First Day of Class in a Pandemic

Many folks have asked how the first day of classes were last Thursday. The University of South Carolina decided to have in-person classes (as well as virtual and hybrid at the faculty and student’s discretion). Here is a letter I wrote to the alumni:

Yesterday was the weirdest first day of classes I have encountered in 22 years as a professor. Normally the first day is all about a packed campus – and grumbling over waiting for that bagel that had no line the week before. It is about students coming into the office looking for classrooms. It’s about too many seats or too few seats in those classrooms. Online it’s last minute phone calls about registration, or a bill, or needing Blackboard access. It is a bit of endearing chaos filled with expectations of a great new year.

Image of an empty center of campus
The Horseshoe Thursday Morning

Yesterday I talked to two students who didn’t realize a course had been moved online and I thanked a class for wearing masks and keeping us all safe. That was it. Good lord it was even a productive writing day.

This oddly quiet day was a sign of success. While the chaos is endearing, it also can demonstrate gaps in planning or poor information sharing. A quiet opening day in a pandemic is about a prepared school. It is a testament to new all online orientation. It is about revised syllabi and a faculty taking the time to reach out to their students. It is about the often invisible labor of scheduling and budgeting.

The iSchool, your school, was ready for yesterday, just as we were ready to face the challenges of the pandemic last Spring. Through the work not only of today’s faculty, staff, and students, but those throughout the history of the school we are perfectly situated to respond in these days of crisis and need. We were already either online, or ready to use our long experience in online instruction to make sure all of our students met their learning outcomes. That’s thanks to folks like Dan Barron, Sam Hastings, Fred Roper, Charles Curran, Linda Lucas Walling, and Sarah Keeling that built the school over our 50 year history.

Our school is perfectly situated to help our society in these times of need. Active research and advocacy agendas in equity, diversity, and inclusion have provided valuable insight in the form of funded research, published scholarly articles, state-wide workshops, and online high-profile speaking events. We have an engaged alumni base that ensures attention to issues of racial justice. Our innovative graduates are defining a new normal in library service in the age of COVID. We are the hub of an international network of librarians, scholars, and information scientists sharing best practices and innovative projects.

All of our 50 years of history shows brightly now in dark times. This semester while our peer programs are dealing with a substantial reduction in graduate enrollment, ours Is up over 30%. We have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal research grants. We have hosted national events with the leaders in the fields of anti-racism. Our graduates are leaders of school libraries throughout South Carolina and in cities like San Francisco, Columbia, Spartanburg, Charleston, San Barbara and states like Vermont.

At the end of the day the lack of endearing chaos might have been odd, but the fact that the smooth surface of the day belied the amazing dedication and expertise of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni was nothing new at all.

It has been my honor and joy to be the director of iSchool these past four years. I wake up knowing that I am part of a community seeking and building a better, more just society. Thank you all for your help in making this a reality. I ask you to continue to support the school.

Carol Perryman: Building Community Online

Carol Perryman is Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Studies. She and I share a strong interest in community and librarianship. In reading my post today on community and isolation she had some great thoughts and reactions. I am sharing them here with her permission.

A touch on the shoulder is just one element (though important) of our interactions. We connect in so many other ways. Because of this, consideration of how shifted awareness, focused on additional elements of interactions, can be used to enhance online learning seems important in thinking about improving online learning (or even considering what it might add that isn’t available in person). 

I spent several years working in Second Life as a consumer health librarian, paid by a series of NLM grants, and learned much about trust and our connections. Groups there, such as the global gathering of people diagnosed with AIDS/HIV, established communities using avatars. In talking over years with others I consider ‘instinctive sociologists’ – natural, curious observers of human behavior – we observed that even online, when another person joined our discussion, we adjusted our social distance to accommodate the added person. 

In an asynchronous health support forum focused on smoking cessation, smaller communities within the very large one (over 100,000 members) emerged, and our relationships grew to include far more than smoking cessation. In fact, 20 years after I quit smoking, I am still part of one smaller group that first met in the forum. Children not yet conceived are now adults. Our number includes attorneys, nurses, a magazine editor, an artist/graphic designer, a 7/11 clerk in a small town; we have lost members to cancer. And we have met in person, many of us. 

We understand that it’s difficult to convey feeling in email, but our written words convey signals of affiliation. In the absence of expected signals, people will often ask outright for gender information, for example. We want to belong and to understand where others fit in our worldview. 

In online education, it does seem likely that community-building is more difficult. Our alliances are enforced by circumstance outside ourselves, temporary, and subject to evaluation. All performance is assessed. But this is also true in person. To think that students are not aware of power inequalities (or that similarly, staff and faculty and administrative personnel are not equally so) is wishful thinking.

