On observing teachers

It’s a Thursday evening, and I’m so, so ready to call it a week, or almost. I plan to work from home tomorrow. I imagine how, after leaving my kid at preschool, I will enjoy the brisk snowy walk along the frozen inlet, to the rising sun and the music in my headphones, and make it home just in time for my 8.35 teacup (which only happens on the days I work from home). Maybe I can even get up half an hour later, I go on dreaming. I can technically wear my pyjamas under my enormous snow jacket when I go to drop the kid (I won’t of course… although why not?).

Fantasising this way, I am checking this one last thing. A tiny detail, to make sure I’m ahead of the game. My teaching course. Wasn’t there something about observing a seminar? At some point we were supposed to observe a seminar and write an assignment on that. When was it?

As I stare in disbelief at my teaching course schedule, my sunrise dream of the snowy walk, music and 8.35 teacup are crumbling, like crushed ice. ‘Observe a seminar conducted by a colleague at your department’, says the schedule in Swedish. ‘Reflect on it, using the concepts you have learnt so far at the course, such as constructive alignment, cooperative learning, and norm-critical pedagogy’. I have little idea of what ‘norm-critical pedagogy’ is, but that’s easily fixed. This week. I was supposed to do it this week.

This is a typical PhD student moment. The 8.35 teacup and the sunrise beckon. Should I just send it all to hell? Means I will have to observe the seminar and write the assignment later. Since it is already December, I’ll have to postpone the whole thing to next term. No big deal. Just a big whole again in my little ‘being ahead of the game’ fantasy.

I log into the study web, trying to see who might hold a seminar on a Friday morning. I look wistfully at my oversized snow jacket. Looks like it won’t be a pyjamas day tomorrow. I go to university in my tailored black winter coat.

In the morning, I run around like a headless chicken, trying to figure out whose seminar I can gate-crash. The time is ticking, and I am starting to panic. I bump into another PhD student who is also taking the teaching course. Have you observed a seminar yet? Which seminar, he asks, alarmed. On the stairs I walk into one of my supervisors – I know that he has a seminar in half an hour, and it is an interesting course. He starts talking to me about something else, and I answer on autopilot. Summoning all the audacity I can muster, I ask him if I can invade his seminar, and he seems to be willing to allow me. It must be the teaching course I took ten years ago, he says. How is it now? At the time it seemed too theoretical. Do you want to see the seminar plan? – he asks. No, I say. He stares at me as coffee is pouring in his cup from the machine. I mean, I don’t need to, I add hastily (I’m still recovering from the stress and the sudden relief). Don’t you need to, though? – he insists. Sure, I say. He seems to be making a mental note that he now has to send it to me. I’ll find it, I say. I’ll see you there. Do you know which room it is, he asks. I’ll find it, I say and vanish.

When I come to the room, it’s locked, and the students are hanging around. I unlock the door and let them file into the room past me. They say thank you and give me little side glances. They perch on ‘bar chairs’ around lab tables (at our department we have these weird labs where we sometimes have classes), and twitter. I switch on the light. As I am doing this, I suddenly feel self-conscious, as if I am indeed an invader. I am invading another teacher’s space. I sit at the back of the room. Then I feel it’s too strange, and I sit next to the students. Then I see there’s hardly enough space around the tables, and more of them might still come, and I move back to the back of the room. The teacher comes in, puts his papers and his coffee cup down and looks at the students and then at me. As if on cue, I quickly walk over to the front of the room and introduce myself. I say, I am a student just like you. Unlike you, I am a bad student, because I forgot to do my teaching course assignment this week, and now I am gate-crashing your seminar. They are smiling. The ice is broken, and they won’t be uncomfortable. The anthropologist in me is momentarily satisfied. So you are guinea-pigs, says the teacher to them. And I am a guinea-pig, too. No, no, I wave my hands. I hope you don’t see it this way. I won’t be eavesdropping on you, just watching the process.

