What Doesn’t Kill You, or, Confessions of a Peer Advisor
The first time I taught a seminar, I cried.
When I say “cried,” I don’t mean the “single-tear-rolling-down-your-cheek” kind, either. I mean full-on, no-holds-barred sobbing. The gut-wrenching heaving that wracks your entire body as you succumb to despair.
I was not alone. Many of my peers would experience similar levels of self-doubt that evening. At the time, however, it sure felt like I was the only one going through it.
The first seminar that I taught as a Peer Advisor for the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) went about as poorly as you could imagine. Despite spending hours on my presentation late (early?) into the morning, things began to fall apart. The classroom I had been assigned had no projector for the PowerPoint I’d painstakingly crafted (Yikes Moment #1). The students were arranged in a circle, meaning I had no idea how to orient myself (Yikes Moment #2). Worst of all, I was running on nearly 3 hours of sleep after a weekend of hosting an orientation program for incoming freshmen (Yikes Moment #3).
We’ll stop there.
Looking out at the sea of thirty-something freshmen and sophomores staring back at me, I panicked. Someone should give them directions, I thought.
Shoot, that’s me.
As any well-meaning instructor might do, I lead my students outside. It’s the end of the day, I figured. Getting them to move their bodies can’t hurt, right?
(Yikes Moment #4.)
As we circled up on the lawn, I could already tell that the wind was going to be too loud. As I forced students to shout out lines of a syllabus I’d hastily finalized mere hours earlier, I could tell I was losing interest fast. It was the first day of classes. People were tired. And here I was, in my now grass-stained chinos and too-tight burgundy sweater trying to appear for all the world as if I were actually engaging my students in some masterful learning experience out in nature.
With time (and their patience) running out, I answered a few final questions, made announcements, and told them that I was looking forward to our next class the following week.
Defeated, I turned on the saddest Glee song I could find, and cried my way home.
This would be the worst experience of my still-burgeoning teaching career, but not my last disappointment. In some way or another during that first year, I kept waiting for the other shoe (Yikes Moment #5) to drop. And while my time teaching this first batch of students would never reach such lows again, it definitely continued to feel like I was fighting an uphill battle.
Getting my students set up with research projects, scheduling speakers to come to seminar, planning engaging (yet pedagogically sound!) activities to learn about topics, grading in a timely manner, dutifully reporting back on student progress, forming profound and lasting bonds with students during meetings, ensuri —
It all felt like too much, too soon. And I was failing all of it.
I wasn’t, really. Students managed to get settled into research projects. Guest speakers were arranged, albeit sometimes only days before a seminar. And yes, students did become engaged when I gave them sufficient material to work with.
What students may have lacked in enthusiasm — let’s face it, who really loves going to class at the end of the day? — they made up for with a passion for the work they were doing. As the first semester progressed into the second and they refined their ability to discuss their research, my students demonstrated an eagerness to talk to one another and understand what their peers were working on. They liked to speak up! They just didn’t necessarily like discussing about what I had thought they should be talking about (read: not their research).
While I realized the importance of tapping into this passion a bit late, we still managed to get through the entirety of two semesters together. They presented at our end-of-year symposium. I smiled, taking their pictures like a proud parent at a souped-up science fair.
When I went home that night, there was a smile on my face. I’d survived.
Returning to teach the following year, it was with the confidence that I knew what I was doing this time around.
Yet I was assured that despite my greatest fears, my students wouldn’t hate me. Or, if they did, that was something for them to express in their evaluations at the end of the year. All that mattered was building on what I’d learned the year before: students’ passion for their own research is an unlimited source of energy and inspiration (and, most importantly, it keeps them talking during a 6:00pm seminar).
It helped that these students were in their second year of the program. It helped too that they could now talk more deeply about their research. But beyond this, what helped the most was my own willingness to take risks. To have fun. To experiment with what I’d known up until then to be the tried-and-true formula for teaching a Research Methods Class.™
We had to go through the basic parts of a research paper (this was their final project for their first semester), but we weren’t going to do it in any way they or I had seen before. This second-year research experience (titled Research Scholars) would be a test drive for me, too.
We looked to pop culture articles as one kind of research text, as well as the subtle (yet rigorous) ways they cited different kinds of sources. We delved into a slightly overextended metaphor about following the recipe for teriyaki chicken to investigate what exactly methodology sections require. In a particularly long activity, I even went to the effort of crafting murder mystery “case files” based on X-Files episodes to demonstrate how and why research collaboration might be necessary when faced with a specific obstacle one can’t solve alone.
Some things worked (X-Files). Others didn’t (a brief foray into backchannel discussion). Nevertheless, as the semester progressed, we all became more comfortable in musing on and dissecting research, whether our own or others’. Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether we were doing it by way of discussing Blac Chyna and the Kardashians. What mattered was that we were talking about these ideas in ways that were engaging not only for individuals, but for us as a class.
At the end of my tenure as a Peer Advisor, there are things I’d love to go back and re-do. I’d coordinate with guest speakers earlier. I’d cold-call way more often. I’d grade and give feedback with just a bit more gusto. Nevertheless, despite my faults, this experience has had more than its fair share of rewarding moments.
It’s only been through teaching that I’ve learned I actually love to teach. It’s a hard profession, to be sure, but by engaging with materials (books and podcasts) beyond my training alone, I’ve realized a passion to actually engage with the research (!) and pedagogical tools already out there. No use reinventing the wheel when it’s already been peer-reviewed, right?
On the other hand, I’ve grown more comfortable with reinventing when I really need to do so. When plans (or speakers) fall through, it’s necessary to wing it and see what works. Maybe students like it. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll even ridicule your taste in music. Nevertheless, without risking failure (something I did far less my first year), I know I’d have missed out on were some of my most unique and fun lessons. Worse, I might have left my students with a skewed image of the full potential of research.
I’m happy to say that for the most part, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Risk-taking has paid off. This year, I’ve developed deeper relationships than I ever thought possible with students. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a student describe a problem I’ve had years (months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds…) ago and been able to provide a solution that might actually help. I can’t describe to you the elation of jumping up and down with a student when they tell me about the major/fellowship/job into which they were finally accepted. I can’t possibly explain what it feels like to have a student vocalize how happy they are to have taken my class or to have had me as an instructor.
As I look forward to their final oral presentations at our symposium this year, it is with the knowledge that I’ve been able to play some small part in getting them this far. And honestly?
The crying was worth it.
As I walk out of my final seminar, it is not with tears in my eyes, but with the feeling that I’ve done all that I can in my time as part of UROP. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’m here, not only surviving, but thriving. For better or worse, I’m a teacher now. And that’s an experience not everyone gets to have.
As the tears start to flow in the UROP office, it’s not with sadness. It’s not with full-on, no-holds-barred sobbing as I succumb to despair.
It’s with a smile, and with a hope that others—you, even—will take advantage of UR OPportunity to teach, learn, and grow, in whatever form that may take.
I’m happier than I’ve ever been.