Saturday, April 08, 2006

How I was trained for my job

The bureaucrat is someone for whom every human impulse comes paired with the impulse to organize a workshop. And so it was at our school, a veritable hive of bureaucrats. The office that I worked for did not actually run the training sessions for their employees- that was handled by a second office, which seemed to exist solely to run training sessions and serve as an example of Kafka's amazing prescience.

The workshop began with a hundred of us future TAs in a room eating stale pastries that had been smuggled out of Bosnia. The instructor began by having us cut out construction paper in the shape of a tree that best represented our "teaching style". I assume that I needn't supply a punchline. We then spent four days listening to people wow us with theories and facts about teaching that have no real-world application whatsoever. It was like listening to an angler explain the inner lives of trout.

The common theme seemed to be "active learning"- a method that the school was pushing because they used to push "passive learning" and the kids kept failing. Active learning involves questions and answers, and games and songs, and any number of things that hung-over freshmen will obstinately refuse to do. Most of these kids are already suffering through the required course that they hate more than poison, and now they have the TA asking them: "So, what do you guys think of Alexander the Great?"

And what if the students don't want to discuss these things? Well, they really had no answer for that. Actually, there was really no answer offered for any of the problems I encountered in TA work. They did have an older biology professor who told us how much his kids enjoy it when he dresses up like Charles Darwin. Nothing commands respect like a Halloween costume.

Active learning seemed, in general, to have a lot to do with entertainment value. I came out knowing how to amuse the students. We learned how to use alliteration to get their attention, how to play music to get their attention, how to do a little dance to get their attention. Powerpoint, of course, made itself felt. The keynote for the week, for me, was when the guy teaching us how to use Powerpoint said:
"You should know how to use this quickly. Because, how would you feel if the information desk guy at the Mall couldn't answer one of your questions?"

The model was customer service? And I didn't even get a paper hat?

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