I love my job.
My research projects let me share my passions with the world and my service obligations let me do my small part to improve my university and help it to prepare for the future.
But teaching is what lead me to this job in the first place.
My grandmother on my father’s side was a high school Latin teacher for thirty years. She always encouraged me to stretch my thinking muscles, but she also let me in on what it meant to be the leader of a classroom. She let me help her grade tests and accompany her to the Illinois Classical Conference, an amazing, immersive event for students that included graphic arts showcases, creative writing, oratory, costume contests, and a Roman Banquet in addition to academic testing.
My grandmother, Henrietta Davis, receiving a flower at the Illinois Classical Conference in 2002 after she was retired.
I was already a teacher’s pet, so the idea of having a career where I could attend these types of events forever, even as a grownup, was appealing.
However, I discovered that my training as a graduate student was hardly aimed at preparing me to lead a classroom. My first semester as a Master’s student, I was given a 2 day “orientation” during which I had to bang out a syllabus and then I immediately started teaching a course that I had never even taken as an undergrad (because I had tested out of the introductory writing requirement). To be fair, we also participated in a Rhetoric Pedagogy Practicum course during that first semester, but often the tactics we learned in that course were introduced too late to be integrated effectively into those first classes. Looking back, I feel terrible for those students who were my defacto guinea pigs. I would have liked to have more hands-on training (perhaps serving as a TA or a discussion leader?) before being put in sole control of creating and executing an entire course. But I am also grateful that the University of Illinois got me started teaching right away. That meant I had tens of classes under my belt before I ever even started applying for tenure track jobs and I had some ideas about what kinds of teaching personas worked and didn’t work for me.
For example, I had a teacher in graduate school, Professor Fiona Ngô, who terrified me, but in a good way. She had a short, spiky hair and she always wore a well-tailored suit to class. She called everyone “Mr. or Ms. Last Name” and she expected us to take control over the course material and begin teaching it to one another in detail immediately. She asked pointed questions and expected insightful answers. She scared the absolute shit out of me. I read more thoroughly and carefully for her class than I have for any other class I have ever taken in my life. Getting through her class felt like an accomplishment, and I know that I developed important habits under her watch that have served me well since. I vowed that I would run my classrooms the way she did from that moment forward.
But… I couldn’t.
My natural personality is anything but “severe.” It is more something that falls between “irreverent” and “goofy.” I felt like I was acting when I tried to cultivate that stern teaching persona (because I was), and my students knew it and so they pushed back hard against it. I realized that I was much more suited to a teaching persona akin to Bill Nye the Science Guy or Mr. Wizard or Beakman from Beakman’s World: an enthusiastic geek who can’t wait to show you all of the cool stuff she has been working on and wants to invite you into the lab so you can do something cool of your own.
If I could walk into class everyday to this theme song, I would.
This one would also be acceptable.
Okay this one is just nuts. And does Beakman look like Dr. Clayton Forrester to anyone else??
I started building my course materials and assignments and even my syllabus policies around this persona and found great personal happiness as well as greater student engagement (as can be measured by problematic mechanisms like student evaluations but also in the form of students who took classroom projects and used them to apply for conferences and scholarships or tried to get them published).
At any rate, I worked on developing this teaching persona throughout graduate school and I was excited to discover that my current employer, Stephen F. Austin State University, values teacher training and pedagogical experimentation and support as much as I do. They have an amazing Center for Teaching and Learning where professors can go for professional development to learn things like how to better foster collaborative learning environments or how to make course materials more accessible.
One of the best events they put on, in my opinion, is their Teaching Showcase, where ten scholars from all across the university come together to share their favorite pedagogical techniques in micro-talk form. You only get five minutes to share, so it is fairly easy to prepare and casual in tone and you can get ten good ideas to take home with you in under an hour!
You can find footage from the talks here (I was lucky enough to be invited to present on how to get students to attend office hours, as was a graduate student in the English department, Jennifer McLaughlin, whose talk on how to use Tumblr in the classroom inspired me to tweak some of my own projects that use Twitter and Twine).
But the real point of this post, I think, is to push other teachers to introduce similar events at their school (be it a grade school, a high school, a community college, or a university). As a first year tenure track professor, I found the supportive environment that such events provide to be a great way to integrate myself into the scholarly community and to hopefully live up to my grandmother’s legacy.