I apologize for not posting regularly the last few weeks. I got distracted by the amazingness of my NEH seminar and working on my dissertation (it’s done, except for proofreading a final two chapters), and once I was home in the states, my grandfather died and I went home to be with my family. Now I’m back, and just about to head into a new semester.
This week, though, is the official prelude: New TA Orientation week for Freshman English. (I apologize in advance for the somewhat rambly nature of this post–I’m mostly reflecting on what I was thinking about today.) This is my 7th Orientation since starting grad school. The first I attended as a New TA myself. The second I attended because I felt I had already forgotten a lot from that first time through, but now had a practical context for understanding what they were actually talking about. I’ve been on staff with Orientation five times since. For a few years, I served as co-chair of the oversight committee that plans the orientation, but this year I’m back to just being an oversight staff member.
I really love both the planning for orientation and orientation itself, even though both are an incredible amount of work. The planning for orientation is a collaborative effort that really makes me (and everyone else, I assume) think through our pedagogy in really complex ways. How do we explain to brand new teachers what it is we do, and why we do it? It’s hard, but very useful because it prevents me from becoming complacent about doing things just because it’s what we do; I have to be able to articulate why we do it. Because it’s a collaborative planning process, we’re forced to really refine down what we say to core principles, because there are so many different ways to achieve what we’re trying to do. I also get exposed to some of those different approaches and learn a lot from my fellow orienters.
This year, we took a slightly different approach than we have in the past. We identified three “through-lines” or guiding principles, and made these explicit from the beginning of orientation (why we never did this before, I have no idea):
- We want to teach writing as a form of dialogic inquiry.
- We want what we teach to be transferable as possible to other contexts.
- We want to be self-reflexive in our teaching, and we want students to be self-reflexive about their writing.
We had our first day of orientation today, and we spent our time introducing the new TAs to these principles. We also talked about the element that has become the core of our pedagogy: assignment creation. We did an assessment a few years ago that showed that stronger assignments–those that emphasized inquiry, textual engagement, and the students’ development of their own argumentative “projects”–resulted in much stronger, well-written papers. As a result, we spend a lot more time talking about how to create strong assignments.
What struck me most about the assignments we looked at was how much more complex the projects they encourage students to develop are from what I was asked to do as a Freshman myself. These assignments would probably have terrified me, in the best possible way: it would have been the terror of finally confronting an assignment that wasn’t firmly in my comfort zone. But I suspect that these assignments would have also energized me because they would have allowed me to bring in my own interests and expertise.
I have to perpetually keep this in mind when I write my own assignments for students: I need to provide them with assignments that will really challenge them, that will move even the strongest students out of their comfort zones while providing the weakest students with the room to feel that they can accomplish something. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but one I want to really work on.