It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when your GTA position ends in the English department. It’s even more nostalgic when you return to the location where you first began your GTA journey: the Writing Center.
Within the past week, I’ve encountered students that I haven’t seen in years. After twenty sections, some students are more familiar than others, but the conversations — however brief or reminiscent — nevertheless bring forth a relational moment of recognition. In other words, there is a felt knowledge that some kind of relationship existed, usually for only a semester, maybe two, or possibly even three, with some kind of impact made. But what kind of impact occurs relationally between teachers and students, or within composition classes more broadly? How is impact encountered beyond SET scores, Rate My Professor entries, and final grades?
As college writing instructors, we do not typically know what happens to the majority of our students after they leave our composition courses. Outside of students requesting letters of recommendation for scholarships and graduate schools, there is limited exposure to an ongoing understanding of “where they are now.” That is why working at the Writing Center again after five years has raised some reflective moments for me as a “retired” GTA when it comes to this issue of impact — particularly when it is discussed with a relational scale in mind.
For instance, Kate popped into the Writing Center yesterday to use a stapler and was surprised to see me sitting at the front desk. She was eager to share that the research proposal she started drafting in our ENG 3010 course had since received an actual audience: the Belizean government. What began as an interdisciplinary inquiry into the prevalence of diabetes in Belize had developed and sustained momentum beyond the course. With the help of another former GTA, Conor Shaw-Draves, Kate’s proposal is now in the hands of the Prime Minister, Minister of Health, and Minister of Education. Interestingly, Kate recalled how the interdisciplinary emphasis in the course not only changed her thinking about this real life problem in Belize (broadening a medical focus to include economic and anthropological perspectives) but also impacted the direction she is taking with her graduate education (combining medical with social policy). As she spoke, I couldn’t help but simply listen and smile and take into account that this was an unexpected, yet affirming encounter…that the work we do in composition matters.
More often than not, however, impact occurs in less tangible places than the project. One student reminded me that she was the one “who lost all of her work in the end,” and had “a major freak-out through email.” I didn’t remember this moment during our conversation, but sifting through old emails reminded me of her crisis, and it made me accountable, then and now, for how I co-impacted that anxiety and loss for a freshman. Another student attended a session with me to discuss his personal statement for medical school. I recalled his curiosity and quiet demeanor, and he remembered his research on assisted suicide. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that his father was hospitalized with an autoimmune disease for several months – something that impacted his academic performance freshman year. Although we don’t issue grades based on how a student is coping with life circumstances (known and unknown) during the time we are assigned to evaluate their writing, there is an empathetic reminder here that students have felt lives that should be acknowledged and respected throughout the multiple ways we communicate with them during any given semester.
As this teaching blog demonstrates, we’re a thoughtful bunch, full of pedagogical ideas and hopes for our students. We invest a lot of time and energy into thinking about teaching on all levels. While it’s important to be reflective teachers, it’s also important that we strive for imagination and empathy in our teacher-student interactions. Imagine what kind of impact you hope will survive beyond a semester: What kinds of emotional and intellectual impressions might surface if you encountered any given student five years from now? What long-term memories and schemas might be shaped by your assignments, your readings, your daily attunements to students’ felt lives? Ultimately, what kind of impact will you encounter and remember some day in the future?
These days, this retired GTA is humbled by encountering the kind of impact that gets shaped across student-teacher relationships beyond composition courses.
Wendy Duprey is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric. Her dissertation research focuses on cognition, emotion, and motivation in the writing process and first-year composition pedagogy. She currently works as a GSA in the Writing Center.