Teach me how to teach
August 13, 2017 6:06 AM   Subscribe

I just got a teaching fellowship at the philosophy department of a prestigious university, for a semester. I finished my undergraduate degree in philosophy five years ago and haven't really engaged seriously with the discipline since, apart from reading for pleasure on philosophical topics I enjoy and that too not all that mindfully. I am terrified of facing a classroom full of clever and high-achieving young people and exposing myself as a fraud. Please help me?

I did well in my Bachelor's even though it was rather broad and somewhat jejune occasionally. In my country, tertiary education in the humanities is considered infra-dig so while there are some great colleges, the quality of arts education at the undergraduate level can be unrewarding and inconsistent. Still, my department is the oldest in the region and generally well-regarded nationally, so I was able to coast on that cred.

This is partly the fear that's been haunting me for many years, as I've gone onto write and research in other areas of the humanities and social sciences -- that I have shaky foundations and I never got to really live up to my potential as a philosophy student.
For context, my Master's was an interdisciplinary one in the realm of visual and media studies. So I achieved some level of discursive fluency in a number of interrelated disciplines, somehow trying to anchor them to a philosophical framework that remained (in my mind) flimsy but it's what my core training has been so it also came most naturally to me to do this. I don't know that I was successful though!

All of this is the general impostor-syndrome-y background to this new gig I've landed. It's a TA-type position and I'll be assisting someone I've known and been friends with for many years. They were the ones who initiated the offer and recommended me to the dean based on writing and research work I've done so far, so I'd really want to deliver on their expectations of me. They've been encouraging and told me how everyone's concepts are a bit hazy initially and it's the act and responsibility of teaching that often forces you to gain command over the material. I hope this is true.
I am very scared of failing in an act I consider the cornerstone of the life of the mind -- the ability to communicate complex thoughts to others -- of learning that I actually know nothing and have just been faffing all along, and that more than any real knowledge of facts, it's been my mastery over language or ability to quickly analyse complicated ideas that's brought me this far. I dread being rendered inarticulate or proving ignorant in front of a 100 students when they ask me questions. Obviously, i am trying to read and revise, but this is also about cumulative information, which I feel like I often lack because of laziness/not-amazing memory etc.

Also, this university is an elite, private one, and all of the faculty (including my friend) are Oxbridge/ Ivy League alumni so there is some class anxiety as well -- I am a product of the State-sponsored public university system. I am economically upper middle-class but wasn't really raised so; I get most of my cultural capital from one parent's lifelong eccentric intellectual endeavours rather than any institutionalised system as befits someone with the ostensible social/political privileges I have. This has resulted in an awkward relationship with elite spaces and class markers of all kinds, even ones that I have technically been "born" into. So that's causing me to worry even more.

I'm low on confidence because of a combination of life circumstances over the past two years that haven't allowed me to stabilise professionally or really develop authority over any subjects or areas. It's affected my general morale and social life as well. I really want this to go well. I've been trying to distract myself by thinking about mundane things like what to wear to class (but seriously, what?) and it isn't helping.

I'm basically a writer who desperately needs a part-time job she doesn't hate so I can sustain my writing life, and teaching is important work that I've always wanted to do, so in a sense it's my dream scenario. I really need to not mess this up!

Experiences/advice/words of wisdom/perspective/objective appraisals of the situation...any and all are welcome.

Thank you!
posted by norwegianleather to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was a TA in a topic I knew something about, but wasn't an expert on. Don't worry. It is okay to say "great question, I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask, so if you want to know more, I suggest XYZ". My own TAs did it a lot and I did it too — we were not full-on professors, and the students accepted that. Heck, some of my professors did that too. There is no shame in admitting you are not God.

I found out that I enjoyed teaching and supporting students in their learning. The students were mostly lovely, smart people who it was a delight to teach. I've continued to teach in a variety of settings on a vast number of topics — some which I have come to as an absolute outsider (hello, insurance English for non-native speaking underwriters).
posted by kariebookish at 6:19 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

It is great to simply admit you're not sure about something. However, do not tell students to go ask someone else unless the question is entirely unrelated to the course material.

