“I hope that in those weeks that you feel you really have it, you go even deeper. Don’t say ‘I’m just in this week to satisfy the requirements of the course,’ but take your knowledge even higher. A graduate course like this isn’t to show that you know something. It’s to learn something new and apply it.”Michael Zarro
My professor started out the summer quarter with that reminder, and I’ll be honest: I needed to hear it. I have three classes left until I graduate. Some of my courses are starting to reiterate what I’ve learned in previous quarters. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that classes, tests, and projects exist only to make sure you know what’s being directly discussed that quarter. The past few months, especially with my decreased focus and growing work responsibilities, I have lapsed into finishing projects and responding to discussion boards just enough to “prove” that I know the concepts. Admittedly, sometimes that’s necessary; we do what we need to do to get through difficult times. To fall into it with any regularity, however, is a problem.
Most obviously, I’m not getting my many thousands of dollars’ worth. It also has the potential to form bad habits. Am I getting defensive with my learning, trying to show others how much I know instead of taking the time to dive deeper into understandings? We all know that as professionals in a rapidly changing profession, we cannot grow comfortable with what we already know and leave it at that. We’ve waxed poetic on this blog about the importance of life-long learning before (see Lauren Bradley’s guest post “Life Long Learning, Not Just a Buzzphrase” or Alyssa’s recent reflection “Should We Be Generalists or Specialists?”), but how might learned defensiveness get in our way?
Choosing Programs and Courses
I faced this early in my career when choosing which program I wanted to pursue. Would I go for the program that I heard was great for library staff who already had experience and just needed the degree, or would I challenge myself with the longer, more difficult-looking program? The same issue comes up each time I enroll in an elective. Should I enroll in something I already know about, or do I take the plunge into the newer-to-me option?
Before enrolling in a course on a topic you’re already familiar with, ask yourself: am I choosing this because I’m pursuing a plan and want to dig deeper into these topics, or do I just hope that it will be the easier choice?
This quarter, I’m taking a Digital Library Technologies course. During our second week of classes, we discussed the basics of Content Management Systems: what are they, what features do they have, what are some popular options? When I saw that on the syllabus at the beginning of class, I chuckled. I’ve built my own WordPress sites and just finished creating my first Drupal site over quarantine. While I’m far from being an expert, I felt confident that I would be able to take it easy that week. Thanks to my professor’s reminder, however, I knew I should take the opportunity to dig deeper. Sure, I knew what they were and the basics of how to use them, but I realized I had no idea how they actually worked. I spent the week diving into the behind-the-scenes information, learning a bit more about PHP and databases and the inner cogs of a CMS. This exploration ended up being a big help when I needed to do my first core update on my Drupal website a few days ago.
If you’re already confident about the topic at hand, look more closely at the readings for the week. Is there anything, even just a sentence, that piques your curiosity? If you are able, take the time to pursue that aspect. You might need that extra information sooner than you expected.
After spending so much time in school being asked to demonstrate our knowledge, it’s sometimes hard to remember that not everything at work is a test. As a staff trainer, I’ve run into this from the teacher’s viewpoint. I’ve seen people get defensive when asked to build on their skills, as if their underlying knowledge is being questioned. While those around them are have deep conversations about how we can more positively meet the needs of our community, they put all of their energy into proving that they already know how we currently do things. I’ve also had to pause when the defensiveness crept in after someone made a suggestion to make a process more efficient. Some part of me thought, “there’s nothing wrong with my thought process! I’m doing this right! Why would you question it?”
When we remember that we’re not there to prove that we know how to do something, we can be more open to examining it more fully and making improvements.
And as Dr. Zarro said, take your knowledge higher. Learn something new and apply it — don’t settle for showing what you already know.
Kerri is a part-time MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University. She also works as the staff trainer for a library district in central Pennsylvania, and is therefore biased in the subject of life-long learning. She tweets occasionally @klmillik.