As I explained in an earlier post, I earn my tuition waiver and stipend by teaching freshman composition. It’s a really common practice at large universities, and chances are that if you attended a big school, you had graduate students for instructors at some point. It’s a great deal for university administration because they get instructors for GenEd courses super cheap.
Some grad students hate teaching, but I (and many of my colleagues) love it and am glad for the experience to go on my resume. I can’t wait to teach literature in a couple of years, but in the meantime I teach the classes that pretty much every freshman has to take.
Freshmen are the best: so easy to ridicule, so easy to love. I hope I still teach a freshmen class or two thirty years from now. In no particular order, here are four reasons why teaching freshmen is great.
1. They’re scared.
Every class has the kids who think they’re still in high school, and that they can breeze through (or muddle through) like they did the last four years (more about these kids later). Most of the students, though, are pretty intimidated. They’re at a huge school, they don’t know anyone in their class, they don’t know me, and they don’t know how to college. At all. A lot are terrified of failing or losing a scholarship or going home in shame at the end of the semester. They miss their high school friends, and they miss their parents doing stuff for them. All this fear and uncertainty, combined with our small class size, creates the perfect atmosphere for vulnerability. If I play it right, our class can become a safe space in the middle of chaotic college life.
2. They’re fresh. Ha. But really.
Literally EVERYTHING is new for them. They’re not blase sophomores or cynical juniors. They don’t know their way around, or the best places to eat, or which professors to take (and which to avoid). They know they don’t know everything and it’s awesome. We talk about it in class and students realize their classmates are in the same boat of cluelessness. We get to share information and talk about how to navigate the library, where to go for great coffee, how to check email (I wish I was kidding). The class is a place where they can say, “Have you heard about . . .?” without an upperclassmen giving them a dismissive glare. They get to discover stuff together. Being a part of that discovery is so much fun.
3. They’re not English majors.
If the students are in Comp 101, that means their academic strengths usually lie in other places. There are lots of engineering, medical, and business students in these classes, and very few Humanities majors. I want to teach literature students one day, but I also really enjoy teaching students who don’t think of themselves as writers. It’s a challenge to help them overcome their ideas that they don’t like writing or that they’re not good writers, and I embrace that challenge. I also love that they’re not full of humanities jargon yet – we get to have conversations about topics that don’t usually come up in chem lab or a statistics lecture, discussions with lots of grey areas. I love to hear them process their opinions without self-consciousness, and to push them (gently) to blur their black and white thought patterns and be more comfortable with questions that don’t have answers.
4. They slip through the cracks so, so easily.
Universities care about students in terms of two things: money and image. They want to retain freshmen to keep money, and they care about freshmen’s safety insofar as the lack of it damages the university’s reputation. They are so vulnerable to physical danger (assault, alcohol poisoning, everything else that comes with irresponsible drinking and large campuses), but also to loneliness and isolation. I’m one of the few instructors who knows their names and has a sense of their personality and interests. Students complete anonymous evaluations, and it’s so gratifying to get comments at the end of the semester that talk about what worked well in the course and what they learned. It’s most rewarding, though, when students realize that the reason I work hard for them is because I care about them. One student this past year said, “She truly cares about her students.” I do. If there’s only one thing they take away from the course, I hope that’s it.