Instead, you tell them 'Good question, I'm not sure how to address that off the top of my head, (mention some initial thoughts with out conclusion), I'm going to look in to this further and get back to you!". Then YOU go do your homework, look up the sources, ask the prof, etc.

It's ok to defer for a bit, but it is your job to teach them and answer questions. As long as you don't defer on 60% of questions, they will understand and prefer to get good info later than possibly bad info in the moment.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:59 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

College professor here who has guided many TAs: Your friend knew your background and skills when they asked you to TA. That's what they want you for! Please don't dismiss your ability to reason, write and think as some kind of scam covering up a lack of factual knowledge. Teaching disciplines in the humanities is mostly about teaching how to think, reason and write. Model someone who can think, and someone who isn't afraid to admit you're always still learning.
posted by flourpot at 7:02 AM on August 13 [10 favorites]

I am very scared of failing in an act I consider the cornerstone of the life of the mind -- the ability to communicate complex thoughts to others -- of learning that I actually know nothing and have just been faffing all along, and that more than any real knowledge of facts, it's been my mastery over language or ability to quickly analyse complicated ideas that's brought me this far.

With respect, I think you've got things a little bit backwards. You say that you're worried that your linguistic and analytic abilities are somehow irrelevant to teaching, and that teaching is really about knowing facts, and because you don't know "all the facts," you can't be a good teacher. Content knowledge is important, but can always be supplemented by research. No one knows "everything" (whatever that means; I don't think it's possible to have total knowledge of anything, and if you think you do, you've got some blinders on). What really matters are precisely the soft skills that you admit you already have, but are downplaying and discounting - analysis, synthesis, communicative ability. I would add empathy, creativity and a sense of humor to that list of important teacher qualities. Teaching is a thing you DO, like writing or painting. It's a process. The same way you are a writer because you write (even though you don't know "everything" about being a writer), you become a teacher when you teach.

And keep in mind that you're going into kind of an ideal situation, where you're not completely responsible for everything. You're there to support someone else, and that person is a friend who it sounds like will be very encouraging and supportive. To tamp down some of your anxiety, can you ask your friend some basic questions, like: Can I see the syllabus in advance? Is there anything you think I should brush up on before the class starts? What's the dress code like/how do you dress for class? What are your expectations for how much I will be teaching? Can we plan some lessons together?

Think of teaching as like baking. Sometimes your muffins might fall flat or your cake is lopsided, but the more you do it, the better you get, and mistakes and imperfections are just part of the learning process. Your flat muffins can still be delicious, and eating a flat ("imperfect") muffin will not harm you or the people you share your muffins with (in this tortured metaphor, the flat muffins are lessons that maybe didn't go so great, and the people you share them with are your students, ya dig? You are not going to harm your students, and they know you're a beginning baker, and you've got a master baker there to help you, so...just bake! You are certainly being harder on yourself than anyone else, and poking at flaws no one else sees).
posted by the thought-fox at 7:12 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

Talk to other folks you know who teach and collect a bunch of advice and opinions. Game out your course beforehand so you have a clear idea of what "the point" is behind each month, each week, and each class. Be very clear what your expectations and rules are for the class, and be consistent. Get the students to introduce themselves, talk to each other, and feel part of a larger exchange. Experiment with splitting into smaller groups for discussion or engaging in homework online postings if that's useful. Time and classroom management takes a lot of trial and error - you'll figure it out as you go. Call on people who seem reluctant to talk.

Get sleep and eat before your class so you're full of energy. Listen and ask questions, think of ways to discourage monopolization of conversation and ways to encourage office hour visiting.

Breathe! An engaged group of students is awesome - nothing's better than a motivated class.
posted by Geameade at 7:19 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

I am not a professional teacher but I do regularly do community ed stuff, and I went from being really crap at it to not being terrible. I do sometimes lecture, and I do teach something where I have a body of background knowledge to communicate. The things I think are universally applicable, although modulo for the UK:

1. Other people know less than you think and are less confident than you think. If you're nervous, it's easy to think "oh, I know this thing, therefore it's basic and easy, therefore I bet everyone else knows it too" and "I bet I'm boring people with a recitation of obvious stuff". I have never, ever found this to be the case.

