Initial Teaching Experience #fslt12 reflections
Overview; This is my second reflective post (the first was on learning) and is quite complicated because I was the alternative education officer in a Student’s Union when I was 19 then, when I was 28, had an offer to be a teaching assistant in the USA where I started teaching Politics, then when I was back in the UK, had a very significant phone call asking me to teach Computing. Resolving those differences lead me to become a good teacher IMHO, the significant aspects of which I will pick up tomorrow.
Education Officer; In his recent brilliant book, Together, Richard Sennet analyses how we might make co-operation work. He argues that we need to understand dialogic, or collaboratively driven, processes, rather than dialectic, or rationally resolved, processes. He argues that the history of left-wing behaviour in the twentieth century was one of dialectical left rather than “social left” politics. This was because, after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx and the First International rejected the idea of a social revolution. If you ever get a chance to hear Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) of BBC’s Newsnight give his brilliant talk on the social organisation of the Paris Commune go along, he is riveting. Luckily for me I ended up being a part of a social left commune quite by chance when I was 19. Having moved to London to become a drummer by enrolling on a degree (yep Mathematics) I was asked by the Students Union if I would take over editing the paper 6 weeks after I arrived. Why? Because I played the drums and was reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce in Maths classes! So, as the only arty guy in a Polytechnic devoted to science, they thought that I obviously knew how to edit papers; so now I got journalism.
Polytechnic of North London; 8 weeks and 2 bog-standard issues after I took over editing the paper the Students Union went into an extra-ordinary occupation that lasted five months. I wont go into the issues although they were very significant, but I will examine the process as it has affected my practice ever since. We did not interrupt a single class but we took over all of the admin offices, the switchboard, the theatre and, crucially, the canteen which we ran as a workers co-op for 5 years Not only did we never give the canteen back but running it turned us into a social co-operative. In 1971 pubs closed by 10.30 and were only open from 11.30 to 14.30 at lunch time. Our canteen was open officially from 8am to 6pm but a rule that it could stay open for an extra hour if any one customer (student) would do an extra hour meant it stayed open til at least midnight and often til 3am. Suddenly it was more interesting to stay on campus, even in London. Rock bands moved in and squatted with us so we had free concerts before Union meetings and, as Communications Officer on the Occupation Committee, I became involved in organising an alternative education. A key aspect was organising a week-long Community Festival with local residents to replace rag week. I was introduced to Vanessa Redgrave by the Black Panthers and she organised and paid for a week long film festival. Why? Because Drop Out, a film she had made with Franco Nero with whom she was living, was refused British distribution because she was living “in sin” with a man to whom she was not married! (Can you believe that? Think how many Hollywood films would be blocked if that was applied today!) So we hosted the British premiere of an Italian film with some of the cast, and so on for months. I got used to ringing people up and asking for favours, which they graciously granted (only Jonathan Miller refused help). Critically I had learnt that to effect change we needed to carry everyone, we had massive Union meetings and typically voted to continue the occupation with 85% of students voting in favour. Most of them served in the canteen too. I didnt know it but I had learnt something about dialogic processes and the value of co-operation
Boulder, Colorado; I arrived in Boulder, Colorado as a Teaching Assistant in Political Science on the doctoral programme the day before Labor Day 1979 and went in to report for duty on the Tuesday September 4th. I was assigned my first class on Tuesday September 11th On the Friday night I was a passenger in a car that swerved off the highway at 55mph and was a write-off (totalled) and was discharged from hospital before I had fully regained consciousness. Nonetheless I went and delivered my first fifty-minute class on 9/11 and boy was I rubbish! I managed 10 minutes before giving up (well it felt like 50 minutes). I’d never lead a seminar based on a professors’ lecture before, didnt know how to turn questions back to students & be discursive; as an experienced learner I knew nothing about teaching. Being a learner gave me very little in fact. Fortunately my department were great. I asked everyone about everything, went to some other TAs seminars. Best of all my department (19 doctoral students all teaching) met socially on a regular basis. A permanent Tuesday night table at a Mexican restaurant, Boulder Inn disco Fridays and Saturdays, monthly Bar-B-Q in the park, bi-monthly dinner at a staff house, regular pot-luck parties. Social left dialogic behaviour; brilliant! I got less worse as a teacher.
Within a month I was asked to be on the Graduate Student Advisory Council responsible for reviewing departmental practice (I got Theatre – what else) I became a Governor on CoPIRG, the most brilliant student organisation ever, involved in socially responsible public research (it was a “Nader Raider“). I got into the NOAA soccer team and also became a soccer coach for South Boulder High under-14 team (they did the double). Oh and as the University didn’t have one I set up a Student Union and called it PIGS (for Politics in Graduate Studies); comprising me (and three friends). One friend lived in a Mennonite Commune with the Boulder-Denver Socialist Feminist Guerilla Theatre Collective, so I moved in (still my favourite line in the story of my life). PIGS affiliated to the Caucus for a New Political Science and published a research journal which I edited (I’m guessing you’ve spotted the editor/theatre tropes right?) and I also set up the Politics and Film project with the great Stan Brakhage in the Film Department (I had organised a British film premiere!).
