For instance, at West Texas State in the early 1990s, nearly every single graduate student was automatically a “T.A.”, and it fell to every graduate student to teach two sections of lower-division English every term they took graduate classes. But at the research university down the road, only about half of graduate students were given a position that involved teaching their own classes, and they were called “Fellows,” while the other half were given the position of “Teaching Assistant,” and they mostly worked in the writing lab and/or did research work with upper division teachers. At the University of Oregon in the late 1990s, G.T.F.s taught individual Freshman composition classes (two per trimester), but G.T.A.s in the same department worked in groups of a dozen under a single instructor, and only led a weekly discussion group with 30-40 students on Fridays and graded papers, while the Monday/Wednesday classes were huge, 300-student lectures in which the main instructor talked to all the students at once. Each school handles this a bit differently, so you’ll want to ask your superiors in your program what your duties will be, what courses (if any) you will be teaching as primary instructor, and what your responsibilities generally will be for grading and course design.
In terms of what courses you will be running, most schools have their graduate students teach something akin to English 101 (Freshman composition), though some have them teach remedial classes (English 098 or 099) for those students with low test scores who are not yet eligible for English 101, and some may have them teach special English 101 courses tailored for non-native speakers. These are all very different beasts to teach, so I can give you more specific advice if you give me more information about the courses you will be doing. If the graduate school has you teaching two classes, they will usually start you with two sections of the same exact course, so you only have to do one preparation and then repeat the same material. If your university has a very large program, they may let more advanced graduate students teach an advanced composition course or a lit survey course, but that is fairly rare. Composition and freshman writing will be your bread and butter.
In terms of course design, university policies also vary widely here. Most schools will require all their composition teachers to use the same textbook and writing guide—something the department has agreed upon as common ground for all their students. They usually (but not always) want all the graduate students to give the same number of assignments and cover the same material generally. They sometimes (rarely) will have a standardized syllabus for weekly readings they want all graduate students to follow, or a standardized set of course policies they want all the graduate students to use in their courses.
These features do vary quite a bit, however. When I was a graduate student at West Texas State under Dr. Jerri Williams, the first year we taught, we had to follow fairly exactly a weekly schedule and we all used identical assignments given to us by Dr. Williams. We had to use the cookie-cutter format for the first semester while we were inexperienced, but the second semester, we were given more freedom to create our own schedule and our own assignments, as long as we assigned a similar amount of work and writing to what was in the cookie-cutter standard. In terms of training, during their first semester, all graduate students had to take a class on how to teach freshman comp (also taught by Dr. Williams), which started meeting two weeks before the regular classes. The idea is that the T.A.s were always two weeks ahead of the undergraduate students. Dr. Williams would go over what we would be teaching in the next few weeks, and how to do it. The emphases in the course were the traditional “modes,” some rhetoric, a lot of grammar/mechanics, and some audience adaptation. (In general, my impression was that these courses did a good job of eventually getting students to master basic punctuation and grammar, but freshman students still struggled in terms of clear thinking and originality.)
That was handled quite differently at the University of Oregon in the late 1990s. There, the graduate students generally were not eligible to teach any courses their first semester. They had to complete successfully a class on how to teach freshman composition, and then they had to take a second class on how to teach freshmen composition during the first term they were actually acting as instructors. The emphases in the course were argument, inductive/deductive reasoning, and the philosophy of debate. Every single essay the students wrote for those two required composition classes would be an argumentative or persuasive essay. (In general, my impression was that these freshman courses did a fine job of engaging students in thinking clearly and making clear arguments, but their basic mastery of punctuation and grammar sometimes fell by the wayside.)
The point I’m making in this contrast is that different colleges will handle the problem of teaching freshmen with graduate students in different ways. They will have a specific and unified set of goals they want the graduate teachers to accomplish, and they will shape their requirements accordingly. They may be disciples of Peter Elbow, and want particularly touchy-feely stuff to help build up student courage. They may be intensely process-oriented, and want the students to go through multiple drafts and revisions. They may be in a state that has some obscure requirement regarding information access, and thus they want you to focus using the library and developing the students’ research skills. Who knows? Whatever the goals are for that institution and that course, you will have to find out what they want, and adjust your teaching appropriately.
The Problem of Youth and Respect:
You will have a hurdle to start with in that you (like most graduate students) will be fairly young. I can remember being in my early twenties teaching freshman comp for the first time—teaching a class of non-traditional students who were in their thirties and forties. It is terrifying the first time you do it. How does one bring about authority in the classroom as a new and inexperienced teacher? How will you fill a full hour? How will you get them to take you seriously?
The first step is the ethos of your appearance. John Gage at the University of Oregon used to say, “You can be a student’s mentor. You can be a student’s confidante. You can even possibly be friendly with students. But you can’t be a student’s buddy.” I agree with this wisdom. The first step is not to dress like a student. Accordingly, you will want professional dress and accouterments that radiate competence—especially the first couple weeks. Overdress in formal style. Wear black and grays the first couple weeks—even if none of the other GTFs do it. You can be fun, energetic, and talkative with students in your demeanor—but your appearance must always be a bit more mortician and a bit less sorority girl. You can lighten up as the term goes by, but it’s better to start with some professional distance.
Another area that causes students to lose respect for their teachers is if the teacher appears to be incompetent with technology. You may end up using various projectors, audio-equipment, or other high tech gadgetry in the classroom. You may even be teaching occasionally in computer labs. Get to class early and make sure everything is set up correctly and works before the class begins, for two reasons. (A) You may appear incompetent if you don’t, and (B) it’s unethical to waste student time in the classroom. They paid about $55-$85 in tuition for that hour of class time, and losing ten minutes of that to wrestle with the DVD or the projector is unconscionable. That’s part of the reason I get irritated when the Smartboards aren’t calibrated appropriately—when it gets off kilter, I lose valuable class time trying to straighten it out.
I think about who I am in the classroom as a persona, the “Dr. Wheeler” mask that I don. Part of that persona is the costume—the suit and tie the first couple weeks of class, deliberately wearing the thick glasses rather than the contacts I might don at home, and so forth. You will need a selection of props and tools, if you can afford them. For me, I’ve chosen a lawyer’s leather attaché case to carry textbooks and papers (as opposed to the hands-free backpack I prefer in real life). That briefcase always includes the textbook being used that day, and a clipboard or iPad for taking roll, and whatnot. Incidentally, if you are an iPad user, there are some marvelous aps out there for taking attendance, tracking absences, or making quick notes on student participation, and it’s an excellent all-in-one-place location for keeping track of appointments with students. I also have a wide selection of rather gaudy ties, and I eventually begin wearing some of the garish ones as the class goes on—usually thematically connected with whatever we are reading. For me, it’s the balancing act of the Dr. Wheeler persona—part scary, part wacky. I want students scared enough to give me their best work—but I don’t want them so intimidated they cannot enjoy the class. The mixture of professional suit and increasingly outlandish ties helps me keep that goal in mind, and (hopefully) helps the students balance those two qualities. You will have to decide how and if you want to strike a similar balance, given that your wardrobe choices will be restricted differently by your gender, and you will also want to decide if you will be the soft touch or the iron maiden.
The first day of class, take with you these main props. As you go over course policies, you can hold up the actual textbooks they need to buy, and so forth. I have a checklist of such things to bring to class the first day)
As the semester goes by, you will also want to add appropriate props and tools in your office--if the school gives GTFs their own offices or lets them share one. If your office has shelves for books, fill them. Bring in every thick, massive tome, every old literature textbook you own, and every dusty dictionary you have access to and pile them up neatly. It’s (a) impressive to freshman students who might otherwise question your knowledge to see how much you’ve read, (b) it’s quick access to reference materials you may need in a hurry, (c) it gives you stuff you can rapidly pull out and xerox for a student if you spot a problem area or want to offer an extra reading, and (d) it gives students something to look through and ooh and ahh over as you skim through one of their rough drafts and they are sitting and waiting in the office.
Another prop that amuses me is a little jar called “Ashes of Problem Students,” which I leave sitting out prominently on my desk. You can find them online if you want to buy one. For even more amusement, you can buy those little straw-like candies called “pixie stix” that have purple or brown powder inside. If you pour that powder into the jar to fill it, you can reach in and grab a pinch to eat—that freaks out students entirely.
I also recommend as part of your props a ruler for measuring margins—an astonishing percentage of students do not reset the default Microsoft Word margins from 1.25 inches to 1 inch. When I mark down on a student paper that margins are incorrect, students don’t typically argue with me. However, I’ve noticed when female instructors do it, I see their students argue with them all the time. If you have a ruler handy, you can slap it out and visually demonstrate. That always is sufficient.
The disparity in male and female teachers, unfortunately, brings up the problem of gender and authority.
The Problem of Gender and Respect:
You will have an additional hurdle since you are a female instructor. I am not sure what it is about gender, whether it’s something cultural or something biologically hardwired, but every female professor I have known has had to deal with more disruptive and disrespectful students than the average male teacher. Maybe it’s because male students have an easier time “submitting” to the authority of male figure? Maybe it’s because both female and male students tend to expect female teachers to act as maternal, caring figures rather than someone laying down the law? I don’t know the whys, but I know the results. Female instructors have problems getting the respect they deserve. I have seen how hard it is for female professors to get male students to use the honorific titles they have earned, and how their students argue about their grades or try to “negotiate” the course policies with them in a way they never do with me or other male instructors. Even Dr. Hall—a colleague I consider extraordinarily competent and forceful—finds the task of getting male students to call her “Dr. Hall” rather than “Jennifer” similar to extracting teeth from unwilling dental patients.
As you build your syllabus and course policies, or when you write your name on the blackboard for them the first day of class, I suggest you list your name merely as “K. Barber” or “Ms. Barber.” If the students don’t know your first name, that will force them to use your last name rather than call you “Kate.” This is useful on two levels. First, it encourages them to use a respectful means of address--at least to your face! Second, it helps you maintain a professional distance (more on that in a minute).
You will suffer unwanted advances from male students. I hardly know of any young female instructors who have not faced this depressing problem. Don’t put up with it. That way disaster lies. It doesn’t seem to matter what steps you take to de-sexualize your wardrobe and demeanor. Just be prepared to say “No,” loudly and clearly. Obvious ethical problems lurk there—the lopsided balance of authority in the classroom; sexual harassment; loss of respect from administrators, students, and colleagues in the graduate program; and even legal repercussions in some states. Yes, you will both be consenting adults. Yes, it may not even be illegal or against the policies of your particular school—but it’s still a profoundly bad idea.
How do you work around it? An interesting bit of trivia from one sociological study is that the first piece of wardrobe students notice (at least female students) is the presence or absence of a wedding ring. If you are okay with a minor deceit, you can choose as part of your “teaching costume” a simple gold ring you wear that makes you look married. I’ve no idea if that would work or not to diminish such male advances, but I throw it out as a bit of brainstorming.
