Stephanie Evers Ard
Social Sciences Librarian
University of South Alabama
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most libraries to move their services online, the University of South Alabama’s Marx Library was quick to respond. The library already provided robust online services, and library workers understood their crucial role in providing remote academic support to faculty and students. However, the Marx Library also recognized that providing social support was just as essential. This article describes how the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee rallied to provide students with a much-needed sense of community by developing online programming–specifically, by moving the library’s very popular semesterly “Poetry & Pizza” open mic events online. The author details how the library successfully planned two fully virtual poetry events by identifying and collaborating with relevant campus departments and community organizations, adapting available technology to create a safe and comfortable place for student expression, and drawing upon a strong social media presence. The author also evaluates the Student Engagement Committee’s successes, reflects on the problems they encountered, and offers suggestions for other libraries hoping to plan similar online events.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced most libraries to close and move their services online, the University of South Alabama’s Marx Library was quick to respond. The library already provided robust online services. The library workers understood their crucial role in providing remote academic support to faculty and students. However, the Marx Library also recognized that providing social support was just as essential. To this end, the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee rallied to bolster the library’s social media presence and develop online programs to provide students with a much-needed sense of community. In particular, the Student Engagement Committee sought to move the library’s very popular semesterly “Poetry & Pizza” open mic event online. By acting quickly, collaborating with relevant teaching faculty, and drawing upon the library’s strong social media presence, the Student Engagement Committee successfully held two fully virtual poetry events during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Review of the Literature
The need for meaningful student engagement at the university level and the role academic libraries play in fostering this engagement has been well-covered by researchers. No single definition of student engagement exists. Alrashidi et al. (2016) observed that literature on student engagement encompasses various aspects of both student and institutional behavior, including academic activities, personal persistence, psychological investment, and educational policies. The ambiguous definition becomes problematic as many academic libraries embrace the concept of student engagement and make it central to their information literacy goals (Schlak, 2018). Nonetheless, student engagement is essential if students are expected to advance to higher levels of information literacy, as it provides an entry point for meaningful interactions with library spaces, resources, and faculty (Snavely, 2012).
Notably, the literature concerning academic libraries and student engagement tends to focus on services that directly support academic success, such as reference and collection development, rather than library events or other programs. In her review of literature on the relationship between library programming and student engagement, Eshbach (2020) noted that “what is written focuses on academic engagement, especially in terms of information literacy, rather than social engagement” (p. 2). A prominent exception to this is Student Engagement in the Academic Library, in which Snavely (2012) curated several articles exploring numerous creative engagement programs developed by academic libraries and how these initiatives improve student success, campus collaborations, and more meaningful learning.
In a literature review completed by Appleton (2020), two of the author’s major themes – student voice in libraries and techniques used by libraries to improve student engagement – seemed to address concerns of social engagement. However, most of these articles dealt with surveys, interviews, and ethnographic approaches, with little mention of library programming or events. Similarly, Barchas-Lichtenstein et al. (2020) observed that “[p]ublications on library programs tend to be either descriptive or anecdotal” (564). Examples of such programs include research on gamification in academic libraries (Markey, et al., 2008; Walsh, 2014), therapy dog activities (Jalongo & McDevitt, 2015), and student volunteer programs (Forrest, 2012). Their work underscored the importance of public-facing programming, including that done by academic libraries. However, the framework developed by Barchas-Lichtenstein et al. (2020) was still largely formed by looking at programs conducted by public libraries. This trend appears through most of the scholarship on library programs and becomes even more apparent when looking at online programming.
Pre-Pandemic Online Programming
The resources for online programming look very different before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early discussions include Microsoft Corporation’s Libraries Online! Program (St. Lifer, 1996) and the creation of Online Programming for All Libraries (OPAL), a now-defunct website originally designed to list various online programs–from virtual storytimes to book discussion forums–on a single website (Bell & Peters, 2004). More recent literature tends to be more event or program specific. For the public or school librarian needing to plan online programming, resources exist for everything from the more conventional digital storytimes (Collen, 2006; Paganelli, 2016), book clubs “to-go” kits (Hermes et al., 2008), and virtual tours for veterans and elderly patrons (Hall, 2020) to programs for podcasting (Kaushik, 2010; ) and entrepreneurship tutorials (Faulkner, 2018). Beyond scholarly literature, a Google search for online programs brings up a nearly endless list of activities occurring at public libraries around the world.
