Will this work?

In May 2017, I had an idea. I wanted to create a credit-bearing course, one that would provide students the foundation they needed to be peer research consultants (PRCs) within the libraries. The class would have the same vibes as writing tutor classes that are taught across the United States and called many different names (for example ENGL 250 at Penn State, Topics in Composition at Coe College). As a concept, the class made sense to me. Instead of cramming initial PRC training into a few weeks, we could have the space within a course to really dive into ideas and prepare students. It could also be a way to expose students to research through the lens of librarianship. 

In 2017, I had no clue about how to put together a semester long course, or the process at Penn State to get an actual class on the books. The course was a pipe dream, one that rattled around in my head, and had me jotting down stray thoughts in various notebooks and online documents. I would write out “Week 1” through “Week 16” and attempt different combinations of course content. My first drafts were a bunch of one-shots sessions, strung together, somewhat haphazardly, but with brief moments of clarity.

The more I thought about the class and the more I tinkered with it, the more I wanted to make it happen. About a year ago, I paired up with my colleague, co-teacher, and friend, Claire, and we started to take steps to get the course approved. At a large research institution, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Beyond documentation around learning objectives, assessment techniques, and a rough course outline, we also had to find 15 people to consult on our course. After these consults, we submitted it into the ether and eventually, our proposal made its way up the Liberal Arts chain. Finally, in November, it reached our Faculty Senate.

We found out the class passed with little fanfare. It was approved in a committee meeting and we found out from a colleague in the group who sent us a Slack message. It was December and our immediate thought was, “crap, now we have like six weeks to put a course together.” Luckily, Claire and I had one another, and a framework we had continued to tweak while the course was being reviewed. LST 250: Peer Tutoring in Research was official and on January 14, we taught our first class.

This class is all about turning a research idea around and around. We were inspired by Allison Hosier’s 2019 article in College & Research Libraries entitled “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study: A Proposed Metaconcept and Its Practical Application.” It probably wasn’t an article we needed our students to read in the first week, but it has helped us find the core of the class. We focus our energies on a topic, of our choice, and spend the semester researching it from all angles. The goal is that by the end, the students are really knowledgeable in a topic they care about, and also deeply understand their own research process, embedded within their discipline. If you can understand how research works, then I believe you can help someone else through that process. Of course, the question always is, “Will that actually work as a course?”

So far, I think so. This week we wrote research questions on whiteboards and made concept maps. We explored databases we recommend students “try first” and talked about how that could set us up for a certain research journey. We also read LIS articles that spoke of students in strange, disconnected, deficit-like ways around their ability to do research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about the students we teach, how we think about their research process, and how those attitudes influence our work. This class seems like a natural extension to the work I’ve been doing with students and finding ways to keep them in the center. 

A friend asked, “How’s it going professor?” and while that still feels weird to be a professor, things are good. We’re four weeks in and I have a much better understanding of what readings will work than I did a year ago. While the first few classes felt like 75 minutes was too much, we’re now scrabbling at minute 70 to finish class on time. I haven’t taught many one-shots so far this semester, but I imagine my presence will be different. I feel more confident in leading a class, and some of that is probably due to regularly teaching twice a week. The course is a challenge, and I need that in 2020. I feel lucky that I get to tackle the course with Claire and we can navigate these credit-bearing waters together. I can’t believe it has been almost three years since my initial idea; a lot has changed in the evolution of the course, but I look forward to where the course will go. If you’ve taught a credit-bearing class before, do you have any advice? What has worked for you in the past? What do you wish you would have known before you started? 


Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Being okay with confusion

I do a one minute paper for most of my library instruction sessions, where I ask students: what was the most useful or interesting they learned, what remains confusing or unclear. I also give them the space to add any additional comments or questions they have. Most leave that section blank, or provide quick feedback, like good job! Or thanks for the presentation! One time, a student wrote that the session made them more confused and more stressed about their upcoming assignment than before — I felt awful, and worried that as an instructor, I failed the student.  

When I’m feeling insecure about my teaching, I worry about this a lot. I worry that I’ve made an information literacy concept too complex and too hard to digest. My worries aren’t limited to classroom teaching. I worry too, when I’m providing reference help, particularly when it feels like I did not give the student the answer or solution they were looking for. 

In response, I’ve thought a lot about how I can communicate more clearly, and simplify my explanations. I’ve worked to incorporate more examples and make my lessons easier to understand. But after this past month of teaching multiple information literacy sessions on source evaluation and identifying scholarly sources, I’ve been thinking a lot about how learning doesn’t necessarily lead to more clarity. 

Many of the undergraduate classes I visit, specify what type of source students should use for their assignment. These sources are also described in multiple ways: scholarly sources, academic sources, peer-reviewed sources, secondary sources, primary articles, etc. I find myself trying to interpret what each assignment requirement means, and it varies depending on the class and discipline. For example, are textbooks scholarly sources? What if your textbook is a scholarly monograph that’s designed for use in undergraduate classrooms? Is a peer-reviewed student journal a scholarly source? Is a research article a primary or secondary source (why does it change depending on the discipline)? If a theoretical text doesn’t have citations, is it not a scholarly source? Although I know what these sources are, the answer can be complex, involving a critical understanding of disciplinary context and how academia and society value specific types of authority. 

