It’s a truism that we learn to teach from our teachers; but since I now teach a different subject from my undergraduate major, my own education didn’t help much when it came to teaching undergrads. I learned to teach at that level by trial and error, watching and asking colleagues, reading other people’s syllabi, going to conferences, and, of course, from books.

I relied much more on my graduate education to teach me how to teach graduate students (and I will reiterate here that I’m talking about teaching courses, and especially intro/MA level courses, not so much advanced seminars, and definitely not about advising dissertators, which is another whole ball of wax). When I first started teaching, either because Things Were Different In the Old Days, or by luck of the draw, this worked pretty well. Particularly in my first few years of teaching, it happened that a large number of my students were older women, often teachers themselves, who were highly motivated, organized, and professional in their approach to classwork. They took notes in class, did all the assigned reading and the recommended readings, and came prepared to talk. Their years in high school or community college classrooms meant, among other things, that it didn’t occur to them to be afraid to speak in front of a group; that they were accustomed to analyzing literature not only for themselves but also so as to make it comprehensible to others; and that they grasped the necessity of starting research projects fairly early in the semester. Whenever I had a class with a core of students like this, they set the bar for the others, who mostly stepped up to the plate. Oh, of course there were some screw-ups, and in my second year teaching I had a really woefully underprepared and hostile class that I still remember with a shudder (and no doubt the same goes for them), but by and large, I felt that I didn’t have to do a lot of teaching in my grad classes. I prepared for them as I would have prepared as a grad student, by doing all the reading and being ready to talk. We all knew what a term paper was; most of us understood what was meant by “a presentation.”

So much for ancient history. Over time, the graduate student population has changed. I get fewer and fewer of these older students (some of whom had three or four years of Latin in high school) who have a lot of life experience, including experience teaching, and more and more students in their twenties, who are coming straight from a BA or with no more than a couple years in the work force, generally spent in retail or in low-level office jobs they hated. They like to read, and think this means graduate school is a good idea.

Well, certainly you shouldn’t go to grad school in English if you don’t like to read . . . but “like” is a bit mild. If you’re obsessed with reading, with reading criticism and history and theory as well as primary texts, then graduate school may be a good idea.

At any rate, this means I have to do a lot more teaching: how to read in the way expected of graduate students, how to organize your reading, how to skim, how to write a two-page “position paper” or “response paper,” how to write a summary of a critical article or book, how to write an annotated bibliography, what goes into a good presentation on a critical article or book, how to do a close reading, what I mean by “term paper,” the difference between between term paper and conference paper, how to write an abstract. All this on top of teaching Middle English and the necessary literary and historical content and context.

You might think that a lot of this should have happened in undergraduate education. Well, fine, maybe it should have; but the situation on the ground is that either it didn’t, or it didn’t stick. And this is why I feel that I need to re-think my approach to teaching graduate students, at least the ones that I’m getting these days. Somehow I need to meet them where they are, while nonetheless making clear where the bar is, and what they have to do to clear it. If I don’t question my assumptions and expectations, my default position is still that students will know what I mean by “a 15-20 page term paper,” etc., and that I can get on with teaching them how to read Middle English, how to understand Chaucer’s poetry in its literary and historical context, and how to assess the range of critical responses to Chaucer’s poetry and prose. That’s what I want to do; that’s what I think I really ought to be doing. But I can’t do that job if too many people are unprepared to learn at that level.

For several years, I’ve tried making some assignments clearly, definitely relevant to my students’ current or future professional lives. For example, I assign the preparation of a lesson plan for a unit on Chaucer, at the level of their choice (high school, in a lower-division survey course, whatever). What will they need to convey? How much behind-the-scenes reading will they need to do to prepare? This works well for people with teaching experience, not so well for those without it. I have also explicitly taught the conference paper, from abstract to delivery. We have a mini-conference at the end of the semester (spread over two meetings), and students deliver 15-minute papers. I grade both the written work and the presentation. A lot of students have told me they appreciate this training. Here again, though, I think it’s better to learn how to do the conference paper after you have already learned to write the 15-20 page research paper.

So when Dr Virago writes about the importance of research papers for undergraduates (see also here), I have to applaud. But I still haven’t adopted that model for my own classes. And I worry that that means I’m part of the problem. I hope that my colleagues—who aren’t teaching in what is for many students essentially a foreign language—are assigning research papers. But what if they aren’t? Then I have to pick up that task in MA courses, apparently.

This is what I want to have happen in graduate courses: vigorous discussion, applying critical insights to literature, thinking about literature in historical context, paying attention to word choice and patterns in the text itself, students talking to each other, as much or more than to me. I want informal presentations that stay on topic and help generate discussion (5 minutes on why you found a critical article important/ useful; a close reading of a passage either assigned or chosen from the text). I want students to learn to recognize and develop good questions: here’s a topic that cannot easily be answered, has a lot of possible approaches, would be good as a paper topic. I hope they will apply work from other classes: how does something you read or did in another class help to make sense of something we’re doing here? And vice versa: what are you doing here that illuminates something else you’re studying?

But the question is how to get there from where we seem to be starting, these days.

3 thoughts on “Teaching grads, 4: distant past, recent past, future?

  1. Dame E., this post is right on the money. I teach mainly 1000-level rhet-comp courses and find myself changing how I teach (after 13 years in the classroom) to better help the college freshmen I'm now getting. It's frustrating a lot of the time, but I feel better when students' writing and thinking improves. Hope you'll post more on this in the future. I'll certainly post about it on my own blog.

  2. Another tricky thing, which you probably have as well, Miss K, is the varied levels of ability. I feel it wastes the time of more advanced students to give too much detailed instruction (another reason to foreground pedagogy: framing things as "even if you know this, how might you teach it?" helps people find a useful perspective on what I'm presenting). But getting the weaker students closer to the level of the better ones improves the classroom experience for everyone.

  3. Research papers are actually easier than textual commentaries, close readings, etc. People shouldn't assign research papers if they're not first assigning the other, on my view. Also, annotated bibliographies come before research papers.

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