Cameras Off: Transitioning from Virtual to In-Person Instruction

This guest post comes from Grace Spiewak, the Instructional Services Librarian at Aurora University.

Virtual instruction is my normal – not my new normal, but the only normal I’ve known since becoming a librarian.

I started my first professional librarian position in August 2020, right after completing my last one and a half semesters of graduate school online.  After securing a job focused on information literacy instruction, I have not had to adapt to virtual teaching because it’s all I’ve practiced in the early stage of my career.  Even the instruction classes I took in graduate school met virtually, with all our teaching demonstrations conducted online.

For some, the return to in-person instruction may feel overdue and familiar.  While I am excited to meet students and faculty face-to-face, I also acknowledge that the transition will initiate a learning curve as I wean off of virtual instruction. 

To prepare for the switch, I am reflecting on the assets of virtual teaching that I can implement in the physical classroom.  Whether you’re a first year librarian in a similar situation or a seasoned instructor, I hope to initiate conversation on the ways that this year’s virtual experience can enhance students’ learning moving forward.

Let’s Chat

The obstacles to reading body language during virtual meetings and the awkwardness of staring at faces while waiting for a brave individual to hop on the microphone contributes to my reliance on virtual chat during instruction.  Discomfort around using mics can stilt class discussions, and students seem more open to typing in the chat to participate. 

In face-to-face instruction, I cannot rely on chat as the primary means of discussion, nor do I want to abandon its beneficial features that invite students to contribute in a less intimidating format.  Online tools such as Mentimeter, Padlet, and Answer Garden allow me to utilize the features of virtual chat in any learning environment.  Students submit anonymous responses to prompts or questions via their devices, and results display on the screen in real time. 

Incorporating these chat-adjacent tools in addition to traditional discussion will increase accessibility and inclusivity for students who are uncomfortable or unable to verbally participate.  Varying the format of discussion to garner engagement serves as an essential lesson from the remote classroom.

Make Accessibility a Priority

Due to the pandemic, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) merits a nuanced scope beyond traditional accessibility requirements.  The virtual environment increases the difficulty to anticipate and recognize students’ accessibility needs.  Students may also have to commute during class, keep their volume low so as not to disturb family members at home, or silence their mic because they are accessing WiFi in a public space. 

UDL allows me to prepare for the variety of accessibility needs students may have, even if I am not made aware of them.  Offering multiple options for interaction such as using mics, virtual chat, and emojis aims to make participation possible regardless of students’ location.  Other UDL strategies I employ include typing directions into the chat in addition to verbal explanation, describing the images I show, and detailing the visual layout of resources I demonstrate. 

UDL remains an essential aspect of inclusive instruction, and the acuteness it has taken on during the pandemic emphasizes its necessity.  I have the opportunity to pursue this momentum by adapting virtual UDL strategies to the physical environment.

Get Excited!

On top of starting my first librarian job, working during a global pandemic, and developing my own instruction practices, the transition to in-person teaching compounds a substantial adjustment in a chaotic year – and an exciting change.  I will have increased interaction with students and faculty, the ability to better gauge and respond to students’ needs in real time, and the opportunity for organic discussion in the classroom.  I will also need to get used to standing up in front of a class rather than looking at squares on a screen, navigating campus to get to classrooms, and facilitating in-person discussions.

We have all experienced tremendous change in our personal and professional lives since last March.  While coming back to campus will introduce fresh challenges, we have the capacity to make them work for us.  Recognizing the benefits of virtual learning and applying them to the physical classroom can ease this shift and improve students’ experiences with library instruction going forward. 

Face-to-face teaching may be a new normal for me, but the lessons from this virtual year can progress the accessibility and inclusivity of my instruction.  After countless hours of virtual sessions, the anticipation of a buzzing campus life far outweighs the bumps bound to accompany this transition.

How to avoid spreading myself too thin (and still get tenure)

My position is on the tenure track. Our process is shorter than usual at only three years, but there isn’t an expectation of publication. The tenure process revolves around learning to be a better instructor and librarian. Essentially the process is designed to help you grow into your role. I do not have a PhD, and came to librarianship from a different field, so I don’t have experience with academic publishing. During my first master’s, my thesis advisor recommended publishing a portion, but I felt that nobody would take me seriously and never pursued it further. While I would like to continue some of the work I started in my MSLIS and collaborate with colleagues, I was relieved that I would not be on the hamster wheel of “publish or perish” to pay my mortgage.

