An Inspiring Fellow Traveler, Discovered by Accident

I’m always on the lookout for ways to work better, smarter, more helpfully and more mindfully with my teaching assistants. I well remember what it’s like to be in that role: you are so eager to learn the teaching ropes, so utterly terrified of screwing up, and, at the same time, so fretful about stepping on your supervisor’s toes, not wanting to overstep your bounds. Maybe you have something to say, some suggestions to make, but you’re utterly terrified you’re going to be shot down or shut out, humiliated – especially if your supervising professor hasn’t been too welcoming, or hasn’t clarified your role in the course particularly well. It happened to me, more than once. The scars still pinch, so I feel for my junior colleagues in the TA job and try to do right by them.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some outstanding, committed young teachers in the almost 10 years since I began working full time in universities, and I know that many have gotten much our of working with me. That’s primarily because I figured out pretty quickly the two basic but essential things I had to offer them: 1) as many clear chances as possible to get up in front of the class, alongside 2) regular opportunities to reflect on what happened there, what was going well or badly, what needed tweaking. The formula was simple: do it, mess it up, score big, talk about it. Figure out together how to reproduce the good or avoid the bad. Say how you’re feeling, own the highs and lows, then work out how not to take it personally. Teaching well emerges through a mix of strong, honest dialogue with someone who has been there, observing and thinking carefully about others’ teaching practices, and then not being afraid to own mistakes and admit fundamental human flaws. (Teachers are human! We don’t come from pods!) Or, anyway: that’s what has worked for me, and it’s what I try to give my TAs.

This fall I’m lucky to have not one but two committed young teachers in my orbit: my TA for 20th Century Drama, Madison, and my tenant, also a PhD student at Western (albeit not in my area), called Jon. Madison inspires me with her astonishing energy and deep engagement with our students, primarily online via our class blog (you can check it out here if you wish; I’ll write more about my and Madison’s work together later this year). Jon and I, meanwhile, often chat after hours about our teaching experiences, while we are getting our suppers ready or reading in our shared household space in the evening.

Recently, Jon told me about a unique class he took a few years ago at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Convened by Martin Bickman, a celebrated scholar of literary pedagogy, “Theory and the Teaching of Literature” is an innovative graduate course that sets as its “text” an undergraduate class in American lit, which Martin and his students run together as a teaching team. Jon’s description of this experience – the way the course invited Jon and his peers to take ownership over the teaching; the way it required reflection and constant risk-taking; the way it weathered disasters and normalised mistakes as all part of the job – made me immediately want to learn more. Thanks to links Jon provided I quickly found Martin’s 2003 book, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (it’s in the post), as well as a 2010 article he wrote for the journal Pedagogy on the importance of returning the study of literature to its roots in community activism.

Here is Martin, from that article, writing about the shape and the goals of “Theory and the Teaching of Literature”:

…the student engagement in and work accomplished by this graduate course was radically different from those of my more conventional classes. In two decades of teaching this course, I recorded fewer absences than in one semester of my more traditional classes. I could dispense with grades entirely, because the motivation to help the undergraduates learn was far stronger than anything external. The graduate students took ownership of the class, assigning their own readings and projects. The competitiveness that usually underlies graduate seminars was replaced by a sense of common endeavor, because the main result of our work was not individual papers but the creation of two related communities, the undergraduates and us.

I sought not to clone myself as a teacher but rather to help the graduate students theorize their own teaching, as close observers and reflective practitioners who could use the perpetual feedback of the classroom to revise their strategies. I also know that teachers teach only in ways they have learned, so I tried to make our own class as organically experiential as possible and not let its members do unthinkingly what had been done to them in their own educations. (Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis” 16-17)

Martin goes on to summarise the ethos of the class like this: too many teachers don’t realise that what they are really doing when they get up in front of a class is trying to prove to the students how smart they are, that they really do belong at the podium. That’s what lies behind a hell of a lot of lecturing, the rank-pulling when a student tries unsuccessfully to challenge a teacher’s claim, and I suspect it’s why generous, frank group discussions are genuinely difficult to pull off.

I’m not immune from this yucky urge to show off to my students; none of us is. Impostor syndrome is wired into academic DNA. But that’s even more reason for us to try harder to give up some of our teaching control, to TAs as well as to our students, and see where the experiments might lead us. Chances are that both the student teacher and the students proper will learn something real, and remember the feeling for a good long time. Chances are, too, that little by little we will all learn that being in the classroom is so much more fun and interesting if you don’t insist on being the cleverest one there all the time.

I’m scheming about cooking up a version of Martin Bickman’s course at Western, and I can’t wait to read his book. Meanwhile, take a look at his inspiring “Returning to Community and Praxis” here.



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