The Student Body
I hadn’t thought about him in more than a year when I walked into that ground floor classroom on the first day of the fall semester. I was half an hour early for the 8:00 a.m. freshman composition course I was assigned to teach that term. The low, sensible block heels I wore clapped on the linoleum floor, echoing down the hallway; I seemed to be the only person in the building. When I found the classroom, I turned on the lights and stood in the doorway, taking a second to place why this classroom, located in the Social Sciences building, a considerable trek from the English Department, felt so familiar, but it only took a second.
The set-up of the room was the same: all the desks faced forward, their backs to the door, evenly parted down the middle, but now, the university had painted an accent wall one of the school’s colors, a deep garnet, and hung a few black-and-white photographs of students and campus buildings from the mid-twentieth century. All the walls had been white and bare six years before when I was an undergraduate, when this had been our classroom.
I walked between the empty desks to the front of the room, set my briefcase on the wooden podium, and prodded the appropriate buttons to wake up the technology. The computer whirred to life, the light bulb inside the ceiling projector flickered, and the screen hummed as it lowered over the white board. I kept glancing to the right side of the room, to the second row of desks from the wall, the second chair from the front, curious as to what it looked like from this vantage point, curious as to what I must have looked like when he stood behind this podium, when he had been my freshman writing instructor.
My students soon filed in and sat in what would end up being their unofficially assigned seats for the rest of the semester. At eight o’clock sharp, I introduced myself to them, passed out the syllabus, and asked for their introductions. While they shared their name, hometown, major, I scanned the university-provided roster, which included tiny headshots taken at their freshman orientation over the summer. In the photos, their faces are sweaty and flushed from the Florida heat, like school children just come in from recess, and all I could think about was how little they all looked.
Whenever I remember the spring semester of my freshman year, it is always raining. It surely didn’t rain for four months straight, but most of my memories of that time are set against a backdrop of navy skies and dark gray clouds. I was often wearing rainboots as I traipsed through puddles in parking lots covered in damp pine needles. I had spent the treacherously-hot-turned-bone-chilling-cold days of fall knocking out course requirements—psychology, oceanography, statistics—but now that it was spring, I signed up for courses in my intended major: creative writing.
I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. My mother repeats one story ad infinitum: she was the “Room Mom” for my second-grade class, there to help out on the day we were learning to write stories. We were each given a worksheet that clearly outlined the writing process for us. There were blank lines next to the words “title,” “characters,” “setting,” and “plot,” which we were supposed to fill out before moving onto the bottom of the page to write our stories. The way my mother tells it, she was helping other students—here she usually pauses and makes a point to mention that the boys had a harder time than the girls—and when she looked up and found me across the room, I was already on the back of the worksheet, my head bent low, a ponytail keeping my dark hair out of my face as I scribbled furiously. My teacher appeared beside her and supposedly said with a smile, “You have a writer.”
I have always considered this my genesis. So it is easy to imagine nineteen-year-old me on that cold, wet January day, clomping in my navy rain boots, my turquoise back pack on, umbrella in hand, when I took my seat near the front in that ground floor classroom, to take my first ever college-level writing class, and how I vibrated with excitement.
Attending graduate school and teaching undergraduates at the same institution where I received my bachelor’s degree feels a lot like how I imagine it must feel to look back at one’s own childhood after becoming a parent. I remember how invincible I felt and yet, when looking at my own students, at the same age I was, participating in similar activities, I’m frightened by how fragile they are, and even more frightened by how unaware they are of their fragility.
In the six-week training course the department requires of new graduate teaching assistants, I learned that the pedagogy of freshman composition remained largely unchanged since I was a freshman myself. Classes are small, capped at fewer than twenty students, likely smaller than any other course students will enroll in during their time at this enormous public university. In most of their lecture-style classes, their instructors will never learn their names, let alone have a conversation with them. However, the classes we teach aren’t a lecture, but rather, discussion-based, encouraging students to share their thoughts and ideas, creating a dialogue between students and their instructors. It also allows us to speak with them, rather than at them, fostering a conversation about writing, something for which there is no formula that can be solved on a white board. And, what’s more, the college composition directors mandate we cancel a week’s worth of class, twice a semester, to facilitate a series of one-on-one conferences, held in an on-campus coffee shop or a shared TA office, in which we read through essay drafts and give personalized feedback.
It’s fantastic writing pedagogy, all that individual attention, but it’s easy, as an instructor or a student to get comfortable—in some cases, too comfortable. Sharing writing of any kind, but especially autobiographical nonfiction, is an intimate act, and that kind of sharing is something we ask our students to do often. We ask them to write about memories to teach them tense shifts and point-of-view. We ask them to research and write about topics of personal significance to them. We ask them to analyze texts and artifacts that