Nonetheless, the literature specifically on academic libraries planning and hosting online programs and events, especially those with the goal of improving student social engagement, is decidedly thin. Appleton (2020) mentioned only two types of online programs–email campaigns (Carden et al., 2016; Paladino et al., 2017) and another on the use of virtual reality to create a museum-like sense of space (Mitchell, 2013). This review is truly reflective of the literature at large, as the focus remained on online services in support of academic success, such as web reference (Côté et al., 2016; Grandfield & Robertson, 2008; Ismail, 2010), flipped instruction (Arnold-Garza, 2014; Loo et al., 2016), and the use of electronic resources in online learning or their integration into learning management systems (Black, 2008; Farkas, 2015; Karplus, 2006; Lynema et al., 2012). There is also much coverage of online tutorials and workshops (Ard & Ard, 2019; Blummer & Kritsakay, 2009; Ferguson & Ferguson, 2005; Koos et al., 2019).
Most of the discussion of online programs and events created by academic libraries tends to focus on specific kinds of programs, with a notable number of articles on video games (Ferguson, 2016; Hawkins & Bynko, 2006; Levine, 2006). Another recurring theme is the creation of online library spaces using virtual or augmented reality programs such as Second Life (Dahya et al., 2021; Ralph & Stahr, 2010; Ramesh, 2014; Sample, 2020; Valenti et al., 2020). Outside of these particular types of programs, few case studies or best practices have been published.
Library Pandemic Response
The spring 2020 response to the COVID-19 pandemic expectedly led to renewed conversations, though the emphasis was once again on how academic libraries support online learning. Virtual reference services became a necessity. Radford et al. (2020) discussed the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on reference services, finding that live chat offers a robust solution when face-to-face consultations are impossible. Anderson et al. (2021) examined the perceived difficulties of supporting patrons through online reference consultations. Mehta and Wang (2020) took a similar approach, exploring the personal experiences of university librarians trying to provide digital support to their faculty and students.
Libraries also expanded their electronic collections and promoted these acquisitions in new ways. Goddard (2020) looked at the exponential increase in ebook resources such as Overdrive, especially among public library users. Academic libraries reflect on how their students and faculty used various electronic resources, both to maintain their usual academic pursuits (Hendal, 2020; Oche, 2020; Shi et al., 2021) and to access COVID-19 related information (Guo et al., 2020). Huffman (2020) discussed the problems with increased online collections, especially the inclusion of temporarily free content. Additionally, library outreach efforts now relied on email and social media. Again, these studies looked at either promoting existing library services or programs (Aduba & Mayowa-Adebard, 2020; Chew et al., 2020; Friday et al., 2020) or how libraries used email and social media to disseminate information concerning COVID-19, including efforts to stop the spread of misinformation and fake news (Koulouris et al., 2020; Walker, 2021; Wang & Lund, 2020). Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a significant increase in online services of all kinds.
As might be expected, this change also led to innovations in virtual programs. Ford (2020) provided an overview of the urgent shift from face-to-face to online programming that happened early in the pandemic, describing how public libraries created digital escape rooms, online story times, distributed take-home sacks with craft supplies, and invited gamers to participate in library-organized Discord servers. Similarly, Goddard (2020) discussed how the San José Public Library–which had no virtual programming prior to the mandatory shutdowns–created online story time, an answering-machine style story time, and an online summer reading program. Freudenberger (2020) examined several different approaches taken by public libraries, and Inklebarger (2020) discussed how libraries can coordinate online Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Some libraries modified existing online programs, especially those using social media, to continue offering library programs through livestream or video posts. Other programs did not require video, such as those providing links to artist websites and associated color sheets. Brown and Suni (2021) discussed how the Free Library of Philadelphia created virtual content for their patrons, providing a model for where and how such material would be stored and accessed online.
