I was terrified as I walked into my first discussion section of The Middle East in the 20th Century. Terrified, because even though I had finished all the reading and analyzed each document’s historic and historiographic importance, this time I was the teaching assistant. Ahead of me was my first taste of pedagogical success or failure.
I am starting my third year as a PhD student in Middle Eastern and Jewish history. Doctoral candidates in history are required to serve as TAs four times, usually toward the beginning of our program -- when we have not yet mastered the literature. For many, running discussion sections is our first attempt at teaching. My only prior experience had been in Sunday school with a group of 13-year-olds.
And yet, our training at Stanford is minimal. All first-year PhD students in the history department take a theoretical course in pedagogy, but it does little to prepare us for the practical demands of teaching. Days before my first section, I attended the department’s one-day training course. Another morning I went to a Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) session on the various technical requirements of being a TA. Then, armed with handbooks, fliers and sample grading sheets, we were sent out to “teach.”
I barely remember my debut -- except for my anxiety. I wanted to strike the right balance between approachable (read: casual and “cool”) and authoritative (so as not to tip them off that I was a rookie). At the end of that first day, I realized I hadn’t the slightest idea if I was doing it right.
Luckily, there are numerous resources on campus for student teachers: advisers who care about teaching, fellow graduate students who have already been in the trenches and the professionals at CTL. When my first quarter didn’t go as well as I wanted, I asked a CTL evaluator to visit one of my sections. We concluded that the section was too big, and we were moving too fast. I started using small subgroups more often to involve more students in discussions. I also required students to come to office hours twice a quarter. The key to good teaching is listening, especially to our students.
The highlight of my TA experience has been lecturing to the entire 55-member class. At first, it was thoroughly intimidating. I had to deliver a 50-minute lecture on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967.
As I stood at the lectern, with overhead maps in tow, I felt a rush of excitement, energy and pride. The students were actually writing down everything I said! Then, within seconds, a wave of nausea: the students were actually writing down everything I said. What if I left out something critical? Although I don’t think it was a stellar lecture, it was a critical moment in my professional training.
By my second lecture, I was more relaxed, confident, intellectually daring.
Most graduate students I know love the experience of teaching. It makes our career choices real and lets us share our intellectual passions. However, like our faculty mentors, we struggle to balance teaching with our own academic work. We are often called upon to perform tasks that exceed our job descriptions or expertise, such as teaching remedial skills and counseling troubled students.
Aware that the system is flawed, the University has announced new measures aimed at TA quality control. But it should also better integrate TA responsibilities into our overall programs and pay real attention to our professional development. We are not just cheap labor, but students ourselves.
Furthermore, the University is sending an unfortunate message when, in the tenure process, it prizes research over teaching skills and dedication. That tells us, sadly, where universities like Stanford place their priorities. As for me, I hope that in addition to becoming a first-rate scholar, I can grow into a great teacher, one section at a time.
Michelle Campos, ’93, MA ’97, is a PhD student in history.