Things They Don’t Teach You About Teaching & the inside english Reboot
One of my favorite students comes to my office and asks, “Have you ever been handcuffed?”
She’s African American, so my first thought is some overzealous cop pulled her over last night and showed her just how good ol’ boys feel about “her kind.” This, I recognize, reveals quite a bit about my implicit biases. Then, I think, well, yes, I have been handcuffed, but…. Where’s the line between connecting on a human level and maintaining necessary boundaries*?
I don’t remember discussing a scenario like this with any of my teaching mentors (though I may have created a few for them). If we’re lucky, we get some guidance in developing a syllabus, a class session, maybe even a whole course. Which is useful, in an “I probably could have figured this out from looking at models” kind of way, but it doesn’t even begin to cover so much of what really goes on in a classroom.
Many of you may have tutored in writing centers, fabulous spaces in which to build the emotional and instructional skills required in the classroom. Some of us, though, are consigned to leading study sessions and grading stacks of term papers as our “training.” I attended a graduate program that put me in the classroom, first as a TA in charge of curriculum development, classroom delivery, and grading for a four-week unit, then as the teacher of record in creative writing and literature courses. However, that didn’t mean I had a clue what I was doing when I was hired to teach developmental composition courses at a community college the Friday before those classes began.
I understand no one could have prepared me to teach the day after 9/11. But maybe someone could have warned me that students, even healthy 17-year-olds, die mid-semester. Sometimes they collapse in the crowd at a marathon and never come out of the resulting coma. Any advice on what could I have said to that student’s group of friends as they piled into one car to drive three hours and stand in a hospital room to say goodbye to someone they’d known since kindergarten? Or what should I have said to those same students when, six weeks later, another class member was stabbed to death in his girlfriend’s bed? Where in the course outline of record is that covered?
We haven’t even started on the number of students who bring me their struggles with mental illness, domestic violence, incarceration, sexual abuse, drug addiction, homelessness. I get “how to” creative nonfiction essays on surviving childhood in a meth lab and research papers on PTSD inspired by watching mom’s boyfriend drown her in the river. I’ve had semesters where I made extra lunches twice a week for students who were living out of their cars.
I hear this frustration expressed over and over by my colleagues: I’m don’t know enough. I’m not prepared for _____. I don’t know how to help when _____. I don’t have any background in _____.
What do you need to be a college instructor? Particularly an instructor in classes that ask students to take risks, to express themselves, to think critically about current events, to research and develop opinions on inquiry questions without easy answers?
A degree in psychology might help. Being multilingual certainly would. How about training in managing group dynamics and cross-cultural encounters (in classrooms and on committees) and a crash course in method acting? Maybe a minor in Accounting or Law (Have you read Title 5? Or your contract? Or tried to complete the report the State requires from your BSI, SSSP, and Equity committees?). Definitely ongoing technology courses that update as frequently as Adobe updates its Flash player. An awareness of your blindspots, be they expert or bias, and a support network.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with inside english? My vision, as the journal’s editor, is to create a space that begins where our teaching training ends, a space to share what we’ve learned, and what we’re learning, about how to do this job well. Whether you’re teaching your first class (or prepping for your first tutoring session), or you’re twenty years in, and admin just told you to get rid of your developmental comp sequence and create a transfer-level co-req to get students up to speed, I hope inside english will offer you a wealth of classroom practices, curricular models, and andragogical perspectives.
Katie and I can’t know, any more than my teaching mentors could, what you will need as you work with students and transform your colleges. This means we need your input. We need articles and opinion pieces (and poems!) from instructors and instructional associates, new hires and campus leaders. For this to work, we also need you to comment on and respond to and share what you read here.
And, we want to hear from students. In addition to “The 360: One Topic, Multiple Viewpoints” category that Katie discusses in her welcome, as part of our inside english online transition, we’ve also added “Taking Over the Podium: Student Perspectives.” If you have a student paper you believe offers needed insight into the student experience, or addresses barriers to student success and offers solutions we can adapt, or outlines an effective tutoring session strategy, please encourage and work with your students to revise for the inside english audience, and then send it to Katie (email@example.com) or me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for consideration.
Now, those of you for whom narrative is catnip are thinking, “So, that student who asked if you’d been handcuffed, what was that about?” Send me your thoughts on how to handle that scenario, and I’ll tell you the story.
*For more on this topic, see former inside english editor Sean Stratton’s “The Art of the Tangent” and Roseanne Giannini Quinn’s poem “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Rape.”