By Maggie McDowell, Ph.D. student in English
I had never taught prior to coming to Duke. And when I applied to be an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Unbounded Graduate Fellow at Durham Tech Community College, in the third year of my program, I had only taught at Duke in the capacity of a guest lecturer or TA. While I enjoyed connecting with students and sought more experience with pedagogy development, the prospect of being directly charged with someone else’s education still felt daunting.
The Mellon Fellowship at Durham Tech, as something more than a TAship but less than a full instructorship, seemed like a good middle ground for me to learn through doing. I could not have anticipated the degree of growth and the scope of experience the opportunity would afford me.
From day one, the program required me to take responsibility for my own experience in unexpected and utterly formative ways. I partnered with Marina DelVecchio, an English and Humanities instructor at Durham Technical Community College. Marina and I were given free rein to articulate the parameters of our collaboration. Deciding these required us to engage in frank discussion about our expectations, a conversation that laid a foundation of trust and mutual respect from which we were able to expand and grow as the semester challenged us along the way.
Our mission seemed simple: over the summer we decided to restructure Marina’s American Literature syllabus and rebuild her Women’s Studies syllabus so that we could teach these classes together in the fall. Here was my first lesson: Marina trusted me to assign readings for the units on the syllabi (queer and trans theory and contemporary American Literature, specifically). She had the grace to treat me like an equal collaborator, and I had to trust that I knew enough about the topics to have confidence in my decisions. In other words, working with Marina helped me concretize the post-prelim experience of transitioning from being a student to being a colleague.
I think team-teaching with Marina in a community college setting contributed more to my growth than any role as instructor of record at Duke could have done. Specifically, it was powerful to watch our students come to trust Marina and me as equal contributors to their education. In fact, we came individually to represent different functions and fill different needs for our students, who related to us according to the teaching or mentorship style they needed.
[E]ach student demanded patience and care in a way that pushed me to be more adaptable and inspired me to be a better listener and improviser. They taught me not to teach from a plan so much as to respond to the needs of the humans in the classroom, a versatility that I have valued in all my own favorite teachers.
In comparing student emails and anecdotes from office hours, and realizing that they asked different things of each of us, Marina and I recognized that we and our students benefitted from the flexible dynamic we brought to the classroom. Along the way, I learned from observing Marina how to cultivate effective work-life balance and how to set boundaries with students that protect my own time and resources. For her part, she told me my presence and perspective motivated her to switch up her usual routine and be more open to new ideas and approaches in the classroom. In short, each of us was teacher and student to the other.
Of course, this growth was made possible by the generosity and trust of our students. I had no idea what to expect from a community college student body, but the diversity of experiences and perspectives our students brought to the classroom turned out to be the most rewarding part of my fellowship.
It was humbling and gratifying that our students trusted us to teach them when, in fact, I was the one learning from them constantly: from the brilliant college transfer student who asked me to mentor her honors project; to the prison inmate who was unable to complete his work in a timely fashion because of chaos on his cell block; to the high school student who struggled to navigate his own privilege with a reading list that prioritized diversity; to the grandmother who could not stop laughing at the PowerPoint I made about the history of sexuality, and who shared her joy and discomfort in that week’s learning objectives gleefully over the phone with her daughter who laughed at her in return.
Not every encounter was positive. I responded inadequately to some students, and had to let go of not being able to help others. But each student demanded patience and care in a way that pushed me to be more adaptable and inspired me to be a better listener and improviser. They taught me not to teach from a plan so much as to respond to the needs of the humans in the classroom, a versatility that I have valued in all my own favorite teachers.
Finally, engaging with a community college system for the first time provided crucial insight into the differences between teaching-intensive faculty positions and the experience of, say, a tenure track position at an institution like Duke. Each option comes with its own set of challenges, of course, especially at the level of allocation of material, intellectual, and emotional resources. Community college instructors are incredible humans whose commitment to their students and passion for their course material helps mitigate the pressures of their course loads, class sizes, and the myriad institutional challenges they face daily.
The job market is daunting no matter what direction a candidate decides to take. My time at Durham Tech, though, in addition to affording me valuable time in the classroom, reinforced my conviction that getting to build relationships with students is absolutely worth the stress and strain. Now that I am back at Duke, I miss my Durham Tech students constantly, but I am privileged to carry forward the lessons I learned from them and Marina into whatever comes next.