Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Accidental Pedagogy; or, What You Learn When You Go to Class

Monday, July 4, 2011

Accidental Pedagogy; or, What You Learn When You Go to Class

“What are you going to do with that?”

Every grad student faces this question – at family parties, high school reunions, and even the occasional OK Cupid date. The logic behind the question is that there is no practical application for any graduate degree that isn’t an M.D., J.D., or M.B.A. And if you can’t do anything with the degree, what’s the point in pursuing it?

Thankfully, there is a range of careers open to us as grad students, and many of us came to grad school because a range is precisely what we’re interested in. And beyond the catalogue of rare jobs a grad student may choose to pursue (radical librarian, anyone?), there is always teaching.

Whether you are a medievalist or biologist, grad school prepares you for work in the classroom. More importantly, choosing to teach addresses a dire national need for good educators.

At Fordham, many grad students complete a teaching practicum; others learn about teaching by working with professors and undergrads through graduate assistantships. And everyone goes to class!

I believe that as grad students we learn a great deal about teaching just by being students. I like to refer to this phenomenon as “accidental pedagogy,” wherein a professor offers pedagogical instruction just by a good (or not-so-good) example.

The professor who shows up to class looking frazzled and carrying a mass of papers bound with a rubber band teaches you about the importance of punctuality and manila folders. The professor who returns a forty-page paper to you with a seemingly arbitrary grade and no comments teaches you about the importance of critical feedback.

(Let it be noted that I’m not referring to actual professors – least of all Fordham English professors, who are great. Seriously. See?)

And yet, as much as grad students learn from interacting with less-than-awesome professors, we gain so much more from working with fantastic professors. Most of us already know what not to do as teachers, but the elements of an unforgettable, illuminating teaching style are far more elusive.

This spring I had a professor whose teaching style was compassionate and egalitarian. She encouraged everyone to speak without thrusting anyone into the awkward seminar limelight. She structured the class so that participation was a cornerstone of our time together. We shared, presented, and discussed every time we gathered.

This professor seemed to understand that although we are all grad students, we still get shy! I appreciated her deliberate nudging and facilitation of class discussion as much as I did her knowledge and expertise.

And sometimes she brought us snacks!

Although “Being Awesome” and “Teaching You All to Be Awesome” were never listed as course objectives on the syllabus, effective teaching skills were a part of what we learned.

It might not be quite accidental that I learned so much about teaching from this professor. She was experienced and deliberate in her efforts to establish a safe, inclusive, fruitful class culture.

Good teaching indisputably requires more substantive credentials than “I went to class a lot,” but all great teachers begin as observant students who notice what works in the classroom and what does not.  

I have a year left at Fordham before I enter the job market. If I am teaching next fall, I’ll be sure to use all I have learned from my professors. I will arrive to class on time with a multicolored array of manila folders. I will create space for everyone’s voice. I will be awesome and teach others how to be awesome. And since I am bound to make mistakes along the way, I will bring snacks – just in case.


  1. very enlightening. i'm going to pay more attention in class now!

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