The True Confessions of a Graduate Teaching Assistant
I want to avoid being too general about “the state of education” in the US, because really, what the fuck do I know? Maybe this is just what college education means to most people: half-assed work, moderate literacy, and little chance of job placement after graduating with C’s from a university no one’s heard of.
Let me explain: for the past year, I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) at a state-funded college in Illinois (herein referred to as SFCI). Oh My God (OMG).
If you cruise the administrative wings of SFCI, you can usually distinguish my breed from actual employees by our un-ironed pants, and by the fact that, like some of the roving students, we also still have pimples. We are crammed six at a time into concrete walk-in closets, which we affectionately call “my office! Mine! I have an office!” There are sixty of us in the writing program alone (we are MFA’s in creative writing; MA’s and PhD’s in English or Literature), and due to our interests and admission to the school’s graduate program, we’ve all been deemed acceptable freshman comp instructors. We each have around 40 students.
“So what’s your lesson plan?” one of us might peep, rotating jauntily on a broken swivel chair to beg advice from an adjacent officemate—whose thigh, due to the closeness of our quarters, is inevitably pressed against ours.
“I have no idea,” they will respond. “I have never taught before in my life, or studied teaching like ever.”
Did I mention we are totally unprepared? But then, so are our students—that is, if one considers basic writing skills or being up-to-date on current events to be a prerequisite for college. Last month I showed my students a documentary outlining 9/11 conspiracy theories, and one of the response papers began as follows: “The movie tries to say that 911 got fishy! Be-cuz we knew the Hispanic hijackers and then how their wasn’t no wingspan imprints when that plane hit the octagon” (my italics).
On the curve I established for the class (a necessity for most GTA’s because otherwise half our students would fail) this paper received a B-. (Note: said student later attempted to give me a high-five in response to news of Bin Laden being murdered.)
In the fall, this kind of writing would have thrown me into a tailspin. Back then I was fully equipped with a naïve snobbery that compelled me to wave my hands frantically in front of the chalkboard and ask, “WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU EVEN LEARN IN HIGH SCHOOL?” Back then I spent four hours on every class, cried a lot between lesson plans, and didn’t say anything when my students brought their babies to class.
I also wore Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuits in a vain attempt to establish credibility.
It didn’t take me long to realize that good teaching probably requires a certain degree of education specific to education (I had none), and that, while I could get by on a certain degree of charisma, patience, and enthusiasm, truly committing myself to my students’ needs (and they had many) would require 50 or more hours per week.
At first, these notions stressed me out—I wanted to be a good teacher and was pretty won-over by the school’s apparent mission (“Admissions requirements? Who needs them! Everyone deserves a college education.”). But eventually I picked up on the dismissive attitude of those around me and learned to follow suit.
“They’re sweet, dumb kids. Emphasis on the dumb,” said one professor, describing the undergraduate population. “Do what you can, but don’t overdo it. If you try too hard, you’ll go nuts.”
“Once I brought up Dante and they said ‘What’s a Dante?’” lamented another.
“Try and remember what you came here to do,” a more experienced colleague instructed. “Focus on your own work and don’t get caught up in the teaching.”
Or, as was pointed out at the recent MFA gala, “Congratulations to our third year graduates! You’ve all dealt with some of the worst students in the world, and survived.”
These pronouncements represented a sharp digression from the otherwise positivist discourse upheld by the school—a war cry of inclusivity that, at least initially, had both swayed and depressed me into a state of over-work. During our Pre-Semester Workshop (a nine day seminar which constituted the extent of our training as teachers), in between the jokes made about our future students’ undeniable stupidity, representatives from SFCI’s Student Disability Services preached to us about the “unique needs” of an SFCI student, and how everyone deserves a chance at higher education. Administrators from the Center For Academic Success, which works with students who were deemed under-qualified despite SFCI’s open admissions, described how to prevent underprepared students from failing or dropping out so that the University could continue to function.
“SFCI is about total equality,” they told us. “SFCI provides a supportive environment within which students can finally reach their full potential.”