Although the recent literature includes examples of how both public and academic libraries moved the programs online in response to the pandemic, the emphasis still remains largely on the work done by public libraries. However, Bowen (2020) focused specifically on academic libraries, providing a guide covering many aspects of online programming. Bowen discussed virtual exhibits and displays, livestream performances such as lectures, and online discussion groups of various types. The author also offered advice on sharing resources and using social media to host and promote programs.
Marx Library Student Engagement Committee
The University of South Alabama is a medium-sized research institution in the Southeast. The university has four libraries: the Charles M. Baugh Biomedical Library, the Mitchell College of Business Library, the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Marx Library. The first three libraries serve specialized populations, while the Marx Library supports the general population of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty, as well as providing some services to the public.
The Marx Library Student Engagement Committee consists of seven members of library staff members and two faculty librarians. The Student Engagement Committee emerged from the library’s Public Relations Committee, which was originally designed to promote library services on campus and through social media. When a new chair was appointed to the committee in 2018, the scope of the committee grew to include planning, organizing, and executing numerous programs and events for students, faculty, and occasionally the general public. The ultimate goal of all programs is to promote library resources to students, break down barriers that prevent students from using library services, and foster an engaging and accepting atmosphere in library spaces.
The library has found success with passive programming, defined by Freudenberger (2019) as “temporary, self-directed activities or exhibits that users interact with in their own time.” Such programs have included exhibits highlighting library materials on such subjects as the Black Americans on the Gulf Coast, International Women’s History, Pride Month celebrations, and the regional observation of Mardi Gras, as well as interactive displays such as a flipchart inviting students to answer a new question every week or the Semester of Kindness display, which asked students and faculty to share anonymous notes of encouragement. The Marx Library Student Engagement Committee has also organized several popular events, such as the library’s Open House during the university’s Week of Welcome and the library’s National Voter Registration Day events.
Both passive and active programming require library faculty and staff to devote additional time and energy, which, in the case of the Marx Library, fall outside of their usual work responsibilities. However, the programs are worth the extra effort, as they are extremely effective at engaging students and encouraging them to make use of the library’s resources and spaces. Such events serve as dynamic advertising of the Marx Library’s spaces and resources. According to the data reported to the ACRL Trends and Statistics Survey, the Marx Library’s 2019 events reached 14,885 students, a 148% increase from 6,002 students who attended events in 2018. This number includes both in-person and online events, and it is determined by sign-in sheets, counting participants, or using giveaways such as stickers to estimate the number of attendees.
Additionally, the Marx Library has spent the last three years building a strong social media presence, with a special emphasis on Instagram, which is favored by the library’s main demographic of undergraduate students. In May 2019, the Marx Library’s social media accounts were evaluated by the university’s Social Media Marketing Specialist, who praised the library for having one of the most far-reaching and engaging profiles at the institution. The library’s social media data indicate increases in engagement on all platforms, but the response on Instagram provides the best example of the Student Engagement Committee’s success. The number of Instagram followers increased from 55 followers in 2018 to 1140 followers in 2021, some of the highest social media engagement of any unit at the University of South Alabama. The platform also became more than just a popular way to communicate with students. When the Marx Library was forced to move all services fully online in Spring 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the rapport established with the students became essential to maintaining the level of student engagement the library had achieved with its in-person programming.
Original Poetry & Pizza Event
One of the most successful events organized by The Marx Library Student Engagement Committee was an event initially called “Poetry & Pizza,” which was an open mic poetry reading held during April 2019 for National Poetry Month. The event invited students to share their own poetry, to read a favorite poem, or just to listen to their classmates. The Marx Library paid for pizza, sodas, and bottled water provided by the university’s catering service. The library also displayed poetry books from the print collection, allowing students to browse the books to select a reading or check out a title to take with them. In addition, the Student Engagement Committee printed 100 short poems on small slips of paper, which were rolled into scrolls, fastened with washi tape, and placed in a bucket labeled “Poem in Your Pocket.” Several attendees selected one of these poems to read. About 45 students and faculty attended the event, with 24 people reading poems. Several readers requested to read more than once, and the event ran out of both time and pizza. Students pleaded with the library to hold another event, so the library planned one for Banned Books Week in October 2019. “Poetry & Pizza: Banned Books Edition” met with even more success, with 98 attendees, 34 readers, and a special news video produced for JagTV, the campus television broadcast.
