As An Unperfect Actor On the Stage

As a graduate assistant, I taught English 101 for the first time last semester. Previously, I’ve acted as a course-embedded consultant for first-year writing courses where I consulted students in a single first-year English class on writing, critical reading, and student life. What I didn’t realize was the way the student perception of the class content was discussed shifted so greatly between my role as consultant and instructor

When I had my own class, the class discussions were often interrupted with similar attitudes that can be summed up in one student’s perfectly phrased comment in response to discussing “the role of an audience”: Why are we learning this? It’s the same shit we learned in high school. I thought about commenting on the depth of understanding that distinguished college-level English from high school English. Yes, you learned about the audience in high school, I thought. But, are you able to shift your approach in communicating similar ideas between different audiences? Unfortunately, I’m not quick nor witty. In the moment, I nodded at the student, didn’t linger, and quickly moved on to “audience awareness.”

If the content had sunk in during high school, the student’s word choice may have shifted in approach, but maybe it was the right language to use. The moment stuck with me. The student cursed, got my attention, and here I am thinking about it five months later. It was annoying, sure, but I didn’t take it personally. I assumed this student wasn’t really giving me a hard time, but was rather just having a hard time coping with the idea that this lesson was what he spent his tuition on that day.

One of our first conversations of the course was looking at how much each student spends per class period. They were freshman, so I thought this could establish a strong sense of transparency before they were seniors and the money caught up to them. We did the math on the board and came up with the figure $34. This was about six hours of manual labor at their part time jobs. It would have taken me five hours of work to make $34 as their course-embedded consultant the summer before working with incoming students taking summer classes to “catch-up” with the rest of the freshman beginning in the fall. “Catch up” being the university’s words, not mine.

I had the same shit conversation a few times with those summer students, and it all seemed to click with them that first-year English can be as much practice for communicating as it is learning about the concepts. But for the summer students, I wasn’t at the end of their pointing finger and neither was their instructor. They approached wanting to understand the content of the class with the same desire to know what they were doing here and what they were spending their money on. As they talked to me, they weren’t looking to express their frustration with talking about class concepts. Their interest instead focused on themselves. They didn’t tell me they’d heard the content before, but they did tell me they were worried about performing poorly.

The students in the class I taught this fall were concerned with content at the expense of the power-holder of the classroom: me. They knew I gave the grades, assigned the homework, gave the lectures, and facilitated the discussions. Maybe they thought it was a joke to have someone so close in age teach them. The summer students, thought, were concerned with their success in the course at the expense of their own self. The grades they got, the homework they were given, the lectures they listened to, and the discussions they participated in all made sense when they saw I was doing it with them. Their frustration focused around their own performance, not mine. As an instructor, it felt like the students were giving me a hard time. As a course-embedded consultant, the students let me know that they were having a hard time. When I was put in the position of the instructor, I was their enemy. When I was their tutor, I was their confidant.  

A black-and-white image of the Old University of Chicago. The building is large with old architecture many towers.
the Old University of Chicago

I blame this shift in frustration on the money rather than the student body. Although the students I worked with as a course-embedded consultant were considered “developmental students” by our university, the work that was produced by the students between the two semesters did not shift enough for me to believe these students were really all that different. In the summer, they were probably paying around $34 per hour in class too, maybe a little more for summer hours, but they got both the instructor and the consultant letting them know how what they were learning was cumulative on what they learned in high school – a near-age peer, me, was sitting right next to them as a model of someone who could understand the content and succeed in it. The students in the fall paying $34 didn’t have the model student as their four-digit tuition bills built the narrative of the ultimate scholar in their minds – the pining academic in his dark-wood loft department office where a scratched record of Tchaikovsky plays on the step of a spiral staircase leading up a towering library covered in dust lit by afternoon sunlight as the academic stares woefully through the glass window cracked for his pipe smoke as he recites the saddest Shakespeare Sonnets from memory through coffee and whisky-stained teeth in his hundred-year-old penny loafers and matching sweater-vest.

This picture is of Mattox Hall at Eastern Kentucky University. It is an old Men's Dormitory which now houses the English Department. There's a car parked in front of the front door and a full-leaved tree the entrance's right.
Mattox Hall at Eastern Kentucky University.
A Former Men’s Dorm and the New Department of English.

Nearing the end of the semester, I still got emails beginning with “Dr. McClure” despite me actively trying to dismantle the student-instructor relationship during class discussion by bringing up what I’m learning in the Master’s classes I’m taking. “Look! You can study hip hop! I am!” and “Look! There’s a ton of academic conversations happening about video games!” But, that’s not what the students in the fall wanted. Perhaps they were hoping to be taught the best from the best as their thinned wallets implied.

I think it was the structure of the classroom that put this thought in their heads. Students are often conditioned that an instructor stands at the front of the classroom, gives the information, and the students receive it – nothing more. Having the course-embedded consultant breaks that. The function of the classroom is literally not the same as the learning process and expectations have been disrupted for these students. I’m still the same grad student in both scenarios and the content has not shifted, but it’s the space I enhabit that shifts the perception away from aggression to determination in the students. As I continue to teach, I look to find ways to dismantle the classroom structure in ways that don’t disappoint the students even if they need a reality check. The grading contract and portfolio model in these classes work swimmingly – I just wonder if I should buy a pair of penny loafers.

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