I kinda sorta failed. Let’s laugh about it together!

Written by: Rachel Minkin

Primary Source: Information Literacy Resources

I failed and I’m still laughing about it.

By now, you’ve probably heard about Emily Pattinson’s Taylor Swift/ Adolf Hitler Pinterest mashup site. You can read about it here in Buzzfeed. I heard about it from a colleague who suggested that it might be interesting to use in a first year writing class discussion, a leaping off point to get students to spark some inquiry and discovery.

“Yes,” I thought, “This is going to be fantastic!” I’ve got a picture of the ever photogenic Taylor Swift (regardless of your feelings on her music) overlay-ed with this rather innocuous quote.. except that the quote is from Hitler. Yes, that Hitler. “Surely,” I continued to muse,”students will begin to question what’s going on in this Pinterest photo. Some will look up the quote. They’ll find the Buzzfeed article. WE WILL HAVE DIALOGUE ABOUT THE INTERNET!!!!! Yes, Rachel, this is fantastic!”

As you can see, I was totally ready for this to work.

And it totally did not work.

I put the image up there and half the class immediately said, “Taylor Swift? I hate her.” They looked at me suspiciously and perhaps with annoyance. The other half of the class, save for one girl, looked up and said, “Taylor Swift? Who cares?” and promptly got that semi-glazed look that folks get in a stuffy classroom in a library. The one student who was neither angry nor filled with ennui at my choice said, “OMG I LOVE TAYLOR SWIFT AND I KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT HER!!!!!!” (And yes, with that many exclamation points. I could hear them.)

We moved along, generating keywords and vocabulary, discussing cultural artifacts, brainstorming questions… and then started our research.

“Ok,” I thought, “so far, this isn’t horrible. It didn’t seem good at the beginning but it’s working. Just wait until the first student finds out that this is manufactured… and artifact in itself. Oh this will be great!”

The pro-Taylor Swift girl ended up in the group searching for background information on Taylor Swift (their choice). Of course, she knew everything about Ms. Swift and didn’t need to look up her quote. Besides she “knew” that the quote in question was in regards to a run in that Taylor Swift had with Wynonna Judd and that since Wynonna Judd “was old and not relevant anymore, she was jealous” of Taylor Swift. (I know, I know. Let’s just chock this up to the folly of youth and move on…)

My articles group turned up TONS of scholarly and popular articles on social media (specifically Pinterest) and on the dynamic and malleability of truth online. In other words, things are not what they seem! Students take note! Still, no one thought to check on the quote….

Books? Nothing.

Websites? Nothing.

So here it is, a mere 5 minutes before the end of the class, and I tell them that this pretty picture of Taylor Swift, with this vaguely inane quote attached to it? It’s a fake, a forgery. “It’s Hitler!” No one, not one student, expressed any outward emotion. No shock or surprise. No anger. No laughter. Nothing. “You know, Adolf Hitler? World War II? Nazis?” Nothing.

I thanked them for their participation in the day’s session and promptly switched my topic and prompts for the following two classes! I’ve been laughing ever since.

What’d I learn?
1. You think you know your audience?
No. You’re not them. You don’t know them. You can have a good educated guess about your audience but that’s about it.
2. Have a back up plan.
I always have a back up plan. This just reiterated the need for a Plan B!
3. Failure’s not going to hurt you.
These students still learned something even if the experience wasn’t as pleasant or interesting as I had hoped it would be for them. That’s what they were here for! My failure serves as a place of humility for me, a moment to remember that I’m not always going to teach perfectly (or even close to perfectly!). Plus failure leads to innovation… I’ve trying to think of a way I could reframe what I did in that class so that it won’t fail if I try something similar.
4. Failure can be funny.
Not much more I can say here!

Have you had a classroom failure? How’d you react to it? How’d it change what you do?

Lovingly written by Rachel Minkin

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Rachel Minkin
Rachel M. Minkin is an Information Literacy Librarian, responsible for leading information literacy sessions for the first-year students taking Tier One Writing class in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Prior to beginning at Michigan State in August 2011, Rachel was a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Lansing Community College (Lansing, MI) and the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA).