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Vaguely Qualified

posted: 10.15.14 by Barclay Barrios

This week’s guest blogger is Katie Schipper.  Katie is a graduate student in the English department at Florida Atlantic University. She currently teaches two sections of first-year composition and believes in the value of writing as a means to express what we know and as a tool to acknowledge how much we have to learn. She also has two cats.

I love that Dawn Skowczewski’s essay resonated so much for Katie; it did so for me this semester as well.  And she’s getting at an issue that I frequently return to: who gets to teach composition (and why)?  In framing her “vague” qualifications I think she’s pointing not just to her emergence as a teacher but also to deeper institutional issues.  Who teaches composition at your school?  And are they only “vaguely” qualified?

One of the first things I said on my very first day of teaching, to my very first section of first-year composition students was “I’m a graduate student, so I’m vaguely qualified to teach this class.”  That might have been a rookie mistake. What’s that they say about not letting them see you sweat? But a few students laughed, and that was my goal, and more importantly it’s too late now—I mean, I said it.

And the reality is, I am only vaguely qualified. I’ve done various teacherly jobs, I’ve written page upon page upon page (ad infinitum) of expository essays, and I’ve read even more—and those are my vague qualifications.

I didn’t really have a vocabulary for how I was feeling until I read Dawn Skorczewski’s essay “From Playing the Role to Being Yourself: Becoming the Teacher in the Writing Classroom” in Bedford/St. Martin’s Teaching Composition. Then I saw that I was in good company. I realized all (or, to be safe, most) teachers feel like frauds at some point in their teaching careers. I also realized that maybe, like new parents who live in fear that they’ll do something terrible to their infant, I lacked the experience that comes with the making of mistakes as well as the realization that mistakes are inevitable—and vital. I think now that this little admission brings me closer to the students sitting in the classroom. When I tell them that their writing can have as much authority as the essays they read in Emerging, I mean it. When I suggest that they’re granted agency by the mere act of putting words on a page (much in the same way that I am granted agency by showing up and standing in front of a class of college students even if in some moments I feel like a vaguely qualified fraud), I mean that too.

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