Last semester, I had a lengthy meeting with an exasperated graduate student who was approaching her first semester of teaching and growing more concerned about who she should be when she walked into class on her first day of teaching. She’s a student who completed her BA in our department, so she’s had the awesome opportunity to experience many of our diverse faculty in the classroom, and she’s apparently been watching and considering a variety of teaching styles. Like most of us starting our first year of teaching, she’s looking for that perfect fit; she is Goldilocks trying to find the right bed. As a traditional student, she will be very close in age to her students, which means she will have to establish her persona as teacher with more effort, but what exactly is that role? This conversation came back to me as I was in the middle of a completely unrelated read, Traci A. Zimmerman’s “Authors, Audiences, and the Gaps Between.” Zimmerman writes, about audience:
The concept of audience in the twenty-first century is harder to grasp precisely because of the sheer scope and range of online communication–anyone with an internet connection is in the “potential audience” base.
Zimmerman is talking about the audiences our students must negotiate in their everyday lives, particularly when posting in online environments; however, I find this statement represents the same conundrum faced by a teacher walking into a classroom. When I began teaching, I knew my student-audience, mostly because I went to a private liberal arts college where the background of 95% of our undergraduate class was the same, with only a few minor details, such as which high school the students attended. I only had this luxury for two years, before moving to a larger, public university. A decade later, I’m teaching at an even more diverse university where Zimmerman’s words ring truer than ever. Today, my students are 32 and working full-time at a refinery, coming to class after a long overnight shift; they are highly intelligent 16-year old students in our dual credit program; they are single mothers; they are empty nesters; they are grandfathers; they are veterans; they are traditional 18-year old students on athletic scholarships; they are traditional 18-year old inner city students; they are traditional 18-year old students working on the family farm when they aren’t in class. How does one address this group as a single audience? Sure, they have in common only one, incredibly generic trait–they are college students.
The advice I received from a female graduate student before I entered my first classroom seemed hardly the advice to pass on to this young, female graduate student. I was advised to go in and “be a bitch. Make them fall in line and do their work.” Otherwise, I was told, “they will never respect you.” I tried that in my first classroom, but it failed miserably in under six week. The reason it failed was not that the students tried to run over me; I had what might be the best first-time teaching experience ever. My students respected me, oddly enough, because it was my first time teaching. I would hardly say that will happen in many classes; I’m certain there are plenty of students out there who smell the inexperience and take advantage of it, but I had to adjust to this failed persona quickly for the class to continue successfully. Years later, when I adapted the coach attitude, a group of freshmen boxed me in to the point that I had to switch my teaching style to a more harsh, unfeeling, bitchy persona before midterms. Another time, a class filled with students who really didn’t care about the course put me in such a position that I felt much more like a dictator than an educator. (That class was a completely miserable experience for the full semester, and no approach worked better than the others.)
Since the conversation with my graduate student, I did some searching, looking to see what advice was out there and readily in reach of new teachers. Linda B. Nilson offers this advice for the first day of class:
Make students feel comfortable with you as a person as well as an instructor, but don’t confuse your roles; remember the difference between being friendly and being friends.
I single Nilson out because her statement is the most succinct of the information available, but I must point out that this statement sums up the most available advice on developing a teaching persona, and the focus on how to act on the first day is the most commonly offered advice on developing a teaching persona. Unfortunately, remembering this difference and maintaining this difference over a 16-week semester are only part of what we must do as educators. I feel I should also point out that this is a key place where audience awareness becomes a factor, especially in a highly diverse classroom. How do we negotiate the friendly remark made to one student not being mistaken as a sign of friendship with the student? This is the question I’ve been raising for years in response to my own classroom persona. For years, I tried to be “approachable” (whatever that actually means for a student, I’m still unsure about), but I seemed to end up being either too friendly or, when I pulled back to avoid too friendly, too distant. I accidentally found the best advice on developing a teaching persona while rereading Virginia Woolf. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes (one of the most quoted lines from the text to date):
We look back through our mothers if we are women.
