Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Uncensored Confessions of an MFA TA

Two years ago I wrote an article for Poets and Writers on life as a teaching assistant. I am back in TA Camp for my PhD program, and while some things are different, even more stays the same. This post is my original draft, the one nixed by the editors in favor of the more conservative approach on the website today.

This account reflects the experiences of one MFA Teaching Assistant. Individual results may vary.

March 2006 – The Phone Message

“…We would like to offer you full TA ship to attend our program next year...”

Price is Right theme! Tequila! Throw down! You like me! Go to bars and accept offers of free cocktails from friends. Feign modesty. “Oh, I wouldn’t say talented so much as fortunate. It’s all so subjective.”

The Bottom Line

I will teach one section of Freshman Composition, 3 hours a week, in return for a stipend of $9000 and tuition waver. I also required to enroll in a one-credit (but two hour a week) teacher training course. I must arrive a week early for a five day teacher training.

TA Camp: Day One (Getting to Know You)

Enter classroom. Here sits my future writing community. They have been instructed to answer the question, “If you were a vegetable which one would you be?”

“Asparagus,” perky mod brunette says. “Because I’m a superfood!”

Many rolled in town the night before. They are day old cabbage. One guy wrote on his placard, "Grizzly ‘Rassler.”

I arrived fairly confident. Within an hour I am terrified. I am doomed to fail. Recursive process? Dialectical thinking? Whaaa???I look around. Everyone’s face is inscrutable. We are indeed professionals, I realize. Professionals at acting like we understand, or that we might understand. At least, no one can definitively prove we don’t understand. This is how we have earned the right to higher education.

Over lunch at the hippie sandwich shop I ask. “So was anyone else, like, confused?” By confused I mean completely freaking out. I pick a sprout out of my tooth. No one responds. Pros. Every one of them.


The first three chapters of the Freshmen Comp text, The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger. One TA tells me she has already read it. She ordered the book earlier this summer. I make a mental note to make friends with this person. Panicked, I turn around and ask a day old cabbage if he read the book.

“Errr. Uhhh. What book?” I notice a Band Aid on his face. Fiction writer.

The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger

Chapter One: Writing as Inquiry. The writing process is likened to traveling between a mountain and a sea. Swimming in the sea is creative thinking, a churning activity. Then we climb on the mountain and reflect upon our creation. Then we plunge back in the water.

Chapter Two: Reading as Inquiry. Prof Ballenger is way hung up on his ex-girlfriend Jan.

Chapter Three: Ways of Inquiring. The way to inquiring is to inquire through Symphonic Inquiry. Collect. Explore. Focus. Explain. Collect. Focus. Evaluate. Draft. Reflect. Explore. Focus. Collect. Re-Explore. Re-Focus. Re-Evaluate. Re-Draft. Re-Reflect.

TA Camp – Day Five

Three days from now, I will be standing in front of a classroom, a room of eyes staring. I have NO IDEA what I will do. All I have learned is how to attend TA camp. I know to substitute “teaching method” for “pedagogy,” “paper” for “inquiry project,” and “grading sheet” for “rubric.”

Today, returning TAs come to interact. They are a grizzled, world weary bunch.

“Oh yeah,” one guy says “Did I ever tell you what I did to that kid with the iPod?”

The minute we are alone I clutch his Popeye arm. “Tell me what to do on the first day,” I beg. “I mean, what do you do? And please, please don’t answer me with begin to engage in the Spirit of Inquiry.”

“I play Two Truths and One Lie. It’s a good icebreaker.”

“What about having the students interview one another?” asks another TA.

“Then I get confused who is who.”

“True. All I know is I hate ‘if you were a vegetable what would it be?’”the other TA says.

If I were a vegetable I would be an eggplant. All seeds and pulp with very little meat, delicious if prepared correctly, and disgusting if not.

First Day Teaching

My fate is upon me. I am “Mz. Ferguson” — middle-aged and covered in cat hair. I tried to dress up but I look like a homeless librarian, my hair worse. I didn’t make it as a rock star. The business collapsed. I’ve never fully recovered from a love affair in my twenties. I’ve waited tables for twenty years. Break glass in case of emergency: English teacher.

I am allowed 1000 copies from the English Department copier for the semester, and have already used 178 of them Xeoroxing the syllabus. After “Two Truths and One Lie,” which takes all of ten minutes, the entire class stares out the window. Can we go yet, can we go yet, can we go yet their faces chant. Papers rustle.

