I have talked quite extensively about the nature and evolution of my own teaching, about the best and worst teachers I remember from K-12, about my profs and their teaching (or lack thereof) more than a little bit while on this blog. But, outside of Paul Riggs, I have not written much about TAs and the good, bad, and ugly there. I haven’t really discussed my own times as a TA, except to point out the pushback I’d sometimes had to deal with from students, the emasculation I had to deal with from my professors who “supervised” me.
Trying to learn how to teach and evaluate students while taking grad-level courses and preparing for oral exams, writing dissertation proposals, doing conference presentations, writing the occasional publication, and serving as a gofer for professors working on their own projects is overwhelming. Add the personal and familial to it, and it’s a wonder than anyone who isn’t from a family with a net worth of at least half-a-mil still decides to earn an advanced degree and teaches along the way. And all for less than peanuts, not even close to a living wage.
All of this is context for my one-time TA from my Existential Philosophy course from Spring 1989 at the University of Pittsburgh. You see, he was the polar opposite of the professor who taught this course. The newly-minted PhD and assistant professor for Existential Philosophy (and soon to jump ship for Georgetown that year) was a dynamic, exciting, and insightful thinker in his mid-30s, one who could take the thickest philosophical text and break it down for even students who didn’t care about the philosophical at all. The sandy-blonde version of the lead singer for Simply Red, by comparison, was boring beyond belief, and could make even the most obvious interpretations of Nietzche, Kierkegaard, and Camus sound like some theoretical mathematics he barely understood and could hardly articulate. It made our required discussion sections on Thursday afternoons a form of torture.
Mr. Australian version of Mick Hucknall, though, also had an agenda, the kind that most progressives would call problematic in 2020. He reined it in somewhat most Thursdays, but on at least two of our days, he couldn’t control himself. It didn’t really matter what the topic was, but frequently the TA would turn the discussion toward anti-theism. This was more than just atheism. One can certainly not believe in God for themselves and still respect those who do. But anti-theism is more along the lines of a Christopher Hitchens or a Bill Maher, people who love to loathe higher-power worshippers, with bits of Islamophobia and racism thrown in.
An example of fake-ass Simply Red’s behavior, courtesy of Boy @ The Window
He spent discussion after discussion railing on Christians as “people who refuse to believe that God doesn’t exist.” One of our discussions was so anti-anything other than atheism that I found it just as bigoted as anything I’d heard from Hebrew-Israelites or out of a televangelist’s mouth, and said as much. I was ignored.
But it wasn’t just the ideological bent that was obvious in this discussion section. It was the racial component. Me and the other three Black students in the section — all three were Black women — were usually quiet when sandy blonde Mick Hucknall described religion as “nonsense.” But the White students who were anti-theists chimed in like they had been suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition for the past 500 years.
One class in March was really awful. It was after the professor had lectured about Kierkegaard and the “teleological suspension of the ethical” in his consideration of Abraham’s moment of decision between obeying Yahweh and killing his five-year-old son Isaac or not. Right from the start of our 50 minutes, the TA went after religion like he literally hated worshippers. He referred to monotheists as “fools” and “crazy.” The White students talked about “not putting up with religious oppressors anymore” and being “tired of [us] flaunting our Christianity in their faces.” If it had been even a year later in my education, I probably would have gone directly to the professor or the Philosophy department about this very biased form of education occurring in this classroom.
I was so glad when I didn’t have to be in sandy-blonde-Simply-Red’s discussion section anymore. But that wasn’t the last time I saw him. For at least two years afterward, I’d see him on campus, usually outside Hillman Library or the Cathedral of Learning taking a drag on a cigarette, and he recognized me, but never said hello (thank God). But, after I began grad school at Pitt, the aging fake Mick Hucknall didn’t seem to recognize me at all.
It was interesting that as I got older and made more steps to my PhD, his run toward his own must’ve stalled. The last time I saw him at Pitt was in 1998. I overheard him complaining to another grad student about his committee still not ready to declare him done with his dissertation. As burned out as I was from my own dissertation process, at least I was already done.
At that moment, I thought about saying, Ain’t karma a bitch? But I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t see the point. The golden rule of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” applies to the just and the unjust, the believers, the non-believers, and even the anti-believers. Or, to quote Simply Red, “I, oh I, oh I, I’m gonna do the right thing.” Still, a bemused smile did make its way on my face, because he was such a terrible instructor, and likely one who had traumatized hundreds of students over the years.