The true bummer of teaching

A few weeks back, I wrote a post reflecting on the course I taught this spring, including how a few of the newer activities and strategies I tried ended up working out. Overall, I was pretty pleased and the experience was enough to convince me that treating the annotated bibliography as an artifact/establishing shot and teaching information literacy through a contextual lens are good choices, though there are definitely still some kinks to be worked out.

The truth is, my course this semester did go pretty well but for some reason at the end of it I was feeling pretty bummed. This isn’t unusual. Toward the end of the course, students tend to burn out a bit and are noticeably less engaged. Frankly, I can’t blame them since I start to feel a bit burned out as well. And there also some of the usual annoyances that tend to leave a sour taste in my mouth: students treating the final project like an afterthought, students repeating back to me what they think I want to hear instead of showing me what they’ve actually learned, students writing to me pleading to change their grade from an A- to an A in order to preserve their perfect GPA, etc. I also had a student who had seemed reasonably engaged and enthusiastic at the beginning of the course share in an evaluation(1) that even though they enjoyed my teaching they had found nothing interesting or useful in the course itself, which hurt more than it probably should have.

But I think my bummed-out feeling also came from a deeper place that has more to do with the nature of teaching than it does with this specific class or these specific students. I wonder if this is something all teachers might have in common, at least those who, like me, are lucky enough to teach about something they’re passionate about.

Information literacy is not for everyone. I mean, it is. Everyone should be knowledgeable about the skills and concepts associated with information literacy. But it’s not something most people are going to be passionate about.

Personally, I am. It took me a while to get there. When I first started teaching and writing about information literacy, I understood it mostly as a set of skills for conducting library research. Which was fine, but nothing to get too excited about. It really wasn’t until I started to do research on threshold concepts, which led me to Naming What You Know by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, which led me to write “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” that I started to fall in love with information literacy in all its true complexity. Finding ways to connect information literacy to my other passion—creative writing—has only deepened that feeling.

Students are never going to have that feeling. Not about information literacy. True, you might get a few really good or really engaged students who are willing to grapple with some of the complexities of what you’re teaching them but even those students tend to treat a one-credit elective course like mine like it’s just another A on their checklist and a relatively easy one at that.(2) Hopefully my course will be enough to get them to think more critically about the research they do in various contexts after it’s over but realistically information literacy isn’t something they’re ever going to care that much about unless perhaps they themselves become librarians and information literacy scholars later in their lives.(3)

That’s a huge bummer. I think it’s one that most teachers deal with, assuming they are passionate about the thing they teach. It’s a rare thing to find a student who not only loves learning as much as you (hopefully) do but also loves learning about the specific subject that you teach as much as you love learning and teaching about it. I’m glad I got to be that student for at least one English teacher in high school but I’ve never encountered a student who has been that for me and as long as information literacy continues to be misperceived as a basic library research skill, I doubt I ever will.

It’s kind of like a curse, in a way. To be forever doomed to teach the thing you love to people who will probably never love it is much as you do.

I don’t want to make it sound like I hate teaching. I don’t. I’ve had some truly great moments as a teacher and watching students take the first step toward learning about information literacy can be a rewarding experience, even if they never take another step after that.

I don’t hate teaching but most of the time I also don’t really love it the way I feel like I should and I think this is one of the big reasons why. The real trouble is that this isn’t something that can be solved. You can share your love for your subject in a way that will hopefully inspire some love for it in students, but ultimately you can’t make them feel that love themselves. Or blame them for not feeling it. Like I said, I love information literacy now but even as a professional in the library field it took me a long time to get here—years, even. I can’t reasonably expect students who encounter information literacy once as part of a short course (or an even shorter one-shot session) to feel the same way.

Anyway. I wanted to share this because I think too often we’re made to feel like we need to love everything about teaching all the time. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s important that we acknowledge that this isn’t always the case. Being bummed out about teaching now and then is a perfectly normal thing. It doesn’t mean you’re the problem. It doesn’t mean the students are the problem. It just means that even if you love what you do, it can still sometimes be a bit of a bummer.

*

(1) Not the anonymous course evaluation that comes from the university. This was part of an assigned activity where the students knew they wouldn’t be anonymous.

(2) While I do try to teach in a way that gets students to think about information literacy on a deeper level, I’m careful not to make the course overly rigorous since it is only one credit and an elective. Some of my colleagues disagree with this approach—they’re worried that IL will never be taken seriously if the courses we teach lack rigor. I see their point but I also don’t feel a need to subject myself to any more e-mails about how my one-credit course is somehow ruining someone’s GPA than I already receive. If it was a three-credit and/or required course, that would be different.

(3) To my knowledge, this has never happened though I did have a student in my course quite a while back who now works in an administrative, non-librarian position at my library. I have no memory of him as my student (the course I teach is online) but he’s a great colleague.

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