"Godzilla" by Delyth Angharad. Available via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

When Things Go Horribly Wrong

Ok, I will admit – this title seems like clickbait (in that a grand total of two more people than the usual five might read this). But I realized that this blog tends to present a rosy or optimistic depiction of my teaching. The constant self-reflection (mostly highly critical) and the failed attempts do not make their way into these posts as often as they probably should. This is probably a result of several things: a sense of self-preservation, the omni-present imposter syndrome academics tend to suffer from, and the fact that I tend to dissect and discuss the failures almost immediately with colleagues (typically over a shared bottle of wine, because I’m pretty sure this is the best way to discuss failure).

But these failures and feelings of inadequacy happen often. I think I have made an assignment plagiarism-proof, but then a paper that is an unabashed cut-and-paste job makes it into a batch. I carefully tailor a prompt or task, but students can’t quite grasp what I’ve asked of them, because the wording is off, or the purpose isn’t entirely clear – and an immense amount of time and effort are lost. I facilitate a dynamic, student-centered exercise that goes over well with one section, but falls flat with a different set of students – sometimes even during the same semester, or even on the same day, when it worked so well with an earlier group. I offer to meet – in person! virtually! over the phone! – with struggling students, but they slink into class, avoid eye contact, claim to have no questions when I circulate or check in, or they simply disappear, and fail the class. And I wonder what I could have done differently, how I could have been better: more effective, more available, more…everything or anything.

Because sometimes, as a teacher, things go horribly wrong. I try not to take it personally, but this is my job, my career, what I devote the majority of my time to, what I spent years and lots of  student loans preparing for: how could I not  take it personally? My Evernote is filled with “for next time” memos, detailing how I need to tweak assignments, prompts, syllabi, or daily class activities to try and make things better for future iterations: these are usually written in the wake of a semi-disastrous – or perhaps just merely tepid – reception. And so I go back, and revamp, and – more often than I probably should – reinvent syllabi entirely.

Before I go further, I should clarify: I am privileged in many ways in academia. I came to the PhD after teaching in NYC public schools, so I had some experience in pedagogy prior to the ivory tower (though during these years as a middle school teacher I learned that what happened in teacher training and preparation was often not at all helpful in an actual classroom). My partner is in education, and had a stable job while I slogged through an increasingly unwise-seeming career path; I always had a sounding board and at least a thin fiscal cushion as I entered a bleak job market. I now have a tenure-track job (gotten through sheer luck, good fortune, right time/place, and all that jazz – the meritocracy stuff that got shoved down my throat in grad school was, indeed, bullshit: this becomes abundantly clear as I see so many ridiculously talented ABD or recently-graduated colleagues struggling to find gigs). I work in a place where I am pretty much allowed to teach whatever  I want, as long as it gets students writing, reading, thinking, and meeting course objectives. There is a commitment to pedagogy at my institution, with regular seminars and workshops focused on supporting and enhancing our teaching, and helping us connect our research to our classroom endeavors. 1 The force is strong with my department colleagues, who are generous with their materials, advice, and time. Basically: I have (and have historically had) the luxury of being able to work on my teaching to some degree, and to try and fix things when they go horribly wrong. Even though we don’t have a contract, the teaching and service expectations are at times overwhelming, and women in academia particularly struggle to achieve work/life balance (at my institution and in higher ed more broadly) –  I still have some semblance of time and space to work on my teaching. But many do not. Karen Gregory recently and aptly pointed out this lack of space/time on Twitter, and provided the impetus for me to write up these ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while.

 

Teaching is a central part of our work – not just at community colleges, but throughout academia: and it is important that time, space, and support exist so that we can hone our craft. The teacher training programs at the PhD level are largely nonexistent, or are limited, though some institutions are attempting to address this oversight. 2

But if – from my relatively privileged position – I struggle with what to do when things go horribly wrong, what recourse do the contingent faculty – who make up more than  half of CUNY’s work force – have? How, as Gregory pointed out, are we ever supposed to become good teachers? If we can only develop our craft through constant reflection, how can we create these opportunities under our current working conditions? How can we afford to fail on occasion in the classroom, if we do not have a system in place that encourages and sustains pedagogical development – and that prioritizes this development above all else?

 

Header image: “Godzilla” by Delyth Angharad. Available via
Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Notes:

  1. I won’t get into all the other privileges that being a white, middle-class, cis, straight woman entails – but clearly that’s at play here and every day, too: and this no doubt contributed in many subtle and straightforward ways to where I am now.
  2. As a local example, CUNY Graduate Center just created a Teaching and Learning Center, and the GC was recently awarded a Mellon grant that will place PhD students at LaGuardia CC for teacher training.

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