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.

Answering the impossible questions

Over the past few weeks, several of my former students have approached me asking for career advice. Some want to know if they should consider graduate school in the humanities, or whether law school would be the better choice. Others, having developed skills as non-fiction writers in the classroom, ask me about pursuing careers in journalism, and wonder how to secure internships and jobs down the line. I find these conversations a little difficult because on the one hand, I’d like to be as open and honest as I can with these students–both journalism and academia are trying and often unstable career paths–but on the other hand, I don’t want to discourage them from pursuing anything that they want to try out, especially so early in their careers.

I wonder if there are ethical best practices for guiding students through the initial stages of thinking about their writing lives both inside and outside the classroom, encouraging them to continue pursuing whatever writing practice they choose, but also being realistic about the professional writing landscape. In so many ways the community of working writers, journalists, and editors is a lively and enriching group. But I do think that I have something of a responsibility to at least share my own experiences in the professional writing world, if only to illustrate that it’s not always an easy road.

And old professor of mine, Peter Coviello, attempted to answer similar questions in an essay for Avidlywhere he writes: “I assume that if you’re considering going to graduate school with any real seriousness you need not have recited to you the litany of reasons, from the Marxist to the Karmic, not to do so. If you cannot say those reasons off to yourself like beads of a rosary then perhaps you have not, in fact, given the matter enough thought.”

And continues:

But if I don’t quite have a dog in this fight (whether or not graduate school is good for you is likely to depend upon variables too numerous and case-specific to generalize about with much non-polemical efficacy), still I do want to offer a small testament to at least one of the ways a graduate-school education might be of real human use to you. I’d put it, at its briefest, like this: one day, at some unanticipated juncture on the trajectory of your adult life, something cataclysmically bad is going to happen to you. It will be, in the ordinary way of things, shattering and unendurable. And when this comes to pass you may be startled to find that you have an extraordinary resource in, of all improbable things, the years of your graduate education: in the people you loved there, of course, but also in the ways you learned to think there, and in the worlds that, by loving and thinking and talking and fighting in that same shared space, you learned how to make together. That’s not everything you might wish for, after many costly and laborious years, I know. But neither is it nothing.

I’d love to hear what others think about having these kinds of conversations with students.

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.

An anecdote about dealing with student frustration with the challenges of college writing

Alright, I’m letting it all hang out this week. I want to talk about one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve encountered teaching R&C. It’s going to sound gripe-y, but I assure it comes from a place of wanting my students to take responsibility for their thinking and their writing, and to exercise agency over the learning process as a whole.

Before collecting the final drafts of the first close reading papers of the semester, I asked students to write me a letter of reflection about their final draft. In the letter, I asked them to paraphrase the argument they were making, say what they felt good about, what they thought was challenging, and what they’d most like feedback on. While most of the reflections I received were sincere and insightful, I got one that was troubling. And this particular response was downright unsettling to me because it put the onus of responsibility on whether the paper was any good or not on me. The student wrote the following:

I feel pretty good about how I was able to revise and clarify my body
paragraphs after our discussion. However, one thing I found challenging
was incorporating our discussion on Friday about thesis structure into my
essay because you were unable to finish your explanation of what that should
                look like. (emphasis mine)

When I read this, I was like WHAAAAAAAAT??! Okay, so it’s my fault then if the thesis doesn’t hold, or isn’t making an argument??! After an initial moment of frustration (somewhat prolonged, I confess), I took many deep breaths and began to reflect on whether or not I’d tried my best to help this student move forward from the first to the final draft. And I decided to give myself a break. But at the same time I didn’t want to let this student off the hook. I felt that not responding to this comment would be an admission of responsibility. So I wrote in the margins to the student the following:

Apart from the extensive feedback I gave, and our conversation
in office hours, there are other resources at your disposal, including
the handouts on the subordinating v.s. additive style, the thesis
checklist, sample essays on the course website, and tutoring. Ultimately
the thesis is up to you. We can talk more in office hour if you’d like.

I have no idea if this student read my marginal response to the letter or no. If I could go back in time and re-write my response I’d probably add something about how writing is a process, that it takes time, patience, and practice to learn how to write a college-level paper, and that I’m expecting progress, not perfection.

