Each semester multiple students are engaged in our Teaching Mentorship program. Students team up with a full-time faculty member to help in all aspects of undergraduate teaching. This Spring, graduate student Taya Sazama helped teach Dr. Catherine Craft-Fairchild’s Clues: Detectives in Literature and Film course. Proving that close relationships between our students and faculty exists far beyond the classroom, Taya (T.S.) and Dr. Craft-Fairchild (C.C.F.) interviewed one another on their experience working together.
C.C.F.: How did you feel last summer when you found out you were getting a stack of free books and that one pair were the collected Sherlock Holmes stories? Which book in the stack ended up being your favorite and why?
T.S.: It is always a treat to get books for free! Nobody actually ever told me that they were free—I assumed that I was getting them on loan from the bookstore. I even remember asking when I went to pick them up from my mailbox if I would be allowed to write in them. I think the idea that I was getting all of them for free was too good to be true! As your question indicates, I think the Sherlock Holmes collection would have to be the books that I am most in love with from the set, although I especially enjoyed Laurie King’s continuation of the Sherlock Holmes story. Other than a general understanding of Sherlock Holmes, I had actually never read Doyle’s works before (shocking, I know). It was wonderful to experience them for the first time with the students (most of whom were probably also reading them for the first time).
T.S.: You have participated in the teaching mentorship program many times before – what about the process keep you coming back? What was a highlight of this semester for you?
C.C.F.: The highlight of the semester was working with and getting to know you, of course! Actually, honestly, that was a highlight and is one of the reasons I enjoy the mentorship program so much–it’s fun to work one-on-one with graduate students. Our master’s students are really smart and enthusiastic. Every mentee that I have worked with has brought wonderful ideas to the table and terrific positive energy to the course. Your lesson plans, assignment ideas, insights into individual students, and general input on things we might do to improve the course were all wonderfully helpful. Undergraduates get a better course when there are two minds working on it, engaging with them, and available as resources. (And I think you were amazingly generous in conferencing with students–you devoted a lot of time to that, even though you’re working and taking classes and super busy. I know the undergrads benefitted from the conferences with you, and bye-the-way tons of students sang your praises in their writing reflections!) I guess what I’m saying, in short form, is that I enjoy collaboration and feel that my mentees really co-teach; I know for certain that I learn as much from you guys as you do from me!
T.S.: That is really sweet that they thought to say nice things about me in the evaluations! It makes me happy to know that I was able to help them. I agree with you that getting to collaborate as teachers was one of the most enjoyable parts of the class. It felt really natural to work together and even though we sometimes had different styles, we always seemed to mesh well. I was sometimes amazed at how easily we bounced off one another during lessons (and we never even practiced!).
C.C.F.: You generously spent a lot of time conducting one-on-one conferences with students. What were the highs and lows of that experience? I thought your contribution here was spectacular–what do you think?
T.S.: I know from my experience both as a student and as a teacher how important one-on-one conferences are, especially to become more proficient in writing. I also know how much pressure there is to be on the teacher’s side of the conference; you often don’t know what students will walk in with and you have to be ready to make sense of their ideas and take them to the next level. It is hard when you see a student start to get frustrated because they don’t understand what you want them to do or feel overwhelmed with the amount of changes they need to make to a draft; it takes practice and knowledge of individual students to be able to have the type of conference where both the teacher and the student walk away feeling excited for the next step.
C.C.F.: I absolutely love what you’re saying here—it explains why you were so good at conferencing! You are so good at reflecting on the complexity of the task and how best to approach it! I think sometimes I get so involved with the paper in front of me and with thinking of strategies for the student to take with it that I stop attending to the individual, and that always backfires. The writer’s feelings factor into the process in a huge way—if the person feels positive and confident, the writing and revising go a lot better.
T.S.: For this reason, I knew going in to this semester that I wanted to get lots of practice in with writing conferences. I am thankful that students wanted to sign up to meet with me—I tried to stress to them that while I wanted to help them with their essays, they were also helping me too by letting me practice this skill. It was gratifying that many of the students I met with came back to talk with me for each paper. I appreciated how supportive you were of me doing this, encouraging students to meet with me throughout the entire semester. In the same way, my individual meetings with you really helped me to process all that we were doing throughout the semester—thanks!
