Skip to content

Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Ebest, Sally Barr. Changing the Way We Teach: Writing and Resistance in the Training of Teaching Assistants. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 244 pp.

Bookmark and Share

Jessica L. Rivait

Inside and outside of the academy, the training of post-secondary teaching assistants has always been criticized. Historically, post-secondary teaching assistants have received little or no formal pedagogical training. In recent years, the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) and Certificate in University Teaching programs have been designed to correct this oversight. However, these programs are frequently not discipline-specific and do not account for the unique challenges faced by post-secondary teaching assistants in their teaching assignments. The composition pedagogy seminar is our discipline’s response to the unique challenges faced by teaching assistants who teach undergraduate writing courses. As an introduction to pedagogical theories and corresponding methods in the discipline, the composition pedagogy seminar encourages composition teaching assistants to become aware of and adopt our pedagogical conventions.

In her book Changing the Way We Teach: Writing and Resistance in the Training of Teaching Assistants, Sally Barr Ebest argues that composition teaching assistants may be resistant to faculty attempts to instruct them in composition pedagogy and that utilizing writing practices may aid faculty in overcoming this resistance (3). Although faculty may encourage composition teaching assistants to incorporate “reflective writing, journaling, drafting, and active learning” into the latter’s lesson plans, faculty often do not instruct composition teaching assistants in the way they expect the latter to teach (4-5). Ebest suggests this could be problematic because composition teaching assistants “may have tested out of freshman composition, so they have not practiced what we preach to their undergraduate counterparts” (4). As a result, they may not “fully develop…an understanding of their writing and their teaching” and may be resistant to adopting composition pedagogical strategies they are asked to use in their teaching assignments (5).

Thus, Ebest determines that it is necessary to examine graduate students’ resistance to adopt composition pedagogy in the context of the graduate composition classroom (7). Employing a longitudinal case study design, she analyzes eighteen of her students who resisted her composition pedagogy beliefs in the graduate courses she taught over a period of five years. Adopting Ruth Ray’s categories of resistance outlined in The Practice of Theory, Ebest situates her students’ resistance as one of three types: rhetorical (they are unaware of their own writing processes), pedagogical (they are comfortable with their own writing processes and disagree with the theories), or epistemological (they are unwilling to adapt the theories in their own learning, but believe in using them in the undergraduate courses they are teaching) (101).

Resistance in the graduate composition classroom, Ebest claims, is also affected by personal construct (one’s system of beliefs) and self-efficacy (one’s sense of competence, which is influenced by both internal and external factors). By integrating cognitive psychology, socio-cognitive psychology, educational psychology, feminist theory, and composition pedagogy, she explores how extracurricular factors and social scripts impact graduate students’ resistance to embrace the student-centered classroom (3). She provides helpful, introductory biographies of her students as she introduces them in her chapters, which she draws upon to analyze their reasons for resistance (along with their comments in personal writing documents they composed for her class). Nor does she end by merely documenting their resistance, but outlines how they eventually overcame their resistance and how that impacted the classes they taught.

Ebest not only explains how she overcame resistance to her teaching, but also proposes ways in which other faculty who prepare graduate students to teach may overcome resistance as well. The first steps to overcoming resistance are “contextualiz[ing] post-secondary teaching” and “introduc[ing] the theories behind the [composition] pedagogy” (44). Ebest provides a helpful overview of these items in her second and third chapters, which may serve a resource and discussion apparatus for graduate pedagogy seminars, while asserting that faculty must consider more than contexts and theories alone when trying to overcome graduate teaching assistant resistance to composition pedagogy.

She affirms that to overcome resistance, faculty must be willing to “model…the pedagogy [they] want…them to learn” (132). Ebest explains that “if faculty understand that schema can be updated and that demonstration, engagement, and sensitivity foster the learning process, it follows that by using these methods in the graduate classroom, we help our graduate students reformulate their schema regarding teaching and learning” (118). In order to reformulate graduate students’ schema, faculty must “become aware of their psychological makeup and their various life contexts through dialogue…by providing students with the opportunities to experiment, and by observing their responses to these opportunities” (135). These observations should be shared with graduate teaching assistants, via weekly feedback, so that they can reap the benefits of faculty insights (57).

