On Tenure

My position is on the tenure track. This is something I find a mixture of daunting, humbling, exciting, and embarrassing. Part of me is still looking for the adult in the room and then realizing it is me. The other part wonders why I have so much cartilage damage in my knees because balance is important.

I’m preparing the documentation for my first tenure review, which is at the end of November. The process is less of the hazing you hear about in many institutions and more focused on growing in your role. This was my goal anyway, and I feel grateful that the process supports my professional development. Having lacked many opportunities for professional development in my previous career, I’ve been taking to every chance possible like a fish to water. I love that I have a job where I am paid to learn so that I can help others do the same. The trouble is that there is so much to learn and so few hours in the day, but this has given me empathy for the information overload that so many of our students experience.

Still, the process of documenting everything I’ve done in four months’ time is daunting. I think that I’m coping with the pandemic by staying busy. Maybe if I pour myself into my work, then I can forget that as of this writing, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center says that 251,029 Americans have died. That’s such a mindboggling number, and I have the magical thinking that if I stay home and work hard, then maybe this isn’t happening.

So, I have collected all of the committee work, webinars, a LibGuide, several videos, social media, a marketing plan, emails, newsletters, memberships, and webinars to show that I’m moving along. The good news is that I am doing just that. I’ve found the process of structuring instructional sessions with learning outcomes first and then working backwards rewarding. The process has been an empowering one, but I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t understand why I get to do meaningful work and be (relatively safe) in the face of so much suffering.

Where Have I Been?

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Quetzalli Barrientos, Student Success Librarian at Tufts University.

Hello! I am so glad to be back at ACRLog. It has been a couple of years since I have written a post, but I always think back to my very first ACRLog post that I wrote in the Fall of 2015. That fall, I began my first professional librarian job as a resident librarian at a small, private university in Washington, D.C. I was new, eager, terrified, and more lost than I’d like to admit. 

It has been five years and much has changed since then. I spent three years in D.C. and once my residency ended, I moved to Massachusetts. I started as the Arts and Humanities Research and Instruction Librarian at Tufts University. Recently, due to a reorganization at our library, I am now the Student Success Librarian. When thinking of what I would write for this post, I thought that maybe I would talk more about new job duties, expectations, projects, etc. However, the more I thought about it, the more I reflected on where I truly am as a librarian and as a person. 

The past five years have been a continuous wave of changes, both exciting and hard. I’d like to say that the past five years have been amazing, but to be honest, it has been a struggle. While my work in D.C. led to my position at Tufts, the road was paved with stress, anxiety, and learning to maintain an actual work-life balance. 

While as a resident librarian, I was overwhelmed with stress and a growing anxiety that I did not understand. While on the outside, one might think that I had it together, I did not. I overworked myself, I kept myself busy with conferences and presentations, and I navigated work-place politics that had a negative effect on my mental health and well-being. Since the end of my residency in 2018, I have learned invaluable skills. I want to share some of them:

  • I have learned to stand up for myself. For me, standing up for yourself is different than advocating for yourself. I learned early on in my residency that I would have to be the one to speak up about the type of work I wanted to do. Standing up for yourself meant respectfully speaking up when faced with conflicts within the organization or when disrespected, belittled, or treated in a condescending way. I am not someone who likes conflict or seeks out conflict, but over the years, I have finally learned to stand up for myself and use my voice to defend myself. That being said, I was also careful not to burn bridges. After all, the reality is that the library world is small and very chatty. 
  • I have learned to say no to others and to myself. I often found myself taking on new projects and saying yes to everything, because I knew it would look good on my resume. While I don’t regret most of these experiences, it was hard for me to find a balance. Now that I find myself more settled in the work I want to be doing, I am a little more particular about what I spend my time on. I give myself time to decide if I want to take on a big project and try to be more realistic about workload or other events. 
  • I have discovered and rediscovered passions. I have discovered that I love liaison librarianship and teaching subject-specific library instruction sessions. At Tufts, I was liaison to the history department and while it was intimidating at first, I learned to love it. I loved working with the history faculty, learning about their research/scholarship, and I loved working with history students. I continue to teach first-year writing library sessions and continue to experiment with active learning activities and assessment. While sometimes it gets repetitive, it is the freshman students who make it worth it. Every fall semester, I look forward to their new faces and excitement. 

Something I am still working on: 

  • Taking care of my mental health will always be ongoing, but I am happy and on the right track. I realized a while ago that my trouble with mental health was also related to work and when I moved to Massachusetts, I was determined to change that. I had to be intentional about forming a good work/life balance for myself. I made my mental health and well-being my number one priority, not only for my sake, but for the sake of my partner, relationships with colleagues, and friends. 

In conclusion, I look back at my position as a resident librarian and for the most part, I am fond of it. I met colleagues who have become close friends and am part of a community of resident librarians (past and present) that uplift me and everyone else. I am excited about my work and I hope that wherever you are in your career, that you care for yourself and know that I am rooting for you. 

What Does Engagement Mean?