What are the differences between the communities established in Second Life and an asynchronous health support forum, and online learning?

One is self-agency: In Second Life and QuitNet, people entered the space on a purely voluntary basis. They were free to perform their functions to the chosen extent – interact or not, disclose what they felt comfortable with disclosing. I entered Second Life as a paid consumer health librarian, deliberately exploring how virtual roles and spaces could be sites for library roles. 

Another is trust-building, our understood social contract, and the understanding of our virtual-space selves. When I interacted with people in the health support forum, it was always with an awareness of my role. For example, I considered how I could build trust with a carefully constructed appearance and with transparency: people knew my real name and role. I had a central identified purpose. Interestingly, not everyone had this kind of awareness. In fact, in Second Life, one avatar active in the library community had a habit of coming on to women in a very crude way. He and others somehow drew a line between ‘real world’ selves and represented personas, persuading themselves that trust was somehow different online. 

Purpose is an element: In the smoking cessation community, all entered (I presume) with that central purpose in mind, and personas were built around that core over some length of time, based upon readiness to interact and trust. That length of time, together with self-agency, may be important in understanding differences between in-person and online communities. One semester in terms of trust-building isn’t long. It seems likely that the additional social cues we get from our in-person connections, even just for one semester, support our interactive community-building. Even in person, however, not all community members feel an equal amount of ease, or trust. There are always those who sit in the back of the class.

Speaking more generally, we have been shifting from an entirely in-person world to one in which our lives span time and space (the final frontier!). Remember Max Headroom, the TV showed that tested our awareness of what was real and what was not; our discomfort (the ‘uncanny valley’) with robotic simulations of human life? How about social media trolls, who use their anonymity to harass others and excite controversy? 

I believe we are still traveling along a path of how we trust, as well as how we understand our asynchronous, temporary connections. There’s probably lots more to be said about this, and others have done so far better. 

None of these speculations offer answers to the question of improving online education. However, an awareness of the unique benefits and risks we take on in different settings may offer clues.

Community in a Time of Isolation

Tomorrow our Students return to class. All of our students they will return to class online. For our LIS students this will be normal. Except, it won’t be normal for them. They will be returning to their usual distance courses while sheltered in place, at home with children not attending shuttered schools, or parents closed off in senior communities, or spouses who have to exchange Zoom meetings for conference rooms, or perhaps they are now simply alone in a country whose borders have been closed in a world that counts every ventilator unit like it used to measure Gross Domestic Product.

In our classes we will be teaching these future librarians and information professionals a curriculum of skills. Yet all of these skills are founded on the values of service. And as much as we talk about virtual libraries and online communities our traditions and models and metaphors run deep with a reality of human contact.

I am reminded of talking with Chuck McClure about a study he did on reference transactions. It was the famous 55% study where he and Peter Hernon found about half of reference questions actually received incorrect answers. Yet an overwhelming percentage of people getting these answers were satisfied. When I asked how this could be, he asked “the number one way of increasing satisfaction?” He then reached out his hand, laid it on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and with sincerity asked, “does that help?” Human connection.

In the rise of social media, scholar after scholar, maven after maven, profit after profit have extolled the centrality of community and connection. I’ll be honest, in my 4 years at South Carolina I have struggled with finding ways to foster community in our online program. Traditional ways of bonding don’t work. Bringing in a speaker is difficult when the audience is of 10 bodies and an online audience of 50.

And yet the bond between faculty and student and school and alumni is strong. Why? Because our school library faculty are out in classrooms around the state. My faculty delivers workshops on universal design in a Center down the street. They hop in a bus to go to the neediest schools to read stories with the university mascot. They reach out to refugee populations. They sit with undergraduates in research and teaching and in protest of wrongs (including my wrong decisions). I still have alumni in Maine from a cohort decades ago that have a strong connection to the school because the faculty would make multiple trips a semester up north.

But now these faculty too sit at home with children and elders and spouses or by themselves in unprecedented times when social distancing, while novel, can too easily turn to fear of human physical contact.

I sent out a tweet asking if libraries around the globe are really closing, or are they shutting their physical doors but staying open online (and just to be clear they should close the physical doors out of concern for both staff and community). After all, libraries have been online for over 20 years. Some told of ebooks. Some of increased chats and reference transactions. Many talked about online story times and youth activities. Perhaps the most touching were the too few that were calling “regulars,” just to check in and make sure they were OK.

We talk about libraries and all kinds of information organizations building communities. We talk of social media as connecting and building relationships. But how many of us know our regulars well enough to call them and ask, “how are you,” and then, and I cannot stress this enough, listen to the response?

