Thursday, January 29, 2009

Separation of Powers Never Looked This Good

I had my very first teaching experience at The Circus today.

Up until now, I've just been holding office hours and looking Very Serious and Important up near the front of the room, while my master professor dances around imparting wisdom and molding young minds. It was inevitable, though, that at some point I'd have to earn my own TA wings, and embark on the terrifying project of preparing my own lecture.

For reasons best understood by those with tenure, the class is made up large lecture sections, with the occasional smaller discussion section meeting every few weeks. "Small" is sort of a relative term- I walked in today to forty sets of eyes peering down at me while I fiddled with the podium. Since the "discussion" sections are almost 2 hours long, they're more like discussion-lecture-do-a-dance-to-keep-their-attention sections, one to each teaching assistant. We set them up to be about 75% lecture & review, which means that I come in with at least an hour's worth of "material," and pray that they have questions- any questions.

I had to lecture on separation of powers and the Constitution, so, naturally, I spent the better part of last week re-reading their assigned materials, and waking up in a cold sweat when I imagined all of them staring at me for 2 hours, like I'd lost my mind. By way of preparation, I consulted with Funny Mean Friend, who has the experience and wisdom I'll be trying to fake for the semester, and got an excellent little pep talk from my old Con Law professor ("Ha! Freshman! That's awful...bring candy. Want to do my Lopez lecture?"). It didn't solve the butterflies problem entirely, but it certainly helped.

I had an excellent little outline all prepared, and I put on my most authority-commanding sweater vest. Excellent boots? Check. Nerdy poli sci TA glasses? Check. Sardonic tone? Check. I was good to go. Things were going really well until the students got there, actually.

That's when the real trouble started.

Taking attendance went just fine. Talking about class standards went...well, I warned them that if somebody didn't take one for the team and participate, we were going to get into the Socratic method, and that wasn't going to be fun for anyone (this was a blatant lie. It was going to be fun for me). Then I made them go around the room and tell me their favorite Saturday morning cartoon shows, because gosh darn it, internet, freshmen just take themselves too seriously sometimes. And I wanted to know who the real nerds were.

Funny Mean Friend warned me not to talk too quickly, so naturally, I looked down at my notes, looked up...found myself 10 minutes later waxing poetic about how the Constitution is "really cool" like some sort of aging cheerleader on speed. The ones that will quickly become my favorites were nodding sympathetically (yes, crazy Constitution Lady! Impart your wisdom to us!), a few looked bemused, and one or two just tried frantically to write down every word I said. It was kind of cute, really. Look at the young minds, being molded!

Or at least, it would have been cute if my foray into Constitution-fest 2009 hadn't completely obliterated any semblance of order that my lecture notes once had (I'm a highly mobile, paper-shuffling lecturer). After Constitution-fest (this year's theme: "Why you really should care"), I had to recombobulate myself and try to get some kind of sense back into the lecture. I mostly did. I'm a good ad-libber.

Though we didn't have any major issues, they did test my dedication to this whole "Socratic Method" threat once:

"So, where does Congress' power come from?"
"Mr. PoppedCollar?"
" I don't know...the law. And stuff."
"Can you be a little more specific, Mr. PopperCollar?"

I will not have to cold-call again. Freshman are also much, much easier to frighten into compliance than law school students. Someone is bound to take one for the team- when I get better at this, I will worry more about teaching methodology, but now I am worried about speaking to an empty room. And really: it's worth getting into. Freshmen are so adorable- they know such a shockingly small amount, and they're so naive, so you can really see the light bulb come on when they start to get it. They even asked insightful questions, which, based on my experiences in my own government classes, was above and beyond what I expected.

The only other bobble (that I have not already buried deep into my psyche, that is) came in regards to participation as well. On the advice of my Con Law prof and Roommate, I brought a bag of candy to bribe them into participating. Things were going swimmingly until some kid at the back of the room started answering questions. Ever the enthusiastic TA, I nonchalantly tossed him a mini-Twix...which ricocheted off the ceiling and hit some girl in the face three rows up.

My bad. So I announced that from here on out, everyone was going to participate Because I Said So, so they could take their dang candy now, and pass it around. Lesson learned: Caramel in the classroom is not to be taken lightly.

On the upside: I didn't swear. Not once! No one cried, no one walked out, and no (serious) bodily injuries occurred. While I did manage to coat myself entirely in chalkboard dust, no animals were harmed in the delivery of this lecture. All in all, I'm going to call my first day flying solo a resounding success (This is the point at which I cross my fingers and hope they don't humiliate me in the lecture section on Friday).

They have a paper assigned next week. It's going to be a doozy. Ha.

Teaching is awesome.


teasinglydiverse said...

For 2 years in college I co-taught a freshman seminar with a professor. He thought his role was better served by observing, so I had the floor the entire semester. It was fantastic! I think I pushed them and was harder on them than my professors were on me, but I really liked it :)
I told the prof I TA'd/tutored for in undergrad that if I'm ever a professor, despite my hatred for the Socratic Method, you can bet I'll use it. It can be fun if you're on the other side!

gudnuff said...

Teaching IS awesome. I was a TA for two years and some of the most exhilarating moments of my life were those post-lecture moments. It's a special kind of thrill. It rocks. Glad you know that feeling.

All rights reserved to my snotty and generally self-deprecating writing. And if your comments bother me, I'll delete them. That's right, pumpkin.
...How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
-- Emily Dickinson