A Pensive Moment

You ever have one of those moments where you find yourself doing something and, unheeded, your brain slams you to some point in your distant past when you were doing something absolutely, completely different and all you can think is “well dang, I never thought I’d be doing this”?

It’s been happening a lot to me recently.  I think this is mostly due to teaching my acting class.

This semester is the first time that I’ve had a classroom all to myself; not team-taught, not taught with supervision, not teaching off of someone else’s syllabus.  I make the rules, I enforce them, I create the lessons, and I have complete control over what goes on in my classroom during class.

Since it’s a rudimentary acting class, it requires me to go back to the fundamentals of my

Never thought I'd be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

Never thought I’d be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

own training which, essentially, requires time travel.  I think back to the person I was when I was doing these exercises, when I was turning in these kinds of assignments, when I was the wide-eyed optimistic student.  And thinking back upon that, I simply can’t escape the fact that I never could have planned things this way.

I never thought I’d be an acting teacher and certainly not within a university setting.  I never seriously thought I’d be getting a PhD (though the notion had crossed my mind, it wasn’t as something tangible or relevant until very recently).  And I certainly never thought that the academic world which is now my embroiled lifestyle could be a valid and sustaining life choice (though I guess, with the job market being what it is, we could debate the usage of the term “sustaining”).

It’s funny because it all seems so obvious.  My specific background lends itself really well to this kind of vocation.  That being said, there were a series of choices which seem to have logically set my feet on the path I now travel (and, if you really want to think of it this way, couldn’t have landed me anywhere else).  The question I keep coming back to is “well, if you didn’t think you’d be doing this, what did you think you’d be doing?”

The real answer is that I had no idea.  I knew I wanted theatre to be a deep part of my lifestyle.  I knew that certain works touched and moved me in a way that others did not.  I knew that I had enough and diverse background knowledge that I wouldn’t be happy being limited to a single middle-powered role in a top-down industry (theatre is totally a top-down industry).  I knew that I wanted to be an educator of some kind, but what kind was completely beyond my ability to understand.

I keep wondering what my students must think of the exercises that we’re doing.  I remember doing most of them myself, but (of course) I pointedly ignored the urgings of my teachers to keep the kinds of journals that I’m forcing my students to (by way of a graded assignment; see how tricksy I am?).  These days, I really wish that I had the kinds of resources that I am asking my students to develop for themselves.  There are other

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that'd land me here.

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that’d land me here.

reasons to keep track of things this way, but I will admit to the romantic hope that someday one of them finds herself in the situation I’m in: completely unwittingly winding up in my shoes and fervently hoping that something from her past can reach across the years to give her some guidance.

I think back to my teachers and find that I don’t think I appreciated them the way I should have.  Then again, I’m not sure I could have appreciated them this way.  I don’t think I could have understood the sheer amount of effort that went into doing what they do until this moment, when I was called upon to do it in turn.  And at the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s kind of comforting to take my place in this cycle.  Even if, for just a short time, I can contribute to the turning of the wheel, it’s nice to know that my teachers’ teachings didn’t die with me.  Passing on the information is a real joy and, even on my bad days, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

…Yes, even when I’m facing down a mountain of grading.  Which, by the way, is another thing I never considered until I became a university educator.  Assignments are as much (if not more) work for the instructor as they are for the student.  In case you were wondering why the instructor can’t party until the fat transcript prints.

Some random mid-week thoughts

With Twelfth Night behind me, I’ve dived head first into an insane-o week.

The midterms for the course I’m TAing have come due and are in the process of being graded.  This process is otherwise known as “Operation: dig yourself out of the avalanche of papers that just fell on you”.  I’m making pretty good progress (and, without saying horribly much about it, the class is turning out some impressive work – good job, team!).

All of the projects which I had pushed off until after the show are suddenly looming before

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning.  I love roses!

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning. I love roses!

me like the chimeras and dragons they are.  This semester’s big projects consist of one paper (due ASAP), one paper (due in May), one more lecture for my TAship (in two weeks), my German qual exam (mid April), a conference paper that’s written but has yet to be conferencified (beginning of April), and a class presentation (end of April).  Basically I’ve got a series of staggered deadlines for big projects that are all screaming at me simultaneously.

Luckily, next week is Spring break.  If I can make it to next week, I can have the entire week to not be on campus and sit and work in my pajamas all day every day.

This doesn’t sound healthy.

…or it sounds extremely healthy.

One of the two, I’m not sure which.

I just finished translating Grimm’s Aschenputtel (Cinderella) yesterday which means I need to start in on a new piece.  I try to spend an hour or so every day with my German.  I’m thinking of going back to the German Goethe articles I had the library pull for me.  I should also probably return to my grammar book.  But translating fairy tales is so much more fun than learning grammar!

