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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.

Freedom in Found Footage | Can I Get A Witness? Recap

“Every now and then you just need to be reminded of who you are in God.”

 

This week on Black Enough, Amaya is taken to church– in all senses of the expression. And as Amaya is being ministered to, so is the viewer. When she begins to dwell in the possibility of the words she is hearing in service, we see her world open up. This transformation is visually represented through found footage of Black folks from all walks of life dancing– Amaya’s love language. Not only is dancing Amaya’s love language, we have seen earlier in the series how this is God’s way of working through her and also her line of communication with Him.

This time, though, the experience is communal. The shots of joyful dancers may perhaps exist only in Amaya’s mental space, but she can share this moment of transformation with folks that are coming to be close to her. Even the found footage often shows dancers in community with others.

 

“One day we gone fly unchained like Django…”

Vitamin Cea’s original song, “Wings,” that works in concert with the stunning visuals and editing, includes this poignant line which addresses the community work implicit in reaching infinity. We may not all be able to fly like Riri Williams, but we can dance, and we find freedom in that practice together.

Amaya begins to take flight but is immediately grounded when she checks her phone and learns that an unarmed young Black man has been shot in Kansas City. Jaheem and Ember, who have accompanied Amaya to church, cover her and lean into each other as they learn to navigate flight in a world that would not just see them grounded, but lifeless.

Can I Get A Witness?” was right on time for me as I struggled with who I saw in the mirror. As someone obsessed with flight, the thought that I was so focused on what my body wasn’t, instead of what it is or can be, was uncharacteristic. Watching Amaya lean into the (im)possibility of her own body, feeling that dancing is as close to flying as we want it to be, helped me refocus my mind and realign myself with my body.

As much as this world we inhabit wants Black bodies to either be lifeless or exist in boxes and limitations, with easy access to us for exploitation, we find ways each and every day to be unchained. This episode reminded me of how I am inextricably linked with impossibility– I exist to do the impossible. We exist to do the impossible.

We laugh. We love. We dance.

 

Watson’s found footage exemplifies this. She found freedom in found footage and shared that joy with all of us.

 

 

Further Reading:

Island Possessed, Katherine Dunham

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker

Riri Williams: Ironheart #1 (2018), Eve L. Ewing

Electric Arches, Eve L. Ewing

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of futuristic, fantastic and digital narratives in new media. She often likes to say she writes about Black girls flying. When she’s not researching, you can find her writing for her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School; learning new yoga poses; or bullet journaling.

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.