A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

How to Train Your Teaching Assistants: A Review of Jessica Restaino's First Semester

Review of First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of Middle Ground by Jessica Restaino 2012; CCCC Studies in Writing & Rhetoric (SWR) Series Taylor Libby, Oklahoma State University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/first-semester (Published: April 8, 2014)

In her book, First Semester Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of Middle Ground, Jessica Restaino employs Hannah Arendt’s theory of labor, work, and action to examine the conditions under which graduate students learn to be writing teachers. With an ethnographic approach, Restaino follows four new graduate students enrolled in the English program at a large public university. Two of the participants, Shirley and Anjel, were pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing; Nancy was enrolled in a doctoral program with an interest in studying composition; and Tess was seeking a PhD in literature; all were assigned to teach a section of the university’s required composition course. Over the course of the semester, Restaino acts as mentor to the four participants in her study: exchanging encouraging e-mails, discussing worries over drinks, visiting their classrooms, and periodically conducting one-on-one interviews. Through the experiences of these four students, Restaino explores the pressures facing new graduate students who are balancing the dual role of student and teacher while simultaneously learning how to do both. As Restaino writes, “[m]y intention in this book is to isolate new graduate students’ first semester as writing teachers for its drama, its real challenge to survival skills and adaptation, and its relevance as a shaky foundation on which writing programs and even scholarship rests” (2). Through Arendt, Restaino engages with the tensions experienced by the new graduate students as well as larger tensions that exist in the composition field surrounding the training and development of new instructors and scholars.

Figure 1

Restaino is not the first rhetoric scholar to examine Arendt; others have both analyzed her political theories in terms of rhetorical strategy (Newcomb 2007) and applied those theories to pedagogy (Wittman 2006). However, Restaino is the first to use Arendt’s three-part theory of labor, work, and action established in her 1958 book The Human Condition as a theoretical framework for thinking through the instruction and development of new graduate students entering the writing classroom. While the first chapter of the book is devoted to outlining the methodology and purpose of the project, the second chapter “Labor and Endlessness” launches Restaino’s presentation of Arendt’s concept of labor as it plays out in Composition. Labor, defined as the endless and repetitive cycle where the work of the day is wiped away and must be repeated at the start of the next (14), is situated in Arendtian theory as the “bottom of the social pyramid” because effort is consumed as quickly as it is produced, leaving nothing behind it its wake (23). According to Restaino, new graduate students often adopt a “sink-or-swim” mentality toward daily class periods that quickly dovetails into a laboring practice as they risk drowning in an endless sea of student drafts. This collides with students’ rapid consumption of feedback in pursuit of a better grade and further enhances the theory-practice split that haunts Composition.

It is here that Restaino launches into a rather lengthy critique of the process movement using Arendt’s theory of labor. At Public U, process pedagogy is written into the first-year writing syllabus new graduate student instructors must use in their courses, a situation Restaino identifies as “yet another predetermined assignment for new teachers and thus one that stands to take on the shape of the thoughtless, everyday responsibilities necessary to survival rather than a theoretically engaged choice” (34). According to Restaino, forcing new graduate student instructors to implement process-oriented pedagogy in the classroom fosters the dangerous labor cycle Arendt warns against (36). Ultimately, Restaino’s subtle call to remove the last remnants of process pedagogy from FYWPs is heard; however, Restaino never aligns herself as postprocess or even post-postprocess, and her critique, though valid, comes as a surprise.

Restaino’s analysis of the process theory through the lens of Arendtian labor is well done; however, it diverts attention from the experience of the four graduate students the study is meant to detail. Tess and Shirley are mentioned several times throughout the chapter, but rather than foreground their experiences, Restaino uses passages from Stacia Dunn Neely’s contribution to In Our Own Voice and David Bartholomae’s “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum” to highlight the same experiences, thoughts, and feelings reported by her own graduate student participants. Given the large amount of data collected through e-mails, interviews, and informal conversations, I was disappointed Restaino allowed stories presented by other researchers to stand in for the participants in her study. The strength of Restaino’s study emerges in the rich analysis of her own participants, yet cursory references to the participants are far too frequent considering the ethnographic approach.

Fortunately, the third chapter, “Teachers-as-Students,” focuses more directly on the graduate student participants. Restaino defines the Arendtian concepts of work and action, and then works to create a middle ground between the two where graduate students can learn to be writing instructors while functioning as both students and teachers. First, “work” in Arendtian terms is the creation of products that “serve as monuments to the fact of our existence evidence we acted and spoke together” (54). Action is the moment “we reveal ourselves in the public arena for others to see, hear, and remember as distinctive, memorable agents” (53). According to Arendt, it is the collaborative and interconnected functioning of these two concepts that ultimately saves the world from endless labor; thus, Restaino deals with the two concepts fluidly in this chapter, shifting from one to the other as she discusses the different issues facing her participants.