At any rate, the point is that it’s hard to deal with student frustration that displaces responsibility for the quality of the writing from the student onto the instructor. It creates this very weird dynamic that’s difficult to address. What’s worse is that it can greatly inhibit student learning because the student can come to see the instructor as a capricious, impossible-to-please gate-keeper who prevents the student from the coveted ‘A’ paper, which comes to be the only measure of success. Ugh! Let’s talk, please.

Keeping it Human

I am writing this with contradictory midterm evaluation feedback floating around in my mind. “More small groups please!” “I hate small groups!” The one thing that came back as a consistent piece of positive feedback, however, was about one-on-one meetings. They like them. This semester I only have fifteen students, and while I only have one semester of co-teaching 34 students to compare anything to, one of the most rewarding things has been being able to have more one-on-one contact time with all of them. After feeling last semester like I only really got to know my students by the end of the semester, one of my main goals for this time around was to reach that stage quicker. I started the class with required office hours in the first two weeks in which I gave them feedback on their diagnostic in person and talked about their feelings about writing. While I remember little about the writing part of the discussions, there were so many other benefits. 1) I think they appreciated voicing their concerns. 2) They learned where office hours were held, and I got to put in a plug for coming back to see me. 3) I got a better sense of their lives, what they’re into, who likes nature documentaries, who has never seen a documentary, who is a potential Olympian (whaaat), who had tried to take an R1B twice before but dropped out each time, and who might be a film major. And 4) It honestly also just made getting up in front of all of them less intimidating.

I scheduled two more required one-on-one meetings across the semester (replacing our Wednesday back to back class and screening with three hours of meeting marathon). They correspond one per each major assignment, and the second one just happened. I read all their drafts quickly and marked major points to talk about with keywords to myself at the top of the page. This was much more pleasant to me than writing written comments and far more productive because they could get instant clarification on what they couldn’t understand. It also allowed the feedback session to double as a brainstorming session for those who needed to make major changes. And allowed me to reassure the ones who came in expressing doubts but had actually promising drafts. And to gently suggest that a lot more work (and office hours follow up) was needed for those who were struggling. In short, it was more human. 

I’ve been thinking of “keeping things human,” as cheesy as it is, as a sort of guide star for my semester. On the spur of the moment I had them do a quick free write on Monday describing a scene they would film if they were making a documentary about the power outage. The variety of approaches was great, they had to think about formal choices and style, and everyone was amused. Perhaps it was just because it was top of mind, but a number of them asked for more in class free writing on their mid-term evaluation. And, of course, one of them said they thought it was pointless. 

Notes from September Meeting

Notes from Koshland Art of Teaching Writing Seminar Monthly Meeting on 9/19/19:

-Getting googled? Same username for class WordPress website as for this site – fear of students seeing our seminar posts on teaching
-Possible solution: use a different name when posting on this site

-How many people use the wordpress site? Students might not be checking in the website very much. Analytics give some clue but not much. Sometimes you have to post on bCourses AND the website (the former for readings, so you’re not publicly sharing copyrighted stuff). recommends exposing your students to the website in class (projecting homework, assignments, etc).

-Afraid students aren’t reading comments on their paper – suggests handing out comments five minutes before class and writing an exit ticket on what advice is most available to them before leaving class.

-Diagnostic essays problem:
the majority of the diagnostic essays are summary! Even though has taken care to make sure that they know that they’re not supposed to summarize. Someone suggests giving one-on-one feedback. Or, break down assignments into summary and argument components so that they don’t just get stuck on the summary. Talk about the distinction between “form” and “content” – some students get this faster than others. Breaking the argument into the “how” and “what” and “why” (the form, what’s going on in the text, and why it’s happening) is a good way for them to think beyond pure summary. Also, reading sample student essays.

Related problem:
to grade or not to grade diagnostic essays? Don’t want to stress out students, but also want them to realize that there are issues in their paper. mentions that diagnostic essays in the English department are not graded. suggests asking them to write a reflection on the diagnostic essay and comments and make goals for the semester, and retroactively reflect at the end of the semester about their progress.

Common Pitfalls in student essays:
argument in the last paragraph, generalizations, “since the dawn of time,” diction, syntax, juxtapositions, binary oppositions—they don’t talk about effect on meaning. Helpful phrase: “identification does not an argument make”—tough to figure out –is this close reading?

Possible solutions to Common Pitfalls problem:
: “Is this close reading?” handout with examples has made up—label things e.g. identification of examples, definitions.
Another option from : devious decoy deadline—have them say the paper is due on a certain day, go over common pitfalls, have them go over them and then turn in on next day. Use examples of close readings vs over-generalizations and not close-readings.

