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MOOC Nation, Part 1: My So-Called Online Teaching Life

I’m enrolled in a MOOC to prepare me for college math. Go ahead and laugh — then tell me the last time YOU solved a compound inequality problem.  Of course, the other reason I’m in a MOOC is to explore the current state of online learning.

I have copious notes about my experience, in which, I am proud to say, I have advanced to graphing linear equations, and I had originally planned to begin this series with my observations on the class I’m attending. But once I began writing I realized I wanted to provide context for my foray into this wild.

I am not an e-learning newbie. I taught online library science classes a decade back, and even mentored other instructors in the art of managing classroom chat discussions. I’ve taught online workshops as well. I have taken writing classes online, including several from Stanford Continuing Education, and got a lot out of them. In 2011-2012 I also led a campus-wide pilot of Collaborate, Blackboard’s live elearning product, and Team Library recently authored a grant related to lecture capture (actually, I’ve been working on this development project for 18 months, in one version or another). On our library team, three out of five of us graduated within the last decade from a library school now fully online. This is not foreign terrain.

When I stopped teaching online, it was intentional. The most notable reason was that I was planning to go back to graduate school, and teaching full-semester courses on top of being a student as well as working full-time was far more than I could handle.

Still, it was easy to stop teaching. My satisfaction level as an instructor had been declining oh so gradually, but then went into sharp free-fall. Before I proceed, please heed me when I say the program in question changed a lot in the last decade, undergoing two major movements forward in leadership and concomitant transformations, and e-learning technology has improved as well (though not as much as it could).

Like many adjunct instructors, in both programs, I found the parent institution opaque; it was the source of my paychecks, the provider of my students, and the agency that housed my “classroom,” which at first was a small  room with grubby walls so distinct in shape and size I can still see the unimproved windows in the back of the room. In the second program, my classroom became Blackboard. It was easy to teach myself how to twirl the knobs and dials in Blackboard — so easy that I did not ask myself if I fully understood online teaching or how to do it well.

In the new program, I soon learned that at least with the tools available at the time and my inexperience with e-learning, I wasn’t crazy about “asynchronous” instruction, that is, a teaching model without real-time lecture or discussion. I’ve had instructors insist that they are happy teaching this way, and mazel tov to you, but I missed that immediate real-time engagement.

I offered optional lecture sessions through chat and a number of students took me up on it, but overall the class felt too much like a correspondence course poured laboriously (my labor, mind you)  word by word into a learning management system. Human speech, like handwriting, is an amazing efficiency, as you realize if you’ve ever written documentation for anything. Taking all my pedagogy and spelling it out letter by letter consumed a huge amount of time.

In the last class I taught, the class size had doubled from my previous course, and I also had to deal with plagiarism and a no-show. It’s amazing I taught for so long without dealing with any one of those three problems, but when they surfaced in concert, it was a lot to deal with, particularly in the isolated world of the online adjunct instructor.

I did my best with the no-show, but despite concerted efforts on my part, this student, who had shown up briefly at the beginning, only surfaced at the end of the class, wheedling to be given dispensation. According to the school, this was her modus operandi–something I wish I had known at the beginning of the class. I doubt this student understood how much money she was spending (or more likely, debt she was accruing) on not getting an education–a syndrome writ large across our country. E-learning didn’t turn this student into a no-show, but I am convinced it was an enabler.

Even with the challenges, I thrummed with a connection to many of the students. I loved how willingly they embraced my favorite Q&A: What’s the most important library database? The one between your ears. I reveled in how many of them took up the work of the class joyously, and I was rejuvenated by their newbie-librarian zeal. And of course, teaching is learning, and that was very satisfying too. I hear occasionally from my students, and what a rush of warmth to my soul when they reappear to tell me of their lives.

Again, the school has changed quite a bit since then, and tools for early intervention in online education have also improved; I’ll assume that attrition and student learning outcomes are now monitored assiduously. This is certainly not a technology issue as much as it is a program management issue, and online performance can in many ways be easier to monitor. As for the plagiarism — I believe it would have been dealt with much differently today. But all said and done, it was easy to stop teaching.

I tried graduate-level teaching once more. When I was between jobs in early 2007, I responded to a job ad for online adjunct instructors for a library school I had no prior experience with, fully certain they would at least explore the possibility that I would teach for them. Less than 24 hours later I received an email of rejection. I  have to thank them for not leaving me in suspense. I will remain ever-curious why I was so swiftly eliminated from consideration, but I’d like to think part of the reason was that I didn’t have the level of online learning training and experience they were seeking.

A decade later, when online learning is criticized, its docket of concerns includes much of what I encountered the last time I taught:

  • The idea that because a class isn’t limited by physical seats, it can scale without impact on the quality of instruction.
    Students left academically adrift.
  • The human overhead of creating and maintaining online courses.
  • The question of fit: whether the material, the student, or the instructor are “right” for online learning.
  • Teacher — and student — preparation. (On this last point, I know quite well that the school I taught in now has a highly intentional and excellent onboarding program for students — one I would emulate to a tee if I were to establish and lead an online learning program at my institution.)

My colleague Marcus Banks had responded to an earlier post of mine about online learning by stating,

Skepticism is always necessary in the face of the flavor of the month (or year, in the case of 2012 and MOOCs). That said, it’s always easier to defend what’s known than to embrace what’s new. Seems to me that MOOCs can be a democratizing force that reaches those struggling students who may not be able to afford or have any inclination to sit in the traditional lecture hall. Surely we can figure out how to build engaging, responsive and effective learning opportunities that are online only. We may have to regardless, depending on how student preferences evolve.

Marcus and I are actually synoptic in our understanding of major trends and only moderately less than congruent in our assessment of the state of e-learning today or the potential that MOOCs have to offer.  Yes, the sunny side is that online learning can open doors for students. Look at me: as a child I was identified as a student who struggled with math, I’ve largely avoided math my entire life, beyond simple arithmetic and basic spreadsheet formulas, and in my current job I am in no position to seat myself in a traditional classroom for months at a time. Yet I plod along, week at a time, with my slow but steady success, much of it due to the benefits of a well-designed online class.