My inbox is full of statements telling me how much my gym, and my movie theater, and my airline care about me in these trying times. Telling me. None have called me or emailed me to listen.

It’s amazing in a time when Google and Apple know more about me than probably my mother, if they called and asked how I was, it would feel intrusive, even abusive. We have a deal Google, and I. They give me service and I give them data. It’s a transaction. One in which I know they know things I don’t want to talk about or share.

Are we preparing our graduates to create these kinds of communities or true communities founded on relationships and not simply aggregated data that can trigger a dopamine response when needed? Are our undergraduates using their skills in data analysis, design thinking, system design and so on to create engagement that can yield to analytics and be monetized? Or to connect? Are our graduate alumni going into schools, academies, medical centers, corporations, archives, and libraries truly prepared to serve and connect with compassion?

Paul Romer, a Stanford economist, said a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. He was talking about an economic crisis, and the need to rebalance an economy and the social compact between government, citizen, and business. We too must not waste this crisis. Every day of locked down uncertainty is a test of our ideals, traditions, curricula, and service.

How do we not only seek to answer more questions correctly, but reach out a virtual hand, rest it on the collective, sheltered in place, shoulders of our communities, and, with sincerity, ask, “does this help?”

I’m Looking for Doctoral Students

Come study with me…come help me change the world. Below is the recruitment announcement for Syracuse’s Ph.D. program. I am looking for good folks to come and work with me. It is increasingly vital that we have information scientists and new faculty in the field. Let me know if you are interested. I’d love to talk.


Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies welcomes applicants for our doctoral program. Admitted students are assured of at least four year’s funding (including summers) along with tuition and other support.

The interdisciplinary nature of our program is visible through the backgrounds of the 30 current doctoral students.  These students hail from ten countries and have academic training in the social sciences, communications, business, computer science, librarianship, linguistics, information science, and others areas.   Our doctoral program is a welcoming and inclusive place for scholars from under-represented populations, something we see as a defining element of our program.

Doctoral students pursue individualized course plans that are tuned to their particular research interests and needs.  This means advising and, more importantly, close working relationships with faculty members is a cornerstone of the Syracuse University iSchool Ph.D. program. This is why it is both residential and full-time.

We celebrate the success of our recent graduates who are taking up tenure-track positions in premier research institutions and exceptional liberal arts colleges, excelling in academic and policy think tanks, and pursuing entrepreneurial success! Current students are earning awards for their publications and dissertation work, continuing a long tradition of such recognition.

For 2016, we are particularly interested in speaking with applicants and seeing applications from those whose interests align with one or more of the following research areas

  • Text and data mining, Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval
  • Computational social science, visualization, and data analytics
  • Agent-based modeling
  • Information policy, Internet governance, and telecommunications policy
  • Librarianship
  • Mobile computing
  • Data infrastructure and services in support of research
  • Organizational impacts of ICTs (e.g., Citizen Science, FLOSS, Wikipedia, mobile work, distributed scientific collaboration, and infrastructure studies)
  • Information security and privacy
  • Social computing, social media, social networks, and crowdsourcing
  • Wireless telecommunications policy and telecommunication service markets

You can learn more about the Syracuse iSchool faculty and interests at https://ischool.syr.edu/research/faculty-research-areas/

You can learn more about the doctoral program and application (due 3 January, 2016) at https://ischool.syr.edu/academics/graduate/doctoral/information-science-and-technology/

Please reach out to the faculty member whose interests draw you forward, the program director, Steve Sawyer, at ssawyer@syr.edu , or our program manager, Jennifer Barclay, at istphd@syr.edu with questions!

Expect More Scholarship Information Session

Info Session graphic

On Tuesday, February 17 at 7pm EST we are hosting a special information session to talk about the Expect More Library Scholarship and our LIS and LIS School Media programs.

iSchool Professor Dave Lankes will be talking about the Expect More Scholarship and the kind of opportunities Expect More Library Scholars will experience. We’ll be joined by current LIS student, Ryan Perry and the iGrad team.

Here is the link to sign up for this, as well as other online information sessions:

http://ischool.syr.edu/contact/forms/grad-onlinechat.aspx

Expect More on issuu.com

So I am experimenting with more self-publishing platforms. Today is issuu.com. This is the free version of the tool, so there will be adds, but you can use this to embed the book in any webpage you’d like:

Special Note: Don’t use the “Order Print” option, as print copies are cheaper through Amazon (and, you know, I get a royalty there).