The one bit of female professional dress you might consider avoiding, however, is high heels. Professional shoes are a must--but not something that leads to wobbly tripping and falling in the classroom. Plus, the click-clack click-clack of high heels coming down a tiled hallway makes it predictable that you are coming in the classroom. That’s not nearly as intimidating as the ninja-teacher who suddenly appears out of nowhere.
More on Professional Distance.
A persona of professional competence and emotional distance works partly for your benefit—it’s a step down the hard, potholed road toward respect. It also works for the students’ collective benefit. To be fair and accurate in your assessment of student work, to give students the honest feedback they need and deserve, you as a teacher need some emotional distance.
You are human. You will want students to like you. You will grow to like the students also, as a general rule. But if you really want to help them, it is far more important that they respect you and that you don’t play favorites. You don’t need the full Machiavellian “better-feared-than-loved” quality exclusively. We have room for mercy and compassion in small doses, but you need access to all the tools in your emotional toolbox. Even the ancient Greeks believed that fear can be a serviceable pedagogical tool, as long as the student doesn’t become paralyzed with terror.
Professor Richard Moseley at West Texas State University once told me that he refers to students by an honorific and their last name—i.e., “Mr. Smith, Ms. Cruz,” etc. He found this useful in helping maintain a professional distance. I’ve adopted his policy and found it helpful as well. It sets a tone in the classroom that isn’t too chummy. Given my tendency to sometimes say outrageous or outlandish things, or my tendency to tease Baptist students a little bit when I spot egregious holes in their biblical knowledge, or tease English majors a little bit when I note soft spots in their historical or rhetorical knowledge, it helps keep me on professional track rather than getting too silly. I think if I didn’t do the “Ms. Barber” and “Ms. McGuiness” schtick in class, I would not be able to use (attempt?) humor as much as I like to. That formality establishes a secure boundary, so that I have maneuvering room to for other types of fun in the classroom that matter more than first-name address.
If you are uncomfortable with that, the alternative strategy is to just tell them, "Hey, yeah. I'm young too. Yeah, writing is hard. Let's all work on this together. Call me Kate, and I'll call you by your first names." That has the advantage of a more relaxed classroom, but it may diminish your ability to crack heads when you need to crack heads. It’s a different style of teaching—one that doesn’t work for me, but might for you.
You must also decide if you will include your cell-phone or private home phone number on your syllabus or course policies or just leave your official office contact number. I always include it in very tiny print, so students can reach me in an emergency, but that choice does open teachers up to midnight calls and questions when they desperately need sleep.
You must also purge Facebook. Any photographs of your recreational life--alcohol, dresses showing skin, being out on the town with friends at mardi gras or a pub--they all have to come down. If you were older and well established, you might be able to get away with it, but since you are so young, viewers will be looking for excuses to dismiss you as an authority figure.
Just because your persona is a professional one does not mean you should be boringly professional. The best teachers all had one quality in common. They were absolutely excited about their topic. They loved their subject, and that love was visible as they taught. That passion and enthusiasm made all the difference. Dr. Bruce Brasington taught medieval history at West Texas State, and he specialized in the obscurity of canon law. Most students (including me) didn’t give a flip about obscure legal precedents in the 11th-century church, but we all loved his talks on these topics because he did. He would bounce around the classroom gesticulating and shouting and comparing the church reformers who excommunicated Simonists to modern exterminators who might purge termites in a house by using flamethrowers. We were on the edge of our seats wanting to know how the primacy battle between the Pope and the Emperor was going to turn out. I took his class hoping for a lot of medieval battles and catapults. Instead, I got lawbooks and jurists and Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non--and it was absolutely amazing! That class opened up tantalizing avenues of medieval life I had never pondered before, and made me look at the unfolding shape of Christianity and politics in a new way.
In contrast, I had other instructors (who shall remain nameless), who were offering classes on what should have been the most fascinating topics in the universe. In those instances, I remember doing the preliminary readings and thinking, “Wow, this is neat stuff. I can’t wait to discuss it in class.” Once we sat in class, however, it was painfully obvious the teacher was uncomfortable and didn’t want to be there. The teacher had taught this a thousand times, and was now bored out of his skull, going through the motions uncomfortably. Because he was bored, so was the rest of the class. Somehow, that instructor had sucked the life out of that classroom. It was like sitting in a classroom of corpses. I would walk out of class, dumbfounded and bemused, thinking “How could somebody take that glittering material and turn it into that gray dust? I swear, somehow anti-learning took place in that classroom! I feel like I know less about it than when I walked in.”
What does that mean for you as a new instructor? Whatever you are teaching that class, no matter what the topic is, it must be your favorite topic in the world that day. You must (a) find something in it that’s fascinating to you, or (b) you must pretend to find something in it that was fascinating, or (c) you should skip that topic and focus on some other aspect entirely for the bulk of the class session. You must convey that excitement in your voice, your gestures, your stance. I always hear public speakers recommend you stand in one place and not move around, as moving around is distracting. Maybe it is. But it’s easier for me at least to convey excitement by running around a bit and hopping up and down. If you are having fun, odds are most of the students will be too. Passion is contagious. That’s one of the deep secrets of life, not just teaching.
Showmanship and Entertainment: I don’t know if you have any experience in the theater, but it pays off in the classroom. When the class reads passages together from the literature before we analyze them, I’ve found it useful to create different voices and accents for different characters. Even if students are initially confused when reading James Joyce’s The Dead, simply hearing Lily or Gretta speak in a Dublin accent helps make it “real” to them. Hearing Dr. Faust speak to Mephistophiles in a German accent will root the story in Wittenberg in a way hearing it in Appalachian accent wouldn’t. Find a nice quiet room and see what accents and voices you can imitate, and whether you can apply them in any literature you teach. Your students will laugh, but they’ll love it. If that’s not your strong point, don’t sweat it. Showmanship can also work via the simplicity of timing—dramatic pauses. Questions that linger in the air. Leaning forward and dropping your voice to a conspiratorial whisper. Raising your arms and your voice simultaneously. Alternatively, go for the visual. You can use short video clips, or project appropriate maps, charts, painting portraitures, and other visual aids on the wall. You will eventually gain a feel for balancing serious discussion of ideas versus entertaining witticisms and eye-candy. I find it particularly effective to start with something grim, and then provide comic relief halfway through. Alternatively, you can start off with something comic, but gradually notch up the seriousness of the discussion. The variety is what makes it work.
For example, when Dr. Baldrige sometimes lectures about Blood Libel and medieval anti-Semitism, and she might begin with a video excerpt from Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I—a little song and dance number about the Inquisition torturing Jews. The students laugh and crack up, and that serves as an ice-breaker to start talking about modern preconceptions about the medieval world and about Jewishness, generally. But as the lecture unwinds, she might switch the visuals to medieval torture devices, project actual stats on executions, and then lead the discussion to comparing the medieval sumptuary laws regarding Jews with Hitler’s laws about Jews wearing yellow badges, and the tone grows more and more sober and serious. The thoughtful and sincere discussion in the last half of the class, I think, works all the better after the funny icebreaker. Laughter can make us open and vulnerable to something deeper, later. It's like love, that way.
In general, I think the more exciting topics tend to teach themselves. All the teacher has to do is set forth the topic, raise a couple of thought-provoking questions, and then get out of the way. It’s easy to teach the fun stuff.
On the other hand, the more “boring” the topic might seem to be, the more showmanship the teacher must employ. So, I create exercises on logical fallacies using clips from Monty Python—"Students, please identify all the logical fallacies in this scene by name. Students, today we are reenacting Braveheart, but we're doing it as a group of hostile, villainous dependent clauses fighting against the outnumbered independent clauses. Let me explain what you have to do."
Iron Sharpening Iron
Use human psychology to your own advantage. In general, male students may respond well to opportunities for competition, and in general, female students may respond well to opportunities for teambuilding and cooperative learning. I find gameshow-style contests can encourage both desires, as female students want to do well to help out their own team-mates, and male students want to do well so they can feel they have out-competed the opposing teams. Accordingly, if there’s a grammar skill you want them to master, and you want them to practice it a lot, divide the students up into teams, and have them compete for points to “win fabulous prizes that will change their lives forever.” I like them to make up team names during the first contest. A couple of contests later, if it starts to become old hat to them, I have them create team battle-cries they must shout at each other, and by the end of the term, they must develop complete victory-dances.
The trick here is to build it up gradually over the term. They would be far too embarrassed to do that the first week of class, so you start off with something simple, and gradually amp up the volume each month—until they are all doing the infamous MLA parentheses dance together by week thirteen and look absolutely silly, but don’t mind it because it has snuck up on them so slowly. Think of the frog being slowly boiled to death in the environmentalist’s parable about global warming. If the process is slow enough, they never notice it.
During such contests, I like to keep an on-going score to encourage a bit of rivalry and bragging rights. It also rewards the nerdy students—those kids who were never the cheerleaders or jocks or got to be the center of attention in athletic contests now are suddenly, dramatically popular because they can diagram sentences like a god or create synecdoche on the fly. This is what college should be for them--the place where we actually recognize and reward thinking, creativity, and intellectual discipline.
Not all teachers like such competition, but it works well for me. The students get much needed practice. You get an opportunity to pinpoint which students have mastered the skill or knowledge and which ones need additional work, and everybody gets to have some fun. Repetitio mater memoriae, the Romans said. Repetition is the mother of memory. Repetition, though it is the most effective method of learning rote material, is not necessarily the most fun or exciting method. Gameshow-style competitions help with that.
The main problem with this method is that, if one team is focused on solving a problem, the other teams may degenerate into gossiping among themselves and not paying attention. I find it useful to give other groups the chance to “steal” an incorrect answer from whoever’s working on the chalkboard, so they have an incentive to pay attention to the other teams’ performances. I also find it useful to make copies of a handout and give one to each team, so all students are working on the same problem, rather than some groups sitting idle. You can provide a bonus point for first team to finish to rush them along, if you don’t want the whole class period consumed by the exercise.
Do be cautious about letting the competitiveness turn bitter or mean-spirited. Not all students enjoy competition—some find it stressful. I’m not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of the fact that, when I was teaching on a one-year gig at Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington, two students became so focused on our “grammar day” competitions that one frustrated athlete punched another over a comma placement. It just goes to show you that, if you care about it yourself, you can get the students to care about it if you can present it in a manner where it matters to them.
Last of all, consider human physiology and kinetic learning. In spite of two-hour movie marathons and night-long sessions of playing Assassin's Creed, humans without constant stimulus tend to “zone out” after about fifteen minutes of sitting in place. That is an educational barrier in an hour-long class, but one easily countered if you have them do something that requires movement at least twice and preferably three times during that hour.
