Does the dearth of pedagogical training and awareness and too-heavy overburdened workloads contribute to culture of “antipedagogy” on campus?

If you’re smart, you can teach . This is the prevailing wisdom at my school (a large, state, research university) when it comes to questions of pedagogy. To be sure, it’s never articulated as such. But through a myriad of different practices and prejudices, the message sent to graduate students in my program is loud and clear: Teaching does not require much critical reflection; nor should you devote more time than necessary to it, lest you get behind in your studies.

To be clear, I am not saying that my university does not value teaching. My program (English) does more than many in terms of teacher training. We take a semester-long course in preparation to teach composition (“comp camp,” as it’s called; more on this later), and we are yearly required to attend professional development seminars on campus. Furthermore, student evaluations are an important component of the hiring and tenure review processes, and prestigious awards are given every year to talented teachers.

However, while teaching is clearly valued, the same cannot be said for pedagogy. As graduate students, even before beginning our PhD work, we have spent years reading, writing, talking, and arguing about the subjects we love. But how often do we talk about our students? Our methodologies? Teaching philosophies? The nature of cognition, knowledge, or learning? The curriculum – from our own syllabi to the coordination (or lack thereof) of the courses and their sequencing in the program? Language? Reading? Critical thinking skills? How are we to be effective teachers without thinking about this stuff? And where are we to find the time to think about it? And, finding time, with whom will we talk about it? Not to mention, who will teach us how to think and talk more effectively about it? What am I to make of the fact that the English Education Program at my school requires of its B.A. students, in addition to 21 credit hours of English coursework, 12 hours of methods courses, 13 hours of education courses, 12 hours of student teaching (with observation and mentoring), and three  state tests in order to prepare and certify students to be high school teachers of English; while I, magically, by virtue of being a graduate student in English Studies, am immediately qualified to teach literature at the college level, as well as composition, after only a single course of instruction? (Which course, unfortunately, amounts to little more than learning to write – that is, reproduce – one’s own orthodox version of the model syllabus.) The significant differences between the contexts of high school and college and their respective students notwithstanding, how are we to understand this disparity in the value and respect (as measured by time and investment) given to the craft and calling of teaching in the academy?

I don’t intend to answer that question here. I neither have the time nor the answer. But I have some thoughts, feelings, and stories. My hope is that by articulating some of them here I might get a little closer to understanding the problem, as well as stimulate discussion about it. Like many of my colleagues, I care about my scholarship, my teaching, and my students. And it is my care for students which has led me to question not only my teaching but an entire set of tacit assumptions about teaching and students that  I feel to be at work in the environment in which I teach. I don’t think I’m a very good teacher, yet, of either composition or literature. And while part of this is simply the nature of the job, I find that the atmosphere in which I teach is not conducive to developing effective pedagogical practices. In fact, in many ways, it is hostile to it.

To begin with, we have so little time. I find it difficult to quantify the amount of time necessary to allot to each class in order to teach effectively. However, I can begin with an estimate of the time allotted to study, and we can go from there. Here I rely upon a friend of mine, Jenn Hawe, who just completed a paper on graduate study as a kind of consensual obsession. By her estimates, in her two years of PhD coursework she completed about 27,500 pages of book reading, with another 4,500 or so in printouts. Calculating an average reading speed of about 3.5 minutes per page, she concluded that the 32,000 pages of assigned reading represents roughly 1,867 hours of reading (possibly more, if many of my books contain dense print). If we break this down by semester, we get about 31 hours of reading per week ( assuming four, 15-week semesters, for a total of 60 weeks.)

