Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Who gets the short end of the stick?

Before I became a teaching assistant, I completed a year of graduate school. Many of my peers, however, hit the ground running with a section of Comp One in addition to their first semester's load of classes. I don't really know how they did it. In my experience, I certainly needed at least a semester to readjust to being back in school, not to mention working at the graduate caliber. Then again, I don't know how any of us do it, any semester. It's grad school: if it's not tough and make-you-wanna-cry challenging, you ought to check the manual under "operator error". Each semester yields new challenges and you've either got to meet them head-on every time, or run home with your tail tucked between yer legs.

But if the challenge is teaching a class in addition to the graduate course load, is there a short end of the stick? In other words, do students suffer at the hands of too-green gradstudent teaching assistants? In a recent hallway conversation with me, a member of the composition faculty insinuated this. My immediate response was to become defensive, but the question struck me, and has been bothering me ever since. Allow me to ruminate, though I must warn you in advance that I'm not coming to any concrete conclusions here.

Admittedly, I have felt unqualified in front of my students. I feel self-conscious about the fairly small age gap between myself and some of my students, particularly when I sensed their awareness of it. There's been times I've been flustered at the front of the classroom; times I've had to admit to not knowing the answer; times I've had to correct a mistake I made on a handout, or in something I said. Guess what? I've seen my professors do these same things--and I didn't hold it against them, or feel cheated. In fact, I emulate these same professors in my own teaching.

While I am obviously more prone to beginner's mistakes, I make up for this because I always follow up with students. I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but I'll find out and letcha know, thats for damned sure. If I've given misinformation, I admit it to the entire class. I take advantage of the apparently small age gap between myself and students, and as a result I've connected with them; brought them into eye-opening discussion; shown them the vast world that is writing, and the one that writing can bring. My students are able to write in several different genres, from rhetorical analyses to music reviews to business letters. There are plenty of challenges in my classroom, and there's an assload of writing. And a lot of laughing.

Let's not forget the potential detriment, in this situation, to the graduate student. Because I am a graduate student, I hold myself to a higher standard of discipline and polish for any of my projects; my classroom is no exception. I am often suspicious that I work harder on my classes than most of my students do. My peers are no exception. Throwing ourselves in front of the proverbial train to please our students, we often spend more time on lesson plans and assignments than our own studies. We fill up the computer lab compiling assignments, grading papers and answering emails--of course, there's the occasional contest as to whose student has the best excuse for not being in class. We work damned hard for a small stipend (a third of which goes to our general fees each semester). Several of us take holiday jobs to help pay for our books and the mandatory health insurance. So, really, who's being cheated? The composition student who wants to get by with the least amount of work possible, or the TA blamed for that student's laziness?


Dedalus said...

Professional Composition faculty seem like really nice people trying to work out a system for something important, but of course I'm deeply cynical about their project. No one will be taught to "compose" anything by any means except reading stuff for fifteen years or so. Didn't do that, kids? Sorry. Too late.

But I understand you've all still got to try to do something with these classes. And I think you (TA's) are filling an absolutely vital role simply by being there. I'm sure you can tell that essentially no one you're teaching has notion of the existence of the world that you represent the edge of, a world where Grown-Ups go to school for fun. (Well, okay, not for fun, exactly, but all the same.) They assume they're suffering through just a little bit more of this so that they can get a Real Job. You are making vital case that Real Jobs are for losers, and that another world is possible. (And you can teach MLA format as well as any adjunct, certainly.)

That said, I'll take this moment to apologize to my own Comp I TA, a few years too late. (I was trying too hard, and I never made that mistake again!) Take a moment to imagine Freshman Dedalus turning up by the luck of the registration draw--I freaked her the hell out. Sorry, [you], wherever you are. Thanks for the A.

rosarosae said...

Your post struck a lot of chords with me and it sounds like you're doing a great job as a TA. I think being able to admit when you need more time to give an answer, and then ACTUALLY following up and providing it later, is awesome as well as a very honest, generous act on your part. There are so many TAs-professors out there who try to feign compentence (to make up for that awful flustered feeling) by always having an answer ready, even if it is one they need to invent. This fails in the end, however. I think the mark of a good instructor is being able to admit when further work/investigation needs to be done.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

Thanks for the comments. Regarding my comp one class, Ded, all i learned is that "suffrage" is not another word for suffering. An important lesson, though. My comp two ROCKED and it actually introduced me to Dickens--that was back when composition classes had something to do wtih literature. Now, acording to the practice of my peers, I'm supposed to show pictures of tranvestites and discuss gender identity. Dude, that's great, but I'd much rather make them dive into some WCWilliams, etc. I will go along now as a good cog in a good wheel:)


I'm glad this post struck any note whatsoever, let alone whole chords:) Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of feigning going on in my classroom--I never thought I'd make a good poker player until I taught Composition, cos I do an awfully good job of taking myself seriously.