Just Thinking: Starting and Failing

It’s hard for me to believe that this time last year I had just completed the on-campus interview for my current job, and then a few days later walked in my masters graduation ceremony. As my first year as a librarian winds down and the adrenaline rush of the academic schedule starts to wane, I find myself feeling… reflective and rather tired. Last week, it was a nice surprise to find several ideas circulating around the web to boost my energy and my spirit to push through the end of the semester and maintain momentum to plan summer projects.

“Start small… but start.”

While attending ACRL 2013, I was blown away by the awesome, inspiring, and interesting work my colleagues across the profession are producing. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a “little fish in the big ocean,” surrounded by those more experienced and more successful than me. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to co-facilitate a roundtable discussion, I couldn’t help but wonder when I’ll move on to bigger opportunities and when my CV will start to look less like a new librarian’s, and more like a tenure-track professional’s.

And then this week two of my favorite library blogs reminded that life sans banana slicer (or other badge of honor) is still pretty darn good, and that striving for success in my daily work is valuable as I continue to take small steps working towards larger goals. I also attended Maryland’s Council of Academic Library Directors meeting, where Debra Gilchrist reminded librarians that it’s better to “start small, but start” than to never start important, potentially daunting, projects at all.

Upon closer examination, I can already look back to see several instances where starting small has begun to pay off. For instance, while I’ve lept at the opportunity to apply my undergraduate degree, previous work experience, and natural interests to my duties as the Psychology department liaison, it’s been more difficult to get “into” the department than I originally imagined.  Last December I was allowed five minutes at the beginning of a Psychology department meeting to introduce myself to the faculty (and then I was promptly asked to leave). Though I was skeptical five minutes would make any sort of a difference, right after the meeting I received two quick email questions from psychology faculty members. And the following semester, two faculty members I had not personally met contacted me to help find and recommend resources to be used in a Psych 101 course redesign. A small, but growing start.

“Failing forward.”

Of course, there are several instances where “starting” something does not lead to completely positive results. I don’t personally care for the word “fail” (for me, it carries a negative connotation of dejection), but failure is a natural part of risk taking. The problem is we like to focus so much on success I think we brush aside that most learning comes from failure. And this year as I’ve happily watched my colleagues present papers, give lectures, win scholarships, lead professional associations, and achieve promotion, it’s been equally helpful to talk with them about what has not gone so well. The classes that fell apart. The requests that were denied. The proposals that were not accepted. Because, quite frankly, working through problems and disappointments with successful people that I admire reminds me that success if often the product of perseverance through, and learning from, failure.

This idea was summed up nicely last week when a tweet appeared in my Twitter stream reminding me to “fail forward.” How can learning from failure propel you forward?

While I was catching up with a graduate school friend at ACRL, I learned that a paper we submitted with fellow graduate school colleagues had been reviewed and rejected for potential publication. Although this was not entirely unexpected, the news still stung. A few days later, my friend sent along the reviewers’ comments and in the 10 or so minutes I spent taking a preliminary pass at the mostly constructive criticism, I learned more about the practicalities of the peer review process than I have in any single sitting since my undergraduate years when I learned about peer review for the first time. And now, as we pick through the comments and strategize options for moving the project forward (or not), I’m learning about picking priorities in my work – which parts of the project are worth further time, and which are simply no longer a priority for me. And while “failure” stings, I now feel more prepared to anticipate some previously overlooked research pitfalls as I turn my attention to new endeavors.

Looking forward to Summer

So, as classes wind down and my summer rapidly fills up with those projects that get neglected or pushed off in the heat of the semester, many of which have no clear starting point or are the result of a previously failed attempt, I am re-energized through recommitting to these two goals – start small, and fail forward.