It’s also too easy to point to spectacular and highly-visible failures, such as the course on the instructional design of online learning so poorly designed it imploded in less than two weeks, or the frustrated professor who stopped teaching a course midstream, as condemnation of online learning or “proof” that we’re in a craze that will soon abate–an argument that reminds me of the librarian who told me in the mid-1990s he was “waiting for this Internet thing to blow over.”  I’m sure many a course going forward will have absorbed the lessons-learned in those debacles.

Where Marcus and I part is in his assumption that my concerns about e-learning represent “defend[ing] what’s known” at the expense of “what’s new.” Based on my personal experience as an instructor, I’d prefer to observe that the path to innovation is paved with instructive lessons, and that the more experienced you are, the more likely you are to fold the Book of Fail into the iterative design process.

I know how much intervention goes into ensuring at-risk students succeed, and I also know that we, as a nation, are failing too many of these students. Online learning could be part of the solution, but not without full acceptance of the problems we need to solve and the effort it will take to solve them. And as an advocate for those who have the least and need the most, I’m going to cast a very critical eye any time techno-educrats propose tiered systems, including the model where at-risk students are poured into massive online courses. Without very careful and caring design, without sufficient resources, these run the risk of becoming the higher-ed equivalent of public housing projects.

Absolutely, let’s look for success.  But there are patterns worth observing in e-learning, just as there are in higher education, and we owe it to students to temper our enthusiasm (or our sense of inevitability) with an intentional focus on the design — and significance — of failure.

ALA Midwinter 2013: Back in the Saddle Again

Ovaltine Latte

Ovaltine Latte

I missed ALA Annual 2012, so it was with particular joy I reentered familiar terrain. I juggled the conference activities with a grant we were finishing, which was only possible because I spent four days navigating four square city blocks (my hotel, the Convention Center, meeting rooms in the Sheraton, and nearby restaurants), with only a couple of excursions beyond.

I don’t remember Seattle being so deliciously  compact, but it was a boon to this bifurcated traveler. So now follows my report… a wee dry, if you aren’t an ALA wonk.

Friday
8:00am – 9:00am LIAL11 Reunion Breakfast: met with dear colleagues. Collegial idea-share is a great way to kickstart a conference! Note: it is really bad form for a restaurant to have two restaurants with the same name. One of our party spent a while in the “other” restaurant due to this reason.
9:00am – 12:00pm PAN Print Archives Meeting. PAN is the CRL Print Archives Network, and that translates to librarians interested in shared storage for print collections — a very responsible, loving, strategic approach to the future of print books. Librarians packed a very large room; several years ago it was a handful of people around a table. This was mostly an update on local initiatives, but it was validating to see how many deans, executives, and other library leaders were in the room. I wasn’t able to attend any official “top tech” sessions at Midwinter, but I consider this meeting a de facto program in that genre, because shared print is one of THE key tech trends in higher ed.
1:30pm – 3:30pm Committee on the Future of University Libraries Meeting (ACRL ULS). I was curious about the work of this committee. This was a pleasant exchange.
(A little grant-writing…)
6:00 pm LITA Happy Hour. Caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a year, followed by…
Ad hoc dinner with two old friends (a great closing bracket for the day).

Saturday

Saturday was a day of scooting from meeting to meeting, concluding with a solo dinner of Washington oysters and a dessert reception among (mostly-) beloved colleagues. You know how some of you love baseball games — I mean, really, really love baseball games? This was that kind of day for me.

8:00am – 10:30am Council Orientation Session (ALA)
10:30am – 12:00pm Nominating Committee for the 2014 ALA Elections [Closed–I would share details but I’d have to kill you later. Nutshell: this committee recommends nominees for ALA president and Council.]
1:00pm – 2:30pm ALA and E-books: Prospects and Directions for 2013 – Panel talk: publisher, ebook broker, librarian. I need a Jamie LaRue action figure. He was fabulous. One thing I love about Jamie is that regardless of the talking points of the two industry wonks, he stuck to what he had to say about the role of libraries in coming up with our own solutions.
3:00pm – 4:30pm ALA Council / Executive Board / Membership Information Session – Brava, ladies of the dais, well-run.
5:30pm – 7:30pm Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries I (I am a recent appointee to Subgroup 5, so as a  first cousin once removed, I attended to catch up).
8 pm I dined on pitch-perfect oysters at Shuckers, a restaurant in the Fairmont much more elegant than it sounds.
9:00pm – 10:00pm ALA Council Reception — I remember reading a complaint on some social network that ALA only served coffee at these receptions. Folks, the bar is downstairs and nobody cares if you bring a drink. Very nice mingling.

Sunday

It was Sweater Vest Sunday, an initiative to wear sweater vests to show our support for intellectual freedom, and I was feeling sad because my vest wasn’t plaid or cable, which is what I think of when someone says “sweater vest.” But apparently my plush animal print vest fit the bill, as it garnered praise at Council, which ran exceedingly smoothly, though there were two resolutions which would have fared better had they been shared over the Tubes several weeks before Council–I know, a new-fangled idea; call me Judy Jetson.

The real trick of this day was spending an hour with one group of friends I only see at ALA and then getting to another, somewhat inconvenient location to see another group of friends I only see at ALA.

8:30am – 11:00am ALA Council I Governance/Membership Meeting
Lunch at the Atheneum, then worked on the grant
6:00pm – 7:00pm Dinner with friends
7:00 pm – 8:00 pm GLBTRT Social

Monday

So to wrap up the next two days, it was business of the association, grant-writing, an amazing Ovaltine latte with one friend, and then a strikingly delicious grilled cheese sandwich with another friend.  Tuesday afternoon was yet more grant-writing, a lot of it in the original Starbucks.

Did I mention that I realized why people in Washington State wear those knit caps? I should have bought one my first day, because it was damp and chilly the whole time — but sunny inside, where it mattered.

