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.

Trying Not to Mansplain

I hope it will be okay for me to lumber into the conversation here. I’ve recently had a classroom experience that I’m not quite sure what to make of—and I’d be eager to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m teaching an intermediate-level English course at Delaware this semester on Writing and Diversity. It’s listed as a “second writing course”, which means that it’s largely filled with Juniors and Seniors from a wide range of majors who need to meet that requirement. They’re a fun group—seven men and seven women. I’ve tried hard, if not always successfully, not to let the course devolve into simply writing about diversity—in which we would move from one class to the next reading, talking, and writing about one identity group or another. Instead I’ve tried to focus it on the question of how to write across lines of difference and conflict—that is, of how to communicate in what Mary Louise Pratt has famously labeled “contact zones”.

I thought that an apt, perhaps obvious, reading to include in such a course was Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me”, since in it she so clearly sillustrates the barriers that male presumption and arrogance place between actual conversations between men and women. Mansplaining. Not Solnit’s term, actually, but the phenomenon she describes so well.

However, it seemed to me, as I thought about the conversation I hoped to have in class about the piece, that it would be an unbearable irony for me, or any of the other men in the room, to try to explain Solnit to the women sitting around the table with us. So I asked us to begin our conversation (after some fastwriting, you know me) by having each of the seven women in the class offer some first thoughts about a section of Solnit’s piece that they found especially striking or provoking.

It turned out to be an odd few minutes. It was fun, for instance, to watch Winston—a thoroughly likable, politically conservative baseball player and guy’s guy—almost explode with the effort of not explaining to the women why he (and his friends) didn’t explain things to them. (When I opened up the conversation, after each of the seven women had spoken, he was the first person to almost literally jump in.) But it was also difficult to observe several of the women struggle to respond to Solnit, since they seemed almost as eager as many of the men were to to make it clear that, as one of them put it, “most women understood that this was just a problem some guys had”.

Which was what finally got to one of the students, Kate, who pointed out, with some vehemence, that the problem was not that all men acted this way all the time, but that enough of them did much of the time to make it an issue that women had to deal with and think about constantly. This comment was met with (a) at first no response at all, and (b) then several restatements that nobody likes those other jerks who talk over women. The conversation having thus ground to a halt, I brought up ideas of patriarchy and cultural hegemony, and in doing so basically re-explained Solnit to anyone who was still listening. After class, Kate stayed late to apologize to me, which I of course assured her was not at all necessary. She’s actually going to conduct an “experiment” in class tomorrow (it involves needles and balloons and differently colored water) to try to illustrate the “not-all-but-enough” principle. We’ll see how that goes!

So I realize that one, and completely accurate, way of interpreting the class is to see it as enacting—or at least dancing around—the very problem in communicating across genders that Solnit describes. And I don’t mean to suggest that it was a bad class; indeed, I’ve had several conversations about what happened with students afterwards, which suggests that they found the session intriguing, too. But I’m not sure it was a good class either, and I remain uneasy about having pressured some young women to talk about their interactions with men in front of a number of men. I’m not exactly sure what I was imagining when I asked them to lead off the class with their responses to Solnit, but the moment ended up feeling much more awkward and fraught than I had expected.

I’m interested to hear what you think!


I’ve also added course sites from Marlena, Tara, Max, and me to the Course Sites: Some Examples page on this site. Sorry for the delay in doing that.

Seminar, Fri, 5/24

A Brief Composition Timeline 


1874          Harvard College institutes a written entrance exam

1897          University of California institutes Subject A in writing

1944          GI Bill

1949          Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) founded, CCC  begins publication

1966          Dartmouth Seminar on the Teaching of English

Dartmouth Seminar 1966

1969          Open Admissions founded at CUNY

1971          Janet Emig publishes The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders

1974          CCCC endorses The Students’ Right to Their Own Language

1974          Bay Area Writing Project founded. Becomes the National Writing Project in 1976

1977          Mina Shaughnessy publishes Errors and Expectations

1987          Wyoming Conference Resolution Opposing Unfair Salaries and Working   Conditions for Teachers of Postsecondary Writing

1995           Elbow and Bartholomae debate personal and academic writing

1996          The New London Group publishes “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies”


2011       NCTE, NWP, and WPA publish Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing

2015       Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle publish Naming What We Know]

For more . . .

Continuing On

Reflections on This Seminar

We hope to continue to offer this seminar in the coming years, and so would appreciate your help as we refine and move forward with this project. I’d thus like to ask you to do some reflective writing in which you respond to any or all of the following questions:

  • What should we make sure to continue to do?
  • What might we do more of?
  • What could we perhaps do differently?

We may draw on your your comments as part of a report to the Mellon Foundation, so please don’t put your name on them. Instead use Guerilla Mail to email your reflection anonymously to Rebecca Egger. Thanks!


Have your laptop open with your course site displayed. Turn your screen to the middle of the room. Walk around, see what people are doing, and talk to them about it.