As Jenn is quick to point out in her work, these estimates are rough. Even so, it is more likely that they are too conservative, rather than exaggerated. Take 31 hours of reading a week as a baseline. Add in the time spent in classes and travel to and from campus. Then add the time necessary to complete assignments (conversation papers, presentations, essays, etc.). We already have a more than 40-hour work week before we’ve even begun to address our teaching obligations. In my department, we’re required to teach three classes a year, usually two in the fall and one in the spring. This means, in addition to classroom time, regularly responding to the work of 20-70 students. The impossibility of this workload is a constant source of stress, anxiety, feelings of failure, anger, isolation, and depression, as well as gallows humour amongst my colleagues and me. In such a situation, graduate students do what every other worker does under similar circumstances: we cut corners. We begin with cutting what seems most expendable to us. An article here, a book there – no big deal so long as we stay on top of things in general and write a solid final paper. But just as often what gets shorted is our teaching. The following stories are exemplary not because they are so extreme but because they are so commonplace.

My “mentor” (a 3rd-year PhD student) during the time I was taking the FYWP training course, confessed to me, in regards to the composition course of his that I was observing, “I don’t read my students’ early drafts, just the final ones. I’ve got prelims this semester, so what they get in peer review is what they get.”

Last fall, a friend of mine and fellow graduate student ran into a former professor at a department social function. The professor asked my friend how her classes were going. When she answered that things were going pretty well, but was dismayed that 6 students had already failed the class due to absences or missing assignments, the professor replied, “Good work – six less final papers to read!”

One day in comp camp we were visited by a veteran teacher, a 4th-year graduate student who shared with us some of her observations and experiences teaching in the FYWP. We were in the midst of writing syllabi for our upcoming teaching assignments. One of her key points of advice was the following, “Whatever you do, don’t try to rewrite or edit your syllabus once the course has begun – you’ll just end up creating a lot of extra work for yourself. Just stick with your plan and everything will work out more or less okay.”

While such comments are bracing and might seem callous, I would argue that they are quite the opposite. This is the sound advice from those more advanced in the field or course of study to those of us still trying to figure it all out. Given the rough estimates of time required for study quoted above, the veteran teacher is absolutely correct about the foolhardiness of revising one’s syllabus midstream. Likewise, my mentor was honestly trying to alert me to the types of decisions I would be forced to make as my exams approached. And I have no doubt that the professor who counseled my friend was not someone who actually thought of students’ failing as “good work.” Her comment was an attempt at levity, a kind of “Chin up!” in the face of adversity, or, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” What I find so deplorable in these examples is neither the people nor the advice they give. What are unconscionable to me are the working conditions of the graduate students in my department and university: we are overworked, underpaid, and generally lacking in professional guidance, so much so that giving short shrift to our students, or  by failing to  examine critically our  teaching practices and assumptions, becomes a common-sense strategy for survival.

I believe such conditions are responsible for creating a kind of “us and them” mentality in TAs towards our students. Indeed, sometimes, to hear us talk about our classes it would seem that students are that minor inconvenience (an inconvenient truth?) ever in the way of our trying to teach. The list of grievances against our students is seemingly endless, but they tend to fall into two key categories: skills deficiencies and moral ineptitude. The first slew of plaints take the form of “students can’t do x.” Students can’t read. Students can’t write. Students can’t analyze an article, a poem, a film, etc. Complaints of this type are often accompanied by a marked “passing the buck” syndrome. They should have learned how to do x in y, where the final term can be anything from kindergarten to last semester’s composition course. The second kind of charge often takes the form of “students don’t do x.” Students don’t read. Students don’t talk. Students don’t care. Students don’t think. Students neither respect us nor their classmates. They don’t know how to observe the formal conventions of email communication, and they don’t respect our time or boundaries. These charges are often accompanied by claims of professional propriety, “it’s not my job to do x.” It’s not my job to make students care. It’s not my job to make students think. It’s not my job to motivate students to do the reading. It’s not my job to teach them how to address me in an email.

Having listed the charges, I’m not interested in taking issue with them or weighing their merits. But I would like to point out that the plaints of both categories are precisely issues of pedagogy. How to work with students who do not come to us with either the skills or the cultural or social capital we have decided they ought to have by the time they enter our classrooms is exactly  what a critical and responsive pedagogy allows us to do. The dearth of pedagogical training and awareness in our programs and our overburdened workloads contribute to what I would call a culture of “antipedagogy” on our campuses. It is no surprise, then, that when it comes to creating a community of engaged learners in our classrooms and to establishing and developing relationships with and between students that allow for an open and critical discussion of ideas and feelings – that is, when it comes to that which separates teaching from simply lecturing – it is no surprise that graduate students often feel that teaching, as here described, is not their job.

