Category Archives: Teaching

A Semester in Review: My Favorite Films From Cinema and Modernization of U.S. Culture

Friday afternoon at 11:50 AM marked the end of my first semester of TA’ing. It had its ups and downs, but ultimately I learned a lot, I bonded with my students, and most importantly, I survived. (I do have to help proctor and grade the exams, but that’s just one day, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m done.)

In the aftermath of the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the films we watched and the conversations we had because of them. Thus, here is a list of a few films that stuck with me over the course of the semester:

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Imitation of Life (1959).

This was my favorite film of the semester, hands down. Early in my graduate training, I took a class called “Interracialism,” which dealt in large part with passing literature. Though the film is filtered through Lora’s eyes, I found myself most aligned with Sarah Jane and her struggle to make sense of her “mix-matched” outward appearance and racial identity. I found the mother-daughter relationships deep and rich; the friendships complex and nuanced; and the social commentary important. Though most critics of the time referred to it dismissively as a “woman’s film,” I chose to reclaim the term. The female and interracial narratives are beautifully done, in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from a 1950s films. It was particularly thought-provoking and I believe it will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Within Our Gates (1920).  

Oscar Micheaux was one of the only Black filmmakers we studied over the course of the semester, so naturally his 1920 silent film, Within Our Gates, gets a place on my list. We watched it in comparison to the (notorious) D. W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, and while that is an important way to conceptualize the film, I was also particularly interested in the way Micheaux depicts Black mobility. There’s the literal conception of mobility as Sylvia, the protagonists, makes moves from the North to the South and back again over the cover of the film; but also within lies an interesting depiction of upward mobility for the Black characters. Yes, Micheaux does include some stereotypical images of Black rural and uneducated characters, which are supposed to be a juxtaposition of the doctors and teachers shown in the film. I found it disconcerting that Micheaux’s interest in and depiction of Black upward mobility relied on classist stereotypes of Black folks unable to access education.

WOG is not excluded from critique. But it’s also a struggle when you are only presented with one film by a Black filmmaker, because then that film, by virtue of being the only example, becomes the representative of an entire body of works. It’s unfortunate to say the least. Nevertheless, I did enjoy WOG and thinking critically about it’s position in early American cinema.

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She Done Him Wrong (1933)

I hated the ending of this film, and much of the plot, if we’re being honest, but I really enjoyed learning about Mae West. The film was based on an earlier play that she wrote herself. She’s an older, more mature film star, despite the emphasis on young ingenues. She’s witty (yes, it’s scripted), but she delivers with confidence that is mesmerizing to me. I love an independent woman in media (though, again, the ending ruins that for me), but Mae West is an intriguing figure in cinema and I would love to continue learning more about her.

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier. Do I need to say more? No, but I will. As an active reader about Black history, I knew a fair amount about Sidney Poitier’s body of work, but had never seen more than a few clips of him acting. I was excited to see him in action. Again, this is a film where the context and learning about Poitier was more exciting than watching the actual film (it’s a gritty mystery– though a poorly plotted one…I figured out who the murderer was half way through). I thought this film was nicely supplemented by writing by James Baldwin, who was a friend of Poitier, and I enjoyed leading discussion section on this one, because most of my students had never encountered Baldwin before.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Blood of Jesus (1941)
  2. I am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang! (1932)
  3. It (1927)

I’m now much more knowledgeable about early American cinema up until about 1970, which is an interesting thing, but something I’ve been sitting with recently. Many of the films were troubling and uncomfortable, something that one of my students picked up on and wrote about during our last class together. Having to sit through some films, like Birth of A Nation (1915) and Easy Rider (1969), and try to cobble something coherent and intellectual to say about them was actually very difficult. But as a different student pointed out, film is a representation of American history, and American history is uncomfortable and troubling, so it only makes sense that this is the sense we get from watching “representative” films. (They troubled that term and I didn’t even have to lead them to do so.)

