Posted by: char booth | 27 September 2010

recharge and retool.

This post, the first I have written in quite a while, looks at two sides of a familiar problem: resource scarcity. Present times continue to try on many fronts, and I cannot think of one person from either hemisphere of my life – personal or professional – who is not actively doing more with (or for) less. As is often the way of things, examining (or imagining) positive reactions to this difficult dynamic can provide instructive lessons for how to thrive/survive.

1: recharging

On the subject of personally depleted resources, the recent blogging hiatus has been intentional. My writing brain has been officially tired for about two months, a sensation that is – thankfully and finally – starting to fade. After a long period of productivity I found myself temporarily free of giant deadlines, and in the relative calm I realized that I simply (read: desperately) needed a break. I don’t think I’ve ever gone this many weeks without posting, which at one time would have caused me no small degree of neglect-anxiety. That said, overwork when underwhlemed with ideas can result in a phenomenon not unlike prematurely removing the lid of a pressure cooker: dinner ruined plus a giant mess (and probably a second-degree burn or two, injury-to-insult style). There is no more effective quality/morale killer than obligatory maintenance: it is imperative to doff your lid at the right time, minimizing explosions. When I have lately caught myself mulling over posts, projects, etc., I have thus gently filed them away, opting for rest rather than relentlessness.

Pleasantly, this has felt like reverse hibernation: falling asleep wasted away and waking up fleshed out again. Although I have been quiet and focusing on sufficient sleep, Bay-ventures, swimming, and hammocks, this time has not been about disengaging. Quite the opposite: I am rebuilding my reserves. One thing I have noticed about periods of consistent output is that, if unbalanced by equivalent input, it is easy to risk interpreting the ideas of others narrowly, in terms of their relevance to your own. This creates shallow or egoistic understanding of new approaches necessary to ongoing growth (also known as tunnel vision). To clear my own thought-slate, I’ve been taking time to knowledge farm (e.g., explore, learn, and absorb) by reading and researching, aided hugely by working with/taking two amazing classes at Cal this term, Participatory Media for Education and Making Open Educational Resources (will post on these in more detail later in the semester).

2: retooling

On to the professional. I read this month that Drexel University is doing something wonderful: assigning a Personal Librarian to every incoming freshman. This is my idea of a dream-service, and precisely the direction libraries in higher education should be heading: toward rich, customized integration into the academic lives of individuals. The assistance we provide is most effective when it is adapted to the learning/research profile of each student or faculty member, which any service-minded instruction, reference, or outreach-oriented individual already knows. It is my opinion that no other part of the academy can provide this type of support as well as librarians: the consultant/strategist model has tremendous local potential. I think one of the reasons the Drexel service struck me is because it’s definitely more typical to hear about reduction rather than expansion these days. Mobilizing enough souls to commit an endeavor like Drexel’s seems like a herculean task in the current climate – doing-more-with-less syndrome is widespread. I’m curious if other projects had to be shelved to make way for this venture, if it is voluntary, etc. (e.g., the practical considerations that helped Drexel figure out to actually get this program rolling, which is half of what innovation is all about. For a peek at the elusive other half of innovation, check out the Harvard Library Labs Project).

While it is common practice to curtail programs when you have fewer people around to staff and support them, it is a best case scenario when resource scarcity can actually lead to effective new approaches. I’m currently in the midst of this type of situation  – changing a tried/true instruction model in response to less feet on the ground. A bit of context: over the past year or two my department has contracted to about half capacity through retirements and an ongoing hiring freeze. Needless to say, we cannot carry the same teaching load as we have in the past. After receiving word that one of the programs we have have long supported with customized one-shot sessions (Cal’s core Reading and Composition requirement) planned to hugely expand their course offerings, something about our response had to give.

Individual R/C classes require a lot of preparation: every session and syllabus is different, allowing librarians to tailor their strategies closely to each class and instructor (which makes them a challenging joy to teach). Like my colleagues, I love the in-depth personal collaboration that the traditional workshop model provided in these sessions. Faced with the difficult choice of suspending our support for this program entirely or trying something new, we developed an experimental way to tweak our old model to one less human-resource intensive, but still personalized and responsive to the eclectic mix of topics and assignments we receive. Instead of our old 60 or 90-minute in-library workshops, the new approach consists of four elements:

1) Revising the instruction intake form with an attach-your-syllabus feature to give us more up-front detail on needs and timeline

2) Creating a customized course guide for each class using our Library a la Carte pilot

3) Making an on-site 10-20 minute visit to each class to make a good pitch, demo the guide, answer questions, and put a personal face on library support, and

4) Promoting the Library Workshop: Research 101, a local customization/branding of an excellent long-form research skills tutorial created at UC Irvine, who graciously shared their source files for a Cal version at the beginning of the summer.

Moving to a guide and web tool-intensive model is a definite conceptual transition and still in its early stages, but despite some slight laptop/projector drama it appears to be working well. Course instructors seem to understand the necessity for the shift, and appreciate that what they most valued about our 60 or 90-minute customized workshops – personal attention to students and subject matter – is retained, and with a lasting digital resource that can be linked to and shared through the course management system. As a department, we’re sharing experiences and best practices as we go, trying to make this an adaptable and collaborative effort that melds to the discoveries and difficulties we encounter. Important questions about efficacy remain – how much impact will these guides have on the research skills/output of each student? Will they remember/use the guides or online Workshop? Will course instructors adapt to/adopt the new model? Will staff find their comfort level with less in-person, more digital instruction? We’re tracking guide usage with Google Analytics across the semester, and will develop a way to summatively assess instructors and students to evaluate its impact.

3: benedicting

As I transition out of writing hibernation and into a new teaching modus operandi, I’m sending a collective best of luck to all of us in our respectively stretched realities: may we flex, balance, and work through (and around) these days with grace.


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