In my first semester as a teaching assistant at Elite National University, my students gave me low ratings and my teaching mentor labeled me a loser. My poor performance embarrassed me so much that between semesters I set out to improve.
Professors at Elite National University showed little interest in teaching, so I sought help from instructors at my undergraduate alma mater, Flyover College. One professor there told me to make outlines on the board because "it makes the class think you know what you're doing." Another gave me a dozen handouts she used to teach grammar. A third had bad news and good news for me. The bad news: "If students haven't learned how to write after 12 years of education, there's nothing a beginner can do to help them." The good news: "No matter what you do, you won't hurt the good writers. Don't be hard on yourself."
I began my second semester as a TA by writing outlines on the board, using tried-and-true handouts, and not being hard on myself, and my teaching improved considerably. The students still viewed me as an obstacle on the path to med school, law school, or some other glory, but they respected me a bit, and so my classes ran more smoothly.
Because I spent less time fretting over problems, I had the leisure to notice ways that my students and I differed. I don't mean obvious things like their parents had the income and imagination to send their children to a nationally recognized institution to earn their undergraduate degrees, whereas mine did not, or that they took vacations in Europe, whereas I merely visited my grandparents. I'd picked up on those during the fall semester, but now I observed more interesting distinctions between the worldviews of freshmen and graduate students at Elite National U.
For example, one day in class I asked a student named "Bruce" to read aloud a passage from the textbook. I chose Bruce because he had a deep, exuberant voice, the professional kind that you hear announcing sporting events. When Bruce began to read aloud, however, he used a soft, cautious monotone, the reading voice of an amateur. He trudged from phrase to phrase until he hit a roadblock in the word "maturation." He stared at the page.
Gently, I said, "Sound it out." Before I entered kindergarten, my mother showed me how to sound out the clusters of letters in Dr. Seuss's books to create wonderful words like "oobleck" and "star-belly sneetches."
Bruce squinted at "maturation." After a moment he declared, "Mutational."
The blunder stunned me. How could a person look at "maturation" and come up with "mutational," of all things? I'd heard that some school systems didn't teach students how to sound out words, but I'd never before encountered the phenomenon. I didn't know what to say, so I simply thanked Bruce and went on with class.
A few days later, during a conference with Bruce in my office, I asked what he thought of the essays in our textbook. Bruce shrugged. "I don't like reading."
"A lot of people don't like to read aloud in class," I said.
"No, I just plain don't like to read," Bruce said.
How could a person not like to read? For a graduate student in English, life is a continuing struggle to find more opportunities to read. I'd assumed that big-buck-paying, bound-for-greatness undergraduates must have spent whole weekends in elementary school consuming Cheetos and absorbing the adventures of the Hardy boys like I did, but Bruce and a number of others actually avoided books.
During a conference with another student, "Belinda," I mentioned the subject of childhood reading. "Books are great," Belinda declared. "Nancy Drew mysteries, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka. I love them all."
"Good," I said. "Now you need to do what the authors of those books did."
"Master the basics of the sentence," I said.
Belinda turned huffy. "But my mother teaches English."
Being used to spontaneous outbursts of illogic from students, I replied politely, "Perhaps she can help you learn how to create sentences properly."
Belinda changed tactics. She leaned forward and asked, almost conspiratorially, "What do I really need to do to get an A?"
Acting flirtatious may have gotten her high grades in high school, but I said, "You need to clear up comma splices and eliminate sentence fragments."
Belinda waved one hand dismissively and laughed. "That's what my professor said last semester."
Apparently she expected a new instructor to be more original in evaluating the quality of her work.
I walked Belinda through my former professor's tried-and-true worksheets about fragments and commas, but her next paper displayed the same problems that her previous ones had. This flummoxed me. Graduate students in English write without having to think about the rules; in fact, grad students may not be able to explain the rules or even diagram a sentence, since they intuit what to do when they write. Belinda did not share that gift, nor did a number of other freshmen.
A young man named "Mitch" brought home to me a curious way that some freshmen view themselves. One day Mitch strode into my office for his writing conference and announced, "I'm going to be a lawyer." I recognized the unspoken second half of his declaration: So I'll make more money than you will.
I responded to Mitch's career announcement by saying, "Good for you. Right now, though, I want you to visit the writing lab to get help with paragraphs."
"You'll need to write good paragraphs when you draw up legal briefs for clients."
"My dad's a lawyer," said Mitch. "He hires people to write for him."
"Wonderful," I said, "but now you need to write your own paragraphs to pass this class. Please contact a tutor in the writing lab."
"I don't want to go to the writing lab." Freshmen equated visiting the writing lab with tattooing FAILURE on their foreheads. I assured Mitch that the tutors there would help him. Eventually he said he'd go, but the next day in my in box, I found a drop slip for him.
Mitch's failure to get help reflected another major distinction between freshmen and English graduate students. Many grad students at Elite National U. put on a show of constantly needing to read one more article or make one more revision in a dissertation chapter. They did that to show that they were more serious about learning than other grad students were, but Mitch didn't think he needed to prove anything or develop in any way. Perhaps at his birth he had sprung already perfect from his father's forehead. Many freshmen acted as though they held that belief about themselves.
One possible reason for the freshman sense of perfection became apparent during an incident that began one evening when the phone rang in my tiny apartment.
"Adams? This is Donald Blunt, the father of Marcus Blunt."
Marcus was a student who had failed my course the previous semester. He didn't hand in half of the homework assignments, didn't visit the writing lab, didn't revise his drafts, and didn't even create a draft for the final assignment. Mr. Blunt said, "Why did you fail my son?"
"Well," I said, "off the top of my head—"
"I don't want a damned thing off the top of your head! I've been sending sons to Elite National for 12 years, and this is the first time any instructor ever failed one. Tell me why!"
"I don't have my grade book in front of me—"
"Go get it!"
"I'm sorry," I said. "This conversation ends now. Goodbye." I hung up.
As I replayed the exchange in my mind, I realized that I shouldn't discuss a student's grade with anyone over the phone, but Mr. Blunt caught me off guard, so I wasn't hard on myself. Ten minutes later my phone rang again.
A female voice. "Hello, this is Marcus Blunt's mother."
"Yes?" I said.
"I'm in town right now. My son and I want to meet with you tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. to discuss his grade."
I didn't have anything scheduled for 9 a.m., so I said, "OK."
The next morning I had one of the administrators of the composition program in the office with me when Marcus and his mother arrived. I greeted them both, but they walked past me, greeted Dr. Cathcart, and sat down. I discussed the various assignments, how each contributed to the final grade, and how little Marcus actually had done. As I finished each part, the mother looked at Dr. Cathcart for confirmation. Dr. Cathcart nodded in support of me. When I concluded, the mother turned to Dr. Cathcart and said, "And there's nothing we can do about the grade?"
"No," said Dr. Cathcart.
As Marcus's mother chatted with Dr. Cathcart, I contrasted the social skills of graduate students and the Blunts. Grad students at ENU occasionally suffered delusions of grandeur, but even then they had the sense to please their professors, whereas Marcus disregarded my assignments during class and ignored my existence now, while Mr. and Mrs. Blunt could hold seminars on snowplow parenting.
As they got up to leave, the mother said to Dr. Cathcart, "My husband and I had to check, you understand, since Marcus took the class from … a TA."
If the Blunts didn't want their son taught by a TA, I wondered why they sent him to Elite National U, but I thought it wise to keep that to myself.