Tricks of the Trade

It's 1989 and I'm standing in front of twenty undergraduates. It's my first semester as a teaching assistant.

I'm supposed to be teaching. They're supposed to be learning. Hey, seems pretty simple, right? So why am I so terrified?

I'm expected to grade papers, give weekly lectures, and ultimately determine which of these poor kids gains admittance to one of the top journalism schools in the country. At twenty-four, I'm just a few years older than the clearly unimpressed students staring back at me.

Oh, and one other thing--I'm clueless. But otherwise, everything's going just super on my first day of teaching.

In this moment of near panic, a scene from my own undergraduate past floats back to me. I'm staring listlessly out the window on a warm spring day, oblivious to all but what's unfolding outside. The professor, without stopping his lecture, slides silently to my side of the classroom and--snap!--lowers the dusty, silvery metallic blinds, cutting off my view with one swift yank of a cord. The rattling sound still reverberates in my head.

Now I realize that I've got my own little group of daydreamers. What goes around, comes around. Suddenly the kind of cliché I caution my students to avoid in their own writing becomes my personal mantra.

It didn't help that I was assisting a mesmerizing, self-assured professor who gave the primary lectures twice a week to a group of more than two hundred students before they broke into smaller groups to work with me and my fellow teaching-assistant lackeys. He was slick, tenured, and the author of a best-selling textbook. He scanned the grades I handed in at the end of each semester to make sure I was distributing the appropriate number of As, Bs, Cs, and the occasional D. Ahhh, education at a big state school. Bureaucratic and impersonal, yes, but I wasn't complaining. This gig paid my tuition, after all.

As I gained experience, I learned a few dubious tricks to relieve my early anxiety. Many of the teaching assistants fell into the habit of grading as a team over cocktails. (Note that cocktails is plural, not singular.) The papers were always more entertaining--and my jokes far more hilarious--as the evening wore on. We also took turns lecturing for each other's sessions. It cut down on the number of presentations we had to prepare, and I just loved the way it sounded: "Class, today we have a guest lecturer!" Total crowd pleaser. And I quickly discovered that the higher I graded, the more students liked me, and the better I felt about my teaching skills. I wasn't always successful in fighting the temptation to make everyone, including myself, an overachiever.

If only I had been armed with the knowledge, dedication and engaging teaching techniques shared by the Kenyon professors featured in this issue of the Bulletin. If I had known I could wrap myself with masking tape, make crêpes, smash mirrors, or don a ghost costume, I would have done it. Even if these theatrical events had no connection to the Principles of American Journalism, I would have tried anything to keep my students occupied. Anything to keep them from figuring out I was a fraud.

In the end, I started to understand the truth about teaching, catching a glimmer of what it takes to excel in the classroom. It requires more than just a keen understanding of the subject. It demands passion, creativity, and a willingness to take risks. The best teachers are part expert, part mentor, and part entertainer. They have to engage students and spark a passion for learning.

It's an amazing skill.

And take it from me, it's not easy.

Shawn Presley is the director of public affairs at Kenyon. His "career" in teaching ended when he received his master's degree, but he has found a comfortable niche on the administrative side of higher education.

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