Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Teaching Year (Part III)

Third in my (very occasional!) series of posts about the year I spent teaching at Detroit Mercy law school:

Like most new profs (I assume), I was quite nervous about teaching for the simple fact that I had never done it before, and unlike many other academic disciplines, there's not much in the way of teaching assistantships in school to prepare. I did gain some confidence from all of the lectures on civil liberties I had given to high school & college students while working at CCLA, but going into the first class at law school was still a scary experience. Fortunately, my first class went great as the students seemed interested and willing to participate, I covered the topics I wanted to, and didn't do anything to embarass myself.

The best advice I ever got about being nervous about teaching came from an unlikely source: random small-talk from some stranger at a cocktail party, who told me "If you're worried about being a good teacher, you're probably going to be a good teacher--it's the people who don't care about it at all who can be the terrible ones." I definitely think that's true--some of the hallmarks of being a good teacher (listening to students, doing the necessary prep work for each class, grading assignments on time and as fairly as possible) don't require some sort of "innate talent" as much as they simply require time and dedication--stuff that anyone can bring to the profession if they care enough about it.

As the weeks progressed, I fell into a rhythm: spend a few hours before each class prepping for the lecture, nap in the afternoons (shush!), and then grading in the evenings and Sundays. I was fortunate to have to teach only a couple of times a week, and no one expected me to do much in the way of scholarship in my first year and as a legal writing prof. I took the administration's advice and did informal evaluations in class after about a month of classes. That, combined with the end-of-semester formal evaluations, was very encouraging--I felt for the first time that I had some "objective proof" that I was good at this whole "teaching thing." I did learn what may be one of those eternal truths about teaching: there's always going to be one or two students who think you are the messiah, the best teacher they have ever encountered, and, simultaneously, one or two who think you are the worst teacher in the history of the world and have no idea what you're talking about. But, hopefully, the majority of students think you're pretty good . . .

While the teaching went quite well, I did feel a curious vacuum with the other aspects of what I expected being a professor meant. There was very little interactions with colleagues apart from faculty meetings and hardly any talk about scholarship or intellectual ideas. Part of this was certainly my fault--I'm a shy guy and don't make friends quickly, my area of scholarship is often obscure, and it's hard to want to spend a lot of time on campus when you live across the border and have to take an hour bus trip to get back and forth. Still, it was an early sign that maybe Detroit Mercy wasn't the best place for me.

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