Last fall, I had the opportunity to teach “Writing the Research Paper” at LaGuardia Community College. The course is the third part of a composition sequence in LaGuardia’s English department (following ENG 101 and ENG 102, two courses in which students learn to write through the study of literature), and a general education course that counts toward major requirements across the liberal arts and sciences. In “Writing the Research Paper,” or ENG 103, the department sets for students the task of learning how to write a “research paper” that integrates and cites sources using the MLA format.
For anyone who knows my background, the decision to teach in an English department was surprising. As a socio-cultural and political anthropologist and interdisciplinary scholar of migration and diaspora, I have taught courses in Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at a few different (private) liberal arts colleges and universities. As a postdoctoral fellow with the CUNY Humanities Alliance, I contribute my skills in research, writing, and digital communications to an innovative public university program that connects doctoral education and community college teaching. I am also an advocate for public education, and was interested in teaching at CUNY, where I would have the opportunity to work with students from historically marginalized communities whose backgrounds were more like my own.
To this end, I had originally planned to teach an introductory anthropology course at another CUNY four-year college in the Fall, and was eventually hired to teach an upper-level seminar based on a course I had previously taught on “The Anthropology of Violence.” So what was I doing now, teaching in an English department?
I was presented with the possibility of teaching at LaGuardia through my work with the Humanities Alliance. My colleagues told me that the English department had several openings available, and they wanted to know: Given my research experience, would I be interested in teaching the Research Paper course?
My thought process first went something like this: I’ve taught research methods and ethnographic writing along with writing-intensive courses before, but not in an English department… and this would be my first time teaching a research-based composition course. Teaching composition is not something I was trained to do, as a cultural anthropologist.
On the other hand, the course sounded interesting and flexible, as the department had relatively few requirements for the syllabus, and it would allow me to teach research and writing skills to undergraduates majoring in a variety of disciplines at LaGuardia. I was excited about the opportunity to teach an interdisciplinary course that would engage students in doing research that would be relevant to their lives and interests, and to advise and mentor them. I decided to take the plunge!
I had another set of reasons for teaching a new course outside my discipline: I knew that, as faculty, I would learn a great deal about LaGuardia’s (liberal arts and science) students, and the institution. The Graduate Center partners with LaGuardia on the Humanities Alliance, and I felt it was important to get an on-the-ground perspective on the practices, habits, and experiences of teaching and learning in the humanities at a community college (and LaGuardia in particular), and the effectiveness of the student-centered pedagogies the program encourages teaching fellows to use in the classroom. In this way, teaching, when accompanied by critical reflection on my practice as a teacher through notes and journaling, could serve as an informal kind of “participant-observation” with insights for program development and the preparation of graduate students for community college teaching.
The first time teaching a new course is a little… nerve-wracking. Fall 2017 turned out to be a semester of firsts in which almost everything was new to me: It was my first time teaching at CUNY and at a community college, my first time teaching a composition course in an English department, and my first time teaching at a public institution where the students were primarily low-income and first-generation college students, as well as immigrant and/or racialized youth of color.
Sometimes I felt I would burst with uncertainty while navigating a new institution and experiencing so many firsts.
At these times, I had to remind myself that this is all part of the process. It’s not always pleasant, but uncertainty is a necessary part of teaching, and it’s par for the course in a student-centered, participatory classroom. In my next few posts for the Humanities Alliance, I’ll reflect on this uncertainty, and the challenges and possibilities that emerged from it, in my experiences as an adjunct assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College and as a postdoctoral fellow in the Alliance.
In future posts, I plan to reflect on the research paper assignment, my first time using a grading contract, and the affordances and challenges of teaching with digital technology—specifically, when using Google Docs and WordPress in a composition course. I also hope to dig into some challenging topics, including my positionality as a teacher, and the limits of my practice as a contingent faculty member in a postdoctoral role. I anticipate that these reflections will spur more questions than answers, but I hope they inform future research and practice in the Humanities Alliance.