#LISMentalHealth: Anxiety in the Library Classroom

Earlier this month, the Chronicle published a feature about students with anxiety. Based largely upon interviews and survey responses from students, I found myself identifying with many of these first person descriptions, and thinking about how this knowledge might relate to the work I do as an instruction librarian.

First, my personal history. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dealt with some level of social anxiety. While anxiety disorders tend to manifest – particularly in our own consciousness – in adolescence, I’d been (and been described as) a shy and quiet kid as far back as preschool and kindergarten. While I have the usual trouble making connections, apprehension in unfamiliar groups, etc., where it’s manifested for me the most is in classroom settings. In fact, my first major episode of depression was triggered in part by a particular classroom setting during my first semester in a political science graduate program (I survived another two semesters, but eventually dropped out).

Simply put, my brain just doesn’t quite work right in these situations. The amount of mental energy required to even be in those spaces, and pay attention to the content and what others are saying, is about as much as I can handle. I have a hard time forming comments and responses, because I can’t think clearly enough to do so. As a student, class participation has always been a grade element that I’ve had to write off, unless it’s built in through a more structured way, like scheduled activities (for which I can thus plan/think ahead) or end-of-class reflection papers. Really, even reflection papers are a challenge, but usually I can clear out enough mental space in the time provided. I’ve always been a “good student,” and I’m not disengaged in the classroom, it’s just that my thinking on the material can only happen after I’ve decompressed outside of the classroom. From college through my LIS program, I’ve more than once had comments from professors along the lines of, “Interesting ideas in this paper! I wish you’d speak up in class more.” Which, hey, so do I.

As you might guess, this does affect my teaching as an instruction librarian. Going in with the knowledge and preparation that comes with leading the class is a lot of help, as there’s no uncertainty as to what will be required of me, and I can prepare ahead of time. However, the anxiety and attendant mental block are still there, and really hamper my ability to pivot in situations where that might be necessary, or effectively facilitate a class discussion if students are hesitant.

All of which leads me to wonder about the students in our classrooms, and how many may be dealing, to a greater or lesser extent, with what I do. When we base a class on student discussion and interactivity, are there students we’re shutting out from the beginning? Earlier this month (I guess it’s been a good month for #LISMentalHealth content), Veronica Arellano Douglas wrote for the ARCLog about the difference in routine that comes with having a guest instructor in class. For me, as a student, such a situation already throws out a good portion of whatever comfort I may have gained in that space over the course of the semester. If I feel the instructor may expect something specifically of me (ie., let’s go around the room and everyone say such-and-such), I’ll start feeling sick to my stomach. Group work I can generally handle, though my block still prevents me from contributing much, and I’ve never felt I got much out of it. Class discussions are fine if I’m certain I won’t be unexpectedly called on, but again, I’m not sure how much they do for me.

Taking stock of the current state of library instruction practice, you can probably see where I have misgivings. I know that I, as a student, would be unlikely to respond well to much of it. As a (still relatively novice) instructor, I do try to incorporate these things, but I’ve never had complete confidence in them.

So, how should we deal with mental illnesses that may manifest in the classroom? How much of a concern should situations like mine be? If an active learning classroom is what works, does it make sense to just do what research suggests will be the most effective for the greatest number of students? I’m not sure I know.

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