Last spring, I was part of a teaching group in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (my home department). This group was entirely made up of graduate students, and we met once a month over lunch to talk about all things to do with teaching, from grading and making schedules to dealing with different situations students present us with. Since we were all graduate students, we also talked about many things that didn’t immediately seem to be teaching-related, like the classes that we were taking or how dissertation work was going—all of the life stresses that compete for attention with our teaching.
I write this post as much for myself as for other graduate student teachers, as a way to reflect on last spring’s experience with my group. That these meetings always took place over food feels appropriate, as we found sustenance from both the lunch and from each others’ support. The most important things I learned through this group were in many ways less about teaching specifically, but instead about the importance of collaboration, community, and peer support.
In this post, I explore the necessity of peer groups like the one I participated in for supporting graduate student teachers in all aspects of our lives. Specifically, having a group of other graduate students around me who could answer questions, collaborate on ideas, and be there when I needed to vent frustrations was essential to my own growth as a teacher, and I encourage all graduate students to consider finding their own groups to do the same. Below, you will find some of the benefits of peer teaching groups and how to create one of your own.
Breaking Down the Teaching/Research Divide
I think that for many graduate teaching assistants, we often feel a divide between the work that we do as teachers and the work that we do as researchers. However, as Angela Brew argues in Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide, research and teaching can (and should) be brought together, even if that coming together may look different across disciplines or even for individual people. When our group first met, we explicitly posed a question to each other: how can we support each other both as teachers and as researchers, and how can we bring together all aspects of our lives, both personal and professional?
While I think that in many ways we are still answering this question, just being there for each other, listening to teaching problems, research problems, and life problems in equal amounts has helped us to see how “support” means not just focusing on one aspect of what we do. Even more, the importance of having support within a discipline—all of us are WRAC graduate students—stands out to me. Our conversations can address problems specific to writing instruction. Even more so, these groups help us to create collaboration across our department as we got to know each other better.
Support at Any Level and Across Our Lives
The group I participated in contained graduate students of all levels and teaching experience. We had 2 MA students and 3 PhD students, spanning from those in their first-year to those on the job market. In addition, some members of the group were teaching for the very first time, others were teaching at MSU for the first time, and some had experience teaching many kinds of classes. However, we all approached the group similarly: share our successes and our struggles; celebrate the good things and support each other through the rest.
Most important, no one tried to take over the group as the “expert” teacher. Instead, we all remained open to recognizing the ways that we still needed to learn from each other and be reflective about our teaching. In this way, everyone had a role both as the giver and receiver of advice.
We kept our group completely informal, meeting over lunches to talk. We did not bring any prompts or papers with us, only questions and conversations, which was a relief—there was no need to prepare big things for our meetings, only to show up and talk. Most of the time, it was easy to find things to talk about related to teaching—frustrating conversations with a student, difficulty grading assignments, trying to find time to do everything while also being a graduate student. We encouraged each other to share the good things about teaching alongside the problems so that we weren’t just focusing on the bad.
Forming Your Own Peer Teaching Group
While writing this post, I asked members of my group to think about advice they would give to any graduate students forming a group like this. After hearing their experiences, I came up with the following tips for teaching groups:
Share everything. We talked not only about our teaching, but our lives. This brought us closer together, as well as letting us see those moments where everyone was stressed—we created solidarity in our struggles. In addition, we focused both on the things that were going well and the things we wanted help with. This prevented the group from becoming just a session to vent.
Support everyone. When people were talking about successes, we congratulated and celebrated them. When they shared failures, we supported them and offered suggestions. We also talked about how to navigate our classes, dissertations, and the job market—anything we could help each other with, we offered up.
Think outside the group. One important thing we started in our first meeting was asking each other what we wanted to get out of the group. Knowing that we wouldn’t be together forever, we focused on thinking about how the group could help us professionalize and link to the outside university. This made our group goal-oriented; we were not just sharing with each other, but we were sharing with a purpose.
Ask questions. While we did not come with prompts or rubrics, we did come prepared to ask each other questions about how our classes and lives were going. We did not want our meetings to feel like an obligation, with things to fill out or requirements to be met. Instead, we wanted a space where we could talk frankly about our experiences with our peers. Our conversations kept going because someone would offer up a questions whenever silence began to creep in. Good questions that spurred conversations included asking what was going well in teaching, what people were most proud of, asking to share something we would do differently in our teaching if we could go back, and thinking about what we learned about teaching.
Always have food. As all graduate students know, meetings are always better with food. Having conversations through food—or, as the practice is called in my department, “breadagogy”—helps us slow down in our otherwise very hectic lives, join together with each other, and sustain both our bodies and our minds.
For Further Reading
Austin, Ann. “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career.” The Journal of Higher Education. 73.1 (2002). 94-122.
Brew, Angela. Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006.
Jenkins, Alan. “A Guide to the Research Evidence on Teaching-Research Relations.” The Higher Education Academy. 2004.
What do peer teaching and/or collaboration groups look like in your college/department? Or, what questions remain for you about starting a peer teaching group of your own? Share your comments and questions in the comments section below.
I am a second-year PhD student in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and an Inside Teaching Fellow. My research focuses on the intersections of trauma studies, apocalyptic and anthropocene rhetoric. I’m interested in the ways that we deal with disasters, violence, and trauma. My current research investigates ways to make progress out of conflicts both big and small, which I hope to apply to teaching and life.