Some bumps along the way – back-up plans, flexibility, and expanding your horizons during your MLIS

It’s 2021, and we’re still over a year later dealing with COVID-19 and the physical and emotional and mental strain that this pandemic is putting on all of us. We’re all exhausted, and our bodies and minds are stretched thin in keeping us going. Sometimes the daily routine of being a working, adult human on its own is hard to get through. Then, when you add extras like family, friends, and especially the responsibilities and commitments of graduate studies, it is really easy to start to feel ground down.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but this has been an incredibly rocky semester for me. In addition to taking two courses at a time in my MLIS program, I am lucky and privileged enough to work full-time in a job I absolutely love that has not been affected by the pandemic. I mostly get to work from home, but this semester especially it’s been really hard and I am feeling the strain. My classmates are always asking me how I manage to do everything I have on my plate. Until now, I’ve never wondered that myself – I’ve always just got on with it and done what needed to be done (usually right up to the time of whatever deadline I was on because of how much I have going on, but it all gets done). But, this semester it’s been hard to do that with. It’s been really hard to stay focused and to actually make myself start projects. Once I manage to get working, I can stay working and get things done; but getting started is so hard right now. Full transparency and this is a vulnerable moment for me, in week 10 of our 14 week semester (we’re in week 13 now) I had a straw that broke the camel’s back moment that led me to needing to withdraw from one of my winter courses due to stress that was so strong, I’d been having physical pain from it for weeks and I was an emotional mess. I won’t go into all the details, I will just say it has been a hard month, and I’m still having to push to get the withdrawal paperwork finalized (at the time of writing this, hopefully by the time you’re reading this the paperwork will have gone through and I won’t still be getting notifications for this course). I think it’s important for us as students and as LIS professionals to share these struggles, and share how we work through them and overcome them. LIS is a profession that causes burnout, as well as is one of the helping professions; and we don’t talk about the effects that has on us, especially in times of crisis.

Back at the start of 2020 before COVID-19 took over our lives and changed everything, you might remember that I wrote a piece for HLS in which I discussed planning ahead vs. being flexible and taking things as they came in library school. At the end of that piece, I acknowledged that you need to balance those two things to optimize your experience and this month has been a test in that resolve. That’s what I want to talk about in this post. What do you do when you hit a bump in the road? How do you get back on track?

Things WILL go wrong, so be flexible

I have had a loose plan for the courses I wanted to take since I started in my program. I say loose because it was based purely on the electives list on my program’s website, a list they claimed rotated yearly. I spotted 6 electives and 2 of the IT options that sounded most interesting to me and added them to the tracking spreadsheet I created for myself. Almost immediately that loose plan started to evolve and change based on the electives and IT options that actually ended up being offered each semester.

If you have a concrete plan, then that kind of change is going to throw you, but if you have a loose plan you’ll have an easier time rolling with those scheduling punches that are out of your control. In the Summer 2020 semester, I had registered for one of the two IT courses I needed and the brand new online elective on Indigenous Contexts in LIS. After a first week negative run-in with the instructor of the IT course, I swapped into an elective that hadn’t initially been on my plan because it wasn’t as relevant at some of the other elective courses, but it was the only course left open at that time. Even though it wasn’t a course I envisioned taking, I ended up really enjoying it. It was a course on storytelling, so it gave me a chance to flex my creative muscles the way other courses in the program hadn’t, but it also gave me the chance to create and lead a 40-minute lecture and week-long discussion on copyright, which as you know from several of my past pieces is one of my professional niches. If I hadn’t been willing to be flexible, and take a negative interaction as a sign of things to come, I would have ended up missing out on that really great course and probably would not have had as good as a semester as I ended up having.

A similar situation happened in the Fall 2020 semester. In planning ahead for both Fall 2020 and Winter 2021, I knew I was going to take my program’s research course but I had been hoping to leave it until my final semester so I could take two really interesting looking electives, Publishing, and Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship in the Fall. I had the Winter 2021 semester (the one we’re currently in) pegged for my two IT courses. There was a problem though, one of the IT courses I wanted required the research course as a pre-requisite. So, I had to decide whether or not to be flexible on my IT courses or my electives. I took a chance and crossed my fingers and hoped Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship would be offered again in Fall 2021; which ended up working out well for me because I’m working on editing my literature review from the research course for publication due to come out later this year! Be flexible when you can because you never know what doors being flexible will open up for you.

You’ll notice something, though – the semester we’re currently in is also the semester in which I just admitted to having to withdraw from a class. Since I was taking both the IT courses, this withdrawal leaves me down an IT credit; which caused some panic, scrambling, and a need to get really flexible really quickly if I wanted to keep to the completion timeline I had planned (which I do!).