Faculty and graduate teaching assistants might arrive at these insights by the production and analysis of the tools and techniques of the de-centered classroom: “response journals; experiential essays; readings linked with writing assignments; design[ing] assignments drawing on students’ prior knowledge, find[ing] relationships, interpret[ing] or classify[ing] information; [and] establish[ing] a classroom atmosphere in which students feel comfortable offering opinions or taking risks” (62). In this de-centered classroom, the individual is an integral part of a collective group and solicits the group’s aid to advance their own learning. Hence, “faculty may help [graduate teaching assistants] conceptualize their ideas about teaching and learning by de-centering the classroom, using collaborative learning activities, and providing opportunities for collaboration and reflection” (71). However, she also notes that there is the danger that graduate teaching assistants may view “group work as fake or nonproductive” and only passively participate in it (121).

Ebest presents action research as an alternative to passive participation. Action research allows graduate teaching assistants to construct knowledge rather than consume it (133). As they are being studied, they also study their own students. In this way they gain a sensitivity not only for their students, but also for the faculty member who is studying their behaviors as students and researchers. But it is not through research alone that graduate teaching assistants can overcome their resistance to composition pedagogy and strengthen their own voices: Ebest maintains that “[faculty] can help to unify and strengthen [graduate] students’ voices through [their] teaching and…classroom relationships” (139). To strengthen these relationships, she asserts that we must understand how gender plays a role in the classroom, particularly in relation to resistance to composition pedagogy.

Although I agree that social conditioning and extrinsic factors do shape resistance, I do not agree with how Ebest uses gendered stereotypes to explain why her graduate students’ resisted as they did (contrary to her assumptions, straight men may be comfortable with sharing their feelings prior to exposure to composition pedagogy and anti-feminist women may adopt an objective, academic voice for reasons other than assimilation or self-deprecation). While I do not doubt that beliefs about gender affect resistance, I do believe that they alone can explain what types of resistance students choose to employ. There may be other reasons that her graduate students resisted the teaching beliefs and methods she espoused.

While she notes that resistance to composition pedagogy may be affected by a lack of alignment of said pedagogy with personal construct and self-efficacy, Ebest does not consider that “alternative” composition pedagogies (other than those based largely off of the banking model of education or the student-centered classroom) may be more amicable to some graduate students’ personal constructs and feelings of self-efficacy. Some of these “alternative” pedagogies include Jeff Rice’s hip hop pedagogy and Craig Dworkin’s mycopedagogy. Addressing pedagogies that are not derived by or concerned with qualitative research might have offered a more divergent understanding of composition pedagogy that embraces ways in which graduate students might utilize conflicting pedagogies to create new kinds of praxis.

As a composition instructor and a first year GTA, I wonder how representative her description of resistant graduate teaching assistants might be. Though most of her students who resisted tested out of freshman composition, is it true that most graduate teaching assistants who are resistant to techniques and theories of the student-centered classroom also skipped such courses (205)? And perhaps more GTAs have in fact been exposed to techniques of the student-centered classroom throughout their K-16 careers; most of my fellow GTAs in the teaching practicum I took had been exposed to the student-centered classroom long before college, as had I.

Even if student-centered classroom techniques are necessarily new to graduate teaching assistants, having a resource such as this book is essential in helping graduate teaching assistants realize that the practices faculty want them to utilize have theoretical roots as well as practical rationale. By realizing the origins of practices faculty encourage us to utilize in our teaching assignments, perhaps we can better anticipate student resistance and articulate more clearly their reasons for adopting student-centered pedagogy to the undergraduate students we teach. Another merit of this book is that Ebest clearly illustrates how her reflection on her own pedagogy changes the way in which she views it. As a result of her action research (the theoretical paradigm which influenced how she constructed, shaped, and evaluated her qualitative research), Ebest is able to critique her own resistance to adopt the pedagogy she espouses and use her own techniques to overcome it. Her transformation suggests that, via action research, graduate teaching assistants need not separate their research from their teaching and can be reflective of their own pedagogies long past the M.A. thesis or dissertation defense. Thus, Ebest emphasizes that although the process of learning to teach ideally is accelerated by a student-centered graduate teaching course, she underscores the importance of tenured faculty evaluating their own teaching.

To do so effectively, Ebest suggests that faculty consider their own subject positions and how that influences their pedagogies. As members of a discipline concerned with subject positions, we need to engage in critical inquiry not only about the ways in which we can aid students in overcoming their resistance to our teaching by considering their subject positions, but also about how our own teaching methodologies may resonate with our own. With this book, Ebest contributes to and complicates our own understanding of what it means to consider the multiplicity in our own subject positions—as perpetual teachers and (hopefully) students.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 17 table of contents.