TA Reflections: Utopia in the Americas

Classes ended on December 6, but I’ve been keeping busy between grading final essays and finishing my own semester projects. With finals coming to an end later this week, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my experiences with TAing this semester.

Proposed illustration for New Harmony, Robert Owen’s utopian community. Image courtesy of https://quadralectics.wordpress.com/4-representation/4-1-form/4-1-4-cities-in-the-mind/4-1-4-2-the-future-city/
  • Course Material: While I had some experience with utopian societies through my visits to Shaker villages, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject. Honestly though, not having that expertise can be an advantage because it allows you and your students to explore a new subject together. Although I did read the course materials over the summer so that I’d be familiar with them, I’d share questions I had or things I didn’t understand with my discussion section so that we could talk through them together. Students feel more confident, I think, when they see you learning along with them.
  • Lectures: I didn’t do a lot of lecturing, but the presentation I gave on art colonies would have been at home with any of my other museum talks. What was different was the substitute lecture I gave on Nathaniel Hawthorne in September, as Professor Donaldson was out of town that week and I agreed to take over. I haven’t read Hawthorne since high school, but luckily Professor Donaldson left me plenty of notes that I expanded and rearranged with a little research.
  • Discussion time: I was responsible for guiding student discussions every Friday. Basically I saw myself as a facilitator: my job was to encourage students to talk through their ideas by asking questions and giving feedback. Being a good discussion leader requires patience, flexibility, and good listening. Some days the students will be on fire; other times they may be more reticent, especially if the readings were especially long or confusing. All that said, here are some techniques I found helpful:
    • Have the students set their own expectations: On the first day of class, I had the students decide what the rules would be for the class, which I wrote down for them on the chalkboard. This gave them a sense of ownership over the space and encouraged them to hold one another accountable.
    • Opening video/image: I usually tried to find a short video to play at the beginning of class to help emphasize a course theme. When we were reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, for instance, I found a video of a player piano doing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag to emphasize the book’s concerns with automation.
    • Pairing and sharing: This is one of the most effective ways to get students to talk, especially if they’re being on the quiet side. At the beginning of class, after announcements, I’d pair them off into small groups of two or three. They’d discuss a specific question I’ve chosen for a few minutes. If we were talking about a book, I’d have them note specific pages or passages they could quote to support their observations. Finally, we’d come back together and have each group share what they discussed. It’s a common approach in seminar-type settings. One of my professors used it often this semester, for instance, and I implemented it frequently during the Keio program. What I like about it is that it gets everyone to say something.
  • Office hours: When office hours are optional, students generally don’t come, so I used that time for prep work. In the future though, I think I’d have them sign up for a time to see me at least at the beginning of the semester. That way I could learn more about each student’s interests, experience, and potential scheduling issues, which would help me be a better teacher for them.
  • Writing: Writing was a big part of this class, but not everyone has the same background or experience. While I wrote a lot of commentary on my students’ papers, and offered general suggestions in class, in the future I’d like to be more proactive about teaching good writing and citations. If I were to teach a class, I’d incorporate writing a research paper into the syllabus through staggered assignments or workshops. I’d emphasize proper citations by having students hand in draft bibliographies, for example, and perhaps even a draft page of their paper with different citations in place. Beyond getting the technical aspects down, I’d use citations as an opportunity to discuss the importance of giving people credit for their work. In an era plagued by fake news, moreover, I think it’s important to teach students to critically assess their sources and support their arguments with factual evidence.

So how do I feel about teaching? I enjoyed it, but I’m leaving my options open because I know how difficult it is to get a job in academia. I’m glad I did it though, and I’d definitely like to teach my own class in the future, as at the very least it will make me more marketable to academic museums. If nothing else, I enjoyed getting to read about a variety of interesting topics, and sharing that experience with some very bright, motivated undergraduates.

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