The Marx Library was delighted with the energy and momentum of the poetry readings, and the Student Engagement Committee began planning a third event for April 2020, again for National Poetry Month. Unfortunately, these efforts were disrupted by the spread of COVID-19. By March 18, 2020, the University of South Alabama had moved almost all classes online. The Marx Library closed its building and began providing fully remote services. All in-person events were cancelled, with no clear indication of when they would again be permitted.
The Marx Library knew it was more important than ever to stay engaged and maintain student morale. Providing online reference support and electronic resources would not be enough. Students needed to remain socially engaged with each other and with their university. With this in mind, the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee decided to proceed with the open mic poetry reading, despite the challenges of hosting such an event online.
Fostering a Sense of Community
The Marx Library Student Engagement Committee knew moving Poetry & Pizza fully online would require ingenuity. At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, as demonstrated in the review of the literature, planning this kind of online event was uncharted territory. The first concern was whether students would show the same level of interest in an online poetry event that they did with the in-person event, especially since the library could not provide free pizza. This was impossible to predict, but the library hoped that the high engagement and great popularity of the face-to-face events would translate, to some extent, to success with an online event.
The Student Engagement Committee also wondered if an online event could create the same sense of community as the face-to-face event. To encourage a feeling of cohesion among the online attendees, the committee sought to collaborate with different groups from the earliest stages of planning.
The committee reached out to the university’s Creative Writing program, and the professors agreed to promote the events to their students in class and through email. Creative writing graduate students are expected to read a selection of their work as part of defending their master’s thesis, so many of them saw the poetry reading as an opportunity to practice reading in front of a receptive audience. Additionally, many students in this program belong to the JagWriters, the University of South Alabama’s creative writing club. This organization is led by English graduate students, although they welcome students of all classifications. The members of the club were excited for an opportunity to share their original work, since the usual readings at nearby coffee shops had been cancelled in response to the pandemic.
The library also received significant assistance from the Honors English Composition instructor, who encouraged her students to attend the in-person event by offering extra credit or bringing the students to the event during class. Despite the shift to online instruction, this instructor had continued to meet with her students synchronously through Zoom, so she suggested that the committee schedule the event during her regular class time, a Tuesday at 12:30PM. Since the library did not have to reserve a meeting room, which sometimes limits when an event can take place, the committee easily obliged. However, the synchronous portion of the class was not mandatory, as students were struggling with the uncertainty caused by illness, disrupted work or family schedules, or unpredictable internet access. Therefore, the instructor chose not to require her Honors English Composition students to attend the event, as she had done in the past. However, she strongly encouraged these students, as well as the students in her other classes, to attend if possible.
The library found additional support from the university’s Center for Academic Excellence. This service offers writing and discipline-specific tutoring, both face-to-face and online. During normal pre-pandemic operations, the Center is located on the second floor of the library. Because of this, the library frequently collaborates with the Center on various projects. Moreover, the tutors regularly attend library events, often because they are already in the building. Like the rest of the institution, the Center moved to fully remote services in Spring 2020. However, they were still eager to assist with the library’s poetry event. The manager of the Center for Academic Excellence promoted the event to his tutors and assistants, many of whom voluntarily attended the event.
Finally, the Marx Library encouraged members of writing-related community organizations to attend the event, especially local creative writing groups. The library invited the former poet laureate of Alabama, Sue Brannan Walker, who had previously been a creative writing instructor at the university. The event was promoted online by the Stokes Center for Creative Writing, an organization dedicated to fostering a writer’s community in the Alabama Gulf Coast region, and The Haunted Book Shop, a popular local bookstore.
The collaborations pursued by the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee were essential to ensuring a high number of participants. However, working with different campus organizations also fostered a sense of cohesion and encouraged social engagement among the attendees. Of course, a library planning such an event without the advantages of a creative writing program, an Honors Composition course, or a flourishing literary community might have more difficulty attracting participants.
