Vaguely Qualified

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This week’s guest blogger is Katie Schipper.  Katie is a graduate student in the English department at Florida Atlantic University. She currently teaches two sections of first-year composition and believes in the value of writing as a means to express what we know and as a tool to acknowledge how much we have to learn. She also has two cats.I love that Dawn Skowczewski’s essay resonated so much for Katie; it did so for me this semester as well.  And she’s getting at an issue that I frequently return to: who gets to teach composition (and why)?  In framing her “vague” qualifications I think she’s pointing not just to her emergence as a teacher but also to deeper institutional issues.  Who teaches composition at your school?  And are they only “vaguely” qualified? One of the first things I said on my very first day of teaching, to my very first section of first-year composition students was “I’m a graduate student, so I’m vaguely qualified to teach this class.”  That might have been a rookie mistake. What’s that they say about not letting them see you sweat? But a few students laughed, and that was my goal, and more importantly it’s too late now—I mean, I said it. And the reality is, I am only vaguely qualified. I’ve done various teacherly jobs, I’ve written page upon page upon page (ad infinitum) of expository essays, and I’ve read even more—and those are my vague qualifications. I didn’t really have a vocabulary for how I was feeling until I read Dawn Skorczewski’s essay “From Playing the Role to Being Yourself: Becoming the Teacher in the Writing Classroom” in Bedford/St. Martin’s Teaching Composition. Then I saw that I was in good company. I realized all (or, to be safe, most) teachers feel like frauds at some point in their teaching careers. I also realized that maybe, like new parents who live in fear that they’ll do something terrible to their infant, I lacked the experience that comes with the making of mistakes as well as the realization that mistakes are inevitable—and vital. I think now that this little admission brings me closer to the students sitting in the classroom. When I tell them that their writing can have as much authority as the essays they read in Emerging, I mean it. When I suggest that they’re granted agency by the mere act of putting words on a page (much in the same way that I am granted agency by showing up and standing in front of a class of college students even if in some moments I feel like a vaguely qualified fraud), I mean that too.
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.