This movement can be something dramatic, such as, “Everyone who agrees with this author’s statement, stand up and move to front of the class, and everyone who disagrees, stand up and move toward the back of the class.” This works great for identifying points of discussion—you can have undecided students physically move back and forth as they listen to pro- and con- arguments from students who have already taken a position. It can be something that takes five minutes, “Every student jot down one question they have about X. Pass it to the student to your left, and let that student try and answer it.” Or, “Everybody take turns coming up to the board and writing down one example of a zeugma you have created.” It can even be something simple that only takes 20 seconds, such as, “Everybody in the class? I want you to take your pencil and underline this passage in your textbook we are about to discuss.” You can play M.C. and ask the students for applause. “Hey, isn’t that great! That’s the colon, ladies and gentlemen! Let’s give the colon a round of applause for that neat grammatical trick!” You can say in a whisper, "I'm about to reveal to you the deepest, darkest secret in grammar, so everyone lean forward. No really, lean forward as I whisper it." It doesn’t seem to matter what the movement is exactly, or how long it takes to do it, but apparently any change in physical movement or bodily stance is enough to reset the fifteen-minute timer our bodies have that make us “zone out” and stop paying attention. The moment you see a student yawn, have the class move in some way or take some sort of physical action. They'll have no idea they are being kinesthetically manipulated—they'll just think it's part of your teaching style.
I find it particularly helpful to draw huge, oversize maps of England, or the Mediterranean, or the route of The Canterbury Tales, out in black permanent marker on king-size bedsheets. I can then bring the bedsheets to class, spread them out on the floor, and have the students physically walk out the route of The Odyssey or Chaucer's pilgrimage. They are often woefully ignorant of geography as well as literature, and this is a memorable way to help them understand where Cornwall and Tintagel are in comparison to the Thames and London, or Andrew Marvell's "tide of Umber," or whatnot. If you are too time-pressed to make a map yourself, or can't draw well, you can consider recruiting students to help you make such a thing then use it in future classes.
Such activities also break down the stifling conventions of the classroom. The norms of behavior in a college classroom are arbitrary and traditional ones. True, we gain certain benefits by having desks and chairs lined up, and students sitting comfortably, and a certain area of space delineated for the teacher to stand in front of them. But we forget it doesn't have to be that way. It's as artificial and contrived as Kabuki theater or a sonnet. In educational circles, decade-long trends emerge, such as ones in which classrooms with desks arranged in small groups, or semi-circles, or conference tables. The latest one gets educational experts excited. They will produce studies that show this new version of the classroom is superior to the old one, and they will pull up the stats on learning to prove it. A decade later, some other design comes into play, and again the stats seem to show it is better than the previous arrangement, but after a few years, the numbers drop back to the norm. Why is that?
I suspect it's not just "fads" among educators. I suspect when such new classroom designs occasionally appear, they really do work better at first—because they break up the teaching routine. They make the class interact in new ways. But, after students and teachers get used to it, it becomes mundane once more, and the advantages fade into blandness again. The new classroom activity or room layout was not innately better than the old way; it was different from the old way. The difference is what made the magic. To capture that magic, think of what you can do to break down the stale conventions of how classrooms are supposed to work. Anything that is different from what students are used to will become memorable. So, if you are teaching something you want to stick in their minds, the more important or more difficult points or lessons, try to make that class different from the normal classroom experience, and try to make it as active and full of motion as possible.
Not My Teaching Style? Your Mileage May Vary.
Note that this advice is primarily what works for me, Dr. Wheeler. It comes from my own experience starting instruction as a (very) young graduate student at age 21, and it’s mellowed by a couple or three decades teaching. That doesn’t mean it will fit every instructor. Maybe you do better with a laid-back, informal classroom. Maybe you will discover you really shine with close, friendly atmosphere, sitting in circles on the floor. Your teaching style may be more touchy-feely and less growling-glowering than my own. If you discover that, do what works. Maybe you do a particularly good job at computer work and chat rooms or online exercises. Maybe you are especially good at listening one-on-one with students. Maybe you shine at commentary on papers. That’s great! No problem! You have to find out what works for you and what doesn’t by the painful process of trying out different methods and approaches.
However, the first time you come into the arena to gladiate, to struggle in the war on error, you will have no experience to draw on. All you can do is try to become a composite of the best qualities and best techniques you have seen your favorite teachers use. Nearly everything that works for me is something I have shamelessly stolen from other instructors I enjoyed as a student. The Dante assignment about putting celebrities in hell for English 201? Stolen from Dr. Shearle Furnish’s undergraduate survey course I took as a freshman. A good analogy about the Norman Conquest and the Klingon Empire? Ransacked from Dr. Bruce Brasington’s medieval history lectures. The devil’s advocate hand-gesture as a mannerism? Looted from the lectures of a Catholic nun who taught me art history. If Tennyson was right, and we are all the sum of our experiences, who you will be in the classroom will grow out of your past experience as a student. Don’t suffer from anxiety of influence and fear this! Instead, take advantage of what you’ve seen work elsewhere, and make it work for you.
You will quickly learn what you do well and don’t do well in the classroom. For instance, I’ve seen brilliant teachers who do fantastic work shaping and leading small groups. I can’t do that well, so I don’t make much use of it, preferring larger class discussion. I have absolutely lousy handwriting—so I try in upper division courses to type up feedback on the last major project. Other teachers are really good on doing online chat assignments, or designing balanced tests, or doing fast help with research, or doing one-on-one instruction in their offices. You will learn what works and what doesn’t, and how to work around the weak areas, but it will take a semester or two before you start hitting your stride. Don’t be discouraged if the first or third time you hop in the ride, you find the road is bumpy.
Miscellany of Practicalities:
Some practical tips—don’t spend hours and hours designing a lecture, class exercise, or assignment you plan on only doing once with a single class. If you are spending that much time on something, it should be on a re-usable template you can recycle in future classes.
Don’t ever throw anything away that might be useful later. Maybe you don’t think you’ll ever teach the remedial class on English as a Second Language again, because your supervisor told you next year English 102 would be your assignment. Chances are, you may unexpectedly find out a year later it’s ESL again, and you’ve thrown out all the old materials.
Keep a stack of “Rainy Day files”—exercises and readings you have handy as “filler” material for that December 10th class when it snows suddenly and two-thirds of the class can’t make it in on the icy roads, but school doesn’t officially cancel. You might want to do this "Rainy Day" material with the 30% that’s actually there rather than marching on in the syllabus and leaving the other 70% behind.
Keep a list of useful resources—websites, books, exercises, organized by topic, theme, or material, so you can plunder their resources. Start a file cabinet with folders for handouts, readings, exercises, etc. Steal handouts from colleagues and swap assignments with them for inspiration and ideas and backup plans.
Keep a teaching journal. Jot down in one or two sentences what you planned to do that day before class, and at the end of the day, before you forget, jot down one or two sentences of whether it worked or not, and what you might do differently to make it better. That way, nine months later when you are teaching the same material to a new batch of students, you can look back over those notes after you’ve long forgotten how well that approach worked (or didn’t).
Share and brainstorm teaching ideas with your colleagues in graduate school regularly. Get together over pizza and frosty beverages and talk about what you teach, jotting down good ideas.
Have students write frequently in class, even if you only keep it as a comparison sample and don't grade it or mark it up. It does take up a lot of class time, but it's one of the best ways to spot a plagiarist after the out-of-class, typed material they turn in doesn't resemble anything they produce in class. Do make use of turnitin.com or Google online paper mills to discover what's out there that plagiarists might use. If you assign a literary topic, you can read through that material first and then deliberately design your essay prompt in such a way that the existing papers online won't "fit" your assignment.
The most common form of cheating now is electronic. On mid-terms and final exams, students will ask to listen to iPods, or ask to use their phone as a clock to keep track of time, or ask to use the restroom and then pull out their cell phones and open up Google to look up answers before they return. To prevent this, if students ask to listen to music, I say "sure"—and loan them my own personal iPod. If they want to keep track of time, tell them you will write down an updated time on the chalkboard every 15 minutes, so their phone is unnecessary. If you are administering a long examination, tell them before they begin they should use the restroom. You can also create a test in two separate parts, and tell them that once they turn in part I, they may take a restroom break before they commence part II.
If you have time, you can also create 2-3 versions of each test. Say, a yellow, blue, and green version. Pass them out randomly, so the students will not know which version they will receive. At the bare minimum, if you teach two sections of the same class, create a different version of the same test for each separate hour, so students don't take photos of the test with their phones and e-mail it to the later class. Such precautions will not stop cheating entirely, but you can make it increasingly difficult by cutting down the low-hanging branches on the tree of forbidden fruit.
Plagiarism: Scared Straight
You will have students who plagiarize. I've never had a semester go by without catching one, and who knows how many slip through that we teachers don't catch. Dr. Ernest Lee and I have very different approaches to this issue. His classroom persona is one that emphasizes trust in the classroom. Ideally, in his strategy, if the teacher can establish a basic sense of mutual respect, the student's conscience will stop them from plagiarizing. Accordingly, he doesn't want to do anything to come across as being too suspicious; he doesn't want to waste valuable class time being an "enforcer" or "investigative cop" chasing down plagiarists.
While I understand his position, that approach simply doesn't work with my own persona of the happy-go-lucky sadist. My goal is to make sure students know that, even if I'm not omniscient, I am aware of common plagiaristic tricks, and I do frequently catch them. To put the fear of God in them, I use a few different strategies.
First of all, when you do catch plagiarists, the students will almost always deny the act—not so much in the sense of claiming that they wrote the paper themselves, but rather that they did not "understand" that what they did was plagiarism. To negate such claims when students make them falsely, and to avoid actual confusion in sincere students, do the following. Early in the term, spend an entire day discussing what is and is not plagiarism. The next assignment requires the students to read and sign a statement that outlines what constitutes plagiarism, and which specifically states, "I understand that even accidental plagiarism opens me to the full punishment appropriate to academic dishonesty, and that if have any doubts or questions about whether I have cited my materials appropriately, I should ask my teacher before submitting it." Before you take up these signed sheets from the students, ask them repeatedly if they all understand or have any questions about plagiarism. Make sure this is marked prominently in your syllabus, so you can point out the class has covered this, and the students should know it. Then, when you do catch students plagiarizing, if they plead ignorance, you can pull out the sheets they previously signed, and they won't have room to snivel.
I usually make reading and signing such a sheet one of their first assignments in the class, long before they start submitting any essays typed up outside of class. This policy has an extra benefit in that the vast bulk of students—the honest and ethical majority—will have strong motivation to come talk to you if they have any legitimate uncertainty about their citations.
The second strategy springs into action after the first papers arrive. I announce to the class, "I have graded the first batch of papers for this term, and I already have a sample of plagiarism to show you." I then project on the overhead a sample student essay on their topic that is plagiarized, but with the student name and date blacked out. I go through step by step where the plagiarized material is located—circled in red, and contrast it with the original source, showing where the paraphrasing in insufficient, where the student takes general ideas without attributing them to the original, or the outright cut-and-paste errors.
