Clarinets and crafts: Observations from my apartment

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about week one of teleworking. A lot was changing then, and a lot has changed since. By this point, many of our semesters are wrapping up, we’ve taught at least once in this remote setting, and we’ve found new routines that govern our day-to-day. For me, I’ve led an online student showcase, judged research posters for a virtual undergraduate research exhibition, conducted four virtual interviews for my research project, and sat in on way too many Zoom calls. My eyes are much more likely to go cross-eyed these days and if I don’t need to be on camera, I’ll turn it off. Somedays I’m really jazzed on Zoom meetings, other days, I just don’t have the energy to engage. 

As I experienced seven weeks ago when writing my teleworking diary blog post, it’s hard to know what to say when you’re in a moment. My thoughts on that first week have changed the longer we stay in this holding pattern. I don’t have any big takeaways to share because we’re still in this experience. Instead, I want to talk about two types of experiences I’ve been having, both outside the immediate scope of librarianship, but both informing how I move forward with my own work, in an online environment, during this time. 

Clarinet & the research process

This is the fifth semester I’ve played in the Penn State Clarinet Choir. It’s a choir made up of clarinet undergraduate music education and music performance students, music minor students, one graduate student, and me, your resident librarian. I’ve played the clarinet for over a decade and when I started working a 9-5 librarian job, I emailed the clarinet instructor and asked if there was a way to play. The professor invited me to a rehearsal and ever since I’ve been a (relatively) faithful member of the group. As you might expect, the music folks scrambled in the move to remote, but I would say they know more about sound quality with Zoom than anyone else. The students in the clarinet choir still take lessons, performed for each other at two studio recitals, and are currently in the middle of recording their jury pieces.

In turning everything online, the clarinet choir got interesting. Since we can’t all play together, Tony, the professor, has been using this weekly time to discuss other elements of playing the clarinet. From how to run your own studio, to the qualities of a good reed, I’ve been learning a lot about an instrument I honestly only know a little about. But what I’ve loved the most about these weekly meetings, is seeing their research process.

Traditionally, when I show up to things beyond clarinet choir rehearsal, like a senior recital, my view of their research are the program notes I pick up and read several times throughout the concert. Sometimes there are sources, cited at the bottom, in a variety of citation styles. Those notes don’t really show me how this research influenced the student’s ability to play the pieces or what they thought about in approaching these works. We’ve now had two clarinet sessions where we dissect a classic piece in the clarinet repertoire. We talk about the historical context for the composer and piece, the urtext (original, authoritative intention from the composer) versus the other published editions, difficulties with the piece, how to teach others to play it, and important recordings that shape our understanding of the piece. It’s the research process I know well, just adjusted for the discipline I don’t know as well. In those meetings, I stay muted but in my head, I’m like this GIF.

via GIPHY

These online clarinet choir meetings are exposing me to the field of clarinet studies and I’m here for it. It’s nice to see these students, in their natural environments. They change their Zoom display names, wrap themselves up in blankets, eat dinner while we discuss Mozart, and have incredibly oversized posters of the clarinet (we love this).  

Crafts and Readings Via Zoom

I’ve always been a craft person. Homemade birthday cards, elaborate scrapbooks from that one summer between fifth and sixth grade, origami animals for a summer library display, and these days, zines and embroidery. Crafting has been a good way to keep my hands busy. Pre-pandemic, I crafted alone, or with a small group of gals. These days, technology comes into play. I took an online embroidery class from Spacecraft in Seattle, made a zine with Malaka Gharib, stitch with a friend in Cinncinati every Saturday afternoon, and bring friends together to make a zine every Tuesday. All of these moments showed me different ways of teaching and building community in online spaces. Especially for tackling new crafts, how do you help people who are not physically next to you? How do you build a sense of community in an hour-long Zoom call? What’s so comforting about doing the same thing as someone else and why do these virtual calls feel so different from the Zoom meetings that consume my Mondays through Fridays? These calls have become a foundation for these weeks in a way I wasn’t expecting. A small choice to set up a regular time to create has given me markers to help me through each week.

