Teaching is terrifying. It’s also exhilarating, fascinating, challenging, and deeply rewarding. Making the transition from being a student to being a teacher is a complex process, as evidenced by the questions raised by librarian Nicole Gustavsen on Twitter last week.
I asked Nicole if she would be interested in having a longer conversation about the topic of teacher identity to be published here and she generously agreed. Below you’ll find a lightly-edited transcript of our nearly three-hour conversation, during which we discuss information literacy instruction, teaching philosophies, impostor syndrome, false binaries, classroom management, the importance of community, and more.
Zoe Fisher (Zoe): Tell me a little bit about your experience and background. What’s your current role and how did you come to it?
Nicole Gustavsen (Nicole): I am a new academic librarian, currently in a temporary position as a research & instruction librarian at the University of Washington Bothell & Cascadia College Campus Library. I got this position because during library school (I attended the U of Washington iSchool residential program from 2013-16) I worked at the UW Seattle campus graduate library, Suzzallo & Allen, as a graduate reference assistant. In this position I did a lot of reference and a lot of info lit instruction. After I graduated I wasn’t able to keep the position, of course, but my supervisors recommended me to the head of Teaching & Learning here at UWB when a temporary position opened up, and I’ve been in this position since the beginning of January. It was originally just a 6 month contract but I was recently approved for an additional 12 months, which I’m very excited about.
Zoe: Congratulations on the contract extension! What have you noticed about the differences between the UW grad library and your current role? Specifically, what differences have impacted your role in teaching/your role with students?
Nicole: Just a spot of context about our library: we are in the somewhat unusual situation of serving two schools on one campus: a university (UW Bothell), and a community college (Cascadia College). We teach sessions and provide services for students, staff, and faculty at both institutions. That’s definitely one of the biggest differences off the bat. It affects everything.
At UW Seattle, we were part of a program that was focused on targeting lots of classes for short, 50 minute sessions. Here at UWB, our teaching program is able to do a lot more. There’s significant buy-in from faculty at both institutions, and we are encouraged to experiment. For Cascadia we get to work with a lot of online classes, which I had never done before. Last quarter I got to help with a 100-level English class where we had embedded content throughout the quarter. So cool!
Zoe: That’s excellent! And I definitely understand your context–as you know, I was at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington (about 50 miles south of UW Bothell) for four years, and we were very familiar with your library. In my current role, I work in an academic library that serves three institutions (University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver). It makes sense that the increased emphasis on teaching in your current role would give you reason to reflect on student/teacher identities.
Nicole: Yes, absolutely. It’s also a great thing that the culture here among the librarians is very collaborative, so if I really tank a class (as I did last quarter), I feel comfortable discussing it with my colleagues and knowing their response will probably be both supportive and something like “Oh that reminds me of the time I [description of an equally horrible classroom experience.]” I was way too nervous to have those conversations at my last position!
Zoe: That sounds like a wonderful environment. I think the advantage of being a community college librarian is that you teach SO much–even if you do have a flubbed class, it’s only one of dozens, so it’s pretty quickly forgotten.
Nicole: I love that in your description of teaching experience on the blog, you identify that you’ve been in teaching roles beginning at 13. Do you have a sense of any particular point at which you began to see yourself as an educator? Was it a natural progression, or did you find it required a lot of deliberate thought or work?
Zoe: Peer teaching became a part of my life at a very young age. In grade school, I was often singled out by teachers for finishing my work quickly or easily meeting their expectations… so they did what teachers often do, and they paired me with students who were struggling. At times, I resented that (I think a lot of younger students feel this way, especially), but after a while, I think teaching and helping others became a really core part of my identity.
Things opened up for me when I realized that I could be a teacher to all kinds of people, and that’s where my experience as a volunteer at a public library significantly shifted my identity. Even though I was very young, I was teaching all sorts of people how to find information, how to use the library, and how to use computers/technology. It was empowering and exhilarating. It still is. So I would say that my teacher identity began informally at a very young age, and it’s something that I continue to refine & reflect on as a professional. I have been called a “natural” teacher, which I don’t like (I reject the idea that there are “naturals”, in general), but I do think that this is an essential part of who I am and it’s a role for which I have a strong affinity.
Nicole: I see this peer teaching and communal education piece comes out in your teaching statement as well. Do you have any signature classroom activities or techniques that you’ve developed that speak to this?
