Category Archives: Teaching

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

#KeioChronicles: Round Three

Summer weather is dwindling to a close and the semester has already started. But before I launch full swing into this semester’s work, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with the Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration, a two week long exchange program with students from Keio University in Japan.

2019 was my third year working with the program– I was a Course Instructor in both 2017 and 2018. This year, however, I decided I was more interested in the administrative side of the program. I take pride in my organizational and logistics skills, and after seeing the program from one side, I had been taking note of things I could potentially improve if given the opportunity.

So I applied for the Academic Director position, and after sweet-talking my friend into applying for the Assistant Director job, we were selected in early March. One of the biggest differences between between a Course Instructor and being on the Director team is that despite the students arriving in Virginia-in-August heat and humidity, Keio starts when it’s still cold outside. My new position required me to conduct interviews for the Course Instructor jobs, held by American Studies graduate students, and for the Peer Assistant ones, held by W&M undergrads. I alone was responsible for planning the Academic portion of the program, so I had to immediately begin reaching out to potential lecturers, making sure that we had a good trajectory and flow through the various facets of American culture that we would be introducing them to. By the time early summer rolled around, I had a full staff, an academic plan with lecturers on deck and a long list of other miscellaneous things which had to be taken care of before the students arrived on August 5.

Even with the five months of preparation time, the summer flew by and August 5th was staring me in the face. I hurried to prepare the blog on which the students would write their reflective journal entries, do roommate assignments for the hotels, update the handbook and syllabus, and get the students all the information they would need for the program well in advance. I was also prepping for our staff orientation the morning before the students’ arrival, making sure staff was set, while also generally panicking (as I tend to do. I’m a worrier).

On the day of the students’ arrival, I rode to DC on a charter bus along with a PA to meet the group at Dulles Airport and to escort them back to campus. We waited with dwindling enthusiasm as an hour passed after their scheduled arrival, then another, and another. Finally, three hours after they’d landed, the group finally made it through customs after being caught in a traffic jam of six other international flights landing at the same time. We made a quick pitstop for dinner before pulling into our hotel for the trip around 10 PM.

Naturally, everyone was jet lagged and exhausted when we started our program in earnest the next day. Our lectures were interesting and also challenging: Professor Kitamura did an introduction to cultural studies while Professor Knight did a history of Williamsburg; Professor Ely managed to distill 400 years of U.S. Race Relations into 45 minutes and Professor Johnson gave an interesting talk on megachurches for our U.S. religions day. Professor Losh did an excellent talk on digital feminism, followed by an impressive talk on pop culture by American Studies Ph.D. candidate Khanh Vo and ending with a lecture on U.S. social movements by Dr. Singh. Each lecture was followed by break out sessions called Dialogue Classes, where Grad Student CIs helped students through the more difficult aspects of the lectures in smaller group settings. The lecturers would visit each small group to answer questions and talk about their lecture more in depth.

Some days were supplemented with extracurricular activities such as visiting local churches on our religion day and talking a walk through Colonial Williamsburg following Professor Knight’s lecture. We also spent a morning visiting a local business, the Canon company!

Afternoons were typically spent in Swem library where the students could work on their group research presentations on topic of their choice. We had groups doing everything from a comparative look at transportation to elementary school in U.S. and Japan to the function of vending machines in the two countries. In our final full day in Williamsburg, the groups presented their final projects, which we recorded to send to Keio University, before we went off to Washington D.C.

In D.C., the students were much more on their own than they were in Williamsburg. Due to the difficulty of getting around via public transportation and/or cabs and ubers, we (and by “we” I mean the CIs) shuttled the students around the city in 12 passenger vans. But in DC, they were free to metro, take taxis and walk any and everywhere they wanted to go, so long as they met us for the required activities. As dialogue classes, groups visited the Smithsonian museums; we went on a group tour of the national mall and we visited the Japanese Embassy, where two selected students gave a presentation of what they had accomplished over the last two weeks.

Before I knew it, we were at the last night of the program, which included a Farewell Dinner and Talent show. It was filled with singing and dancing and merrriment, gift giving, tearful hugs and so many selfies. I was really proud of myself for having gotten through most of the goodbyes without crying, but the next morning, after everyone had hugged their new American friends and teachers for the last time, I boarded the bus taking them back to Dulles for a final headcount. When I had the right number of students, I took a deep sigh, smiled and waved at them. All of them waved back at the exact same time and I immediately started to cry.

