Tale of an enormous teaching failure

So here on this blog, when I talk about teaching, I talk a lot about things that I’ve tried that have been successful, to one degree or another. I think that’s in line with most library literature: we talk mostly about our successes because we’re so eager to prove how valuable we are. We hide our failures.

I’ve had a lot of teaching failures. I hinted at this, I guess, in a previous post on why I change what I teach. One of the reasons I listed was to fix mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are small but there was one semester when an entire course that I was teaching crashed and burned.

Today, I tell the tale of that course.

At my institution, one-credit freshman seminars can be taught my any teaching faculty from any department on an extra service basis. The main attraction to teaching one, besides the extra money, is that you’re allowed to teach whatever you want.

Whatever. You. Want.

You know, as long as you make time for the occasional lesson or activity that helps students learn how to be successful in college. But in the time that I’ve been teaching the course, there’s never been any monitoring of how much of this you actually do or how successful you are at it. The students do get an evaluation at the end where one of the questions asks them whether they feel the course helped them understand college life a little better but, unlike official course evaluations, those evaluations are not used as part of a formal assessment process. They don’t become part of your tenure or promotion packet (unless you want them to) and your supervisor doesn’t see them.

What I’m saying is that instructors are given a lot of room to experiment.

Needless to say, the information literacy department where I work saw a lot of opportunity here. For those who wanted to take on the extra work (and get paid the extra money), this was a good opportunity to bring IL to a wider audience.

But it couldn’t be called that. It was made clear  early on that while we certainly could shape a course around “how to use the library,” the chances that it would be attractive to students was low. Which was fine with me, since I’ve never been a big fan of the “how to use the library” aspects of IL.

So I brainstormed a few ideas and the one that I landed on was this: Millennials in the Media. Basically, as a(n older) member of the millennial generation, I had become annoyed over how millennials were portrayed in pop culture and the media, as if we were all born with smartphones in our hands. I wanted to teach a course in which students would have a chance to critically analyze how these portrayals of young people affected real life perceptions of them. I felt that students would be interested in this topic because they were also members of the millennial generation, albeit at the opposite end of that generation from me.

This topic has, I believe, some relationship to information literacy but it was pretty far outside anything I had taught before. I spent the entire summer leading up to the course reading as much as I could, planning and re-planning the course itself until I thought I had something pretty good.

If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you know what happened: the course bombed. Pretty much from week one. Week one of fourteen.

You may think this had something to do with the fact that freshmen college students these days aren’t actually millennials. Technically, they are the oldest members of Gen Z. But this was a few years ago now. That label hadn’t really caught on yet and the media was still using “millennial” as a catch-all term for “annoying young people,” especially college students.(1) So I don’t think that was quite the problem.

It’s hard to say what the problem was, exactly. Admittedly, the content of the course was weak and the way it was delivered (mostly lectures, which is unusual for me) wasn’t great either. The students were in the class somewhat by choice in the sense that they had picked this freshman seminars over others they could have taken, so I assume the topic had sparked some interest, at least for some of them. But that interest was completely absent pretty much from the start.

I mean, I thought I knew what bored students looked like from years of teaching information literacy but I had no idea. There were literally days, late in the course, where I rushed through an hour’s worth of content in fifteen minutes just so I could get the hell out of there because it was so demoralizing to stand in front of this particularly unreceptive crowd.

One thing I noticed was that students really had trouble challenging commonly-held ideas about what millennials/young people are like. Maybe they agreed with these ideas. Maybe they disagreed with them but didn’t feel like it was a big enough issue to make a big deal out of it. Maybe they disagreed but they weren’t at a point yet where they felt comfortable challenging sources of information they’d been taught to think of as “authoritative” or “reliable.” Maybe they misunderstood the entire premise of the course, which was to critically examine and in some cases challenge these ideas. Maybe it’s just that the personality of every class is different and this one was particularly tough to crack.

Whatever the reason, whenever I asked them to read an article that described millennials in openly derisive or condescending tones and asked them what they thought, the only response I could seem to get was “Sounds right to me.”

WTF.

I probably could have fixed it. The sense that the course was not working set in early enough that I probably could have changed the path I was on to make the learning experience more meaningful to students. I also could have taken some time afterward to rethink the whole thing and plan a different approach for the next year.

Instead, I let the plane go down and when it came time to plan for next year’s freshman seminar, I submitted an entirely new idea. This one is called “Empowering Yourself as a User and Creator of Information.” It is, as you might imagine, a lot more closely related to information literacy. It also did not go particularly well the first year I taught it but I saw enough promise there that I did tinker with it and had much more success with it the next few years.

This fall, I’ll be on sabbatical so I won’t be doing any teaching. I think I would have taken a break from the freshman seminar anyway to prevent it from feeling too stale. But after that first year I’ve had a lot better luck with the students I’ve encountered since then and I will miss having the opportunity to make some new connections with brand new adults.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky that the culture among freshman seminar instructors on my campus (who, again, are from all different departments and are encouraged to experiment with their topics and formats) is one where failure is an acknowledged part of the teaching process. There’s no shame in it, as much as I might cringe when I look back at my own experience.

*

(1) And look! They still are: https://www.buzzfeed.com/lyapalater/millennials-are-old

 

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