Zoe: Sure, that’s a great question. Anyone who has attended a conference session that I’ve presented, or been in any class that I’ve taught, knows that I do a lot of reflective writing & pair or group sharing. We often teach how we like to learn best and it’s no surprise that, as a writer, I like to write things down and share them with others. I think this is a quick, low-stakes way to get people thinking, reflecting, and talking. I always want to know what other people in the room think, and it can be hard to just stick your hand in the air and say it out loud to a group of strangers. Writing it down for yourself, then sharing it with one person, can help refine and externalize those inner thoughts.
My ultimate goal in almost any learning situation is to surface process. What was your process, why was that your process, why does thinking about our process matter?
Nicole: Something I’ve been dismayed to see in my teaching since starting here is a tendency to lecture, despite all my best intentions (and my normally attention-averse personality). I’m seeing our conversation as part of a bigger reflection process so that by fall quarter, I’m heading confidently away from that tendency.
Zoe: The fact that you recognize that in yourself is a good sign. Try to be patient and give yourself some grace.
On Twitter, you questioned how you could see yourself as an instructor without losing empathy for your students, and, more broadly, you questioned the authority that students see in you that you don’t (yet) see in yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your teaching philosophy and how you see (or don’t see) yourself as a librarian-teacher?
Nicole: My teaching philosophy is constantly expanding and changing, but at its core is a concern with presenting information literacy as a lifelong skill, one that is not limited to the classroom or even school. I want the people I work with to feel empowered to take these skills and apply them all over the place! So I like to do activities that incorporate non-academic sources, contexts, experiences.
When I wrote the tweets that spurred this conversation, I had just got out of a post-quarter meeting with a faculty member. In one of her sections, the students were rowdy, it was hard to keep them on track, I wasn’t happy with the instructional materials I had put together, and it didn’t help that the instructor couldn’t be there on that day. It was a very frustrating experience for me.
I met with the course faculty twice and we talked a lot, in both of our meetings, about classroom management, about managing expectations, those sorts of things.
But what most got me thinking, and worrying, and tweeting, was a comment she made about how no matter how I see myself, the students will always see me as the instructor, and that there’s a divide there that I need to acknowledge.
Having been until just last year a lifer student, I still carry a lot of the student mind-set, and in my head I feel that I can relate to students I work with on that level. Sort of, “Hey, I know what you’re going through, and I want you to know you can do it. That it’s hard, but you can do it.”
Zoe: Thinking about the comments that the faculty made to you, I’m guessing that she was saying that some students might have an oppositional attitude to you no matter what you do because they are so deeply entrenched in the known hierarchies of education. Students’ prior learning experiences inform a lot of their behaviors and choices, especially in the classroom, and it’s true that we can’t always control for how past instructors (or even the current faculty) have treated them. What do you think students expect from you as an instructor? I think about this a lot, and I’ll admit that I try to openly defy expectations of typical teacher roles.
Nicole: Your question about what students expect from me/us is so challenging to answer! Let me think a bit more… I think you’re right about what my faculty member was trying to convey. But I also think it gets, for me, at the truth that if I approach teaching from an “I’m a student too, basically” perspective, it’s gonna look different than if I approach it from a more confident place of feeling like I “am” an instructor, not just studying to eventually be one. As I am typing this out, it sounds a lot like the impostor syndrome problem. Did/do you experience this? Did it get better?
Zoe: You know, it’s funny, I never felt like an imposter with community college students. Not once. But sometimes I feel out of place in my current role and have had imposter syndrome related to other things–teaching graduate students (I don’t have another graduate degree beyond my MLS so I feel awkward in front of them), or presenting to administration who have no idea what information literacy is, or talking about my own research agenda. I will say that after getting a journal article rejected three times, I definitely felt like an impostor when it comes to conducting/executing research. To answer, “Does it get better?” — Yes, infinitely. Your relationship to teaching will change constantly the more you do it!
Nicole: Something I have discovered over the years that never fails to amaze me and make me feel (weirdly) hopeful is how many people around me, who are doing work I admire and who are my definition of success, also experience impostor syndrome. You’re a great example of this; from my vantage point you seem very confident and accomplished, so if you’re having these feelings too (and if as you say they do change and get better) then I feel like I can also manage them.
I think you sort of spoke to my second question just above, but I wanted to ask it again in case you had more thoughts to add on it: A lot of what I’m thinking about at the moment around this topic is identity: what it means to self-identify as a teacher or educator, and how self-identifying this way might change how I relate to my students. One of my fears right now is that if I embrace the identity of an instructor too closely, I’ll lose touch with what it was like to be a student. Where are you on all of this, having been a library instructor for several years yet not terribly far from your own student days?
