So today has already been a really surprising day and, given that this blog is meant to help me explore all aspects of my situation as a grad student / instructor, I’m going to babble on here for a while in an attempt to process the morning and help me gain some perspective.
This quarter, I am TAing a course called American Novel Part I. This means that I attend the class (three days a week for an hour) and usually sit with my mouth shut unless the professor looks to me for an opinion, clarification, definition, etc. I have office hours by appointment for students who need help with their papers (which I will later grade). It’s a pretty low-key gig.
But this morning, at 7:15, with my hair still wet from my shower and my coffee not yet prepared, I got an emergency email from the professor asking me to step in and lead this morning’s class. At 9am. Without any notes or direction. About James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a 400-some-odd page novel. Ooft. So I had a little over an hour to get dressed, eat some breakfast and guzzle some coffee, and prepare discussion questions for a class of 30 undergrads, many of whom appear (in the previous discussions of the novel) to absolutely hate this book.
So what did I do? My usual procedure for days when I have to teach goes something like this: Panic. Be unable to choose an outfit. Fret needlessly over hair, makeup, clothes, etc., while trying to convince myself that yes, the students will look to me as an instructor and not a peer and no, they will not rise up against me in a cyclone of hipster glasses and backpacks. Spill coffee on myself. Get nauseous. Run over and over my notes, hypercritically cross-referencing every possible point with myriad textual examples. Nearly miss my bus. Stumble into class clutching my notes. Nervously laugh a few times. Joke with the students. Remember that I’m actually kind of good at this. Teach class. Promptly collapse with an incredulous after the last student has left the room. Marvel at the fact that the students didn’t immediately peg me as an impostor and mock me openly. It’s a pretty effective pedagogy, don’t you think?
But for some reason, today was different. I got the email, realized what I had to do, and made it happen. There was no panic, no horrible feeling of my stomach rising up out of my ears, no nervous sweating or frantic laughter. Instead, I made a few notes, got myself dressed and fed and out of the door, and ran what I have to (not so humbly admit) might be one of the most dynamic class sessions that we’ve had in this class so far. Now, I have nothing against the professor, whom I think is wonderful and asks great questions and creates a really positive classroom environment. But I think that these students really rose to the challenge I gave them (which went like this: Hi, guys. I have no notes and nothing prepared. So you all are going to have to really work today) and responded well to my particular instructional style. They laughed with me. They really discussed the questions I brought up and raised issues of their own. They respectfully and ethically disagreed with each other, with me, with the novel itself. They acknowledged and held the moral ambiguity of the characters and the novel’s position within American literary history. They discussed the (very) troubling racial tropes that Cooper uses and the ways that Cooper was trying to challenge certain prevailing ideas about race in his time and the limits to Cooper’s ability to navigate these difficult waters and the ways that we, from our contemporary subject positions, need to read these issues. It was kind of great, and they all stayed with me, attentive and alert, until the end of class.
So what does this tell me? Well, I think that the lesson of the day is that if I carry myself with integrity, confidence, and humor, it doesn’t really matter what I wear or how close in age I am to my students; they are going to respect me and respect my class as long as I show them that I respect myself, respect the class, and (most importantly) respect them as experts in their own right and treat them like adults. All in all, though I am sufficiently exhausted and more than a little overwhelmed by the morning, I feel like this was a rise-to-the-occasion, sink-or-swim, watershed moment in my pedagogical maturation and I am exceedingly happy about the road forward.