This is a nice platform to keep formatting and visuals. However, you have to spend monthly money to add features such as annotations. Medium.com seems a better system for getting out pieces for reading and comment.

Announcing the Expect More Library Scholarship!

The Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) is excited to announce the Expect More Library Scholarship, a new scholarship program for students interested in pursuing their MS in Library and Information Science (LIS) or MS in Library and Information Science: School Media (LISSM).

The Expect More Library Scholarship is for students who want an intense but highly rewarding academic graduate program experience at the iSchool. We are able to offer this scholarship due to a generous donation from our library alumna, Estelle Wilhelm.

Expect More Library Scholars receive:

  • A 50% tuition award
  • Pairing with a specific faculty mentor, who is carefully matched to the student’s career field of interest, for the two years of the graduate education program
  • A paid faculty assistant position working directly with their faculty mentor on projects in the Expect More Library Scholar’s field of interest. The position is 20 hours per week during the academic year, for the two years of the program
  • A $1,000 travel fund for library conferences, industry networking events, and professional development activities

How to Apply for the Expect More Library Scholarship Program

To be considered for the Expect More Library Scholarship Program:

  1. You must first apply to either our LIS or LISSM program. This generates your Syracuse University ID number, which you will need in order to apply to the Expect More Library Scholarship. Be sure to leave yourself time!
  2. Once you receive your confirmation of application email from Syracuse University, complete the Expect More Library Scholarship application by March 1, 2015.

Apply to the LIS program >> | Apply to the LISSM program >>

About our Library Programs

At the Syracuse University iSchool we offer two master’s programs focused on library science, available both on campus and online:

The MS in Library and Information Science (LIS) is a comprehensive, American Library Association-accredited, 36-credit degree program that prepares you for a career in a broad range of organizations, including: an academic institution, public library, corporation, government agency or cultural institution.

The MS in Library and Information Science: School Media (LISSM) program focuses on teaching Library and Information Science (LIS) students the skills to instruct children in grades pre-K through 12 in all areas of literacy and technology fluency. LISSM students do not need to take additional education courses, as the New York State Department of Education requirements are infused into our curriculum.

Today. Today. Today.

This semester I am teaching a class in self-publishing (Publish or Perish: From Monks to MOOCs). This post is the result of my most recent self-published book, The Boring Patient.

There are a lot of reasons folks self-publish a book. Some for fame, some for money, some because they have something they want to share. In most cases it is a combination of all of these. Throw in the increasing ease of doing it yourself versus the difficulty of breaking into “traditional” publishing with agents and such and you have the amazing increase in self-publishing.

I’ll be honest, when I published The Boring Patient I was interested in selling books and making money in addition to simply wanting to share my message. It was nice to have a pretty paper book to give out to friends and family, but somewhat discouraging when I didn’t sell thousands of copies (yet). Then I was invited to do an interview on the book for a locally produced public radio show on health matters.

The interview was recorded (you can hear it here) in the same hospital where I had been diagnosed with and treated for my cancer. After the interview I went up to the oncology and bone marrow transplant ward. I had spent 25 days in the transplant ward walking 31 miles 42 steps at a time. I saw a nurse who remembered me. She have me a hug, and I gave her a book. Then I went to the general oncology ward where I had spent a month when first diagnosed.

As I turned the corner, a nurse I mentioned in the book saw me. This is the passage about her from the book:

Here is one of the most poignant moments I have had in my life, and frankly, if you take nothing out of this book but the following story, I would be very happy. As the fellow lowered the bed for more leverage to push into my skeleton she requested a steel needle to bore into the crown of my pelvic bone. A nurse who had been taking care of me came to the head of the bed, and with one hand gave the fellow the steel needle, and with the other took my hand.

For the next 10 minutes that nurse asked me about my job, my kids, my wife, where I liked to travel, anything to keep me talking. Meanwhile the fellow continued to lower the bed for better leverage. She was getting direction from another doctor…it was the fellow’s first bone biopsy – great. As soon as the fellow removed the needle, the nurse let go of my hand, walked down to the lounge where my wife was losing it, and told her, “You are planning his funeral, stop it.”

Now here she was, and before I knew what to say she hugged me. She proceeded to tell me that she not only heard about my book, but had given it to the head of medicine, her fellow nurses, and even patients. She asked if I would be willing to talk to patients and possibly be involved in some staff development. To say that she made my day is an understatement. I told her I was at her disposal. If she needed me to talk to nurses or patients or doctors, I would be there. It would be a pleasure to give back.

