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I’m Doing Me: Authenticity in the Classroom (Guest Post)

Photo of Nancy Weissman
Nancy Weissman is Professor and Librarian at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

When I completed my MLS degree more than two decades ago my dream job was the reference desk at Cleveland Public Library. However, my first interview led to a position at Cuyahoga Community College and 26 years later I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I learned in that first interview that the job I was offered and accepted would entail teaching. I point this out as I had no training or desire to teach. I took no courses that prepared me for creating a lesson plan or on the philosophies of adult education. How hard could it be? Sounds like fun.

Thinking back on my early years as a librarian in front of a class of English students (or a variety of other class disciplines) I remember that I would certainly do my best to prepare for the classes and with careful precision outline the research process to a roomful of students. Mind you, this pre-dates the World Wide Web. I brought in BOOKS; students went to the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature! Teaching was so much fun. You really had to get your hands into and on the process. Subject searching was a real thing! Remember “see also” references? Reflecting on those days helps me understand better what I focus on now as I teach in our current technologically-driven world of research and information. Locate, evaluate, and effectively use information – the information and the tool.

Fast forward 26 years and I can teach a “bibliographic instruction” session (are they still called this???) in my sleep. I still may prepare for a class that has a focused assignment or for a discipline I’m not immersed in, but for the most part, I head right into the classroom and do my thing. After 26 years, I know what my thing is and I do it well. When did the shift happen where I no longer got the flutters in my stomach or wrestled with a shaky voice as I taught the classes? I really wish I could recall from memory the first library instruction class I ever taught. What I do know is that while I never sought a job in academics, I really do find that connecting with a roomful of students on the merits of successfully obtaining needed information (a topic that they probably don’t care much about, in and of itself) has been and continues to be the most rewarding part of my job.

I estimate that I have taught library instruction to upwards of 1,000 classes at Cuyahoga Community College. I have taught using our library’s instruction classrooms before our territory was usurped (we’ve been moved in on many times). I have gone to hundreds of classrooms to provide instruction with each classroom presenting its own unique setup and corresponding challenges to overcome such as the placement of the projector (or lack thereof), the arrangement of the desks, and more. I have taught in the studio to cable college classes, sometimes to an empty studio….no fond memories there. I have taught in high school classrooms in the inner city as well as the suburbs.

I’ve fallen off a chair while teaching. I’ve tripped over more power cords than imaginable. I have plucked up babies from their strollers as they fussed while their young parents tried to take notes, carrying a toddler on my hip while conducting the library sessions. I’ve forgotten words. I have continually run into dead ends from poorly defined searches in front of classes. I have been victim of countless technological failures in which I always figure out some new way to get the points across. All of this has been real and has reinforced that researching is hard; that researching is confusing; that researching can be upsetting, funny, and ultimately rewarding. My being me, with no predefined, picture-perfect examples of how wonderful locating and evaluating information is, seems to provide true insight and a refreshingly real look at what it takes to navigate our information world. Typically, I get a round of applause from appreciative students and their instructors who, no matter how many times I have visited their classes, always take away something new.

What I consider my greatest contribution to my work at the college has been pioneering the use of online synchronous technologies to teach to our distance learning population. Putting myself on camera and microphone, I have navigated our library’s website and resources to thousands of distance learning students from the comfort of my home. I have committed Sunday evenings and Friday mornings and every time in between to extend my work as a faculty librarian to those students who would otherwise never have the direct exposure to online resources beyond what their Google searches provide. My children have enjoyed sharing the camera. My pets have all been a part of the show. There was a horribly embarrassing moment when I thought I had turned off the camera and microphone and proceeded to yell at my kids like there was no tomorrow, leaving an online class of women’s studies students to hear my rage. When I apologized (profusely) to the course professor the next day, she immediately dismissed my concerns, saying that the tirade against my children reinforced what parenting is like to a group of students who had all experienced the same feelings and reactions at some point. I was validating!

Two years ago I completed a PhD program in educational psychology with a focus on instructional technology. My dissertation, Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Synchronous Online Environment in Establishing Social, Cognitive and Teaching Presence, affirmed that online synchronous classrooms can indeed establish social, cognitive, and teaching presences. More so, though, what my research shed light on was that authenticity in teaching – making it real and demonstrating research without predefined parameters – works. And works well. I have 26 years of classroom teaching experience and 15 years of teaching in synchronous environments, so I am well ahead of the curve. But -- I truly enjoy the experience of authentic teaching which is, for me, an indispensable part of being an effective teacher.