Thursday, 4 November 2010

De magistra

I made a student cry yesterday.

I didn't mean to do it. I didn't realize that I was doing it. I am a nice person. I am a careful and considerate teaching assistant. I was genuinely surprised to look up from the essay I was discussing with my student and to notice that her eyes were becoming increasingly shiny and red. It wasn't allergies. It was me.

But probably not me. Probably a bad day, a bad week. The gray, gloomy day and a lack of sleep. Not one tactfully-worded, constructive criticism of a point in her essay, but one plus one. Then one plus one plus one. And another and another. And a long night ahead and last night out the window and despair. Yes, I know that well enough. God knows I've been there.

Yet the incident still left me feeling guilty and unsettled. Later in the day, I tried to analyze my reaction internal reaction to the situation. I had been, above all, surprised that what I had said -- however mildly, however diplomatically -- had produced an emotional reaction in this student, whom I didn't even know. If this student hadn't had felt some reason to value my opinion, bad day or not, she probably wouldn't have been upset by my criticism. Apparently, oddly, I had some power in my lowly role.

In my daily life as a T.A., I feel the furthest thing from powerful. I do not teach the class; I don't even grade papers. I am initially just as unfamiliar with the texts we study in class as the students themselves, and I am frequently impressed -- humbled, even -- by the quality and originality of the students' comments on the material. Yet in the minds of these undergraduates, savvy, smart, and capable though they are, I occupy a superior and even -- imagine! -- an intimidating position. I know, because when I think back on my undergraduate experience, I know that I held graduate teaching assistants in similar reverence. They were real adults; they'd survived what I was going through, and were now formally charged with putting the next generation of students through their paces. I was at the mercy of their judgment, which I felt every reason to assume was better-informed than my own. If a GTA had found a knot of significant flaws in a piece of my writing, due just a couple of days hence, his or her criticism may well have affected me emotionally as well as intellectually.

Looking back on what happened yesterday, I don't think I said anything I shouldn't have to my student. I don't even think I could have said it in a more considerate way. I do realize, however, that while I've taken care to be an exceptionally helpful and personable T.A. to this point, I should be even more mindful of what it must feel like to be sitting in the chair opposite me. Maybe this means I should use more positive reinforcement, more liberally tempering my suggestions for improvement with praise for things done well. Or maybe it means that I should simply realize that part of my job is helping students develop thicker intellectual skin, and that this process is not always an easy one on the student's end. In any case, yesterday was a good reminder that my students take me more seriously than I take myself. I need to be careful in exercising the power that I didn't even know I had.

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