T.S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month. Far be it from me to argue with one of the literary greats of all time, but I think he was off by six months; I think October is the cruelest month.
And it’s not just because of what happened to Steve Whitmire last year. A disproportionate number of the worst things that have ever happened to me have happened in October.
During the second year of my graduate teaching assistantship, the director of writing called me up to his office. Part of the reason was to talk about the problem with the student and the syllabus that he, himself, had caused, and which I have already discussed in detail.
But he also wanted to talk about stupid, pointless, bureaucratic stuff that came from higher up on the university food chain. As I discussed previously, there was pressure on the University to raise freshman writing test scores, and there was also concern over student surveys.
At the end of each semester, they gave each class (not just in our department, but across all the state-run universities) a standardized survey on the class and the instructor. I regarded them as kind of a joke for several reasons. With regard to the classes I taught, I thought they weren’t altogether applicable because the students were freshmen. A whole section of the survey was questions about “how does this class compare to similar classes that you’ve taken?” Well, they’re freshmen; how many similar classes could they have taken at that point? Meanwhile, I had taken those surveys myself, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, and they never seemed to make any difference. (Probably because most of my professors were tenured.)
But anyway, the director of writing called me into his office and told me that my survey scores weren’t very good and that the head of the department wanted to see me. So I went to see her, and she basically told me that I sucked and that they couldn’t have people teaching in their department that sucked, so if I wanted to keep my assistantship, I had to figure out a way to not suck.
She was more erudite and more professional about it, obviously, but that’s basically what she said.
At that point, it was probably the most hurtful thing that anyone had ever said to me, and what made it worse was that she wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings at all; she was just trying to be detached and professional, but she came across like the Borg Queen.
As a matter of personal and professional pride, I didn’t want to cry in front of her; I felt (perhaps unfairly) that she would respect me less if I betrayed a human weakness like emotion. But I learned that day that there is a limit to the volume of tears that can be contained within the eye before they spill over; once it reached that point, well…resistance was futile, so to speak.
To her credit, the department head was not without sympathy and handed me some tissues–although maybe she just didn’t want me to make a mess of her office. Anyway, she worked out a plan with me where she would observe me teaching, give feedback, and then observe me again; then I would have to meet with her again and discuss the future of my assistantship.
So, no pressure.
Suffice it to say, things went according to her plan: she observed and gave me feedback, and I did my best to apply it to my teaching. She observed me again and we had another meeting, in which she told me that I had shown some improvement…but not enough, so she couldn’t let me teach two sections the following semester; I would only teach one section and make up the rest of the time consulting in the Writing Center.
It was better than a kick in the butt, but in a way it was a shame because the following semester we would be teaching Intro to Literature instead of Comp 101, which was better for several reasons: (a) while still a fairly basic, freshman-level class, it was more interesting than Comp 101 because we got to read and discuss actual literature, (b) we got a little more freedom as to how we taught the class, e.g., we still had to basically stick to the syllabus the director of writing gave us, but he also gave us a choice of three textbooks, and we got to pick the one we wanted to use, etc.; (c) teaching literature was what I had wanted to do and trained to do in the first place, so I was in my element. I never got to see my survey scores from that last semester–or if I did, I don’t remember them–but I’m willing to bet that they were better.
In any case, I had a lot of fun teaching 210. We were required to teach a novel (and assign a research paper about said novel), and among short stories, poetry, and drama, we had to choose at least two, but we could do all three. A lot of the other TAs, being primarily readers who hadn’t had experience in theatre, felt intimidated by drama and decided not to do it–lightweights. 😉 I, however, had been a theatre minor as an undergraduate, had been involved in many plays, and knew exactly which plays I wanted to teach and what I wanted to do with them.
We read three plays as a class, and then I had the students–working either alone or in groups–choose one of the plays we had read and perform a scene or a monologue from it. I had certain minimum requirements with regard to staging, props, costuming, and that sort of thing, but I gave them a lot of leeway to be creative. I said they could either present their scenes live to the class or pre-record them. I told them they could act them out with Barbie dolls if they wanted to–and one group did! (Too bad I didn’t specifically say that they could use puppets…) I had them write a reaction paper at the end about the process of putting together a scene, but the play was the thing. We had a lot of fun with the scenes in class, and then grading the reaction papers, which was the last assignment that I’d had to grade for the semester, was a breeze for me.
Anyway, getting back to the head of the department: the thing that’s sort of funny is that, by lightening my schedule, in a way she did me a favor. The Writing Center stuff was easy, and my work in the Writing Center stayed in the Writing Center; I wasn’t required to do any outside prep or grading or anything. Since I was only teaching one section, it cut my teaching workload in half. Essentially, I was doing maybe two-thirds the amount of work I’d been doing before (maybe) and getting paid the same amount. When I told other TAs what my schedule was like, without telling them the reason for it, they would say, “Lucky!” If I hadn’t known what had gone down, I would have said the same thing.
But I didn’t feel lucky. It just goes to demonstrate the force of the department head’s personality, that she could take something that one would have considered a privilege and make it feel like a punishment; that she could take a desirable schedule that one would have asked for–begged for–if one had known it was available, and convince one to feel ashamed to take it. Not, “I teach one section and then I get to work in the writing center,” but “I only teach one section, and then I have to work in the writing center.”
She really succeeded in assimilating me to her way of thinking in that regard. Perhaps she was the Borg Queen after all.