People will nod and smile and look confident even when they have no idea what you're talking about, and this can fool you. They do this unconsciously or to avoid looking foolish or to make you feel good, and it will make you feel like you're stating the obvious or boring them, but if you press, you'll find that they have, like, no idea what you're talking about.

Mistakes I have made related to this: racing through what I thought was "basic" material that my group did not understand, not checking to see if people understood a word or a historical thing, sitting there thinking "they think I'm dumb and boring". Also, not building in enough time for going over material, so I couldn't even go back.

I don't know the tenor of fancy UK classrooms, so your specific mechanism may be different, but I now try to do a lot of check-ins and try to elicit information from students - so if I'm thinking "are people aware of [thing]", I ask who has heard of it and elicit some descriptions of it before filling in any details that get missed.

2. Other people will assume that you know a lot because you're teaching. It's okay to say "I don't know that, a good resource is [thing]", but don't feel that you need to put yourself down or emphasize that you "don't know much" all the time. You know dramatically more than most of your students, for one thing, and you're also doing the work of structuring their learning. In theory some of your students will have a lose grasp of a lot of the material, but they will not have it well organized in their heads, they will not be fluent in it. Helping them to understand their knowledge and become fluent is what you do.

One thing I've learned doing community ed: Most people don't want to take that responsibility. They want someone else to decide what they learn, put the material together and guide them through it. Just taking that responsibility is an important task that you're doing for people, and merely by being there and running the show, you're adding tremendously to their learning.

3. This may not be a UK thing at all, or may need to be modulated, but I've found that classes go better when I spend time developing a class climate by doing some group stuff at the beginning. The key part, IMO, is that people want to impress each other, so if you give them a chance to show off their opinions or experiences, they become more invested in the group and the project. So I usually start with some information-gathering, where I ask people what they know about the topic, we map it on the board, etc. I also do some small group stuff, because when you foster social ties in the group, people get more invested in the work. Small group stuff also lets people who are bad at talking in the big group have time to speak, and this invests them in the group.

4. Sometimes students are assholes. I was actually kind of an asshole as an undergrad, and I am amazed that at least some of my professors liked me. If one student talks all the time or puts others down or seems condescending, know that this is about them being an asshole, not about you failing. At best, they are too immature to know how to get much out of learning; at worst they're a jerk. I don't know how bad student behavior is handled in the UK, but if it's culturally permissible, it's all right to talk to a student who is being a particular pain in the ass and tell them to stop. You are the person running the class.

5. Give things a little time to work. Obviously, when things fail utterly you need to change, but sometimes you'll get pushback from students that is wrong and will go away. I remember radically changing a reading assignment, for instance, based on some griping, and hearing comments like "why didn't we finish [thing]" later on. "Because you whined and complained and resisted my every attempt to get you to see why we were reading it" was what I wanted to say, but in retrospect, I should have had confidence in the reasons I'd chosen the text and pushed on through.

6. Let yourself be imperfect. Being a TA is hard, especially your first semester. It's okay to feel like it's hard. I don't know anyone who went in and was like "this is a piece of cake, I am so confident and it is so easy, also all my lesson plans always work". Part of the purpose of the university is to form you as a scholar and a teacher - having you as a TA is not about hiring a perfect teacher who will be perfect right off the bat; it's about hiring someone who is promising and giving them a chance to learn and grow.
posted by Frowner at 7:32 AM on August 13 [11 favorites]

Your prestigious U probably has a "Center for Teaching and Learning" or something similar. They will have useful handouts with tips on teaching, perhaps a lending library with some books on common pedagogical approaches, and they should offer workshops or seminars. Avail yourself of any/all resources that you find interesting or helpful.

Meanwhile, the prof you're TA'ing for is also still supposed to be teaching you how to teach. Don't be afraid to ask them for any info in particular that the would like to be reinforced by you, and any suggestions or advice they may have about things like a grading rubric, paper assignments, etc.

Don't worry, you'll do ok! I TA'd a few times in areas vastly outside of my field and made it through (seriously, one course I had to ask the prof for the answer key on exams because I was getting questions wrong...) In times like that, as mentioned above, just say, "I don't have an exact answer right now, but here's how I would work through the question"--you do have more experience than the students and you are bringing more to the table.
posted by TwoStride at 8:10 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also: seriously, just demonstrating passion for the subject at hand goes a long way.
posted by TwoStride at 8:11 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Congrats on your new position! It's great that you are easing into this by becoming a TA with someone you know and like. They'll help you learn what you need to do.

