PEDAGOGY FOR THE UNIMPRESSED
Over the last four years as a graduate student, I've been teaching and tutoring here and there. I've mostly taught politics and political economy, but this semester I did some basic tutoring in Russian history as well.
It's been fairly dispiriting, to be honest. Students just don't care. I never thought I'd be the type to be bothered by students' reactions. It's fine that not everyone is interested in politics or political economy; I don't insist that everyone find it to be fascinating. However, there is something distinctly dispiriting when you see people yawn while you speak, especially if you’re making a serious effort to make the subject engaging. It's hard to keep putting in hours to prepare better lessons when students just don't seem to care about anything besides grades. All the tips about pedagogy I've read - pace, vary your tone, create in-class games, etc - aren't nearly as effective as simply saying "this will be on the test." Mutter that and eyes will open, hands will move.
I put in effort too. I spend hours upon hours writing up extra handouts, reading rough drafts, meeting with students at any time of the day (today I just met with someone at 9 PM because that was the only time they could make it). However, it's all typically met with disinterest, psychological breakdowns, or just plain thanklessness.
First, there is the disinterest. Again, I don't expect everyone to be interested in politics or political economy. At the same time, however, I also didn't expect that it would be met with such disinterest. For example, I recently explained Federalist Paper No. 10 to a student. It's fine that she found it too arduous to read a six-page article, but when I summarized the argument for her and suggested a Marxist interpretation, she was completely unmoved. It just kind of blows me away, to be honest. If a Marxist interpretation of a James Madison's paper isn't at least minimally stirring to you, I don't know what can be. I remember when I first read Federalist No. 10 as an undergrad; I literally jumped up and down because I thought it was so exciting. Here was a paper from a founding father that is overtly anti-populist!
If American Idol and celebrity gossip are engaging, can't this at least be marginally stirring? There's a string of examples like this -- questions about philosophy, totalitarianism, Marxism, epistemology, and even hot topical issues such as gay marriage are all met with boredom or incredibly superficial treatment.
Of all the subjects that I thought would be easiest to engage students with, it would be politics and political economy. Again, not that everyone has to care, but a question such as "why are some people poor" seems like a much easier question to engage students with than "is Fermat's Last Theorem true?"
Second, there are the breakdowns. For example, I've found that extra office hours only attract people who are having life crises. People show up frazzled and stressed, and then at some point, completely spill into a mental breakdown. Perhaps this because people who have their stuff together can typically make it to your regular office hours. On some level, I really want to help. On another level, I also don't feel like I signed up to be a social worker or psychiatrist.
Third, there is the thanklessness. I've never been thanked for the extra effort I've put in. Not that I need to be validated, but it would be nice to get a small thank you card after I spent hours reading through a rough draft or writing up an incredibly long email explaining something. Are thank you cards antiquated? Frankly, I'm less inspired to put the extra effort in when I'm treated like some anonymous service worker.
There are also so many students who are so far behind that I often feel like I'm spending more time teaching rudimentary skills than political economy. Many students don't know how to structure a basic expository essay even by their fourth year. I'm literally teaching seniors how to write introductory paragraphs. This semester I even had a senior who didn't know what a footnote was. Last semester I had a senior who didn't know how to look up books in the library. How are we graduating these people?
It's just all very disheartening. I didn't think this was going to be Dead Poet's Society, but I also didn't think I would be spending my time teaching such rudimentary skills to such uninspired and unimaginative people. The whole experience so far is making me question whether I like research enough to want to stick with academia. This, after all, has been at the number one public university in America. I can't imagine what it would be like at a "party school" or commuter college.
Or maybe I'll just get inured. If I'm not deriving any fulfillment from teaching, however, why am I putting up with such the low pay?