Beasts of York: A Cautionary Tale
Quintin Peirce, English Department, LA&PS.
Over the course of my post-secondary education, I’ve learned that my motivation is highest when I’m immersed in personally meaningful subject matter — that’s when the work is most pleasant and rewarding, and when my exploratory nature is most engaged. Of course, there are moments when, despite my best intentions, I’ll reach what feels like an insurmountable impasse, and a draining, discouraging feeling will accompany my writing and research. To combat the bewilderment inherent in this state, I’ll establish a regimented schedule. I work hard within that scheduled framework and then climb my way out of my academic stupor.
Arguably, the nature and structure of graduate school are suited to that degree of perseverance on any particular project. Because we’re often expanding our arguments and re-purposing papers (turning course papers into conference papers or sending them off for publication, for instance), there are rarely distinct endpoints to the work we do; thus, we get accustomed to the apparently eternal value of persistent, hard work.
Naturally, I take my graduate student self with me when I step into my role as a Teaching Assistant. As a result, I have often had similar responses when encountering lags in my tutorials. For instance, if one tutorial is rife with deafening silences, I have been wont to leave the tutorial with my knee-jerk response of regimented scheduling and hard work — generally, this means a lesson plan with a clear and definite trajectory. Typically, this response has the effect of making the subsequent week’s tutorial more comfortable and secure. However, I have often felt that I was sacrificing something, that I was employing an imperfect solution. After thinking about it for a while, I stumbled across a reference point that has enabled me to articulate the reason for my trepidation.
That reference point presented itself to me mid-term of my tutorials when we discussed and examined Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famous allegory about the Russian Revolution. One character in particular seemed to speak to an aspect of my situation. That character was a cart-horse named Boxer. Whenever trouble befalls the farm, Boxer is quick to pronounce his favourite maxim: “I will work harder”. While Boxer’s intentions are admirable, we know that he will fail at actualizing positive results. It’s not because his work ethic is insufficient. Rather, he will fail because the yield that his work ethic produces is not in his hands. Instead, a dictatorial boar named Napoleon, along with his posse of power-hungry pigs, have assumed power, and they are feasting on the surplus yield for which Boxer is largely responsible. Meanwhile, the animals in the seat of power inculcate a sense that all the other animals would be lost without them.
While this is, admittedly, a hyperbolically dystopian reference point, I nevertheless propose we temporarily re-purpose Orwell’s allegory to a cautionary tale about TA pedagogy. Specifically, consider it if you feel you belong to the category of the noble TA whose work ethic risks falling into overzealousness. This overzealousness may spawn, as I’ve suggested, from the graduate student self, who happily relies on work ethic to overcome hurdles. When we experience or even anticipate hurdles in tutorials, we may find ourselves channeling that Boxer-like work ethic into the craft of air-tight lesson plans. The potential risk involved in this sequence of events is that, in starting off as Boxer, the rigidity of the plan we hatch may position us like Napoleon in front of a class of Boxer-students. Consider that in Animal Farm, while Boxer initially defers only to the one maxim (“I will work harder”), he eventually pairs it with another — specifically, “Napoleon is always right”. What this says to me is that the mindsets enshrined in each maxim are mutually supportive: “I will work harder” always served as an unwitting reinforcement of Napoleon’s reign, a stock of faith in the pre-set teleology which offered the animals a grand vision and seemed to pre-confirm the practical/moral correctness of the path of hard work.
As TAs, then, we should be attentive so as to avoid creating the conditions whereby there is a confluence of these Orwellian mindsets. I believe it bears mentioning because tendentiousness is one of the easier aspects to creep into our pedagogy: impervious lesson plans are, I think, borne out of a desire that’s generally very appropriate for our graduate work, the desire to be disciplined, to take responsibility, and imbue our work with what is personally meaningful. However, it also imbues the tutorial with the spectre of pre-decision that the Animal Farm analogy helps to call attention to. It’s that Boxer’s maxims, and Napoleon’s rule, function via a deferral to a rigid and already-conceived utopianism.
Conversely, what TAs do when at their best is facilitate multi-directional and processual thinking. To foster processual thinking is to avoid the trap of the ready-made and to choose the present tense. The problem is that this presentness can appear from the outside like passivity. However, the most effective TAs that I most admire from my undergrad possessed this presentness. Now, having turned to pedagogical research myself, I understand that their strategy bolstered intrinsic motivation, the kind of motivation wherein the pinnacle of achievement did not lie merely in appeasing them.
What a beastly thing that would be.
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