The Beginning of the Middle

Today is the 5th anniversary of my job as an information literacy librarian, my first full-time library position. Five years: while it’s not all that long — certainly many of my colleagues have much more experience than I do — it seems momentous in some ways. In my previous two careers I had serious reservations about whether to continue down each path by the five year mark, and it’s wonderful to have none of those doubts this time around. Instead this seems like the very beginning of the middle of my career, and feels like a good time for reflection, for both looking back and projecting forward.

The past five years have flown by as I’ve worked on and learned about information literacy and library instruction, my library and institution, the research expectations for the tenure track, and service at my college, university, and beyond. In my first couple of years I spent lots of time engaging with new faculty at my college and new library faculty across my university, and I have to admit that I sort of miss it. I was in a meeting the other day with a Biologist in her first year at the college and her energy and enthusiasm was infectious (pun intended). I see announcements posted about meetings for new or junior faculty and realize somewhat wistfully that’s not me anymore, as I was (happily!) promoted last September.

While I’m a bit nostalgic for the strong camaraderie of the newbie experience, I’ve enjoyed transitioning into the role of a more knowledgeable colleague who (I hope) can offer support. The first few times I was asked for advice by colleagues it was genuinely surprising to me, but it’s less unexpected and more comfortable now. I’m also just about at the halfway mark in a leadership role in a large faculty development grant at my college. I’ve had the opportunity to work with new and seasoned faculty from across the college, and that’s definitely had an impact on my knowledge and self-perception.

This Spring both the college and the library where I work are creating five-year strategic plans. For me the immediate future seems fairly clear: I have two more years until I go up for tenure, I’m in the midst of writing up a big research project, our library instruction team is starting to pilot strategies we hope will help us reach more students with more relevant information literacy instruction. But farther out than that seems less certain. One aspect of being a faculty member that I’m very grateful for is that I have some freedom in considering projects to work on, especially in my own research but also as a librarian. And libraries and higher education are in a constant state of flux, from the introduction of new technologies and tools to the fact that the population we serve is ever-changing as students enter college and progress through their degrees, so certainty may be elusive.

If you’re at the beginning of the middle, do you have a five-year plan for yourself? Have you taken on new responsibilities as you’ve become a more experienced librarian? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Turning the Research Lens on Ourselves

I’m working on a research project again this year exploring the scholarly habits of undergraduate students at my university. One of the methods we’re using to collect data is a mapping diary. We ask students to record all of their movements through the course of one typical school day–time, location and activity–and draw a map to accompany their time logs. Last year’s responses from students at my own campus were fascinating, and I’m looking forward to interviewing this semester’s students when they finish their logs.

Many of last year’s participants told me that they really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on what they do and where they go all day. Now that the semester is firmly underway and things are busy as usual, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to do some research on myself. I’ve often wanted to join the Library Day in the Life project in the past, but it always seems to be scheduled for days that I’m either out on vacation or before the semester has begun (that is, not really a typical day for me). Maybe it’s time for me to pick a day (or week, or month) to record my activities?

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s not enough time for everything I want to do. Of course that’s true on one level, because no one can do everything, but I also think that we may be less busy than we realize. A post on Prof Hacker over the summer popped into my mind when I was considering this, a review of a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (168 is the number of hours in a week). The review isn’t completely positive, but does highlight the use of time logging to inject a dose of reality into how we perceive that we spend our time.

Judging from my interviews with students last year, this kind of reflection can help with both time management and task prioritization. Though it sounds like more work to add a time log to my to-do list here in the thick of the semester, I think it’s worth a try. And maybe the next time the Library Day in the Life date rolls around I’ll be ready to participate, too.

Ready, Set, Teach: You in the Classroom

We’re introducing a new feature here at ACRLog for the new academic year. We know there are lots of great academic librarian bloggers out there who don’t often get as much attention as they should. They’re the bloggers who don’t show up on those publisher “best librarian blog” lists — and hey, why should we let a publisher or scam site dictate who’s a blogger that you should be giving your attention?