Much like Zimmerman’s writing on audience, this seems highly separate from any advice that might help us develop a teaching persona, but meditating on this single statement shows me how much the traits of my parents developed my teaching persona. To say that I embody my mother in the classroom is untrue (and I sense a visceral reaction to making the sexist connection that teaching is maternal), but I firmly believe that as educators, especially in the diverse classrooms we enter today, looking back through our parents to find a teaching persona is excellent advice for any new teacher. In many ways, teaching is much like parenting: students need the opportunity to grow; students need the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them; students need teachers who hold firm to rules but understand that real life happens; students need teachers who listen and help.
In my own teaching, I present a set of classroom rules that relate to our class, nothing arbitrary, but specific rules about meeting deadlines and coming to class prepared. I hold to these rules, as my father would; my father, the former Marine who ran a tight watch at home and demanded we fall in line and work for the respect and privileges we wanted. But these rules, and the rigidity with which they are enforced, does not set the tone for the course; rather, these rules are addressed after the first day of class only in one-on-one discussions with individual students who are not meeting the deadlines and coming to class prepared. The rules are the backbone of my teaching persona, and the students who break the rules are the ones who see the disciplinarian within. The day-to-day operations of my class, the persona seen by the class as a whole, is the everyone as an equal with an individual voice to be respected by the others, that is my mother’s influence on my classroom. I break away from the ordered rows of the classroom and the rigidity of lectures and ask students to meet in a large circle on the open side of class for discussions; students learn quickly to not interrupt their peers or they will be disciplined, and before we’re a month into the semester they all wait patiently to speak, listening to each other, offering input into the conversation. Meanwhile, my voice becomes one of the group, not one of authority. I find proof of my mother in this class design when my students begin to refer to these class discussions as “family time.” In thinking back through my own mother, I realized my teaching persona emerged because I want my students to feel a sense of belonging to the classroom, yet where I tried countless times to create community, I create family. This happened because of my upbringing, and because my parents’ traits and their home management played a role in my teaching style.
This is the one piece of advice I give future teachers before they set foot in the classroom. On the surface, it seems as vague as knowing the difference between being friendly and being a friend, and it seems as vague as telling the future teacher to be herself. But why do I favor this piece of advice over the others, despite the seeming vagueness that it presents. I favor this piece because it embodies both of the other pieces of advice, but it positions us in a particular place, a place of introspection. We are who we are because of our parents (for better or worse), because we watched this adult role model for years, deciding which traits they possessed that we wanted to carry forward in our own lives and which traits we wanted to avoid in our own lives. If we consider these same traits in our roles as educators, we find the balance between friendly and friend, and we find ourselves. I see this in my own teaching every day, and my teaching persona becomes as diverse as my students without me doing anything to necessarily address this diversity. At the same time, I can customize a minute of individual instruction, whether class or life related, to an individual student without changing my persona.
But I don’t give this piece of advice in passing. How can it be any good to a graduate student already overwhelmed by the idea of facing their first classroom? I have conversations with the student, asking them to tell me the best and worst traits of each parental figure in their lives. Sometimes, there is one figure; sometimes, there are up to six figures who influenced their upbringing. We spend the next bit of the conversation discussing the traits the student wants to bring into the classroom, and her own life experiences led her to remarks such as “I don’t want to be as strict as my dad” and “my mom is always too forgiving,” and these remarks open up a conversation that reveal how both the strictness of the father and the forgiving nature of the mother have a place in the classroom.
So there is the advice I gave the exasperated graduate student. She’s a month into her first class now, and we spoke earlier this week. The class is going well, and though she’s still tweaking the balance between forgiving and strict, she’s doing well.
Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2010.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt, 1929.
Zimmerman, Traci A. “Authors, Audiences, and the Gaps Between.” Engaging Audience: Writing in an Age of New Literacies. M. Elizabeth Weiser, Brian M. Fehler, and Angela M. Gonzalez, eds. Urbana: NCTE, 2009.
This semester I am teaching my ENGL 1302 (Comp 2) course by having my students do research on Graphic Novels.
