BMCR 2001.01.06

First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Teaching

, , First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. vii, 197. $16.95.

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, one of my graduate student friends was very upset to be offered a teaching assistantship: they were, he felt, distinctly second best to fellowships; it must mean that the department had a low opinion of him. In fact, he was wrong about that: they reconsidered and gave him a fellowship. But he was certainly right to believe that TAs were felt to be a lower form of organism by the faculty: since many of them avoided teaching (and students) as much as they could, they passed on that attitude to their own students. But that was in the days when highly recommended graduate students might get a job without even an interview, when no one outside the School of Education thought much about the practical work of teaching that we are paid to do, when the very idea of students evaluating their teachers was anathema. Things have changed, and indeed they changed very fast. As soon as the job shortage began in the early 70s, it dawned on graduate students (and their teachers) that some teaching experience might in fact be an advantage in seeking employment; and, as the financial difficulties of universities increased, they realized that TAs were a talented and (more important) inexpensive means of stretching the instructional budget. (Of course, since then the screw has turned one more time, and universities realize that adjuncts cost less than graduate students.)

Be that as it may, teaching has been an integral part of graduate education for many years now, and no responsible university would attempt to send its students into the real world without some classroom experience—nor would any responsible college hire someone who had never taught. Despite that, in most of the universities that I know remarkably little has been done until recently to train graduate students in the practical work of teaching. When I first taught as a graduate student, I was given a class roster and a copy of the textbook and told where my classroom was; after that, I fended for myself—with the obvious result that my students had to give me a considerable amount of on-the-job training. These days, however, teaching is taken more seriously: undergraduates and their families are paying far too much money to put them in the hands of pure amateurs, however intelligent and enthusiastic they may be. A few years ago, I gave a course on teaching methods for Classics graduate students; and for the past year and a half I have been running a pedagogical seminar for the graduate Preceptors in Contemporary Civilization, a core course on philosophical, political, and social issues and texts from Plato to the present, which they teach entirely in sections under their own direction.

Since I am formally untrained as a teacher of classics, not to mention as a teacher of teachers of philosophy and politics, I was eager to read (and therefore to review) Curzan and Damour’s guide to graduate teaching, and, although I have some reservations about it (see below), it is useful and intelligent enough that I will probably order copies for next year’s Preceptors and urge various deans and departments to do likewise. Introductions to teaching tend to come in three flavors (sometimes blended): the School-of-Education general theories of pedagogy; practical guides to running a class; and detailed manuals for teaching particular subjects or texts. First Day to Final Grade is very definitely not the last kind, and it has blessedly (to my taste) little of the first. It is as straightforward as its title.

On many topics, I was happy to see that it matches some of the advice I give my own staff. On the subject of the first class, it reminds new teachers to look at the classroom before the first class; to figure out what you want students to call you; to decide what to wear. It gives advice on how to establish your role and persona in a classroom; how to record grades and attendance; what to put on your syllabus; how to organize a plan for a class and how to run a discussion or organize a lecture; how to use a blackboard or to organize showing a film or bringing in a guest speaker. They get some small but important details absolutely right, with great common sense: never return a paper at the beginning of a class; never leave graded papers or exams in a box outside your office; never give out your home telephone number (use email). These are nuts-and-bolts matters, not lofty theoretical issues—but getting them wrong can really mess up a semester. C. and D. have great good sense: they rarely prescribe what to do but point out the advantages and drawbacks of various approaches.

Beyond that, they deal intelligently and lucidly with some much more difficult issues: problems of ethnicity, gender, and religion; how to establish a good relationship with your supervisor (or the head of the course, if you are teaching sections) and what to ask of her/him; how to deal with hostile students or complaints about grading; how to deal with sexual harassment (in either direction) and how to avoid excessive familiarity with your students. They are very firm on all these issues and more (including plagiarism): the decency, common sense and thought that have gone into this book are apparent throughout.

What then, of its weaknesses? In the first place, for classicists, the great drawback of First Day is that while it has a good chapter on running a lab, it has nothing at all on conducting a language class. True, it is not within their own fields of expertise (Clinical Psychology and English), but they should have said something about it. More generally, it is weak on the content of teaching: while they have a lot to say about how to ask questions or comment on papers, there is no statement that I can find that the first and foremost responsibility of a teacher (at any level) is actually to know what s/he is talking about. That is part of a broader problem. While C. and D. talk about writing a syllabus, they limit themselves to the practical things about office hours, course requirements, and the like. That is all well and good; but they never ask the new teacher to think about the structure of a course in practical ways: how to learn how much to assign; how to arrange assignments so that students see the relationships among different problems or texts; how to shape a course so that students get out of it what you want them to get out of it. In a sense, that is reasonable: a new TA (the primary audience of the book) is unlikely, I hope, to be given a course of his/her own. But by the second or third year of teaching, TAs often do have larger responsibilities; and as most of the advice in this book is just as useful for new faculty as for graduate instructors, a little more in this area might have helped.

Occasionally, moreover, their advice seems to me just plain wrong. They say that one should stick rigidly to office hours and break off a discussion when the bell rings. Good luck. They are very protective, overly so (from a faculty point of view, anyway), of a TA’s time: they give a sample weekly schedule in which time for dissertation research is carefully sequestered. That’s fine—but there is no time marked off for preparing for class. Their ideas of grading seem naïve and rigid, at least from my cynical point of view. I have never been able to prepare a list of points that students should make in an exam or a paper and mark according to how many they have. Perhaps on a language quiz but even then grading is never so simple as that. They are very weak on the pedagogical aspects of grading and write as if (although they do know better) grades were the objective. A grade, at least until the final grade, is a teaching tool, just as much as the paper to which it gets attached. Grades should be used, within reason, to encourage or frighten students to do better; one should never give too many high grades at the beginning of the semester or students will have no incentive to do better.

Enough criticism, however. There is more than enough good in this book to outweigh its limitations. Even when I think it wrong, I found it reasonable, and the exposition was so balanced that the authors helped me focus my disagreements: they are clearly good teachers, in print as in the classroom. And I learned a few good tricks that I may use myself. The bibliographies that the authors give after every chapter make it clear that there are other similar manuals for new teachers available, but I have not read them and can not make comparisons. This one, anyway, is worth reading, owning, and passing on to others who are either new teachers themselves or are responsible for training or supervising graduate instructors. As soon as I finish this review, I will lend the book to the Dean, and it will go in the book order for my pedagogy seminar next fall. That way, I can spend more time on how to teach Plato, and less time on how to teach.