Thinking about teaching

I submitted a job application yesterday for a job that wouldn’t actually start until next summer. Turns out certain careers at certain competitive firms have application schedules not unlike the academic job market. I only decided to apply last Wednesday, and from then until Sunday afternoon I devoted most of my time to writing a resume, cover letter, and an essay (!). In writing the cover letter, I wanted to include a couple of choice quotes from former students, so I dredged up my teaching evaluations. I don’t like looking at them, because it’s 1) hard to read criticism of yourself presented in a format as bald as a number on a 4-point scale, and 2) it leaves too many gaps from students who didn’t respond at all, or didn’t comment, or didn’t give any explanation for the ratings they gave.

The comments I did get over the course of my teaching career were about a 60/40 positive/negative split. The positive comments are, of course, very nice. But I don’t know how to reconcile them with the stark criticism of my personality. Most of it was confined to the semester in which I was a TA, rather than an instructor in my own right, and this makes sense. I didn’t really like being reliant on a professor for my lesson plans, since I’d already taught two of my own courses, and to make it worse the instructor gave us hardly any indication of what she wanted us to do during class time. I wanted to do a good job and really help students learn the material, but I had no method for doing that, and the message I took from that was that the work of a TA was superfluous, dispensable.

So I am absolutely willing to accept that I didn’t do as good of a job as I would have liked to, or as my students expected. And now, almost two years later, it is somewhat easier for me to read the critiques more objectively and not immediately come up with half a dozen defensive excuses. So when a couple of students write that I could be “cold,” and another one offers “condescending,” I admit that, while it was certainly not my intention, I very well may have come across that way. I found it hard to be a young female TA. As I see it, the issues of authority that are present for all young instructors are doubled when you are “only” a TA, and doubled again when you are not male. I was perhaps overly conscious of the fact that I was only 0-6 years older than my students, and in my zeal to convince them (and myself!) that I knew what I was doing, I probably swerved too far toward distant and unapproachable. Looking back now, I see that with a bit more confidence in myself I probably could have done a better and more consistent job of conveying my authority in friendlier, more subtle ways.

This really struck me recently as I was playing in a local university orchestra. Since it’s the summer, the regular conductor was away. So in addition to a superstar guest conductor, we also had a music PhD student as assistant conductor. Despite the nerves and awkwardness that any inexperienced (and, too often, experienced) conductor displays on the podium, she clearly had a significant background in conducting theory and practice and conveyed a solid sense of musicality. But when I tried to chat with her at my audition, or while setting up for rehearsal, she came across as unnecessarily stiff and formal. As I thought about this over the weeks we rehearsed, I saw myself in her. I realized that she already had the authority that she was trying, in all the wrong ways, to maintain. But I don’t think anything but time could have brought me to this realization. Even taping myself teaching and critiquing it with a peer mentor didn’t, at the time, reveal anything unexpected.

That aside, it’s occurred to me that there is something very gendered about the word “cold.” I don’t know that a male instructor would be described in the same way. I suppose anyone can be “condescending,” but “cold” is for when you’d expected someone to be warm. Cuddly. Nurturing. I don’t think that is an expectation placed on male teachers. It’s a bonus when they are warm, but it’s not a strike against them if they are not. I’m thinking this falls in with many other strongly-gendered linguistic differences: men are assertive; women are pushy. Admirable aggressiveness in a man is inappropriate bitchiness in a woman.

At the moment, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about teaching a class right now. But a part of me wants to go back someday and try again, to prove to myself that I do have what it takes to communicate, inspire, and lead as effectively as possible.

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