In an effort to make identifying scholarly sources easy to understand, I fear that a potential takeaway of my lesson was the sources (peer-reviewed articles) you need for your assignment is good and other sources are bad. If that’s the case, even if students feel like they have a clear understanding of scholarly sources, I feel like I’ve failed them as an instructor. 

I want to bring complexity and critical thinking into my classrooms, but I also don’t want students to be discouraged or lost when doing their assignments. Since I usually only see the students once, I feel added pressure to get it right (you get one shot!).  I think discomfort and confusion are part of the learning process, but how do you know when the confusion is not generative?  

With a semester of teaching under my belt, I thought teaching information literacy would become easier. I am more confident about teaching in some ways, but more confused and uncertain in other ways. I’m grappling with my own feelings of confusion and discomfort — particularly, when I feel a class or reference interaction didn’t go well. 

I’ve been experimenting with journaling and recording my reflections, and in that process, I’ve been reminding myself that even if it felt like the class didn’t go well, that doesn’t mean that learning didn’t happen. Learning is complex and messy for both instructors and students. I’m working through embracing the fact that confusion is stressful, but wading through that discomfort can be rewarding and transformative!

Breaking the “Fake It” Habit

You ever start Googling “[library topic] for dummies,” desperately trying to find some blog post from 2007 that explains what a threshold concept is, or how a proxy server works? It’s particularly awkward when you get the sense it’s a 101 topic that everyone around you seems to understand. That scenario makes me feel like I’m in an old cartoon, where I’m a cat dressed up in a dog costume trying to mingle with other dogs without getting caught. 

The first time I noticed myself doing this as a librarian was with my first mentor and manager. She’s sharp, well-read, and has a background in education so she’d mention things like critical librarianship and I’d pretend to know what she was talking about until I could get back to my office and Google it. Looking back, I could have admitted my ignorance and been fine, but trying to keep up with her fierce intellect did bring my librarianship game up.

The second time I realized I was a penguin tap-dancing on increasingly fractured ice was when I took over managing electronic resources at an old job. When database links would break or there’d be authentication issues, I’d start the same process of answer-seeking — piecing together information from OCLC’s website, the notes my previous manager left, and my own trial and error. Eventually I learned enough to be confident, but in both of these examples I notice a troubling tendency: tell NO ONE you don’t know what you’re doing, and try to muddle through it on my own.

Image of a black labrador with a white badminton birdie on his nose, amongst a group of black ducks with white beaks

I don’t think I’m the only person who operates like this, and there’s plenty of reasons why we fake it. Sometimes you feel like there’s no one you can ask. Your library might not have another expert, or that person might not be very approachable. Maybe it’s something you said you understood in the interview process, thinking you had it under control, and finding the task more complicated than you expected. (See: every meme about pretending to understand Excel.)

Sometimes the reason you hide your lack of knowledge is because you fear being exposed as ignorant or undeserving. There’s a sense of shame that accompanies this. Not knowing things seems acceptable when you first start a job, but a year in, you feel more shy about admitting what you don’t know and asking questions.

The problem with this approach is that you’re on your own, and you don’t have to be. Even if you’re a solo librarian, there’s ALA listservs, library Twitter, and simply reaching out to someone at a nearby library. Lately I have been trying to think of myself as I would a student. Would I judge a student for not knowing what a database is the first time they walk into the classroom? Would I make a student feel stupid for asking a clarifying question? Writing this blog post is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you: it’s okay not to know things. Asking your manager to explain what an acronym stands for doesn’t reveal that you’re an impostor and don’t deserve your job.

All this is coming up because I’ve taken on an exciting role at my job, planning and executing a photo digitization project, and taking charge of the college archive. I studied archives in my MLS program, but as I get into the weeds of this project I realize there are gaps in my knowledge and that’s scary. But this time, I’m not going to try to hide it. This time, I’m going to ask for help.

If you feel this is a safe space to confess something you feel like you should understand by now but still don’t really get, share! I promise I won’t judge, and maybe we can help each other out.

Maintaining the Day Away

I’ve been back at work after Winter Break for 17 days now. The Spring semester started 10 days ago. I’ve scheduled classes, emailed instructors about their scheduled class details, assigned classes to librarian colleagues, and added those classes to calendars with relevant details about assignments. I’ve replied to questions over email, asked questions over email, made phone calls, and answered them. I’ve spoken at orientations and lead a workshop. I’ve written performance reviews and drafted annual goals. I’ve checked on classroom computers, projectors, markers, and erasers.

It’s not glamorous work. When my son asks what I do at work all day I usually say “I’m teaching,” but that’s not really true. It’s just easier to say than all of the above, which means nothing to an 8 year-old. Most of my time is spent on maintenance. It’s absolutely critical to my job, to our library’s instruction program, and to my own ability to get through the day.

