It wasn’t until my third year at UNM that I realized a graduate student could get some potentially worthwhile experience and earn money in the process by becoming a university teaching assistant instructing freshman composition. The assistant received a modest stipend, was provided a shared office in the Humanities building, and was required to take several classes in composition theory while teaching.
On the one hand, the bookish solitudinarian (in Colin Fletcher’s word) I fancied myself to be recoiled at this possibility. I simply couldn’t imagine myself in a blazer, dress shirt, bolo tie, khakis, and penny loafers standing―or, perhaps, sitting with an I’m-on-your-side casualness on the edge of an imposing desk―and pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction before 30 pimply 17- and 18-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, distracted, and bored. Then again, the eagle hadn’t flown for me in three years, and I was beginning to feel guilty about it. Furthermore, after graduation, a part- or full-time job teaching English at one or more of the various community colleges within a commute from my home in Albuquerque did strike me as a respectable way to make extra income while reaping royalties from my “underground bestsellers” and generally establishing my œuvre.
Of course, I invited Linda to weigh in on the idea of husband-as-professor. I never doubted that she minded being, in Rilke’s words, a “guardian of my solitude.” Still, a natural extrovert, she felt that teaching, in addition to bringing in some money, would expose me to new people and new experiences and thus do my craft and sullen art some good. So I applied for the assistantship, and was accepted.
Standing outside Mitchell Hall on a late-summer morning, professorially decked out, I clutched my Samsonite attaché case. It was stuffed with 30 copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric department, for the first half of the course: Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.
I felt reasonably confident as I prepared to teach my first class. I strode into the building, made a left turn down the first-floor hallway to my classroom, realized what I was about to do . . . and commenced to come apart. My hands shook and my face flushed. Astonished and terrified by the multiplying cracks and splinters in my composure, I paused in the hallway, furiously attempting to understand what was happening and pull myself together. A minute later, I entered the classroom, breathing shallowly, feeling as if I were staggering, aware of but avoiding the 30 pairs of limpid eyes on me.
After placing the Samsonite on the massive metal desk at the head of the classroom, I picked up a stick of chalk and prayed my trembling hand would legibly write “Mr. Davis” on the blackboard. After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by my thesis-advisor Mike, who also happened to be in charge of the freshman composition program―that was supposed to soothe the nerves of the novice teaching assistant: “You know more than they do.” When I first heard it, the patent obviousness of it seemed to render it useless. But, by heaven, it―coupled with my recollection of Mike’s characteristically sly smile as he offered the mantra―worked! And I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours.
Throughout the 50 class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood, paced easily a few feet to the left and right, and, yes, even sat on the edge of my desk like a lovable, venerated coach delivering a pep talk. Finally, I issued my first writing assignment: “Four hundred to 500 words telling me about the last book you read.” I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained―delicately, I felt―to my students.
With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and haltingly asked, “Can I write about a biology book?” Obviously a budding science or engineering major, I thought. In any event, almost certain he was referring to a textbook assigned by his high school, I was tempted to somewhat jokingly and with smug erudition reply, “Yes, if the book is titled On the Origin of the Species.” Then, realizing this might be met with 30 baffled expressions, I instead offered to the young man: “How about a book from your high school English class?” He thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded, which I regarded as promising.
By the end of class, I was thoroughly relaxed, thinking: They respect me, perhaps even fear me. Wow. This might be fun. And I then proceeded a door or two down the hall to meet my one additional class.
Teaching was indeed often “fun,” yet not without its frustrations. I suspected my students dreaded reading Only Yesterday only slightly more than I. I had never heard of Frederick Lewis Allen. Nineteen-twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me. In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s 1920’s classic, The Great Gatsby. Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible; his subject matter pulled the student, if only briefly, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny”; and the book’s various rhetorical techniques offered topics for discussion and writing. Nonetheless, my “lectures” on the book were often met with bewilderment and silence.
The second half of the course was somewhat enlivened with the next text: a collection of essays. Its authors spanned the ages, from Swift and his famous “A Modest Proposal” (which, to my private embarrassment, I had no recollection of ever reading) to Stephen King and his explanation for our fascination with horror. The essays, which could be read in a sitting even by the most easily-distracted youth, illustrated basic non-fiction rhetorical techniques: description, narration, comparison, contrast, evaluation, process, and argumentation. Many of the essays were interesting; one, Jessica Mitford’s discussion of embalming, was morbidly fascinating. Yet generating classroom discussion of even contemporary matters was difficult. Was I that unprepared, frightened, lacking in confidence as a college freshman? Probably. In any event, I enjoyed the discussions, lopsided though they often were.