I recently made the note that I have never sat for a first-semester college composition class; owing to a particularly excellent high school English teacher (thank you, Mrs. Murray!) and my undergraduate school’s policy on AP classes and their equivalencies, I was exempted from that particular curricular requirement. There were certainly advantages to it; I was spared the expense of the course at the college level, for one, and, for another, I did not have to take the time to go through the class, but instead could focus my schedule more fully on what was then my major field of study.
As it happened, though, I did not attend to my major as closely as I ought to have done, and I ended up switching my course of study–to English, in the event. And while I moved directly into major coursework in that curriculum, I did, as a senior, have to round out my composition requirement (much to my annoyance, having already been successful in upper-division English classes), and doing so without the context provided by having sat for the earlier class made things less easy than they ought to have been. (I did still get an A in the class, though; I’d’ve been embarrassed had I not.)
Even as an undergraduate English major, I worked toward being at the front of a classroom; graduate work only suggested a different kind of classroom. But most of the teaching I have ended up doing has been in first-year composition classes; I’ve taught it at all but one of the colleges where I’ve taught, often in multiple sections each semester, such that I’ve lost track of how many individual iterations of the course I’ve taught. And throughout doing so, I’ve struggled with understanding how students can act toward it as they do; I’ve never been in the situation, and I was not a normal student until graduate school in any event, so my frame of reference is small, indeed.
My practice of writing the assignments I ask my students to write has been an attempt to help me better understand those I teach by putting myself into situations not unlike what they face–and it seems to be a better match with non-traditional students than with the more “normal” first-year college student. Like most of the non-traditional students, I write what I write amid working at one or more other jobs; I do not have the “typical” student’s ability to focus wholly on my coursework at this point. (To be fair, I was not as good about it when I did have that ability as I ought to have been–and I was not as good about how I exercised that lack as I ought to have been, either.) Like many of them, it’s been a while since I was a student in a traditional classroom setting, as well. But there is still the divide in that I have remained grounded in the field of study, while most or them have never had a solid grounding or have lost what they did have. Thus, while I mean to continue my practice of drafting and offering examples, I know they are only useful to a particular point.
Having been assigned once again to teach first-semester composition, I have found myself in mind again of my own lack of common collegiate experience. (I am in mind once again, after some time, of Timothy Carens and the College English piece “Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television.” I have to wonder how valid the assertions remain.) I am certain that my teaching has suffered because I did not face the challenges that my students do; I have not been as sympathetic in the past as I perhaps ought to have been, and it has shown in the comments that students have left me. Though I have improved, I know there is still work for me to do–and that there are things I am not likely ever to get, really, because I am not now and have not been where they are whom I teach. And that continues to sadden me.