Teaching as Practice

By Maureen E. Maryanski

The author, wearing glasses, stands with her hand on her hip while talking to students. The students' backs are to the camera, and part of a large medieval manuscript is on the table between the author and students. Behind the author are wall exhibition cases containing 16th century Mexican imprints.
Maureen teaching a medieval manuscripts session for Kate Altizer’s Music and Nature course in Spring 2019. Photograph courtesy of Kate Altizer.

Only recently have I begun to think about my work as the Education and Outreach Librarian at the Lilly Library as a teaching practice. Teaching with special collections has been an integral part of my career trajectory and identity since I became a professional librarian seven years ago. At that point, I could not have predicted that this would be the case. My intertwining investments in the classes, instructors, and students that I work with and my own development as a teacher have continued to grow since then. As I look back, examining the sequence of events and interactions that have brought me where I am, that phrase teaching practice continues to bubble to the surface. It encapsulates the approach and attitude I seek to bring into every classroom.

When I think about the word practice, what springs to mind first is a yoga practice or practicing an art — music, dance, visual arts. This approach to practice ensures you come to it every day and honor wherever you are in your journey in each moment. You proceed with respect for your mind and body, approaching the practice with mindfulness. It’s about process and constant learning, not necessarily end results, although there are goals and aspirations. It’s about breathing and being present, and not just going through the motions. You build upon what you’ve done before and make adjustments as needed.

The same can be applied to a teaching practice. It is a process, an evolution. It is an activity and endeavor that requires constant awareness and daily presence to mentally assess the experience for all participants. It evolves over time as adjustments are made. It’s not always comfortable, yet this lack of comfort is vital for continued development. When you become overly comfortable in any practice, that is when you are in danger of stalling your growth, whether as an artist, an athlete, or a teacher.

Like many cultural heritage professionals, my first experience of teaching with collections in a classroom felt like a “thrown into the deep end” moment. I had observed classes and prepared notes, discussed the class with my then internship supervisor, but nothing quite prepares you for standing in front of a class that first time. Having now experienced teaching preparation from the other side, trying to prepare and provide the tools for MLIS students, it occurs to me that there are layers of learning required to do this teaching: learning the content, the item-specific information, and topics of the class; learning the skills, approaches, and techniques of active, hands-on learning; learning to interact with students in the moment to facilitate their exploration of the materials; learning to collaborate with instructors and colleagues in developing class sessions. To a large extent the teaching I do is an adventure in learning by doing, and the more I teach, the more knowledgeable, comfortable, confident, and humble I become.

To a large extent the teaching I do is an adventure in learning by doing, and the more I teach, the more knowledgeable, comfortable, confident, and humble I become.

Teaching practice is experiential learning. Every time we step foot into our classroom spaces, we are modeling engagement, curiosity, introspection, interrogation, and not knowing for our students. The very thing we hope to impart and provide a space for — learning through experience — is precisely what we are in the process of undergoing throughout these teaching interactions. Is there a more active learning technique than teaching? As teachers, we actively assess in every moment in the classroom. This self-assessment and awareness not only of ourselves, but also of our students, allows us to be flexible and adjust in the moment. It allows us to evolve in our practice. Each experience, whether good or bad, is a teaching and learning moment contributing to our knowledge about ourselves and our students.

The awareness necessary for this experiential learning and teaching requires constant questioning. It might sound exhausting, and sometimes it is. But a critical mind, a questioning mind, an engaged mind is vital to creating a teaching practice. Isn’t that what we hope to inspire in our students, and by extension, in our society? What we model for our students — not knowing, exploration, questioning, investigating, engaging, empathy and compassionate thought about the materials and lives within our collections — shouldn’t we extend that to our own practices? Our personal, ongoing voyage of discovery as teachers and cultural heritage professionals who steward the physical remnants of lives, and the stories they embody, allows us to develop a teaching practice that enables us to learn alongside and from our students.

If we approach teaching as a practice and experiential learning, what then is the goal? Perhaps a goal-oriented approach is not the most useful attitude for conceptualizing teaching as a practice. Of course, we have learning objectives for class sessions and skills we aim to assist students in developing, but in terms of a personal teaching practice, what is our learning objective?

I would argue that the goal is most certainly not perfection. In her 2014 essay “Armpit Wax” Rebecca Solnit notes “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”[1] If we take perfection as our aim, if we seek to perfect our teaching, we will always be disappointed, as perfection is not achievable, and we will limit ourselves by cutting ourselves off from “the realistic, the possible, and the fun” — the creativity and innovation that being open-minded and always questioning/analyzing allows. The idea is not to reach some image of perfect teaching, but to perfect an approach to teaching that allows learning to continue, your teaching practice to evolve, with each experience and interaction.

The idea is not to reach some image of perfect teaching, but to perfect an approach to teaching that allows learning to continue, your teaching practice to evolve, with each experience and interaction.

A vital element of a teaching practice is time for reflection, which can be difficult to do. That’s where this series and this space on the TPS Collective has great value and benefit. We can share with ourselves and each other what’s gone well, what’s gone wrong, and what we’re continuing to work on. It’s all a work in progress — and it always will be.

[1] Rebecca Solnit. Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays). Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.

Maureen E. Maryanski is the Education and Outreach Librarian at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. In this position, she coordinates 250-300 classes and tours annually and provides special collections instruction grounded in the history of the book and primary source literacy.

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