10:00am – 12:15pm ALA Council II
Exhibits, grant-writing, and an Ovaltine latte with dear friend MJ
6:00 pm Awesome grilled cheese sandwich with another dear friend VN
8:30pm – 10:00pm Council Forum II (ALA)

Tuesday
9:30am – 12:30pm ALA Council III

Tiptoe through the Tech Trends

Sony Walkman Due to a scheduling conflict I regretfully had to turn down a chance to make an encore appearance at LITA Top Technology Trends at ALA Midwinter 2013, though I was highly flattered to be invited, particularly with an invigorating new single-topic format. At this point my Midwinter schedule is like a set of nesting Russian dolls reflected in mirrors and circumscribed within Venn diagrams.

But the invitation did cause me to stop to think about technology trends — at least, the ones I’ve observed in myself and the people around me, a group that I do not claim represents any specific demographic other than The Republic of Me.

I’m also setting aside the topic of books, except to note my own behavior below, for what that’s worth, and to observe that the concept of shared print monograph repositories is rapidly gaining momentum. Colleagues in SoCal held a summit last month, and I’ll be at the PAN Forum at Midwinter (big thanks to CRL for their national leadership and to Robert Kieft at Oxy for leading the SCELC convos). I’ve also been invited to participate in Subgroup 5 of the Digital Content Working Group, Library Community Education and Outreach. So, you will hear from me.

Anyhoo, the following may strike a few chimes with my readers and their own republics:

Ed Tech and Higher Ed

MOOCs: According to the hype, Massive Open Online Courses are part of the “disruptive” “innovations” that are creating a new “synergy” by “reinventing” higher education. Lubricated by endless conference chatter and initially uncritical coverage from the media, MOOCs enjoyed close to a year of nonreflective enthusiasm, with any number of institutions contemplating how to “get into that space.”

Inevitably, MOOC backlash has already begun, with several articles cautioning that warehousing at-risk college students in online classes may not improve graduation rates. Can the people say DUH? As Carlson and Blumenstyck wrote in that great Chron piece, “Here’s the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.”  Students are increasingly not ready for traditional college when they get there, both in what they know and in their study skills and habits, and vast online lecture halls aren’t going to close that gap. Like the all-volunteer army, MOOCs are a great solution as long as your own kids aren’t the ones signing up.

MOOCS and other online learning methods do have their place. I have a blog post series in work — MOOC Nation — that will track my progress through two math MOOCs this spring. Stay tuned.

Devices and Distractors

At home, we are assuming that 2013 will be the year we retire my 1993 Honda Civic, which Sandy drives to work, a half-mile from our apartment. This old car, purchased used in 1996, has required very little maintenance in its life, so I didn’t begrudge it a rather expensive repair that will keep it from bursting in flames while Sandy is driving, always a nice touch, particularly where parishioners are involved.

So commenceth a slow, deliberate search which may stretch all year, aided or encumbered (take your pick) by iPad apps, websites, chat rooms, online reviews… but if it’s a car I’m going to sit in up to three hours a day, my rump wants first-hand knowledge. In a Honda showroom, the second or third feature the saleswoman showed me in the Fit, after how to flip the back seats around to make more space for groceries, was the USB charger in the glove box. I suddenly remembered early ads for Palm products, which overwhelmingly featured men — and here was Honda touting the ultimate chick accessory, the all-purpose device charger. (Good location, too: I hide my iPhone in the console of my 2008 Civic where it both recharges and is away from temptation.)

On other fronts, our Comcast TV subscription is on death watch–something we have heard from other friends our age, which portends poorly for the networks if their commercials are any indication, with their well-creased actors imploring us to Ask Our Doctor about the latest geriatric nostrums. We keep planning to deploy an exercise where–armed with Apple TV, Netflix, Apple devices with Airplay, various apps, and a one-month subscription to Hulu Plus–we avoid using the setbox for several weeks to see if we miss it. The networks are wisely gambling on inertia, because we can’t quite cut the cord yet. Interestingly, the preparation for this experiment has already yielded benefits; we can resume our old (and old-fashioned) habit of watching NBC evening news together by streaming its app when I come home.

December 2012 was the month I made my first mobile bank deposit, though I had to “pose” the check a few times to get it right. I waited a day and sure enough, the check showed up in my account. Routine for some of you, but quite a plus for for me and those occasional small checks that show up, consuming gas, parking, and time (though I will miss the crew, and the free cookies, at the Irving Street branch of Wells Fargo).

2012 was the year I shifted as many magazines as possible to tablet apps; we also gave up our paper subscriptions to the New York Times and the SF Chronicle and went digital-only for both. The drivers were comfort, cost, and convenience: my periodicals are always with me now, with excellent backlighting, and most support fonts that are comfortable even when I’m walking fast on a treadmill. Journals that are PDF-accessible but not on tablets get downloaded to Dropbox for tablet access. I only regularly read paper magazines on airplanes, during  takeoffs and landings. I don’t miss filling a recycling bin with discarded paper or stockpiling address labels to shred.

Paper continues to be by far my least favorite format for books, to the point where if I can’t check it out from Overdrive from my library or SFPL, or I can’t buy it in Kindle, it might not get read at all. The one routine exception is for reading on the Muni, for which I pack any small, skinny, interesting book in my purse because I avoid flashing an iPad or iPhone on public transportation. (Hello, Just Plain Data Analysis!)

Apple has me in its grasp fairly tightly — MacBook, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Airport Express — but in 2012 I began to feel more provisional about using Apple products, as Apple changed charging adapters, poured more devices on the market, and not only frog-marched iOS users to a defective Maps product but took a while to repent.  My iPhone also isn’t a particularly good phone–and that’s after two phones and two carriers. Furthermore, some of the best, most essential iOS apps come from Google.

That said, the ability to use Airplay to stream almost anything not produced by Apple’s Mortal Enemies (such as Amazon Prime),  Apple’s sheer ease of use, and (here we go again) the induced inertia of owning so many Apple products, gives us reason to stay in the fold a while longer. I have lived through WordStar, Commodore, Sony, Gateway, Palm, Blackberry, and many other companies that ruled the earth until they didn’t; some new idea is always out there, ready to sneak up on us.

