So, it’s not that I disagree with the entire notion of Zamel’s article; it’s just that, once again, I feel like the article’s vision (and perception of teachers who don’t naturally or immediately subscribe to its vision) is terribly utopian, to the exclusion of some very real factors which contribute to the challenging climate Zamel seeks to redesign. Although the Unhelpful Art History Professor (as Ceridwen put it) doesn’t do herself any favors by adopting a haughty, dismissive tone, I couldn’t help but wonder if said Art History professor was not a professor at all, but a grad student, unceremoniously strapped with the responsibility, not only of learning to teach period, but with the added, daunting, sometimes impossible-seeming task of teaching English learners in an atmosphere not necessarily tailored for their success. I feel frustrated by this all the time. Do I think my life is the worst because of it? No. Do I think there are lots of things that are far more unpleasant than the uncomfortable, difficult-to-negotiate task of learning to teach, and then teaching, in less than ideal situations? Of course. And I absolutely agree with the notion, as I did last week, that there are myriad ways of measuring what a student has learned in a class, beyond conventions of composition, classroom format, and testing. But man, what am I supposed to do—and I mean this seriously, because I don’t know the answer—with an essay that doesn’t begin to complete the assignment, written in such a way that I am unable to follow the author’s argument on a sentence level? My only qualifications for this job are that I like to read and write, and I have a diploma that says I liked to read and write in an official capacity for approximately four years. I’m certainly not of the mindset that I can wash my hands of a student who makes life difficult for me in this way, but if this is a comp class and I am only just getting my feet wet here, how am I going to do the best job for this student, who lacks the requisite skills to communicate with me as a writer?
I obviously don’t think my students are at fault in this scenario, anymore than I am. And I want to do the best I can for them. So far I’ve had two very different experiences with the international students in my class: one student is eager to communicate with me as often as possible, to make sure he is getting the assignments and doing what’s been asked of him; the other has been rather aggressive and disrespectful about the feedback he’s gotten whenever we’ve had the opportunity to talk face-to-face. I don’t think I’ve ever been dismissive or callous about the fact that these guys are struggling and are at different places in their English development than their peers who grew up speaking the language. But I do wonder what tactics or methods I am failing to use, that might be more helpful to them, as well as more comfortable for me, to guide as well as instruct them through the course. How much training do I lack to do this as well as I would like to? (I’m guessing the answer is: TONS. Zamel-level training.)
Beyond that, I have seventeen other students who have their own issues with the course material and who also require my attention. It’s not enough for me to wipe my hands of the issue and say that I’m not paid enough for this, and I’ve tried—as I know everyone has—to do the best I can in this situation. But the fact is—learning on the job or not, I’m not as ready for this as I should be, nor as ready as they deserve for me to be. I genuinely wonder how Zamel’s argument might be altered if she considered, not only instructors who have had the full breadth of professional training to teach in their respective fields, but the zillions of TAs as well, who are let loose into this rather bewildering landscape, to teach the classes no one else seems to want to teach once they’re on the tenure track.