Before the start of the academic year in 2012, I helped organize and presented at NYU’s annual Graduate Student Teacher Conference. Over the course of the day, I engaged graduate students from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences who were about to teach at the university for the first time. I began my general session about teaching at the university level with an anecdote. The previous semester, I had taught an American Literature survey course. After the first paper, the student who received the lowest mark came to my office hours to discuss ways to improve. During our conversation, it became apparent that he was trying desperately to adhere to some imagined scholarly conventions. When I asked him about the argument he was making, he was clear and offered interesting observations regarding the poem he had chosen as his essay’s subject. Something happened when he was asked to write a formal paper; something told him that he had to sound other than himself to be a successful writer.
When I told this story to those present at the conference, many expected that my student and I had a transformative chat during office hours that left him forever changed and his next essay received an A grade. We didn’t. It didn’t. And that was the point I wanted to convey to new graduate instructors: teaching is about much more than simply helping students receive higher marks. While we may not have had a life-changing chat in office hours, the student and I did design a course map for the rest of the semester, paying careful attention to due dates and looming exams. I made myself available for additional office hour appointments, designed short writing exercises that he could do on his own between longer formal assignments, and set clear benchmarks. For example, he would complete a draft of the second paper one week before it was due in order to allow substantial time for revision. Though he did indeed begin to improve, he did not suddenly become an A writer. He did, however, gradually begin to express himself more clearly and communicate his ideas more effectively. Like the value of an assignment, one’s value as an instructor resides outside of the 100 to 0 and A to F spectrums.
In guiding student growth, I have found it especially helpful to draw a clear distinction between performances and exercises. Many students, especially when it comes to written work, view college as a series of performances that either succeed or fail. For instance, a student submits a five-page analytical essay that is assigned a value by the instructor. Oftentimes, after the assignment is completed and graded, the student’s engagement with that assignment is also at an end. In my courses, I require students to return to a given performance by bringing their graded essays with them to class. After grading the first paper for each course I teach, I offer a writing workshop tailored to the needs of that class. I provide explanations of specific problems, give examples of successful writing, and then ask students to go through their essays and find instances of particular mistakes or errors and correct them.
In addition to encouraging my students to become self-reflective learners, I strive to be a self-reflective instructor. On the first day of each new class, I ask students what activities they find most engaging: lecture, group work, power point presentations, and the like. I also pay careful attention to how my students respond to certain teaching techniques. In my British Literature II course, one of my sections excelled at class discussions. When I put these students into groups, the conversation slowed down and the level of engagement decreased. In contrast, my second section excelled at group work and our conversations gained momentum when they were divided into smaller groups. I ultimately designed two different lesson plans that played to the strengths of each section.
My goal in each class is always the same: to show students that every form of writing is an opportunity to discover and develop their own voices.