On the homebrewing front–brewing being a technology that has been evolving for thousands of years–I didn’t brew from July until December — a planned hiatus, due to New Zealand and the Pythagorean theorem and whatnot. (It is astonishing how useful that theorem is; I even used it to estimate the necessary range of our new wifi router.)

I brewed a small-batch stovetop oatmeal stout at the beginning of our winter break, which I gussied up with organic cocoa nibs and a cold-steeped extract of Philz french roast, and yesterday brewed a cream ale, the homebrew version of American “swill”–though like most things, when you make it at home it tastes so much better.

Each time I was reminded why the young’uns are all about crafts and maker-this-and-that these days: with so much “digital” in my life, it was so refreshing to engage with grain and hops and water and yeast, kettles and spoons and mash tuns, and best of all, my glorious 22″ whisk, which serves as a mash paddle, wort aerator, and personal defense weapon.

My most complex brewing tool by far is my beloved green Thermapen thermometer, which also serves me well when I am grilling or cooking, or even when I want to instantly check the temperature of anything from a wedge of cheese to a room. I now make my yeast starter in a large Erlenmeyer flask, which looks geeky but hails from 1861, if Wikipedia’s somewhat sketchy citations are to be believed. There are all kinds of apps and equipment for brewing, but in the end, the brewer herself is the most important device in the process (returning to the theme that technology can’t solve people problems).

Last musing: a couple of weeks ago, while perambulating through the Embarcadero with Sandy, we saw a well-coiffed woman about my age in exercise gear, carrying a yellow Sony Walkman cassette player, and I almost stopped her to ask her about it. I just didn’t know what to say, other than “I used to have one of those, in the Reagan administration” or “You can skip the CD model and go directly to an iPod shuffle.” If she had been younger and dressed less conservatively I would have assumed it was a playful container for an MP3 player, but it really looked like a working Walkman. I guess it was working for her, but I was fascinated. I wonder what was on the tape!

Rediscovered Management Lessons

This is a smattering of lessons I keep rediscovering in management, which I felt like summarizing as I tick into a new calendar year. A lot of it is obvious, very little of it is new to me (and some of it has been said here before) — but management seems to consist of relearning the same things repeatedly, each time in new ways.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure. As I noted in my American Libraries article on branding, hiring is enough of a chimera anyway; rushing the process will just make things worse.

Every once in a while I find myself the lone defender on an issue. Sometimes I check in with myself and decide that I’m wrong. But other times I remember two examples of a lone holdout. The first is a case study of Donna Dubinsky, who at Apple championed a change in distribution methods. The second is a friend of mine who successfully led a complex political/technical challenge. He remarked recently that at times he was the only person who believed in his direction. But he was clearly right, in retrospect. (Note: sometimes I will be the lone holdout, and I will be wrong. So it goes.)

Eat sensibly and get regular exercise.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The sensemaking that happens when a patron walks into a lobby, the first interaction with service points–these are crucial. I’ve been a member of the UCSF fitness center for several years, and I was startled to discover a poster on the lower level listing the “management team” — I didn’t recognize any of them. But the cool factor is that the level of customer service at the center’s front desk is so exceptionally, consistently high no matter when I visit or how busy it is, and the lobby is so intentionally welcoming, that I sense I know them anyway.

Management often feels like navigating by flashlight. I’m groping just a few feet ahead of myself, trying not to fall into holes, listening for sounds. A slow and methodical footfall helps.

Ultimately you rise and fall by the quality and quantity of your human capital. A small team of really great people can do amazing things.

Every team has limits on what is doable, and it’s a good thing to learn how to delicately communicate that. Nobody outside the library is sitting around asking, “Does the library have enough people to do what needs to get done?”

Message management is key. Much in library work can be delegated… but keep a firm grip on external communications, from signage to interaction with other agencies to who gets to pull the trigger on campus-wide messages.

Speaking of communication, it’s always a work in progress–but a very worthy cause.

You are the metronome. You set the pace.

Much as I disagree with Woody Allen’s life choices, I fully agree with him that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” This is one of several management jobs in my career where showing up at work and being a presence has been crucial to success. If you think I don’t go to as many conferences as in some previous positions, you’re right.

That said, I’m going to begin working from home at least one day per month (I’ve been saying this for three years, so take it with a grain of salt) because the mindset for being an active presence is not the mindset conducive to editing grant narratives or finishing NCES statistics. Yes, I do take work home (though not obsessively), but even better is having a dedicated, hard-to-interrupt work day dedicated to the task–a nice mixture of urgency (I won’t get another day like this soon!) and luxury (home in my jammies, counting the stats!).

I also make sure I get to just enough conferences, and visit just enough peer directors, to get some Vitamin Colleague.  Your staff can’t be that for you. They need you refreshed, balanced, and with your sense of humor intact–and there are things you shouldn’t share with them, no matter how tempting.

Take care of your boss. Meet deadlines small and large without prompting; don’t force your boss, or his or her staff,  to be your administrative assistant. Be open to ideas. Come prepared to meetings. Cut your boss some slack–he or she puts up with your imperfections, after all.  Remember to thank and praise your boss from time to time–you will never be privy to some of the hardest things they have done. (Yes, I have had bosses it would have been hard to do this for, but I still wish, in retrospect, I had tried harder.)

Show respect for the other departments you work with. I pride myself on a 100% on-time submission of my monthly credit card bill because it is one less thing for the finance department to worry about. If I think I’m going to be late, I tell them in advance. If I am having invoice issues with a vendor, I settle them as promptly as possible. Again, this isn’t about them being likable–though they are a likable bunch–but because it’s the right thing to do, morally and politically.

It’s worth wangling the library into the key discussions on campus — online learning, student success, etc. There is always a library tie-in, even if it’s not self-evident at first. The catch is to remember that the library can’t solve all problems.

One of the most delicate dances is the use of your facility by other agencies. There are no easy answers. It’s a case of balancing finite space with a distinct purpose with the political capital of resource-sharing. But a space once shared can rarely be reclaimed.

Build and maintain a strategic map. You need good relationships everywhere on campus–and not just with the people you feel at ease with.