I tell the students, "I'm sure most of you are honest, and would never plagiarize—but if you are typing in a hurry, it is easy to forget the quotation mark, or neglect to add a parenthetical citation, or try to use one citation to cite an entire paragraph rather than a single sentence. Even if it's accidental, it's still plagiarism. After receiving this paper, I have arranged a meeting with this student in my office privately. . ." etc.
What I don't actually tell the students is that this particular essay isn't necessarily one from their class. It is often one from a previous class I taught a year or two ago—but they have no way of knowing that. As far as they know, one of their colleagues just got nabbed red-handed (BAM!) on the very first assignment, and that student is going to the academic guillotine in the next few weeks. I see no reason to disillusion them of that mistaken impression. Let them think that, right from the get-go, any attempt at plagiarism results in immediate capture and punishment with no get-out-of-jail free card. If you do this early in the term, before they know everyone's name and face in the class, it is particularly effective because after a few students inevitably drop, the remainder will assume the reason the class population is dropping is because plagiarists are getting the boot.
Some semesters though, the paper I produce really is from the current class. In those situations, I still black out the student name as I show the class the overhead for comparison—simply because I think it is bad form to blacken that student's reputation with public revelation. I want the students to know that the English Department has caught an intellectual thief—but that doesn't mean I want them to know whom in particular. Ugly public shaming is bad form.
Another announcement you can make to the class when you suspect plagiarism is to assert that you have a possible plagiarism case. Tell them (without naming names), that you will be privately contacting and summoning individual students into your office to discuss the matter. Letting the whole class know that such proceedings are happening off-stage is a good way to reinforce how risky plagiarism is.
Be warned however, when you do catch a plagiarist red-handed. An accusation of plagiarism can have unpleasant repercussions for you, as a teacher. As a brand-new GTF, you may find that students will attack your credibility or lack of experience. Confronting the plagiarist can lead to a showdown of "he-said/she-said" lies, and you might find yourself on unofficial trial rather than the actual miscreant student.
In such an unfair and unfortunate outcome, covering your own ass will be a vital academic survival skill. You will have no real authority in the matter as a low-ranking graduate student. You will be in a precarious position, somewhere between "faculty" and "student," and any accused plagiarists might try to use that against you as they raise a ruckus and try to weasel their way out of justice.
If you think you have a plagiarism case, xerox the student's graded paper and your comments to make two extra copies—once to give back to the student, once for an extra copy to keep in your records, and then you also want to hold the original for evidence. If the material s/he plagiarizes from is from a book, xerox the relevant passages and publication info of the original book, or print out the appropriate webpages from which the student cut-and-pasted. Highlight the questionable passages in your copy of the essay, and highlight the corresponding passages in the original source. Show this material to your supervisor to get a second opinion and verification. Accusing a student of plagiarism without evidence could theoretically lead to legal charges against you for slander or libel, so you want to hold onto the original material like it is hoarded gold in the case of escalation. Keep copies of any e-mail exchanges with that student, and if you meet with the student to discuss the paper, immediately jot down notes of what the student said to you after you end the meeting and add them to the records, along with the date and time. All that can become part of the supporting evidence if the plagiarism case turns nasty and degenerates into your word against a plagiarist's word.
In some departments, your supervisor or department head may take over at that point and summon the offending student in for discussion and punishment, but unless that is explicitly the case, assume you are the one who has to have "the talk" with the student. The kid is your responsibility, after all. Your hands will probably be tied in terms of how the department handles punishment. Some may have a policy of automatic failure in the class, or just on the particular assignment. Some may have a policy of expulsion. Some may have a policy of community service and a "trial by a jury of peers" (i.e., fellow students on the student government board.) If the department leaves it up to your judgment, I would advise you to fail the student in the course if the crime appears to be deliberate intellectual theft, and to simply fail the individual assignment if the crime appears to be accidental, i.e., mere haste or ignorance. If you feel particularly merciful, you can require the student to redo the assignment as another option. That is probably good for the student educationally, but such a choice also punishes you with extra grading work and can lead to charges of favoritism if you don't give the some opportunity to every other student who plagiarizes.
"C.Y.A." Dr. Williams used to tell me. Cover your ass when you deal with dishonest students, because if they can, they will try and twist events to make you into the bad guy. Follow Pauline advice, and be as innocent as a dove, but as cunning as a serpent when dealing such sorts.
Remember also that there is no statute of limitations on plagiarism. If a particular paper makes your spider-sense tingle, and you are pretty sure the author plagiarized it, but you can't find an immediate source for it, you can always xerox a copy and tuck it away for later investigation. Just don't be obsessive about catching plagiarists to the exclusion of doing a good job teaching. If you spend five hours hunting down a plagiarized source, that is five fewer hours for designing a really good class exercise, or giving good, detailed feedback on other student essays. When it comes to justice, the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. Regular plagiarizers will slip up eventually and suffer punishment, even if you are not the one to administer it for that particular paper.
Don’t Know What to Do Today?
How do you fill up a full hour when you have a limited agenda to cover? How do you squeeze everything into a mere hour when you have a ton of material to cover?
Think about the class in chunks of 10-minute time. Giving a pop quiz typically takes maybe 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you ask. Taking roll can be done in half that time. I usually plan on about 30-minutes of discussion, depending on the topic.
You will develop a feel for balancing time, but it’s always good to have backup plans. Always have an extra exercise or two you can whip out to reinforce the points of the day.
You can also get a lot of mileage out of having students do the work for you. Assign each group a set of questions they must resolve among themselves in 5-10 minutes, then the whole class comes together and each group presents their findings for discussion with the whole class. Typically, dividing the class into 3-5 groups is the way to go here.
You can also divide the class into groups, and instruct each group to come up with a skit to teach an idea or concept to the rest of the class. This often ends up being hilarious and memorable, as in the case of the “Comma Gangster” group of students that taught introductory clauses as a group of witnesses being roped off and segregated by the evil comma so it could “off” them before they testified.
Got nothing to offer? Have students write. Have them practice something they did earlier, but you weren’t satisfied with. Have them pre-practice something upcoming in future assignments. Someone paid a lot of money for students to be in that classroom, so I have an ethical problem with letting them leave early when I could squeeze a few more minutes of something out of them. They desperately need the practice, so use that time for them to brainstorm. To write an introductory paragraph. To create three different conclusions to the rough draft of their essay. To experiment with adding similes in each paragraph. Have them do it repeatedly over the term, revisiting earlier ideas. Repetitio mater memoriae.
In some classes, I'm fond of reserving the last class day for me not to lecture at all, but have the students teach me something. Usually the idea I’m trying to make clear to them is that, if I’ve done my job well as a teacher, I’m now obsolete. They know this material so well, they don’t need some teacher as an artificial authority figure directing the conversation, but they can apply their own brains to the problem with their own insights and interpretations. I tend to do that more in literature classes than in grammar and composition classes, though. Usually in grammar and composition classes, if time permits, I reserve the last class day for a “final address,” a chance to talk with them as honestly as I can about my hopes for their futures and my reflections on what they have done, a chance for them to think back on what we’ve covered, what we’ve learned, and what still remains to explore. They are done with the class. They aren't done with learning and improving.
Such a final address doesn’t always work. Sometimes the fire catches, and you can see they are moved and thoughtful. Sometimes, the timing is off, or the chemistry is wrong, and they just look bored and ready to be done with class so they can go have lunch. I never can predict that. If your syllabus allows it, think of what you’d like to do with your last day of class with them. It will be your last chance to touch their lives before they move on.
If you have the freedom to assign topics, don’t let students write about whatever they want. Give them two or three prompts to choose from, topics that you are comfortable grading, something open-ended enough that they can work in their own interests, but something narrow enough in focus that they can't find downloadable generic papers to steal.
You are the composition queen in the classroom, so don’t hesitate to veto topics from arbitrary personal preference. For instance, I’m not a very sharing kind of guy, so I generally steer students away from messy emotional essays unless the exercise is specifically on the rhetoric of pathos. Be hesitant to let them write on topics that are (a) done to death already in a billion student essays, and (b) ones in which the nature of the topic brings about distracting cultural baggage. I’ve pretty much given up on letting any students write an essay about abortion, creationism, teenage eating disorders, and the legal drinking age. They never do a good job, no matter what angle they are taking, even though they all are eager and want to write about these topics and believe (wrongly) that they have something new to add now that they have reached the advanced, wise age of eighteen or nineteen. I am not suggesting that eighteen-year olds are dumb or uncreative. Far from it—they may be scintillating with curiosity and meaningful questions. But they are terribly, terribly inexperienced, which leads them to write the same topics every generation of freshmen write—they simply haven’t read enough or experienced enough to know when they have fallen into commonplace ideas. They are thus incapable of realizing that they are stomping down well-trodden and familiar paths rather than setting out into the wilds of intellectual terra incognita. It’s not even a question of copying. They may be independently building the same ideas a thousand people have already built because they haven’t had the wide range of reading to realize the material is recycled cogitation. I know you have a penchant for creative writing. If one of your goals is to encourage originality and creativity in your students, the first step is to push them toward topics few people have written about, and finding that topic is challenging.
You have two general strategies for choosing topics. One approach is to pick a topic that you think will interest the students and get them excited. For eighteen-year olds, that means any topic vaguely related to sex, violence, pop culture, or religion will tend to hold their attention. Such topics tend to be quite interesting to the students, but they don’t necessarily produce much in terms of insightful content if you go that way. The goal in that approach is to get them to explore more deeply something they already know a bit about. The students might know Lady Gaga in pop culture, and the teacher uses that knowledge and name-recognition as a doorway to get them thinking about visual performance, or gender roles, or aesthetics, or some other intellectual angle. If it works, they never look at Lady Gaga the same way, and they like the topic because it’s contemporary and something they can relate to. If it doesn’t work, they think the topic is dumbed-down or pointless, or their writing degenerates into mere opinion without substance.
The second strategy is to pick a topic that they probably don’t know anything about, but they should. The goal here is to introduce them to a thinker, a problem, or a topic important in our cultural history, but one that they might not encounter otherwise. You might use excerpts from Lao-Tzu’s philosophical writings in the Tao-te-Ching, Machiavelli’s politics in the The Prince, or Adam Smith’s economics in The Wealth of Nations. If your freshman reader is some anthology like A World of Ideas, you’ll see a lot of this. In my experience, such material usually baffles or bores the students initially. They need exposure to such writings if they are going to call themselves college-educated, but they have a hard time formulating their own thoughts about it. The material is too new to them, too different from their normal cafeteria conversations, even though the topics are old-hat as far as cultural history is concerned. Students may have a hard time connecting something from third-century China with their own lives as eighteen-year old Americans—connecting the dots between past and present is a struggle for young college students.
