"What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school? Was it adequate? What should have been done differently? How are you preparing the next generation of grad students for the classroom? How does the way you were taught affect the way you teach?"
These are all interesting questions, and ones that I've thought about a great deal since landing in a tenure-track job at a regional comprehensive university right out of graduate school at a prestigious sort of research university. Well, not the part about "preparing" the next generation of graduate students, as I don't have any to prepare. But the rest of it? Yes. So here it goes.
What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school?
Well, I actually got quite a bit of preparation. First, in my MA program, I took a course (worth actual graduate credit toward the degree and required of all who wanted to teach in the program) that was all about teaching college writing. It was both theoretical and practical; it included doing things like constructing assignment sequences and syllabi as well as reading about theories behind why we teach writing in particular ways. It also required that we tutor in the writing center at the university, and that we "shadow" another instructor for much of the semester, and that instructor (also a grad student who'd been through the course) would allow us to run certain section meetings, would xerox the papers that students submitted so we could practice grading and get feedback on it, etc. This was a really, really excellent experience for me and an excellent introduction to teaching in the composition classroom.
In my PhD program, we were required to take a course (for which we got no credit, and which only lasted like half a semester or something) that was supposed to do the same thing that the course I took in my MA did. It was much more heavily theoretical, and I felt like it wasn't particularly enlightening.
Then, in my PhD program, we also TA'd. This was the only "training" in teaching literature that we received, and experiences varied widely depending upon what professor one TA'd for. In some cases, one was pretty much there to grade and to take attendance and to show movies that were scheduled outside of class time. In other cases, there was more "training" in things like leading discussion, lecturing, developing assignments, etc. It really just depended. Oh, and there was no guarantee that you would actually get the chance to TA in your field of specialization. None of my three TA-ships were in my specialty. Oh, and there was no opportunity for grad students to teach literature classes at my PhD-granting university. And according to our contracts, we weren't to teach outside of the program - or even work outside of the program - so most people did not adjunct elsewhere during the term of their funding (4-5 years).
Was it adequate? What should have been done differently?
Well, see, this is where it gets sticky. Was it adequate? Well, I left graduate school with teaching experience. I wasn't entirely clueless about how to run a classroom. I had a "teaching philosophy." I had a commitment to good teaching and to developing as a teacher. I'm not entirely sure whether one can expect to come out with anything more than that, really.
But. Being a "teacher" at my current institution bears little resemblance to much of what I learned about "teaching" in graduate school. Why?
- It is a very different thing to teach one or two classes in a semester, with no other obligations, really, other than a couple of classes and/or one's own research, than to teach four classes in a semester, with many other obligations in addition to one's own research (ha!). I did not learn in graduate school how to manage my time as a teacher. I did not learn how to budget my time in order to use it where it would be most effective.
- The practice of having TA's give one lecture a semester, as if this will "prepare" graduate students for what it is to get up EVERY SINGLE DAY in class, is just silly. And this is what they did in my grad program. I'm not sure what else can be done, really, if one doesn't allow grad students to teach lit classes, and commit to evaluating how they do in those lit classes, but the reality is that I pretty much lecture in each course only one or two days in the course of an entire semester. I don't teach huge classes (because the rooms at my institution are too small, so class sizes are small as well) and lecturing feels ridiculous when you're in a tiny, crummy room with only 25 people.
- No one really taught me in graduate school how to combine my teaching obligations with my research interests. I guess this goes along with the time management thing. This was something I had to figure out how to do once I got here, and luckily I did. If all of one's mentors view research as "their own work" that is entirely distinct from teaching, it gives a person who ends up in a place with a less than fabulous teaching load very little preparation for how to squeeze in one's "own work" without dying.
- I have no idea what my "teaching philosophy" was in my job applications a few years ago (though I will need to dust that document off) but my real life teaching philosophy now (and not what is in The Notebook, thank you very much) is something along the lines of That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger combined with Sometimes It's Ok to Half-Ass It. In other words, I'm just trying to get by a lot of the time, and I've had to learn how to put things like eating a decent meal and having some down time for myself ahead of any fancy philosophical notions that I had about teaching in grad school. That isn't to say that I don't care about my teaching. I do. But to care about it in the way that I learned to care about it in grad school would pretty much kill me if I tried it now.
- I don't think I realized how much PR was involved in teaching as a grad student. Now I've got to advertise my courses, send my students subliminal messages so as to get good evaluations, etc. I think that perhaps a bit of training in that area would be a good thing, as it is the reality at many institutions. I realize that's not technically "teaching," but it is related to the teaching part of the job.
You may think that the way I was taught doesn't affect the way that I teach, from what I've written above. But I actually see the influence of the teachers I've admired all over my teaching. The difficulty of the texts that I assign, the level of responsibility I expect of my students for their work, the kinds of tests and assignments that I design - all of this goes back to the way that I was taught. And then there is the way that I respond to students who are off the wall and just plain wrong, which apparently I inherited directly from my dissertation director. But you'll notice that these influences are mostly models for teaching - not actual teaching about teaching. And I wonder whether it really can be much different from that. Yes, it's helpful to have someone walk you through your first syllabus, through your first exam that you design. It's helpful to get feedback. But honestly the most feedback I got was in the "shadow-teacher" experience as an MA student. I didn't really learn how to teach from my teachers as a grad student. Oh, sure, I attended some retreat things. Peter Elbow was at one of them. It was awesome, I guess. I suppose that at the end of the day I'd say the biggest problem with the way that graduate schools train English Literature PhDs to teach is that they don't train them to do the jobs that they will be hired to do. They train them to do the work that the PhD-granting institution needs them to do. That's not about training the next generation of professors - that's about training the current generation of exploited and contingent labor.