Student workers do not set library policy. From time to time they will complain that one or more library users Did Something Bad and therefore some new library-wide draconian rule must immediately go into effect, optimally reinforced with a plethora of scolding signs printed on bright orange paper in all-caps Bold Comic Sans — yes, I speak from experience — but see above, message management.

Checklists are your friend. Campus Safety loves that we use opening and closing checklists–and so do I. Despite clear evidence that checklists save lives and improve processes, we may be their only friend, but that too is ok. (Policy and procedure are your friends, too.)

This is easily the fifth job in my life where I’ve implemented a key locker and insisted on key management. As with checklists, life is better when your keys are organized. Plus I find it too weird to work in a LIBRARY that can’t organize keys. (Bully for you if you have access cards, but we ain’t there yet.)

Consistent service is key.  It is tempting to give a different level of service to the patron with the winningest charm. But ethically and strategically, we should provide the same level of service to all users. That doesn’t mean ignoring problem patrons or never being flexible, but for your typical patrons, there should never be a gulf of service between the patrons who are chummy and those who are simply there to get the job done.

In a similar vein, some of your best workers may not be one of the Cool Kids. I remember a conversation several years back about why so-and-so in another library was promoted to Head of Reference over another, sparklier employee. I’m guessing that from the director’s perspective, So-and-So was a reliable worker who showed up, did the job, got the administrivia done, knew how to keep a ship sailing, and (quoting Dr. Johnson) had a bottom of good sense, particularly in dampening the inevitable Library Melodrama.

There is a natural tendency in libraries to lean toward fees and service limits as governors on behavior and methods for mitigating demand on human capital or other resources. But I recall asking a peer library why they charged for a specific service, and their response was they didn’t know why and therefore they were eliminating the fee. Other times a limit can be packaged more attractively — such as asking a user which of the umpty-ump books she has suddenly requested she would like first rather than “no, you can’t request that many books at once.”

Periodically review your successes as a team. Remember the “olden days” and celebrate where you are and where you are going.

Additionally, review your organizational worldview, and if need be recalibrate. I am almost finished reading Tribal Leadership, and one of the “click” moments I had was realizing that though I was good at lifting up our own successes, I was starting to fall into the trap of being too critical of other departments–that nasty Us vs. Them habit that paves the way for siege mentality, pitypottism, and other unprofessional and counterproductive syndromes. Ick! Bad juju!  I will allow myself the luxury of that level of criticism when I am absolutely sure my personal leadership has achieved absolute perfection (in other words, it will never happen).

Word.

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

So, about my writing. I mean my literary-essay writing, not blog posts or journo-style magazine writing or academic writing.

I’ve spent the past year:

  1. Moping over the breakup of my writing group,
  2. Pursuing several professional goals that required intense study of un-fun stuff but were also convenient excuses for not writing, and
  3. Feeling sorry for myself whenever I see another writer’s good fortune posted on Facebook or Twitter, and
  4. Making resolutions about writing that I then fail to follow through on.

On the first point, it’s like a break-up, as a writing colleague told me a few months back. Go ahead and mourn for a little while, but get back in the writing saddle without them and keep on writing. They were a good thing while they lasted, but nothing lasts forever.  After a while, the breakup moves into lame-excuse category.

On the second point, that stuff is done, so no excuses there, either.  I have always had that stuff, and will continue to do so. Besides, for  8 years I managed to have a writing life alongside many other responsibilities.

On the third point, for a writer with a full-time-and-then-some day job, I have a pretty good publishing record. Almost every essay I felt was ready to send out in the last eight years has been published, and by very respectable publications. I’ve had essays republished in commendable anthologies, had an essay nominated for a Pushcart, and am looking forward to “Still Life on the Half-Shell” being republished in 2013 in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, edited by Lisa Catherine Harper and Caroline Grant.

Obviously, I can write publishable work. Yet in the last year I have sent out only two essays, to the same publication, and took that editor at face value when he said the essays weren’t worth publishing, lambasting myself for my bad writing. How amateurish of me!

On the fourth point, I know how I write. I schedule the time and announce I am going to write. Then I find a generic coffeeshop (as a writing colleague noted, nothing “too hip”; the Tallahassee Panera still ranks as my perfect writing location), sit down for three hours with Vivaldi or Boccherini pacing my work, and I write, stopping only to divest and replenish herbal tea.

I do not write by sitting in my home office. I can do library work in that home office, but it is not separate enough to do literary writing–yes, not even when I am home alone. And yet for almost a year I claimed I can write in that space, and then I did not write there, and so I did not write.

I do not write by scheduling an hour here or there for writing. An hour is just about time for me to stretch out my writing muscle until I’m truly focused. The real writing happens in the next several hours. The last 15 minutes are spent worrying that my writing session is almost over and watching the baristas wipe off the tables as they close down shop for the night.

I also do not write by taking literary writing time and using it for other, non-literary writing tasks. Allowing that work to encroach on my literary writing has not been good for me. I pursued an MFA because I wanted to go somewhere else with my writing. Some people talk about where a good book takes them: that’s just one planet over from the place my writing takes me.

So attention has been paid. The habit has been resumed. I have a writing evening, a writing place, a pile of manuscripts to dust off, and a few flabby writing muscles to tone up again.  The baristas and I, we are one with the night.

The last rose of autumn

O brave rose

O brave rose

This past week we had a visitor in the library who (completely without guile) commented that the library felt very dated and dowdy.  He didn’t use the word “dowdy,” but it hung in the air nonetheless, while I shrank in my seat.

I had just finished bragging about how much space we had opened up by eliminating all the unbolted, unbraced shelving on the main level, and how we had a cool writing studio and a new education curriculum section and some new couches  and easy chairs and rolling whiteboards with trim that match the furniture in the writing studio, plus all the art exhibited around the library, and the scary metal desks on the lower level had been replaced with serviceable hand-me-down wooden desks, and for heaven’s sake, since he last saw the place every wall had been painted…

So I gulped a bit, but had to agree. My spectacles had been re-adjusted to the correct prescription: the library is dated and dowdy. What was a smart-looking library in 1958 became, after more than five decades without a renovation, that house where the realtor keeps reiterating how cute it is, with great potential.

