This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. On Monday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; yesterday was about classroom discussions; and today’s post is about the students.
The first day of school has always ranked as one of my favorite days of the year. The mixture of antici—
—pation and nervousness and excitement is a great feeling when you’re a student and the only thing you have to do that day is go to class and get your syllabus. Not so much fun when you’re the teacher. I was jazzed about my syllabus, sure, and I had all these great ice-breaker plans … until I walked in the door and saw 15 bored and confused undergraduates mucking up my first day plans. My stomach dropped. I was so glad I was wearing my “power teacher” outfit (cute cropped cigarette pants, white oxford shirt, black flats). I instantly thought “What would Audrey do?” and put on my best Breakfast at Tiffany’s impression.
Unfortunately, I think I channeled Annie Hall instead. I nervously laughed, tried to flip my bob over my shoulder (kind of hard to do when your hair doesn’t reach your shoulders) and passed out white index cards so they could write their names down and so I could learn them all by the second day. Ha. Second day of class: 7 kids. I had managed to terrify half the class on the first day.
So the 7 students who stuck around and I got to know one another over the course of the semester. For better or for worse, the teacher’s interactions with students are likely based on their perception of the instructor. I thought a bit about the type of teacher I wanted to try to be (hard-nosed, sarcastic, or “mom”) but in the end, I was just myself. The truth comes out eventually. And the truth was that I’m only 5-7 years older than my students. I’m young enough to get their pop culture references and for them to treat me like an older sister and not their professor, but I’m old enough to use pop culture jokes they don’t get (80s music, anyone?) and to feel frustrated when they sometimes showed a lack of respect. No, I don’t have a PhD or grey hair, but I can talk circles around you about literature. Deal.
I could predict with some amount of accuracy what they would say about any given text by the end of the semester. These are smart kids in my class, and usually they had smart things to say. But sometimes they did some very silly things that I wish I could write about, but I don’t think I can obscure enough details to not get sued and/or fired and still convey how outrageous this was. If we ever hang out in person, ask me to tell you the story. For now, I’ll just tell you about the normal problems teachers have with students.
Office hours are a godsend for students and teachers alike. You come to office hours, and I promise 9 times out of 10 you will be looked kindly upon for at least the next week. This is a gift. Use it to your advantage. If, however, you mess up and the teacher requests that you come to office hours to “talk,” this is not a gift. But you can still use it to your advantage.
There were the run of the mill writing issues that I discussed with students in office hours. But unfortunately, these conversations tended to happen only after the student had “messed up” (as one of them called it) first. Why does this need to happen? I’m not saying I was any better as an undergrad (or grad student in coursework, for that matter). But so many underlying problems can be resolved with just one meeting. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to the prof. Difficulty with time management? Talk to the prof. Don’t wait until you have missed multiple class periods or skipped an assignment because by then you’re already behind.
So that’s advice for students. But what about advice on dealing with students? The ones who push your boundaries, the ones who want to see how much they can get away with. That part I’m still struggling to figure out. It’s college and they’re adults—they should be able to interrogate The System. But for the time being, they have to work within the system to get a decent grade. And I’m not sure how to convey that hard fact about life without feeling like The Man.