Thursday, October 22, 2009

Anxiety and nausea

I put it off until today. I knew how difficult it was going to be, and I saw no reason to extend the misery by starting early.

The task was selecting a teaching assistant for next semester. In our freshman team-taught class, each of the seven instructors has an upper-division student working at her side. The program is a way to give our undergraduates teaching roles, to help alleviate the heavy workload of the writing-intensive seminar, and to foster mentorship between the instructor and the assistant.

It's been an amazingly successful program, now entering its fifth year. I've had amazing students at my side, and the course has changed dramatically as a result. Now I see the classroom as a collaborative space, each interaction a chance to hear many voices. Grading has become a conversation with three participants at a minimum. I love what's happened as a result of sharing the classroom with my "pedagogical associate" (or PA for short).

But in order to enjoy those benefits, I have to choose a student each semester to work with during the semester following. And that's getting harder and harder, or at least it feels that way. The selection process involves an extensive application each candidate submits, the rank-ordering of top candidates by each instructor, and then a meeting at which we look at our individual rankings. We choose our own PAs; if the student I ranked first was not ranked first by any other instructor, I get to work with that student. If two or more instructors had the same top choice, we negotiate to determine who goes with their second or third choice.

This semester thirteen students applied for seven slots. I made an initial pass through the applications and came up with eight students I personally could see choosing. The job this morning was to narrow that down to three, and put them in order.

How do you choose? I knew many of the students well, but not all of them. I was impressed by the erudition of some, the writing facility of others, the teaching philosophy of still others. Did I want a strong personality, a charismatic figure who would inspire the freshmen? Did I want a nurturing, behind-the-scenes type? What was more important to me -- the associate's dependability in a job that requires continuous herculean effort; her prowess as a reader, writer, or editor; his mastery of complex interdisciplinary material; her potential as a leader of class discussion?

I can't answer any of those questions ahead of time. What emerges as most important in any given semester does so out of the particular pool of candidates. I imagine them in my classroom, try to feel the dynamic that will arise out of the combination of our personalities. I think about their strengths and wonder about their weaknesses. I feel the desire of some candidates for the position itself, some for the opportunity to work with me in particular. I try to assess my own feelings for the students whom I think deserve this opportunity, would benefit from it, would make the most of it, could have their lives changed by it.

And in the end, I make a short-short list of ... five, actually. But only the top three matter, almost certainly. I order them with a heavy heart. I'm not sure if what I'm being swayed by is the best factor to have as the deciding one. I rationalize my qualms, try to live with it settled. Then at the last moment, seconds before the meeting begins, I change the order. I'm convinced that I can't ignore or downplay a factor I'd been willing to overlook before.

Now the rankings are made available to the group, and glory hallelujah, there are no conflicts! We're done almost before we had a chance to begin. But the meeting's not complete before we talk a little more about the candidates and justify our choices to each other.

It's done. And now it's up to me to write to the candidates who weren't chosen. The nausea sets in. Some of these were people I specifically asked to apply. Some were on my short lists. And I have to tell them (some for the second or third time, some in their last chance) that they didn't get selected. Did I make the right choice? Was my last-second change of heart motivated by the right reasons? I'm feeling the loss of all the classes that could have been -- the different energies and expertises and relationships that won't come into being because I settled on this one instead of that one.

But it's done. I think I did right -- but right has little meaning when you're talking about multiple possibilities for growth and flourishing and creativity. It's just decision, "cutting off," this one rather than that one -- a vision of what could be that you settled on, even though others beckoned with their own unique value. I can't wait to get started. But right now, in the short respite before my new PA responds to the news and we begin forging our partnership, I'm still mourning all the other ways that might have been.

1 comment:

Jenn said...

As a TA who had the pleasure of working with you, I'm sure you picked a good one. Though, I'm sure it was easier when a shy senior asked you to teach a specific course, and you were able to nab them as a TA for that class!

I definitely don't envy you the job of telling those who weren't selected, but hopefully they will keep trying. It's such a worthwhile experience for anyone to have. :)