As an undergraduate member of “Team Political Science,” I had the pleasure of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities during the first semester of this school year. What I was most excited about was being on the other side of the student-teacher relationship, and contrasting the two different – though similar – perspectives. How would POLI 100, which I had taken not so long before, differ when approaching the material with an eye to communicating knowledge, and helping students develop analytical skills, rather than sitting in a lecture hall jotting down notes for myself?
Starting off the semester, I was of course apprehensive. Would I blank? Would students respect me? How would I handle questions on topics that I know hardly anything about? These issues certainly came up over the course of the semester, forcing me to address them head on (and often, ad hoc), with varying degrees of success. Below I will outline a few of the key take away points that I gained from my experience as an undergraduate TA. These relate both to my role as a teaching assistant, and my inherent role as a learner in the process of teaching.
Level of Abstraction
Of course I know as a general rule that when teaching, it is easiest to “start simple” and gradually build on concepts from the base. It is somewhat ironic, then that I recognized this general abstract rule, but did not fully comprehend its practical implications until I had to put it into practice – what level of abstraction is appropriate for POLI 100 students? At what rate can we add complications to theories and concepts, while still keeping students engaged?
Probably not my first blunder on this issue, but the most memorable one, was in Jen’s lecture on civil society. As Jen stood at the front of the room explaining where civil society fits into the private/public divide, I piped up and said “Jen, where would political parties fit into this discussion?” My intention was to contribute to the lecture and students’ learning by bringing in a relevant and somewhat complicated example (as well as encouraging of question-asking among the often reserved students). As soon as I asked the question and saw the confused look on Jen’s face, however, I realized that my question was ill placed. This moment made me reflect on the knowledge and questions I possess that may not be conducive to student learning in an introductory setting such as POLI 100. In this instance I saw the possible value behind a teacher saying, “let’s worry about that tomorrow.” Evidently putting the “start simple” rule into practice didn’t come quite as naturally to me as I may have expected.
Guiding Students’ Thinking
Related to gauging the appropriate level of abstraction, I often struggled to effectively guide students’ thinking, rather than leading them to a pre-ordained conclusion. For me, this was the most intellectually stimulating part of being a teaching assistant. It forced me to step back from concepts and theories enough to ask somewhat vague questions that force students to think, while still providing something for them to grab onto and work with. In doing so, it tested not only my knowledge of political science, but my ability to manoeuvre varying levels of analysis and abstraction in order to point students in the right direction.
This was most evident to me when weighing the merits of different models of democracy with students. At each station, they were tasked with brainstorming the benefits and drawbacks of direct, representative, deliberative, and elite democracy. Being assigned to the elite democracy station, I helped students think through the implications of such a theory – what could be a positive implication of limiting individuals’ decision-making power in society? And conversely, what are some negative consequences of this? After doing this with a number of groups, I found that I repeated the same questions to each group in order to help them along the way. Additionally, each group seemed to leave the station with similar answers for the benefits and drawbacks of elite democracy.
Once I realized this, I asked myself: were my questions too concrete? Did they encourage a certain response? (All questions do to some extent I guess, but we can do our best to limit how much our values come through when posing questions). Going further, I found it difficult to vary my questions, causing me to reflect on my knowledge and value judgments regarding the concept in question. In what ways could I alter my thinking about it? And how can I begin to limit the extent to which my political views taint the questions I ask? I was learning as much in this process as the students were; the line between teaching and learning is an ambiguous one.
Silence is Okay (sometimes)
One piece of feedback I received from a fellow member of Team Political Science was to allow for more silence when interacting with students. At first, I interpreted silence as the student implying, “I don’t understand, and you aren’t asking me the right questions.” When in reality, silence can say this, but is also a signal that students are thinking. Which is exactly what we want them to do! My discomfort with silence, I’m sure, goes hand in hand with a tendency to lead students too much, rather than guiding their thinking in a more hands-off manner. Gauging what is productive silence, and what is apathetic silence, is key to discerning whether or not students’ are engaging with the material.
To be sure, apathetic silence is certainly a thing and I did experience it in the classroom. However, in another instances, my tendency to interrupt silence came to the fore. This was when I was leading the whole section of 40 students in identifying different international relations theories in an excerpt of text. I would read out the text, ask which theory it related to…and wait. Wait for what felt like an eternity, with 80 eyes staring back up at me, but in reality it was probably 2 Mississippis. In this instance, as I look back, silence was not necessarily bad. It signals students’ brains starting to work (whether this is because they want to think, or because the silence makes them so uncomfortable that they feel the need to speak, is irrelevant, as long as they’re thinking!).
All of these reflections have made clear to me that we are all students and teachers alike, even though we may not recognize it right away.