In the final semester of my graduate career, I took a wonderful course called autoethnography. I was basically given course credit to reflect on myself, my positionality, and my culture, and I was encouraged to consider my growth as a graduate student. Given that I have well established that I am a self reflecting machine, I was ecstatic by the notion of using this persistent self
For our first assignment in this course, we were asked to reflect on our positionalities as graduate students, and conduct an exploration of our academic lives. While the professors, friends, and family members I interviewed saw me in distinctly different contexts, they all cited a dramatic change in my confidence levels as a reason for my growth. Even in my own reflections, I have recognized that, as a graduate student, "for the first time in my life, I [was] happy with who I [was]." This isn't to say that I didn't have moments of self-doubt or struggle (an impossible feat when working on a Masters thesis), but these moments were more akin to recognizing that I would have to work through temporary struggles, rather than thinking I was surely a complete and total failure who would never amount to anything.
Given my background with insecurity and anxiety, it was a nice feeling. One that I assumed most every graduate student was able to experience.
However, this autoethnography course challenged me to consider my status as a (GTA) Graduate Teaching Assistant, and to reflect on the position of power I had been afforded. While, for the first semester of my graduate career, my reflections stopped short at "no, surely I didn't get this assistantship! Who in their right mind would trust me to teach college students?", teaching later became a source of frustration, and, in hindsight, bonding with fellow GTAs. Yet it was also a major contributor to my confidence as a graduate student, as I was constantly being reaffirmed by professors that this was a competitive position, that professional opportunities would open up because of my teaching (this is a mixed bag, but more on that later). I had to force myself into a leadership position and use confidence as a survival mechanism.
Not to mention the assistantship erased insecurities about debt, and nicely aligned with composition strategies we talked about in class.
Not every graduate student gets this opportunity. And, as I later realized, there are graduate students who applied, didn't get the assistantship, and took on that debt to go to school.
Despite my background with social anxiety and awareness of feeling excluded, I participated in an environment in which GTAs talked about their students and made inside jokes about CO150 in front of non-GTAs. Even after being made aware of this power dynamic, I still joked around with fellow GTAs about the rhetorical situation (a device that we teach to our students 20,000 times over, only for them to still not get it) in front of those outside of the GTA cohort. I have experienced that horrible feeling that I wasn't in on the joke, or wasn't invited to the party, and have been furious and hurt that people talked about those things in front of me. And yet, here I was, participating in the very acts that hurt me as a college student.
It's dangerously easy to find comfort in our positions, particularly if they are positions of power--this is a lesson that Rhetoric & Composition has emphasized from the start. I knew this from a theoretical lens, but it's challenging to really understand from a personal angle. My position as a GTA and as a member of an academic family gives me ample opportunities to be reassured that I am worthy of the academy, and that graduate school is a productive time investment. It also exposed me to a larger social circle, and even though I wasn't close friends with every GTA, I knew who they were, and felt a connection with them, as we were all going through the insanity that is teaching freshmen.
I frequently tell my CO150 students, "know your audience. Make them feel valued, don't insult them, and make an effort to understand where they're coming from." While parroting these words in the classroom, I failed to do this while speaking with colleagues who are not GTAs. Just as I spent time crying in my dorm after being told I "had no friends," I probably would do the same if I were a non-GTA who was constantly being inundated with the message that GTAs were somehow superior.
I cannot change the entire structure of the English graduate program--and I know that the faculty desperately want everyone to receive funding and have equal opportunities. But as a member of an "in" group who has so frequently been left out, I want to show current and future GTAs that there are others who might not have access to the confidence-building that occurs in this cohort.