Our library now has an Inclusive Pedagogy Community of Practice (CoP) spearheaded by my excellent colleague, Emily Deal. Next week we’re meeting to discuss Not Enough Voices, a chapter from An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. It’s such a rich chapter that I fear I won’t do it justice by summarizing it. But one part of Morris’ chapter has stuck with me this week:

Today most students of online courses are more users than learners. The majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines…We believe that efficiency is a virtue…But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Sean Michael Morris, Not Enough Voices

I think about these lines, and the ways in which Morris, himself an instructional designer and teacher, ties so much of instructional design to operant conditioning. We want so desperately to set up the right conditions for learning– the settings, learning management systems, virtual classrooms, and online learning experiences that will best help the greatest number of students engage in learning and succeed. In working towards what we think is best for all we have a tendency to standardize, to teach towards the “average learner” (whoever that might be). Yet learners are not a uniform body, nor is it possible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

By approaching our teaching using universal design for learning principles, we attempt to make learning environments, systems, and experiences as accessible and positive as we can for as many people as possible. But is it enough? We’ve created space for greater numbers of learners to engage in learning, but what does it mean to engage?

In the forward to An Urgency of Teachers, Audrey Watters writes:

We all spend much of our day now clicking on things, a gesture that is far too often confused with “engagement.” (“Engagement” — a word that has come to mean “measurable” and “marketable.”)

Audrey Watters

This hit a little too close to home. As an instruction coordinator and teacher I’m building asynchronous lessons, videos, research guides, and other teaching materials. I strive to be inclusive in my creation of these materials, but what kind of engagement am I hoping to achieve? Does making something interactive and clickable automatically make it engaging? Do we measure engagement by how many students watched a video or went through a lesson? Are they truly “engaged” when they do so or are they just going through the motions. Click here. Watch this. Submit your answer. Repeat.

Those who see learners as users as Morris mentions in his chapter would have us focus on fostering engagement by eliminating barriers to entry, ease of use of interfaces, and simplifying actions like accessing course materials and submitting assignments. An LMS with a good user interface is helpful, but it’s not all that’s needed for learning. Learning isn’t a UX problem to be solved. It’s not about personas. It’s too complicated to generalize because it is so individual. Engagement is individual. The way one student engages with material, with their instructor, and with their peers may be radically different than the next student. One student listens intently, another asks questions, still another writes and draws and ends up with copious pages of notes. Engagement can be so many different actions–some visible, some not.

My team and I have invested hundreds of hours over the past 6 months on creating online learning experiences that we hope will engage students, make them think and help them clarify their own thoughts and knowledge. Yes, we wanted to make them interactive, but we also wanted to give space for students to reflect, digest, and brainstorm. This has meant relying on offline methods like worksheets, reflection questions, and pauses to brainstorm. Sure, they can turn these in to their instructors for “proof” that they did the work, but that’s not what’s important. For us, what’s important is that they spend the time engaging with the material in a meaningful way. It’s probably not always going to happen, but we want to create the space for it to happen.

One thing we’re still wrestling with is how to foster engagement among students in an asynchronous library world, because there is so much students learn from one another in synchronous learning. We’ll continue to ponder this as we strive to make our online learning experiences more inclusive, more robust, and more engaging than just clicking.

Privacy, Consent, and the Virtual One-Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitioning Supervision Models

Three years ago I would start my day by opening a restaurant – taking down the chairs, laying out the silverware, starting the coffee, turning on the food warmers, setting up the bar, and commiserating with coworkers. On long days, I would end my day 14 hours later closing up a different restaurant – putting up the chairs, rushing the silverware back to the dish pit, dumping out the old coffee, tearing down the server station, and sweeping the floors. In those moments, I was quietly working by myself or catching up with a coworker. In either case, I was free from supervision – the front of house manager was usually counting money somewhere or just relaxing in an office with a coffee or beer depending on the shift. I mostly enjoyed working in the food service industry, particularly in the moments when my coworkers and I were free to exist and work without being monitored and surveilled.

There are a myriad of difficulties that come with transitioning from food service industry work to library and information science work, but one of the most bizarre has been the transition away from a strict supervision model. As a food service industry worker I was often micro-managed in my work and there were specific workflows. There was little room for creativity or taking time for self-care. As I transitioned to a gig as a reference graduate assistant, I found that I had more freedom but still had guidance. Projects and tasks were defined for me, workflows were mostly established without my input, but I was not micromanaged or surveilled. I enjoyed the work that I did and I learned a ton, but I still longed to define my own projects and workflows.

As it turns out, that freedom is a bit of a double edged sword. In my current role as a librarian, I have generally defined goals from the strategic plan of our library and my job posting, but my path is totally up to me. This has been a little anxiety inducing. While I know that I could reach out to my colleagues at any time, the nagging thoughts loom: You’re doing it wrong! You don’t know what you’re doing! Shouldn’t you have someone check your work?! These thoughts are vestiges from work and education experiences past. The reality is, I know that in choosing my own projects and pursuing my own workflows, I am able to bring a unique and valuable approach to the tasks at hand. But how do I ward off those nagging thoughts?

A few strategies have been helpful in combatting the ever present self-doubt. One is regular communication with my colleagues and peers. It has been particularly encouraging to have honest conversations with folks that have more experience. One of my colleagues told me they regularly ask themselves what the heck they are doing. Which helps remind me that being cautious and critical is natural and can be positive!

I’ve also found it helpful to stay connected with librarians through social media and regional and national library organizations. I’ve been able to ask questions when I need to, but often times I find that just reading and hearing that other librarians are struggling with similar issues and even making similar decisions has been helpful.

I do miss the work I did as a food service industry worker, but I don’t miss the strict supervision model. Librarianship comes with its own responsibilities and challenges, but also rewards! Some have said that imposter syndrome never really goes away. While I hope that this is not true, I suspect that I wouldn’t be a critical and creative librarian without a good healthy dose of self-doubt.