I still feel pressure though. This pressure isn’t necessarily even coming from my department. I’m a tightly wound person living in late stage capitalism and I do feel pressure to produce. I also have so many more substantial opportunities in my current position than I ever had in my previous field. I can take classes and attend webinars. I have had the opportunity to attend a few conferences between a scholarship and my alma mater. As a result, I’ve spread myself very thin by joining every committee, attending every webinar, and generally saying “yes AND.”

This school year is quickly coming to a close and I have come to two conclusions from saying, “yes AND” to everything:

1) I have learned a tremendous amount
2) I cannot spread myself so thin and do good work or take care of myself

How can I accomplish this?

By the end of this school year I will have put many programs into place; establishing them is the hard part. Maintaining them will be easier.

I created instructional sessions from scratch. Refining them will be easier.

I should not automatically volunteer and instead pause, and let others go first. (I did this for the first time late last week and it felt strange, but I did not take on anything else.)

Ask, “do I really need to join this committee?” I’m new and it is okay to learn how to do my job before joining everything.

Make big goals for the future and put them on the calendar. I want to collaborate with a certain colleague. I put it on the calendar for 2022. There’s a committee I have been eyeing and I put it on the calendar for 2023. Making goals is wonderful, but there is no need to do everything now.

While I know memes are not facts, my various algorithms on social media keep reminding me that perfectionism and ultra independence are trauma responses. Simply because I was required to be perfect in my past career doesn’t mean that I have to be now. It was in the past that I was relied on to do everything. I am being given the permission and ability to learn to do my job and I need to take that and not run with it.

Time out! In defense of taking vacation

During a bit of downtime last week, I sat down with my calendar and penciled in a few long weekends and a full week of vacation this summer. 15 whole days! During most of 2020, it felt “pointless” to take a vacation if I couldn’t go anywhere new or visit anyone I loved. At most, I took a personal day here and there, and one family trip in August when Covid rates in my area were low.

So as the summer approaches, and many of us in academic libraries anticipate quieter days in the stacks or our home offices, let’s talk vacation. 

No-Vacation Nation

First, you’ve probably heard that in general, Americans don’t use most of their vacation. Our country doesn’t guarantee paid leave and paid holidays, and those who do have jobs with PTO leave a lot of days unused every year. Even if we do take time off, a lot of us struggle with guilt around using vacation time, or truly unplugging while we’re away.

For most of us, the summer is the quietest and easiest time to take vacation. And yet I still felt kinda funny requesting off, worrying how it would affect my colleagues’ workloads, whether it was even “worth it.” I thought I’d share the anxious objections that came up when I considered PTO, and how I addressed them:

It’s unfair to my coworkers

Do you feel like when you take a day off, you’re screwing over everyone else in your office? If the culture in your library is a microcosm of the “No-Vacation Nation,” it can make it really difficult to take guilt-free time off. But I’ve noticed that taking vacation is contagious (in a good way). When one employee (especially a manager!) ensures they use their leave each year, it affirms that it’s okay to take a break.

At my library, we work a hybrid of remote and in-person shifts on a rotation, which means there is a little extra coordinating to do if someone wants to take a week away. My fellow librarians have been great about communicating and covering for each other. Could you team up with a trusted coworker, and plan to cover for each other while the other person takes a needed break?

There’s too much work to do / If I leave, the whole place falls apart

Let me gently remind you that we work in libraries. The work is not life or death. I know you care very much about your work, your students, and your colleagues, and that care is a beautiful thing. In order to keep giving that authentic care, you’ve got to avoid burnout, and taking scheduled leave is one way to help with that. As Alex wrote recently, you gotta fix your own mask before you metaphorically help someone with their own. 

Also, girl. It is not a virtue to be so irreplaceable that you can’t leave the office for a few days. 

Working from home is restful enough

Do I even need to entertain this hesitation? If the tone of ACRLog’s blog posts this year is any indication, we’re all working longer and more stressful hours this year, and just because we’re doing it in sweatpants doesn’t mean it’s rest. 

I can’t go anywhere

If you can’t travel, which most of us can’t, how can we make a staycation actually restful? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Unplug: I intend to sign out of my email on my phone, and tell my partner about the intention for accountability.
  • Plan something: Get some pleasure reading, or devote a day to exploring an outdoor space you’ve never been before.
  • This article from the Chronicle had some other great ideas for restorative breaks at home. 

