Jessica Lautin ’03 is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s only now, three years later, that I can write about my first semester as a university teaching assistant. I remember coming home for my father’s 60th birthday party just a week or two into classes, and as the youngest in the room, thinking it was nice to feel like a kid instead of pretending to be an adult. Of course I was an adult, but since some of my students were just two years my junior, I felt the need to act older than my age. In class I wore blazers and tried to act friendly while maintaining a veneer of reserve. During those first few discussions — called recitations rather than preceptorials — I felt like a performer in a mental circus. In one ring, I listened to a student answer my question; in another I wrestled to decide the best way to respond; in a third I snuck glances at my lesson plan, watching the clock to determine how to fill the remaining time. Of course, while juggling all the acts, I dropped the first entirely: What did that student say? I nodded my head and smiled at the one who was speaking, and asked if anyone had anything else to add.
As both fledgling teacher and graduate student, I worried about what I didn’t know. Wasn’t I supposed to know every answer to every question my students might ask, on any topic even tangentially related to the week’s reading assignment? It didn’t matter that I was teaching a course on the Third Reich, outside my field of specialty in American history. I spent hours trying to anticipate the gaps in my class’s knowledge — and my own — and doing research so I could fill them.
After-hours time management was an issue. I assigned my 40 students four two-page response papers over the course of the semester and sometimes spent an hour grading just one. I suggested line edits and grammatical and stylistic improvements, and wrote a paragraph or two to justify the grade I’d assigned. In response to an anonymous midterm evaluation I sent around, one or two students said the papers had helped them digest the subject material — but the majority thought they were a waste of time. Many said I let the conversation wander. I worried that I didn’t know how to engage my students; I took it personally when one slouched in her chair at a near-perfect 45-degree angle. Following the advice of someone at the university’s teaching center, I leaned my upper body toward her as I addressed her, in the hope that she would take a hint.
It took a year for me to realize that perfection was impossible. An unpredictable class was more exciting — when conversation ricocheted around the room, moving in directions related to, but not exactly, what I had planned. My role became facilitator more than director, guiding the flow of discussion as opposed to micromanaging it. I tried my best to respond to questions, but realized it was preferable to have students work out answers for themselves.
While taking a graduate seminar titled “American History: The Survey — What It’s About, and How to Do It,” I gained confidence that regardless of (or in addition to) the subject matter, I had something to teach my students. In each recitation, we talked about the week’s assignment or lecture, but I had the larger, semester-long goal of teaching my class how to be historians.
I emphasized the importance of primary sources and the students’ need to make sense of them without the aid of outside interpretation. I hoped they would apply this skill to their everyday lives, analyzing, for example, the language of political speeches for themselves, instead of relying on the pundits. What, exactly, did the president mean when he used the word “freedom”? And did his invocation of words by past presidents adequately represent their original meaning? Analyzing a primary source requires a student to suspend contemporary editorial judgment and consider the historical context and particular perspective of the document’s author. A powerful teaching experience came in an introductory-level survey course, in my fourth and final semester as a teaching assistant, when an undergraduate wrote a response to Frederick Douglass’ 1876 oration at the unveiling of a monument honoring Abraham Lincoln. Without using evidence to support her case, the student referred to his speech as a childish rant that reinforced stereotypes. During office hours, we looked together at how Douglass had created not a tirade, but a carefully crafted, nuanced speech that praised Lincoln by first acknowledging his flaws.
I began each semester by talking about the importance of good writing, having honed my own skills through the guidance of my undergraduate history professors who believed in the correlation between clear writing and clarity of thought. I tried to help my students become better critical thinkers and communicators by pushing them to expand on comments in class and providing feedback on their ideas and presentation. I cut down the time I took responding to that work by realizing that, like me, my students couldn’t tackle everything at once. They were overwhelmed when I covered their pages in red ink, so I focused my critiques on three problems. If a paper had fundamental structural problems, for example, I spent a little less time commenting on grammar and style.
And eventually, that initial pretense started to fall away. I gained the confidence to be myself — pairing the blazer with a pair of jeans instead of trousers, laughing more, and even opening myself up to embarrassment.
During my third semester as a teaching assistant in the fall of 2006, I taught in a course on America in the 1960s. I delivered a guest lecture on the environmental movement and opened by singing along to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and sharing an anecdote about how, in the fourth grade, I wrote a letter to Mattel to complain that they used too much plastic to package their Barbies. True, it was personal and even silly, but students looked at me with engaged smiles instead of bewildered stares. As a teacher, I felt enough like an adult to know that it was OK to act a little bit like a kid.