28 January 2013


This evening, I held my first class.

Oh, I've tutored most of college, and had lots of experiences helping others understand material, talking through classes, and so on. So when I got an email from academic services asking if I would TA a class, I thought - no big deal. I've done this before.

Not quite.

This evening, 7 pm found me standing in front of a classroom with anxious, determined, hopeful faces looking at me, waiting for me to tell them the meaning of life. Or at least how to pass a Western Civ exam. I had the course syllabus, textbook, and powerpoints - but I've never taken this class, so I figured they would just ask any questions and we would go on from there. I like answering questions.

"Well, it's 7 o'clock, so I guess we'll get started. I am happy to answer any questions you have - what have you been covering? What can I help you with?"

Blank stares mixed with worry peered up at me.

Well, the guy who TA'd last semester would stand there for an hour and lecture - it was like an additional lecture for those who wanted to cover the information again.

Open notebooks with pencils poised to scratch down streams of wisdom lay still.

This wasn't quite the drift I had gotten from the academic services email. By the time we had straightened out that they had come to take notes on an hour of lecture, I had some balance. Okay, so it wasn't what I was expecting, but hey - I'm a senior history major. They are currently talking about the Late Middle Ages and the chaos mixed with excitement that comes as a result of the changing economic, political, social, religious, and technological advances of the time. I know this stuff. No problem. I took a quick peek at the clock, [just to pace myself, of course].


Okay God, what should I do? I am happy to help however I best can...but I haven't prepared a lecture. I've looked over what they are learning, but in no way does general ability-to-answer-questions mean that I have a lesson plan.

So I started talking about how I prepare for an exam with this professor. I found the study questions he posted online, and located the one they are currently covering in class. I recounted general information about that time period, gave it all context, covered it, gave a sample thesis question, explained how to answer it, and was rewarded by hasty scribbling in notebooks. The relieved faces of the people I had not expected to have as students showed me that this was familiar territory: someone stands in the front and talks, everyone else sits in chairs and takes notes.

There were only two problems.

The more urgent one was revealed by a surreptitious glance at the clock on the computer:


Um... I had already covered the study question, and it was close enough to the beginning of the semester that there was only one to cover.

I talk fast, but not that fast...

The other issue was a more philosophical one, and that is that I am convinced that almost no one learns best by listening to someone ramble about what they think about a particular topic. I could stand there and talk until I ran out of words (although, granted, that is unlikely to happen very quickly...) and if one person at the end raises their hand and says "was the Holy Roman Empire the one with Constantinople?" then they have not really understood the context of the entire lecture.

"So...does anyone have any questions?"

One girl raises her hand, and I gratefully acknowledge her.

"We talked a little bit about the Hundred Year's War, but I didn't get why that was important - can you explain that?"

It wasn't quite what I had been expecting...but it was roughly within the time period. And thus began the crash course on tying things together. We talked about Henry V and Charles VI, then Joan of Arc.

Then we talked about Avignon. Then about feudalism and serfdom, and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, then the three popes, then lay piety and confraternity, and before I knew it we were having a dialogue, where they were flipping through notes and bringing up things that they didn't understand and I would show them how it fit into the context of the LMA and the changes that were going on during that time period.

A check on the time showed it to be 7:49, so I decided to wrap it up.

"Anyone have an idea what kind of thesis you would give to answer this test question?"

Then we talked about how to write an essay, so that all the things we had talked about in the previous 45 minutes wouldn't just be scraps of information, but would be useful, helpful, and eventually give them a better understanding of Western Civilization and therefore a better test grade. [The real goal for me is their understanding; I imagine their real goal - at least for now - is the test grade. But maybe when the class is over they'll be glad for the information...I have felt the same way.]

At 7:59 I finished talking about essays and asked if it had been helpful. If there were any more questions. They were packing up, and I watched the clock turn as I was speaking.


I never thought I would be so happy to see a clock turn 8:00.

But at the same time, it was - oddly enough - a little bit sad.

For an hour, I had been able to put to use some of the information I have spent these last years stuffing in my head and synthesizing into papers. I was able to talk to some freshman I don't know for an hour and give them some hope about passing a class. I was able to share my love of history and the fascination for the amazing stories of people who have gone before us and laid the foundations for the modern world in which we now live.

The last one left, and I logged off the computer. Only one word could describe the way I felt:


I had done it. Gone into a setting that turned out to be something quite different from what I had been expecting, had a conversation with some students that genuinely wanted some help, and shared something with them.

As I left, the words of one of the girls floated ...

Thank you ... it's easier to ask you questions than him.

Was it some kind of power high - eager students hanging onto my every word while I scatter wisdom? Well, aside from the fact that it wasn't quite like that, I can see how that would be a possible temptation. Frankly, tonight I was too terrified to feel much of that regardless!

What I did feel, though, was a deep-down satisfaction. A pleasure that came from feeling useful - not that I am just a good student, or a nice person, but that in a fairly tangible way, made the lives of some students better.

And did I mention that it was a lot of fun?

Just one more way I have discovered of living out my goal of making the world a better place, one life at a time. 

It was cool. Just thought I'd share.