Friday, February 11, 2011

Thoughts on teaching

I'm a third of the way through the semester, and teaching is starting to feel a little less like being on heroin. Seriously...I think about it ALL the time,and there is NOTHING like the high when things go well in that classroom. Or the crash when they don't.
We're settling...we've made it through the first exam. They laugh when I say nerdy things in class. I've learned many of their names, and some of their personalities. And this group of 38 young women and men...they light up the room, with their passions, their insecurities, their trust, vulnerability, laughter.

Today we talked about HIV/AIDS. I was tired, they were tired, but we thought and learned together...and talked about female condoms and dental dams, and some of them got a little squeamish.

I can't even start to explain how much I've learned about myself, and how I feel about undergraduate education. Lately I've been appalled remembering literature from small liberal arts colleges "If you come here, your classes will be taught by someone with a terminal degree, and you'll learn so much more than you would from a graduate student." Yeah, well....I'm a graduate student, and I'm a pretty decent instructor. I'll be better after a few more years in the field and a few more courses. But I've taken classes from faculty (some tenured!) which were taught more poorly than mine. I believe firmly in the power of constructive criticism, and the importance of trying to find something good in every (nonplagarized!!) assignment I grade. I have better things to do with my time than to make their lives miserable, and my class WILL NOT cause anyone to drop out of college (or consider it). (There are a handful of at-risk students in my class, making this last observation especially poignant.)My classroom is to be a safe place for my students.

One of my college professors once told me that the main point of teaching was to catch students as they're running through their lives and to hand them the tools they'll need to finish the race. It's an analogy I appreciate so much more, realizing how infinitely valuable, talented, amazing, my students are, how busy they are, and what a short time I have them for. And this is what I want for them- to give them a way to identify the effects of injustice, to see the complexity of the world we live in and how it shapes our health and bodies, to be able to start to think about how to make the world a better place.

And I'm grateful for the freedom I have to teach this class in my own way. Yes, there are SO many challenges with developing a curriculum as I go. Lots of important stuff has gotten left out, and I still have to acknowledge that in terms of content, this is a 500 level course, not a 100 level. I'm absolutely not telling my students that, and I try to adjust for this in grading. I've also realized that if I taught at an institution like the one I graduated from, I could probably be fired, or at least severely disciplined for some of the things that have happened in my classroom - e.g.watching a film about reproductive rights in Ethiopia, telling my students buying condoms is admirable, and they should feel pride rather than shame, and, oh, yeah, the conversation about female condoms and dental dams. But at the end of the students know how to protect themselves and their partners. They know South Carolina ranks in the top 10 states in the US in rates of HIV patients, that rape has been used as a war tactic in Africa and 70% of the women who survived the Rwandan genocide are HIV positive. They know that when breastfeeding is considered a "choice" rather than a right, it means it's not an option for many women. And some of them are wrestling heavily with the balance between community and individual responsibility (one student told me she was having some moral issues with my class). All in all, I'm giving them something I never received as an undergrad and that I would have desperately wanted, had I even known it could exist.

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