Teaching Diary, Day 1: Early Birds and Eager Beavers

I glanced at the clock: 7:50 A.M. Everyone’s here? Now?

I teach UWP 1, freshman composition, in a computer lab this quarter and behind every monitor sat a student waiting to begin class. They were all ten minutes early at the already inhumane (at least by typical college student standard hours) morning hour. Even as a student, I don’t think I ever had a class where there weren’t at least one or two late stragglers.

True, I had heard tell that UCD undergraduates tend to be compliant and motivated. But I hadn’t expected this. I had somehow assumed that those enrolled in 8:00 A.M. classes did so of necessity alone, begrudgingly enrolling in a last open section. Yet everyone seemed sufficiently awake, too, with no desperate desires for coffee-sneaking, no complaints about exhaustion.

This was a stark difference from teaching an English class discussion section at 8:00 A.M. On a good day last quarter, only half of my enrolled class would show up and even the present students arrived bleary-eyed and full of fatigued excuses. Then again, I taught senior English majors last quarter, disillusioned and practiced in the art of truancy. Today, I had a room of freshmen and sophomores (and one rather bored-looking third-year probably stuck here after regretting not completing this requirement as a freshman). For some, this was their first college class. Ever.

But what I think impacted my experience most was not the students’ background, but my changed role from a T.A. to an instructor. Facing a room full of students as the instructor – not professorial support – showed me how much students’ expectations can shape the classroom experience.

Let me get one thing straight: students were very respectful to me as a T.A. However, a majority of students viewed attending discussion sections as a kind of “optional” help. The stakes are much higher for this class. For many, this is their shot at passing one of their major college requirements. The material I share with them is what matters to them. As a T.A., I could talk all I wanted about how I thought they could prepare for the test; it didn’t make much of a difference unless the professor corroborated that advice. As an instructor, on the other hand, I’ve already seen students cling to my words. I mentioned briefly that we’d focus in this class on audience awareness; lo and behold, in their first reflective writing exercises on course expectations, the majority of them wrote about audience awareness.

They… listened. They saw class time as something valuable.

OK, maybe not everything. But my awareness of my classroom as audience has changed significantly. Knowing what my students expect (roughly speaking) and seeing their attitudes (for a few hours, anyway) gives me a much better sense of how to organize days for them in the future, how to tailor my own style to their needs.

Sure, I won’t please everyone, but just as different writing genres themselves must be tweaked for different audiences, so must my teaching (as… I’m coming to understand it, anyway). I’m still hesitant to call myself a “teacher” in many ways. I think I still view myself as something more like a guide (a facilitator even, to hearken back to my former job as a “peer learning facilitato”). But I think part of this new quarter, too, will be overcoming that discomfort, accepting this role as a leader and embracing the opportunity to affect change.

For one of my students’ first assignments today they had to write a little bit about their past writing experiences. I expected to read a lot of disgruntled responses, a lot of complaints about high school English class and the difficulties of mastering grammar (a universal concern that somehow transcends issues like clarity, purpose, and organization). Yet I was pleasantly surprised to read that many students professed an interest in – nay, an enthusiasm! – for writing, but a frustration with the writing done in classrooms. I found this fascinating; how else have they developed their writing outside of class? In what other ways have they been writing prolifically? Is this interest in writing some product of growing up in a digital age, writing all the time? Obviously, relegating this answer to digital literacy would be really fascinating to me, but it could be any number of influences I suppose.

I’m going to do my best to maintain a regular chronicle of my teaching experiences this quarter. After all, I’m only a first-time teacher once. But even I, as my students have professed, struggle to put thoughts to words occasionally. Writing is messy. I’ll be reminded of that constantly this quarter. In fact, this is perhaps something I’ll mention to them: writing is always struggle. But it’s from that struggle that an ability to share and empathize and appreciate emerges.

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