- The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate Pedagogy Seminar
“Pedagogy itself must be a text.”(Ulmer 52)
An Origin Story
In Deborah Britzman’s critical work on the performance of authority, she asks, “What kinds of [discursive] practice[s] are possible once vulnerability, ambiguity and doubt are admitted?” (Practice 91). Her question is intended to unsettle dominant understandings of authority and envision alternative possibilities for ethnographic and pedagogical practice. Powerful narratives about authority, power, value, and gender in teaching precede and shape any individual teacher’s entry into the classroom. On one hand, a prevalent expectation for teachers is to perform authoritative if not omnipotent roles as knowledge-bearers as they guide and direct student learning. On the other hand, as feminist scholars have explored at length, the powerful force of gender renders the knowledge and authority of women teachers suspect and their subject position an “impossible fiction” (Munro 1; see also Maher).
These conflicting narratives can create a range of embodied challenges as well as cognitive dissonance for women teachers navigating variable dismissal and authority in the classroom. Graduate student status can further undermine teaching authority and complicate the experience of occupying a teacher role (Curzan and Damour). It is a role riddled with doubts, simultaneously learner and teacher, expert and novice. For this particular teacher reflecting on the practice of teaching teachers, Britzman’s question offers an approach for considering doubt and ambiguity as productive forces, for asking what becomes possible when pedagogical practice foregrounds the ambiguity and uncertainty that can inform graduate teaching. How can disrupting desires for and the performance of certainty demonstrate to developing teachers the broader discursive and institutional forces that shape their classroom experiences?
I have explored the pedagogical possibilities of exploring doubt and ambiguity in graduate seminars in feminist pedagogy and teaching methods that I have been responsible for leading in several large public university settings. In these settings, faculty instituted the seminars in the graduate curriculum because they recognized the particular challenges graduate students face in teaching openly political and controversial topics for the first time while simultaneously developing [End Page 139] their pedagogical skills, attending seminars, and balancing multiple and sometimes conflicting roles as instructors and learners. Over time, the seminars have become a foundational tool for supporting graduate students with varied disciplinary training and experiences to participate in college-level teaching in social-justice oriented courses. The graduate teaching assistants (hereafter GTAs) who enrolled in the mandatory sessions were primarily charged with leading discussion sections of introductory women’s studies courses that cover a range of humanities and social science material. Others taught critical sophomore-level writing, film, and health classes. Each undergraduate course served as an option for fulfilling course requirements in majors or minors such as women’s studies and African- American studies, or, more commonly, in the university’s general education curriculum. Thus, the undergraduate courses attracted diverse students with varied levels of preparation for and interest in course material. The challenges of teaching such social-justice oriented courses for general education credit are well explored in pedagogical literature (Winkler and DiPalma; Cohee et al.).
Having taught in various capacities as a GTA, instructor, and later, adjunct and visiting assistant professor in several institutions, and having both experienced and witnessed graduate students’ struggles and joys, I approached the seminars with two general goals in mind: first, to introduce and explore some of the pressing tactical issues facing entering GTAs that I had experienced, observed, or learned over the course of my advising and instructional experiences.1 Such issues ranged from negotiating power in the classroom to the practical matters of developing grading skills, the growing incidence of plagiarism on college campuses, and the delicate enterprise of crafting effective test questions, a process which may seem, at first glance, deceptively simple. To serve the first goal, I used both theoretical and practical readings to construct a formal syllabus divided into general weekly themes such as Becoming a Teacher; Building Rapport and Managing Authority; Theorizing Pedagogy; Active Participation and Discussion Techniques; Inclusive Teaching; Lesson Plans; Evaluation Practices; Test Preparation; and Feminist Futures (Curzan and Damour; Brinkley et al.). To aid in...