By Claire Edwards
PhD Student in Public Rhetorics & Community Engagement
UWM’s English department welcomed a batch of new Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) to the fold last month. As one of this year’s five GTA mentors for English 102, I played a role in the planning and organizing of the orientation festivities. This was a big deal for me as I am still grappling with the fact that my own first year of the PhD is already behind me. I couldn’t have imagined a year ago that I would be one of this year’s mentors, getting a whole new group ready to teach English 102.
This all got me thinking. Grad school is a weird experience as so many, including our new GTAs, will find themselves enacting the roles of both student and teacher. This is a dichotomy all GTAs must simply come to terms with, one way or another. In some ways - and I stress, only some - it is the best job: you are actively learning while capitalizing on expertise. It is a fun apprenticeship of sorts. And, you can appropriate your favorite pedagogical tricks from your own professors. In retrospect, I hope that our orientation process was able to convey that teaching is rewarding and a way of more deeply engaging with your own learning.
Our group this year represents a range of experiences both in terms of prior teaching experience and primary academic disciplines. The mentors and our director, Shevaun Watson, considered these variations as we determined mentor groups. Each group was then assigned to a mentor and will meet for weekly check-ins and will act as a trouble-shooting support group for all-things pedagogy. As mentors, we will also informally observe our mentees in their classrooms once this semester to provide suggestions and encouragement.
TAing was my own first foray into college teaching during my MA program ten years ago. I am ashamed to admit now that I never really sought out the pedagogical advice of the mentor assigned to my cohort of eight GTAs. His felt like more of an honorary position, and I was never quite sure what I could or could not ask him about. Because of that experience, it is now important to me to be available for my own mentees and to continue to encourage them to come to me for guidance and support with any aspect of teaching that proves challenging.
One of the main reasons I have the goal of guiding my mentees this year is that I myself ended up learning so much from my mentor last year. When I came to UWM’s English PhD program in 2018 with several years of college-level teaching under my belt, I assumed I would not need a mentor. But, I quickly realized that because of the hands-off nature of my MA GTA experience and the largely isolated work of adjunct teaching, I never had the opportunity to really interrogate my teaching style. My own mentor, Jenni Moody, taught me a lot about things I had not valued enough in the past: quiet space in the classroom and introversion as a strength, being two huge ones. She also ended up inadvertently teaching me about how to be a supportive and encouraging mentor.
There is a lot we want our new GTAs to go into the year thinking about, not the least of which is the concept of persona. I’ve always thought of teaching as requiring a sort of persona. While I still believe that, my perspective on what the persona can be has changed. I previously saw a persona as inherently different from a person’s “true” self and behaviors, and I was comfortable with this because it provided a sort of barrier between myself and that scary classroom in front of me. After encountering, and continuing to encounter, such varied teaching styles and approaches, I see that the persona I choose to effect can actually be me - introverted, a little weird, sometimes quiet, not at the center.
I hope all of our 2019-2020 ENG102 GTAs will find a persona and a classroom temperament that is just right for them and that allows them to make the most impact on their students, focus on what they value most, and feel comfortable in their dual roles of student and teacher during this weird grad school experience.
The other members of this year’s English 102 Mentor team include ENG102 coordinator Jenni Moody, Julie Kaiser, Joni Hayward Marcum, and Beth Vigoren. The director of composition is Shevaun Watson.