My family can’t take off with me

My spouse has very little PTO, and uses most of it for their creative career. I’ve had to accept that I could either only take time off when they can, or become comfortable taking more breaks on my own. In past years, I’ve used my solo vacation time to visit faraway friends, do long-haul craft projects with my mom, and spend the time on activities my partner isn’t interested in. These have been some of my most rejuvenating experiences in the last few years!

Do I deserve a vacation? (Spoiler: Yes!)

I recognize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege, as someone with a full time job and good PTO. If you’re in the same boat, remember that vacation time is part of the calculation of your compensation. As Renee Graham wrote directly to my anxieties (and for the Boston Globe, I guess): “Don’t leave your vacations on the table. You’ve worked for it, and it is owed to you. In these difficult and disorienting times, a vacation taken is not a vacation wasted.”

To be honest, I was nervous to ask off for the dates I did, and I was nervous to write this post. The academic culture of burnout and overwork as a signal of your virtuous commitment to education is really hard to push against. But please take breaks. Real ones, where you pretend your library doesn’t exist for 3, 4, or 5 whole days. Do it for your coworkers, so they feel inspired to take breaks too, do it for your students, who need models of healthy academic life, and do it for you.

Evaluating Evaluations During a Continuing Crisis

As we enter year two of this pandemic, I’m thinking about annual evaluations. At my university our annual evaluation schedule has library faculty writing our own annual reports and our appointments committee holding evaluation meetings in late Spring, and reappointment and tenure votes happen in the early Fall. And while schedules may differ at other colleges and universities, now that we’ve lived a full year with covid19 everyone has probably had an opportunity to go through the evaluation cycle at least once.

Last year there were lots of articles in higher education news outlets discussing the extraordinary circumstances of the abrupt shift to remote operations during the pandemic, and it seems like many (most?) institutions canceled student evaluations last Spring, as did my institution. While the college where I work extended due dates for faculty annual reports last year, they were still required, as were evaluation meetings and supervisor reports. This academic year our student evaluations of teaching are proceeding as usual, and all signs so far are that our annual reports and evaluations will be, too.

Librarians are faculty at my university and with the contractual requirements for evaluation dates and processes we’re not able to make changes at our local level in our library, so we’ll be going through the process the same way faculty in all departments are. But I still find myself wondering about the evaluation cycle this year. Should we be doing things the same way this year, when this year is still very much not the same as the pre-covid19 years? The uneven impact of pandemic on all aspects of academic life is well known by now, and especially for those already marginalized in higher education, including folx who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Abigail Goben and Nell Haynes are compiling a terrific bibliography of the effects of covid19 on women’s labor in particular, which has been especially concerning around time and resources for the research and scholarship often required for tenure and promotion. Just today there’s a new report from Ithaka S+R on the results of a survey that digs into the effects of the pandemic on women and caregivers, and the disparities in research and publishing are on stark display.

The faculty union at my university negotiated an optional tenure extension for those on the tenure track, and any faculty member can choose to extend their tenure clock by a year, to acknowledge the incredible disruptions of this past year. The process requires faculty to make that decision at the time that they come up for tenure, which to me has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s definitely true that for some untenured faculty, especially early career faculty, the pandemic might not end up having a big impact on their research and scholarship by the time they come up for tenure. Some may be working on research that can continue uninterrupted even with lockdowns and other restrictions, and others might have had to radically change or even cancel plans. Some may have newly available time and attention in their schedules to devote to their scholarship, without the need to commute, for example, while others have new responsibilities like homeschooling and other caregiving. Ithaka’s report highlights a similar decision at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that’s implemented differently: the one-year tenure deferment is automatic, and faculty who don’t want it can opt out.

I was glad to see annual evaluations as a topic of discussion at a recent department chairs meeting at my college; though I had to miss that meeting, a colleague attended in my place and brought back lots of useful notes. There seemed to be general agreement that extra attention is needed this year to be compassionate, constructive, and supportive in our evaluations. One chair noted that the annual evaluation is always a snapshot of a faculty member’s career – with faculty responsibilities in teaching, scholarship, and service, every year will not necessarily look the same even in non-pandemic times. I’m keeping in mind Dr. Amanda Visconti’s tweet during the CALM Conference earlier this month that quotes overhearing someone say “the pandemic is a stretch goal,” and I hope everyone who’s in the position of evaluator this year keeps that in mind, too. And with so much still uncertain for next year, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, as states take different approaches to getting back to “normal,” I hope the evaluation process can continue to adapt as the pandemic does, and continue to center support and compassion.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright.