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Freshman Comp

Updated: Jul 19

Some Thoughts on My Time Teaching College ----------------------------------

Last week I wrote about my amazingly rewarding experience teaching preschool. Fast forward a few years, and I was once again getting paid to impart wisdom on a bunch of kids. Only this time the kids were navigating their first year of college. I’ll get the joke out of the way up front. I sometimes tell people: “I used to teach preschool and college, two positions I found disconcertingly similar.” Hilarious, I know. Like all good comedy, there’s some truth to the statement. I’ll explain.

Teaching three-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds both require a lot of “showmanship.” There’s a performance art aspect to it. Keeping both audiences engaged, preventing the zone-out, was far more than half the battle.

The college courses I taught were all Expository Writing, or what’s better known in the student vernacular as Freshman Comp. (Apologies for any triggering.) I was getting my MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston, and unlike in many other graduate programs, my colleagues and I were not Teaching Assistants (TAs). We designed and taught our own courses with virtually no departmental influence or supervision. Looking back, that dynamic was kind of insane. No one on the faculty ever approved or even reviewed what we were teaching. Hmmm.

I treated my courses like how-to endeavors. We had great philosophical discussions about many topics, but they were all pointed at the goal of teaching them how to get their thoughts and opinions down on paper in a coherent, engaging way. The essays they wrote for me mattered but only in that they were essentially practice essays for the ones they would write for their other professors in their other classes.

Quick sidenote on the job title. I always thought “professor” was an earned title with tenure being a level beyond that. Otherwise, why would schools have “Associate Professors?” My wonderful wife, whom I met at the MFA program and who also taught freshman comp, says we were professors. I thought we were merely “instructors.” Turns out she’s right (not a rare occurrence), which means I could have been calling myself a former college professor all these years. Way cooler, but to be honest, it doesn’t come up that much.

Okay, back to class. We were given theme choices around which we could design a course. I chose The Myth of the Hero, which sounded cool at the time although I don’t really get it now. Was it saying heroes and heroism were myths? I certainly didn’t teach that! I spent the summer designing my course, a task that proved quite fun and rewarding. Shortly before the start of the semester, however, I was told the department switched me from the Hero theme to Multiculturalism. Apparently there weren’t enough course offerings against the new school-wide mandate. So they wanted me, a straight, white guy who had been to Canada a few times, to teach Multiculturalism.

Um … no.

I met with the Department folks who hired me and explained that their bizarre decision was an admission that they didn’t take the multicultural curriculum mandate seriously. I’d look foolish, the students wouldn’t learn anything, and they’d probably get in trouble (after I complained over their heads). They agreed, and I got to teach my Hero class.

In that course we did an opening bit on Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey with his iconic Hero With a Thousand Faces as recommended reading. (Far too dense for Freshman Comp.) The required texts included: Hamlet, Frankenstein, Grendel by John Gardner, an early draft of the Star Wars: A New Hope screenplay, and the Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. I know, you’re now looking for the link to register. Sadly, the course doesn’t exist anymore. Sorry.

Fun Fact: the course featured two of the eight things I’m geeky about.

My teaching philosophy was fairly simple. I was big on personal responsibility and accountability. (I still am. Ask my kids.) I always told my students: "I will treat you like adults until you give me reason not to." I also made it clear that education was not transactional. Tuition was not a purchase of some commodity called "knowledge" that I, as the teacher, was responsible for delivering because they paid up front. We talked about the experience of education. I was in the service industry. It was my job to create an environment in which they could learn things, including learning how to learn.

On the first day of each course, I’d also discuss my grading policy by telling them: “If I like you, you’ll get an A, and if I don’t you’ll get a C-.” That always got a laugh then I pointed out that [see opening paragraph above] all good comedy has some truth to it. To uncover the point, we talked about what might make me like them. Their cool clothes? Their retro hippie vibe? Their unwavering passion to become the next Quentin Tarantino? OR … might it be that they show up on time and do the work with consistent effort? They always caught on.

I had students write a personal essay first. They usually found this less intimidating, and it gave me a good idea what I was dealing with as far as their writing skills were concerned. On the first day of one semester, I showed the class a book we'd use, a collection of essays titled The Movie That Changed My Life. As soon as I did, one young man in front interrupted me mid-sentence with: “I’ll bet you a hundred dollars there’s an essay in there by Gore Vidal.”

I pretended to think for a moment then held out my hand to shake his, taking the bet. His eyes went wide, and then this exchange happened:

“Are you betting money you don’t have?”

“Possibly.”

“I’ll give you one chance to rescind the bet without any loss of honor. Do you accept?”

“Yes.”

“Very well,” I said as I withdrew my hand and returned my attention to the whole class, telling them their first assignment would be to write about the movie (or book, or friend, or news event, or conversation, or anything) that changed their lives.

The unexpected exchange with the kid was notable, somewhat of a gift, because it established quite a bit of my personality briefly and effectively on that first day. The students knew right away that I was confident, could think on my feet, and could most likely put them in their place whenever I wanted to. The Gore Vidal fan was a little embarrassed, but I earned his respect along with everyone else's, too. About ten minutes later, I couldn’t resist. I flipped through the book as I talked then feigned surprise, pointed at a page and said: “Huh. Gore Vidal.” The class cracked up, and the kid gasped in disbelief, thinking he’d missed out on a hundred dollars. (There was no Vidal essay in the collection, but I never let on.)

My sarcasm was always on full display. Here's a taste from the FAQ section of my syllabus:

I lied to the Department and said I was allergic to chalk dust so that I would always get a room with a dry erase board. I’m an above-average doodler, so I made good use of it with quick sketches to (literally) illustrate points I or my students were making. The practice was well received and definitely fell into the performance art side of the job. I’m also fairly certain I invented the infographic, but there’s no way to prove that, so oh well.

After asking around, I discovered that I was the only freshmen comp teacher who included grammar in the curriculum. My colleagues thought I was nuts, but I contend that any improvement you can achieve with the tools of writing makes you a better writer. I’m (still) not entertaining any opposition to this, and I'm sure many of my grad student friends didn't teach grammar because they didn't know grammar. As a “final exam” of sorts, I wrote one sentence on the board and asked my students to identify the part of speech and the function of every word in the sentence. Simple, right? My only memory of those exams, however, has nothing to do with grammar.

One time the sentence was: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.” Get this: only one student out of fifteen could identify that line. One. I exempted him from the exam while the rest sighed relief that I wasn’t some closeted religious freak.

I was only seven or eight years older than my students. Aside from the Beatles fiasco, there was one other surprising gap in our ages regarding current events of the time. I taught one course during the trial of O.J. Simpson, and across the board my students couldn’t care less about it. To them, O.J. was the guy in the Naked Gun movies who apparently used to play in the NFL. That was it. I had to explain how huge he was during my childhood with Michael Jordan references and everything. They were surprised to learn.

Something I was not necessarily surprised to learn was that my experience with these young adults taught me how to be a better thinker and communicator. To succeed in front of the class day after day, you had to listen, facilitate discussion, and have opinions on things. They didn’t have to be brilliant or even correct, but they did need to fall somewhere on the spectrum between coherent and cogent. In short, you had to bring it, a cliché of a phrase that reminds me of the time I did bring something unusual to class: my hockey stick and skates. It was the first day that the pond in Boston's Public Garden (where the famous Swan Boats run) had frozen over, and I was anxious to go play. I confess class was cut a little short that day.


THANKS FOR READING!

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