This week, the lunch session put on by the Learning and Teaching Center was called Harvesting Our Mistakes, and featured frank discussions about courses or parts of courses that had gone wrong, and what the faculty had learned from that. Some learned that even when it’s a bit artificial, there needs to be some coherent thread to a course (the lower the level, the more coherent the thread). Others talked about developing the confidence to make mistakes boldly and in public so that their students could participate in fixing the mistakes and also see that mistakes happen. Many agreed that it takes 3 tries to get a course right: the first time being a grand experiment, the second time overcompensating for the first time’s mistakes, and the third time settling into the right groove. And most people talked about how they exert far greater control over their classes (plan more, talk more, and generally bulldoze information into their students more) when they’re having a bad day, and how it’s a lot easier to go with the flow on a good day. Boy do I ever have that experience!
Well, I had a class go pretty poorly the day before sitting in on this discussion, so I was right there with the group. I was ready for the self-flagellation. I was ready for the moaning and gnashing of teeth. There were a couple of people who were talking about mistakes being good for students, but I figured I could safely skip over those comments as they weren’t really on topic. My topic. My Class Had Failed — I Had Failed. That was the topic.
But I got to wondering why I was having a hard time seeing an up-side to my failure. Maybe it was because it had been of the “I was having a bad day and therefore babbled at the students in incoherent loops, periodically asking them pathetically, hopefully, ‘Does that make sense?’ and taking very little comfort from their dazed head nods” kind of a class. Maybe it was because I was working with a professor I’d never worked with before and therefore left the class pretty sure I’d never hear from him again. Maybe it was because I’m pretty sure that one of my biggest failings (aside from being too tired to cede any control over to the students) was having so little sense of a coherent thread to the session that I’m sure the students had no idea why we were there. Complete failure of learning goals, there, and it was ALL MY FAULT.
But as it turns out, there are a couple of useful things I’ve learned from this and similar experiences. For one thing, I’ve learned that I really should always have the talk I’ve had with a few professors so far, saying up front that this is the first iteration of the class, and that afterward we should talk about what worked and what didn’t so that the next time we work together things go better. I don’t know quite why I get shy about that talk, but it always makes things go better. I think I also need to think of these classes less as one-shots and more as iterations. That’s how I think of them when they’re going well (one-shot plus follow up with students in my office plus work with the professor to hone the next iteration, etc), so why do I lose sight of that when things go poorly? And finally, I think I need to come up with a plan for what to do when this happens next time. If I were their professor I’d come back the next session and say “So, last time was kind of confusing, and this time I thought we’d go back and untangle some of those threads.” So what can I do if I’m not going back into their classroom? Surely there’s some option.
Of course, all this is complicated by the very real constraints of being a visitor to the class. I don’t get to start fixing my mistakes in the next class session, and since these were first year students it’s possible I soured them on librarians in general. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the lunch session this week, it’s that I’m not the only one who’s failed recently. We’re all human.