The first book I ever taught to undergraduates was Jamaica Kincaid’s An Autobiography of My Mother. I was a TA in Terry Doody’s Twentieth-Century British Literature course at Rice University. That morning I had downed what was just a ridiculous amount of grape juice.
I still don’t know why I did that. It did not end well. Nothing makes you feel prepared to discuss complex accounts of British colonial history like grape juice-induced nausea.
I mean — it was a lot of grape juice.
Anyway. I don’t remember what I said or how I said it. I do remember that, after a brief moment of icy reserve — the quiet protest of twenty or so students who had signed up to take a class with Terry Doody, dammit, so who is this uninformed poser? — a few kind English majors pitied me and answered my discussion questions. I wrote things on the board, because that seemed like something I should do. My handwriting was assiduously neat, but it sloped suicidally downward. Like me, it was trying to sink into the floor. But I left the classroom feeling not-terrible, which in the years since that first class I have learned is the feeling I experience after a serviceable but not terribly memorable teaching day. It’s a kind of detached okay-ness that is best left unexamined, or else I will start wondering if I was just totally off-base when I answered that question about modernism. Maybe that student in the back was laughing at me — or was she watching a cat video on her cell phone? And I probably had a bat in the cave the whole time.
When, at the end of the semester, I received an envelope full of “Graduate Teaching Assistant Evaluations,” half of them said I was “sweet” (which reliably fills me with rage), some insisted I was The Best TA Ever (one accompanied by a drawing of me as a stick figure proclaiming I LOVE BOOKS!), a handful suggested useful things about my grading and teaching — and one was written by a Total Jerkface.
“I mean, not everyone can teach like Terry Doody.”
“I mean, not everyone can teach like Terry Doody.”
“I MEAN, NOT EVERYONE CAN TEACH LIKE TERRY DOODY.”
I immediately forgot every other evaluation. Those meant nothing. This casual dismissal of my career prospects expanded until it filled the room. Somewhere inside my skull, my resilient water-bear of self-doubt framed a copy of that evaluation and hung it up in my brain, where it remains to this day (obviously), protected by bullet-proof glass and those lasers you always see in heist movies set in art museums. As I sat in my apartment, doing that shallow-breathing thing I do when spiraling into catastrophic navel-gazing, I did not know that I was embarking on the proud professorial tradition called “remembering the stinkers and dismissing the praise and gratitude, even when the latter drastically outweigh the former.”
But here’s the thing. I actually can’t teach like Terry Doody. He’s just a completely different person than I am. He is a rule-the-room type of professor, who operates with a stunning brand of confidence (which might be projected, might be organic to his nature, might be accrued through years and years of teaching — likely all three). He talks loudly and can tease his students good-naturedly. He’s won a following at Rice not only because he knows his stuff but because he delivers it in a particular way, and if I tried to mimic that kind of bravado (and I mean that in the kindest way) — which, Total Jerkface student, I was not even trying to do on that Jamaica Kincaid day — I would fail.
One of the things I find most difficult about teaching is learning, over and over again, what type of professor I actually am and figuring out how to work with that person. This challenge is dogging me a little more than usual here at the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester. In one class in particular, I find myself once again uncomfortable and unsure at the front of the room, questioning every decision I make. My water-bear is dusting off the gallery of negative student evals in my brain. Why can’t I sidle into the room and dazzle these sophomore molecular biology majors with an off-the-cuff monologue about Anna Barbauld?
It’s easy to celebrate (and want to be one of) those Robin Williams professors, who can Hold Forth and Seize the Day in elbow patches and, armed with nothing more than a twinkling, conspiratorial wink, coax a reluctant student to compose Wordsworth-inspired poetry, loudly and in public. And I have known and learned from some of those professors. I’ve worked with some. They’re awesome. But! There are so many ways to lead a room, to nudge students toward knowing new things and asking important questions. If I can’t teach like Terry Doody — and really, I don’t have to — I need to learn to really love teaching like (as Gigi would say) VFS.
So I’ve been working on reconsidering those qualities I tend to read as problems to overcome in the classroom, thinking about them instead as Just How I Am as a Professor. Maybe these are qualities that can make me a better teacher. Sometimes.
Case in point: I get flummoxed when I teach. A lot. When faced with a question — What is the meter of this poem? When did the Romantic period end? Why does John Green talk so fast? What is your name? — I tend to putter around in circles until I get to the answer, or some approximation of it. And often I don’t know the answer, because there are many things I don’t know. So I have to reframe the vulnerability and discomfort and uncertainty I feel at such moments as a strength or a strategy. While I know teaching is not merely content delivery — that not knowing the answer is not, in fact, a huge problem — I find it really difficult to overcome my embarrassment and sense of failure when I’m flummoxing. I want to be a professor with Authority, whose presence demands Respect.
This semester, I’m trying to let the Flummox show without trying to quickly cover it up with a tweed jacket. And it turns out that some students appreciate it. My latest strategy, when I’m starting to feel out of control (and, let’s be honest, really stupid) in front of a room full of 40 undergraduates, many of whom (perhaps unbeknownst to them) are wearing the WHY AM I HERE face, is to ask: Help me think through this. And they do. They help me.
So as the fall semester unspools, dear readers — as I galumph through Wollstonecraft and skid through Brontë and slam, full-tilt, into Woolf — help me out. Help me think through this. And we will sound a timid yawp from atop (er, behind) our desks.