Bring Your Work to Class

Humanities PhD programs will pull you in a lot of different directions. Almost every humanities PhD student I have ever met is trying to be their best researcher-self, teacher-self, activist-self, and human-self.

It’s a lot.

We’ve talked before about learning to balance these multiple desires and multiple expectations. One part of balance is recognizing that all these aspects are unique expressions of who you are. Your researcher-self informs your teacher-self and both are probably motivated by experiences your human-self has had.

It can be helpful, for both your sanity and your students, to bring your researcher-self into your classroom.

Advantages to you include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting feedback from an educated layperson (your students)
  • Learning your own material better through teaching it
  • Getting some free editing

Benefits to your students include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing you as a scholar
  • Seeing the process of how scholarship happens
  • Helping them think of themselves as scholars
  • Practice in editing
  • Learning more about your specialty

Often graduate instructors don’t have the luxury of teaching an upper division class related to their area of research. It can be difficult to imagine bringing your highly specialized research into a survey class but there are several ways you can do it.

One former professor of mine would bring in a couple of pages of her work in progress (WIP) the first day that her students had to turn in a paper. She would have students spend the class editing the document looking for everything from unclear arguments to comma errors. Her reason for doing this was to help anxious students relax about turning in their work by seeing, in real time, that even professor’s need help to make the work excellent.

When I taught public speaking, I employed a similar strategy. I would bring a short section of my own WIP and have students work on turning it from a written argument to an oral one. First, they would convert the long-form document into an outline. Then we would work on how to appropriately cite sources and why I used the sources I did. For them, this was a conversation on different sources for different audiences. For me, it was preparation for how to orally present my work at conferences

giphy

These are not the only ways to bring your work into your teaching. In a composition class you can have your students edit your work. In a disciplinary class you can have them analyze your methods.

However you decide to do it, bringing your scholarship to your teaching will benefit both you and your students!

It’s OK to Be Wrong

Earlier this week we addressed the topic of expertise. Specifically, that you have it.

Your expertise doesn’t require you to know everything in the class you are teaching.

Rather, your expertise is in your knowledge of how to learn.

Many new teachers feel an immense amount of stress around needing to know every detail of what they are teaching in order to seem like credible experts. A nightmare scenario for many teaching assistants is standing in front of a class and being asked a question they don’t know how to answer.

Remember, though, while a good part of your job is to teach your students content you are also teaching them the very act of how to learn and how to problem solve.

As you know, an important part of learning is being able to be wrong.

This is what we do as scholars in every discipline. We start out with a research question, we design a study to find the answer to that question (whether it be rhetorical analysis or a mathematical proof), we evaluate our data, and we revise our research question based on what we find. We cannot go through this process if we don’t allow ourselves to be wrong.

All of the elements of being wrong, from knowing how to find out if we’re wrong to revising our opinions in the face of contradictory data, are crucial to learning.

When a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to it’s a great opportunity to model how to learn for them. Below are three ways to model how to learn through not knowing.

  1. Say you’ll find out. If a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to just tell them you don’t know but that you’ll find out. Then, in the next class, follow-up by reminding them what question was asked and tell them what you found and how. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about types of sources (e.g. a recent newspaper article on the issue says X but if you look at data from [academic source] there are some nuances to consider). This establishes your credibility as someone who can be trusted to find the answer to tough questions, makes the students feel involved in their learning, and is a teachable moment regarding sources.
  2. Ask them to find out. This is a strategy I’ve used with my upperclassmen. If a student asks a complex question you don’t know the answer to you can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t considered that angle but I’d be interested to read what you can find on it.” This works best, of course, when you can offer students credit for their research. If they’re asking a question it’s because they are interested which provides you an opportunity to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation. This isn’t an opportunity to abdicate your responsibility of leading the class, but rather an opportunity to empower your students as researchers. If you ask them to find out the answer to something you don’t know follow up by supporting them in their research. Let them know a few places to start looking or help them refine their question.
  3. Tell them what you think. Though you may not know the exact answer to a question you’ve been asked you might have some educated guesses. This is a time when you can tell your students, “I’m not sure but what I think is X and I think that because of A, B, C.” This is another opportunity to model how scholarship is done for your students. In this answer you let them know that, even though you aren’t exactly sure, you have some ideas based on the things you do know. This models how researchers make hypotheses to fill the gaps in existing knowledge.

Don’t stress yourself out with trying to know everything. Nobody can know everything. Instead of setting yourself an impossible goal embrace the times you don’t know as a learning opportunity for your students.

Expertise: You Have It

My MA program, like many humanities PhD programs, came with a teaching assistantship. I taught two sections of public speaking and, in return, the university waived my tuition and paid me a (very) small stipend.

I was nervous about my first teaching assignment for several reasons. Like many students entering a graduate program I had just moved across the country to a new place where I didn’t know anyone or anything. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and while it was in Communication I had never even taken a public speaking class.

How, I wondered, was I supposed to establish expertise in a class I had never taken in a classroom of students who were about my age? Would I even be a good teacher? What if my students didn’t learn anything? What if I was too easy or too harsh in grading?

There were a thousand overwhelming “what-ifs” that were compounded by not having a support network in the area.

What all of these what-ifs ultimately came down to was “how do I get students to believe I’m an expert in this subject when I don’t feel like an expert?”

Every single time I’ve taught a brand new class I’ve had an anxiety attack about how dare I think I’m enough of an expert to teach anyone anything outside of my very narrow little field.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most graduate students, and almost every woman graduate student, I’ve talked to has felt the same way when confronting a new class.

