On (Not) Teaching Grad Students

Posted by Joe Harris for Lucy Sirianni

As some of you might recall, I am the lone Koshland fellow in our merry band who is teaching something other than Reading and Comp.  As my department’s Assistant Pedagogy Coordinator, I’m teaching not writing but the teaching of writing—in other words, I’m co-teaching a pedagogy course.  In doing this, I’m reminded continually of my very first semester of teaching, not just because I’m witnessing others start their teaching journeys but because, in this very new role, I find myself facing again the very uncertainties I grappled with as a first-time teacher.  As we sit around the seminar table, the questions we discuss and my own unspoken questions about how to support this group of colleagues I’ve been asked to “teach” tend to overlap, and I find myself thinking through ways to make this return to uncertainty meaningful.

My co-teacher, a professor in the English department, talks often about teaching as a “performance of mastery,” while the grad students taking the class routinely ponder how to balance maintaining “authority” with remaining approachable and friendly.  It’s a question I imagine we all grappled with at first and periodically revisit from time to time, but it’s one I find myself thinking about much more than usual in the context of this class.  For me, the balance isn’t between authority and friendliness as those in the class tend to frame it, but between providing the guidance I’ve been hired to offer without diminishing the collegiality and camaraderie that I think should be found in a roomful of grad students.  Will my comments about what’s worked for me in the past come off as patronizing? If I don’t say enough or am overly self-deprecating, will I come across as lacking in the expertise I’d like them to see so they know I can offer them valuable support? If I come with a detailed plan for the part of the class I lead, will it seem infantilizing? If I don’t, will I seem unprepared?

These questions have served to remind me of the tight-rope we walk as teachers, and especially as grad student teachers with less distance from the students we teach—not to mention as teachers who occupy other minority statuses that may affect how students perceive us.  They’ve also made me re-evaluate past teaching experiences.  I’m a teacher who values learning alongside my students as a community of equals.  The fact that even in a group of colleagues—in a space where I don’t think of myself as “teaching” but as facilitating—I worry I’ve fallen short in attaining that egalitarian environment makes me question whether previous classes, too, have not quite lived up to my goals.  And then I wonder: should they? Of course teaching Freshman Comp is very much not the same as working alongside grad students, but I tend to think that at their best, the two experiences should differ widely in content but less so in community atmosphere, though I recognize this may be quixotic.  Conversely, if I’m correct in my feeling that in my most successful undergrad classes I have been able to balance competence and camaraderie, structure and spontaneity, what is holding me back in this new kind of classroom experience where these things might be thought to come so much more naturally? Why am I so much more comfortable in the undergrad classroom than the grad one? The built-in authority of being “in charge”? The sense that grad students will be more attuned to my stumbles/mistakes/shortcomings? Residual anxiety from certain grad seminars? Or maybe just my lack of experience in this new environment?

Ultimately, I think I have so much to learn from my involvement in this class, not just from individual students but from the experience where my primary role is not to teach or to grade or to explain or to prepare but simply (or maybe not so simply) to create a community where we can productively think together about all these facets of pedagogy.  Another point my co-teacher often returns to has to do with the classroom as a “social space.” In fact, we’ve redesigned the course syllabus to focus less on the theoretical and more on the practical aspects of creating and existing in this “social space.” I feel less at ease in this new space than I do in the comfort of my undergrad classes, but what a privilege to have this chance to learn to make it feel like home.

Author: Joe Harris

I teach writing at the University of Delaware.

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