I got my ass handed to me in seminar yesterday. Just a regular trouncing. I said one thing, then contradicted myself 30 minutes later, and the prof called me on it. Damn, that hurt…especially because I didn’t even mean to contradict myself. It was an honest-to-God I-think-I-get-it-oh-wait-what-the-hell-just-happened moment. And for the rest of the day, I–once again–questioned whether I have any business in this business.
But this time I had to turn around and run two sections. I had to shift from I’m-an-idiot to I-know-what-I’m-talking about mode within hours. And it was rough; those were probably some of the worst sections I’ve ever led. For whatever reason, the seminar ass-handing left me in doubt not only of my ability as an intellectual, but also as a teacher (which, of course, are not always one and the same). This isn’t to say that I usually give off the impression that I’m an expert source of wisdom in seminar; indeed, I usually start off the term by explaining that I have as much to learn as the students do. But there is a certain degree of confidence, of I-don’t-know-the-answer-but-I-do-know-we-can-find-out, that is necessary to running a section well. Otherwise, the students will (a) run all over you and (b) give up believing, if they ever did, that the section is worth their time. And though I didn’t get run over today–I’m something of a hard-ass–I certainly felt like I wasted their time. And that stinks.
I wonder if this isn’t something that grad student development could take into consideration: the constant oscillation between knowing-that-you-don’t-know and having enough confidence to proceed. Surely professors must deal with this; it might be nice to hear how they handle it. But the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that professors are, like most everyone, extremely insecure and quite unwilling to show a chink in their armor.
Also: sorry about the use of these-sorts-of-hyphen-connected-phrases. I’ll stop doing that.
This semester, I’m a teaching assistant for a remarkably bad professor. I mean really, really bad, at least when it comes to lectures. Don’t get me wrong–he’s a lovely person and great in one-on-one and small group situations. But just miserable when it comes to lectures. He uses 19th century English history for all of his cultural references, though this is a class on current US affairs. He asks the most inane questions, stuff that undergraduates hear and must think, “Seriously, do you think I’m that dumb? I’m not even going to justify that with a response.” He asks “C’mon guys, doesn’t anyone have an answer?” while not seeing the five hands that are thrust in the air–some sort of vision problem, perhaps. He makes sweeping assertions without stopping to explain or provide examples. Finally (at least for the purposes of this list–I could go on), he’s a ham-fisted liberal, the kind that give the rest of us lefties a bad name. This is the sort of professor that David Horowitz salivates over: bringing in a political agenda that is absolutely irrelevant and so one-sided that even a sympathetic soul like me thinks, “Now, come on!”
The problem is this: what do I do? From a scholarly perspective, I’m a bit embarrassed to be a TA for this course; I find myself apologizing for the professor’s shoddy lectures. In response to some of his questions, I have to resist the urge to interrupt with “Don’t you mean [x]?” in search of a question that is perhaps a bit more challenging/interesting. And then there’s the political angle, where I just want him to be quiet before these students become even more convinced that every academic is blinded by liberal bias. We’re already working against that stereotype, and this prof is just making things worse.
Of course, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t stand up in the middle of class and call his bullshit. I can’t challenge him to come up with something a bit more nuanced. An aside wouldn’t really work, either: “Excuse me, Professor? Do you think you could take these students a bit more seriously, and could you also try to be cognizant of your overt political agenda? Gee, thanks.” Nope. So, instead I’m trying to pick up the mess in discussion sections: explaining what the professor actually meant, defending his assertions, and dismissing accusations of bias with bogus statements like, “Well, he just wants to get you thinking on your own. He’s being so obvious to show you what not to do.” And all the while, thinking this: Man, I hope my TAs never have to do this. Assuming that I ever get TAs…