People have also developed some intriguing coping mechanisms.

One semester, when teaching in a new department, I was required to attend their TA orientation and a *very* successful professor said that the key to establishing your expertise in the classroom was to get there as early as possible so that the students were walking into your classroom rather than you walking into their classroom.

And . . . just . . . what the actual fuck?

Later, at a bar with senior graduate students in that department, I shared how outrageous this idea of authority was expecting them all to laugh along with me and say, “That’s just Dr. So-and so.”

But they did not.

Instead, I was met with a variety of blank stares until someone meekly said, “Well, yeah.”

Readers, this man had indoctrinated dozens of graduate students with the idea that your expertise is based on when you enter a room.

Now, certainly, there is a feeling of authority that comes with being prepared and that can involve getting to the classroom early so that you’re organized and ready to go when class starts.

Even if you get to class late, though, you are still the teacher.

If an eager student gets to your office hours before you do they are not suddenly the instructor.

Your credibility in the classroom is not based on your location or the time of your arrival.

Your credibility is located in the expertise you’ve gained.

If you’re anything like me this would be the time when your impostor syndrome starts yelling, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY EXPERTISE??? HOW COULD THEY PUT ME IN FRONT OF STUDENTS???”

You do, though.

Even if you aren’t a subject expert on every single subject your survey class touches, even if you’re teaching a class you never took, you still have valuable expertise to share with your students.

What you know, what your expertise is in, the only expertise you need to teach is how to learn.

You have more experience learning in a formal educational setting than anyone else in the room.

You aren’t there to be the first in the room or to know more about absolutely every subject.

You are there to show your students how to learn and by the very virtue of being in a graduate program you’ve proven that you have that expertise.

SPECIAL EDITION

Don’t worry!

Time isn’t passing faster than you think it is. This is the second post of the day!

This is a special edition dedicated to all of our followers on the quarter system who are starting new classes this week. For first time teachers, the first day of class can feel especially fraught with questions of how to establish authority and set the tone for the semester. For established teachers, knowing that students often skip “syllabus day” can be discouraging.

For the past several years, I’ve started class using an exercise I learned from Kimber Nicoletti-Martinez at a Multicultural Efforts to end Sexual Assault workshop.

First, you hand containers of playdough to the class and instruct them to take some. When class starts, ask everyone to make something with their playdough which both represents them and which they would be comfortable sharing with the class. While they create you explain the most important parts of the syllabus. (Hint: This is normally where I explain the “respect” and “plagiarism” clauses in my syllabus.) Then you go around the classroom and ask people to share what they made and what it represents about them. If you feel so moved then ask a follow-up question or share a personal connection to what they’ve said.

I like this method for several reasons. First, it gets the students’ attention. Even if everyone following this blog right now implemented this method on the first day of class I’m willing to bet that you would still be your students’ only class with playdough. Second, but related to the first, it gets students to put away their phones and really pay attention to each other from day one. Third, but related to the second, it starts building community from the first day. Fourth, there is a certain percentage of students that blow off the first day of class because they think nothing interesting happens that day. I’m super petty and I love surprising those students when they show up on the second day of class with an in-depth syllabus discussion.

giphy

Fifth, it’s fun and it keeps things interesting, even for veteran teachers.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I am a poor graduate student! How will I pay for all that playdough?”

giphy1

Good news, my friend!

You can make playdough for super cheap. This is my favorite recipe. For under $10 you can make enough playdough for over 50 students. Making the playdough has become part of my pre-semester ritual. Making the playdough, putting it in Ziploc bags, and putting those bags in my backpack helps me feel prepared for the day.

Go forth, my friends, and have a great first day of class!

 

 

WTF: Teaching

We are so excited to start our September series on teaching for all of you abd2phd-ers who are just starting, or soon to start, the academic year.

The majority of PhD students in the United States attend research universities of some sort. Research universities, as the name implies, are focused primarily on research. This creates something of a paradox. Teaching is done at research universities because it brings in a great deal of money but the higher up you go in the university hierarchy the less teaching is a priority.

This paradox can be particularly difficult to navigate for graduate students for several reasons.

First, no one will teach you how to teach. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In general, the larger the course you teach is the more likely that there will be some sort of training before they let you around the actual students. If you teach a section or two of a massive course like English composition or public speaking the need for grading standardization (and to minimize student complains) often leads programs to institute training for new teachers. If, however, you go to an institution where grad students aren’t allowed to teach until after their prelim exams then it’s more likely you’ll be asked to teach your program’s survey course, handed a couple of the past syllabi and expected to handle it.

Second, if you actually like teaching and talk about liking teaching colleagues and faculty may write you off as a less serious researcher. It doesn’t matter that this point of view is patently ridiculous. Let’s just put it this way, “You’re so good at teaching. Have you thought about applying to teach at private high schools?” is less of a compliment and more of an indictment.

Third, some institutions will throw you into teaching as the instructor of record from your first day on campus. Other institutions won’t let you lead a class until you’ve passed your prelims. There are justifications for both methods but the second one has the unfortunate result of newly minted ABD students being thrown into the new responsibility of teaching just as they are struggling to figure out how to write a fudging dissertation. It can be stressful.

In our series on teaching we are going to cover all three of these topics to the best of our ability. We will start this week with some teaching resources, including some lessons you can borrow.  Second, we will cover how to be good at teaching and how to like teaching without sacrificing credibility as a researcher. Finally, we will discuss strategies to balance dissertating, lesson planning, grading, and all the things.

If there’s a particular subject related to teaching you want to see covered this month leave a comment or send us a message!