In grad school I enjoyed the benefit of a teaching assistantship, which meant that in exchange for “teaching” first year students composition and rhetoric, I received tuition remission.
The English department gave us a syllabus to follow and the first semester of our teaching duties we attended a prep class, but other than that, little training was offered. I’d been an English tutor in undergrad, so I had some rudimentary skill in working with other students, but executing a whole class over the course of the semester was a daunting task.
The students had no idea what rhetoric was. I remember one lesson that involved using overhead transparencies of ads in an attempt to spark class discussion about audience and how advertisers appealed to their targets. “So who do you think the audience is for this one?” I asked cheerily, nodding to an image of an attractive woman clad in a white bikini, holding a bottle of beer. The students stared at me, uncomprehending, and I was transported to the economics class scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off“: “Anyone? Anyone? Class? Anyone?”
Part of the problem was that I was only six years older than my students, and I had come from an undergraduate program in English literature that had taught me a lot about text analysis but not much about logic. I was only a few steps ahead of the class as I pored over the syllabus material each week.
They say that horses know when you’re scared and I’m here to tell you that so do freshmen at large mid-Atlantic universities. The atmosphere in my classes roiled with the threat of mutiny. I could rarely get students to respond at all, much less get them to engage in rousing debate over the nuances of Aristotle’s “Art of Persuasion.” I lived in fear of the day that I would do something extra humiliating that would destroy any shred of credibility I had, like maybe stepping on a piece of toilet paper and trailing it into class.
It happened one rainy afternoon in November. The assignment was to pick a particular issue, then defend or critique it; that day, the students were supposed to come up with ideas that I would then write on the chalkboard. Ideally, they’d find paper topics with which they had personal experience.
All of us knew that the undergrads passed papers around, that there were probably special file cabinets in each dorm crammed with Comp and Rhet essays kids could retype and turn in as their own. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise that, instead of topics such as why campus should have clearly marked bike lanes or whether the general education requirement was really necessary, students were suggesting stuff like the ethics of cloning, or test tube fertilization, or whether or not the electoral college is an antiquated institution.
All important issues, yes, but probably not ones that were close to the students’ lives. Still, we had a list going and I was trying to work with the class to think through how the topics could be argued. Nervous as usual, my hands sweaty and shaking, I clutched the chalk and soldiered on.
“So, Mark, you suggested the topic of test tube boobies,” I said, looking at a sandy-haired kid sitting in the middle of the room. I was pleased that despite my trembling hands, my voice was strong. “How would you go about arguing it?”
The place went completely silent and I paused, confused. What was going on? Just as the class burst out in raucous laughter I realized what I’d said. Test tube boobies, instead of babies. Shit. It was all over.
Part of me considered just packing up and walking out. Instead I just stood there, my face on fire and sweat trickling down my back. I laughed along and tried to pass off my gaffe as just another way of getting their attention. “See, you’re all listening now, right?” I said.
I’ve blocked out how the class ended. All I remember is that after all the students piled out of the room I felt a peculiar relief, the kind one must feel at the end of a root canal. I’d done it, that extra humiliating thing. Surely nothing else would go wrong. Right?