Saturday, February 19, 2011

February 19, 2011 [Tribute Post 4]: Office, Ours

I don’t know if there’s an exact equivalent in any other advanced-degree-requiring profession, although I’m sure there are parallels: the first time a med student gets to deliver a baby on an OB rotation, for example. But then again, in that case there’s an actual doctor (or two) standing close by,  ready to step in if things start to get out of hand, making the moment very explicitly instructional rather than professional. The same seems likely to be the case the first time a law student goes into a courtroom (as a summer intern, say), that he or she is doing so very clearly as a student still, learning from another professional who is likewise present, mimicking the responsibilities without quite taking them on yet. But the first time I stepped into a classroom as a teacher—at least in my graduate program, where we were the sole instructors of record for those first (and all other) classes, not teaching assistants for nor linked to anybody else—I was on my own, just me and those 22 first-semester first-year Writing I students.
I’m not trying to compare the stakes there to those involved in delivering (or even in participating in the delivery of) someone’s baby. But still, those 22 kids looking at me on that September 2001 afternoon were putting a key part of their first semester of college—and thus of much of the rest of their life—in my hands; and I was only about five years older than them, at the start of my second year of graduate school, with exactly zero classroom teaching experience of any kind behind me. The class used a standard syllabus for that first semester, and all of us who were teaching from it were part of a weekly teaching practicum; but neither of those things had much of anything to say about what we were to do on a daily basis, what would happen in that classroom for that hour, how I could possibly earn the respect that those 22 students were absolutely willing to give me—and more exactly my ability to teach them college writing—on faith. I’m sure I would have muddled my way through, and I like to think that I’d have gotten things figured out one way or another no matter what—but honestly, I don’t know how I could have survived those initial experiences if it weren’t for Anderson 1143.
1143 was my office, my first office no less, one floor up from the main English Department offices there at Temple. It didn’t have a window, much less a magic portal of knowledge about teaching. But it did have desks for myself and my friend and fellow first-time teacher Jeff Renye, and together there we aired our confusions and worries, listened to each other’s one-on-one conferences, tried to wrap our heads around discussion leading and assignments and grading, figured it out little by little, week by week, issue by issue, revelation by revelation. Jeff, if and when he reads this, is likely to object, ‘cause he’s his own biggest critic when it comes to teaching (and much else)—and that’s probably part of the reason why he was such a perfect officemate, in this as in every other way, because he was never willing to settle for doing a mediocre job without trying to figure out how to do it better. But the great teachers aren’t just dedicated and committed (although they are those things for sure), they’re also innovative, they think outside of the boxes that they’re given (in a practicum, say), they figure out what’s going to work for themselves and their subjects and their students and they keep on figuring it out every class and every semester and every year. And they’re deeply communal, willing always to talk about all of that with their colleagues, to learn from each other as we struggle to get a bit better all the time. And all of that defines 1143 in that first year just about perfectly.
I never got to watch Jeff teach, although I won’t settle for that past tense because I hope I’ll have the chance at some point. But I know for sure that I’ve talked to him more than anybody else about teaching, not only in that crucial first semester and year but in all the semesters and years since. We made it through that first semester, did right by those students, created our own syllabi and courses as we moved forward, made those classrooms our own. But, speaking for myself anyway, my classes have always also included the best teachers I’ve known and learned from, and so there’ll always be a lot of Anderson 1143 in every classroom of mine. More tomorrow, the next academic work in progress post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      (Temple founder) Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds,” a speech that we taught on that standard syllabus:
2)      Much has changed about it in the ten years since that semester, but here’s the site for Temple’s First Year Writing Program:
3)      OPEN: Any voices who made your own work and career (whether as a teacher or anything else) a bit more possible?

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