See You In Hell, Discussion Sections

I'm off very shortly to lead what might be my last two discussion sections, ever. EV-AR. Next year's lucky-kid grant exempts me from teaching (in fact, I'm not allowed to), and I'm finishing my degree come hell or high water within a year. After that, I expect I'll be teaching for the rest of my life, but it won't be in discussion sections.

What are discussion sections, the non-academics ask? They're the product of the would-be democratization of the university system back in the '70s, as far as I know. They're special meetings in addition to the lecture of a class in which an authority, formerly the professor but now almost always the graduate teaching assistant, "discusses" the readings and the lectures with the students. They provide a forum for exchange, a monitor on the progress of the students, a safe environment for constructive criticism. In theory.

In practice, they're a soul-deadening obligation. Students generally hate them, because they're as boring as death itself. More to the point, students hate them because students don't read anything, so students have nothing to contribute to discussion. The teaching assistants leading the sections hate them as well, because no matter how much energy they put into preparation, how many clever questions and activities they dream up, the students stare with dead eyes and tenured tumbleweeds drift by on the linoleum. They are, in short, a waste of time.

All of that being said, sometimes the theory does coincide with the practice. Our happiest memories as grads often revolve around that one really good section we had three terms ago, in which fully half (!) of the students participated and which were actually fun to lead. Those of us with an ounce of dignity left still pour ourselves into sections, trying our damndest to make the students wake up and take notice, to care just a little bit about the material, to fucking well learn something for once.

But it's tough. We're not supposed to lecture; we're supposed to facilitate conversation. All too easily, that leads to a big ugly version of the Socratic method, pitching questions to an uncaring audience until the silence gets uncomfortable enough for some long-suffering A student to finally pipe up with a response. What I'm looking forward to is not avoiding teaching for a year, it's returning to teaching after that with the right to teach, to lecture, to present, and then to respond to questions and then to discuss if there are actually students interested enough to warrant discussion. I've spent four of the last five years as a graduate TA, and I'm ready to be done with it. I'm ready to be done with being an assistant and just be a teacher.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

required debates. I know, it's hokey - but at least the students who are participating are fully prepared (in general, only had a few flakes) - which is a welcome relief from the usual, as you say, soul-deadening experience of a section. :) There were a couple of debates - the Nazi/Stalinist debate springs to mind - where the discussion ran itself, and all I was was the timekeeper. Alas... it was all too rare.