But since then, these touchy-feely inklings have become mere undercurrents to the school’s actual and more pervasive attitude, which seems to be that all undergraduate students are basically a lost cause—and that instructors should therefore go through the motions, try not to give out any D’s, and focus as much as possible on their own work so as to win accolades for themselves and the school. SFCI’s graduate students and professors want to learn things and are teaching students who do not share their appetite for academia—and certainly, apathetic students are disheartening for any hungry scholar. But rather than endeavoring to be the stop-gap in what has probably been a long line of disgruntled and disengaged educators in these students’ lives, SFCI promotes a lot of collective eye-rolling, which creates a domino effect of more listless teaching.
Worst of all, while SFCI seems to acknowledge the lack of proficiency or aptitude in its undergraduate population, the institution nevertheless refuses to bend its strategies to better serve its students’ needs; writing instruction at SFCI remains a stringent blend of “rhetorical strategies” like “ethos, pathos, and logos”—a theoretical pedagogy engineered by Rhetorical Composition (“Rhet Comp”) professors in order to plump their own resumes. Even as an instructor and former English major, I found such abstract discussions of “good writing” incredibly difficult to understand—much less teach to my students. Like most GTA’s, I eventually ditched the very few tools given to me by the Rhet Comp people, and tried to engineer a classroom environment wherein the students could, at the very least, understand the words that were coming out of my mouth. No one cared because no one knew; unlike most GTA’d courses, no professor at SFCI oversees freshman composition.
In fact, aside from a few dense assignment prompts (3-4 pages long, single-spaced documents, written by Rhet Comp professors—which my English 101 students and I often spent entire class periods dissecting before falling face-first onto our own laps like narcoleptic puppies) the administration could offer me nothing aside from moral support and schadenfreude. Essentially, the administration develops a curriculum that it doesn’t implement itself, and so it doesn’t see the disastrous effects of using chalk boards and an overhead projector to teach writing to students who have grown up dependent on what academics disparagingly refer to as New Media.
But please, don’t get me wrong: despite my perpetual “WTF?” face, GTA-ship was an overall sweet deal (for me). My tuition was waived, people were nice, I received a small stipend in exchange for my teaching obligations, and I basically got to write stories all the time—in fact, part of the reason that I’m maintaining a certain degree of anonymity about the name of the school itself is because I think its shortcomings might apply to any other state school or community college. In the end, a lot of the weirdness I associate with getting to know my students’ (lack of) capabilities probably has a lot to do with the fact of my initial and farfetched expectations, fueled by an admittedly privileged past. Nevertheless, throughout my experience as a GTA, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for my students. Not only because I was really boring at first, but because the lot of us had been thrown together in some sort of Teach For America mash-up, which wasn’t helping anyone (“No teaching experience but you went to a nice liberal arts college? Great! Let’s hope you can turn things around for the underprivileged”). Falling into step with University protocol and putting my own work above those I taught seemed like the only way to get my own work done and not be driven crazy by problems I didn’t know how to fix.
Nowadays, I try to have a sense of humor about what’s lacking. A certain amount of retelling is important for a teacher’s psyche, but rather than talking about how this kid Johnny doesn’t know how to use a period in a sentence, I commiserate about the less depressing tidbits—such as how my two best students this past semester were actually named Elizabeth English and Brett Moron. (Moron became my special favorite after he came to class without his homework and began hitting himself in the head while saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”)
I’ve also developed time-and-energy-saving strategies to cope with what was initially a shock to my private-school-educated system. This mostly entails leaving all of my responsibilities to “Morning Kathleen,” a person who stumbles from bed an hour and a half before teaching and assembles fast-sketched battle strategies. The majority of students like her much better than the nervous “Miss Hale,” who wrote nonsense on the chalkboard while sweating noticeably into her polyester pantsuit.
Ultimately, prepped as I’ve been by the higher ups, I’ve more or less accepted my students’ lack of preparedness. Like them, I came to SFCI unprepared and floundering, and, like them, I eventually found salvation from new and overwhelming responsibilities via apathy. Nowadays, when students end their essays with “THE END!!!!1” I used my pink pen (less judgmental) to query, “How might you strengthen this conclusion?” When they start to fall asleep during a discussion of Everything’s An Argument—a horribly outdated book, and one of the only course materials given to me by the school—I show them YouTube videos of animals doing unexpected things.
“I want to know what ‘CUTE BUNNYZ EATING CARROT PART 1’ means to you,” I might say. “Responses, as always, will be graded on a curve.”
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