Your back-up plans should have back-up plans

One thing I am known for is planning. I plan, and then I plan a back-up plan…and then I plan at least 2 back-up plans to the first back-up plan. It’s an anxiety thing, but it really comes in handy for work and school so I’ve learned to make that anxiety tic work for me over the years. This tendency really came in handy in March. The moment I made the decision to withdraw from the course, actually the moment I even started considering it, I asked myself a question: “What will you need to do to make up this course so you can withdraw and not worry?” Upon asking myself that question, I loaded up my school’s registration system. Between the Spring and Summer semesters I found only one elective course that interested me in the summer; so I needed to find a way to either pick up a second elective or an IT course so I could still finish by the end of the calendar year like I planned.

I ended up coming up with three initial options, and I set three of the four plans into motion immediately so that as soon as one worked I could stop worrying, my plans were:

  • Keep my summer elective, find a second elective in spring or summer, and hold out hope for a good IT course with an instructor I could work with in the Fall
  • Keep my summer elective, ask my advisor if a summer IT related Education course I’d found could count towards my IT requirements
  • Keep my summer elective, and arrange to take an IT course through SJSU’s open courses in the spring and then

As I was working on sorting out that second option I needed to get the syllabus for the Education course, when I did and I saw the requirements for the course I began to worry. My school has seven distinct terms (at least) in the Spring/Summer session. The summer course I had already signed up for was in a compressed 6-week term, and this education course was in the same 6-week term. I was worrying that this might end up being too much to handle while balancing my job. Knowing that the 6-weeks overlap partially with the start of my busiest period at work and knowing that I might still be down a team member by then, I emailed the professor of the elective course I was already taking and asked her to send me the syllabus for her course so I could assess whether or not two compressed courses would be doable — protip: it would NOT be doable, please do NOT try and do that to yourself. I am glad I did that because in seeing the syllabus for that course I was sparked with a fourth back-up plan that became the preferred plan: ask my advisor to assess the summer course I was already in as an IT course and then just find a spring or summer course for an elective.

When you have at least one back-up plan you’ll be less prone to panic and you’ll feel more confident and comfortable to remove yourself from a bad situation. I know other people in my course who also wanted to withdraw but couldn’t because they couldn’t for a variety of reasons.

And, don’t be afraid to look outside your department

My advisor went for my plan, the Building Intersectional Feminist Archives course I signed up for had gone from being an elective to being my final IT requirement. It was a huge relief to get that sorted out, and I’m really excited about this course. There’s another story behind it, as you can tell from the heading, it’s not actually a LIS course, it’s a digital humanities course cross-listed through gender studies. I’m signed up to the gender studies section. Remember earlier in this post I mentioned that my school promised to rotate the electives annually? Yup, that didn’t happen this year, in fact there was one less course on the docket for Spring/Summer but the ones that were there were all the same. That meant that I’d already taken the only two of the four on offer that I was interested in. So, I got flexible, came up with a back-up plan, and looked into the courses on offer by other departments.

This is a great idea if you can find something that interests you. Taking courses external to your library program allows you to show depth and make new connections in ideas and information, and expand your professional network in new directions. If your MLIS program is like mine you’ll even have a built-in number of “external” courses you can take. At my school that number is three. Once I decided to take that plunge, I found Building Intersectional Feminist Archives, and it only had a handful of seats per section. I would need permission from the host department and the instructor to take the course. I started with Digital Humanities because of their close ties to my faculty (we offer a joint MLIS/MA in DH program), but because the course only had ten seats they had restricted enrollment in place until June 15th, and I was too scared to wait that long and run the risk of not getting any summer courses. When they said that I emailed the Gender Studies department about their section and found out that they did not have a restricted enrolment period, so that’s what I went with and I registered first thing on the first day of registration.

In the wake of my withdrawal debacle, and enacting my back-up plan I needed to find another elective, so I returned to this method, and I went external. SLIS at my school is part of the Faculty of Education, so we get all of the emails for education, meaning we get the emails when they’re running special elective courses. I had saved an email about one that looked interesting because I thought maybe I’d investigate the topic, Research-Creation, on my own, but now I had the chance to take it. Luckily, there were still three openings in it on the day I went in to sign-up for it. It’s in our Spring term, and it’s only 3 weeks long, it’s a conference style course, so I’ll have to attend five, three-hour long, synchronous lectures. This will be a new experience for me as I am in a 100% asynchronous program. I’m both excited and intimidated!

The moral here is that I hope you learn something from my experience. When things go wrong, and they will, be flexible and come up with back-up plans. Don’t be afraid to look outside your department, getting outside of your comfort zone will open you up to new experience and broaden your professional horizons, and that is always a good thing. Most importantly though, in the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams — don’t panic!


In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently working towards her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and just finished a stint as a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat | about.me/laurenbourdages


Featured image is “Infocom – Hitchhikers Guide” by Kreg Steppe licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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