Nevertheless, I’m always willing to engage with new modes of thinking, and this experience expanded my ability to grapple with some of my dissertation texts. I’m grateful for my students, who challenged me on a weekly basis, and the intellectual community that we built together over the course of the semester (even when it frequently involved minor rabbit holes into the plot of Paddington 2 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Things don’t always happen when you want them to, but they happen when they need to, and this semester’s work has taught me that– if nothing else.

TA’ing: Revisited

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about how TA’ing this semester burst a little bubble of hope I’d had for having the freedom to run a classroom how I wanted. Then, I started to find that I loved helping students with their writing— an arena that I did have some say in. And as we neared the end of the semester, I began to rave about how great my students are.

Given my evolving view of TA’ing, it’s time to revisit the matter. I think the issues I pointed to early on, like feeling relatively powerless and made to be the extension of the professor of record, are still valid. But in the weeks that have passed, no matter how tired I am when I walk into the room just before my Friday 9 AM discussion section, I always leave around noon feeling rejuvenated.

My students do that for me.

And there are specific things that make TA’ing/teaching super valuable for me. First, I love office hours. I love getting to spend time with students outside of the confines of the classroom. Office hours is my chance to really laser focus in on their strengths and passions, and guide them in that direction. I get to bond with them over things that we can’t/don’t talk about in class– like “The Ham Cam” or afrofuturism or the MCU.

Second, I genuinely love teaching writing. The ability to effective communicate to a struggling student what makes a tight paper is not innate; it is a learned skill, a muscle I have actively flexed over the course of the semester. I have even developed a little formula for a strong paper:

Ideas + Structure/Flow + Mechanics = “A” Strong Paper

I have learned to be able to identify which piece a student is stumbling over and give them pieces of actionable advice that will make their writing stronger. For strong ideas, I like to ask students what did they care most about during the semester. What are they passionate about that’s a theme across their other classes? Can you make them work in harmony? For writers that are already strong, I try to encourage them to stop writing papers that they think I or the instructor of record will like. If you have a good idea and it’s convincingly supported, that’s all I’m interested in. I would rather students write something they care about, that might lead to more inquiry down the road, than churn something out with the sole purpose of impressing me. That said, I do understand that in a lot of ways, that is the nature of the beast. Writing in undergrad tends to exist for the student and the professor and I’m not sure I like that. I’m not sure belaboring this audience of one is the best way to ensure strong pieces. (But I’m always up for new pedagogies!)

For strong structure and flow, I like to encourage them to think of each individual paragraph as its own mini essay. Have a topic sentence, support your claim, and make in clear how we’re jumping from point A into point B of the next paragraph. I also suggest reading the essay backwards, paragraph by paragraph. This ensure that each piece says what you want it to and then you might realize it belongs in a different space in the essay. Strong outlines are also critical to good essay writing, or at least some preparatory work. Finally, revise, revise, revise. If you have the time, try to get someone else to take a look at your work. This is where the Writing Center can be a crucial tool!

For mechanics, similar to structure, the best advice anyone ever gave me was from my French major advisor. I consistently earned A-‘s on my otherwise very good papers– because I honestly sucked at grammar. He suggested reading my essays backwards, sentence by sentence. It prevents you from worrying about the flow, and you have to slow down enough to make sure each individual sentence makes sense by itself, without the context of the sentence before. This method will also help you catch redundancies in your prose, which you can then replace with stronger, more effective words.

Finally, I love that I have created a classroom environment, despite all the constraints, that leave my students wanting more. I mentioned on Friday to my second class that we had one more session together after break and one person said, “Aw, that’s so sad.” I was sad, too, to be perfectly honest, but I masked it in jokes. As another person was leaving, they asked about future courses I would be teaching. In that moment, I realized that I had done what I set out to do. My students were encouraged; I had helped to foster their already present love of learning; and they now trusted me to take them further.

I almost cried.

This was far from easy. TA’ing actually took up a lot of of my time. Between office hours, prepping for class and discussion section, reading drafts, appointments, and grading, I easily filled 15-20 hours with work a week. I had very little time to work on my own writing, including a fairly urgent article draft, my prospectus and now my dissertation. I was/am always tired

But I wouldn’t take it back. Honestly, it was fun.

And I can’t wait to do it again– on my own this time.

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.