Now that my first semester at UCS (over half of my grant period!) has wrapped up, I want to take a post to share the what I’ve been doing teaching over the past two months. Compared to my first two months at UCS, the second two admittedly felt sort of stagnant. Part of that was because I missed more than a few classes due to personal trips and the truckers’ strike, but it’s also because I began to run into some of the structural challenges of teaching at UCS—including student culture and curricula that was either undefined or ill-matched to students’ abilities.
Oral and Written Expression Skills in English
After my co-ETA Alex and I taught the class how to give ceremonial speeches (thus concluding our public-speaking series), the focus of the course transitioned to academic writing. Most students were in their penultimate semester and supposed to be working on their TCC, a thesis-like final essay. But I get the impression that most of my students don’t have much experience writing formal papers, so Alex and I spent much of our time in class explaining thesis statements and citations.
This was a difficult transition for me. I had trouble gauging how much students knew (or were supposed to know), and I didn’t fully understand what sort of form the TCC needed to take. In addition, we spent a couple classes covering skills that struck me as misplaced, like how to use corpus linguistics to learn phrases common in academic writing. It’s a great skill, especially for academics aspiring to write in another language, but I don’t think it makes much sense to focus on when my students are having trouble putting together a thesis statement.
Compounding this, I get the impression that it’s rare for students to complete extensive assignments out of class. I understand why—if I was working full-time and not expected to do my homework, I wouldn’t worry too much about finishing it either—but the result was that especially at the beginning of the process, students would use class time to research or write. Alex and I would check in with them, but then we were left sitting for an hour and a half, not really doing anything, just in case a student needed something.
However, one student did produce (early) a really interesting article about the translation of phrasal verbs in the subtitles of Bewitched, which I was able to work with her on throughout May. And as other students finished, I welcomed the chance to slip back into the role of writing center tutor and help give them guidance to become better writers.
Oral and Written Skills for Teachers
As I mentioned before, UCS is changing its curriculum so that this is one of the first classes new students take, replacing Oral and Written Expression Skills in English. I think this is a great idea—although it’s going to have to be complemented by a sustained commitment to English-language academic writing in other classes, in my opinion—and I took advantage of the opportunity to introduce some key skills early.
First, using worksheets and presentations, I aided Prof. Samira in helping students work on outlines, citations, paraphrases, and comma usage. The latter was especially fun—any day I get to bring up Grammar Girl and weigh in on the Oxford comma is a good day.
After we covered the basics, students were tasked with writing a five-paragraph argumentative essay. Over the course of several weeks, I walked students through the process—helping them brainstorm ideas, giving them guidance on outlining, and providing them with feedback on their rough drafts. I was especially impressed with the commitment of Prof. Samira and my students. Even when we couldn’t meet physically, we had class virtually, sharing documents through UCS’s online service and communicating over Whatsapp. And although I didn’t get to see the final essays, I have high hopes for my students’ future abilities if they’re starting to write this early.
Most of our class time was devoted to the presentations my students had been giving me, which often inspired conversations afterward. I also gave a presentation about fake news in the United States (which I’d previously given as part of our conversation club, Netflix and Chill, but none of my students were there). Thesis, largely inspired by this article: fake news represents a crisis of epistemology that is difficult to talk about because there is no consensus on what the term “fake news” refers to.
Otherwise, it’s been difficult to come up with other activities for class. The textbook honestly seemed to be too easy for my students, and there didn’t seem to be a formal curriculum. At one point, I had students write a letter to their five-year-old selves (which I then shuffled and had students read out loud to guess the author) in order to practice different ways of talking about the future. I had intended to use the exercise as the springboard for a lesson about future tense, but nearly all my students used it flawlessly.
Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t doing much in class—or that I was cheating by learning more through the presentations than I was teaching—but I think the discussions we had were good practice nonetheless. And as a result, this was the class I got closest with. Everyone came back a week after classes officially ended to have a end-of-the-semester party with me:
Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis
Also taught by Prof. Samira, this course had the benefit of a well-structured curriculum but the downside of being a topic I know very little about. Thankfully, once we transitioned from functional grammar to discourse analysis, I was much more in my element.
After giving an introductory presentation about rhetoric, I asked students to bring in a song to analyze. Over another virtual class, I tried to lead a discussion about Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” to demonstrate the multiple meanings that a text can have. On one level, it feels like a forgettable pop tune, and when you first hear the lyrics, the song seems like a feel-good anthem for body positivity. But at the same time, it also has lyrics that condemn skinniness and define beauty through men’s preferences, so I think you could argue it’s not quite as positive or feminist as it initially appears to be. My ultimate goal was to show that these meanings can coexist, demonstrating how texts can be sites of struggle over meaning.
I don’t think I was able to do the topic justice in such a short period of time—a suspicion that was confirmed when many students defaulted to explaining what the artists intended when they performed their songs, or trying to lay out what the songs’ lyrics might mean—but we did end up having some interesting conversations about a variety of philosophical topics.
Overall, I’ve been grateful to have these experiences—and I’m looking forward to implementing lessons learned once classes resume in August.