T.S.: What are some of the challenges of having a student mentee? Do you approach the class differently?(Obviously, I’m a peach, but even so…)
C.C.F.: The challenges of having a student mentee connect to the rewards: with someone next to me, hoping to learn something from me, I really don’t want to be spectacularly stupid. I want to make sure my course design, syllabus clarity and completeness, course materials, and lesson plans are all reasonably intelligent! I make mistakes in every course, and sometimes, even carefully thought-through plans can go awry. Encountering the unpredictable element always present in dealing with human beings–for good and ill, because sometimes the opposite happens, too, and a botched plan works amazingly well through sheer serendipity!–is a good learning experience for aspiring teachers. But I don’t want my mentees going away muttering, “gosh, all I learned this semester was how NOT to teach English 203”! I hope always to teach courses that are responsibly planned and laid-out so that my graduate students can see all the moving parts. The goal of the mentorship, as I see it, is for the graduate student to examine everything that goes into course planning and instruction, co-create some instructional materials with me, plan and execute some of her or his own designs, and make decisions about how to shape her or his own materials and pedagogic strategies in future. I want my mentees to feel confident about putting together a full course of their own by the end of the semester.
C.C.F.: You are a veteran teacher, having taught high-school for several years. How would you compare secondary to post-secondary education?
T.S.: Well, I don’t know if I would say that three years’ experience qualifies me as a veteran, but I actually found more similarities than differences between the two. I think I was prepared for it to be drastically different, but many of the strategies, goals, and challenges were the same. I think I would notice a definite shift the higher the course number and the more specialized the material, but the mix of ages and skill levels made it feel very familiar to me. We talked a little in our last meeting about some of the differences between student-parent-teacher relationships and the varying levels of grade transparency—these aspects were more different than the actual classroom sessions that we had with students. The way in which you structured the course and how you presented the class goals was a lot like what I did as a high school teacher—you think about what you want students to be able to do in the end and then you structure the materials, lessons, activities, and assignments to achieve those goals. Without a doubt, the experience gave me the chance to think back over those first few years of teaching and realize what was effective and what I could do better in the future. I can’t say how valuable it is to go back to being a student in order to gain that perspective.
T.S.: This was the first time you taught the class on Detective Fiction. I thought it was a great, creative blend of classic and modern texts. What parts of the class do you think were most successful? If you teach this class again, would you make any changes? How do the final student surveys influence this decision?
C.C.F.: I appreciate the compliment, Miss Taya! I believe that creating and designing new courses is my best skill–I actually like the way I put together texts that “speak” to each other in various ways. I just think someone else–someone with actual charm and social skills, like you, for instance!–should teach the courses after I’ve mapped it. I’ve learned, over 28 years of full-time teaching, that being an extreme introvert, as I am, is a big drawback in the job.
Anyway, what I liked best was the way students responded to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They really enjoyed them and were very willing to engage in discussion, do micro-research projects, and write about that first unit of the course. Laurie King’s Holmsean adaptation, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, also taught well. In my other class, Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, produced wonderful discussions and thoughtful writing, which made me think that devoting more of the course to Sherlock Holmes and his spin-offs might be a good idea.
What surprised me was the largely negative and sometimes stone-silent response by students to Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Since my daughter Samantha is in college, I often run course ideas past her to get an opinion from the twenty-something demographic, and she likes learning about filmmaking and film history. She thinks film noir is cool, but I forgot that my kiddo is a theater major and kinda artsy–clearly, that topic was not especially interesting to our class. So I think I need to rework the second half of the course if I teach it again.
In the surveys I gave at the end of the semester, several students mentioned that they would like to read more classic detective fiction, and some mentioned Agatha Christie. It might work to stick to the British tradition and close with writers like Christie and P.D. James. Student surveys, whether the ones I give or the IDEA ones for St. Thomas, are often inconclusive because they self-contradict: what one student likes and learns from, another dislikes. In our class, for instance, there really was no clear consensus about which books were people’s favorites and which least favorite, though Sherlock Holmes scored relatively high, while The Third Man and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist were mentioned more often as least-favored. I have to admit, though, that I often teach the same way I parent: green vegetables and Colson Whitehead are both good for young people, so I sometimes ignore what they like and give them what I think is valuable for them!
T.S.: I love your logic at the end and I definitely agree! While I may never have naturally gravitated towards The Third Man or The Intuitionist, I am really glad that I got the chance to read and discuss them. They were a great mix to the more classic Sherlock Holmes. I remember that quite a few students said that even though one or the other was their least favorite text, they learned the most from it. That in itself is gratifying because they recognize the difference between being just entertained and being exposed to something completely new.
C.C.F.: Having been on both sides of the desk now for quite a while, what “dream course” is your student self telling your teacher self to design?
T.S.: I think I would have said this even before beginning my graduate degree, but I would love to teach a course focusing on female authorship. I would probably just focus on British authors since that is where my true love lies. It would absolutely have to include Jane Austen, Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf as the main figures, but beyond that I would have to sit down and do some thinking. Unlike you, I think being in the classroom is much easier than planning an entire course!
C.C.F.: Great! I’ll plan and you teach! Think UST would let us job share?
T.S.: I’ll only agree if you co-teach with me! I think this sounds like a great plan for a Spring 2017 course…