Beyond crafts, I’ve also been seeking out any literary reading events. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to get into books these days. Readings are the type of event that can kickstart me again, either into reading or just writing (which eventually leads to me wanting to read). I’ve now attended a couple of readings, each one using a different streaming platform. Some have been better than others, but that’s true, in-person or online. Again I’m struck by the ways people organize these events and how authors navigate talking to a screen, versus talking to a live, in-person audience. I’m curious if the format and organization of the event leads me to be more engaged or bored (and therefore, tempted to leave). Regardless of how much I enjoy it, it’s nice to have something on the calendar to simply attend, and not have to do any preparation before joining the call.

I assume I’ll publish another post in six to seven weeks. I can’t even imagine what things will be like, or what I’ll be writing about next. Just have to wait and see. What about you? What things have you noticed during the past two months? Anything that has surprised you?  

How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?

Finding Your Niche and Establishing Yourself in the Academy: What You Didn’t Learn in Graduate School

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Callie Wiygul, Social Work Librarian at the University of Southern California.

Seven months ago, I started a new job as a social work librarian in a city thousands of miles from home fresh out of graduate school. Since then, I’ve been trying to find my niche within my new (and MUCH larger) university and the wider community of academic librarians. I’ve also been working to turn my MLIS project to something that will establish me within the academy. During graduate school I worked in a public library, and before that I worked for nearly a decade in the corporate sector. This journey from the corporate to public to academic world has uniquely positioned me as a flexible communicator, perceptive learner, and ambitious librarian. But are these traits and my MLIS portfolio enough to establish me within the highly competitive and often individualistic world of academia?

For months (years!) of uncertainty, I have struggled to claim a place within the community of academic professionals. There is no set path to this goal. There’s not even a defined starting line, nor is there a finish line and Jumbotron to announce “You can stop running now, Callie, you’ve made it!” I have also learned that librarians must fight to convey our value to our institutions, subject faculty, and even students. Even more, I have learned that we also must convey our value to each other–our colleagues in librarianship. The struggle is real, y’all!

Publication, programming, service, leadership: all of these are common ways through which librarians establish themselves on campus and within the larger library community. But how do you become an established librarian before you have discovered your niche within the profession?

It’s not like there’s not enough for a first-year librarian to worry about already: burnout, imposter syndrome, and navigating the idiosyncratic politics within academia. This doesn’t include the challenges of serving as the liaison to a body of approximately 1,200 graduate students and 100 faculty at four academic centers in Southern California. But when I feel overwhelmed I try to remember that my incredibly successful colleagues were all new librarians once, too! Shocking, right?! It’s a borderline platitude, but this sentiment gets lost in the chaos that is venturing out and making a dent in the universe (just watched the new Steve Jobs biopic, sorry!). Instead of seeing barriers, I choose to view this experience as it is: a) my job, and b) a huge opportunity.

I am a big fan of asking questions and soliciting advice from veteran and rookie colleagues alike. I began venturing forth from my comfort zone on Day One and met with colleagues over lunch. I asked for feedback on my manuscript draft, posited questions about the underpinnings of reference and instruction programs at my institution, volunteered to join campus committees, and vetted ideas about programs and events to colleagues both within and outside of my liaison area.

Of course, none of this was carried out without anxiety! I’m almost always terrified when anyone—even closest friends and family—reads my words or hears my ideas. But this going-out-on-a-limb experience has unequivocally made me a better writer and thinker. Reaching out to fellow instruction librarians and asking them if I could observe their instruction sessions has introduced me to lesson plans and teaching styles that have definitely made me a better educator. I apply for (what seems like) countless leadership programs, calls for proposals, and grants because I am hungry to explore my interests in leadership, programming, and instruction not only to establish myself as a professional, but to become a better librarian as well. And, honestly, I’ve been turned down more times that I care to admit. But, hey…it’s par for the course in academia.

So how do I find a niche to call my own and the academic bona fides to give weight to my name? In everything I do, I consistently ask myself “Is this marketing tool/program idea/reference answer/FAQ submission helping people? Do I truly feel compelled to do it? Is it only because it is a hot topic on Twitter?” These questions often help me parse out the crucial from the superfluous. They also provide insight into potential career interests and goals.

