Life as an Extreme Sport

The Teaching Conspiracy

So, as I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m functioning as a teacher’s assistant (technically considered a peer facillitator, as I’m an undergrad) for CHID 390. I’m keeping a running log of my thoughts on this, largely because it’s my first time teaching at the university level, and I want to remember the lessons learned for future years of teaching (of which I forsee quite a bit).

I consider myself so very lucky to have Phillip as the professor I’m working with. He’s incredibly supportive and confident in my ability to do this, which is a great relief, especially as my own faith in being able to do “this” is still, for lack of better word, being earned. I might believe I can do this by the time the quarter is over.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from Phillip so far, aside from the incredibly valuable “reading as an extreme sport” lecture, is don’t worry about the details. Don’t stress to death about preparing for class, because in a discussion situation the class is going to veer to areas you didn’t consider when you were planning. If you sit and overplan and worry about the details, you’ll simply make your life miserable by being focused on a single track, and likely share that with the students. Instead, stay loose and flexible. Let the students guide the conversation, because they’re going to talk about what excites them, what confuses them, and what they want to internalize.

This doesn’t mean that the discussion shouldn’t be moderated, or that certain ideas shouldn’t be planned on, only that you need to look for the opportunity in what is being said to bring up these ideas, instead of rigidly forcing the topic. For example, if you think it’s important to talk about gender politics and generalizations in Geertz’ article on the Balinese cockfights, wait until someone mentions something along the lines of “Geertz says that the Balinese do this…” and then ask “do all the Balinese do this?” There are so many hooks in discussions that give you the opportunity to turn the conversation towards the topic you want the class to cover that there is really no reason to do it any other way (at least in a discussion situation – I’m definitely not teaching a lecture class!).

I think another valuable thing Phillip shared with Kanna (my co-conspirator) and I on Monday is to ground yourself before class. Discover your moral center; ask yourself who you are, where do you come from and where do you teach from? Who are you and how do you want to portray yourself? My goal in this is to give the students their best class, one where they feel warm and safe and able to explore ideas that they might be afraid of elsewhere – I want to enable everyone to explore the tendrails and wisps of web that these readings create, but also to improve their ability to write, express themselves, and deeply engage with critical texts.

It’s a noble goal, and a good theory, and very challenging to actually practice. I had seven papers to read, and it took me nearly two hours to simply read through them once, then again to correct for grammar and other English style issues. I found myself paralized when it came to actually giving feedback, and had to talk to Phillip today before feeling comfortable doing so. After all, who am I to make these comments and suggestions, and to determine grade? Talking to Phillip helped significantly, largely because he validated what my concerns were. From that, I actually took away that it’s important to affirm the work the student has done before saying anything constructive – whether it was the most excellent paper in the world or the opposite, this is something that the student has written, and at least at the level I’m teaching at, has put something of themselves in. To not acknowledge that would be risking shutting that person down, turning them off creative and critical analysis, and be doing to someone what I’ve bitched about other instructors doing to me.

That is not my moral center.

…and in more practical thoughts, oh my god, how do professors do this? It took me 20 minutes per paper to offer constructive feedback and commentary, on top of the two hours simply reading. All for seven papers. My respect for teachers and their ability to do has gone up significantly in just this one week of instructing.

The other upshot to doing the commentary at the last minute is that I was quite literally working up until the start of class, and had no time to get worked up or stressed about how teaching was going to go. This was probably for the best.