You’ll have to decide whether you lean more toward the first or second approach, at least if you get to choose the readings and topics. If there’s a standardized textbook your department requires, it may be out of your hands for now.
By far, the most common discipline problem is a quiet, invisible one--student neglect of assigned readings. Eventually, some students will discover that, if they don’t want to read their homework assignments, their moms and dads aren’t around in the dorm room to make them. A callous teacher might simply say, “Their life? Their choice. Let them fail if they want to.”
Unfortunately, students do not live in neat little bubbles. Because students come together in groups as a class, the slacker’s choice not to read will poison class discussion for the whole group. She doesn’t just deprive herself of what she might have learned; she has nothing to contribute to the class, no ideas for her fellow students to ingest. She is robbing her peers. As more and more students fall into this trap, it gets harder and harder to have an actual conversation about the assigned works. The class will become uncomfortably silent and unresponsive. Students will look bored—but that boredom actually masks what they really feel—guilt and terror that the teacher will call upon them and unveil their sloth.
The inexperienced teacher at this point tries to fill the silence by asking more questions, or if she is lacking in confidence, she tries to hide the silence by filling it with her own monologue of commentary. Don’t fall into that trap. That is where you, O gentle teacher, must put your hand into the velvet glove and take up the whip. You must deal with the problem. But how?
The Dr. Hall and Dr. O’Hare method is to ask, “How many of you have actually read the assignment?” Typically, the students will be fairly honest about this. A third may indicate they have done it, another third will admit they haven’t, and the other third will avoid making eye contact. At that point, you can handle the situation in different ways. Dr. O’Hare typically slams shut his book, and angrily tells them there’s no point in discussion if they haven’t done the reading, so he kicks them out and tells them never to return if they won't read. He assures me it freaks them out. They always shape up in future classes. This is healthy—though uncomfortable for the teacher and the students.
Dr. Hall and Dr. Collins typically pinpoint the students who have done the reading, and ask them to move together as a group. They will continue the discussion with them and kick out the students who have not finished the reading. They will protest, “But can’t I stay and just listen to what the others are saying?” You will have to insist that, no, if they have nothing to contribute, they get no free rides as intellectual parasites sucking on the brainpower of the responsible students.
If you are willing to put up with the extra work, you can kick them into an empty classroom or a computer lab with instructions to read the essay they skipped and submit a two-page response by the end of the hour, or tell them they have the remainder of the hour to write a letter to their parents (or whatever scholarship committee/ student loan organization is paying their tuition), explaining to them why they as students have not been doing their homework and providing a reasonable argument why said parents or scholarship committee should continue funding their education. Dr. Hall is very effective at using this sort of guilt to steer students toward the proper path. She focuses on creating a disappointed, let-down persona in such circumstance; it comes from her being a mom to four kids.
The Dr. Wheeler method is, when the class doesn’t talk much and I suspect they have fallen behind on the reading, to say excitedly, “Okay, let’s pull out blank sheets of paper and have a pop quiz!” After I take up the quizzes, I provide them with a quick, cheerful mathematical lesson about averaging zeros into a series of pop quizzes, and point out that I’m paid the same whether they pass or fail, and it’s actually easier for me to deal with zeros than it is for me to grade completed work. I encourage them not to do any further readings that are assigned, and explain how I love giving pop quizzes, and will probably give even more now that I am assured students aren’t doing the work. I aim for a happy, sadistic persona here, one vastly amused by their neglect, and one who is sure to make good use of their sloth to simplify the grading. It's not that I don't care about the students; it's just my callous persona helps drive home the point that I have no problem with smacking them repeatedly with surprise tests to drive their grades into the gutter if they don't start lifting their share of the load. I am more comfortable handling it that way than actually opening up and telling them I'm disappointed in them, which is in itself another strategy one might consider to motivate them.
Incidentally, you can never give too many pop quizzes. Try once a week or every two weeks for a good class that usually does the reading. Try once every other day (or even every single day) for a class that is slacking. The students will get the message after a week or two of that, and either pick up the normal reading schedule again or drop the class.
Lazy students are certainly the most common problem. The next most common discipline problem for morning students will be arrival on time. You can be lenient in late morning or afternoon classes, but if you are teaching an early morning class, say a 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m., you will have to be absolutely draconian about starting class on time and tolerate no late arrivals at all. If you allow an individual student to wander in four minutes late the first week, the second week they will be wandering in ten minutes late, and the third week they are wandering in half-way through class, or the last five minutes of class, and still wanting you to mark them down as present. No. Just no.
Some teachers handle this by equating a certain number of tardies with an absence. For example, they might say if you are late to class three times, that counts as an absence. That policy that always seemed pointless to me, but it’s your call if you want the extra juggling of numbers.
I advise you simply to assert that, “if a student isn’t in class by the time I finish roll, the student is absent.” It’s okay to wait on enforcement the first day or two, while students are confused and trying to find their classes and might reasonably be late, but after day three, the first time a student is tardy, you should get angry (or fake being angry) and call out that student’s name in front of the entire class as s/he enters, and verbally reprimand him or her in front of God and everyone, and then kick him or her out of the classroom in a loud and noisy manner that makes everyone else go pale. Use that one as the negative example for whole class to see. This will not make you popular. This will embarrass the student. This will cause the rest of the class not to make eye contact with you for the next hour. This will lead to students saying you are a bitch behind your back. This is a necessary sacrifice--because it does not occur again in that class afterward. Early on, you clarify how unacceptable tardiness is, or the problem just grows—especially in 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. classes.
That usually takes care of the tardiness, if for some unimaginable reason, such behavior recurs, lock the door at the end of roll-call, and don’t let latecomers inside. It was a trick Dr. Boren used frequently at the University of Oregon, and it worked. This action will lead to a series of conversations. I predict you will engage in one or more of the following scripts, and I have taken the liberty of fashioning an appropriate hypothetical response from you:
[Student:] “But Ms. Barber, I have a class all the way across campus before yours, and I can’t get here on time.”
[Ms. Barber] “That sounds unfortunate. If you are unable to cover 800 meters of walking in ten minutes, you will either need to drop my class or the one before it, since you have created a schedule with classes too far apart in space and too close together in time. Let me know which one you decide to drop.”
[Student] “But Ms. Barber! The teacher in the earlier class always lets us out late—leaving me insufficient time to get here!”
[Ms. Barber] “That is indeed unfair. Who was the previous teacher? Let the two of us go over to that professor’s office together and let her know you are having a problem here.”
[If students are lying about the situation, that usually shuts them up because they don’t want to caught in that web of deceit between two different teachers. If the student is telling the truth, there’s a bonus here. It relieves the student of having to confront the other teacher alone—letting you be the one mediating between the student and a professional colleague. You can present this as a polite request for a favor, telling your colleague of the problem and asking permission for your student to sit near the back and sneak out when the bell rings. The student will be impressed with your take-charge attitude, though the other teacher may be a bit snittish about it.]
[Late student] “But Ms. Barber wait! I paid good money for this class! How can you lock me out just because I’m a couple minutes late! That’s not fair to me!”
[Ms. Barber] “I must be misunderstanding you. It sounds to me like you are asking me to stop the lecture and discussion with the other twenty responsible students--who were on time and who also paid good money for the class. I am supposed to break off the lecture, dig out the course roster again, spend a couple minutes updating the roll, and putting it away, and then go back to class discussion after that interruption, all for one student who was irresponsible? Without a good reason as to why the rest of the class should suffer that on your behalf, I am profoundly unlikely to do so.” [That usually guilt-trips the student into dropping the issue.]
You already know my other trick. Every time a student misses class, the student has to type up and submit a 1-2 page essay summarizing what we covered in class. One of my old Latin teachers had a similar policy in graduate school, and it did a remarkable job of (a) getting students with too many absences to drop early in the term, and (b) encouraging regular attendance from the rest of the students. It's up to you how you want to handle this—some teachers don't take roll at all. They figure, if the students don't want to show up and end up failing, that's part of being an adult.
I figure, if the goal of our jobs are to teach people, we have better odds of succeeding if the students are actually in the classroom. That's part of being a teacher. So, I have required attendance, much as I hate all the record-keeping. Your thinking may be different from mine.
How do you handle students that fall asleep during that seven o'clock class? Some teachers just ignore them and mark them absent. Others think of it as a "teachable" moment, so they stop the class discussion, and wake them up to wag their finger at the offending student.
For my part, I am anal-retentive about not wasting time in the classroom. I am willing once per semester to take 5 minutes to pause the lesson and excoriate the sleeping student, even though it is wasting time for the other 19-20 students in the classroom. Alternatively, you can ask the student to see you after class. I also tend to carry a small, loaded children's watergun inside my briefcase. I often will simply casually open the briefcase, pull out the squirt-gun, and spray the student a couple of times as I lecture, not even bothering to pause discussion or break my stride. I do this so quickly, often the other students don't even realize what happened to the offending sleeper. It might or might not be your thing, and it's not professional, but it works for me.
First Week of Class:
Learning names is challenging for me when I have eighty to a hundred new students each term. You'll probably have something more like twenty-four or fifty, depending on your teaching load, but it's still problematic.
For me, taking photos of them the first week is a good shortcut. I can make flashcards for myself from the photos, and thus learn names in two weeks rather than three months. Other teachers develop annotation and jot it down on their roll sheets. Things like "Brown hair. Chin like Brad Pitt. Sits on left front side." Or possibly "Wears glasses. Tall. Back row."
Whatever helps you learn their names is acceptable, though it can be embarrassing if students learn you wrote, "Chubby" or "Acne" or "Smells like Cheetos" beside their names on the roll-sheet. Accordingly, if the mnemonic I jot down is unflattering or unfavorable, I always write it down in Latin or Anglo-Saxon rather than English, though even this plan is not foolproof. A cipher would be best. Alternatively, you can simply assign the students to sit alphabetically, which also speeds up the process (and makes taking roll a snap), though it makes the students feel like kindergarteners.
Other teachers find the best way to learn student names is handing back papers frequently. You call the student's name, and as you walk across the class to hand off the paper, you burn the image of the appropriate face in your mind as you mentally repeat his or her name.
You may have students who have disabilities in the class room—ranging from color blindness where they cannot see your color slides, mild deafness in one ear so they can't hear certain parts of the classroom, to dyslexia, to ADD. If I were you, I would make a blanket statement inviting any students who have such disabilities to swing by your office during office hours, so you can identify them and find out what they need without embarrassing them in front of the whole class.