The class starts, and the teacher goes right into it. I remember my English professor in college, who used to start giving instructions while she was still on the other side of the door. I used to love it. He gives a general feedback on papers, which reminds me of something from the teaching course (the Critical Incident Questionnaire? I don’t know why). After a few minutes they are dividing into discussion groups – a messy process of self-organisation, full of laughter and confusion. The teacher is writing questions on the board. Some groups are leaving the room. You can leave the room, if you want, he says, without looking back. They speak Swedish, he speaks English. Two groups stay in the room, and the room being small, I hear everything they say. I am doing exactly the opposite of what I had promised: I am eavesdropping. I want to know how they discuss. At some point I ask them in Swedish if I can join them, and they allow me to. I listen. I am not writing anything, for fear of making them uncomfortable. When there is a lull, I ask: you guys write in English but then discuss in Swedish. How is it? They laugh and explain that they speak Swenglish (svengelska). They most definitely do. I leave them in peace.

Everyone gets back to the room (again a messy process, but much shorter), and they start discussing. The teacher writes on the whiteboard the points they bring up. This feels reassuring, satisfying; I did that, too, just a week before. It’s hard for me to abstract from the content (which I partly know and partly have no clue about), and only look at the form. Trying to be a good student and a good anthropologist and just write down what happens. They give their points, he asks additional questions, draws out as much as he can draw out, and then responds. It looks simple. Everyone seems to be engaged, and there is a flow. Teaching couldn’t be easier.

Suddenly I am transported to my flamenco class. I stand behind my teacher, for hours on end. I repeat her every move. Imitating my teacher’s moves has become second nature to me; my body does it on its own, without me thinking. I never thought this was possible. I had seen dance students repeat their teacher’s moves almost synchronically (it’s like synchronic interpreting – there is a lag, but with a skilled interpreter you don’t notice it), but I never thought I could do it, too. These days, I can do it some of the time. I have learnt some of my teacher’s (and therefore flamenco) moves so that I simply KNOW what’s going to happen next. A certain position of the foot means a preparation for a certain kind of pirouette. The footwork follows certain patterns. But of course, most of the time I am clueless. It is these moments when I cannot follow my teacher, cannot repeat her move, cannot go where she goes, which are the moments of the most intense learning, but also frustration and fear. I can’t do this yet – but will I ever? There is an exciting mix of resentment and awe, rebellion and surrender, anxiety and longing. I may never learn this. Some things I learnt I had never thought I would learn. And some things I will never learn. I will never be my teacher. She moves across the room, and it looks so, so easy. But when I try to do the same, I stumble, and my footwork is wrong, and I am not propelled forward the way she is. The floor isn’t holding me as it holds her, it’s not cooperating. She has been doing it her whole life. She has something which I don’t have. She has it in her body. Maybe I will never have it.

As I watch another teacher, I am filled with the same mixture of awe and fear. Awe at the thought that it is not, not as easy as it seems, and the easier it seems, the more it implies that tacit, embodied, heavy weight of experience and knowledge, which the teacher themselves is not aware of. The more skilful the magician, the easier seems the trick. And there is that subtle magic hanging in the room, as all the gazes and the silences are drawn, magnetically, towards the teacher. I guess I am learning something, but I am afraid I am not learning anything from this experiment.

During the break, I try to slip into my room and change my shoes (my foot hurts), but each time I get caught by a student. They talk to me in ‘svengelska’. One tells me their whole life story and plans for the future. The others ask me how long it takes to do a PhD. I ask them about the course. They tell me how some of them like to write, and others to talk. In addition to writing short reflections for each class (similar to what I need to write for my teaching class), they write a fifteen-page final paper. I say, oh, that’s a lot (I didn’t realise at the time it was a fifteen-credit course, not seven-and-a-half). They laugh. But this seems a great course, I hasten to add. I envy you guys taking it! A blunder – I have just sympathised with the students and walked over another teacher’s space, again. Yes, they say, we enjoy the course. I am neither a teacher nor a student here, and my allegiances are messed up in this liminal ethnographic space. My foot hurts, but I go back to my seat and surrender to the suffering.

And then the anxiety sets in. Always about the next thing. I think about my assignment and what I need to write (it’s all about ‘constructive alignment, cooperative learning, and norm-critical pedagogy’, remember). I think that I don’t have time for lunch, because another meeting starts at the same time as the seminar ends, and lasts till I need to rush to fetch my kid from preschool. But then I remember a new little thing I have recently been trying from time to time. I close my computer and notebook and just sit there and listen. I don’t observe, at least not analytically, just absorb. I don’t know if I will ever need to, or be so kindly allowed to invade another teacher’s class. But at the very least, for the last few minutes, I wholeheartedly enjoy this one.

What are your ‘ethnographic’ experiences with teaching, from whichever side of the room?

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