnerable myself.

I’m not sure how to incorporate all this when I introduce myself at the beginning of class. I believe in teaching with your whole self and that my teaching is influenced by who I am, my position in the world, and my worldview. Some of who I am can be gleaned from my name and my appearance. Other aspects of myself, like the fact that I’m a new academic librarian that was a student just a few months ago, I would need to explicitly share. Usually, you gradually share yourself as you get to know someone better. With my library colleagues, as I develop relationships, they’ll get to know me beyond my name and job title and work. But with students in a classroom, I might only see them one time in a one-shot class. How do I introduce my authentic self? How can I share but also set boundaries? How do I share what I don’t know without undermining myself?

I don’t have the answers. Maybe I’ll have a better idea once I’m more confident in my role as a new academic librarian, or maybe I won’t. But I’m super excited to continue to think and reflect on this throughout my career and hone my “I’m a librarian who can help you, but also I don’t know everything, and I’m here to learn with you — also I’m a whole person with varying knowledge and lived experience just like you” pitch to students.

“Student Needs Are Academic Needs”: My 2 Cents

This week I watched a new report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” make the rounds of community college listserv discussions. I watched the discourse around this report get kinda heated, so I thought I’d share my reaction.

As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.” 

I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.

I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers. 

But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.

A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:

“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.” 

The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report? 

Learning to Learn


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday I attended a presentation and tour of a private school for children with learning differences (everything from dyslexia and dysgraphia, to autism, ADHD, anxiety, and processing issues, etc.). I’ve written about my son’s issues with learning within a school setting before, in part as a means of processing my own feelings about standardized education, but also as a way to reflect on my own work as a teacher. It’s hard for my experiences as a parent of a child with different learning needs NOT to influence my approach to the classroom.

At this presentation, the school administrators stressed the importance of teaching students to learn how to learn. Because the school sells itself as a transition school–one where the typical student attends for 3 years before moving on to a mainstream public or private school–some parents were concerned about students’ abilities to catch up in certain subject areas. I was so impressed by the school administrators’ answer, and realized that is what we try to do (to varying degrees of success) with students in college. Yes, there is a focus on content; it’s what academic majors are, after all. But there is also an emphasis on metacognition and the development of students’ ability to self-reflect, organize, self-regulate, and solve information needs and problems.

For children with learning differences, success is about coming to terms with the self. Self: acceptance, efficacy, accountability, motivation, advocacy, etc. They’re often the outliers in their classroom, and the source of frustration for teachers. Their confidence is rattled, their anxiety is high, and they often feel alienated by learning at school. Their ability is there but it’s hidden behind a complicated puzzle that can only be solved with care, time, attention, and an understanding of difference. Affect and feeling are central to unlocking their potential (really all learners’ potential) and making learning more than just a meaningless slog. A holistic approach to education is critical for these learners.

In taking a holistic approach to teaching and focusing on everything that makes learning possible, educators facilitate a version of learning that is self-directed and empowering. Learners have the agency to learn about whatever they want to learn and have the strategies and skills to make that happen. That’s not easy in public schools where teachers are accountable to standardized testing scores and hundreds of learning benchmarks. It’s difficult in college classrooms where faculty feel pressured to cover more content than is possible in one quarter or semester. It’s challenging in the teaching we do as librarians, where we manage our own desires to teach processes and critical thinking with faculty requests and student needs.

What could it look like to put learning how to learn first? How would that change our approach to teaching in libraries? In information literacy programs? The common refrain about library school is that it doesn’t teach you all the answers, but it teaches you how to find whatever answer you need. What if our graduate programs focused on teaching us to ask questions rather than find answers? To study learning as a social process (and research/information as a part of that process)? How might that impact our own approach to information literacy education?