Zoe: I think the fact that you’re asking yourself these questions about identity means that you’re a great teacher already! Seriously, it’s awesome that you care so much and you’re already reflecting so deeply about what you do and HOW you do what you do, and you acknowledge the fact that how you identify also impacts your praxis.
Your question is extremely provocative to me because it seems to suggest (and correct me if I’m wrong) that teacher and student are separate identities. To me, they’re not. And the identities of student and teacher don’t exist in opposition.
(We could go into a whole discussion about binaries right now! Are there really oppositional identities, or are they just mirrors/shadows of each other? But, I’ll set that aside.)
I guess I would suggest a minor tweak in language. “Student” is the role you might assign to yourself while you’re actively enrolled in a program or a course. But “learner” is an internalized identity you can hold onto for the rest of your life. I want to be a teacher forever because I want to be a learner forever. I’m convinced that I’ll never stop learning new things as long as I’m teaching others. That really excites me and drives me. So, while my formal “student” days ended in August 2010 when I finished my Master’s in Library Science, I’ve never stopped seeing myself as a learner.
Nicole: You are bringing up something very important with binaries! I just last week gave an LGBTQ+ 101 talk to staff at my library, and a big chunk of the first part is dissecting false binaries in gender, sexuality, and even biological sex. So I’m really glad you pointed out this OTHER false binary that I have been trying to shove myself into.
Zoe: In general, I don’t trust simple binaries, especially relating to gender and sexuality–perhaps that extends to my pedagogy, too? To say I don’t believe in those binaries, I mean, it’s not like they’re the tooth fairy–obviously lots of people structure their lives around those binaries, but it’s just that I don’t live my life by them. Hope that makes sense.
Nicole: Makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s important to acknowledge that these binaries, while socially constructed, do have an enormous effect on every aspect of our culture, so they’re very real in that way. I’m not in the “down with all gender distinctions” camp, so much as the “up with genders beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’!” Similarly, the dichotomy between student and teacher is social, but also very very real!
Zoe: I’m curious about experiences you’ve had that may have reinforced this (as you just called it) false binary. What were some of the key learning experiences you had (at any point in your education) that informed your identity as a student?
Nicole: Well, I think the fact that most of my formal educational experiences have been in classroom, students sit and respectfully listen to the teacher, situations. So some of it’s conditioning. That “sage on the stage” phenomenon made the binary seem even more real and, for a shy person like me, almost insurmountable.
Zoe: Have you come across Geneva Gay’s work regarding culturally responsive pedagogy? I was introduced to her work by your (past) colleagues at UW Bothell. They gave a presentation about culturally responsive pedagogy at Library Instruction West 2014. The presenters included Dave Ellenwood, Althea Lazzaro, Sharde Mills, and Megan Watson.
Nicole: I have not heard of Geneva Gay! Thank you! I had been hoping you would suggest some reading, and this looks excellent.
All of my best learning experiences have been experiential in some way. I learn by doing. I want to bring as much “doing” as possible into my classes.
I don’t know everything about what students want, but based on two quarters of feedback and my own gut feelings, nobody really loves it when I lecture too much or make them sit quietly and listen to a video or w/e.
Zoe: Exactly. And I think the “doing” part of learning throws off some students who expect typically passive learning environments.
Nicole: Yes, that is true.
There’s always at least a few students who clearly came to the session expecting to be able to do whatever on their computers while someone stood in the front and said words.
Probably what I’m most sensitive to in classrooms is the students who are quiet (which usually includes those students who came to chill on facebook or do some homework). People are quiet for lots of reasons. One thing I am nervous about when I plan these activities is that I might be pushing some of the students past their healthy growing zone and into the zone of true fear, where they aren’t learning at all. How do you navigate incorporating these sorts of emotional concerns in your classes?
Zoe: I’ll say that’s probably a weak area for me. I’m an extrovert and an external processor, so I legit have trouble remembering that some people aren’t like me. I know I’ve upset students in the past by expecting their participation. It’s something I could work on, in terms of finding ways to be sensitive to folks who are quiet/anxious about participating, while also encouraging all voices in the room.