Creating a Safe Online Space
The Marx Library has striven to make itself a welcoming place for students and faculty, who consider the library to be the heart of the university. During regular operations, the library buzzes with activity not just from students studying, but from clubs holding meetings, professors meeting with their students or holding small classes, visitors admiring art in the galleries, and any number of other university activities and events. The Student Engagement Committee knew that for an online event to be successful, attendees would need to feel as safe and comfortable in an online environment as they did in the library. When the event was held in person, the overall atmosphere was energetic but relaxed, with students and faculty interacting easily. Students were quite comfortable sharing their original poetry and responding spontaneously to the poetry shared by their peers, even when the content of the poetry addressed controversial issues or included strong language. This was especially true of the Banned Books Week event, when the selections provided by the library included not only poems by excerpts from banned and challenged books. The online poetry event took place in April 2020, when anxieties about the COVID-19 pandemic were quite high, so the library expected some of that tension might cross into the poetry reading. It was essential to create a comfortable, safe, but well-controlled environment.
The University of South Alabama provides access to Zoom web meeting software to all students and faculty, so this was the most convenient option for hosting an online event. The Student Engagement Committee discovered, to their surprise, that an online event seemed to have more moving parts than an in-person program, including new security and logistical needs. Many of the logistical problems concerning security in Zoom meetings had not yet been solved by the company (Lorenz & Alba, 2020). When planning the event, the library prioritized security, making sure not to share the meeting ID and password on social media or anywhere the general public could access it, especially after the university’s Student Center had several events “Zoombombed” with vulgar images and inappropriate comments by anonymous users who found the Zoom meeting information on the university’s public social media posts. To prevent this, the Marx Library’s event required registration using a Google Form. The committee chose this approach because Zoom’s built-in registration option was still somewhat clumsy, and using a Google Form allowed people from outside the institution to register. It also generated a list of participants and their email addresses and allowed the event planners to ask who intended to read, who simply wanted to watch, and who was yet undecided. The Zoom meeting ID was included in a text section on the Google form and registrants received this information in an email receipt after submitting the form. One hour before the scheduled start time, the coordinator of the Student Engagement Committee sent an email including the meeting password to the registrants.
The meeting also implemented other security measures. When scheduling the meeting, the Zoom waiting room was enabled, and all microphones were muted as participants entered the meeting. Attendees were allowed to have their cameras on. However, this created logistical challenges not present in face-to-face events. Normally, a single member of the Student Engagement Committee could host, but the online program required at least two people working the event. The coordinator of the committee served in an official host capacity, directing the event and introducing and unmuting the readers when it was their turn. The other handled technical aspects, such as letting in people from the waiting room and monitoring the chat for questions. This person was also prepared to remove any poorly behaved participants or Zoombombers from the meeting. However, this never became necessary, perhaps because of the additional security procedures.
Overall, the poetry event ran smoothly, without any unpleasant interruptions or misbehavior from the participants. The attendees were able to register for the event, receive the login information, join the meeting, and participate in the reading with very little confusion. More importantly, the event maintained a sense of intimacy and warmth, and students seemed comfortable both sharing their work and responding to the work of others.
Marketing and Promotion
At the time of the poetry reading, most of the University of South Alabama’s classes had been remote for almost a month. In order to be successful, the library would have to distinguish its event from the seemingly endless number of other online classes, webinars, and activities students were attending at this time.
The library could not provide students with free pizza to attract them to the event. Later, the Student Engagement Committee considered offering coupons to attendees of other events, but at the time, the university’s food court was closed, and it seemed unconscionable to ask for handouts from local restaurants already struggling to attract business. The committee had to hope that they could make the program interesting enough on its own and that, with the support of the campus community, students would attend for their own enjoyment or at the recommendation of their professors. While the Honors English classes had been required to attend previous in-person events, they were not required to attend the online poetry reading because it occurred outside of their regular class time. Additionally, many instructors had opted for asynchronous instruction when the university required everyone to move their courses online, making it difficult to require attendance at any synchronous activity or meeting. As far as the committee knows, no extra credit was offered for attending the event.