It sometimes feels like a whole lot of nothing, but as Maura Smale has written time and time again, “much of the work that we as librarians do is…about maintenance.” It is work that is made invisible, because the innovative projects are shiny, and the work that goes into making things shine isn’t photogenic. No one is going to take a photo of me in my office with lukewarm coffee and a container of Oatmeal Squares cereal toggling between a spreadsheet, calendar, and email as I figure out how many people to schedule to teach each day while listening to ambient remixes of Legend of Zelda music. (Yes, that is a true scene from my work life.) But with this work, classes are taught, time and space is created to work on new initiatives, relationships are built, and innovation is given a foundation.

Let’s start sharing what library maintenance work looks like. What does maintaining the day away look like to you? What would stop happening if your maintenance work stopped? How can we highlight this as real work, rather than the stuff we have to get off of our plates before we start to do the real work? It may be dull. It may be tedious. But it is absolutely necessary.

Creating Cultures of Radical Vulnerability and Empathy: 5 Ways to Support Colleagues Who Are Survivors

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries…


Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

I recently had the opportunity to take a class on trauma-informed librarianship with S. Bryce Kozla. This course gave us the skills to describe the importance of trauma-informed care in library spaces and services, consider ways to keep an interaction from escalating (and to keep calm and present in a potentially stressful situation,) name some ways trauma-informed principles can be applied in libraries, identify the role of historical trauma and institutional oppression in trauma informed care, and reflect on the effects of trauma in the workplace and how a workplace can become trauma-informed. By the end of the course, we had developed a document, artifact, or action plan for the concepts learned in this course, going forward. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach”, an organization that is trauma-informed: “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” Based on this definition, I decided that my final project would be a presentation on “Supporting Survivors as Workers in the Academic Library,” which I will be presenting at Cornell University Library’s Engagement and Outreach Forum next month!

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries:


1. Cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability

The expectation to perform sanity is stifling and isolating for those of us who are survivors. As librarians, we’re expected to put on a shining face for our patrons and colleagues rather than “cause discomfort” if they were actually faced with our real-life, human struggles (physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.) This prioritization of others’ potential discomfort with our very real anguish is dangerous, creating a culture of silencing, fear, and stigma. As a community, we need to foster a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability, without the fear of repercussions from colleagues, supervisors, and/or HR. This isn’t an easy task but it’s something to work toward. A little progress each day can add up to big changes in the lives of our peers and colleagues.

As librarians and library workers, we need to commit ourselves to creating a culture that radically celebrates vulnerability, compassion, and empathy – a culture that allows folks to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. 

We need to show up for each other. I think sometimes people are afraid of doing it “wrong” – but showing up is what’s important, letting your colleague know they’re not alone, that you see them, and that you’re someone they can go to and trust. Doing so from a genuine place of care and concern is essential. 

2. Participating in mental health first aid

We can also participate in trainings on Mental Health First Aid or speak to our local survivor support organization or counseling center about how to best support colleagues if we’re nervous. These trainings should be offered periodically and everyone should be encouraged to attend to improve the overall health of our workplaces.  

I’m incredibly grateful for the colleagues and comrades who have supported me in bringing my whole self to work. They’ve made it a possibility for me. I hope I can pay their kindness forward by cultivating a similar culture wherever I go.

3. Changing ableist language

Something that seems small, but that really affects me and many other survivors, is the usage of ableist slurs, such as crazy and insane, as descriptors – usually not in the positive sense, never in the reclaimed sense. 

People have used these slurs to discredit me and my experiences as a crazy, disabled, and sick/chronically ill queer femme. They are both harmful and hurtful. It’s important to learn new language, to question why we feel it’s necessary to use ableist slurs, and to interrupt ourselves and others when we slip up. 

There are many resources available to help us communicate more compassionately. Lydia X. Z. Brown of Austic Hoya has a fantastic resource on ableism and language. This living document they’ve created (with the help and input of many different disabled people,) is an ever-growing, expanding, and changing glossary that includes lists of ableist words and phrases (including slurs), as well as words which people can consider using instead. 

4. Knowing your resources

One of the simplest things we can do as librarians for each other, for our patrons, and our communities, with the potential for the greatest impact is to know our resources (such as those related to mental health and sexual and domestic violence) both locally and nationally: What is their phone number? Where are they located? What services do they offer? 

It’s absolutely crucial to be familiar with resources outside of the police (and forced/nonconsensual institutionalization) which can be violent and even deadly for marginalized communities such as disabled people, people of color, and queer and transgender folks. 

When someone experiencing a mental health crisis is taken by police to the hospital, they may be forcibly stripped and injected with tranquilizers, as I have been before. This can be extremely traumatizing, especially if the person you’re “concerned” about is already a survivor. “What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process” is a living document of resources on alternatives to policing, which range from the theoretical to practical, including best practices and guiding questions.

5. Practicing community care

During October, a month when my PTSD tends to worsen, my supervisor put together a community care shared document in which colleagues could sign up to assist me with various tasks to help make the month easier for me. Here’s an example of what one might look like:

Image via Karina Hagelin.

These are just a few examples of ways you can support colleagues who are survivors at work. Support looks different for each and every one of us and it never hurts to ask what that might look like.

How do you support survivors at your workplace?