As a second-year professor, I’ve found some of my first-year anxieties were year-one specific.
I’ve come to realize no matter how eager and willing I am to make myself available for each and every one of the living breathing miracles in my classes, no matter how sincerely I stress there’s no reason they can’t all get an A, and that the surest way to an A is to focus on the process of writing rather than the product, they enjoy a significantly greater agency in our mutualistic relationship than I do.
I’ve come to realize that my students enjoy the right to self-determination, just as I did when I was in their shoes (even if some of them can’t imagine that I did not in fact spontaneously generate in the classroom the day the semester started, and that my life actually exists beyond class lessons and office hours). So some of them will care too much about their grades, and some too little; some will worry so much their worry will worry me, and some will only ask for help two hours before their essay is due; some will view college as a springboard to a career, and some will see it as mere counterpoint to the “school of life,” and skip my class because it’s sunny that day, or rainy, or because they get 4 absences, or because…just because.
I’ve also come to realize how faith in my vulnerability as a teacher, faith in my students’ abilities as a collective, and faith in the moment-to-moment process of learning allow for greater cogency and connections than anything I could intelligently design.
One challenge that’s persisted from year one to year two has been recognizing what parts of my learning process as student are worth passing down (i.e. not only does taking notes not harm you, it actually pays off!), and what parts are best not passed down (i.e. skipping exams as a romanticized protest of grade-based assessments).
One way this challenge manifests is that I’m teaching writing, a subject I care deeply about, personally and professionally, yet never studied as an undergrad. My classes are 95% students taking writing as a prereq they see as irrelevant to their current major/imagined career. How to bridge this perceived gap?
There may be no more powerful fuel than fear of failure. When I started teaching, my assumption about professoring was that all professors pre-figured every possible angle and outcome that can emerge in a lesson, and that this is what needed to do too, then. So I proceeded to try and cover every imaginable base.
My first job at age 14 was teaching piano. One of the most valuable lessons I learned playing piano was that at a certain point in one’s development, the only way to progress farther was by letting go of control. To a certain point, you can plan ahead and mark all the fingering for a song, but when you reach a certain difficulty level, you can’t consciously solve the challenges that arise. You have to stop thinking, stop monitoring, stop thinking of yourself as separate from the piece and the instrument you’re playing. At a certain point, progress only occurs when you see yourself as an inseparable part of the whole.
As a professor, this lesson has shone through more and more in year two. In one class this semester, we were working with making inferences. There’s a page in Thoughtful Writing with 9 photographs. The students are supposed to write as many details as possible about the images. I hadn’t planned to do the exercise in class; I intended to use a short film to make the point instead. But there was a problem with the classroom projector, and I had to wait for someone from AV to come fix it. So I had my class do the photograph exercise, an exercise I hadn’t looked over myself; since one student didn’t have the book with them, I lent them my copy. Now I was flying blind: I was going to go over an activity I had not done beforehand. Cue the fluttering in the stomach, the fear that, at last, the day of reckoning was upon me—the day I’d be exposed as not prepared for every possible contingency.
Yet when it came time to discuss the exercise, I found myself in the same position I’d put my students in—one of ignorance. I hadn’t seen any of the pictures. Until a few minutes earlier, neither had they. But as we went through the activity together, and I let them lead with details, and eventually inferences and then larger connections between photos and inferences, I felt my brain invigorated, started seeing connections I’d have never seen if in a relaxed mindset. We were working together as comrades, rather than from a top-down vantage. The activity went over as well as I could have hoped for, because I could never have planned for it to work that way. It succeeded because I had no conscious control over it. The AV guy fixed the projector right as the activity ended, so the short film cemented the lesson, rather than singularly bearing all the weight of the objective.
As I’ve gained more experience and confidence, I see the benefits more and more in engineering variables and randomness into my lesson plans. I don’t think the students detect this; I don’t know what they’d think if they did. One benefit of teaching from your toes is the egalitarianism of process it fosters with one’s students. So much of their in-class experience involves starting from ground zero and working their way up to a desired realization. We’ve all worked with bosses/superiors: the best ones are part of the process; the worst hold themselves aloft from the workers and the work. When professors posit themselves as closely as possible to their students’ launch point, that equality allows for greater camaraderie, and therefore, for greater accomplishment.
Another professor, Becky Goldberg, wrote a blog earlier this spring about the way she used The Hunger Games as a breeding ground for topics and ideas for her classes’ textual analysis essays. I’d struggled with finalizing how I wanted to approach textual analysis with my classes; after reading Becky’s idea, an answer I’d never considered presented itself. If Becky had never written her blog, I would have come up with something. But I know that I would not have planned something better than what I discovered.
I tell my students the same principles that apply to living a good life will lead to better writing. If one trusts the universe to unfold as it must, then one’s pedagogy, as part of that universe, will also. If a teacher lives and teaches with faith that one cannot bend a spoon with one’s mind, but can only bend oneself instead, that teacher connects with their students in a more powerful and progressive manner.