Teaching to Learn

Last year, I was “just” a graduate student. My primary relationship to knowledge was one of pursuit. Many of my classes seemed designed to help me both focus and expand my interests, all the while introducing me to a rich set of concepts and contemporary debates. In lecture, I listened and took notes; in seminars, we discussed and debated. In the library, it felt like we were all learning how to read slower and faster at the same time.

Now I am also a teaching assistant, suddenly responsible for knowledge in new ways. TAing Arabic has been my first truly public, prolonged experience of both authority over and accountability to a group of students. They come to my office hours. They solicit my feedback, consider my advice, and assume that I will be able to answer their questions. Suddenly my words, a year ago mere conjecture and reflection, are now treated as a definitive answer. And there is nothing quite like having someone write down what you say.

As a language teacher, one immediate manifestation of this changed relationship to knowledge is in the switch to the second person plural. In my Arabic classes, one of the most common words I have used is antum–“you all”.  I am a voice of authority, addressing the students in the plural and frequently using the imperative: Open your books. Read this. Write that. Listen again. All of you.

This new habit of speech points to a deeper shift in our role in the university: we are no longer solely students, but patently not yet professors in our own right. We are somewhere in the middle. And each claim to authority, each question answered and imperative uttered, is stamped with the ambivalence of operating from the middle. Listen to me because I am assisting your teacher; trust me because the university does (within limits). From this middle ground, we work to organize, explain, and at times justify a body of knowledge we ourselves are still learning, sometimes doing so in accordance with a set of pedagogical practices established long before our time. And don’t forget, we are called teaching assistants, not assistant teachers. The difference is subtle yet significant: as the name implies, we are there primarily to help someone else teach.

At the GSAS orientation for new teaching assistants, Mark Phillipson discussed this middle ground, emphasizing our role as mediators between a professor and her students. Not only can the teaching assistant have new pedagogical insight and a fresh lens to the classroom, but she can skillfully translate the relatively coherent conceptual framework of a senior scholar to a group of students. While our paychecks may not reflect it, we are a vital link in this chain of transmission. Especially at a big research institution, teaching assistants often have more face time with students, serving their departments by attracting undergraduates to major in their field.

When pedagogy is a valued part of graduate student education and training, the middle can be a nice place to be. Ideally, professors teach TAs how to teach by example (as happens, for instance, in the Arabic program). In the courses we TA, the faculty model a range of philosophical approaches and pedagogical techniques from which we can begin to cull their own teaching methods. Or at least they should.

The broader point is that what it means to “know” shifts substantially between the first and second years of a PhD program, as we transition from the pursuit of knowledge to its mediation. My first week as a TA, I was going over some basic words for the family when one of the students raised his hand and said, “But doesn’t this mean ‘brothers’, not ‘siblings’?” I paused. He was right, so perfectly right. Yet to acknowledge my mistake, I realized I would need to trust my students to respect me more for being honest than for being right. And they do, as I am slowly learning. While our institutional authority comes from the university, our moral authority comes from a counterintuitive mix of knowledge and the willingness to admit our ignorance. Indeed, there is nothing quite like having someone erase what you just said.

Knowing how to teach is far more than knowing what to teach. It’s about learning to be consistent without becoming mundane; learning to be clear without being boring; and intentional without sacrificing a degree of spontaneity. These qualities demand planning, practice, and frequent observation and feedback–not only from students, but from faculty instructors and peers (as happens regularly in the Arabic program). Such an approach makes sense when research and teaching are seen as two manifestations of a deeper practice of intellectual reflection. The classroom, no matter your relationship to authority, is a space to discuss ideas as they develop. In such a classroom, students are interlocutors capable of valuable questions, insights, and contributions to a wider project of understanding various aspects of the world.

Of course, the opposite is also true: departments that neglect pedagogy train graduate students to treat research and teaching as separate practices. The former is for generating knowledge, the latter for transmitting it. Such a dichotomy reinforces a view of the teacher as an authority over knowledge at odds with the generative and dialogical process of teaching and learning I have attempted to describe above. It leaves me wondering what happens to knowledge–for the teacher, I mean–when we teach what we know but neglect to learn from our teaching.

About Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is a MESAAS doctoral student at Columbia University, where he works on trends in contemporary Sudanese literature and the place of Arabic as a language of poetry and thought in the modern Middle East. He lived for many years in Cairo. His first collection of translations (with Najlaa Othman) was published online by Words Without Borders in December, 2013. He is the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).

One thought on “Teaching to Learn

  1. I am looking for help with a single word. With your Sudanese translation experience (or connections) might you help? I heard it from local people near the Jebel Marra in 1981. Its not an Arabic word I know so may be a Darfuri dialect?

    Its (as I remember it anyway) TIGL and refers to an animal.

    Any light you can shine would be much appreciated.

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