Teaching is like improv, or at least that is what I’ve been told.
As part of my funding in the MFA program at West Virginia University, I will teach two sections of English 101: Composition and Rhetoric during every one of my six semesters.
It works out something along the lines of sure, each MFA student demonstrated promise in a writing sample, which merited tuition remission, but in order to pay rent and escalating coffee tabs, the university provides English graduate students the opportunity to teach in exchange for a small stipend and the chance to build a portfolio for jobs post-graduation.
However, the English Department hardly wants these newly minted graduate-students-turned-instructors winging it their first day. A formal, multilayered training program has thus been established to foil disaster.
First, students attend a two-week workshop in August before the semester starts—an all-in-one introduction to and overview of the course they will be teaching. The group continues together through the fall in a pedagogy seminar, poring over theory essays and crafting a conference paper on composition scholarship or the pedagogy of rhetoric.
Each graduate teaching assistant (GTA) can also lean on his or her adviser, a veteran graduate student well-versed in the ways of grading, classroom management and lesson plans.
Consider the fact that every one of the roughly 23,000 undergraduate students must either test out of or pass the general education requirements of English 101 and its sister course, 102, which translates to approximately 80-plus sections on the books per semester.
The university may be paying out a stipend to each GTA, but those checks are far less expensive than salaries for full-time or even adjunct professors. The house always wins, after all.
But back to the improv.
Our pedagogy professor has drawn inspiration from a summer read—Tina Fey’s "Bossypants"—on incorporating the rules of improv into her teaching philosophy. She’s extended the line of thought to us in the larger discussion of how we began to assemble our own tenants of teaching.
Personally, my favorite takeaway from Fey’s autobiography is a very simple joke: "Two peanuts were walking down the street, and one was a salted."
Classic, though admittedly beside the point.
As GTAs are not at liberty to divulge specifics about their students, I won’t be regaling readers with specific and hilarious details.
However, I think that information about my experience teaching and observing WVU undergrads in general is fair game, particularly the first two components of my teaching philosophy.
I have 41 students whom I see three times a week in two separate, 50-minute classes. They are two very different classes in male versus female ratios, and the class’ relation to lunchtime makes a definitive difference in how each section will fare.
When calculating the pros and cons of the Behringer résumé, I take comfort that I can approach teaching these students with two applicable advantages: I have been a professional writer for more than five years, and I have coached rugby at the college level for two and a half years.
Don’t be super-impressed: Those advantages boil down to me understanding writing and the writing process in a fair number of forms and having the ability to project my voice.
Pulling out the "OK, let’s bring it back to the board" in an intensely-audible-but-still-inside-volume coach’s voice comes in handy for teaching bros. (So much more to come on the bros. Be excited about that column. I am beside myself.)
In truth, the most cherished and comforting piece of my emerging teaching philosophy hinges on the idea of looting my professional know-how, but it requires a bit of a backtrack in this week’s column. Please bear with me.
An awkward moment arose during that two-week training in August. The two men running the workshop, who head up the undergraduate writing program at WVU and act as another layer of support for GTAs, encouraged us to share our learning moments and remaining questions at the end of each daily session on a notecard.
They set about to answer these questions one by one, drawing notecards at random. One particular card asked about the best way to handle a Facebook friend request from a student.
Apparently, there is no official university policy dictating how we should act in that situation, but the program directors cautioned against accepting the request. They explained that keeping a strictly professional and solely classroom-based relationship with students was the way to go.
The group nodded, processing and thinking about what we would each do or not do in our classrooms. Then, one of the men continued, driving the point "explicitly" home that we were not to sleep with our students.
A burst of nervous, disbelieving laughter followed. Even the professors chuckled in recognition that this was a clumsy, if necessary, rule to lay down.
As the laugher subsided, the same professor reiterated his point in six unfortunate words: "Because statistically, one of you will."
What? As in, look to your left, look to your right, one of your neighbors might actually develop a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with an undergraduate?
Gross. Apparently, it happens at every university in America. Even grosser.
However, establishing some kind of connection with students is vital. It removes the instructor from the stale cutout of a "teacher" and imbues the person at the front of the room with hints of a backstory, a personality, a sense of humor, an at-the-ready catalog of Liz Lemon remarks.
There is credibility in honesty, whether it be a moment of mutual commiseration about life and work and school or an insight into the method in which a teacher writes dialogue when students are considering the technique for a major paper.
While students are inevitably imperceptive about grammar, they seem to be inexplicably attuned to inflated characters, adopted tones and vocabularies, and anything not truly you.
So as of now, the work-in-progress teaching philosophy stands as "Be yourself" and "Don’t sleep with students."
Because Charlie Barley Behringer could not simply disappear from Nooga.com, Mountain to Mountain will follow her and her mother's adventures, dispatch-style, in Morgantown as they tackle graduate school, first-year teaching and living in West by-God Virginia.
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