It’s easy to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of following others. So many librarians are superstars at what they do and have become “library famous” for their achievements. I’ve learned that as a new librarian, you can get caught in the vacuum of trying to follow every Twitter chat, read every article mentioned in said Twitter chat, while blogging about being a librarian, applying for grants, and developing new ideas. The Digital Age can be just as dizzying and disheartening as it can be nurturing and inspiring. Here is where I believe perspective can bring things into focus.

Instead of guiding my work with the intent on being a superstar, I guide my work by focusing on my growth as a librarian. I must find ways to design programs and ideas that will help faculty and students attain their research goals. At the same time, I must develop the confidence to create my own ideas and take advantage of my own abilities. That is MY goal. It has to be, because if my actions are simply founded on the desire to be library famous or earn the respect of the academy, they won’t be meaningful. I’d rather cultivate my niche and excel at it in a way that is both personally fulfilling and helpful to my students, colleagues, and university. Finding a niche and establishing myself won’t happen overnight, but it will if I stay focused on the bigger things and keep my fears and ego in check.

Encouraging Engagement

Right now we’re in the midst of our busiest time in the semester for instruction at my library. I coordinate our information literacy program so instruction is always a big part of my job, but it looms even larger for me at this time of year. If I’m not teaching a class, I’m probably thinking about the classes I teach.

Like many other colleges, most of our library instruction program consists of the single required library class for all English Composition I students. Much has been written about the challenges of the humble one-shot, and I think we do a good job with these sessions given their constraints. Still, over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to target on a few things that frustrate me. The more I’ve thought on this, the more I realize that a critical factor is engagement.

Student Engagement
It’s no secret that students often find their library sessions to be less than inspiring, and are often more engaged with the computers and each other. Some of these are classroom management issues, though we do require that professors attend sessions with their students, which usually encourages students to pay attention. But relevance is a factor, too: do students see the material covered by librarians as relevant to their coursework? There’s lots of evidence that students are more engaged when their library session is scheduled at the point of need, just as they are starting research on a paper or project. (Anecdotal evidence from the sessions I’ve taught supports this, too.)

One solution is to schedule our English Comp sessions just as students receive their assignments and are beginning their research. We’ve tried a couple of different scheduling strategies, including spreading the sessions evenly over the semester, and concentrating the classes in the few weeks just after midterms. But speaking with students and faculty and our student evaluations reveal that sometimes the sessions are too early, sometimes too late.

Next semester we may try contacting all English Comp faculty just before the semester begins to ask when they’d like to schedule the library session. We’ll need to be sure to emphasize that the best time for students to visit the library with their class is concurrent with their research assignments. Ultimately this scheduling method may not be possible because of sheer numbers: we’re a small library, and this semester there are 126 sections of English Comp. But given the real increase in student engagement that I’ve observed in my classes that do have a research assignment, it’s probably worth a try.

Faculty Engagement
I’ll admit that when I first started teaching library sessions I vastly preferred the classes in which the instructor sat quietly in the back of the classroom while I made my presentation at the front. I was nervous about my own teaching skills, especially covering all of the material in the session, and it seemed easier to go straight through it all without diversion.

Now that I’ve been at this for awhile I really value my library sessions with involved, engaged faculty. I can appreciate many of the reasons that faculty may sit quietly through the class. Many faculty appreciate that librarians have specialized training in research skills and information literacy, and are happy to give us space to teach in our discipline. But when an instructor engages with the librarian and the class — offering additional examples of relevant topics, search strategies, and keywords; reinforcing the need to critically evaluate sources; etc. — these sessions seem to be the most valuable for the students (and also more enjoyable for me).

Encouraging faculty engagement seems like it might be a bit more difficult than with students. A colleague suggested that we maintain the same pairings between librarians and instructors across multiple semesters. This would allow us to develop a closer relationship with faculty teaching English Comp, and help us tailor the library session more closely to the assignment in each class. Again, we may hit a snag because of the large number of sections, though with the increase in enrollment this semester we’ve got a new crop of adjunct English Comp faculty, so this may be a good time to try.

I’m sure there are lots of other strategies for encouraging student and faculty engagement in library instruction sessions. What methods have you used successfully? Which haven’t worked so well?