To make the event stand out from the slew of other online activities, the committee also decided to embrace the strangeness of the circumstances. In April 2020, the new work-from-home culture created by the pandemic was in full swing. People regularly joked on social media and over Zoom about wearing pajamas to work or attending important meetings while still in bed. In fact, faculty at universities had been complaining about students doing these exact things during class (Boone, 2021; Castelli & Sarvary, 2021; Turner, Wang, & Reinsch, 2021). While these sorts of behaviors certainly can have an undesirable impact on student engagement in the classroom, the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee thought students would enjoy seeing the expectations flipped. Therefore, the library named the event “Poetry in Pajamas,” inviting students to attend the event in comfort, even disarray, and possibly while still lying in bed.
The graphics for flyers and social media posts used a soft palette of pastel colors and included images of people wearing cozy pajamas and fuzzy slippers. When students signed up for the event, they were encouraged to wear their favorite pajamas. The Student Engagement Committee also tried to get pictures of librarians and library staff wearing pajamas to promote the event, but this was met with little enthusiasm.
The Marx Library’s strong social media presence was essential to promoting the event. A short, customized URL leading directly to the registration Google Form was created using TinyUrl.com. This short URL was included on graphics posted to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The link was included as the “swipe up” option in several Instagram stories, and it was also listed as the default website on the library’s Instagram profile. The library created a Facebook event, which several organizations shared with their members, including the Center for Academic Excellence, the Stokes Center for Writing, and the JagWriters. The social media posts, especially those on Instagram, received high levels of engagement, with many reposted by other university organizations and departments.
The library shared the event on the university’s campus calendar as well as through the email digest, targeting active students and faculty. The email included the TinyURL leading to the registration form and a PDF version of a flyer. The university allows only two emails for any single event, so the emails were sent one week and then two days before the event. These emails were extremely effective at encouraging people to register; following each one, the number of registrants increased significantly.
Order of Events
“Poetry in Pajamas” was scheduled to begin at 12:30 PM on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. At 11:00 AM the morning of the event, the coordinator of the Student Engagement Committee sent the Zoom meeting password to everyone who registered. The Zoom meeting started at 12:00 PM, giving the Student Engagement Committee time to implement necessary security settings, including making sure only the event hosts had access to video, microphone, screenshare, and annotations.
As participants joined the meeting, they were placed in the Waiting Room. If their name appeared on the registration list, the host or co-host moved the participant into the main meeting room. All microphones and video were disabled, except for the host, co-host, and the current reader. The host enabled the microphone and video for the current reader. Readers who registered ahead of time were listed in a Google Document, which was shared with the registrants, who would perform in the order they registered. Participants who wanted to volunteer to read during the meeting could do so using the chat feature. A member of the Student Engagement Committee monitored the chat and added the names of any volunteer readers to the Google Document.
The event started with a brief introduction by the coordinator of the Student Engagement Committee, who explained the order of events, thanked the supporting university and community organizations, informed participants that the entire Zoom meeting was being recorded, and introduced the first reader. After a participant read their selection, the host would provide some commentary or observations before calling on the next reader. The event proceeded in the same fashion until all volunteers had a chance to read, including those who wanted to read a second selection. During the entire event, participants could share their thoughts using the chat feature or the emoji reactions built into Zoom.
After ensuring all readers had received an opportunity to perform, the host again thanked the participants and the campus community. The host also suggested repeating the event at a different time the following week. This was met with great enthusiasm from the participants. The event ended at 1:30 PM. The next Tuesday, a similar event called “Poetry & Pizza: Bring Your Own Slice” was held at 7:00 PM. It followed the same format and order of events as “Poetry in Pajamas”.