Another strongly recommended task to do the first week is to have the students write an in-class diagnostic essay. You won't necessarily call it "diagnostic." It might be a "getting-to-know-you" essay or a "tell-me-about-yourself-and-your-experience-as-a-writer" essay. That, however, is only part of its purpose. Its secret goal is identify and diagnose weaker students—perhaps non-native speakers, writers with nonstandard dialect, dyslexia sufferers, or anyone with gross punctuation and literacy problems. If you know in advance which students need the most work, you can get them hooked up early with the writing lab. You might identify some students you think aren't yet ready for English 101—those who need to be in ESL training sections or who need a remedial course. Don't feel shy about sending students to talk to their academic advisor about dropping your course, and don't be shy about passing out referrals to the writing lab. Writing lab trips are good for struggling students, as long as you space out the appointments so that twelve aren't trying to go to the lab the same night and tripping over each other and the tutors.
Make It Easy On Yourself:
You are going to have a ton of work as a new teacher in graduate school. Make it easy for yourself. Set up the grading system on a 500-point or 1000-point system, so it's easy to assess a final grade by moving the decimal point (or doubling the score and moving the decimal point on the 500-point system). Find a nice, simple rubric you can print out and mark quickly on final drafts. Those sort of rubrics are available online, typically things like "Content, rate from 1-5; Punctuation, rate from 1-5; introduction, rate from 1-5" and so forth. For beginning graders, they are intensely useful.
For minor homework assignments, simply assign grades as follows.
0 "zero" (student didn't do it)
-√ "check minus" (student did it, but it sucks)
√ "check" (it looks average)
+√ "check plus" (it looks excellent).
Students hate the vagueness of that, preferring concrete numbers, but for piddly-little assignments individually only worth a fraction of a percent, it's good enough to give you a general idea when you record grades. I prefer a 0-4 scale myself, just so the number is "real."
One tricky ethical question is how a teacher reacts to grade inflation. Over the last forty to sixty years, the tendency has been in both high school and academia to award an increasingly larger number of “A’s” and “B’s” in general, even if in some cases the scores are mathematically lower in terms of absolute percentages than they were forty years ago. Perhaps to keep students from complaining, or to avoid unhappy parents, or to encourage retention, the trend has become self-reinforcing. More students are used to getting “A’s,” so they expect more. So they demand more. So teachers give more. It used to be that a “C” was considered a good grade—indicative of average work in line with what one would expect from an intelligent and competent college student. Somewhere along the line, “C” underwent linguistic pejoration. People began to associate the grade with a lack of performance, with mediocrity. Average become . . . below average.
Why is it a problem? One argument would say it’s not a problem. Maybe students are actually smarter than they were, ignoring the fact some seem to be doing less well if you look at grades by percentages. Or maybe it’s a neutral trend, and doesn’t matter as long as they are learning. Another argument says it is a problem because it is uneven in distribution. One college--let’s call it Generic University--might have developed a culture of everyone-who-tries-gets-an-A, but another college next door (let’s call it Utopia State College) might have capped grade percentages to prevent grade inflation, and declared only the top 5% of students in each class can be assigned an "A."
Is an “A” from Generic University really as valuable as the “A” from Utopia State? If not, Generic University has "inflated" its grades, so nobody takes that institution seriously any more. If 90% of the students in Generic University earn an “A” average, how does each school distribute scholarships to the most deserving? How does a law school or medical school pick the best and brightest and hardest working to be our legal representatives and healers? It’s literally a life-or-death (life-or-F?) issue in such cases. How do employers recognize the best of the best if all the students have the same high grades? I don't know about you, but if I ever end up on operating room table, I hope the nurses and doctors earned their degree from a place without much grade inflation before the scalpels come out.
This inflation might or might not be a problem at your university, but it is widespread generally across the U.S. Theoretically, if a “C” is average, the quality of paper most students who pass the class produce, the largest percentage of grades you give should be “C”s. That is not what high-school students who go on to college expect in the last couple decades, though.
Theoretically, if an “A” is the highest possible performance, that means the teacher cannot think of a single way to improve that paper. On a scale from abysmal to perfect, the “A” would be perfect, and “A+” should not exist at all. At some colleges where I’ve taught in the past, it wasn’t even possible to enter an “A+” into the computer system for a grade—it was understood that “better than the highest possible score” was nonsensical. When I see high school transcripts for incoming college students in which the student has a 3.9 or even a 4.2 on a 4.0 grading scale for her grade average, but I see her ACT score is only a 21 or 22, I know that student is going to be in for a rough ride. She will be reasonably bright, reasonably hard-working, and she will do reasonably well in college, but she will have completely unreasonable expectations about what “normal” college grades look like. Her high-school teachers (or home schooling parents) have set her up for a rude shock.
You will have to decide if you think the ethical action is to resist grade inflation (and splinter many, many student hearts), or whether the ethical route is to try and make your grades similar to what most professors give. Taking a stand against grade inflation creates its own problems. Suppose you grade in such a way that most students who pass end up with a “C” average? Now they are competing on a job market with that “C” stamped on their work, while their buddy in the next class has a laissez-faire instructor who hands out “B+” or "A-"for the same average quality of work. Is that fair to your student? To "punish her" for the misfortune of having a teacher who is more strict than one next door?
The reverse policy of "going with the flow" has its own drawbacks. You might decide the ethical action should be mimicking the general standards of the field for consistency's sake. If most teachers give only 20% C's, 30% B's, and 25% A's, you might aim for the same ratio for the sake of consistency. Only now, with 25% of each class getting A's rather than the 5% or 10% more common in the 1940s and 1950s, the general value of the grade diminishes. It's no longer particularly impressive if every fourth student has an "A." Indeed, as grades get watered down, employers, medical schools, and scholarship committees are more likely to ignore them as irrelevant. Now, your policy "punishes" the best students, because their high scores no longer shine or stand out.
I don't have any easy solution for you in this regard. Just consider these points, however, as you grade that first batch of essays and decide what kind of teacher you want to be. I personally try to curb grade inflation. Accordingly, I find it useful to talk to new freshmen about how college grades are different from high school grades. If you ask freshman what an "A" indicates to them, 95% of them will mistakenly say "it's a sign of how hard I worked." That's why many of them feel so betrayed when they see a "C" or "D" on their college work—they know they worked hard—so why wasn't doesn't the grade show that effort?
That's when you need to make it clear that in college, grades don't reflect how hard students work. They reflect how much students have learned and what skills students have mastered. College teachers do not try to measure the sweat and suffering on the tests and projects. They do not award points for effort or trying. The only fair questions we can ask are, can the student do the skill and does the student know the material? If you can make that clear to them early on, they won't necessarily be happy, but at least they won't be surprised.
Aside from grade inflation, consider the ethics of when and how you grade. It is far, far too easy to fall behind in grading and then try to spend all night going through fifteen or twenty papers while you are red-eyed and exhausted. Pulling an all-nighter as a student writing an essay hurts nobody but the student herself if fatigue lowers the quality of the resulting work. On the other hand, pulling an all-nighter grading as a graduate teacher does injure your students. Exhausted, you miss bits you should have corrected, and the grades begin to inflate with more and more “A’s” and “B’s” than you usually give. Or cranky and irritable as you see the same error repeated again and again, maybe you start grading the later papers more harshly than the early ones, and you give more “D’s and “F’s” than you normally would. Numbed and brain-dead, you grow tired of thinking through the relative weight of each paper, and suddenly every paper becomes a “C.” To be fair to your students, don’t grade that way. Space out the papers where you grade no more then eight or ten per day. Yes, it means you will be always grading, but at least the pace is constant, and less prone to the dramas of sleep deprivation.
Assume that it should take you about 1.5 minutes per page to grade a paper, so you should spend about 15 minutes reading through a single 10-page essay, with another 5 minutes summing up comments. (A bit more for freshman-level essays, a bit less for advanced classes and majors). A stack of fifty papers should require about 750 minutes, or about thirteen hours of total work. You should space that work out over several days, working it around your preparation for your teaching and the labor for your graduate school classes. This will seem like a rushed and hurried speed, but grading quickly and accurately is a vital skill to develop. I myself often fall short of that goal—it may take me ten or twenty days to crank through a full stack of essays, rather than seven, but this will give you a standard ballpark figure. Spacing it out also helps prevent medical problems such as arthritis and repetitive motion disorder in your fingers and wrists, from all the constant scribbling and marking.
Consider how to handle your own mistakes. You are human, and you will make them. Part of ethos is appearing to be competent and in control and correct, but part of ethos is also demonstrating your honesty, fairness, and humble willingness to own up to errors. Did you screw up the syllabus and leave the students insufficient time to revise second drafts? Admit it, and extend the deadline. In hindsight, do you realize that the question on your test was unfair, confusing, or poorly phrased? Throw out that question. Your directions confusing or ambiguous? Let the class redo that particular assignment. Did the math wrong when tallying points? Apologize and fix it. Tell the students you are human too. Just be sure you are being consistent.
Suppose the class looks like it has done poorly. Is it because you are being too hard? Or was it a fair assignment--they just didn’t do well? If I’m in doubt about such an issue, my general rule-of-thumb is—if no single student got a “B” or better on that project, I may have bounced the ball too high and made the work too challenging. That’s why the gods of statistics invented grading on the curve. I will typically then curve the results so there is one “A” for whatever student did the best, a couple of “B”s for the next batch, and so on. If, however, there is at least one “B” or one “A,” there really is no need to curve it, even if the other 99% of the class failed. That single student’s performance suggests it was possible to succeed, so in such a case, it is a fault in performance rather than in the test or assignment.
Bargaining About Grades
Admitting your own errors, however, is not the same as “bargaining” with students about grades. If you have made a mathematical error, it is perfectly legitimate to correct the error and raise the student’s grade. It’s another thing entirely if a student just thinks, “you grade too hard” or “I worked so hard I deserve a higher grade.” Don’t fall into that trap! Is grading partially subjective? Yes. Do some teachers grade more severely than others? Sure. Neither observation, however, invalidates the teacher’s individual assessment.
Certainly, explain how you determined that grade when you assessed the student’s work. Certainly, point out what the student can do to improve on the next essay. Certainly, review your math, and review your earlier comments to check for any math errors on your part. But if in your assessment and in your double-checked math, you still see an “F,” or “D” or “C” essay, don’t change it just because a student is unhappy. If the student keeps raising a ruckus after you refuse, you have two routes you can go.
The route I usually take is say, “It seems to me like you want to argue me into re-assessing the grade on the paper. Very well, I will agree to go through it again more slowly and carefully, and re-grade it. However, if I do reassess the paper as you ask, the grade can go down as well as up if I spot additional problem areas.” I then pull out the red pen, and if they press the issue, I am fully prepared to make that paper bleed.
The second and probably fairer route a teacher can take is to say, “If you are unhappy with a grade, you can appeal the final grade in a course once the semester is finished. You will want to keep careful copies of all work you have done, and you can type a formal appeal to the department chair.” Typically, most English Departments have a policy about such processes. Sometimes, the departmental chair will review the material, or he may ask two or three other teachers in the department to review the paper independently and decide if the grade is fair or not. However the department handles it, the decision reached by this method is usually final.
