Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The True Confessions of an MFA Graduate Teaching Assistant

Hmm. Interesting. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

"It didn’t take me long to realize that good teaching probably requires a certain degree of education specific to education (I had none), and that, while I could get by on a certain degree of charisma, patience, and enthusiasm, truly committing myself to my students’ needs (and they had many) would require 50 or more hours per week.

At first, these notions stressed me out—I wanted to be a good teacher and was pretty won-over by the school’s apparent mission (“Admissions requirements? Who needs them! Everyone deserves a college education.”). But eventually I picked up on the dismissive attitude of those around me and learned to follow suit."

Full article here.

21 comments:

Preston Williams said...

Hmmm...that's a little scary. I'm a high school teacher, and I can see these same problems manifesting themselves in every corner of the school (although there are some truly remarkable people--good students and bad students alike). Hopefully my teaching experience will land me in a more prepared position (and maybe more apt to receive a GTA) if I'm accepted into a program. Anybody know if prior teaching experience makes one more likely to receive a GTA? I'm guessing it's based more on the writing just like everything else...

Writer B Girl said...

It is actually unbelievable how many undergrads can't put together a sentence, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that in high school they don't make you write papers or teach you how to string an idea together, it's all about regurgitating the facts to get high scores on tests.

Writer B Girl said...

Oh and @Preston I think it def has way more to do with writing sample, but once your accepted I think it would give you an edge in getting a TAship!

ARugs said...

I taught a Freshman class in undergrad, and I don't think this is much of an exaggeration. I got papers where the word "you" was written as "u." Oh and this was an honors class. Of course there were some students that wrote great papers, but the majority had clearly never written a paper before in their high school careers. It definitely makes it tough to grade and help them with their work because most of the time they are lacking simple basics. Part of it could have been not taking the class seriously (and I actually hope that was the case), but it was definitely an eye-opener as to how lacking the school system is, even for the upper/middle-class students.

CK said...

Based on my experience as a first-year writing instructor, I think this description of underprepared college students is accurate, but it's hardly the most unsettling part of this story. We can lament the fact that undergrads can't put together a sentence, but if we approach the issue with the dismissive and condescending attitude described in this article and in these comments, then we're playing a significant role in their failure. Fully funded MFA programs are often praised on this blog for offering free tuition and a stipend for a mere "10 hours of work per week," but few seem to notice, or care about, all that is problematic about this system. We're all quick to acknowledge that today's undergrads are lacking the skills they need to succeed, but few seem to note that this situation makes a first-year writing course one of the more integral aspects of a student's education, one that probably shouldn't be thrust upon inexperienced TAs with little or no background in education and little or no interest in teaching. If the teachers charged with helping students gain writing skills are being told that the job requires no more than the ability to write, that they shouldn't let it interfere with their own writing or research, and that the students are so dumb that additional effort is unnecessary and useless, then we are dooming these undergrads to the lack of skills for which we disparage them. Let's not forget that what may look like a wonderful opportunity for us is a part of a much larger academic system, one that is increasingly turning to underpaid part-time instructors and is, in many ways, doing a huge disservice to today's students. We should all be grateful for the opportunities offered to us as writers and students, but we must also realize that by accepting these positions we are participating in, and therefore must take some responsibility for, a flawed academic system.

anotherjenny said...

I've experienced the same lack of writing skills even teaching SAT prep to generally upper-crust high school students in Seattle who voluntarily enrolled in test prep courses! And yes, while I agree that approaching a problem with apathy can only exacerbate it, no one can save every part of the world all the time: you have to pick your spots.

When I get great students with winning attitudes, I engage full-throttle. Those student become my fricking best friends for the few short hours I actually teach them, and I try to stuff their heads with as many SAT tactics, life lessons, and other miscellany as possible.

When I get students who are clearly indifferent to learning and would rather be swimming in a pit of acid than learning how to identify contrast words in a reading passage, I change my game plan. I ask them, "What do YOU care about?" I try to get a gauge on who they are, what they're interested in, where they might be headed in life, or even in the next year. I try to offer them information-- completely non-SAT-related-- that I feel they'll actually hold onto and that (hopefully?) will impact them. Mostly, I just make myself available as a listener, someone who isn't a parent or a teacher judging them by some external standard. And if I can fit in a little about SAT essay writing tactics, fine. But it's not my goal. Some of these disinterested students have even been my favorites, because I feel like I've truly connected with them beyond teaching them how to ace their Math sections.

