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Confessions of a Graduate Teacher (Once Lost, Now Found)

 Published on October 19, 2016 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Sarah Honeychurch and Sean Hackney /  “only-connect” by only-connect; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  1

Preparing Graduate Teachers

This article is part of a series exploring the role of pedagogy within the goals of graduate education. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

This is a story about two hemispheres of graduate school: teaching and dissertating. It is a story about how those two parts sometimes cohere but are more often rendered in sharp relief. It’s also my personal story, a confession. Fissure and return define my graduate experience. It hasn’t been gentle, but grad school has taught me about myself, about my students, and about the academy. In writing, I hoped to understand how tensions between scholarship and pedagogy, between teaching face-to-face and online, condition my experience as a graduate student. Above all, I wanted to read between the lines of the narrative I tell my friends, my colleagues, and myself. What I found was surprising:

Ironically, the deeper I plumbed the digital turn, the more my experience as a thinker and as a teacher felt profoundly human. Even more ironically, this process of humanization extended to the students in my online courses. I felt connected to them, I heard them, despite our digitally mediated communication. In the distance between us, both geographic and temporal, I found a powerful intimacy.

As graduate students who teach we are expected to grow knowledge in three places — our fields, ourselves, and our students. The first is institutionally privileged far above the last, and in the scuffle it is easy to lose track of ourselves in the middle. When we identify only as scholars, we forfeit the rich potential for learning about self and community in the classroom. When we identify only as teachers, we miss an opportunity to bring formidable meaning-making research to the process of remaking the academy in our own image. The experiences that have led me to this essay are marked not by a reversal or a reordering of this hierarchy — rather, they have taught me the importance of suspending the notion altogether; building networks instead.

When we build bridges between research and teaching, we empower ourselves as agents of mindful change. As the institutions of higher education bound forward into the digital age, graduate teachers find themselves in a unique position to draw lines of continuity between the technological possibilities of our era and the deep roots of our disciplinary traditions. We must temper the expectation of looking to our faculty mentors as models with the empowering recognition that the future of higher education (the shapes of innovation, of resiliency, of change) resides in us. This is our mandate. It just took me a while to recognize it.

Failure marks my doctoral work. Not officially, nor mortally; I was lucky enough to recover from it. Nearing the end of my program, I’ve just found my stride. While no doctoral path is ever linear, I recognize in my own a radical break, the separation of two halves. This rupture came in April of 2014, when two important things happened in my life. First: I was invited to interview for a grant funding me to teach undergraduate literature courses online and assist with course design and development for the Coursera MOOC “Comic Books and Graphic Novels.” Second: My first child was born.

At the time, I failed to recognize the connection between these two events beyond the practical utility of online teaching reducing my on-campus commitments and thus giving me more time to parent. I’ve come to realize now that both events challenged me to reflect on myself, to think about continuity and discontinuity, and in so doing open up a way out of a project that had stalled and an advisor relationship that had stalled along with it.

I had been moving along researching the ritual and communal aspects of language in medieval English vernacular texts. I wanted to know how those books and treatises and guides leveraged the expanded social networks of English against the liturgical authority of Latin. I didn’t know it was a bad sign, but I was never very good at explaining this to people at parties. It became clear that beyond a narrow near-obsession with esoteric medieval practices developed during undergraduate study, I didn’t have a clear vision for a project outside of my own curiosity. There might have been some mythical time in the history of the academy where that was enough to become a tenured professor. This is not that time.

I looked at my son, and the love and pride I felt for him made crystal clear an unhappiness with my work that hit me like a wrecking ball. I knew something had to change.

Jarringly, I was as confident in my teaching as I was confused and scared about my dissertation. I was privileged enough to enter a doctoral program that got me into the classroom early and often — 2/2 right from year one with a reasonable stipend. Being responsible for everything from course design to daily class content to grading was terrifying but also empowering — the trust that the university placed in me was something I took seriously, and I used the opportunity to grow myself as an educator. I was teaching literature of all kinds, from the classics of the western canon to comics and graphic novels, in my very own classrooms. The value of my teaching was recognized by my department and by my graduate school. I felt secure in my abilities and I was hungry to keep exploring and experimenting. It was the same kind of confidence I so badly wanted to feel, and thought I was expected to feel, in my research.

And so: on one hemisphere, I languished in uncertainty. On the other, a growing sense of confidence. I just needed someone or something to show me that the weight of the former need not crush potential of the latter.

What does my failed dissertation project have to do with the state of graduate teacher training? My experience highlights the unofficial but very real “track” system in humanities graduate work. It’s not that teaching and research are doctrinally separated, but the relationship is almost always skewed heavily in one (and only one) direction. Research and writing get all the powerful metaphors — forging, molding, shaping — our scholarship carves out our intervention in the field. When we teach, we get buried. We get behind. Teaching is what you do to pay (at least some of) the bills. This division of labor fuels an system where graduate students are trained to participate as scholars in a discipline offering them limited opportunities, most of which require them to work almost exclusively as teachers.

I felt stranded in my own program. In the erosion of my project, I had lost that which was supposed to have defined my graduate student identity, from my entrance into a field to the content of my classroom.

