Earlier this fall in Sports Illustrated, L. Jon Wertheim penned a brief profile on Serena Williams, who while in the midst of pursuing a Grand Slam still found time to consort with favorite son of this blog, Drake . Serena provides some unvarnished honesty in the profile. When asked if she feels indestructible when taking the court, Serena replied:
No, I don’t. You would be surprised by how I feel. I feel vulnerable every time I step out there. Every single time. It’s just a matter of overcoming those feelings and being the best I can be on that day.
This, to say the least, surprised me. In the ruthlessly competitive ecosystem of athletics, vulnerability isn’t a common thing to acknowledge or self-disclose. Typically, professional athletes are portrayed as reaching the zenith of their fields through unfailing confidence in their abilities. Michael Jordan didn’t win an NCAA championship at UNC or six NBA titles with the Bulls because he thought he might miss the game winning jumper, but rather because he knew he wouldn’t. But perhaps Serena has learned something during her staggeringly long run as a dominant player: in a sport as solitary as tennis, the only way to overcome insecurities is to face and embrace them. So in that vein, here’s an admission: while I like nothing more than helping students learn how to find, evaluate, and use evidence to support their personal and professional pursuits, teaching this process in a student-centered manner scares me.
There’s nothing scary to me about demonstrating how a piece of technology works, or lecturing on why peer-reviewed articles are what students should read and cite. In that style of teaching, my authority and control over the classroom remains more or less total, and throughout the process I get to present myself to my students as the “super confident, competent database searcher.” But, at my core, I’m an evidence-based practitioner, and the evidence suggested that student-centered teaching leads to improved student learning. Being an authoritarian lecturer at the front of the room may help with classroom management, but it doesn’t help students actually learn.
Perhaps just as importantly, being an authoritarian classroom leader separates us from our learners. Presenting our authentic selves, which includes our insecurities, removes this barrier and creates trust that promotes real learning and growth. Even Kobe Bryant, a legendary hardass who has spent most of his life friendless and his career with the Los Angeles Lakers as a terrible coworker, has come around to this realization as he reaches the twilight of his athletic career. Speaking with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, Kobe notes that:
I started to understand that my teammates viewed me like some damn machine who didn’t feel anything and was oblivious to pressure…they found that very unrelatable. I had to explain that I had the same fears, flaws, vulnerabilities, so they could relate to me.
Kobe continues, suggesting that being a good mentor to younger players isn’t just about passing them the ball, but rather that:
You inspire them to be the best version of themselves, and I do that by sharing things which are very personal to me, things I’ve struggled with, and letting them relate that to their own journey.
When we’re real with our students, whether it’s through showing our authentic selves in the classroom or by acknowledging how hard research can be, we allow our learners to visualize how someone can go from being a novice to be an expert. Stepping aside front the front of the classroom podium and allowing our students to direct their own learning and possibly fail along the way is anxiety inducing, but it’s absolutely necessary for promoting real growth.
Embracing vulnerability is also the best way to spur our own professional growth, as well as the growth of our colleagues. By covering up our vulnerabilities, we’re preventing ourselves from getting better at teaching. If teaching is a complex cognitive skill, then we need practice to get better at it, and we need coaching from our peers to point out areas where we’re still developing proficiency. That means we have to be vulnerable and honest with each other as professionals, which can be even more challenging. How can we embrace our vulnerabilities are help spur development? Well, I’m still working on that, but I’ve got a few places where I would propose we can try starting.
(1) We remove our ego from the library teaching process. Information literacy instruction is about facilitating students’ learning of how to make evidence-based arguments, not about showing off the library’s stuff or the librarian’s expertise.
(2) We adopt a growth mindset, where we acknowledge that our ability to teach can be improved through consistent and deliberate practice, grit, and professional support. If we struggle with student-centered teaching at the beginning, we will remain dedicated towards becoming better at it.
(3) We acknowledge that both of these goals, and all aspects of developing teacher proficiency, are processes to be engaged in rather than outcomes to pursue. Thanks Dean Smith.
(4) We model these behaviors so aspiring librarians will adopt this mindset as well.
It’s extremely important we present our real, vulnerable selves when mentoring library school students. Cracking into the library game, with all of its strange induction rituals, is hard. It doesn’t do students any favors to talk to librarian rock star personas. Only by talking to the real, insecure person underneath all the citations can they get a real sense of what the daily life of a librarian looks like, or what it takes to “make it” in this field.
In closing, it’s worth noting that embracing our insecurities doesn’t make bad consequences go away. Serena fumbled away her shot at the Grand Slam, losing to an inferior player while demonstrating erratic play not at all in line with her typical greatness. The start of the 2015-2016 year for Kobe has been a disaster, with more L’s and airballs than game-winning daggers. But, the advantage of embracing your vulnerability is that it completely disarms haters. When you willingly acknowledge that “you suck,” what else can someone else say? And once you realize that you’re not perfect, you can actually work towards getting better. That’s growth, and that’s what The Process is all about.
Alex Carroll is a science librarian at an academic research library in the Mid-Atlantic. He earned his M.S.L.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and holds a B.A. in History from James Madison University. His research interests include evidence-based practice, mentoring LIS students, and improving information literacy instruction for students in the sciences. He can be contacted at alexanderj.carroll at gmail dot com.