It was as if I had rocketed back in time to my arrival, three years ago, when I thought, my goodness, that library needs help — and no one disagreed with me, and in fact pointed out that it was my job to address this. Because if you have seen attractive, well-updated libraries, you would not place this library in that category.  If pushed, you would agree it has a beautiful arched ceiling and tremendous daylighting, plus a great sense of space on the main level.  And it is clean and well-maintained; in poetic terms, it is no longer quite so Theodore Roethke, and even has a dash of Billy Collins.

But my visitor did me a great favor, as I reflected earlier this afternoon, when the clouds pushed north of our freshly-washed city and brilliant late autumn light bathed our neighborhood. I stood on our deck visiting my six rosebushes, inspecting for damage and enjoying the last buds of autumn.  The storm had pelted many of the buds into sagging brown clumps of matter at the end of rain-lush branches, but several flowers hung in there gamely, doing their best to unfold.

Rather than cut these buds to  bring into the house, I admired them in situ so they would die a natural death and let the bushes form hips, the fruit of the plant. From spring to early fall, the trick to abundant flora is to cut rose blooms early and often enough that hips do not form; but by late fall, a kind and thoughtful gardener allows her roses to consider their work done for the year and go dormant until spring (which around these parts is February–a rather short nap).

The last buds of autumn are not the prettiest flowers. They are smaller, pinched from the cold, and bruised by rain; often — using the delightful language of rosarians — they develop “confused centers,” in which petals and stamens are jumbled together pell-mell rather than whorling outward with that lovely mathematical logic found in flowering plants.

Defending these buds as representative of the best of my garden is pointless. If these wizened gnomes were what roses looked like year-round, I wouldn’t bother. I have grown truly grand roses, in which buds big as a lumberjack’s thumb unfurled with triumph, their immaculate petals sheened with color, the flowers, at full bloom, big as my fully-flexed hand, their fragrance a seductive force-field. I also grow miniature roses, whose proportionate beauty, at their peak, is even more astonishing for their minute scale. These experiences are why I bother growing anything as fussy as a rose in a setting as challenging as a wind-swept deck. (I have bought, grown, and given away roses at least ten times in the last thirty years, always in less-than-desirable locations — too shady, small, cold, hot, windy, humid, or dry.)

My love for the last buds of autumn is strong and deep. In their improbable appearance in the sturm und drang of fall-to-winter, their pluck and their lust for life are inspirational. My challenge — and my responsibility — is to remember what a truly great rose looks like, and to accept that the last buds of autumn, however much I love them, live primarily as commas between the truly grand flowers that came before them, and the amazing flowers yet to be.

The Fall Funnel of Fun

New library in Levin, NZ

New library in Levin, NZ

I took gobs of photos in New Zealand with both my iPhone and my unwieldy quasi-prosumer Kodak (sometimes cantankerous, sometimes great photos). But except for the rare Antipodean posting, only in the last 24 hours have I moved these pictures from devices to cloud storage, and at that, with only the barest metadata and organization. Flickr is yet to come (bar for the one picture included here, from a library in Levin).

New Zealand was wonderful, and all there were amazing. I was treated to astonishing hospitality by absolutely everyone, from the conference organizers and attendees to my open source colleagues at Catalyst, as well as Jane at Booklovers’ B&B (tearing through her final edits on a book even as she tended her brood of B&B’ers). As I was cautioned, there was Much Singing, in fact, at the end of every major presentation the entire conference broke out into song, in Maori no less — an experience at once impressive and touching and sui generis.

I returned to plunge back into a deep work zone–the usual stuff, with an additional helping of Many Focus Groups for our architectural program, and a top-secret project that has involved many hours of research and study, thereby neatly consuming all available “off-time.”

I had to fly to LA six days after I returned for a SCELC board meeting, and I remember nothing of the ensuing weekend, other than sleep.For several weeks after my big-trip-followed-by-little-trip I was tired, time-addled, and haunted by a persistent tummy bug no doubt picked up from “airplane air” on the gruesomely long flights to and fro (though Air New Zealand is a gracious courier). I wanted to sit somewhere for at least a half-day and think about New Zealand, but hurtling as I was through my own private Fall Funnel of Fun,  all I could do was slip my hand into my slowly-dwindling supply of licorice allsorts and have a quiet nibble (once my tummy was again up to having licorice).

Now the licorice is gone, the focus groups are over, I feel the antic nature of the first 2/3 of the semester yield to the quieter pace of November (for the library, anyway), and this morning I have a tiny bit of time because we were asked to close the library and stay away from it this morning while wiring was completed. NO PROBLEM, I said.

So in this brief interlude let me back up a little and provide the highlights of experiences and discoveries:

Licorice is well-regarded in New Zealand. Because of that, turnover is vigorous, which means I had the freshest licorice I have had in my entire life. (I picked up the licorice habit from my dear departed dad–he taught me to like even the serious stuff, that hard Danish licorice with a dash of salt in it.)

Hokey pokey is a flavor.  It seems to mean something like butter brickle, only with a stronger caramel flavor. (Now my NZ friends are asking, “What’s butter brickle?” To which I respond, “it’s like hokey pokey, only milder.”) Hokey pokey is found in ice cream but also as an addition to chocolate.

English is not an official language of New Zealand, which like Oz is a country that appears to have acquired a respect and appreciation for its multicultural heritage. Note: English is spoken universally as far as I can tell, but it’s not a designated official language of NZ.

Wellington is like San Francisco (is like Melbourne, is like all my favorite European-feeling cities…). Hills and gardens and a bustling downtown and a gorgeous waterfront and people with important expressions striding to work in dark clothes and pointy shoes, and good beer in many places.

McDonald’s sells lamburgers.

Cell phone plans are ridiculously expensive–and I don’t mean temporary plans for travelers (see below, connectedness), I mean cell phone coverage, period.

I saw a brand-new library two days before it opened (in Levin, a suburb of Wellington)! Can’t wait to share pics.

