I haven’t had so much heart for posting lately; depressing stuff is happening and usually I need to work through it in some way before talking about it or writing about it. Often that means I’m already over whatever I’m going through by the time I write it out, or the act of writing a silly post helps me get some distance on whatever’s going on. But this week seems to be a swirling cloud of little things that bother me but in a way I can’t really put my finger on. Thus I seem to be in a sort of general malaise.
I have a lot of things I could mention, but as just one example, I got observed in my class (a phenomenon that supposedly happens to all TAs every quarter but I think has actually happened for me about three times total. Not that I mind getting out of being observed, just like I don’t mind the fact that the instructional development people who filmed me for one department's class evaluation lost the tape).
Now my class, for the most part, went pretty well, and the meeting afterwards went pretty well, and yet I take constructive criticism about as well as anybody, which is to say not well at all. On one level I know that a balanced and evenhanded report looking at my strengths and weaknesses will make me a better teacher, but on another level I know I want the result to be a pure affirmation --- You are so wonderful! You are perfect in every way and we love you! Yay! Don’t ever change! Everything you did in section was brilliant and infallible! --- and just like I can pick at a few balanced or critical evals, I can feel down and pick at an observation meeting that went exactly like it should. What do you mean I have areas where I could grow and improve as a teacher? Who would want to hear that?
So I feel a bit --- bruised. Even though, I admit, I really have no reason to.
None of these areas of improvement were news to me, however, which is a good thing, unless of course you recognize that I have known about and been working on these things for quite a while. But one statement really struck me and I have been meditating on it for a while now. “I think you did a great job of always coming back to the themes of the text and working them through how the lecture had brought this critical article to bear on the text, but I think you could make them work harder to make those connections themselves. Draw them out more.” (Ok, so that’s a paraphrase --- a not very accurate one.)
On the one hand, I think the prof is absolutely right. I have trouble leaving students to twist in their own silence to force them to expand on what I say, or they say. And I have huge troubles with letting go of control of the conversation or with stepping back and not allowing myself to dominate it. The phrase, you could push them, make them work harder, really resonated with me and it’s helping me think through how I could do that through re-structuring section.
On the other hand, I had already made the decision while prepping that I was going to do the bulk of the carrying in that section of my agenda. I could tell they had been totally lost in lecture and just were not thinking at that level in the previous weeks of section. I wanted to make sure those connections got drawn so that they didn’t think the past three weeks of lecture had been a completely unimportant digression when they hit, for example, the final. In short, I didn’t think they could do it.
Now this is interesting to me, how what the prof expects and what I expect are so different. Am I shortchanging the students and underestimating their ability? Is the prof, who only teaches at the senior level when s/he actually has to read and grade papers, out of touch with the thinking quality of most of my students, pretty much all of whom are first- and second-year non majors? Is the prof (like many of the profs who lecture here) assuming that our “R1” level students are at a level of preparedness and smartness that in reality they are lacking? (like the time a prof in another department mentioned “hegemony” “the habitus” and Homi Babha’s theory of dissemination in one lecture and was astounded to hear I spent an entire section on what is the term hegemony, why is it important, and how does it have any relevance to our course? “I am shocked ---- are they not getting a grounding in political theory before they get to college? Have they not read any Weber?” That’s only a slightly exaggerated version of her response.)
Or, are the students “working me” rather than me forcing them to work? I can tell you from the past 7 or 8 weeks that it has been a constant battle, like pulling teeth, to get the students to consistently speak up in class even at the level of plot and theme, just like it usually is at this school; they are just now willing to pipe up and sometimes even answer each other. How much am I training them to speak up and how much are they training me to only push them to answer on the plot-level questions? If I were doing something differently like the various suggestions the prof made, would I be getting them to engage with the texts at this level?
It’s kind of like how I thought I had trained my cats regarding food, and then when my friends came over they saw instead how thoroughly the cats had trained me. And yes, I am comparing my students to my cats. This comparison, I’m sure, could be expanded further.
To be honest, I usually believe scenario 1 ---- that the profs here are a bit out of touch and assume their students are getting much more in lecture than they actually do ---- but the example of the cats and my own blind spots causes me to rethink my position. I have seen many examples of kids outwitting parents back when I worked as a tutor ---- you just wait them out or pretend you don’t get it and parents and teachers often yank it out of your hands and just do it for you out of frustration, leaving you with a very cushy position if you can just use a little patience. To be fair, I think this rarely happens at a conscious, planned level for either party ---- but then again, operant conditioning rarely does.
This all also ties into different approaches to students ---- do you aim above their heads and encourage them to stretch up to reach this higher bar? Or do you get down below them, as it were, and push them up from behind? I’ve consistently done the second, partly because of my structural role as a TA, which I see as a go-between for the student and the professor, and also partly because I agree with the pedagogical approaches that try to build student confidence by starting out with questions they feel they can answer, praising them for answering those low-stakes questions, and then hoping that this increased confidence will encourage them to stretch out and risk answering these more difficult types of thematic or theoretical questions. (This is starting to sound like a statement of teaching philosophy. Fuck.)
The hitch in my system comes with that later push out towards more difficult questions; as I mentioned they still tend to clam up when I encourage them to move beyond brief statements or more thematic answers. And maybe, if my way doesn’t work any particularly better than the other way, I should be teaching from above their heads and beckoning them to reach; it is college, after all, and I have gotten some stinging comments about my teaching method being “too high school” (a long story for another day) that indicate perhaps I do need to rethink my approach. I spent a long time as a tutor for k-12 students for one of those for-profit tutoring centers and probably got more pedagogical training and theory there than in my rather shittily-run comp pedagogy seminar, so there is the possibility that I am applying teaching styles for remedial k-12 kids to smart adult college students and it is not working. Eh ---- I’m hoping that this wasn’t part of my lack of success on the job market.
Hmm. So, in conclusion, I am meditating on these ideas and revisiting my assumptions about teaching and about students. Fuck! I hate learning things when that involves interrogating my weaknesses and growing as a person! And with that, my friends, we can see an important commonality with my students, if not my cats. Or maybe with them too.