The Marx Library considered both “Poetry in Pajamas” and “Poetry & Pizza: Bring Your Own Slice” to be successful online events. “Poetry in Pajamas” had 48 people in attendance, with 17 different readers, several of whom asked to read a second time. “Poetry & Pizza” had 32 people in attendance, with 15 different readers, again with several reading more than once. Registration numbers for these events were, as expected, higher than actual attendance, with 60 people registering for “Poetry in Pajamas” and 41 registering for “Poetry & Pizza”, but about 80% of those who registered showed up to the actual event. The high registration numbers also underscore the effectiveness of the library’s event marketing, since the TinyURL required for registration was made available on social media and the university email digest. The successful attendance is also certainly due to the collaborations with the Creative Writing program, the Honors Composition courses, and the Stokes Center for Creative Writing. The Student Engagement Committee did not collect data on how many attendees came from these programs, other university courses, or the community at large. This information would be valuable both in understanding the motivations of the attendees and for planning future events.
The success of these events can also be measured by the participants’ interactions during the readings. These occurred through the Zoom chat feature. Participants used the chat to react to readers’ poems, making general comments such as, “I’m so happy everyone is sharing” and “Everyone is doing a great job!” as well as responses to specific poems, such as repeating favorite lines and asking for links to poems written by published authors. Participants also utilized Zoom’s emoji response options, especially the applauding hands and thumbs up. The use of the chat and the emoji responses preserved at least some of the spontaneity and immediate reactions expected in a live performance. Clemens (2020) discussed the importance of such reciprocity in an analysis of virtual open mic discussion groups designed to foster meaningful interactions among faculty. While it can be difficult to recreate a sense of camaraderie in an online space, doing so can lead to valuable, emotionally rich exchanges among a group of peers.
The importance of emotional vulnerability to engaging students socially becomes evident when examining one of the most important components of these poetry events: student motivation. When the library held its face-to-face poetry reading, the high attendance might be attributed to the incentive of free food or extra credit in class. Since neither of the online events offered such incentives, it is safe to conclude that the students were motivated by some other need. Toane and Rothbauer (2014) suggested that library poetry events “fulfilled as much of a social function as a literary/intellectual one” (119). The content of the poems read at the Marx Library’s event support this observation. Many participants shared original poems about their struggles with the loneliness and fear caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a poem comparing the pandemic to the seasonal spread of pollen, one student read, “It seems pollen has fallen on all of our plans…Past the saffron dust-fallout we’ll join hands / Rest assured the rain will wash it away.” Another student lamented the use of the phrase “new normal,” with a cynical skewering of how meaningless this phrase is in the face of so much loss of life. The poems also divulged other events from the readers’ lives, such as one student’s recent diagnosis of infertility or another’s sexual awakening. As the participants presented from the isolation of their own homes to a screen full of impersonal Zoom boxes, it was clear they had a deep need to express themselves.
As the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee looks forward to planning future programs, they must consider the lessons learned from the online poetry events. The most exciting discovery, perhaps, is that it is possible to create meaningful social engagement for students even in a virtual space. Ingenuity and careful planning can help dispel some of the fatigue surrounding Zoom events. Moreover, the poetry readings clearly satisfied a student need for self-expression, one made critical by the upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Marx Library will certainly continue to plan the poetry open mic events, perhaps also identifying other opportunities to integrate poetry-related programming. As Bradburn, Parks, and Reynolds (2006) observed in their summary of the Poetry in America project, “Libraries are untapped resources for promoting participation with poetry” (15), and academic libraries could be especially poised to take advantage. With this in mind, the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee must reflect on how to develop different types of programs with the same impact as the poetry events. Now that the library can once again plan face-to-face events, it should continue to consider how identifying and fulfilling specific student needs—both informational and emotional—might generate more powerful impetus for students to participate than tried-and-true incentives such as free food or extra credit for class.
The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly altered the landscape of student engagement. As expected, a significant amount of energy has gone into providing ample academic support for students. However, the need for students to remain socially engaged with their peers, instructors, and campus must also be addressed. Academic libraries play an important role in doing so, but they seem to lack the kind of robust resources available to public libraries. The Marx Library’s online “Poetry in Pajamas” and “Poetry & Pizza” events are only two examples of successful online programming, but perhaps the efforts of the Marx Library Student Engagement Committee can provide a model for other academic libraries to follow when seeking to improve student engagement.
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