One thing I do regularly is acknowledge repeat participants. For example, “Okay, I see your hand, but you’ve already shared a couple times today. Let me just pause for a moment and open it up to anyone else who might like to jump in.”Sometimes doing a second call for participation, or acknowledging repeat participants, will get more folks to join in. I’m also comfortable waiting several seconds if people need time to think.
Nicole: The waiting in silence thing is something I find anxiety-inducing, but it does sometimes get people to talk. I am the opposite of you in that I am very introverted and am challenged more by the extroverted students and how to keep them from dominating my classroom.
I like to do activities where students work in small groups and then present to each other, and I think that can give quieter students the opportunity to contribute without forcing them to also present in front of their peers if they don’t want to. Just having the group stand in front can be activating enough for some students, I think, so it’s not completely challenge-free.
Zoe: We have a wireless keyboard/mouse in our classrooms–we can pass around the keyboard and mouse to the groups so they can share on the projector from wherever they’re sitting. It helps a lot!
Nicole: Part of my “student-identity” is that of struggle. I had a lot of difficulty in college and grad school due to mental illness.
When I see students struggling, especially with anything related to mood or self-image, I relate and want to help and reassure.
However, I don’t know how best to convey this in my instruction, and I wonder often if the “I lived it too” bit is even something my students would find helpful (especially coming from me, a very young-looking white woman with a graduate degree). It could read as presumptuous. Do you see value in bringing these kinds of lived experiences into our instruction? If so, what does that look like in your classes?
Zoe: I think that new teachers get the idea that teaching is all about them—like, you feel this pressure to be the most interesting, engaging, dynamic person in the room. (I won’t lie, I love that feeling.)
But, as time goes on, I think you develop the habit of being interested rather than interesting.
And you develop strategies for making students interested in each other. So when it comes to surfacing lived experience, I am less interested in sharing mine and I am more interested in helping students hear about the lived experiences of their peers. What can we learn from the way Tristan, a father of three, approached this assignment? How does Jessica’s comment inform our thinking about evaluating this source of information, given her background in the health professions? What about the person who hasn’t spoken up yet today, what can they contribute to our shared understanding?
Nicole: This is exactly the sort of thing I need to hear right now. I do feel a lot of pressure to perform, to keep the students’ interest, to teach them in a way that’s meaningful, to hit as many of the IL frames as possible, and on and on and on. Which isn’t bad in itself. But what you’re bringing up is a complete reframing of this work. The more I can redirect the students’ attention away from me the more comfortable I am working with them and presenting the material in meaningful ways.
Zoe: The typical response you’ll hear from folks who want to be the focus of attention is, “But what about the content!”
“If they’re not paying attention to me, I can’t show them the databases!”
“If they’re not listening to me, they’ll never know Boolean!”
“They can’t learn from each other because they’re all bad at research and they use Wikipedia!”
Nicole: Students don’t learn Boolean from me telling them how it works. However I choose to present it, they learn by applying it. So the question is how to present it so that’s the emphasis.
I thought what you wrote about what we can learn from our peers was really great. One of my coworkers here told me that her pedagogy is really focused around having the students teach each other, and I thought that was so neat when she told me but it got lost in the rush of the quarter.
Zoe: Well, it’s a theory, right? Which has to be put into practice.
Nicole: Therein lies the challenge.
Zoe: With that in mind, what do you think are some advantages of keeping a student-mindset as a librarian-teacher?
Nicole: There are so many aspects involved in being a student at a college that are outside of the bounds of going to class, doing homework, amassing credits, etc.
One of my greatest fears is that I will one day forget just how scary and uncertain and all-consuming it can be to be a student.
Part of keeping a student-mindset, for me, is remembering that emotional aspect of student-hood, and being sensitive to it as I work with students in classrooms, at the reference desk, and elsewhere.
I have a quote written up on my whiteboard that I think is foundational to how I’ll move forward in all aspects of my life: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki
Zoe: Ooh, I love that quote! That’s a great one.
Nicole: Right?? It’s so powerful.
Zoe: Are there any experiences you’d like to have (but haven’t had yet) that you think would help you more fully adopt a teacher identity? What do you think you might lose in the process of developing that teacher identity?
Nicole: I think the experiences I need to have are more conversations like the one I had with my faculty member last week. Conversations that are genuinely challenging but push me forward. I also think I need to continue to teach and teach and teach, and get back into the groove of reading widely and obsessively. I will learn who I am as a teacher by doing, I think, and by accepting internally that I am good enough and competent enough to embody this new role.
Zoe: You definitely are! And I think you’re right that it takes time.