Lamingtons are served with an exaggerated wink. The conference fed us nonstop and Lamingtons were featured at one break, and I was told it was on my behalf! Think very upscale Sno Ball (but without marshmallow).

I was able to get by for a week with two wifi-enabled devices and a hodgepodge of free and pay access, but I have become so accustomed to being fully connected that it was disorienting to wayfind through a strange city with static maps. Where was my blue Google Maps dot to guide me? I found myself under- or over-estimating walking time and distances and walking in strange loops (in other words, my pre-device life).

Whitebait fritters, rocket salad, and a Epic beer on draft: oh yeah!

LIANZA has absolutely the best conference banquets, ever: costumes and skits and games and dancing and great food and FUN. I apologize in advance to any NZ librarians who have to attend a library conference banquet out of country and find themselves nodding to sleep over plates of tepid chicken-with-a-pile-o’-rice while dignitaries drone. DISCLAIMER: I am sure some banquets are fun. I speak only from personal experience.

Pavlova! Why don’t we serve that more often in this country? (Hmm, perhaps because Americans are as conflicted about meringue as they are about licorice?)

Palmerston North was its own fine introduction to New Zealand, considering I was tired, jetlagged, and preoccupied with a conference. The conference took place at a racetrack during the off-season, and every morning we were treated to a view of horses being exercised on a racetrack against a backdrop of colossal mountains.

Te Papa is like the Metropolitan Museum: you cannot see it in one, two, or three visits. Amazing and infinite. Thanks again to my Catalyst friends who scored me a private tour.

My first night our conference hosts had us to one of their homes for a home-cooked meal. It was a great way to ease into the trip.

The last meal I had with colleagues was with developers. I had forgotten how endearing they can be.

I’ll do a photo essay before Thanksgiving and talk about what I learned about libraries and librarians (other than we are a magnificent bunch).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

m4s0n501

Hachette Job, and Other Pre-LIANZA Musings

LamingtonI set aside my pre-LIANZA preparation to note that the theme for the past several weeks in LibraryLand is: be bold. (Warning, the following blog post is a babblish mish-mosh; I’m so busy I had to abandon plans to brew the White House beer for a local competition, let alone structure or revise this writing.)

Last week, Hachette Book Group announced it would “hike the price of backlist ebooks to the library market by 220% starting October 1″ — this, after ‘agreeing’ last May to re-enter the ebook market.

ALA President Maureen Sullivan organized a prompt and bold response, stating that librarians are “weary of faltering half-steps” and commenting, “‘Now we must ask, “With friends like these …’.” (To which Jamie LaRue added, “Maybe what we need is a smarter group of friends.”)

Sullivan has tasked ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to develop “more aggressive” strategies — a great call to action, in keeping with her presidential focus on advocacy. This isn’t to suggest that anyone, including Sullivan, believes an ALA working group is the only response to an issue, or that the rest of us don’t have work to do, but it’s important that our association take swift, formal, and bold action.

Given that, it’s sad that one of the last editorials from Francine Fialkoff before her departure from Library Journal after a highly distinguished career was a meandering swat at ALA committees. Most of us understand that committees are part of the larger landscape of advocacy and action–not solutions in themselves, but nonetheless contributing to solutions.

I remember being told, ages ago, that 85% of information transfer among scientists is informal, and I’d be willing to agree that applied to library leadership, as well. Many a library leader germinated leadership skills, ideas, and powerful connections within the world of professional organizations. Look at the truly significant thought leaders, and most cut their teeth through organizational participation. To simply write off the role of committees is to encourage learned helplessness toward organizational action — to give up in advance.

Does ALA drive us crazy sometimes? Are there committees — even entire divisions — mired in dysfunction? Does a bear poop in the woods? All human endeavors are destined to be flawed and somewhat crazy-making; “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Work through and around the flaws (and if need be, shift your efforts away from the fully dysfunctional), and experience the usefulness.

Speaking of work to do and the faith and skills to make it happen, Jenica Rogers and peers in the SUNY network have spoken truth to the powerful journal publishers and their — no other phrase for it — price-gouging behavior: “SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013.”

To underscore just how radical this is, Jenica spells out that the American Chemical Society “is in the unique position of both approving programs and selling the content necessary for approval” — an egregious conflict of interest.  (I’m wondering how unique this is, actually.) For this, the ACS extorts free labor from faculty who have no choice but to publish (or perish) — free labor to the ACS, but certainly not free to the supporting institutions — then turn around to charge increasingly high prices for their product. Jenica notes that “the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.”

N.b.: this also points to the importance of including librarians — or at least librarian-informed judgment —  in the university program approval and review process; some universities understand this, while others do not. It is to Jenica’s credit that she has built the organizational relationships to make possible the necessary conversations to do what elsewhere would be unthinkable.

These collection conversations are being held in an interesting space of tension and change. Last Friday we held library design sessions all day, led by a professional library space planner.  At one point, in a conversation about reducing print collections to provide more study space, the planner commented that accreditors need to understand that the assessment of the value the campus library has to reorient itself from being heavily collection-focused to the services libraries provide.

In some ways I believe (or perhaps hope) this is happening. One clue to that is the workshops our regional accrediting agency is holding: I don’t see one on collection strength in libraries, but I do see one on information literacy. But to see how far we across LibraryLand have to go, look at the standards for elite research libraries. Of course the collections in these libraries are important. But in isolation, these statistics are not much more than collection-focused bean-counting. Would you really want to brag that your library was number one in microfilm holdings?  The statistics may provide some insight into the readiness of any university to support skilled research, but there are no meaningful indicators, beyond what can be inferred from personnel capacity, about the library’s ability to produce researchers.

And yet! As Barbara Fister keeps arguing (and as I wrote earlier this year in An ebook and a hard place), shifting the focus from beans to soup (as it were) isn’t an excuse for abandoning our responsibilities to the memory work that has been core to who we are for thousands of years. We are in tension with all of this: the shift from print to digital; the battles of ownership and access; the transformation from box-of-books to vital commons.

