Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

In addition to my ongoing writing assignments, I am an adjunct professor in the Journalism and First-Year Seminar departments at Columbia College Chicago. I have taught half a dozen or so different courses over the past two decades. Each one took a couple of semesters before I felt at ease with the material and its presentation. Here I share some of the lessons I’ve learned that may smooth your own teaching semester. And, please share your advice as well!

* First-day introductions. Yes, it’s hokey, but do it anyway. I used to skip this exercise in the mistaken belief that they all knew each other, but they don’t. Commuter students in particular have a difficult time making campus connections.

If you simply tell students to introduce themselves, they will rotely give their names, hometowns and majors. Period. Ask them to share the best day of their lives or to reveal something surprising about themselves. I often ask my First-Year Seminar students whether rabbits should be allowed to vote.

(The question is not totally bizarre: Later in the semester, we discuss the rights and responsibilities of humans versus non-humans, and, ultimately, in the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” who is guilty of the crimes–the creature or his creator?)

* Repeat, repeat, repeat. When I was a younger teacher, I thought saying something once was sufficient. It isn’t. I repeat assignments, summarize lectures, review student work in the classroom for good and bad examples (anonymously, of course). I comb celebrity and trending news to reiterate a point or concept. Sometimes I feel as though I am driving myself to catatonia, but I also get better papers and fewer missed deadlines.

* Plan for syllabus mishaps. No matter how hard you prepare or how much confirmation you do, on some days plans go awry. Maybe your speaker cancels at the last minute. Maybe the DVD you intended to show won’t play. Always have an extra lesson plan or activity ready (handouts photocopied, presentation loaded onto a flash drive, a local field trip figured out, etc.) just in case. You will thank me for this one.

* Relax. It’s scary to face new students at the beginning of the semester. Remember, they are afraid of you as well. They also trust you. You are their expert. It’s okay if you show them nine ways to properly use a comma but forget the tenth one. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t need it to live satisfactory lives. And after a few class sessions, you’ll be able to tell apart Kristin, Christy and Chrissi.

* You are not entertaining. Year ago, before I came to Columbia, I had a story assignment to interview graduate students about their teaching experiences. One of them said: “From the deadpan faces in my classroom, I learned that I am not nearly as funny as I think I am.” You aren’t, either. But the students can be funnier than you ever imagined. Enjoy the laughs.


My husband, Arnie, meets students at the Yueyang School on the Yangtze River

 It was the last day of the semester and my students, 15 college journalism majors, were spirited as they printed their final papers. They can’t afford ink cartridges at home, they’ve told me, so the clatter and hum of the classroom printer accompanied their banter. Did they have to be so happy? I was glum.

This was an outstanding group, which I can’t say every semester. Usually I get a mix of talents, with perhaps a star or two. The latter are fun because their skills are honed and their passions run deep, but they can be a pain when they know they are stellar and have no qualms about letting me know when I am boring them. In this class, they were all good in some way, and I will miss them dearly.

            The Mother Pen in me hopes to sign off with a significant journalistic insight they will forever hold dear. The only ones I can think of are: “Internet” is capitalized and Facebook is not a primary source unless they are writing about Facebook and, in that case, just stop it because I’ve read enough about Facebook. And that the two most ubiquitous words in their vocabularies, “team” and “band,” take singular verbs and pronouns. I doubt they’ll be quoting me on those gems.

            What they retain from the 50 or so hours we spend together, I’ll never know, but they teach me plenty. It was students who first introduced me to weblogs, Aveeno skin care products and the Black Crowes (a band, not a team).

            This semester they showed me how dated I am. Sure, I’m three decades older, but we chroniclers of culture are ageless, aren’t we? One day, to make the point that humor is subjective, I polled: Who is funnier—David Letterman or Jay Leno? Neither, they said. They prefer Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Or anyone who writes for the Onion.

            I thought it not prudent to mention I’ve been a Dave fan since he had a morning show in the 1970s.

            One young man forever expanded my notion of a successful student:

            Keith, who said I could use his name, is built like a Hummer. Perpetually unshaven, he wore perforations on his body and a navy bandana on his head. He was not a skilled linguist. He often interrupted me with input unrelated to the subject I was discussing, and he was difficult to understand. My guess is that the jewelry punctuating his tongue had something to do with that. He turned in half his assignments, usually incomplete, and failed the midterm. Sometimes he emailed me to confirm a deadline or offer an excuse. His standard salutation was “Greets.” The other students seemed to tolerate his presence.

            At times, Keith was wonderfully creative. He wrote a graphic profile, expletives included, of a tattoo artist, whom he likened to the proverbial small-town barber. He revised it several times, even worked it through with a tutor. It became a fine piece, although still a little rough on the mechanics the last time I saw it.

            Writers Roundtable is an exercise for which I ask students to select something they have written and read it aloud to the class. Keith gave a multimedia presentation that documented the culture of a small rural town threatened by urban sprawl. The project included original music, narration and photography: images of farmhouses, a bowling alley, a dead dog. His classmates gathered around his laptop to watch, their reaction a swell of respect. He must have felt it, too.

            But Keith’s grade hovered between pass and fail. We needed to talk. I got as far as asking how he was coming with the final project, which would be the determining factor. “I know, I have to ace it,” he said, dismissing me. He did, and wrapped up with a respectable C. Perhaps not a star, but definitely stardust, and he left some of it on me.

            Our last class was nearly over. The students were still seated, but their backpacks were zipped shut and their feet pointed toward the hallway. “Have a great summer,” I said, forgoing any thought of wondrous words before the back of my throat started to cave. Then they were gone. I stuffed my bag with their papers, turned out the lights and locked the door behind me.

            Riding down the elevator, a fragile voice interrupted my solitary thoughts.

            “Miss? Miss?”

            Hers was a small face. She looked familiar, but I didn’t recall the name. Oh, sure, she was in that intro course I taught a couple of years ago.

            “Miss, I signed up for your course next semester. I’m looking forward to it.”

            It was a reminder that come fall, there will be another class, more aspiring writers. I’ve got time to read the Onion and add some Jon Stewart references to my lecture notes. Perhaps Keith will send me greets and let me know how he’s doing.

            I turned to the young woman who shared my elevator. “I am, too,” I told her. “Yes, I am.”

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com