I have spent the last week steeping in Molière.  I’m writing a seminar paper on him and there are a LOT of plays to get through.  My professor loaned me some books so I’ve been trying to (with a moderate degree of success GO ME!) to get through them in a week so I can return them to her.  This means over-saturation in French witticism.  I’m continually surprised (to the point that it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore) about how much more pleasant it is to research something that’s enjoyable to read than to research something you couldn’t give a damn about (or is just torturous to get through).  Though he many not be my man Will, Monsieur Molière is slippery, witty, and wonderful and I’m having fun getting to know him.  I’d be grateful if you didn’t disclose this to Herr Shakespeare; he’s a jealous mistress (don’t believe me?  Read the sonnets).

I’ve had some wonderful professional opportunities fall onto my plate this week (details to follow; I don’t want to give too much away before things are finalized).  Suffice to say you may want to leave the evening of April 23 available (Shakespeare’s birthday) if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Portsmouth, NH.

And on that note, I should return to the mountain to defeat the midterm dragons.  They’re becoming rather insistent and I’d rather not walk away smelling of scorched hair.

Office Hours, the TA, and you

Over the years, I have come to a certain conclusion: you never know how to do something until you have already done it.

For some things, this is less problematic.  For example: I didn’t figure out how to write a college level paper until the last semester of my Senior year of undergrad.  While it meant that I struggled through writing them for most of my career as an undergrad, it also meant that I had plenty of opportunity to perfect the style in my Master’s and I’m still learning things about how to write a paper (and look forward to continuing this learning throughout the course of my career as an academic).  Things that you, inevitably, will be forced to repeat have an acceptable learning curve.  Your first anything is going to be the sacrificial lamb which dies upon the altar of experience.

Unfortunately, some things you really can’t go back and re-do.

As part of my job, I am required to hold office hours.  While this sounds horribly official, what it truly means is that I make a promise to the students that I will be in a given place (i.e. my office) at a given time (i.e. my hours) and at their disposal to answer any questions they may have about the class, their work, their grades, or the universe in general.

So far, none of the students have taken advantage of this.  I go, I sit, I wait, I bring work

A grading session from my Master’s. Yes, sometimes it really is that bad.

which inevitably doesn’t get done because I share the office with many colleagues who tend to want to talk and visit (which, don’t get me wrong, I do as well), and I mark time until I can go home and actually get some work done.

And I wonder, why am I sitting there alone when this is a golden opportunity for some undergrad to grill me about all of the questions I know they should be asking especially if they intend to go on to graduate school?  Why can’t they see that this is a gift, a precious commodity of connection which they could be cashing in on in order to better edify and prepare themselves for the life to come?

And then I remember: when I was an undergrad, I never went to office hours.  In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of out-of-class interactions I had with professors who were not my advisor (even the professors who had the most profound impact on my academic career and/or personal development).  This is not to take into account that I’m not even a professor; I’m a TA.  I never even spoke to the TAs when I was an undergrad.  They were like some sort of weird mutant minion creature that the professor had cooked up in vats to do his bidding because he was too busy working on his latest book project to grade our finals.  They didn’t warrant making eye contact with much less speaking to.

Ah, the certainty of youth.

Alright, let’s set the record straight: a TA is a teaching assistant.  It’s an individuals hired by the department to help make the professor’s life easier.  This individual knows the subject matter, but perhaps doesn’t have as much in-class teaching experience as a tenured professor (but then again, who does?).  That doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual isn’t smart, capable, and desperate to answer your questions.  In fact, it probably means that the individual ischamping at the bit to get a chance to pass on something valuable.  A TAship is often the first in a long series of steps towards becoming a real professor.  We all serve our time observing, working in a supervised environment, and doing a bit of grunt labor so that we too, someday, can have the coveted job of molding young minds.

The TA’s office hours can be extremely helpful if you find yourself struggling with your writing, understanding an assignment, understanding the course material, or even the college experience in general.  Think of the TA like a friendly neighborhood spiderman: the TA is closer to the undergraduate experience and so is more likely to remember what it’s like, the TA knows the library resources really well because she spends her days digging through them, the TA is excited about whatever it is that you’re studying and would love an opportunity to pass on some wisdom, knowledge, or advice, and the TA works closely with your professor and so knows what is expected of you/the class in general.

Think about the possibilities for a moment.  Instead of turning in a paper that you think may be what the professor wants, with a little advances planning you have someone to ask!  You can better understand course expectations!  You can learn what a comma splice is and why people keep writing in the margins that you’re making them!  You can improve your grades with better communication, pointed questions, and a little bit of diligence!  The TA is there to help, not laugh maniacally while marking down your work for something you did but didn’t think to ask about, so think to ask about it.  How can you use this person to your advantage?  This MVP can bat for your team if only you would take the time to ask her.

So love your TA.  Embrace your TA.  Don’t worry about being bitten by your TA and turned into a radioactive creature of the night… unless your TA actually does glow in the dark and has weird freakish horns, green skin, and eyes without pupils, then you might want to worry.