Currently I am running this course out of my own WordPress Blog: www.whynotgraphicnovels.wordpress.com
One particular lesson has me engaging the students in examining McCloud’s Ch. 4 in an attempt to better understand how Time and Space operate within comic books/graphic novels: Continue reading “Teaching the Graphic Novel, an Approach for Comp II Classroom, Part 2”
The beginning of a new semester is upon us, but for most it has not arrived yet. That means we’re in that final stage of polishing syllabi and searching out those last minute tips and pointers on being better educators, using our classroom time better, and managing the grade load. On my quest for fresh ideas for the spring, I stumbled upon James M. Lang’s most recent CHE article, “Small Changes in Teaching.” Lang offers four strategies for the first five minutes of a class period, and while I was excited to see that Lang offers writing as a strategy for starting class, I was more excited to find that each of the activities he presents can be used for community building as well. Lang doesn’t bring up this opportunity in his article, so I thought I might share with you how you might use three of these techniques to incorporate community building at the start of each class. (I could write all day about how I use writing to start a class, but that’s a different post) Continue reading “The First Five Minutes”
Grant Morrison, in describing, in a bit of existential retrospection, how people come to perceive or interact with the 2D world of superheroes and comic books from the “higher dimension” of the real world recounts how:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could send drawn versions of themselves into the created world of Fantastic Four, and those little drawings of Stan and Jack were like angels, UFOs, avatars from a higher universe, entering a world they’d made to interact with its inhabitants. They created, as I cam to call them, ‘fiction suits,’ like space suits for sending yourself into stories. (Supergods 226-7)
Let’s be honest…this sounds pretty freaking awesome. Morrison enacted a similar feat of sorts at the end of his run on Animal Man for DC Comics from 1988-90. The final story saw the character of Animal Man, who had already experienced (while on peyote) a breaking down of the 4th wall in his reality and realizing that he was a character of fiction, had the character arriving at Grant Morrison’s very door-step to confront his own creator. This meta-confrontation/discussion was the final issue of Morrison’s run and ended with the character of Animal Man receiving his life back, including his murdered family. Continue reading “Diving In To Examine the Potential Power of Images”
So, are you thinking about teaching students about evaluating writing? Are you thinking about teaching students simply how to make an evaluation? Well, here is a lesson, some results, and possible exercise you can try out.
One of the genres, one that I used to use a minor writing assignment to cover and to “contrast” against Essay 2: Article Analysis, is that of Evaluations. This is a genre students need to know in order to approach the genre of Article Analysis or Textual Analysis, but it is also a genre I have found students were often very uncomfortable with. Continue reading “When you want students to get what evaluations require but find you need to inspire them with some critical thought…”
I incorporate student feedback in my courses as frequently as I can. I ask students to provide anonymous feedback on four areas: things to consider starting in the class, things to consider stopping in the class, things to do more of in the class, and things to do less of in the class. In my first-year courses, this feedback comes at the end of each writing unit. The feedback I get runs the gamut from the completely absurd (stop using chalk) to the cliche (less writing). However, these more cliche and absurd responses are often in places where students do not have suggestions, and they balance well with the more realistic feedback (more peer reviews). My first-year students completed their feedback cards last week, and there was a definite trend in their feedback that never appeared in previous classes.
The students want to start a few new things in class including group projects a class breakfast, and the students want to stop doing individual projects. They want to do more group activities and less individual projects. From their syllabus, the students knew weeks ago that their next project contained a collaborative element, and they became anxious about this project. Our family time sessions often included comments about starting the project, but not the traditional reluctance. My students seem to hunger to collaborate with their peers. I was excited about starting the project, but I was also apprehensive. The project asks students to work with their established peer groups, and I was apprehensive that class workshops would prove less focused and more chatty since the peer groups are now comprised of friends, not nameless peers. I stand corrected. Class time on Friday, the first group workshopping day, proved quite successful to progress on the group project, and observing the students working emphasizes that the community building we started the first day of class plays a significant role in this productive work. Continue reading “First-Year Communities and the Group Project”
We begin here, with the idea of:
Directly teaching and using Graphic Narratives such as Graphic Novels in the Composition Classroom
During a summer session (5 weeks) at Mt. View College this summer I taught a Composition II class centered upon the rationale of having students approach a graphic novel, of their choosing (from a provided list), and argue an answer to one of three proposed questions:
- Should _________________ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered appropriate for use in the college classroom (pick a type of classroom)?
- Should _______________ _ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered worthy of someone wanting to read it? For what purpose might someone want to read it? Does it have merit?
- Should _________________ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered or adopted as a worthy piece of literature based on its literary merit (you argue for it), universal themes, and/or longevity potential?