Reflections on Teaching, III: Untitled

I think that—somewhere nestled between “paying for another year of graduate school” and “distracting me from my dissertation”—most TAs optimistically see their function as, on some level, “helping” their students.

If you asked me what that meant nine months ago, when I started teaching, I probably would have answered that my “help” would come in the form of some concrete skills and concepts, hopefully coupled with a decent grade. And, I suppose, I’ve done that, to an extent: I’ve watched some students grow in their writing, find their voice in class, and master the ephemeral relationship between habitus and social space. I’ve watched others coast, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.

Then, of course, there’s the more unexpected side of teaching. In the past year, my office hours have been an occasional site of unlicensed psycho-therapy, as I’ve heard about evictions, incarcerated family members, cuts to financial aid, the challenges of raising kids while in school, break-ups, debilitating depression and anxiety, and crushing parental expectations. As I recount this list, I realize how quickly I fall back on my imaginary of myself as at the forefront of public education; where once I was an activist, now I am a teacher, and have realized that—thanks to the personal complexities of my students and my own ability to see the context behind them—teaching and activism are pretty much the same thing.

Except, a month after the semester has come to a close, I’m so, so acutely aware of how from one-directional “helping” can be. In 2013, before I withdrew from school, I saw starting teaching as my last-ditch attempt to tether myself to graduate school and carve out a sense of personal meaning and efficacy. A friend advised me that I should never put that burden on my students, or to view their education as my emotional salvation. And yet, that’s exactly what, for better or for worse, this year turned into. Even when a dissertation topic once again seemed like a hopelessly unattainable goal and I sank back into frantic talk of leaving school, my classes forced me to get out of bed and get to school.

There’s an imbalance in teaching college courses which I never before realized. Our union contract says that we’re supposed to work 20 hours a week. If you really care, you almost invariably work more. But even if I was actually working half time, teaching has easily taken up 3/4s of my brain space: I dream about lesson planning, I fret about missing papers, I agonize over grading, I mull over whether sending another e-mail to the student who came to see me in distress and then disappeared is caring or harassment. For the students, though, I imagine it’s quite different. The students have five TAs, whose long emails and admonitions to “do the reading” melt together into mush. And I get it: after all, I can’t remember the name of a single TA I had as an undergrad.

I drew out the semester as long as I could. First I switched from proctoring a separate exam to the main room, where I could perch myself on the staircases leading out of the lecture hall. When the students turned in their exams, a few of them took the long route out, stopped by for a hug or a high five and to hear me wish them “congratulations” or “good luck” and to share a quick comment about a “great year.” But most of them walked up the other staircase. A quick wave, and they were gone. And then it played out again at graduation: some hugs, some photos, and then moving on.

I hope I always live in a place where spring means seniors leaving, anxious and excited, and fall means freshman arriving, anxious and excited.

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