Two Weeks In

I can’t forge the connection between dialectical thinking, recursivity and the eighteen-year-old mind. I remember when I was a freshmen, flashing back to a morning I woke up on a fraternity bathroom floor, my fur-coated eye opening to a single black pubic hair curled on the tile.

In Class Peer Review Workshop

I have typed up a page and a half of workshop questions for my students. With italics, bold fonts and bullet points I format the guidelines, carefully wording open ended questions. I write in all caps on the board, and send a classroom email. Read each paper carefully and give careful consideration to the questions below.

Five minutes in everyone looks up. The class has come to a simultaneous conclusion about everyone’s paper in the entire room: It was good. They liked it.


Twenty-four binders are stacked before me. Each contains “Inquiry Project #1: The Personal Essay — My Literacy History.” Students were instructed to “relay a personal memory that demonstrates an experience you had with the power of language.”

I take out my first paper, trembling a little.

My student writes about drinking and driving through the Montana wilderness to Led Zeppelin. Two full pages are dedicated to a shenanigan involving a sparkler, three cases of Kokanee, Going to California and a moose skull.

“Try connecting this experience to a greater issue,” I write. “What is the greater significance of your SUV and Kashmir?”

Later, I look at the clock. I have spent almost two hours on my comment sheet. My comment page is longer than the essay.

Twenty-three more.

In Class Freewrite

“What did everyone think of the reading last night?”

“When the Marxist educational theorist Friere states teachers should not lecture, and students should construct their own educational revolution, what did you think of that?”



I call a random name from my gradebook.


“Why I gotta write? I’m going to major in accounting.”

“Nicholas. What I’m hearing is that you don’t care and you just want a Hummer?”

He nods.

“Without wisdom, wealth is just money.” Since I started teaching, I burp Chinese cookie fortunes. “Anyone else?”

A girl waves a sheet of paper.


“I came here on a soccer scholarship. I have to leave early today. Here’s my note.” She throws it on the desk and leaves.

I see a hand. A volunteer!


“Like, no offense, but how old are you? 50?”

Lesson Plans

A poet is screening the entire series of Twin Peaks. For the final paper each student will answer the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Band-Aid man says he is guiding his students to their totem animal.

Comp 101

Movie Day! Grizzly Man. The class will discuss how the director, Werner Herzog, controls the narrative, and the ethical complications of his decisions.

I’m a technology toad, so even though I had planned certain scenes, I end up with Timothy Treadwell pointing at bear poop for a full ten minutes.

“Oh my gosh! It was just in her butt and it's still warm! This is a gift from Miss Chocolate!” gushes Timothy.

“Class, what do you make of the rhetorical choices of director Wernor Herzog here?”


The Op-Eds – Or Three Main Reasons Teaching Freshman Comp is Hurting my Writing And the World

Half the class argues for the legalization of marijuana. The other half vehemently opposes stem cell research on migrants.

Great readers make great writers, but what am I reading?

First of all, renduncy is repeating itself.

Furthermore, everyone knows that.

Its’ common sense.

In conclusion, bad writing is hurting not only me, but all of the city, the state, the nation and the world.

Student/Teacher Conference

“I noticed that for your personal essay you did not write a literacy essay but a book report on Old Yeller.”

“Yeah. That book was really personal to me.”

“Yes, but how did Old Yeller­­ relay a personal memory that demonstrates an experience you had with the power of language?”

“Why do you hate Old Yeller?”

“I don’t. It’s just instead of a summary of the book; I need to know the impact this book had on you and your thoughts on engaging rhetorically with the world. What do you think that was?”

He thinks. He thinks really hard.

“What do I have to do to pass?”

A hundred bucks and a bottle of single malt Scotch.

Final Grades

The few truly deserving A’s are easy, then I hand out more A minuses than I should. From there I move on to the “B plus/God Bless” strategy, finishing up with Cs, and a few Fs, for those I didn’t see the last three weeks of class.

I give one D. After an hour of internal debate, I pass the guy who wrote the Old Yeller book report.


Bsquared86 said...

Great Laugh! I like this version!

"Since I started teaching, I burp Chinese cookie fortunes." <--LOVE IT!

I had my very first day as a TA today and, fortunately, I just sat quietly and chimed in every so often while the prof lectured. The task of grading 27 papers every other week is daunting, though. While I slosh through their work, I'll be sure to remember this article . . . and I won't feel so alone!

Bee said...

Bless you for this.

Emily said...

Thanks for the preview...these next 2 months will be thrilling.

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