Hijack your MLIS Part 2: Make the Most of Your Least Favorite Classes

In the course of library school studies, we all have at least one (face it, probably more) class that we just don’t like. It might be because of a conflict of personalities between you and the instructor, it might be too many group projects, or it might be a topic you loathe. Our least favorite classes are almost always core requirement classes; the classes that we must take in order to graduate. But you’re paying for these classes whether you like them or not, so why not make the most of them?

This post is something of a follow-up to a previous post of mine on how to hack your library school assignments to better align with your career goals. This time though, I want to shift the focus away from individual assignments to classes more generally.

Let’s start at the most basic question here. Why are some classes bad? It’s very easy to blame the instructor, and is often very tempting to do so. It helps us create distance between ourselves and the course material that is either difficult or personally uninteresting. However, your instructor is almost certainly not the problem.

As a former teaching mentor of mine once said, “you’ll have good classes and bad classes, and neither of them are 100% your fault.” She further explained that, you can have the exact same curriculum, the same presentation, the same good attitude, but one class will be disengaged and unwilling to keep up with the material and the other class will take everything seriously, speak often in class, and go the extra mile on all the assignments. What’s the difference? Largely, it comes down to student attitudes towards the work, the instructor, each other, and how willing students are to take personal interest in the material. Sometimes, it comes down to the instructor and the students making mutual good first impressions!

Placing all the blame on your instructor for the perceived low quality of a course is the first step towards robbing yourself of a term’s worth of learning. I’m not going to pretend that there is no such thing as a bad instructor, but more often than not, the perception of a bad instructor is actually a conflict of personalities. The instructor’s teaching style may not gel with a student’s learning style. That can be frustrating and makes it difficult to feel like one is “getting anything” from the class. However, we pay the same amount for each class whether or not we “get anything” from it. So let’s think of some strategies to get the most out of a “bad” class.

Now, I want to make one thing a little more clear here: college instructors become instructors because they are experts in their fields, but they don’t necessarily receive any teaching training. They teach what they know, but sometimes they aren’t the most effective at communicating or structuring a syllabus. However, I argue that it is the student’s responsibility, especially at the graduate level, to work collaboratively with their instructors to gain the knowledge and experience they need.

First of all, if there is a conflict between you and the instructor, don’t just accept it. Take advantage of office hours and express how you feel. There’s no need to be confrontational about it, just be honest and forthright, instructors have thick skin and are always open to hearing constructive criticism on how they can better reach their students. Besides, taking this step is one easy way to take an active role in your education, and to show your instructor that you are taking advantage of every opportunity available to you. That can count for a lot during final grading season!

Let’s take another angle on this issue. As a graduate student who probably works a job or two on top of all your coursework, you probably already know the importance of prioritizing. You may have learned that lesson the hard way, as I did.  In my first couple terms of grad school, I’d start each time with big intentions, and spend equal amounts of time on each class. About halfway through each term though, I’d get burned out, unable to spend a huge amount of time on each class while working day jobs. The result of this approach is that all of your work tends to suffer. It’s much easier to reflect on the workload of the coming term, and think of a plan to prioritize before the burn out happens.

When you receive all of your syllabi, try to think which one of these classes is, A) the most closely aligned with my goals and interests, B) which class can I spend a little less time on, and still be happy with my learning outcomes this term? Now, you may find that none of the classes align terribly closely with your goals in a given term because they are all required core classes, maybe. That’s okay! Try to think about which one is either closest or has more open-ended assignments that you can hijack for your own purposes. Once you determine which class you can use to benefit you the most, the rest of the term tends to fall into place. You spend most of your time working hard and polishing your projects in one class, and that work tends to spill over into your other courses, making them much less onerous. (Though, if you do turn in the same paper or project for more than one class, you must clear it with the instructors of both classes first!)

That leads to point B–by that point I don’t mean to suggest that you decide on which classes to “coast.” Rather, think about which class has assignments that maybe don’t have to be as time consuming. Will you be happy with doing the bare minimum for a good grade in that class? It’s hard to say yes to that question, but to properly prioritize your time, you will need to learn to do that. There’s no need to excel in every class–if you are doing a sufficient amount of work, you will get an A with no trouble. But to really get the most out of graduate school, you’ll need to determine which classes you spend extra time on. As I discussed in that previous post, your library school assignments can almost always be used as an excellent excuse to network with people in the field. If you take certain assignments seriously, you may even end up with a publishable article, or conference paper. Big CV/resume builders! This is a key point–success in graduate school doesn’t just mean straight-A’s. It also means networking, building that CV/resume, and taking the initiative to go above and beyond the requirements of some of your classes.

So the advice is this: before dismissing a class as bad or pointless, take the time to reflect on it. Ask yourself, how do I get the most out of my time and money in this class? Maybe it means I spend more one-on-one time with the instructor. Maybe it means I hijack the assignments to better align with my goals, or at least use assignments in other classes to help inform the assignments for this class, basically killing two birds with one stone. Taking this time to reflect will help you prioritize, will help you find ways to both reduce stress and to go the extra mile, and will overall help you feel better about how you’ve spent your time (and money) in grad school.

By Vince Garin

Vince is an MLIS student at the University of Denver

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