teaching while PhDing, or, against the cult of generalization

I used to be adamantly in favor of first-year graduate students serving as TAs, an opinion based on my own experiences that I generalized, in true social science fashion, to an entire population. Having broken free from the causalist cage, and also having spent some more time thinking about this, I’m surprised to find my opinion changing. In that intellectual journey, I’ve unpacked what I found so vital about teaching as a first-year and where else one might find that comfort when entering an overwhelming new environment as a graduate student.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning, in a very dark classroom in the UW–Madison business school, where someone had decided a discussion section for Intro to International Relations should take place. Or perhaps I should start earlier, in a seminar room on the first floor of George Davis Hall at Knox College (Knoxies: it’s the room with the long tables and the least offensive carpet), where I ran review sessions as an undergrad for a different Intro to International Relations class. This was one of two political science courses at my tiny liberal arts college deemed large enough to need a TA, and since we were an entirely undergraduate campus, the job usually fell to a senior. I remember the position being coveted, but that may have just been me chasing after any opportunity that presented itself in the department.

Regardless, I remember initially being nervous about the work, as opposed to the prestige I thought it would afford. (Spoiler that isn’t a spoiler: there was none.) I didn’t think I was cut out to be a teacher. This was, in fact, the reason I didn’t apply to PhD programs my senior year of college: I understood the end goal of the PhD to be obtaining a professorial (read: teaching) position. This is so funny in retrospect, knowing what I know now about how academia counterintuitively devalues teaching, but anyway.

I ended up being shocked. I liked teaching, or at least what passed for it when you tell a senior to run review sessions for her peers! I got joy and energy from it! By the time I realized this, it was too late to apply to PhD programs that year, but I filed the revelation away for later. And when I was assigned to TA for Intro to International Relations as a first-year PhD student as a condition of my tuition remission, I was thrilled—even though I had received almost no training from my department on how to teach, and I had had to ask a friend who’d attended a large university for undergrad what the hell a discussion section was (you know, that thing I found myself in charge of).

As the semester went on, I continued to be thrilled with teaching, albeit for different reasons. My first semester of graduate school was an exercise in humility: I had always been good at school, but I didn’t know how to do anything in this variety of school. I didn’t know how to ask the sorts of questions the second-years were asking in coursework. I didn’t know how to skim a book. (I still don’t, short of skipping chapters or skipping international finance books entirely.) I didn’t know how to take notes when there was so much reading that I couldn’t rely on my brain to keep it all straight without an aid. And I didn’t understand why I hadn’t learned anything substantive except a proof for the OLS estimator, which I had enjoyed deriving but which bore no relation that I could see to anything I was doing.

But I knew how to teach—or, at least, I thought I did. I would learn much from continued practice, future workshops, and generous mentors. Still, I felt comfortable in front of a classroom, because I had been there before. The rest of grad school? New, and often unexplained. I had no clue. The classroom was an anchor to the familiar in a sea of confusion. I could imagine it feeling this way for others with some sort of teaching experience, even if it was as minimal as mine had been.

What I want to take away from this is the feeling of comfort. For other students, teaching in their first year likely is not comfortable, especially when programs provide so little support or preparation for what is a complex and difficult skill. They might find comfort in other parts of the PhD—or, I fear for some, nowhere at all within the confines of the program. This strikes me as an enormous problem. As an advanced woman grad, I talk frequently with first-year women, and what I take away from those conversations is how much reassurance can come from a few kind words. How important it is to let them know they’re not alone if they’re lost. And also, that letting first-year grad students flounder is a choice, and departments could choose differently if they wanted to center human well-being rather than research robot production. IMAGINE THAT. (I have feelings.)

In a more compassionate world, I can envision a first-year PhD program that provides fellowships for all first-semester (first-year?) grad students while they find their footing. Ever insistent upon teaching as the centerpiece for academic work, I’ve thought about how I would teach the common “Welcome to Grad School” course. The first session is simply called “Grad School: WTF,” and it’s a panel of 3–4 grads at different stages of the program willing to share what they wish they’d known as first-years, such that new students can learn off the bat rather than the hard way. I don’t know. I think it’s a start, anyway. (Also, I’d compensate those students. Pay the less powerful for their time!)

The tl;dr: prescribing something for everyone because it worked for you is bad; ask what said thing gave you and think about whether there are other ways to obtain that; most of the solutions to problems in academia have “be kinder” at their core and that sure says a lot about our profession, doesn’t it.

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