Category Archives: Teaching

TA Observations and Great Students

The semester is drawing to a close so naturally it was time for my observation. If you’re unfamiliar, often the professors under whom their Teaching Assistants (TAs) work will observe them as they teach. This process simply helps TAs, who will potentially go on to become professors of their own classes, become a little more reflective about their pedagogy and refine their practices with input from folks who have been in the game longer.

I have not gotten my feedback yet but I do have a few thoughts on being observed. I think the process is extremely necessary and as someone who cares a lot about pedagogy, I’m always looking for ways to strengthen my teaching. I noticed though that having the instructor of record in our class(es) throws off the vibe. On the one hand, students who don’t speak as much are prompted to participate a little more so the conversations are a little bit more lively. But on the other, the sense of being surveilled changes the dynamics that I have developed with my students over the course of the semester.

In particular, I have one discussion section with whom I have developed a truly wonderful rapport over the course of the semester. We joke (we have several inside jokes at this point), we laugh, we have easy conversation, but we get the work done. And while I worried about them not being able to stay on track during my observation, they showed up and showed out in ways I could have never imagined. Truly, I do think that the relationship I’ve developed with them influenced how they showed up– they wanted to look good, but I think they wanted me to look good in front of my “boss,” too.

With that class, we fell into a different rhythm while I was being observed, but still a rhythm nonetheless. Fortunately, I can think on my feet and I was able to rock with them pretty quickly. I also think it really helped that we watched Imitation of Life (1959) that week, so they had some thoughts. I was fielding questions, leading the conversation around, bridging intellectual gaps, on the white board for some of it– truly flying, and then all of a sudden the 50 minutes were over.

There’s a part of my soul that is fed by teaching, and that class was soul food. At this point, the feedback will be appreciated, but I’m truly astounded and grateful for the ways that both of my classes showed up for me during my observation. I’m glad that I was observed in moments where I knew I was walking in my purpose.

My students mean the world to me. They’ve made this experience meaningful, especially considering I was so bitter coming into it. They’ve reminded me that it doesn’t really matter the circumstances– if I’m teaching, I am walking in my purpose. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters and I have something to offer in the classroom. And they take every opportunity to learn from me, in the classroom and otherwise. I love that I have folks show up to my office hours with a question, but then hang for the good vibes and conversation.

With students like the ones I have now, teaching will never get old.

A (Future) Black Professor’s Prayer | Toussaint Recap

Responsibility

This week’s episode of Black Enough, like the other two episodes, begins with a quotation from Ta-Nehisi that comes across like a prayer. One of the words that my mind clung to in the opening was responsibility. The words implore the viewer to think about the responsibility that Black boys (and Black girls) carry despite the impulse to be carefree. However, I was still mulling over responsibility when we cut to a classroom, where Professor Rekia is giving a rather compelling introductory lecture to a group of moderately engaged students, including Amaya. Jaheem’s late entrance only briefly interrupts the flow Rekia has going.

“We breathe in struggle, and exhale innovation.”

When Rekia has dismissed the class for the day, Amaya and Jaheem strike up casual conversation, that leads to them going on an adventure to find the bookstore together. They chat about the reading, the white girls from Amaya’s dance class, Chicago and the remnants of suburbia in Amaya’s hair. At the bookstore, both Amaya and Jaheem pick up copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which Rekia quoted from in class.

“For the first time my eyes swayed across the page as the same pace as my hips…”

It feels only right that this episode ends with words from Dr. Stephanie Crumpton on her discussion of community based Black Girl Magic. The innovation of the professor, the teacher, reminds viewers how formative these figures are in our lives. Crumpton is spot on when she says that we do not make magic on our own; in my opinion, teachers have a very integral part in helping foster (or sometimes destroy) our magic.

Black women scholars are an integral part of this episode, and it had me wondering what it means to be a Black Professor. I often think about the legacies I am a part of, those which I uphold and those I work to change.

So from one (future) Black Professor to her someday students, here is my prayer:

I pray that I am able to care for myself. I will never be able to give you, my student, the breath out of my body. My breath is for me and God, so I pray I will be able to keep myself healthy and holy, so that I can share all that I can with you.

Know that I do this for you. I’m riding for you. I’m rooting for you. All of my struggle is for nothing if I can’t pass it on, if I can’t help to lift you up and encourage you to fly.

Which means that I jump through the hoops to put myself in the best possible position to help you.

And I write. Don’t forget that I write, but that’s for you, too. For my little sister with her nose in a book and dreams bigger than her Afro. For my brother searching for a way to make sense of the world. For my homie that needs to be heard.

I see you.

It is my dream to write about all the ways you will design to teach yourself to fly. I’m here to cultivate innovation, nourish creativity and to push you to think critically, carefully and closely.

But to be the best version of myself to carry out this purpose I read widely, reflect constantly and write fiercely because someone has to imagine a future for us, so why not me?

And everyday that you come to class, I hope you’ll realize why I have you learn the past. There is no future without looking back. We call it Sankofa, we call it Building on the Legacy.

This is the way God works through me.

And it’s worth it when I am able to open up my office door to the Black girl in my 11 AM lecture and assure her that her Black Girl Magic will level up to Black Woman Sorcery, knowing all the while God was preparing me to be a testimony.

This is the way God works through me.


Further Reading:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange

Becoming Full Professor While Black,” Marlene L. Daut

Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.