Nicole: That’s the key, really. I need to be patient, and continue to be reflective, and continue to push myself, and probably one day I’ll wake up and I’ll realize I’ve been a teacher for awhile, and that’ll feel right.
What parts of your student experience did you initially bring into your instruction? What parts of your student experience still inform your teaching? What have you let go of?
Zoe: I’ll go back to what I said earlier, which is that I think we tend to teach in the ways we prefer to learn. I also think we teach in the style that we’ve experienced as students. So, if I’m honest, I think I initially brought a lot of lecture to my instruction and that induced a lot of passivity for my students. But I also experimented a lot, tried a lot of labor-intensive things that were fun and interesting, but probably overwhelmed some students.
Nicole: Do you have any examples of things you tried early on that went spectacularly wrong?
Zoe: Haha! Oh, sure. I can think of a time I tried to split a class into pairs using cards with letters on them. Like, two A cards, two B cards, and so on. It just fell apart. Not enough students, several people didn’t have partners. We spent 5 minutes with students staring at each other, not knowing who their partner was. It was a total waste of time. Just one of many fabulous failures.
When I was a student, the teachers I enjoyed the most expressed love in some way–for students, for the act of learning, for their subject, for whatever. They had passion and curiosity. I remember seeing that as a student, and it’s what I try to emulate as a teacher.
I want students to feel seen and loved.
I think that is the greatest gift I can give them in a learning setting, whether it’s face to face or online or whatever else. If I’m a “natural” teacher, I think it’s because I have the capacity to love and to see others fully. That’s what I try to carry with me.
Nicole: Yes! And the flip version of that, being in classes with profs so checked out you wonder if they even know or care there’s a class of people in front of them.
Zoe: I guess I’ve always believed that learning is a shared experience. I’m trying to let go of some of my ideas of what that should look like, and I’m trying to acknowledge that there are lots of ways to have a shared experience.
I think one of my strengths is community-keeping–making sure everyone is together, being heard, being seen. But I think sometimes that can express itself as control, and that’s really what I want to let go of. I’d like to develop more learning scenarios that require less and less control on my part, but that still hold the experience together as a shared experience.
Nicole: I’m really impressed by your emphasis on community here. It can be easy, at least for me, to miss some of the community aspect in my desire to reach each student individually. What you’re thinking about with community-sustained learning scenarios sounds challenging, but could ultimately be rewarding in many ways.
These are complex questions with no clear answers or ways forward. Do you have any words of reassurance for new librarian-instructors such as myself who are wrestling with all of this? (Of course, new folks aren’t the only ones who are struggling in these ways!)
Zoe: Speaking of community, I think the most important thing that new folks can do is reach out–in person, to other librarians, to other faculty on campus, to the Center for Faculty Development (or its equivalent on your campus), on Twitter, at conferences, on listservs, and so on.
There are so many great resources available to new information literacy instructors, from blogs to discussion groups to conferences, etc. A couple of things I will plug that have been great for me:
- I attended Immersion Teacher Track in 2013 and it was fabulous! I made some lifelong friends and I really started to refine my pedagogy in meaningful ways.
- I attended Library Instruction West in 2014 and 2016, and it’s probably my favorite conference. It’s affordable, focused on infolit issues, and full of fabulous people. LI West 2018 will be in Grand Junction, Colorado in July 2018.
- I stay really connected to folks on Twitter and through my blog. That’s my own personal way of going about things, but it’s not for everybody. I think Twitter can be a great place just to listen/learn/observe, even if you don’t want to jump into conversation. But if you do, there are scheduled chats (like the #critlib chats), or, you know, you might make an offhanded comment someday that turns into a conversation like this one!
Nicole: I would like to cosign from personal experience on a few of these: librarians and the library community are honestly the best people and as I have integrated myself into the community and gone out of my comfort zone to meet librarians, go to conferences, participate in orgs, and use Twitter more intentionally, I’ve learned so much and been challenged and all sorts of things that wouldn’t have happened if I had followed my internal impulse to stay quiet and removed.
This conversation we have had today, and the original tweet conversations, and all of the worrying and thinking and writing and rewriting and bugging my delightful colleagues for their opinion on teacher identity, it’s all part of my choice to integrate more into our shared community, and your choice to invite me further into it.
So for that I’ve gotta thank you.
Zoe: You’re so very welcome. Let’s do it again sometime!
Nicole: Yeah, let’s do!