I got to meet Dr. Bill McKeachie in 2003 at the Improving University Teaching (IUT) conference in Sweden. I had “grown up” as a graduate student instructor with his book, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, so I was kind of a fangirl. It’s an intimate conference. Maybe 100 people attended. We ate meals together in the university cafeteria. We went on excursions together to a glass factory and had hyttsill dinner. Hyttsill means “herring eaten at the glass works;” I recommend drinking lots of water.
As a mid-20-year-old graduate student instructor in the late 1990s and 2000s, kind and reassuring teaching mentorship came from books by extraordinarily wise and seasoned teachers. McKeachie’s book, first published in the 1950s and now in its 14th edition, has been a treasure chest for new college and university teachers of teaching strategies about educational research, teaching philosophy and psychology. First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Teaching (Curzan & Damour, 2011) was similarly influential on my teaching development, especially by laying out the foundations of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips within the chronological arc of the semester or quarter experience of the instructor and students.
At the same time that these guides offer helpful tips, graduate students should have resources that speak from and to their subject position. Graduate students are in a liminal, in-between space of power in the academic hierarchy. Furthermore, as a population, graduate students are more likely to identify as a member of a marginalized community (e.g., racial minority, disabled, neurodiverse, LGBTQ+). What “works” in the classroom for people of the dominant, default subject position of who is socially accepted at the center of a classroom (i.e. white, able-bodied, neurotypical, cis-gendered, male) isn’t always possible nor will the same effect for people farther away from that default identity. Reading Stories from the Front of the Room (Sterling et al., 2017) and witnessing stories from graduate students of marginalized identities as a co-facilitator of transgressive learning communities shifted my thinking a lot about how human beings in different bodies experience the act of teaching.
“We think graduate students have a story to tell about their teaching. How have you come to think about teaching as you do? What are the most meaningful teaching activities, accomplishments, barriers, and outcomes for you?
We invite current and former Indiana University graduate students to submit short descriptions of important moments in their experience teaching while a graduate student. We are especially interested in an experience that has benefited from your participation in collaborations and communities: a course, a learning community, a writing group, a teaching workshop, a graduate student cohort, a group of friends and allies, and so on. These groups may have been disciplinary, interdisciplinary, peer-led, faculty-led, collaborative, official, or informal programs. We are thinking of teaching broadly: as it occurs in a classroom, a lab, in the field, in sections and recitations, in tutorials, one-on-one, and so on. And we aim for wide representation of disciplines and issues attendant to learning about how to teach.”
That was the Call for Proposals I co-created in 2016 that resulted in a co-edited collection of conversational narratives written by graduate students, Teaching as if Learning Matters: Pedagogies of Becoming by Next-Generation Faculty (Robinson, O’Loughlin, Kearns, & Plummer, 2022). Thirty-six graduate students speak to peer-readers about their processes, paths, journeys, and communities as they integrate aspects of becoming a teacher into their scholar and personal identities. They all speak to the relationship between their subject positions and their teaching experiences. Rather than tips, recipes, and “silver bullets,” they each talk about questions, processes, principles, values, and decisions for the moment. They talk about adapting techniques to fit what works for them and their field. They share stories about developing curiosity for what works for their students. They explore vulnerabilities as they develop a public voice and scholarly approach to their teaching expertise. And they talk about how they navigate decisions in their professional trajectories related to their teaching experiences and commitments.
My research activity in graduate student development since about 2015 has been grounded in philosophies and practices where graduate students are co-investigators of their experiences as developing teachers. I don’t think about graduate students as “objects” that I study from afar; I don’t think I should get to decide all of what’s important to know and tell my colleagues about what’s happening for graduate students. Rather, I interact with graduate students as colleagues and co-investigators. They co-construct the research questions, methodologies, and analyses. They have lead authorship on papers about their studies and insights on graduate student development. I use my earned authority to give space for graduate students to decide upon and tell the stories they want heard by both their colleagues and mine.