Teaching is my dangerous obsession.
Out of some kind of blind luck, my entire first semester teaching as a lab assistant last fall felt like something out of a dream. I bonded with students, led my own CSM group tutoring sessions, inspired students in lively group discussions during office hours, organized an ambitious final exam review session, and even TA’d a lab section for a day. I was on top of the world: I felt like I could teach anybody anything in CS 61A. The only limit was myself.
But I now know ‘blind luck’ is really a synonym for ‘ignorance’. Students aren’t just challenged by the course, but also by circumstances outside of my control. That was a fact that I had difficulty accepting because I couldn’t come up with a good answer. It wasn’t a part of what I had imagined teaching was about. And it certainly didn’t help that the older and older I got, the less I seemed to know how students felt. It made me feel so frustrated that I was back to being so powerless again in a reality I couldn’t quite comprehend, let alone change. What I learned this spring is that it’s genuinely hard to be genuine: every passing day makes it more and more difficult to understand what it really means to be a student taking this course. If there was ever a theme song for the semester, it would be Earl Sweatshirt’s Inside.
Students at UC Berkeley, no matter what major they’re pursuing, face a host of unique challenges. The educational atmosphere is stiflingly intense. It can often feel like there’s no support: lower division courses are impossibly large and depressingly impersonal. Especially in the Computer Science department, there always seems to be a shortage instructors and a never ending glut of students waiting for them on the queue. And, to top it off, it can often feel like everyone else around us has their lives all figured out. This is Berkeley’s pandemic concoction: a special mixture of fear, melancholy, and isolation which always seems to be felt at the most inopportune moments.
“You can’t save everyone,” so you say. I don’t like it but I accept it: at the end of the day, I’m just one man, one human made of flesh and bone. As much as there are mental and physical limits that I can overcome and out-will, there’s a psychological limit on both sides of the student-teacher relationship that dictates how much I can change.
There have been days that have made me feel utterly and completely defeated as a teacher, when everything goes wrong. Days when I’m powerless and unable to be the right mentor for my students. Days when I feel like I can’t even navigate my own life, let alone lead others’. I’ve listened to so many students’ concerns, I’ve consoled them as they’ve laid their hearts bare before me. I’ve dedicated hours in the hope that I might, just might, be the littlest bit helpful for them. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m even making a difference at all. And even though I know for sure I’ve made many mistakes along the way, I feel that every experience makes me stronger and more aware of what students really want to share with me in their hearts and minds.
The relationship between student and teacher, I think, is a lot more complex than I had originally imagined. Our model of teaching has changed a lot as we’ve scaled up from 30-student classrooms to 2,000-person lecture halls. Traditional, direct instruction that works well at the small scale no longer works when trying to accommodate a sea of people. In the lower division courses, we’ve pioneered the flipped classroom format, bringing lectures home and instead spending class time on interactive discussion and group work. We’ve experimented with peer instruction by means of guerrilla section: focused worksheets and an environment crafted to facilitate group discussion and high-touch learning.
But I still think there’s a fundamental disconnect in students’ expectations that’s what makes teaching NP-complete. It’s a trite saying, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even as students enter the classroom environment itself, students expect to be lectured to and to somehow learn effectively from that lecturing. And not only do students face different challenges but they’re also driven by different motivations and imagine themselves in different ways. Stereotypes and images play a dramatic role in characterizing individual performance and places undue psychological stress on students to conform to their imagined mean. Whether a student believes that they’re “fit for CS” often makes all the difference.
And yet I still feel like I’ve somehow made progress as a teacher. I’m maybe a little more perceptive, and hopefully a little wiser, but definitely at least a lot more experienced. Along the way, I’ve made dozens of great friends, inspired many a lab assistant, and maybe even pushed a few students to do better than they believed they could do. I’m quite fortunate to be in the company of the amazing group of people that make up the teaching and learning community at Berkeley. Everyday, I’m becoming a better and better teacher, more driven and more understanding of both my students and of myself. And, at the end of the day, I think that will make all the difference.
Here’s to year one. I made it. With just a little more persistence, this year’s theme song will be Frank Ocean’s Pink + White.