This semester I'm teaching my first grad-only class--and in the fall, I'll be teaching another. It's been more of an adjustment than I expected.
It isn't the students, or at least, not in the way you might expect. The problem is that I don't fully feel that I know what I'm doing with them: how to pitch the material, what their skills are, and what we're building toward. Sure, I designed what I consider to be a smart syllabus, with assignments that isolate and focus on the skills they'll need for their final projects (and, ultimately, their M.A. theses)--but that's not the same thing as feeling comfortable, on a daily basis, that what we're doing in seminar is what we should be doing.
I've never taken an M.A. class, is part of the issue, and I've almost never reflected on my own graduate coursework in pedagogical terms: what my instructors could have done better, how I could have acquired skills in a more conscious or logical fashion. By contrast, I've been thinking about undergraduate teaching since my first or second year of graduate school, and doing it since my third. And at this point, I'm confident that what I do in the undergraduate classroom is effective and pitched exactly right for my current student population.
But with my graduate students, I keep second-guessing myself: am I presenting the material with enough historical context? Doing too much close reading? Incorporating secondary sources effectively? And, I suppose more fundamentally: does my usual teaching persona work for students at this level?
Still, although I feel a little off-balance, it's not a bad feeling--and it's a nice contrast to the (sometimes overly) well-oiled-machinery that is my undergraduate Shakespeare class. I like my grad students, and I'm interested in them, and in what they need--and I'm thinking harder about what our M.A. program actually is.
I've got 16 students. The median age is younger than I'd have expected--I had three of them as undergrads, and none took more than a year off--but there are also two students in their 50s or 60s. I have a high school teacher and a middle school teacher, a practicing psychiatrist, a couple of poets, and at least three students who are thinking seriously about Ph.D. programs. And both individually and collectively, they're great: smart and talkative and well-read. They do all the work, they're eager to learn more, and a surprising number already have a decent background in Renaissance literature.
And, yes: I still have serious reservations about the fact that several of them are thinking about Ph.D. programs--but I love that those students are smart and focused enough that, at least on the basis of their skills, it wouldn't be a totally unrealistic goal. And I love even more how intense and intellectually curious the public school teachers and the psychiatrist are.
And it strikes me--surely not for the first time, but for the first time with any real emotional force--that our M.A. program is doing something analogous to what our undergraduate program does: gives a damn good education, at an affordable price, to people who are my neighbors and fellow-citizens. Indeed, having a graduate Milton class populated by smart, eager, adult professionals may be a happier scenario than having one populated entirely by would-be future academics.