Students Are Like Snakes

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Students are like snakes ... ... they're more afraid of you than you are of them. I use that line every year at the start of ENC 6700, the class I've been teaching for new GTAs here at Florida Atlantic University (henceforth and for all blog time, FAU). I thought it would be an appropriate start for this blog, too. For one thing, I'm hoping to test Bedford/St. Martin's (henceforth and for all blog time, BSM)--they wanted a personality-driven blog and, despite my PhD (perhaps, perversely, because of it), my personality is startlingly low. But more importantly the line gets to the heart of what I wanted to talk about in this post, which I almost titled "We Have No Idea What We're Doing." The alternate title does double duty as well. This blog is an experiment in new media publishing, collaborative professional development, and alternate publication models. But it also makes me think about how teachers come to assume authority in the classroom, especially at that crucial opening moment when they stand before a class of students for the first time, when they may very well be fearing that they have no idea what they are doing. My line about snakes is meant to break the inevitable tension I see in all those new GTA faces as well as the tension that exists there in our classroom, in ENC 6700. But the laughter the line inevitably provokes (I am such a ham in the classroom) isn't in itself what alleviates the tension. Instead, it has to do with the assertion that, well, it's all going to be OK, that you too can be a teacher. I never had a clever one liner when I started teaching. What I had was my mustache. My older, wiser, more-advanced-in-grad-studies best friend Vince suggested I try growing a mustache the spring before I started teaching. I worked on it all summer and it's come to be so much a part of me that I can't imagine myself without it (this blog needs a better pic of me ... I have a big handlebar 'stache and I'm easy to identify at conferences because of it). But Vince, of course, was suggesting I grow it to look older, to look like I belonged up there in front of those eager first year students. At the time, I was just six years older than my students (each year we teach we're a year older, but they're always eighteen); the mustache gave me some physical marker of authority. I don't know if it was the facial hair or my innate need to be a ham or good training in new teacher orientation or gendered expectations, but I do know that my first semester teaching was one of my best. But that's because I was able to be a teacher--not in the prosaic sense of being able to instruct but in the mythological sense of stepping into an expected role. Of course, authority itself is perhaps an issue in this age of de-centered pedagogies. But, as I've come to point out when discussing Mary Louise Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone" in my FYC classroom, yeah, sure her identity was on the line... but everyone in the room knew who filled out the final grade roster. But I don't want this post to be about authority in the classroom or how we finesse that in our theories. I'll leave that for compositionists smarter than I. What I am wondering about instead is how you came to be a teacher, how you assumed the mantle of authority, how you stood up for the first time in front of a bunch of strangers and made it work. It's far from an academic discussion for me. I have a new crop of GTAs coming in 2.5 months and, well, that snake line can only do so much...
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.