As the bus rolled away from the hotel, I took a breath, realizing with pride that I had not only managed to get through another Keio, but that I had successfully planned and executed this whole thing.

**

I continue to do Keio because a part of me, the 16 year old part of me that learned about Japanese culture for the first time at High School Diplomats, never grew up. I never get over the joy of learning about a new culture, or seeing others experience a new culture. It reminds me that the world is so big and that I have a lot to see.

So, until next year, Keio.

Thanks for everything.

Branch Out: Round Three

If you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll know that I have managed to be involved with the Lemon Project Branch Out Alternative Break every year since I got to William & Mary. My first year I was just a tagalong, helping my colleague run the trip. Last year, I co-ran the trip. And this year? This year was the first time I’ve ever taught it mostly on my own.

First things first–what is Branch Out? They’re service trips held during school breaks. Typically, students travel somewhere, but the Lemon Project trip is held on campus for three days the weekend before classes start. Our trip is less of a service trip, and more of a public history and social justice oriented project. As part of the Lemon Project’s goal is to have people think critically about the College’s and the greater Tidewater area’s relationship to slavery, Jim Crow and their legacies, it is always important to have the Branch Out trip reflect those goals.

What do we do? There’s usually one big project that the students work on over the course of three days. We break the project down into smaller, more manageable sections for the students to tackle in groups. In 2017, we did a critical analysis of race in the College’s newspaper, The Flat Hat, over the course of a hundred years, hosted on an Omeka site. In 2018, we created another Omeka exhibit analyzing space and place at William & Mary as told by the Legacy 3, the first three residential African American students at the College. This year, we created an exhibit using your average wordpress site, which brought a critical lens to all the commemorations that have been floating around the College and the greater Williamsburg area in the last few years. The students wrote essays on the 1619 commemoration, the 100th year anniversary of co-education at William & Mary, the 50th year anniversary of residential African American students, the Rowe presidency and the memorial to the enslaved the College is currently working on. In addition, they also created accompanying syllabi for how they would teach these topics.

Yes, they did this in three days.

When I sat in the History Grad Lounge on Saturday morning and walked the students through what I wanted them to do by Monday afternoon, their eyes grew wide and round as teacup saucers. I could feel their desire to ask me if I was crazy. They had every right to: it was a tall order.

And yet, they did it.

With the help of Dr. Vineeta Singh, I set up the weekend to give them as much guidance as I could. We brought in speakers to talk about each of the five topics; everyone from a First African Fellow at Jamestown, to President Rowe herself. Vineeta led what I consider to be one of the most useful workshops on building a radical syllabus. We even had some fun participating in a local peaceful protest called Moral Mondays led by Dr. John Whitley, a local activist.

In the afternoons, they worked. They conducted research, wrote their essays, created syllabi, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally loaded everything into the WordPress site on Monday afternoon. They worked down to the wire and I hope they’re proud of everything they accomplished in just three short days.

Most importantly, for me, is that they all seemed to bond over their work; spending time having side conversations unrelated to the project, over dinners and lunches and goofing around in the evenings. I hope they look back on this project not only with a sense of pride, but fondness as well.

To Brendan, Angela, Emily, Sharon, Meg, Matthew, Kam, Jioni, Isa, Kelsey, Lex and Abby–

You know, my first semester of grad school, I thought frequently about leaving. Then, the day before Branch Out 2017, I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was asked to help out, and I fell in love. I think my love of this particular project stems from the students. You all come to Branch Out because you want to– not because of an area requirement, or needing those last three credits. You genuinely want to know more about the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow at the college you call home. You want to have a full understanding of this place, complicated and gut-wrenching though it may be. I admire your collective work ethic, curiosity, and enthusiasm for your work. In all honesty, the energy that the Lemon Project Branch Out students have brought to the table each year keeps me going. The work that you do inspires me. Students like you all make my passion for teaching shine so much brighter. Each one of you is so precious to me, and I look forward to seeing what you do to make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for making what was probably my last Branch Out trip so wonderful.

With all my love,

Ravynn