The inside scoop, however? The outcome rarely favors the student who was complaining. Interestingly enough, a teacher who knows a student and sees him or her face-to-face is statistically slightly more likely to provide an inflated grade than a stranger assessing a stranger’s paper. That means, if you gave a student a “75” on the paper, and the student appeals the grade to a second grader or group of graders who do not know the student, it is very likely they will actually assess it as “72” or “70” when they look at it. Appealing an individual grade on the grounds the student thinks the teacher is “too hard” rarely succeeds.
Usually, your department heads or supervisors will support your assessment. If, however, they decide the student is right and bump up the grade, that’s their prerogative. It’s out of your hands at that point, which is just as well. You stood by your guns and defended your honest assessment of the work, and that’s what matters. Don't lose any sleep over it, and bow to the boss's judgment.
Another strategy to prevent grade manipulation is the “2% over/under” rule that Dr. Jeri Williams suggested to me when I was a Teaching Assistant many moons ago. She pointed out that, if teachers assign percentage grades to papers, they can have standard percentages that they assign that make it less likely a student can “argue” his or her way into an entirely different letter grade. For instance, suppose a particular college uses a 10% increment for grades, with 90-100% serving as an “A,” 80-89% as a “B,” 70-79% as a “C,” and so forth. Teachers can assign each paper that’s a “B” a number value of 85 points, and every “C” paper as 75 points. For a “B+” or a “C+” you add 2%, and for a “B-“ or “C-,” you subtract 2%. So, a “C+” would be 77 points, and a B- would be 82 points.
If a student comes in and tries to get that C+ (77) turned into a B- (82), you can listen to his or her arguments and if you find them plausible, agree to add two points to the final score. The 77 becomes a 79, but that is technically still a C+, and not a B-. This sort of grading scale allows teachers to add a few percent if the student has plausible reasons for why the grade should be higher, but it also helps curb grade inflation when the teacher would honestly assess the paper as average “C” work. Adding those two percentage points is not enough change the letter grade on the particular assignment, but it does create a real 2% increase that can affect the final grade in the class overall. Such a tweak can often satisfy the student (because the 2% increase in grade is real), but it can also match your honest appraisal of the individual essay by keeping it in the boundaries of what you see as a fair assessment.
Objectivity in Grading
Teachers obviously share in humanity's flaws. We have our quirks and biases. We have our blind spots. In the classroom, some students will gleam and sparkle in discussion, and we grow to like them. Other students we find annoying, or dull, or somehow rub us the wrong way. Since composition classes are so small, you will know most of your students as people, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. How do you compensate for your biases to be fair and objective? The sciences have it easy—as do any disciplines where teachers can accurately assess knowledge with scan-trons or well-designed multiple-choice problems. That's harder for us, since evaluating writing is also assessing how the young writer presents herself, how skillfully she conveys appropriate or genuine elements of her own personality and creativity in written form. Can you trace the outlines of one's soul in an essay without considering the author as a person? The two are interlinked.
If you have a student you particularly favor, or if there is a student in class who particularly annoys you, the fairest technique may be to grade the whole class "blind." Id est, you must cover up their names and read through each paper anonymously. It's not a perfect solution. You will still recognize the ESL student from the problems with missing definite articles. You will recognize Will's paper from his introduction, which you saw in rough draft form earlier. It isn't a panacea, but it's a step in the right direction toward objectivity.
As a new teacher, if you are like me, you will find it initially quite hard to record final grades of "F" when the student has actually been showing up to class and doing the work, trying hard. The students who don't turn in work, or who vanish for weeks on end? No problem slapping an "F" down on their transcripts. But what about the honest, hard-working borderline student? The one with a 59.4%, who came in every week to work on drafts? As a new teacher, you will be torn with self-doubt. You will feel bitterly this student's future wobbles on the edge. You know keenly how new you are to this whole "grading thing." You will worry that you have done something wrong or failed the student. You know at least some part of grading writing is subjective. So . . . what if you reassess participation points? Should you add a point or two to push the problem child up to a passing "D"?
As an older teacher, speaking to a new one, I cannot make that decision for you. I will tell you from my own experience though, that you aren't necessarily doing students any favors by passing them through that class if the student is borderline. Sometimes failing a class once or twice is actually an opportunity to take it over and improve. If the students are that close to the edge, a "pass" score implies they have mastered the material. Such students will go on to a more advanced writing class after yours, and will almost certainly wither under those greater challenges, but the more advanced course will never slow down and cover the basics as fully as the 101 class would. You have effectively thrown that the student into the ring with the lions, while that student really needs to repeat your class and learn how to wrestle with bobcats first.
I have never regretted having such a student fail a remedial class and repeat it because the student would keep improving the next time he took it, and when his score was clearly passing, he was clearly ready to move on, having earned the right to try the harder course.
I have, however, always later regretted every time I second-guessed myself and bumped a borderline score from failing to passing in a remedial class. In my attempts to give a favor to a hard-working borderline student, I almost always ended up condemning the student with cruel kindness. The student would typically end up unable to master the material in the upper-division courses after mine. I have spent late nights in bed, sometimes, thinking about how many extra semesters such students suffer through fruitlessly after I passed them. I would imagine how much extra tuition money and loans such freshmen spent on coursework they were not ready for. Far, far more merciful for such students to learn early on that college was not the right place for them, before sinking years of their lives and thousands of dollars into a doomed enterprise. Have pity on such students, and in your compassion, give them the appropriate grade. Hold them back another term rather than pass them on unprepared.
When you have the borderline student, and you feel the temptation to let that student slide under the wire, ask yourself if you are really doing what's best for the student or what feels easiest to you? Ask yourself if you are being honest in your assessment of the student's ability or deluding yourself? It's easy to let that grade slide—no hurt phone calls, no teary-eyed conferences in your office—if you just slap down the passing grade. But just because it's easy doesn't mean it is the best choice (or even a good choice).
Another ethical problem is how one handles grading group projects. Group projects are time-savers for teachers, frequently—which is why I suspect so many teachers assign them. The teacher only has to assess one bit of work for 3-5 students, rather than a bunch of individual projects. However, often students in those groups are outraged by the slackers and parasites who ride on their coattails. If only three students did all the work, should the fourth student who did nothing share in the rewards? If a project fizzles when the fourth student neglects his responsibilities, should the other three students in the group suffer the lower grade?
On the receiving end of the red-pen, group projects can be infuriating. I hated them as an undergraduate student in the early ‘nineties, and I’m sure many of your students in the modern ‘teens decade hate them as well, precisely because of that difficulty in assessment. On the other end of the red-pen, I know they teach valuable lessons to students. Group projects are vital in terms of students learning how to deal with balky or incompetent members of their own work groups. In the so-called real world, those students will face situations where they have to cooperate with other people to finish a project. They will have members in their groups who are incompetent, lazy, or quarrelsome. They will suffer the consequences from their employer if they cannot pull together and make the project work, and their employer will expect them to work it out on their own rather than whining for intervention from the upper management. Unfair? Probably. Realistic? Absolutely.
Students need to learn how to kick their colleagues into gear when their peers fall down on the job without relying on their bosses to fix the solution for them. They need to learn how to make group work . . . work. For this reason, I still assign group projects, in spite of the ethical problems of assessment. I often try splitting the difference on such assignments, and I usually have half the grade come from my assessment of the whole project and the other half of the grade come for individual contributions. Usually, I have the group report to me which people did what part of the project, or alternatively having the other members anonymously “grade” each other, and I rely on their assessment in that regard.
You will face a very similar problem if you do peer evaluations on your major essays—i.e., if you have your students read and comment on each other's rough drafts before they revise and submit a final paper to you. Some of my colleagues think this process is a waste of time, like the proverbial blind leading the blind. Many students blow it off or do half-baked jobs, but I think it can work if you watch the students like a 24-hour camera during the process and provide them very specific guidelines.
When it comes to establishing which students you should group together, different teachers handle it in different ways. One reasonably fair way to do it is to alphabetize the students and throw them together arbitrarily—i.e., “Anderson, Blevins, and Cruz, you are in the ABC group. Dalton, Engerham, and Fukimoto,” you are in the DEF group.” If you want to group students with different partners for each major essay, you can also draw lots to randomize them. It’s fair, though not necessarily the most effective pedagogically.
You can also group students together by topic. For instance, if three students are writing about environmental issues, put them together as partners. They gain a chance to contrast how they approached the topic with how another student tried to deal with something similar. It's a strategy I find really useful for research essays, since the students can often end up sharing new resources with each other.
It's a bit more work, but you can also group strong students with weak students. If Jane is excellent with her punctuation skills, but Will thinks a comma is a medical condition where a patient can't wake up, it would be a big favor to Will if you put him in the same group with Jane as they go over rough drafts. Whether or not it's fair to Jane is another question, though arguably Jane will reinforce her own knowledge by talking through the commas with Will. I often put non-native speakers of English in with "A" students, figuring the non-native speakers need all the help they can get.
Another option I've tried in the past is to put students with opposing viewpoints into the same groups. If Jane is a libertarian arguing in favor of deregulated mountaintop removal mining, and Will is an environmentalist, arguing that we should restrict the mining industry from fragile ecosystems, they need to be each other's audience. They can have a meaningful dialogue about real issues, and see how effective their own rhetoric and argument is by test-driving it on a breathing, living, disagreeing audience. Some of the best experiences I have had as a teacher have been from putting such groups together, though it is an awful lot of work to organize.
Currently, the way I handle peer evaluations is to do the first grouping randomly, then have each student fill out a slip and "evaluate their evaluators." I.e., if they thought their partner was helpful, they would assign a number of points to them. If the partner provided no feedback, never returned the draft at all, etc., they could assign zero points in those categories. I would encourage the students to make sure their partners are happy, because in the peer evaluation stage, their partners are the ones grading them on the quality of their feedback.
For the second, third, and fourth essays, however, I put them in groups based on how well their partners evaluated them in the previous sessions. For instance, if Jane does a great job on the first evaluation, and her partners give her high scores, I will put her with partners who had similarly high feedback as a reward. On the other hand, if Will didn't treat the process seriously, and gets poor marks, I put him with other partners who had done poorly. This isn't secret. I let them know, "X, Y, and Z—you three students last time had the highest scores for helpfulness, so you three are the same group. A, B, C, you three students were not rated very helpful last time, so I've stuck you three in the slacker group. If you want in a better group next time, work your tails off on providing good feedback this time so your partners will rank you more highly."
It's not perfect, and some of my colleagues are horrified that I have an official "slacker" group for students who aren't doing the work, but it's been working reasonably well so fart. Students who are lazy or slackers eventually face the punishment of grouping up with others like them, and then must rely upon them. Students who work hard eventually find themselves with other competent, hard-working sorts. I tell them it's an exercise in karma. It’s also how the real world works—successful people end up interacting with other successful people, and slackers end up getting grouped with other slackers.