Granted, most of my classes are one-on-one, so it's much easier to build rapport, but I'll soon become a TA at another Illinois state university during my 3-year MFA, and I know I'll employ similar tactics. Bottom line: you can't force students to care about stuff them don't care about. You have to come to them on their home court. And you certainly can't win them all. But if I can get them to be a little more passionate about something, ANYTHING, in their lives... hell, if I can just make them laugh, then it feels like I'm winning at something, at least.

Claire Dawn said...

I've been teaching now for 4 years (foreign languages). I think that it's something you can't just drop somebody into. I've gotten good at what I do through lots of time in the classroom and through team-teaching with other teachers. But TA's starting out have none of those things...

Urbanist said...

@CK: Well said, all of it. It's sobering to think that the system has devised a way to undercut not just permanent faculty but adjuncts, ferchissake--people who were already making slave wages. TA-heavy MFA programs are, to some extent, sweatshops, aren't they? Which I think goes a long way towards explaining why there are more of them every year. $$$.

Sally Jane said...

I taught English 101 and 102 as an adjunct at two different community colleges for 2 1/2 years (post-MFA), and this article very accurately describes my own experience. It took awhile (longer than it should have, really) for me to realize that I had to start at the beginning - "This is a paragraph," "This is a thesis statement," "Essays must be 5 paragraphs long," etc. Once I found a decent textbook it was ok, but I was completely lost otherwise and had zero guidance or support.

Seth Abramson said...

Urbanist,

Just to clarify--the data suggests that most of the growth in new MFA programs is in programs that offer few or no TAships. These programs make money. Programs with TAships either break even or lose money because the value of the package given to each TA includes thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in free tuition and often heavily discounted healthcare. Plus, TAs make little money but they also are generally teaching only one-third of a full-time job!

S.

M said...

Say what you will. TAs are cheap cheap cheap labor for universities.

NJ said...

It's adorable to see a young academic discovering the horrifying extent of her own privilege! Also, hilarious that she mentions her students not knowing who Dante is, but she doesn't see the irony in her example, i.e. a man that chose his native patois over the standard language (much to the chagrin of his equivalent to a Freshman Comp TA, no doubt!)

For any MFAers professing a commitment to Social Justice, Introductory English at StateU or City CC is put up or shut up time. Please have enough respect for your students to teach them well and if they don't get it FAIL THEM until they do. This will hurt your evals, the blowback will be fierce, but passing them and dumbing it down sacrifices their education for your gain.

Open Spaces said...

I posted this in another section but realized it might be more appropriate in this section.


Has anyone ever withdrawn from an MFA program right before the program started? An MFA program where the individual is supposed to be a Teaching Assistant?

Due to recent personal matters, I know that I will be unable to complete more than one semester of the MFA program. However, I am trying to determine what would be more ethically responsible. Withdraw now (before classes start) or complete the semester (the TA contract is one semester and then is renewed)and then withdraw.

Thanks for any opinions.

Tarun Kumar said...

you are right... you can also find latest Graduate Education alerts online.

Snow Gypsy said...

As a remedial english instructor and literature instructor, this article not only disgusted me; it reinforced my beliefs on the failings of our education system. One student slips into my mind. He was 45 and had taken leave from the army which he enrolled in after an english instructor at his highschool made him aware of his idiocy, citing, "You'll never amount to anything,"tossing a red lined sheet of paper back at him. Funded by the GI bill, he found himself in my classroom, nervous, distanced, prepared to be insulted, ridiculed, and ready to drop me with one click of the mouse. Strange that this student like so many others who had been mocked by so many instructors and teachers who flaunted their degrees and esteems and declared themselves superior in every way, was in fact, one of the most brilliant, inspirational minds I had or will ever have the honor to teach and learn from. Within each student lies a wealth of knowledge no book or credit count can measure. Our job is simply to provide them with the words and foundation for them to express that genuis through whatever medium moves them. I recall the exmarine who, after several weeks of silence and run ins with the law, delivered a compelling 10 minute slam poem on his final paper that moved the class the tears and raging applause. The woman who taught herself to read and who shared this technique with me, making me a better teacher for her. A degree doesn't mean anything. And this author illustrates that fact brilliantly. And I would rather continue to dwell in the dim lit basmeents and attics of higher edcuation with the stduents who need and deserve better, than rise to the desperate offices and mirrors of the university stage. While you debate the failings of the education system, I'll continue to be inspired by those who continue striving for more and better despite your certainty of their failure.

T.R. said...

Immature writing and attitude.

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