Unpacking and Unlearning: My First Week of Grad School

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This is a weekly or semi-weekly series of observations about my time as a first-year graduate student. 

Last week, I started my MA in English Literature and Creative writing at the University of Calgary, where I also completed my BA Honours in the same.

First impressions of grad school? SHEER AND UTTER TERROR AND EXCITEMENT. It’s been exactly one week since my first day or orientation and I have experienced a roller coaster of emotions.

This semester will be my first as a Teaching Assistant. I will be leading a tutorial in the introductory creative writing course. Because of this, much of my orientation had to do with teaching, pedagogy, and classroom management.  The reason I am titling this series of blog posts “Unpacking and Unlearning,” is because I feel that I have begun “unlearning” preconceived notions of authority and teaching. I have begun the process of “unpacking” and understanding my own biases within the academic institution and larger community. None of the ideas in these posts are fully formed or set in stone.

I used to think that the dialogue around trigger warnings and safe spaces was just another way of coddling already spoiled university students. I figured, “If I can read Lolita without being triggered, everyone can.” I didn’t truly believe in triggers or PTSD in the classroom. I saw triggers as simply something concrete, like gunshots to a veteran, or the smell of a rapist’s cologne to their victim. I saw triggers as incredibly specific, visceral details that were too based in sensory experience to have a place in a written text. My friend and I would discuss trigger warnings at length, focusing on how stupid we perceived them and how “whiny” we thought our generation to be. We read and shared think pieces about professors who were fed up with students demanding safe spaces and an educational experience void of discomfort. I couldn’t envision a classroom space that protected students and also forced them into the elevated level of learning that discomfort provides. The world is not a safe space, and safety is a term that can vary significantly in its meaning.

For some, safety may simply mean not being bombed, having access to life-saving medical interventions, or having a good lock on your door. There are different kinds of safety, however. Emotional safety, spiritual safely, psychological safety, etc. For some, “safety” is akin to not having your beliefs challenged and having your hand held through the journey into adulthood. I choose to regard the latter as a small number of people that have been blown up in the media. University and life are NOT about coddling and comfort. There shouldn’t be hand-holding. Students can and should receive failing grades on insufficient course work. This DOES NOT mean that the same classroom that gives the “ghost student” an F on participation cannot accommodate and consider the complex needs of students from all different backgrounds and experiences. As Nancy Chick, from the Taylor Institute said, “No student comes to you as a blank slate.” No matter your students age, ethnicity, race, gender, etc, they come to you with a wealth of experiences, some good and some bad. They carry not only their personal experiences, but also those of their family and culture.

There is a difference between a text that offends a student and a text that harms them. I am refraining from using the term “trigger” because in my basic understanding, it relates most significantly to PTSD, and I do not have enough knowledge or experience in psychology to navigate the terminology. Furthermore, I am not necessarily writing about specific “triggers,” I am writing about respecting diversity in the classroom, which involves accommodating students with different needs and voices. A student might say that Teleny by Oscar Wilde et. al. offends them because they are a Christian and it depicts homosexuality. That student likely will not face any trauma or have a panic attack over their beliefs being challenged. The same student might read Lolita as a survivor of sexual abuse and identify with the character of Lolita so much that it causes their trauma to resurface; this student may actually have a panic attack or other visible sign of trauma and is not required to continue to read a text that may be harmful to them.

I don’t like the idea of accommodating a student’s coursework based on their beliefs or experiences, but if someone is experiencing trauma they are not learning to their fullest capacity. In my classroom I want to foster engagement, learning, growth, and creativity. I don’t want that to exclude students who have experienced racial, sexual, or any other form of trauma because they cannot face a text. In English, we are often faced with texts that discuss rape, murder, racism, and homophobia (among other things). We read these things not because we agree with them but to analyze them critically. A lot of work needs to be done in academia to include more writers of colour etc, but our students will always need to analyze Shakespeare or Joseph Conrad. Classrooms should foster that uncomfortable dialogue while allowing students to grow without the fear of trauma.

As a privileged white, cis-gendered woman, I don’t get to decide what effect my teaching materials or assigned texts might have on a student. I don’t get to decide how my students identify with characters in novels. But I will know if a student is “offended” by Anna Karenina simply because it is too long for their tastes (those aren’t the types of students to read the assigned books, anyway.)

I am not sure how to navigate the classroom of inclusivity and accommodation while challenging my students and pushing them far beyond their comfort zone, but it is something I am constantly thinking about these days. For now, I just have to help my students navigate the waters of metaphor, concrete language and how to be a better writer.

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Special thanks to Aruna Srivastava, Faye Halpern, Jason Wiens, Jacqueline Jenkins, David Sigler, and Nancy Chick for their GAT workshops.

 

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