The Ethos of Knowledge:
Part of ethos is appearing to be knowledgeable. What you should you do if the students stump you and ask a truly fiendish and obscure question? The flippant, joking answer is to make something up—they'll never know the difference. Seriously though, I think there are two good responses here.
(1) If they have presented something open-ended, some sort of "big question"-type inquiry, you can say, "That's a great question. Let me toss that out to the class as a whole to chew on." Often their questions will be fine food for the whole class to digest intellectually. This strategy works well on questions like, "Do you think Shakespeare could have meant X when he wrote that poem"? Students never even realize you were stumped by the novelty of the idea. But even if you do know the correct answer, it's still often useful to throw the question out to the class so they can gnaw on its bones. It's good hunting practice for young verbivores.
(2) If they have presented a question about something obscure and factual, a sort of "minute-detail"-type inquiry, my standard response is, "Good question. I don't know the answer off the top of my head, but I will find out for you." I then write down the question on my notepad, and before the next class, I try to find out the answer. (I get a lot of questions of that sort in History of the English Language). It sometimes takes a day or two, and I often have to recruit a handy librarian or else e-mail people with appropriate expertise if it's outside my area, but I can usually provide a reasonable possible answer, or sometimes I can confirm that nobody seems to know the answer to it yet.
What if you have a part of the grade determined by discussion and participation—but one student is hogging all the chat time? In cases like that, bring with you a bunch of skittles or pennies to the classroom. Give three to each student, and tell them that each student gets to make one comment or share one insight, and they can then return the penny to you or eat the skittle. Once they run out of pennies or skittles, though, they have to be quiet and let others talk. If everybody tries to talk at once, bring a soft-cushy stuffed toy or a tennis ball, and declare that only the person holding that object gets to talk, and he can then it throw it to another student who holds up her hand when she wants to talk, and then she can toss it to another student.
Personal and Emotional Life:
Graduate school is a busy time with a lot of responsibilities. Teaching is also a full time job, and it will devour as much time as you put into it. Anybody who wants to be a teacher wants to do the best possible for her students. That can lead new grad students into a nervous breakdown as they pour their souls and their time into the classroom at the expense of their own studies and coursework and their own emotional life.
The hardest job will be letting go and scheduling time for yourself, but you must do so if you want to be effective as a teacher and grad student. Schedule time to swim, or work out, and eat real food. Schedule at least one hour of uninterrupted fun each week (though you will find that hard to do with your work load). Be sure that half your time is focused on graduate class work—your own learning. Otherwise, the freshmen will cannibalize you. You will feel guilty, thinking to yourself, “How can I set my student Susie’s needs aside? She’s dyslexic and needs my help!” Indeed, she does. But you must pass some of that burden onto the writing lab, and you cannot get so wrapped up in helping one student that you neglect the rest of your current class’s general needs. Likewise, you are in graduate school for a reason. If you shortchange your own education now while obsessing over problem students, you are robbing future students in future classes. All the knowledge you gain in graduate school will make you a better writer, reader, and graduate teacher on down the line in future semesters. Your future students will need you to have those skills. Don’t let your graduate work fall into second-rate quality by ignoring your own needs as a graduate student.
Get a support group. You will need a chance to sit down and simply vent your frustrations. Even experienced teachers gather in gripe-sessions with each other to pull our hair and tear our clothes, and put on metaphoric sackcloth and ashes, lamenting the latest recurring classroom error or student obstinacy.
Prepare yourself for nasty student comments at the end of the term. Harden yourself. In their course comments, students will comment on your weight. They will make disparaging comments about everything from your personality, to the way you laugh, to bizarre non-sequiturs. Teaching is not for the thin-skinned. Brush off the immaterial comments, and look for actual suggestions on how to improve, for specific bits that did not work and think how you can tinker with the course so it works better next time. Bit of advice: never return a batch of papers to them on the same day they are doing their course evaluations of you—that can bring out a vindictive streak!
If all the students are happy and writing smiley-faces on the course evaluations, you are doing something wrong. Your supervisors will not be impressed if all the students are happy and love you (at least if I were your supervisor, I would not be impressed!). They will be more impressed if your students say, “She grades too hard! She teaches us like it’s a senior-level course! She gives us too much work." Your supervisors like to see that you are bouncing the ball high.
Another emotional issue to be prepared for will be how students will come to you with their most intimate problems. It is something about the nature of writing classes. The classes tend to be small, capped at 22 or 24 as opposed to the big lecture classes of 300 students. It may be the only class in which the teacher actually knows the students’ names. The students may have written a lot of personal revelation in their essays, so they feel they can come to confide in you when their lives break.
Students will come to you with very serious issues that they (and you) won’t know how to deal with. Friends committing crimes. Grief over dying relatives. Suicide thoughts. The young freshman girl who collapses outside your office door and reveals how her father rapes her each time she returns home to visit her family. The student who tells you he discovered last week he tested positive for HIV, and he now fears the symptoms of full blown AIDS. The girl who has been diagnosed over the weekend with terminal cancer, and who will not live to graduate, and she is shattered and numb with the news. The Iraq veteran who tells you he is resisting the urge to stick a gun in his mouth because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am quite serious about this--of these situations, three out of the four above examples are real ones in which students have come to talk to me. They come in pale, or weeping, or angry—all in unimaginable hurt, and want you to help them, and it breaks your heart because you can’t. You must get them to a counselor. Add the school counselor’s number to your phone or put the number on speed dial. You aren’t qualified to do the job of a trained psychological professional, and don’t get suckered into thinking you can do it just because you are worried about them.
What if My Students Mutiny?
Let me end on the question of student rebellion. This is the unvoiced fear of all new teachers. What should you do if the students just refuse to do the work? What if you can't motivate them? What if you demand too much and they mutiny?
It's rare, but it can happen, if you push your students hard—really push them as far you can—that you can end up shattering their spirits. They burst into tears. They get angry. They cry out, "That's unfair! Why do we have to do that? It takes so much time! Why is there another pop quiz? Why are the grades so low? Why are you asking us to do so much more than the other teachers do?"
The first time it happened to me was at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s. To be fair, I had pushed the class too hard. It was in the heady, early days of HTML, and I was convinced that increasingly writing would take place online, so I tried reshaping the class to teach them how to code HTML as well as do all the work of a regular composition class. It was too much, and the students never fully recovered their confidence, even after I retracted the HTML and web design portion of the class. I broke them. Their interactions had become sullen and unhappy. They were exhausted and emptied in spirit, not really wanting to work or interact any more, just count down the days until the class ended. I had failed that particular class by misjudging what was reasonable for them to accomplish in three months (trimesters at that college), and I had failed by not knowing how to pull them back from that psychological malaise.
The second time I had some students mutiny, I was a bit older and wiser. When they became teary-eyed as I passed back papers and they saw their grades, and I could feel their anger and frustration, one girl asked with her voice cracking, "Why are you so hard on us," I sat down my briefcase, sat on the edge of the desk, looked very closely at her and her classmates, and said, "I am so hard on you guys because you are capable of so much more than you think you are. I am hard on you because I know you can do it." Those were the right words at the right time. What I realized in that exchange was that particular group of students wasn't really asking me why I was tough as a teacher or grading them so severely. They were really asking me if I thought they were failures because they weren't doing well in the class. Of course not—but I had never told them that.
The moral to the story? If you have been working your students to death, and if you can sense the mutiny starting to form, look them in their eyes. Reaffirm your respect for them, your confidence in their abilities. That's what they need at that moment, and if they can get over that initial hump of self-doubt, they'll hit their stride. The worst way to betray your students isn't hurting their feelings, or giving them a bad grade, or making them cry. The worst way to betray your students is giving up on them and watering down your high expectations of what they can achieve.
You may ask, aren't you going to destroy their confidence in themselves if you give them work that's too hard for them to do? Won't that just make them feel stupid? Won't it damage their self-esteem?
I would argue no. What some falsely call "self-esteem" comes from never experiencing an actual challenge, from students having a mistaken or inflated sense of their own competence because they've never actually had to overcome an actual failure. That creates a sort of hollow cockiness, a brittle hubris, but I wouldn't call it confidence. Such students may be hurt or feel shame when they encounter a real challenge, and they may seem surprised the first time someone calls them out on actual mediocrity, but I suspect, that all along, some quiet part of them always whispered doubt in their ears. Some hidden part of their souls knew they didn't really understand how to use a comma, or distinguish between who and whom. Some subconscious echo always reminded them they never really mastered MLA, or that they can't spell parallelism without a spell-checker doing the work for them. Like a pebble in a sandal, that hidden truth was always gnawing against them, invisible and unknown to others aside from the student. You can call that confidence if you will, but I am not that cynical.
The solution to uncertainty isn't to set the bar low, so students can jump over it every time. The solution is to keep gradually raising the bar higher, until they themselves are surprised at how high they can jump and how much they can learn. If teachers are worried about their students—if they want to create a lasting and real and permanent self-confidence in their pupils--they must give their students real challenges, and dust off the students each time they fall, and help them back up until they eventually conquer. Teachers must make them work hard, and the students who rise to those challenges will find victory tastes that much sweeter. Such students deserve to feel a fierce, burning pride that will blaze long after the class ends. They can say, "Why yes, I do know what ethos, pathos and logos are. And I can show you a few quick ways to create those rhetorical qualities. Why yes, I know exactly when the punctuation mark falls inside the quotation mark or outside it. Yes, I can a write a decent cover letter—just give me time to proof it carefully before sending it. Yes, I can identify a logical fallacy. I can even give you the Latin term for it if you want. Yes, I can do that. Yes, I know that. Or if I don't know off the top of my head, I know where I can look it up in five minutes." By all the bright stars of heaven, that is the sort of confidence I want my students to gain! I wouldn't rob anyone of that long-term blessing for a short-term salve to a fragile ego.
It doesn't matter if the students like you or not as a teacher. It doesn't matter ultimately if they have fun or not (though that's often a nice side-benefit of a good class). What matters is that they learn they can do more and accomplish more than they thought they could. That they can master and have mastered the basics of composition--that, in the slightly altered words of Borges, "beyond their anxiety, beyond their writing, / the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting."
I have worn down your ears. This is far too long a discussion. I did not have time to make it shorter, so you must separate the wheat from the chaff. I wish you the best of luck as you begin teaching for the first time. I do not know what kind of teacher you will be during your graduate studies, or what particular strategies you will choose in the classroom, but I am sure you will be a good one if you work at it. But whatever persona you don, whatever strategies you choose, whoever you become in the classroom, don't deprive your students of real challenges. They will rise to the level you set for them. Set the bar high, and they may curse you today, but they will bless you in their hearts tomorrow. That's perhaps the best advice I can give you.