As I was leaving the floor, she found me again and asked if I had time to talk to a patient. So I was soon sitting next to – well – me really. Me from twelve months ago. Hair gone to chemo, port connected to a pole pumping in chemo. We talked for the better part of an hour about cancer, stem cell transplants, chemo, pain, family, drugs, dying, and getting through it all. After the better part of an hour I left. What hit me at that moment was that if I didn’t sell another copy of the book, it had already accomplished more than I could have hoped.

Which brings me to this post. Turns out my story has been used in an Italian course on “The Sociology of Health” (Google translation). I wrote a brief post for the class and received these questions:

Good evening, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I have two questions.
How has this experience of disease changed your life? And how the narratives clinics can change the concept of care of and public health? Thank you for your availability.

That is not a set of answers I can easily squeeze into a Facebook comment. So with that very long preface, here are my answers:

On the matter of what clinics can change around the concept of public health, I think the short answer is that clinics don’t make you healthy. Doctors, drugs, and treatments don’t make you healthy…they are a crucial PART of your health. So, however, are you. It takes a team of committed professionals, patients, and caregivers to get and stay healthy. All members of that team are important, all must teach and learn from each other, and the key is knowledge. That nurse holding my hand was as important to my treatment as the steel spike piercing my bone. Me taking my pills was as crucial as the doctors writing the prescription, and the pharmacist who ensured the correct dosage.

How has this experience of disease changed my life? Wow. There are the expected answers. I have come to appreciate my family and friends more. I have seen how powerful the caring and contributions of even remote acquaintances can be. Meals, sitting with me, lottery cards, Christmas caroling form library students via Facetime, all can be overwhelming. They show that people care that you are alive.

Then there is the more truthful, and frankly painfully personal answer. I don’t know yet.

It has been nearly a year since my bone marrow transplant. While I was living that year it felt like a straight path of recovery. Every day feeling better than the day before. Every day stronger. Now I can leave the hospital, now I can leave the house. Now I can travel by car, now by plane. A first clean PET scan, then another, and another. Always getting better; always moving forward. That’s the way health is supposed to work. You get sick, then you get treated, then you get better. It certainly seemed like a straight line at the time. Feeling better, then joyous, then more work and more impact; always forward. Always joyous.

But looking back on my “first year” I do not see a straight path. Yes there is the forward path of my body, but all around it is the sometimes jarring emotional swerves and bucks and skids. Always joyous? Joyous and relieved and then depressed and lost. Is it my mind, my body or the latest drug side effect. Always forward always forward until you stop and breath and want to crawl back into bed for no reason. No reason. But you try and find one to explain the fear and anxiety and depression when yesterday was joy. You take out your mental checklist: Drug change? Insomnia (again)? Bad food? Am I sick – oh God am I sick?! Where’s the thermometer. How’s my breathing and my chest? There has to be a reason, it has to be physical right? I don’t get anxious, I don’t get depressed. I’m the brave one, the strong one, the cancer is gone. I’m better…right?

Then they are there. Your wife who hugs you. Your kids joke with you. Your friends and your mother are there. And it is not so bad. Sometimes it is still bad, but you force a smile, or a joke…and then you fool yourself too. Better. Out of bed. Then joy…thank God that in all that swerving and bucking, joy comes.

Today I am better. Today I have survived a year when many would have died. Today I have a chance for joy. Today I can have the straight path…or perhaps today I will once again skid and buck. But I can do that. And maybe today as I slide and skid I can also close my eyes to just feel the rush of wind on my face. And today as I look down and see hands that every day resemble more and more those of my dead father I can remember him. And today as I try something new I can applaud myself for courage – get out of bed – get out of the house – get out of my head and do the most sincere prayer I know: today I will make the world a better place. Today I will use my gift of life to help others. Today. Today. Today.

ILEAD USA and You

1260x240-ileadusa-banner1Right now 10 State Libraries are gearing up to offer, in my opinion, the best learning experience for in-the-field librarians: ILEAD USA. The program consists of cross-library teams, mentors, amazing instructors, and thought leaders from across the industry. Though 3 intensive residencies librarians form a cohort around projects with the sole aim to produce awesome librarians.

It is a program I feel some pride in as I was invited to be part of designing the curriculum. If you follow my blog you have seen some of my talks to ILEAD USA, but those are an itty bitty part of a much more amazing experience.

If you are in these states, and are looking for a professional development on steroids please contact your state library and see how you can participate:

These folks are also looking for awesome librarians to act as instructors in the area of technology, leadership, project planning, and community engagement.

Also, a special shout out to IMLS that has been instrumental in making this happen (with a lot of investment from the state libraries). Together this program has been creating and will continue to create a nationwide corp of librarians ready to improve lives. Please join us!