Our first guest academic librarian blogger is Sarah Faye Cohen, Assistant Director of the Miller Information Commons at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. She blogs regularly at The Sheck Spot, and we’re pleased to share her post about preparing for library instruction.

As Maura pointed out in her last post, back to school means back to instruction. There are many ways that each of us prepares to walk into the classroom: speaking with a professor about the students or about the assignment, making sure the technology in the room is working, making copies of handouts, etc. But those are logistical considerations. Getting ready for instruction is not just about putting things together. It’s about putting yourself together to go out and introduce students to new ways of thinking and new tools. Sometimes that feels easy. But sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s the hardest work we are faced with as librarians. So, let’s look at it on a more personal side for a moment:

– What do you do to get ready to teach?
– What are the ways that you prepare yourself for the hard work of teaching?
– What are the ways you fortify yourself and nurture yourself through a teaching load?

Here are some ways I prepare myself for instruction:

Take it as it comes:
There is a part of teaching where the truth of a phrase like “Don’t take it personally” comes into play. That being said, one of the challenges of being a teaching librarian, especially if your interactions are based on one-shots, is that you never know when the “lightbulb” moment happens for the students. A session that you thought was mediocre at best, might have been pivotal for a student. Perhaps this will be one of those sessions! Conversely, this might be one of those “dead” sessions: no one talks, they look bored out of their minds, and you could stand on your head and it wouldn’t matter. In both instances, there is probably something you could have done differently. Especially when sessions don’t go well, remember that there is a big difference between learning from your mistakes in order to make future sessions better and beating yourself up. No matter how it turns out, take the session as it comes.

What Makes You Feel Effective in the Classroom?
Part of what makes instruction so much fun is that we each get to make it our own, even when you are part of a coordinated instruction program like we have at Champlain. That is why it is so important to look in the mirror and ask yourself: what makes me feel effective in the classroom? In my own cohort of teaching librarians, some of us feel effective by walking around during small group work while others stand at the front of the room. Some of us feel effective by tweaking the lesson each time while others like to keep the rhythm of what works for them. It helps to hear about what works for your colleagues so that you can find ways to make yourself more effective. Remember, there is not one, sure fire answer about what makes each of us effective in a classroom. We are individuals with individual styles. But it’s important to give thought to what makes you feel effective.

Know your CI:
Over the summer, the teaching librarians at Champlain read Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. There’s a lot in this book that pertains to teaching and I would recommend it to anyone. The very first chapter of the book presented an idea that really “stuck” to me—knowing your CI. As the chapter explains, this is known in military circles as the “Commander’s Intent”:

“CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation…the CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events” (p. 26).

Another way to think of the CI is your Core Intent. What is it that your students must walk out of your session knowing? Is it a skill? Is it a specific resource? Or, what must your students walk out of your session thinking about? Is it a concept? Or is it a mindset? Is it to be curious? Or to never give up? Whatever “it” is, you need to know it so that no matter what happens in that class, you have a CI as your map. You know where that class is going. And you can express it to the professor, the students, your colleagues, but most importantly, to yourself.

The Back-Pocket Plan:
No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how much you’ve put into your lesson plan or activity design, sometimes it falls flat. This is when you need to pull out Plan B: the “Back-Pocket” Plan. This is absolutely vital when working with technology in the classroom. What is something else, something different you can do with the class to get your same message across but in a new way? Having a strong second option in your back pocket means that you are adaptable in the classroom and that you have a strong grasp on your CI.

Take Good Care:
This last one is one that we don’t talk very much about as a profession but I think is vital to instruction. Instruction is hard work. It demands a great deal of bravery and vulnerability, as Parker Palmer tells us in his transformative book, The Courage to Teach. To walk into session after session, we need to take good care of ourselves. For some of us, that might mean some quiet time before or after a session. Or, sharing (or venting) how the session went. Or, going for a walk. These are a few examples of what works for me. Whatever it is that you need, I hope you take the time to figure out what it is and that you make the time to take it.

Best of luck in the new semester!