What Do GTAs Learn?

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Our last guest blogger for this round is Rachel Hartnett.  Rachel is a first-year MA student at Florida Atlantic University, where she is studying science fiction and fantasy literature. She is also a journalist with MuggleNet.com, the number one Harry Potter fan site in the world. She lives in Lake Worth with her cat, Snidely. What I like about Rachel’s post is her reflection on what she has learned about herself as a teacher and as a student.  I think about the role of Graduate Teaching Assistants quite a bit (because we use so many of them in our program).  They often seem to occupy a deeply liminal space in the institution—neither a teacher nor a student but both.  I frequently observe some of the negative consequences of this liminality in terms of things like pay and benefits.  What Rachel reminds me, though, is that the in-betweeness of GTAs also opens a space for learning and growth. As my first semester as a graduate teaching assistant draws to a close, I thought that it would be fitting to reflect on what I learned during the term. On the first day of orientation, before the start of the semester, all of the new Graduate Teaching Assistants were told that we were not teaching our students writing. Instead we were told that we were really teaching them the skills needed to think critically. I remember thinking what a lofty aspiration that was. How could I, a first-year instructor, hope to teach critical thinking? This question haunted me on the first day of class. As I met each one of my students, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion that I was supposed to lead during the next class. When the second day of class came, I asked my students what they thought about the reading that they were assigned from Emerging, Peter Singer’s essay “Visible Man: Ethics in a World without Secrets.” What I discovered was a complete submission to the authority that they perceived Singer held as an author. None of my students were willing to disagree with Singer and most were hesitant to express their own opinions at all. This same issue arose when I read the rough draft of their first papers. Most provided simple analysis of Singer’s arguments without letting their own voice shine through in their writing. I had to explain to them that if I wanted to know what Singer thought about the issue of privacy, I would read his essay. I was reading their essays to hear what they had to say. When the time can to discuss the second reading, “Ethics and the New Genetics” by the Dalai Lama, there was a discernable difference in the class. Many more students spoke up to express opinions or ideas about the essay. And, when I asked if there were any flaws in the Dalai Lama’s argument, a few students were able to pinpoint the weaknesses of the essay. As the semester has gone by, their ability to consider each reading critically has only expanded. They can make complex connections between readings, ones I never thought possible from our first class discussion. Now, as the semester draws to a close, I realize that teaching isn’t about imparting some fundamental knowledge onto students; it’s about showing them the way. Every student already has the tools that they need to succeed in a first-year composition course. They simply need the manual to put all the pieces together. And maybe that is why graduate students are the great choices to teach first-year composition. As the students learn about their abilities, so do we.
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.