Issues with preparation of classes and work flow when teaching solo and
Possible solutions:
-Student presentations, sheet of activities when you don’t know what to do eg. affect inquiry cards, splitting up readings in pages and —use the materials of others,
-interactive activity: low-labor cost for teacher but high-yield for students. Eg. affect inquiry cards—good for suggestive stories—one side of the index card they put the affect, and on the other side they put a question (they are anonymous)—if you got your own, pretend it’s not your own—and then pair and share—what did you hear, what did you notice, then open up to a group discussion—another version with a quote on one side and question on the other—
-other activity—each student writes down question, they use it as a discussion question, people answer, and then when they feel like it’s time to move on they call on someone else-
-another activity-divide room into 3-4 positions on a text, they choose, people explain their positions, and then they can decide whether to change positions after hearing other students and they discuss along the way, also exit tickets.
-Close-reading activity—3-4 groups, preassigned to small segment of pages in book and present about one aspect of the texts. For example: language and violence–, language and sthing else, also, small group discussions (a waste of time?)
–we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel!—can add people to comp lit resources

Another issue: How to make small group discussions meaningful?:
Possible solutions:
-make them accountable in those small groups: Have them write something down, or work in shared google doc and you can look to see what they’re doing—make it related to a small task (there’s an end goal), have them create questions, have them be responsible for lines of a poem—helping shape what happens later in group discussions,
-give roles: written, oral, keeping time etc…,
-or jigsaw groups—each group gets passage they discuss, or by theme, literary device, and then form groups with one person from each group and then they report back, in large group discussion—when one group talks about something that another group finds interesting, they can jump in and begin after.
-or have them post about readings ahead of time, and then you can reference what they wrote in class—they feel complimented and you know they’ll have something to say.
–also, quickwrites are good—about a question, or about a definition of word: what is a medium?
—or pair writing—gave question, and between the two of the people, produce a paragraph—they are more careful about word choice, etc.., you can add a reflection afterward,–ask them “how what and why” in their own writing, in future paired groups can share with class, or post,

-Other issue: How to get people who don’t talk to talk?
—asking them to talk, or when you’re overhearing you can ask them to bring up good comments and tell them to mention
-Inclusivity in the classroom—a thread in the conversation—go around group and say one thing someone else said they are interested in sharing, or please share one thing someone said during the class—and it’s an organic summary of the class, and have them credit each other–

field trips are hard to plan!

  1. While the subject of my course, Asian American Lit in the Bay Area, does lend itself very well to field trips, I’d also surreptitiously hoped that all these field trips — Angel Island, Chinatown, the Third World Liberation Front Archives, the film archive, the Hearst Museum — would cut down on the time I had to lesson plan and prep. Far from it. It has involved an enormous amount of time coordinating over email with all the people involved, as well as devising in-class activities to coordinate with and “justify” the out-of-class activities we are doing (my guilt complex means that any time I feel like I’m slacking off e.g. going on field trips I have to work harder to compensate for it). I hand-selected all the documents I wanted them to work with at the TWLF archives, I asked a guest scholar to come in and discuss her article on Angel Island, I ran the budget a million times to make sure we weren’t going over, and I was so relieved when no one missed the last ferry or fell into the bay on our field trip to Angel Island that I took myself out for a gigantic seafood dinner on Pier 39 after the last squadron of students Ubered home (on my own dime, not Koshland’s). And all of them are freshmen, so I don’t think they entirely realize that most college classes don’t come with five class field trips. I feel not unlike Jeb Bush imploring an indifferent crowd to “please clap.”
  2. I’m really trying to “teach to the writing assignments,” meaning that I’m cutting down on in-class time reading say, a history of Chinese American immigration in the 1800s over reading sample argumentative essays (thanks to Max Stevenson for suggesting the NYT 1619 project!) and giving them time to workshop their writing in class. I’m torn because it’s antithetical to the kind of education I got in college, where all our seminar discussion were free-flowing and small group discussions didn’t exist (rather like our graduate level seminars here at Cal). I feel almost that I’m doing this — teaching to the writing assignments — as a way to stem otherwise inevitable complaints that I didn’t prepare them enough or scaffold the skills enough. At the same time, I worry that it dilutes the intellectual scope of the class.