Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Journey To The Other Side Of The Desk

I recently completed my first teaching appointment as a teaching assistant in the history department. I have to admit I went into this whole exercise a bit reticent...here I am, for the first time doing something close to what I will (hopefully) do for the rest of my life. What if I think it sucks? What if I am really bad at it?

Legitimate concerns, or at least I think they were.

Well, turns out that I don't think it sucks and apparently I am not really bad at it. In fact, it seems that I have somewhat of a knack for these things.

(Huge sigh of relief).

I TA'ed a 400-level (mostly juniors and seniors) class on the history of Imperial Russia, 1801-1917, a subject that I have a lot of experience with. If there is a European country that I know almost as well as Britain or Ireland, it's Russia. It is an interesting time period: defeating Napoleon, the Crimean War, the Great Reforms, the 1905 Revolution. Interesting people therein, too, everyone from Pushkin to Rasputin to Sergei Witte to Konstantin Pobedonostsev and many, many more.

I got to crush commonly held misconceptions (the British were the central factor in the defeat of Napoleon, all the tsars were iron-fisted autocrats, Russia was the most centralized state in Europe) and reinforce others (all of the bad stuff you know about Nicholas II is all true). Wars, famines, revolutions, angry peasants, clueless nobles, raving revolutionaries...great stuff.

It took a few weeks to deal with some things, like the awkward silences (seems the best thing to do is let them stew and wait for someone to speak up) and the leading them where we needed to go (especially toward the end...dealing with senioritis sucks even more than having it).

All in all, I think everyone had a good semester, we learned, we laughed (usually at my feeble attempts at humor...I told a really bad joke about Lenin), we looked at a lot of maps, read hilarious (to me, at least) political cartoons from the Crimean War. It was great.

I also must admit that the ability to score people's performance, on a scale of my choosing, was a power that I have looked forward to having...it is not easy, but if you set definitive boundaries and make expectations as clear as possible, people at the very least cannot claim that their grades were given at random (although after fifty-six final exams, I was tempted by this system).

I thought it was a frightfully good wheeze overall...some of my students would not agree with that assessment...their fault, really.

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