Long time, no see.

I am terrible at blogging.

I’m great at twitter engagement, and at keeping up with email, and at staying on top of journals (mostly).  I’m a pretty organised grad student, which I think is necessary, but I am dreadful at blogging.  Some of this is the realities of living with chronic illness: I have a smaller reserve of energy than healthy, able-bodied people, and since my diagnosis is new to this semester, trying to balance all facets of my life with my precarious health often means non-critical tasks hit the bottom of the priority list.  Currently, that’s meant this blog and some household tasks.  And while my husband will do the household tasks, he can’t write my blog for me.  Alas.

It’s the end of semester here in DC.  Today was the last day of classes, and finals week now begins.  I’m balancing the demands of TAing — grading, managing student concerns, grading, proctoring exams, did I mention grading? — with being in the last gasps of the classwork phase of the PhD, which means producing papers of my own.  I gave my first formal lecture this past week, and did it on a severely dislocated ankle to boot.  It’s tough.  But I’ve realised a few small things that I thought worth sharing.

Students will surprise you — in the good ways and the bad.  This should be no surprise to seasoned veterans of the classroom, but for me, it was very much a revelation.  My previous TA experience was in a giant 80-student lecture section.  This semester has been in a small, 20-student seminar.  It’s been a far more intimate setting, and I’ve been able to build relationships with students that have been rewarding.  Students come to me for advice, they want to talk about the class topics (Buddhism in China and Japan, for the record), they’re really engaged with the class and with ways to maximise their success.  Being willing to talk and being accessible over email has meant students have been open when they’re having troubles, and opens the channels for good feedback.  I’ve had more emails from students complimenting me on my lecture this week as well thanking me for TAing the class and being supportive of them.  I’ve had emails from students telling me where they were hitting roadblocks with their final paper and looking for advice.  When I’ve demonstrated a willingness to be flexible, they have responded with excellence.  In my previous MA program, which was student-directed and largely unstructured, our advisors often said that when you let students set the bar for what mastery and rigor means, they will always go further than you would.  I think that’s true.

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  I had a student blatantly cheat this semester, the first time I’ve ever dealt with it.  The accusations about the incident were unpleasant, and at one point, the student insinuated that I was too sensitive and I was exaggerating the problem.  Another student went to the lead instructor with complaints that my failure to mark the letter grade on her exam with the points earned meant I was sabotaging her and out to get her.  Students are under incredible stress, especially at a competitive school like mine.  Often, they rise and shine.  And sometimes, they stumble and fall, trying to drag anyone around them down with them.  The importance of being believed and supported by my lead instructor, of us being a unified front, cannot be overstated in these instances.  I’ve been really lucky here and I’ve learned the value of having a good mentor, too.

Students are under more pressure than I was when I was in undergrad.  I really think this one is a consequence of the economy, really.  The cost of college has gone up, family incomes have stagnated, and college degrees are treated like some kind of magic talisman to make gainful employment appear after graduation, as if doing everything “right” will make the job happen, no matter the odds.  This seems especially true with students who are first generation college students.  I’ve had students who are trying not to crumble under the pressure, spread way too thin with classes, jobs, internships, student organisations, all a bid to make sure they have the “right” credentials when they graduate.  The Chinese students in particular are grade driven in a way I have rarely seen.  I cannot tell you the amount of emails I’ve received from my Chinese students, agonising over how to get their A- up to an A, how many points one absence will cost them, what they can do to get from an unacceptable 93 to the coveted 94.  Their anxiety is palpable.  And it doesn’t matter what I tell them, how many times I assure them that an A- is really quite good for an upper level class like this one.  It’s all about that perfect score, no matter what it takes to get there.

Clearly stating expectations is crucial for getting consistent quality.  I knew this one going in, but it’s more obvious to me than ever before.  Communicating what you expect and how you expect it done helps students do what it takes to get the grades they’re willing to work for.  I’m also really convinced of the merits of assigning a style guide as an assigned text in the syllabus.  Turabian was mine when I started grad school way back in 2007, required for my intro class.  It was a godsend.  Having only skimmed the papers I need to grade this weekend and all the inconsistencies in style, formality, formatting, and presentation, assigning a style guide and expecting its use might’ve made my life for the next 48 hours that much easier.  Students don’t always know how to write, even at the 300 level.  If the writing buck has been passed along to you, you’ve got to double down and make it stop at your desk.  It sucks, but it’s easier to insist on a style guide then deal with students flailing around when you mark down their writing.

In the same vein, having clearly stated policies for stuff like makeup tests, extra credit, and all those sorts of fiddly things makes for such an easier semester.  Even if students zone out in the “let’s go over the syllabus” section of the first class, at least you have a consistent reference that is implicitly agreed upon by your students.  Unstated policies are easy to argue about, after all.

What things have you learned about teaching this year?


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