Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Teaching As a Job - What I Wish I'd Learned in Grad School

Well, George just sent out the call for us to dust off our posting-about-teaching fingers, as summer vacation is coming to an end, and the Teaching Carnival schedule for Fall is all lined up, and so I thought, since I'm procrastinating, that I'd do a post related to one of the suggested topics that George mentioned.

George asks:
"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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
How does the way you were taught affect the way you teach?
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.


Artistic Soul said...

I find your experiences quite similar to my own - but we were in the "trial by fire" teaching method. We were the instructor of record for two classes per semester plus taking our own - so I had the learn the time management really quickly!

I think #5 is the most interesting to me - because different schools place different values on teaching evaluations from students. My school is very serious about them, where as in grad school if I had bad evals they just threw them out. Here you have to justify every single bad comment. Learning some ways to do PR not only for yourself (as in promoting your teaching as good enough to be tenured to the powers that be) as well as to students (please come take my really cool classes!) might not have made a whole class, but it would have been a good seminar to listen to...

PG said...

Thanks for the tips. I wish my university placed a greater importance on learning how to teach.

Can you give examples of #5? Do you drop hints in class?

kfluff said...

Your new teaching philosophy "That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger combined with Sometimes It's Ok to Half-Ass It" is a perfect description of the struggle to maintain your sanity and your expectations of what teaching is (especially with 4 courses a semester!).

When I finally got to teach a course in my research field (2 years in), I realized that I could prep a bit less psychotically, because I could anticipate questions, had some depth in the material, etc. So, what would have been half-assing it with different content was given more depth because of the connection between teaching and research. Yet another reason why it would be good if grad schools would teach us how to incorporate our interests into the classroom.

Anonymous said...

on #5, I assume you mean lines like "I'm very concerned about your progress" if the evals have a question like "Professor is concerned about student's progress" for subliminal messages?

negativecapability said...

The penultimate line is exactly how I feel. How many times have I said "hey, we're not all going to get jobs like yours/the faculty here?" in one context or another and had people look at me like I was insane? How many places do you really teach one or two courses per semester (one of them being a grad course and the others being fun upper-level in your field type stuff) between half or year-long research trips?

Not to say that the faculty here don't work hard; quite the contrary. They publish good work, and they publish a lot of it. I'm very happy I get to teach what I get to teach, and I am very grateful for the resources that we have here, but I'm painfully aware that it's probably not going to be like this when I get a job.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I went through the UK grad Ph.D system which seems from another planet as after you graduate, you get paid to research, then after 3 or 4 years someone might want you to teach a course. You can want to teach courses but US style seminars are unusual - and lecturing for two hours without ever turning around is almost expected - students don't ask questions - that is what your tutorials are for.

When I did teach, I kept my head of department up to date on potential problem students until I found he thought this meant I was "insecure" and that if I never saw him until year end that meant I was a "good and confident teacher" - the grading was done double and triple blind and as a grad student you could choose to go to any course or none at all (which is why UK PH.D's used to have a 90% drop out rate).

This was a typical Ph.D. interaction:

Me: "Should there be courses on the subject I should take?"

Dept Head: "If we didn't think you would be the expert in your field we wouldn't have accepted you; the assumption with that you are intellegent enough to know what research you need to do and do it."

Him making an aside to another white haired male department icon: "See how standards have slipped since we stopped teaching in Latin."

Professor Zero said...

When I was in graduate school, we had a lot more support for teaching, and also a lot more autonomy, than grad students have had in any of the departments I've worked for. We felt as though it was trial by fire, but it wasn't a scary trial by fire, because there were serious people behind us, being consistent, giving guidelines and advice, and ready to hold up our bikes if we started to wobble. Where I've worked, we have often seemed to police grad students' every move, but not give them really useful support. It's infantilizing.

In my day, though, we did not learn how
to answer that interview question about one's teaching philosophy (I think it would have been considered sort of high school-ish to think that way, at that institution). But my teaching philosophy is, treat students like other scholars, making allowances for the fact that they are a little, or maybe a lot less advanced than you, but may be more advanced, sometimes, in certain areas ... which should be encouraged.

Where I got that teaching philosophy, was from the people who taught me. I liked it.

gingajoy said...

i second all this, and then some. i spent most of my graduate career teaching courses autonomously (writing, humanities, literature, women's studies, etc) and it was a great experience--but i was utterly thrown in at the deep end--"training" came sporadically throughout in the guise of Grad Student workshops and Portfolio workshops. And a few orientiations.
(I think things are better on this score now).

I taught freshmen comp and remedial writing with no training whatsoever (hope i did not fuck them up too much). But this is clearly the norm.

your comment: 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"

I came from a big ten U, an English department that did not value comp/rhet remotely (it was in another "lesser" department). My committee (and most of my department) vocally poo poo-ed composition theory and applying for comp-heavy jobs. It was here that I learned "committee's word is not Lore.." They all came from premiere institutions--their experience of the job market and sense of it as I was about to take the plunge was waaaay off base. Yes, a research 1 U with a 2/2 teaching load would be nice--but the jobs I am competitive for are those at smaller Us with higher teaching loads and (gasp) comp teaching requirements. So I made it my business to learn about comp theory and the pedagogy as I taught, but this was not something that I was "advised" to do as a lit/cultural studies person.

Prof. Ormsbee said...

Oh man, yes to everything you said about managing time with 4 preps, other duties, and *cough* research. These "comprehensive" universities certainly sacrifice much for the sake of saving a dollar. If nothing else, it's nice to know I'm not the only one having these experiences.

david silver said...

great post - yes to everything.

this -- 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 -- sort of sums it all up.

in my grad program, many (but not all) of us were able to design our own course: topic, syllabus, assignments, readings. to this day that has been my most useful teaching training. it is stuff i need to know and need to do regularly.

at the same time, such a model can modernizes a department's curriculum. graduate students are often studying the most cutting edge cultural work. allowing graduate students to design and teach their own courses can potentially make our undergraduate curriculum more engaging, interesting, and relevant. plus, more fun.

thanks for the great post - and i hope graduate directors everywhere read this!