“You don’t need to be nervous with us”
I don’t remember a lot about my first library session, but I have a really clear memory of that comment from a student feedback form. I have never figured out exactly what they meant — I didn’t need to be nervous with this class, this group of students, specifically? The nerves were unnecessary, full stop? But I do know what it meant to me at the time. It meant that yes, they noticed I was nervous. I didn’t like that. But it made me feel like they saw me as a person, hoped I saw them as people, and I did like that.
It would have been 2003. I was in a part-time wage appointment covering history for the OSU libraries. I was an intern working on a metadata project and the librarians found out that I also taught history (as an adjunct). They were about to launch a triple search – hiring three new subject librarians – and maybe I could cover one of their subject gaps! Within the week I had my first instruction request.
I visited the archives a few times as a history major and as a history graduate student, but I have no memory of going to the library for a traditional one-shot. So I didn’t really have a mental model I could use to prepare for this class. I remember a colleague — a wonderful and supportive mentor — sharing activities I could do and concepts I should demonstrate.
The class went fine. My colleague observed. I was more nervous than I expected to be because I didn’t know what to expect. None of the strategies and identities I had developed in my teaching career really helped me in this strange new context — learning names, building habits, building trust over time — so I felt very without a net. And I’m afraid of heights at the best of times. As we know, my nerves were visible, even though I didn’t name them. Now I always name them. The professor wasn’t thrilled, wasn’t disappointed. It was fine. The students, as you know, were kind. At least, I don’t remember those who weren’t.
I do remember this one feeling. Something had gone off script, something unexpected had come up in the example and I remember this intense feeling of wanting to scrap the plan and do something else but also feeling paralyzed about that — I can’t or shouldn’t — because the person who helped me make the plan was sitting right there watching*.
This post was inspired by Veronica’s Blushing, Sweating, Stammering — the first in a new series — that sent me down a winding path of memories this morning. One thing I realized as I thought about those “firsts” was how often the help I got took the form of “here’s some things from my teaching and my practice that you can take and use.” My first class, first conference presentation, even first reference interactions, I was encouraged to use other people’s materials, guides, activities, plans, outlines, etc. I get it – I didn’t have much of my own yet, and there are a lot of safe feelings tied up in the tried and true.
Looking back, I’m okay with the way I floundered when I needed to adapt on the fly within the constraints of someone else’s teaching. I’ve learned that the real thinking work for facilitating isn’t about how to fill the time, or how specific activities should go. It’s about flow, connections and transitions, and what I want the experience to look and feel like. But the second part – feeling stuck because of the colleague in the room — is different. That’s something I’m still working on. And really, the first and the second things are connected. I like to get things started, hold space, and let things happen – those are important parts of my teaching and my facilitating identity. But even though I co-teach and co-facilitate a lot I still have a lot to learn about doing those things in the moment and with other people. I still get caught, in the moment and in my head and get stuck on how to make choices together that I would have no trouble making on my own.
I’ve been thinking about this lately in present tense — past me is shaking up that thinking in some really good ways. Here’s to remembering firsts.
*To be clear, I am pretty sure she would have had no problem with my going off script, wouldn’t have felt her labor was disrespected, would have been super into talking through what I did and why I did it. This paralysis was created by the pretend standards I made up in my head and imposed on her.