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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 135-141

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On Becoming a Teacher

Mark C. Long

First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching. By Anne Curzan and Lisa Damour. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

University graduate programs have long recognized the need to offer some formal training in teaching. Jasper P. Neel (1978: v) notes a general agreement among program directors "that composition teachers [should] base their teaching on some theory of how writing is learned and how it can be taught." 1 John Warnock and Tilly Eggers (1978) describe required colloquia on administrative and pedagogical matters, as well as a graduate course in teaching writing for new teaching assistants at the University of Wyoming. William F. Irmscher (1978) recounts orientation sessions for first-time teaching assistants on classroom techniques and grading. For Irmscher, "success with writers is more dependent upon a good working relation between teacher and student than [upon] any structure, syllabus, or textbook. We are therefore concerned about the training of those who teach in the program, whatever the course may be" (68). But in 1978, in a university setting in which research and scholarship determined (as they continue to determine) one's success as a graduate student, and later as a member of the faculty, teaching skills were learned mainly through trial and error in the classroom. Most first-time teachers found themselves ill prepared indeed.

How do graduate programs prepare teachers today? The graduate school has more fully accepted its obligation to prepare future faculty for a [End Page 135] range of positions and institutional roles. 2 In an ever more competitive job market, students who complete their graduate training in well-designed teacher-training programs have an enormous advantage. I myself was trained in an English department in which a conversation about teaching was a subject both of interest and of scholarship. The center of this conversation was the composition program (housed in the basement, of course), in which graduate teaching assistants were invited to teach courses and, more important, to reflect together on the experience of teaching. This conversation helped us toward an understanding of the intersections between research and teaching. Many of us also found ourselves better able to imagine the range of opportunities for scholar-teachers in the profession.

But new teachers need practical advice. First-time teaching assistants need to know the issues and problems that will arise in the classroom, and they need strategies with which to address them. My own excellent preparation notwithstanding, I hungrily sought out information about teaching. Prior to my second year in the classroom, I came across Wilbert J. McKeachie's (1986) Teaching Tips. First published in 1951 and then in its eighth edition, Teaching Tips was a reference source for my questions about teaching tools and methods. It was less useful for its practical tips than for its in-depth discussions of pedagogical research and theory. As a young teacher in a university classroom, I was looking for answers to the difficult problems I faced every day with first-year students. I was looking for Anne Curzan and Lisa Damour's new book.

First Day to Final Grade is a practical guide to the exhilarating, at times harrowing experiences of teaching in a university classroom for the first time. Pragmatic, well organized, and accessible, it is full of specific advice and informal anecdotes about teaching. Each chapter is followed by suggestions for further reading, and the appendixes provide sample syllabi, lesson plans, guidelines for workshops and peer reviews, a midterm evaluation, and sample letters of recommendation.

Chapter 1 discusses teaching persona, authority, and finding one's way through the joys and difficulties of the first year. Chapter 2 guides the reader through the issues that arise on the first day of class. Many practical tips for avoiding problems are collected here: checking student names on the roster, visiting the classroom in advance, and making copies of materials for the first week. A helpful section on "outfitting yourself" discusses what you should wear. (Whether to "dress up" or "dress down" is, after all, an important consideration...


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