Experiences as a Teaching Assistant
Were you excited about the prospect of teaching before you became a Teaching Assistant? Why or why not?
I was. I first started teaching at the University of Houston right after my first summer of work at the UVa Young Writers Workshop—a program I’m still involved with—where I had my first teaching experiences in a very dynamic lab setting that’s in many ways unlike any other learning environment I’ve experienced. At Young Writers, pedagogy is deliberately somewhat transparent: we’re encouraged, as young or new teachers who are close to our students’ age, to use the space to experiment with our teaching the way our students experiment with their writing throughout the summer. So my first experiences with lesson planning and classroom management and just generally getting a feel for what my teaching personality might become took place in this environment. I feel lucky that it did, as it was both a supportive and an innovative place to take my first steps as a teacher. When I started teaching at UH, I was excited to discover whether or not my experiences with Young Writers would translate to a college classroom. I wanted to bring some of the energy that transparency creates—the sense of the students and teacher engaging in endeavors that parallel and, in some cases, overlap one other—into my new environment. I had a sense that, as someone who was close in age to my students, it was the right time to experiment in that way.
What was an unexpected challenge that you ran into while teaching your first class? What struggles do you still find yourself overcoming as a teacher?
Like a whole bunch of other new TAs, I never took a Rhetoric & Composition course in college, so I struggled along with everyone else to get a handle on what I was teaching at the same time as I was trying to figure out how in the world to teach it. This got better with time, and with an understanding of my students’ specific needs and, frankly, their personalities. It’s one thing to think of The Classroom, in an abstract sense; being in a room with 30 other people who are capable of communicating to you what they need, and are capable of, is another. Now, I try to remember that the whole endeavor is always less overwhelming after I meet my students. Maybe it’s a little hokey, but I really believe that teaching is a partnership, and while it’s challenging and a little scary to think about teaching when you’re alone in your room, much of the problem solving one does as a teacher becomes more intuitive once the students arrive and begin expressing themselves.
I also continue to find class discussion and how to arrive at it effectively to be rich and mysterious territory. I love discussion—in part because I was always a student who benefited a lot from it—and my classes lean heavily on student participation, but I can never shake the feeling there’s some secret alchemy that can turn silence into animated discourse, and that I’m not yet in on the secret. Experimenting with the ways in which I introduce topics and ask questions to stimulate discussion is something I find myself doing a lot in the classroom, in order to keep trying to reach a deeper level of conversation. Discussion is another area in which I try to be transparent—sometimes, I just tell my students that I’m wrestling with the way I want to ask a question, and I appeal to them for help. It’s always my hope that letting students in on the process will create an atmosphere for experimentation and risk, which are, I feel, important foundations of any productive conversation.
What classes have you taught in the past? What class did you find the most interesting as a writer?
I’ve taught Rhetoric and Composition I and II, introductory creative writing workshops that treat both poetry and fiction in a single semester, and, this past semester, an advanced poetry workshop. I’ve also taught literature courses in poetry and short fiction.
I think that of all these courses, I liked the literature courses the best. Reading as a writer with an eye toward craft and choice-making is something I love to think about, and that’s what I have tried to do in my literature courses. I try to build these courses around the idea of each writer, in the context of the writers that came before her, having both a necessary relationship to that context—to her lineage—and to a newness of vision that reacts to or strains against that context. It’s exciting to look at literature in that way, and it hopefully gets us all thinking not just about what the pieces mean or what they’re doing, but why they exist. I find that the largeness of that question really fuels—and pummels—my own writing.
What are your future goals as an educator? How have these goals evolved over the years?
Since, like lots of other folks, I didn’t start teaching until I started my MFA program, my goals as a teacher and as a writer have always run parallel to one another. That’s one of the many wonderful things about attending an MFA program that afforded me so many teaching opportunities—I was able to develop an interest in and love of teaching that developed alongside my sense of craft and purpose as a writer. While I began my MFA program with an eye towards committing seriously to that development in my writing, I exited the program with the tools and experience to pursue teaching with the same energy, and I look forward to continuing to see my goals as a writer and teacher as linked in that way. I’m also looking forward to continuing my work with the Young Writers Workshop, which has influenced my sense of what it means to be an educator in more ways than I can count.
What are some tips you might give a student who is starting a position as a TA? What are some qualities you think are essential for a good TA?
I still very much think of myself as a beginner in this field, but I’d say that in many ways that attitude is a good one—you sort of start over each semester, with each new group of students. In some ways that’s a challenge because the nervousness never quite goes away—at least, for me—but it’s also forgiving because you’re given so many opportunities to reevaluate and revise past decisions, and begin again. You’re also given that opportunity, on a micro level, every single day you walk into the classroom, because teaching is dynamic and none of your plans are set in stone. Which, I guess, is what I’d say to any new TA—it’s good to practice your flexibility, and to be equally interested in what’s working in your classroom and what isn’t. Build up a bag of standby tricks and ideas so eventually you’re able to read the room and adjust your plans according to what is needed. It can be a lot of fun to do this, actually—I imagine it’s a similar process to the way a comedian or performer reads his audience and makes adjustments. And this, too, is an opportunity for transparency—if something works or doesn’t, you can always ask your students to practice putting their critical brains to use helping you figuring out why. Your students are some of your most valuable resources as a teacher, and they’re right in front of you.
Laura Eve Engel’s work has recently appeared or is forth coming in the Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, The Southern Review and elsewhere. She was the 2011-2012 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She is the Residential Program Director of the UVa Young Writers Workshop.