“You look young,” they said, “and you’re Black and a woman, so it’ll be harder for you.”
I was advised to dress up and assert myself. One friend even suggested I have students refer to me by my last name —Ms. Taylor. I tried saying it out loud to myself, and it sounded strange even to me. So with assurances from my godmother I quickly abandoned that piece of advice. “Hi, I’m Ebony.” I practiced it over and over. In the mirror, walking to the train, even in phone calls with my sister, and my anxiety around the question of authority grew.
I spent hundreds of dollars on clothes in a concerted effort to look older — a basically impossible task. At twenty-three I wasn’t much older than my class of predominately juniors and seniors, and in undergrad my friends used to joke that I should try and pass for twelve so I could participate in “Kids Eat Free” at IHOP. Even so, my jumbled collection of athleisure soon made way for blazers, blouses, and dress pants. Converse gave way to heels. I passed the last week of summer assembling the mountains of new clothes into outfits for the new quarter, and the action reminded me more of a freshman in high school than a first time teaching assistant.
Then of course there was the race question. Or rather, all of these decisions in some way came from my anxieties about the race question — a limitation to my authority which mattered more than my ability to pass for a fifteen year old or being a woman in front of the classroom. Black people have to work twice-as-hard and look twice-as-good while maintaining perfect composure. In-spite of this, upper-years warned me, white students still might not recognize your authority in the classroom. So I prepared myself the only way I knew how — I’d have to know everything and dress up everyday. I even decided to wear my hair straight for the quarter to really drill in the respectability politics.
Then I walked into class on my first day, forgot rivers are fresh water bodies (as opposed to salt), let the students laugh about it, and I realized…authority is overrated, and not that complicated. My authority in the classroom came from the fact that I was grading their assignments and that I could answer their questions. I started coming to class in leggings and knock-off UGGs. I took advice from my undergrads about the weather as a Floridian in Chicago. We talked about football and the benefits of getting YouTubeRED, and they filled in gaps of knowledge I didn’t have. In the end, building camaraderie with my students took me further than I think exerting authority ever could have.
While I’ve only taught two classes at this point, I think I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.
- Trust Yourself. Professors and upper-years in my program constantly repeat the same advice. “You know more than your students.” At first, it seems impossible. How do you know? What if I have a genius in my class? What if I’m brand new to the topic? The truth is, as a graduate student you have the ability to synthesize information faster and more completely than the average undergraduate. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never get a student who has obsessively read about WWII for ten years in your class. You might. But you have to believe in your ability as a teacher to learn and convey material. It’s what you’ve been trained for. And also, that WWII buff can actually be an asset to the classroom. Most likely, that’s who you’ll be looking to when the rest of the class has fallen into a confused silence.
- Disagreement Can Be Good. In today’s political climate it might seem strange to advocate for what some like to call “diversity of thought,” but the whole point of a liberal arts education is to engage with knowledge. That means all knowledge not just the academy’s preferred brand of liberalism. In the humanities, undergraduates are often working through their own politics as they encounter new information. Students are whole people who come with their politics, race, religion, sexuality, class, etc. And they might not have the same views as you or the other students. That’s fine. A humanities classroom is a place where you engage with tough questions and sometimes come to uncomfortable answers. This isn’t possible if only certain students feel comfortable to speak-up because we’ve set a classroom tone where students with deviating views are treated as pariahs.
- It’s Okay to Mess Up. As previously mentioned, my first day of class I mentioned that I thought rivers had salt water. Another class, I got the dates of the Great Migration wrong. And yeah, mistakes are embarrassing, but so what if a student corrects you? I sat in on a professor who spelled words wrong on the board and mixed up names. We’re all humans, and humans aren’t perfect. I started asking my students to spell words for me or to go on Wikipedia and find dates for me. Suddenly they’re more involved in this thing we call knowledge production, and the pressure is off of you to perform. Also, mistakes are a good reminder for the perfectionist in most academics that the world will not explode if you prove yourself fallible.
Go and be great!