When it comes to teaching, I can’t seem to stop tinkering.(1)
I’ve written about this before and usually I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’m always making changes to what I teach. Dare I say I’ve even bragged about it a little here and there. I never want to become one of those professors who teaches the exact same thing the exact same way for years on end. My thinking about information literacy is always evolving and I want my teaching to evolve with it. I think that’s a good thing.
But I never seem to be able to settle on a particular way of doing things. This might not be a problem if the changes I was making were just small tweaks here and there but in the last year or so I’ve found myself completely overhauling my course between every semester and as I race to finish creating the new content for this coming fall, I can’t help but wonder why I’m doing this to myself and whether it might be time to pull back, especially now that I have a lot of added responsibilities that should be taking priority as the new head of my department.
Last semester was my first time teaching UNL 207, our information literacy course that’s intended for students in the Humanities. For years, I had taught our more generic UNL 205 course. When I talked with my predecessor about UNL 207, she spoke mostly of the high caliber of student that usually takes the course (despite the fact that it’s only 200-level) and basically told me to “do what you do in UNL 205, but more.”
In UNL 205, I taught about the contextual nature of research but it was always more in the background. I decided that the “but more” part of UNL 207 for me would be to bring these ideas front and center. In fact, I structured the course entirely around units focusing on introducing students to each of the main research contexts I’d identified in some of my work: academic and scholarly, personal, creative, professional, and scientific (in that order).
The thing is, I only had a month or two to plan that first iteration of UNL 207. So creating the content for the course (which is fully online and consists primarily of written “lectures” that introduces students to each context and some related application activities) was a bit of a mad dash. The materials I created ended up being a bit rougher than I would have liked so I always knew I’d be making at least some changes, especially after running the course one time and finding some important weak spots that would need fixing.
So I anticipated that the tinkering I would need to do this summer would be just that: tinkering. A small tweak here and there.
Then I went to revise my written lectures and instead I found myself rewriting the whole thing. Which meant that I had to also change the activities because the ones I had created originally no longer worked for the lectures I was writing.
On the one hand, I think these changes are good. I think the lectures I’m writing are a little fuller and clearer and more in-depth than the ones from last time. And I think the activities are a better mix of testing students’ knowledge as well as getting them to think about how what they’re learning applies to their own past, present, and future research experiences.
But, like. I have stuff to do. I have department priorities to set into motion. I have statistics to calculate. I have budgets to plan for and spend. I have stakeholders to communicate and negotiate with. I have a management style to figure out. I have inevitable mistakes to make and learn from.
I also have research to finish, but that’s another story.
So increasingly I’m thinking it’s not really realistic or desirable to spending hours out of my day on redoing my course content yet again, even during the summer when things are a little slower. While I find it exciting and even invigorating to think of new and better ways to teach the ideas I want to teach, it always seems to turn into a mad dash, which causes unneeded stress. “Unneeded” because what I was teaching before and the way I was teaching it worked reasonably well, except for a few weak spots. But I can’t seem to stop myself from trying to improve it.
I’ve also started to think about these constant, big changes in terms of assessment. Assessment has never really been a big part of our information literacy program. Instead, our culture is more one of innovative practice. We experiment a lot. But it’s clear from recent changes in the climate on campus that assessment is going to become more of A Thing and because of that I think we’re going to need to think more about how to find ways to meaningfully assess what we do.
I don’t think that will mean de-prioritizing innovation but I do think that in order to meaningfully assess something, you can’t be changing it constantly. Or at least the changes you make should come more from what your assessment is telling you than just a general sense of what’s working and what’s not in a given instructional situation.
None of this is going to help me this summer, of course. I’m already in too deep when it comes to changing things. And this time I think it’s at least somewhat justified. After all, last semester was my first time teaching the course and teaching is like making pancakes in the sense that it never comes out quite right the first time. You have to teach a course first before you know what works and what doesn’t.
But unless this new design is a total disaster, it might be time to stop doing this to myself, at least for a while. I always want my teaching to evolve with my thinking but my approach to my work has to evolve too as I progress through my career. As I learn to navigate my new role, it might be better for my focus to be elsewhere.
(1) At least when it comes to my credit-bearing courses. When it comes to my one-shot instruction sessions, I have a pretty standard lesson plan that I’ve been sticking to for at least the last few years: a general introduction to college research with some explanation of what peer-reviewed sources are and how you need them plus a demonstration of a basic database like Academic Search Complete. I adapt the content as needed for the specific classes I work with, which are mostly filled with first year students doing college-level research for the first time, but I’ve found that the course instructors I work with are generally pretty satisfied with this formula.