Imagine  if the university accreditors showed up and asked how many journal holdings were open access — or secured by LOCKSS — or published by libraries or universities. Imagine too if the ALA LIS program accreditation committee held schools’ feet to the fire for producing graduates who understood (as much as any of us do) the complex publishing landscape and our roles in it as advocates and defenders — measurable with a four-hour closed-book final exam. If I’m going to imagine, I might as well be bold about it.

Meanwhile, my brain is a jumble of PowerPoint, workshop handouts, Convocation, pants-hemming, two weeks of meetings to be squeezed into one, and packing lists, while visions of Lamingtons dance through my dreams.

One of those birthdays

Potato Chips (Kettle Brand)

Potato Chips (Kettle Brand)

In a week I turn 55.

Turning 30 was delightful; stationed in Germany, I took myself on a tour of the Benelux, and on the Big Day, wandered enchanted through the Kroller-Muller museum. I was thrilled to leave the twenties behind.

Turning 40 was sweet; we were in New Jersey, Sandy threw a party, and all had fun. I look back, and there were people at that party who no longer walk this planet, and I am so glad for every celebration behind me.

The big deal at 50 was not where we were (Florida–wow, did we really live there once upon a time?), but that I had reached an important goal: to be writing again by 50. It meant so much to me to see my essay about my friend David published in White Crane–my first literary publication. Only people who have published literary writing understand the hurdle (and the effort behind it) of that first piece, first drafted in 2005.

(An aside, writing-humor-style: the person who replied, “Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to write a short story one of these days,” as if short-form literary writing were an unskilled project of a long morning, like cleaning a gas grill. Yup, you try that. Send it in to the New Yorker–the go-to submission for people who know nothing about writing.)

But 55 is freaking me out!

I suspect the problem is the way I absent-mindedly do “birthday arithmetic,” which is probably a holdover from a very early job as a records clerk at San Francisco Juvenile Court, where we filed records by the Soundex system, which had my brain doing small calculations all day long.

My birthday algorithm is this: double the age and decide if I’ll be alive.

I could easily see turning 60, as far away as it seemed. 80 was definitely within reach, given my hale family. 100 was remotely feasible, given advances in medicine, even though no one in my family had lived that long. But 110 — that seems entirely out of reach. I know people who are nearly 100, but I don’t know anyone who is close to approaching 110.

I realize birthday arithmetic is completely illogical. The arbitrary doubling of my current age is a ridiculous exercise. But it makes as much sense, or lack of sense, as grown men weeping over an athletic team, or Canada releasing a stamp featuring the Kraken (which if anything hale from England), or anything about Justin Bieber.

My solution to birthday-arithmetic-angst is to double down on the life ahead of me: personally, professionally, spiritually.

I’m excited about New Zealand and plan to use next Friday as a work-from-home day (after 11 days of going to work, the natural rhythm of fall Orientation) to work on my presentation and my workshop. The former will be about radical optimism (I just finished Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and highly recommend it) and the latter will be based on Reframing Academic Leadership.

At some point I’d like to collect my published essays into a book and offer it for sale. That’s a project where I wish I had a Life Intern (or one of those old-fashioned wives). I also greatly enjoyed writing an article for the library trade press (big thanks to Valerie and Karen at ALA!). At one point I didn’t want to do that any more because I wanted to reserve time for literary writing, but the latter is not happening. It isn’t demeaning to journalism to say it doesn’t lean as hard on my right brain. I found myself enjoying the rhythm of research, interview, synthesis, and writing–a pair of old slippers that fit perfectly after I dug them out of the back of the closet.

I’m occasionally attending an Episcopal church on Wednesday evenings, because I appreciate Sandy’s church leadership and yes, I attend many services, but she cannot be my pastor and her church is not my denomination. (Other pastor’s spouses will “get” what I mean.)

I’m also thinking strategically about the next 25 years of my working life: 15 in the regular full-time workforce, 10 as a consultant. Given my family’s lifespan, I will have another 5 to 10 years after that (if not more, due to aforesaid advances in medicine) where, oh, I don’t know, I can spend mornings writing, and in the afternoon emulate the woman on Packanack Lake in New Jersey who sat on her front porch in a rocking chair, eating potato chips and hollering at passers-by (Sandy and I agreed many years back we’d like to be like her someday).  In the meantime, as I focus on the pre-potato-chip era, I am enjoying the sense that I’m not just rolling in every day but have a map in front of me and a bright flashlight shining on it.

Onward, the dreaded march!

The Reluctant Cataloger

Saturday morning I’m headed in to do a little training in cataloging. My friend Zoe laughed her guts out when I told her I’m the de facto chief cataloger at my library. She said that in small institutions such as ours, the oldest librarian in the library usually has that role these days. Guilty as charged.

I love cataloging. No, I absolutely love it. The minutia. The conflicting rules. The endless attention to detail. The spine label printing. Ok, so I don’t love cataloging–I put up with it, since you can now graduate from library school without a grounding in the equivalent to programming in our profession, the structured language of bibliographic information. Note: when I was in library school, I took cataloging AND programming (PASCAL). Kids these days… But I do love transforming a shelf zombie into a discoverable, usable book, by my own hands or even better, by others, and we have a lot of zombies.

On other fronts, I haven’t written in several weeks because we went on vacation and I don’t like to advertise that in advance. I’m concerned people will steal our 32″ 6-year-old TV or our 15-year-old couch. Or kidnap our cats, who became so despondent at our absence they pooped in several inappropriate places, ensuring that my first two hours at home were not chillaxing with our unread mail and writing leisurely blog posts but crawling behind furniture with towels and warm Oxiclean to dab away the doo.  A very hard crash landing.

We spent our vacation with things and people both familiar and comfortable: friends, Hearst Castle, the Madonna Inn, a favorite hotel in Cambria, a favorite resort in Guerneville, more friends. It was the kind of vacation where the days are very full and yet slip away like quicksilver, where hours are spent adventuring and other hours are spent quietly reading entire books from page 1 to the end.

Like most people in higher ed, right now I am staring down the beginning of the semester, roaring toward us like an unstoppable freight train. But I am cupping our vacation in my hands, feeling its wings beating against my fingers, remembering.