I want to make clear  what it is I’m not saying. I am not trying to criticize graduate students for choosing their scholarship over their students. Getting through the program in as reasonably quick a time as possible, while accruing as many professional accolades as one can, is the only way to make us competitive in our terrible job market and for us to avoid crushing debt. Nor do I mean to imply that graduate students, by definition, cannot be talented, dedicated teachers. However, I am questioning the ability of any institution or craft that does not adequately train its apprentices , nor  allow them time for the  critical reflection needed to  develop skills to produce practitioners capable of quality work. And, here, a quick anecdote.

One of the many moments leading to my awareness of my teaching  deficiencies  came while grading papers for a composition course I was teaching for the first time. It was my students’ second writing project, for which they were to analyze a chapter of a book. About half way through the stack of papers I realized I was writing almost the exact same thing on every one: “Needs more analysis.” Most of my students were simply either agreeing or disagreeing with the author; very few critically engaged with him. I was then struck by the absurdity of telling a student who did not know how to write an analysis that her or his  paper “needed more analysis.” I then asked myself what analysis was, and I couldn’t formulate a satisfying answer. To be sure, I’d taught it. That is, I followed what the syllabus that I was told to write told me to say, do, and teach. Yet I couldn’t explain it adequately to myself. I was in the office, so I got up and queried a number of my colleagues. Each time my question either produced a bemused silence after a series of false starts, as it had with me, or a circular argument. What is analysis? Thinking critically. What does that mean? To read closely. How does one do that? By breaking things down. How does one know which things to break down and what to break them down into? This got us nowhere, until finally someone offered that analysis requires a critical distance, a standing outside of the thing analyzed. Something about this spatial imagery helped me to articulate my next question: What constitutes the “outside space” from which I am able to analyze texts? My answer was that it could only be my own experiences, including (or especially) all the texts I had read and all the thinking, talking, and writing about them. So I asked myself, “What were the experiences of my students, and what texts and textual experiences did they have at their disposal to give them the critical outside space from which to perform the analyses I was asking of them?” I didn’t know. But I realized that talking about analysis as if it were some abstract, coherent function of mind independent of experience made no sense. (As I am not a cognitive theorist and have no expertise in this field, these claims are of course conjectural.) How, then,  could I provide my students with the experiences they needed in order to construct the critical space requisite to the analytical tasks I was setting before them? How much time reading, thinking, talking, and writing were necessary for the development of this space? However, these questions are moot. As a graduate student teaching composition 161 at my institution, I have precious little time to give.

Whether one accepts my analysis of analysis or not, I think it is safe to say there is often very little consensus about what we are actually teaching in composition and literature classes, let alone how do so effectively. The First Year Writing Program (spell out) at my school (as at others) prides itself on “demystifying” for students what critical thinking, reading, and writing really are. In general, this consists of supplying them with a critical terminology with which to think about and discuss the skills they are learning, as well as opportunities for practice and feedback. Such work is necessary, of course, but still I fear that the truly mystical and mystified ingredient is neither a code nor a skill set but, rather, the time and contexts with which to adequately internalize such codes and develop such skills. If we as graduate students are not given the time or training to think about these things, how and when will be able to provide our students with the experiences necessary to grasp the things we want to teach them? Furthermore, if the validity and urgency of asking such questions is not impressed upon us by those to whom we look for professional guidance and as role models (namely, the professoriate), what hope is there that the next generation of academics will hold pedagogy in any higher respect than the present generation seems to? What hope is there that teaching our students will begin to matter more than (or at least as much as) the teaching of our subjects?

Kevin Carey is a 4th-year PhD student of English studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.