When I was a graduate student, I participated in academic fraud. I didn't plagiarize to get an article published or inflate my CV to get a job. I did something worse. I accepted a teaching assistantship as a doctoral student at Elite National University.
By becoming a TA there, I took on a responsibility for which I had no qualifications: teaching first-year composition courses. Even though I had a bachelor's degree in English, I hadn't taken an introductory writing course while I was an undergraduate. I'd never taught before or had any course work in education. I didn't even have a master's degree. My hometown community college wouldn't have hired me as an adjunct, but Elite National U. put me in charge of two sections of a required class.
Students attend ENU to be taught by experts, not amateurs. In my defense I can only plead ignorance. Before I set foot on the campus, I didn't know that teaching assistants actually taught. My undergraduate institution, Flyover College, had no TA's. The financial-aid offer I received from ENU made no mention of specific duties, so I assumed the phrase "teaching assistant" meant assisting a teacher. Only when I arrived on the campus did I learn that I had to stand alone in front of two sections of grumpy people each semester. I asked around and discovered that other graduate students who had spent their undergraduate years at small liberal-arts colleges were also surprised to be given teaching duties as TA's.
I thought it might be appropriate for Elite National U. to warn graduate students, especially those from small colleges, that their TA duties would include complete responsibility for teaching a course. Hoping to help future generations of teaching assistants, I decided to run my idea past someone on the full-time faculty. I chose "Dr. Clevinger," a young assistant professor fresh out of graduate school and, thus, likely to sympathize. During a casual conversation, I asked him, "Did you know that some grad students didn't realize what a TA did before they arrived here?"
"Absurd!" Dr. Clevinger cried. "A TA teaches first-year comp. Everyone knows that."
I never brought up the topic with a professor again.
In those days, graduate programs at many universities sent teaching assistants into the classroom with no training, but ENU took pride in its support program. Before the first day of classes, new TA's had an entire afternoon of training in grading essays, and "Dr. Dreedle," the director of the first-year composition program, told us, "Look confident."
Straining to appear stern, I began the first day of class by giving a rehearsed speech about the wonders of writing essays. I hadn't gotten very far when one young man, "Nate," declared in a stage whisper, "Bullshit!"
I hadn't prepared a response for obscenity, but the other students ignored Nate, so I went on. In a few moments Nate repeated his sotto voce declaration. The young women around him snickered. I praised rhetoric more loudly. Then he said it again.
I resorted to what I'd seen teachers do in high school. I glared at Nate and asked coldly, "Do you have a question?"
He looked down. "No."
Nate spent the rest of the semester challenging me, and I responded like a desperate novice. I tried telling Nate outside of class to behave, shaming Nate in front of his fellow students, and finally forcing him to sit in a desk in the front where I could keep an eye on him. We endured one another until the semester ended.
To be fair, when Nate came to Elite National U., he didn't expect to take first-year composition from an inexperienced instructor any more than I expected to teach the course. Surely he assumed he would be trained by a professional; instead, when he walked into the classroom, he got me. Automobile dealerships and big-box stores frequently advertise one thing, and then provide something else, but Nate wasn't prepared for an academic bait-and-switch. Feeling no respect for ENU or me, he exercised the betrayed American adolescent's freedom to say whatever he wanted.
The director of the first-year composition program felt a similar freedom. Dr. Dreedle taught a course on teaching writing that all new TA's in English were required to take. He began the first session by looking over the top of his reading glasses and declaring, "Intellectual life in America collapsed when universities began granting graduate degrees in education. I'll teach you content. Figure out pedagogy on your own." Dr. Dreedle's definition of content for the course included what Socrates showed Gorgias, and Aristotle taught ancient Athenians, but not how to apply their wisdom or anyone else's to Dick and Jane in a modern classroom.
Elite National University expected me to handle not only Dick and Jane but also students with special needs. Take the case of "Marty," an affable young extrovert who struggled to write a coherent paragraph. I suspected that he had a learning disability, but I had no idea how to help a person who faced such a challenge. I couldn't send Marty to the writing center because the university limited tutorial help to only three students a course, and I'd already filled my allotment.
I thought Marty needed to enroll in a remedial section, and I mentioned that fact one day to "Dr. Cathcart," the assistant director of the composition program.
Dr. Cathcart asked, "Does your student even belong at this university?"
"I don't think so," I replied.
"Make sure he doesn't stay here."
Dr. Cathcart didn't say "Flunk him" any more than the Godfather ever said "Rub out Barzini," but I got the message. What to do? I could find excuses to fail everything that Marty turned in, but did I have that right? Doesn't academic predestination constitute fraud? Fortunately, Marty solved the problem for me by showing up at my office two or three times a week and demanding help. With my assistance he managed to earn a barely passing grade for the course, after which he sent me a thank-you card that misspelled my name.
Although I didn't flunk Marty, I did conform to another of Dr. Cathcart's implied instructions. Whenever TA's at Elite National U. graded a set of essays, they had to report how many of their students received A's and B's and all the other grades. When I tallied the results from the first paper I had assigned, they pleased me. Although only a couple of students had earned A's, the B's were almost as numerous as the C's. Perhaps, I thought, I was doing an acceptable job as an instructor despite my inexperience.
Soon after I submitted my B-heavy results, however, Dr. Cathcart summoned me to her office and asked, "Do you really think your sections are above average?"
With no experience to judge, I replied, "I don't know."
"It's possible you have an unusually good group," she said, "but highly unlikely." Dr. Cathcart went on to explain that C denoted average, and that the first-year composition program assumed that the majority of students in any class would be average. Given that, she said, the distribution of grades from any assignment ought to produce a traditional bell curve.
What Dr. Cathcart didn't say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn't sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.
Because first-year students' success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants. Each new TA was assigned a mentor, a tenured professor no longer active as a scholar. My mentor was "Dr. Whitcomb," who visited my class only once and spent most of the hour shaking her head. When the class ended, she asked one of my students whether that day was typical. When the student nodded, Dr. Whitcomb exited the room without looking in my direction.
Several days later, Dr. Whitcomb called me into her office and handed me a letter she was submitting to the director of the first-year composition program. Her letter said simply that she had seen me do a terrible job in the classroom. I hadn't connected the different parts of that day's lesson, hadn't explained the next writing assignment thoroughly, hadn't answered students' questions well, and hadn't prepared them for the next class session.
Dr. Whitcomb asked, "What do you think of the letter?"
I shrugged. "I think it's accurate."
Dr. Whitcomb nodded in agreement, offered no suggestions for improving my performance, and sent me on my way. I never heard from her again, which made me expect that I wouldn't be asked back the next year. My fears were reinforced at the end of the semester when my students filled course evaluations with comments such as "He doesn't know what he's doing" and "Fire this guy."
The next fall Elite National University assigned me to teach two remedial sections of the course.