Teaching Practice in USA; In my second year I was promoted to Graduate Instructor and got to teach my own classes, yay! I had been the teaching assistant to four different professors by then and had picked up some good points, and bad points that students didnt like. Good point; the whole department had developed a polity approach (European-style) based on understanding the culture of countries rather than the fantastically boring institutional approach favoured in England, so you could tell stories. Bad point; marking to the curve of the Normal Distribution – how you get promotion; students HATED that. When you deliver your own classes in the States you write the syllabus. It then goes through a quality assurance process called a Graduate Curriculum Committee so you can almost do whatever you want; mind you I was delivering Poli. Sci 101 Introduction to political science so I was limited. However you get your September class approved in May and by then you must work out every class, every teaching resource, back up reading for each week, the book list and make sure the book store has it. My strategy was to have the cheapest collection of paperbacks and get the cheapskates to choose my class. As I had given a paper at the First International Symposium on Anarchism in Portland Oregon in January 1981, I had became the visiting temporary assistant anarchist professor covering that class for everyone else. Boy do you meet a lot of wierdos that way.
The discursive and conversational genius of Scott Warren; reflecting back on the first draft of this I realised that I had mentioned Scott and that, previously, I had said that no teacher had inspired me at school. Nor at undergraduate level (I’ve failed a few). However Scott was genuinely inspiring; he was massively open back in the eighties. Scott’s brilliant class in Critical Theory (not an easy subject) was opened ended and discursive. It started at 3pm and officially lasted until 6pm. At which point some of us would go down to the office and bring up a mixture of drinks & nibbles that kept us going til about 8pm. Hunger then forced us out. We would head to town to get food and keep going til about midnight. Three hour classes might seem long but those 9 hour ones just fly by. Thanks Scott.
Class Size; I felt the class sizes were too big (125) so on the advice of my Supervisor Scott Warren I created a course committee of 6 who could review everything I did and I met them once a week. They offered me sex and drugs, which is very American, and I discovered that I was very English; fortunately we have similar languages so I got by. Then an amazing thing happened. I hated the two-part exam-based assessment process, a mid-term and a final. When I moaned about this someone suggested asking if they wanted a term paper. This is a voluntary extra piece of work like an assignment. So I prepared a handout indicating what I wanted and how it should be prepared. I negotiated it with the course committee and then my beautiful students said, more work? Yes please! Critically, as I felt such generosity required an equivalent gesture, I said that they could do a paper on the politics of anything they wanted, as long as they agreed the title with me first. Several of them did a politics and film paper; Nicholas and Alexander and the Russian Revolution, The Marriage of Maria von Braun and the German economic miracle. My favourite was two lads who did a collaborative paper “U2 as the quintessential punk band” back in 1981; brilliant! My favourite excuse was the couple who did a collaborative paper and phoned me up the night before it was due in to let me know that they BOTH had herpes; somehow a deadline extension solved the problem of that STD. However the critical lesson for me was that if you set your learners free they will return your generosity in abundance because they want to learn stuff so bad; just not your stuff.
Back in the UK of E Well those of you who spotted the student union trope know what comes next. Despite being the only doctoral student to get a paper into an International Conference (and meeting film director Eduardo de Gregorio there and working on a film with him) AND the only person, Professors included, who got a Senator from Washington (Tim Wirth) to give a lecture in his class (I was sleeping with his campaign secretary – dont let anyone tell you that sex and politics aren’t intimate in the USA) I was kicked out. I got 0% on my doctoral exam on Political Philosophy because “this paper attempts to overturn Western Philosophy; and is wrong” Which allowed me one final lesson as I could appeal. In my appeal I said several things, one of which was that the Ph.D is an inappropriate form for the transmission of knowledge. If you had new knowledge to impart you should be able to say it in one sentence not in 80,000 words. Mind you I had been a playwright and that is about compression. We shall return to smart-ass one liners that get you kicked out of University. Back in the UK I finished my doctoral research in my own time and found the one sentence that summarised it. Whilst unemployed I also wrote a book with my ex-wife about the Middle East in our own time, which is now a set text at SOAS and Columbia University, and then I got a fateful phone call from a friend asking if I would take a class for her even though I still hadn’t had any teacher training.
“What’s the subject?” I asked her. “Computing”, she replied. “I don’t know anything about computing, I taught political science” I responded, “I’d have one class on systems theory and then I’d run out of material”. “Ah yes” she sighed portentously, “but you know how to teach…”