Friday, August 04, 2006

Preparation for teaching

Dr. Crazy has already responded to ghw's call for posts about teaching, and here's a short response to one of the questions posted.

What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school? Was it adequate?

The preparation I had was considered good at the time but would probably be considered inadequate today. Those of us with tutoring experience (which I'd had) were put right into the classroom after an intensive few weeks of late-summer preparation, and our weekly seminar combined practical advice with theoretical readings. Some, like Mina Shaughnessy's classic Errors and Expectations, were genuinely useful. Others discussed points obvious to anyone with a lick of common sense in solemn and elaborately obfuscatory language as though they were reluctantly imparting the key to the Holy Grail. These works were useful, too, for learning that while complex ideas sometimes cannot be expressed in "clear" language, dressing up simple ideas in complex language doesn't result in theoretical complexity.

Although we had mentors who gave us feedback on our teaching as well as the helpful seminar, we really learned the most from the other TA's. The experienced ones could tell us how they taught "A Modest Proposal" or comma splices without resorting to the dreaded "lecturing," which was implicitly forbidden. We passed around assignments and techniques, talked about problem students, and moaned about grading papers.

I did learn one other lesson. During one seminar, we were invited to talk about our teaching problems. From all those hallway and office doorway conversations, I knew that we all had a few: X was stumped over what to do with a student's third "dead grandmother" excuse of the semester, Y had a bunch of basketball players who'd pack up and leave whenever she had them do group work, and Z couldn't get his group of zombies to talk about any essay, ever. My classes were going pretty well, but I did have one problem, a bossy girl who wanted to run every group editing session according to her own feel-bad principles. The "discuss your problems" session went something like this:

Professor: "So, what teaching problems have you encountered?"

Undine: "Uh, there's a girl in my class who . . . (description)."

Professor: "That's too bad, Undine, that you're having such a problem. Perhaps you could . . . {don't recall what he said)."

Professor: "Anyone else?"

X: "No, my classes are going just fine." Y nods, and Z agrees. The whole class nods, pitying Undine for her ineptitude.

The lesson I learned, in case you haven't figured it out yet, was know when to shut up.

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