Imposter syndrome is normal. I didn't really know exactly what I was doing when I started teaching as a TA in grad school, but as I got more experience, it got easier. I have been teaching adults at the postsecondary level now for twenty years, and it has become more and more natural and comfortable for me over time. One interesting thing I noticed was the longer I've been teaching, the less control I feel I need, and the less controlling I am in the classroom, the better I am as an instructor.

Also--this will sound counterintuitive, but teaching is not so much about imparting facts to your students. I mean, yes, it partly is, but nowadays it is not necessary or desirable to stand and lecture for the entire class period. You will find out from your colleague how much lecturing is expected--and it may be different where you are--but on the whole, it is probably not the sole activity you'll do in the classroom. An instructor's real job is to get the students to learn how to think and analyze.

You may find this book useful: How To Teach Adults, by Dan Spalding. (PDF link to Chapter One.) It is very clear and basic, and I think it's a great introduction to teaching adults. It will give you a framework for how to approach your job in the classroom.

(Make sure you get the second edition--the first edition is available as a free download on the author's website, but it's not nearly as good as the revised edition.)

Good luck and have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:57 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

One thing I suggest doing is looking through the resources available, related to your specific discipline:

Teach Philosophy 101 is perhaps the best resource available to you right now. It has an incredible amount of information.

Daily Nous's Teaching Archives will likely involve less practical advice, but a lot of content to help you think about what it means to teach philosophy.

Teaching Workshop at the APA Blog has entries only covering specific topics, but they can be useful to think about.

In Socrates' Wake is also really good.

I also recommend immediately buying and reading Advice for New Faculty Members. It's not specific to philosophy, but it will help you think about the emotional/psychological task of preparing for teaching (as well as doing research)! Seriously, get this book. Right now. Read through it as soon as it arrives. Start working through its advice immediately. Let getting and reading this book be your most major immediate goal.
posted by meese at 9:35 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

not your question, but my experience: PhD new teacher types are the worst, as an undergraduate, because they drone on in a quiet monotone and make you fall asleep. Force you to. It's hypnotic. Please, when lecturing me, just help me keep awake. Stuffy lecture theatre, tiny hard to hear teacher over there, comfy seat, long cycle-ride to uni that wore me out - help me not to doze off. Vary your voice tone. Make some jokes. Use some overhead projection stuff (that thing where you have a frame, but when you click on it more bits appear - microsoft brandname - that's quite good) but please don't put up so much stuff that i can't copy it down and listen. Oh, and please, please, please, organise your moodle (i hope your uni has it) or some other method so that i can do all the essays: don't specify a book for each essay so scarce in the library that one or at most two pupils will be able to check it out and have the option of doing that essay in the time available. Also, giving low marks doesn't prove you're tough (this is what most uk new lecturers do - opposite of america lol). Just help me stay awake. And don't make awkward or embarrassing jokes about eg students' body parts or nationalities or whatever so that we give up coming out of embarrassment. Or chat to one particular student you particularly like in the front row 'Chris, you think x don't you?' cringe. We're not expecting much, the bar's pretty low from past experience: don't flirt with the part-time model, mark the work this year not next, actually know which papers you want read and referenced in the essays and make them fully available, don't set the essays in the last week of term so we don't get time to work on them until all our essays are due at the eleventh hour, wake us up every so often (yell, bang the table, anything) and we're good, and you're perfect.

They're thinking of you in terms of their needs, don't worry, not in terms of you and what you are to them, if that makes sense: i imagine myself fading from view before the other person's image of what they're looking for, or as an animated prop in their world view, or a completely mistakeable item identical to all the others (teacher 193 or whatever), that's how i deal with nerves, remove any idea of my existence as an i in the other person's mind.
posted by maiamaia at 1:20 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, for taking the time to put down your thoughts on the matter.
I feel a wee bit better prepared going in. I hope it's a pleasant challenge!
posted by norwegianleather at 4:21 AM on August 14

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