Drawing on Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” alongside Christopher Higgins’s “Human Conditions for Teaching: The Place of Pedagogy in Arendt’s 'Vita Activa,'” Restaino explores the consequences of premature public exposure on the new writing instructor’s development of a teaching identity. Arendtian theory casts school as a place that protects students from the harsh reality of the world while preparing them to be participants in that same world; through this idea Higgins names school a “middle space” where students can “write their stories in pencil” (qtd. in Restaino 58). Restaino applies both Arendt and Higgins to the situation of new graduate students instructors, suggesting they are “unquestionably still ‘in process,’ not yet ready to be actors but also very much in need of a mediating space for practice” (58). Again, Restaino shines in sections where Arendt’s theories are directly applied to the experiences of her participants, providing valuable insight into the teaching and development of new writing teachers. One of the participants, Nancy, was particularly reluctant to identify herself as a Composition instructor, instead aligning more with her students and struggling to understand the assignments set by the FYWP. In an effort to meet what she perceived as the needs of her students, Nancy took a resistant approach to teaching the material that situated her alongside her students as they worked to decode readings together. According to Restaino, Nancy’s repackaging and revision of an inherited syllabus and course schedule “bridged Arendt’s concepts of action and work, which signifies the special location of teaching on the ‘border’ of these Arendtian concepts” (78). Restaino argues that graduate students are in a unique position to critique the state of Composition, and their resistance should be heard and welcomed by FYWP administrators as it speaks to the future movements of the field.

Just as Nancy positioned herself as a resistant student alongside her class, two other participants, Anjel and Shirley, used invention as a means of survival. In an effort to lighten the grading burden and provide students with more than just a grade, Anjel and Shirley developed a system of “interactive grading” where grades were assigned collaboratively with students in conferences (84). To Restaino, Anjel and Shirley’s implementation of “interactive grading” shows a blending of action and work because “the moment of invention here is bound permanently to the negotiation and creation of the ‘record’, the grade, that affirms both teacher and student’s participation in the class” (89). The argument that new graduate students are important actors in the shaping of Composition’s future further points to the need for a “middle space” where new TAs can engage with the theory/practice divide (96).

While the other three participants offered valuable insights into the challenges facing new graduate students, the section in chapter 3 titled “Tess on the Stand vs. Philosophy Phil: Teachers, Students, and the Public Realm” is easily the most relevant and illuminating part of the book. Tess is given perhaps the most attention in the book as a whole due in large part to her encounter with “Philosophy Phil”—an outspoken young man who confronted her daily about her teaching methods and the course as a whole. As a new writing instructor, Tess is clearly in the process of becoming while also acting as a teacher. When Philosophy Phil’s confrontations escalate and Tess must testify at a disciplinary hearing, she is abruptly forced out of the protective “middle space” education is supposed to provide and into the spotlight. Through Arendt and Higgins, Restaino asserts that despite Tess’ position as an instructor for the first-year writing program she is also a student of the FYWP, which should have afforded her some protection from premature action and exposure. Failure to provide graduate students with ample room to grow, explore, and challenge their new role as writing teacher while under the protection of WP administrators and the university as a whole can have disastrous consequences for new writing instructors.

While I might argue that this notion of being ‘in process’ is an apt one for all teachers… graduate student teachers seem especially deserving of the time and space to work on ‘becoming.’ The consequences, for Tess, of this denial were quite staggering, and she appeared to suffer arrested development of sorts, resentful of the authorities she trusted and robbed of her own identification of learning. (66)

Telling the story of Tess and “Philosophy Phil” allows Restaino to make her most relevant argument surrounding the teaching and development of new writing instructors: graduate students must be afforded the safety and protection of a “middle space” as they establish their identities as teachers because “when we ask others to say who they are before they know themselves, the result is resentment and ambiguity” (67). Further, Restaino argues graduate students are the future of Composition programs, and their alienation is counterproductive to the growth of the field.

Ultimately, Restaino’s book reads as a “what not to do” guide for Writing Program Administrators charged with the instruction of new graduate students teaching writing for the first time. The stories, experiences, frustrations, and coping mechanisms of the participants in this study allow WPAs access to the issues facing graduate writing instructors as they navigate the complex roles of teacher and student. Restaino’s reason for conducting this study is valid: the initiation of graduate students into the study of Composition is undoubtedly an important concern that other scholars in the field have explored. Most notably, Sally Barr Ebest’s 2005 book Changing the Way we Teach: Writing and the Resistance in the Training of Teaching Assistants details a five-year longitudinal study of new graduate students' introduction to and implementation of composition pedagogy in their own writing and teaching. Adding to the current conversation about teaching assistant training, Restaino raises important questions about developing young instructors and stresses the importance of creating a “middle space” where graduate students can experiment with theories of writing instruction without the fear of failure. While Restaino resists calling her book a collection of case studies, greater explanation and exploration of the individual participants in her study would have been desirable for a qualitative, ethnographic study. However, she frequently veers from her analysis of the participants into larger critiques of the field, which distracts from the claimed focus of the study—the graduate student participants. Nevertheless, Restaino’s choice to analyze the plight of new graduate students teaching writing through the Arendtian lens of labor, work, and action raises a number of questions relevant to the current state of Composition, and Restaino’s work wrestles with key tensions running through first-year writing programs across the country.

Works Cited

Ebest, Sally Barr. Changing the Way We Teach: Writing and the Resistance in the Training of Teaching Assistants. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.

Newcomb, Matthew J. “Totalized Compassion: The (Im)Possibilities for Acting Out of Compassion and the Rhetoric of Hannah Arendt.” Journal of Advanced Composition 27.1-2 (2007): 105-133. Print.

Wittman, John. “Biopower and Pedagogy: Local Spaces and Institutional Technologies.” Composition Forum 15 (2006): n. pag. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.