By Eileen Liang
It was the same nightmare: I’m standing in front of a room full of students – faceless, yet somehow staring – and my mouth opens and closes. No sound comes out. My heart pounds. My stomach rolls over and over. My brain? Blank.
I jolted upright. I was pouring over an Introduction to Sociology textbook I planned on using in my class (recommended to me by multiple sources for being free, rather than for overall quality). I was finding it hard to focus. I was absorbing nothing. Random words would trigger long forays into the anxious recesses of my mind. The main production: vivid scenes of me royally screwing up.
And so I didn’t sleep much leading up to my first day of teaching. I fretted over my course site; I fretted over my first day of class plans; I fretted over how I would format and print out the syllabus. I was absolutely convinced I would croak and/or the students (those scary monsters) would see right through me (meet my lovely brain friend: imposter syndrome).
Up until this point, I had no training, no official guidance, no pedagogical insight whatsoever. I hadn’t ever taken an Intro Soc course myself! Having taken seminar style classes for the majority of my undergraduate career, I couldn’t even picture what a lecture-style introduction course would be like, let alone try to plan a semester’s worth of lessons! I was completely out of my element and very, very afraid.
I took a sleeping pill the night before my first class, slept fitfully, rose early, and got to my classroom early enough to struggle with the technology, but not early enough to hide said struggle from students. I put a pile of syllabi on the desk, projected the first slide of my would-be cheerful welcome powerpoint, and sat at the front of the room, holding my hands tightly together to stop them from shaking.
My first mistake was attempting to do roll call. I had decided at the last-minute that forty students was too big a group to allow for student introductions, and immediately regretted that decision ten names in, having butchered eight of them, my voice unsteady with absolutely no trace of authority.
I know how personal names are. I know how much it sucks to have them butchered, no matter the pre-emptive apology. The thing is, I have trouble pronouncing words all the time. Growing up in Taiwan, even with English as my first language, there’s a lot you don’t learn. I may have no accent, but if I’ve never heard a word pronounced before, chances are I will mess it up. My students don’t know this though. To them, I’m just a stranger with a lot of (perceived) authority sitting at the front of the room mispronouncing everyone’s name. It’s not a good look, and probably not the best first impression. Some students whispered to each other. My ears grew redder.
Lesson learned: Never. Do. This. Again.
The rest of the class went in a blur. I forgot to include an electronics policy and lateness policy in my syllabus (this has resulted in patchwork policies announced in later classes making them hard to enforce or remember). I failed to show my students around the course site I had set up, not on BlackBoard, but on a platform they were probably unfamiliar with, Instructure Canvas (this resulted in a prolonged on-boarding process). I did not touch on resources for undocumented students or talk much about accessibility (this has resulted in continuous self-flagellation).
After I let my students go— I kept them 30, 35 minutes tops, long that first class—I sat in shock at my desk. I had done it. There were some faces in the student crowd now, which made them less monster, more human, still terrifying. I had said words, made sounds that were mostly sentences; someone even called me ‘professor’!
It’s been two weeks now, four classes, one online. I’m still struggling to figure out my teacher “persona”: am I strict, with rules and policies aplenty? Am I lenient, focused more on student happiness? Am I kind, willing to accept all excuses and give extensions? Am I ruthless, unwavering in penalizing for missed deadlines?
I struggle with wanting to be liked, wanting my class to be liked, wanting the students to want to come to class and learn, wanting them to actually learn. So many of my tools and tips come from other graduate students and adjuncts, all of us just trying to figure out the right thing to do, all wondering, hoping: are my students learning from me?
Eileen Liang is a doctoral student in Sociology at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer to Visible Pedagogy.