When I was searching for MFA creative writing programs, I realized that Virginia Tech’s package is a complete anomaly. Not only did I require funding for my graduate program, but, likewise, I desired teaching opportunities, so I maintained the expectation that I’d teach comp or creative writing at one of the universities. While this is the norm for funded programs, what’s also the norm is that they throw you right into teaching—without any kind of pedagogical training—on Day One. Also the norm, many schools make you compete among your cohort for these positions while there, hold annual callouts for reapplying—for proving your worth, for boiling your anxiety without ever having given you the tools for teaching-success in the first place. Here’s the message: You’ve seen someone teach, yeah? Now you can, too!…or, perhaps it’s: As a university, we realize you’re not ready for effective teaching, but, hey, you’re cheap! A good researcher! Here’s your side-gig! Attempt to guide those students paying $3,000 a-person for your class!
Long-story-short: teaching is undervalued at institutions of higher education. Ironic, no?
Something I am especially appreciative of in my program here at Tech is its assurance of full funding, teaching placements and requirement to take a six-credit composition pedagogy class prior to teaching. In our pedagogy class in the first semester here, my cohort bonded through discussions of theory, weekly shadowing, grading practice, syllabus construction and guest-teaching opportunities—all of which helped us reflect on finding our teaching voices, becoming effective teachers and feeling as comfortable as possible prior to becoming instructors of record.
And then, of course, the real learning came when we got into our classrooms and just got to do the damn thing. Though, while I’ve gradually been building my self-awareness of my teaching style through the act of teaching, what’s encouraged this awareness has been constant reflection. Each semester, I take a practicum course that serves as a weekly teaching check-in; similarly, I have teaching mentors and I continue to take classes (like this! Hello!) that ask me to reassess my preexisting practices and values.
In reading Sarah E. Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” and Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills,” in particular, I felt quite lucky to be a person who doesn’t deal with teaching nerves, though, similar to these educators, I do consistently reevaluate my practices. Certainly there’s truth in the point that teaching can be performative, though I never think of my teaching in that way. I feel deflated when I read reflections like that of Deel who recalls worrying about how to be that charismatic professor who naturally engages students. I want to say this stems from self-confidence, so, I don’t know, just build some of that…but, of course, the issue is far more complicated than for what I’m giving it credit. Nonetheless, charisma, for me, comes from just being real—from providing transparency to my students about why I’m having them read this short story or analyze that Instagram post or consider the use of pathos in the lyrics of their favorite songs; from letting them in on my life once in a while and telling them a story about my sister’s test or the movie I saw last night or my love of blue raspberry anything (real life—this can come with benefits. Got a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher out of this personal-life point of transparency last week).
There’s an art to maintaining professionalism and authority without being an authoritarian; being an authoritarian will gain you no respect, anyway. Just fear. And although our culture can encourage us to believe that fear and respect are interchangeable entities, they’re not synonymous concepts. So, while we shouldn’t be spending time or energy on being people we’re not, we must also remember to be people, too. Part of authenticity is doing away with the robotic appeal, of being some intimidation-inducing hierarchical gods of knowledge, untouchable to our students. Part of being genuine and real and present is making human connections with our students—by speaking (verbally, one-on-one, you’re-a-person-hey-I’m-a-person, moving-the-mouth speaking), learning about their interests, their needs, their fears. I grow exhausted by the message that this kind of connection is impossible. While I’ll agree that our current system isn’t set up for more individualized care of a student, it absolutely could be. We just need to reinforce the importance of good teaching and reconsider our priorities regarding into whom/what we should be funneling our investments.