Some Closing Thoughts (For Now) From Me

I’ve had the good luck now to have worked with four extraordinary groups of teacher/scholars at Berkeley  I’m excited by the courses you are designing, and I think Berkeley is lucky to have you! Please don’t hesitate to contact me in the coming weeks and months. I’m eager to keep in touch.

Thanks for your work!

Seminar, Thurs, 5/23


Assessment and Social Justice

Led by Mya Poe, Associate Professor of English, Northeastern University

  • What is assessment?
  • Types of assessment
  • Social justice in writing assessment
  • Course evaluations


Responding Toward Revision

Practice: “Rough Draft (on June Jordan)”, Berkeley, R1A, Spring 2019

Please use the method I’ve just sketched out to write a response toward revision to this student writer. Compare your responses with a partner. What similarities or differences do you notice, both in terms of the advice you have to offer and the stance you take toward the student?

Evaluating Final Pieces

Practice: “Revealing the true identity: June Jordan’s ‘Poem About My Rights'”, Berkeley, Spring 2019, R1A, Final Draft

Use my template to arrive at a grade for this essay. Write some (very brief) comments to the author as well. In groups of five, compare grades and responses.

  • Bonus Example: Leonid Elyon, “On Space and Sappho”, Winner of the 2019 Art of Rewriting Award

Responding to a Portfolio

Reading Across Drafts

For Tomorrow

Complete as much of your course website as you can. If you are having trouble figuring out how to post or format certain pages, posts, or widgets, save the content in Word or on paper. But try to have a  demo-version of your course to show and talk about as part of our arcade tomorrow.

Please email me the URL for your site before 10:00 tomorrow. That will allow me to post a list of links to your courses to this site.

Seminar, Wed, 5/22


Concerns so Far

  • Grades/Standards
  • Pacing/Scaffolding of Assignments
  • Workload: Students and Teachers, “obsessive editing”
  • “Balancing” Close Reading/Content/Composition
  • Structure and Responsiveness

Working With Student Writing (From Yesterday)

Workshop: Writing Projects

In addition to the three standard workshop questions (what is the writer’s project?, what works best? what should the writer work on next?), please consider the following:

  • How would you describe the stance the author/teacher takes towards readers/students?
  • What terms of value appear in the text? What is said or suggested about how this writing will be evaluated?

Scaffolding and Scheduling



Working on WordPress.com


Begin to sketch out the working schedule for your course, or to lay out the structure of your course website

Conversation With Returning Koshland Fellows

  • Insights from the seminar that continue to inform your teaching; and/or
  • New discoveries about teaching writing since then, ways in which you’ve revised and developed your teaching.

Writing for Tomorrow

Sketch out a working schedule for your R&C course. Bring three copies with you to class.

Seminar, Tues, 5/21


Course Overviews

Fast Write: Briefly describe the focus of the R&C course you are designing. Highlight some of the newest, most ambitious, or most interesting uses you hope to make of writing.

Groups: Trade overviews with two colleagues. Try to read their documents from the point of view of a first-year student on the first day of class. What else might you ask this teacher to tell you about:

  • The kinds of writing you’ll do in this course?
  • The reasons for doing this writing? ( That is, how does this work promise to be interesting or useful?)
  • The pace and workload of the semester?

Writing Assignments

Examples: Responding and Remixing

Working with Student Writing in Class


Curtis Hanson, dir., Wonder Boys, 2000


Fast Write: What’s the most pressing question on your mind right now about planning and designing your R&C course?


12:30pm – 1:45pm: Lunch

1:45pm – 2:30pm: Studio time

2:30pm – 4pm: Guest Speaker, Ryan Sloan, Lecturer, UC Berkeley College Writing Programs, “Digital Pedagogy”

4pm – 4:30pm: Q & A

Writing for Tomorrow

Draft one or two of the writing projects for your course. Please bring four print copies with you to seminar. We will workshop them.

Seminar, Mon, 5/20



Fast Write: You are an accomplished academic writer. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be in this room.) Please write a brief story about a moment when you learned something useful about academic writing. Try to create as compelling a story as you can. Let your points emerge through how you describe the characters, setting, and action of your narrative. I’ll ask you to introduce yourself to the seminar through reading this story aloud.

Read Alouds: Please take some notes as you listen to your colleagues’ stories. What similarities do you notice in how they describe learning to write as academics? What differences?


  • About
  • Plan
  • WordPress
  • Schedule

Designing a Writing Course



Fast Write: What’s the most pressing question on your mind right now about how to design your R&C course?



Begin drafting your course overview.


Working With Multilingual Writers, led by Michelle Baptiste, College Writing Programs

Best Practices

Writing For Tomorrow

Please draft the overview for your R&C course. You’ll have some time to review some examples of other overviews and to begin writing this afternoon. Please bring two print copies of this piece to seminar tomorrow morning.