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Where’s My Blackboard? Do I Have Enough Food?: Thinking Back on Our Pandemic Pivot

It has been just over a year that CUNY instructors made a swift pivot into online teaching and learning. Having taught Blackboard-based English classes and a hybrid research-and-library instruction class on Canvas for other colleges, I volunteered to be the ersatz library liaison to my CUNY campus’s teaching faculty during the rather surreal pivot week from in person to distance learning: in other words, the final week on campus, when all classes were abruptly cancelled and teaching faculty got daily, breathtaking crash courses in radically rethinking their jobs. Every day of that pivot week, I’d sit in our library instruction room with teaching faculty, who represented a range of comfort levels with online teaching. I found myself assisting those who had never logged into their respective Blackboard course shells to offering vague assurances to other colleagues that all would be just fine. One adjunct instructor, in particular, was so overwhelmed by the pivot–she owned no computer–that she ended up leaving the class and the job, I found out later. Just. Quitting.

The week after pivot, we were off campus, alone, siloed–working from our respective living spaces, trying not to quit, attempting to replicate what we were used to doing. I emailed my “regulars:” teaching faculty I’d occupied classrooms with semester after semester. As a self-appointed cheerleader for online teaching and learning all during pivot week, the outreach emails I composed were the same, teeming with robust paragraphs, layered with frenetic tones, exuberant abandon: “Let’s do this! We have synchronous and asynchronous versions of library instruction! We want to be in your Blackboard!”

The vocabulary was fresh; the conditions were new. How could teaching faculty resist? Resist they did. I got very little response. If the instructors did respond (and many did not), they were polite, but sounded a bit rattled. Overwhelmed. One wrote back, “I’ve decided to excise the research component from my syllabus this semester. It feels like too much.” Taking quick stock, I gathered that the practical, even compassionate thing to do was to just calm down and pare down. Simplify. Nonetheless, we kept reaching out. We got some bites. We did some Zooms. Asynchronous and synchronous! We learned together, not just about this new model of teaching, not just about this new iteration of “campus” in an early epicenter of the pandemic–but we learned about lowering expectations and that that was not only fine, but ideal.

For this post, I went back into the Google doc I kept during spring semester 2020: What I found was that I’d succeeded in showing up for Web Ex meetings, that I’d managed to download Zoom for the first time. But among the work-related notes, there were others: “Today I feel feverish?” “Do I have enough food?” “I am emotionally exhausted and want to be silent.” “Today was rough. I sobbed.”

A year into this pandemic, I have been rethinking outreach and the value remote librarians provide. I am trying to keep what I can offer simple, not just for my teaching colleagues but for myself: and most importantly, with an exuberance that’s deeply, optimally empathetic.

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