Thus, a return to April of 2014. The peak of my personal crisis coincided with an acute opportunity to change my grad school narrative. After I received a grant to pursue digital pedagogy, I set to work teaching myself how to be a teacher online. And it was this pursuit that led me to an unexpected convergence. On the one hand, my research into the form and history of comic books and graphic novels (in preparation for assisting with the MOOC) sparked critical inquiry in a side interest I had been developing for years. On the other, diving into the world of online learning led me to the history of higher education and its challenges in the digital age.

In both cases, I found myself coming back to questions of vernacularity, how cultural and social capital is negotiated across boundaries of canon and authority. I came to realize that many of the questions I had failed to ask properly while working on my earlier project now came easily. I just had to approach them from the other hemisphere.

At the core, here, is a validation of experience, a process of recognizing webs when the overwhelming urge is to see only breaks. What emerged from my failing project were a set of concerns, formerly tied to content and period, now free-agents. I was not just a graduate student who was writing a dissertation and also teaching some classes. I was a human who existed in, and asked questions of, the world. This may sound trite. Don’t most folks have that basic stance figured out by the time they commit to doctoral work? Perhaps. For me, it took April 2014 to drive the point home.

This realization had a two-fold effect. First, I invested in my pedagogy. I taught myself about the history of online education. I explored the core principles of instructional design and how to apply them in the digital classroom. I took professional development courses that helped me learn about tools and strategies for online teaching and helped me develop fruitful nodes in my #PLN. I prepared myself to be an effective teacher online in a way that my intuitive abilities in the face-to-face environment never challenged me to do. Second, I leveraged that investment into the development of my new dissertation project, using the narrative of the rise and fall of the MOOC to access the intersecting threads of a changing humanities field, from vernacular canons to teaching practices to shifting institutional organizations.

As I came into my own as an educator working in digital and digitized spaces, the learning goals I desired for my students manifested at the intersections of technology and humanist teaching. As any online teacher will tell you, this is no easy intersection to navigate. The detached efficiency of the learning management system might seem a priori to inhibit the organic, intimate, and unpredictable learning that we hope takes place in the humanities classroom. The goal of humanist education is to shape the mind and the self in relation to culture(s): can algorithmic representation in digital spaces lead students toward this goal? Luckily, I’m blessed with mentors who are acutely aware of this question, and have shown patience with me as I explore and guidance as I experiment. What I’ve learned from them is that we must let our pedagogical choices drive us, not the functionality of any particular tool that we use to realize them. As I felt empowered in those choices, the path was cleared for mindful implementation of tools.

For example, I have recently fallen in love with Twitter (in no small part because of this course). I use Twitter as a tool for facilitating class discussion and resource sharing, as well as a platform for collective close-reading. The conversational functionality of Twitter, as well as the network-hopping and linking possibilities, were a revelation coming from “participation” in the physical classroom and the threaded LMS discussion forum. Twitter more accurately represents the kind of recursive and self-referential networks of communication and engagement I’ve desired for my students from my first day in the classroom.

This is just one instance of the interconnections between humanities education and digital technology. Teaching online made clear to me what kind of connections I wanted to cultivate between myself, my students, and my world. Recognizing these relationships in digital technology drew me closer to the right questions to ask in my work on value and vernacularity in higher education.

In higher education, one-to-one transactional knowledge transfer (from instructor to student) is being replaced by collective meaning-making among multiple agents both in the cloud and on the ground. The latter makes visible the algorithmic pathways that make these connections possible. The former relies on material boundaries, walls and buildings, which by their sheer ubiquity have been rendered invisible (and, by extension, uninterrogated). This inversion is the foundation of my training as a digital educator.

I’m not trying to be techno-utopian. But neither can I deny the influence that the shift from linear transfer to nodal network has had on my understanding of my role as teacher. Far from being a convenient way to have more at home time with my son, online teaching has given me the profound transformation, the fundamental recognition of humanity, that I hoped for in each of my students.

When my scholarship failed me, teaching remained. When I let my teaching direct my scholarship, I emerged with a new project and the confidence to launch it into the world. This will not be a universal experience for doctoral students. But it is a fundamentally human one.

I did not expect to find humanism in my online teaching and my research in digital-age education. In my surprise, I glimpsed the mandate of humanities education: to understand the networks of connection between art and people, between technology and time. I also found a provocation. Higher education must scale this mandate to meet the demands of the digital age, but the only way to do so ethically is to rediscover the fundamental humanity that drives it in the first place.

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1 Response
  1. Renoir Gaither

    Thank you Christopher for an honest and provocative reflection on graduate education. I too found in my doctoral studies in English, an officially failed period of studies, what you assert: ” Teaching is what you do to pay (at least some of) the bills. This division of labor fuels an system where graduate students are trained to participate as scholars in a discipline offering them limited opportunities, most of which require them to work almost exclusively as teachers.” In fact, I distinctly remember the department chair of graduate studies urging us to put teaching at the back of line, so to speak, if we were to be successful. The privileging of content scholarship over pedagogy is normative. As you discovered the old and recurring theme of teaching to inform scholarship is enlightening beyond belief, yet remains outside normative values within much of the academy. Digital pedagogy in the humanities, I think, if done well, sources possibilities to reclaim this theme–and in the process, to interrogate deadening, machine-driven divisions of labor in the academy under capitalism, while wedging open spaces for transformative teaching.

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