Anthony Teets Q&A: Learning from Feedback, Finding Balance

Anthony Teets

STONY BROOK, NY -- Dr. Anthony Teets, a recent graduate from Stony Brook University’s Department of English and 2016 recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, is a part-time lecturer in the writing program and managing editor for the Cambridge University Press journal Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation “Victoria’s Shadow Queens” is a study of Victorian representations of ancient and historical queens in literature over the nineteenth century.

His enthusiasm for the genre is contagious. "The class cannot help but become excited about Victorian literature in his presence,”" one student said. Students also speak enthusiastically about his knowledge and high expectations: “From reading and discussing classic Victorian novels…to writing complex research assignments, Professor Teets never allowed these assignments to seem daunting, but rather made the class embrace the challenge.”

Teets has taught courses on writing, Victorian literature, 18th century British literature, drama, film, and queer studies and is currently preparing to teach a summer graduate course on desire in Victorian literature. In the following interview Teets discusses his approach to teaching and pedagogy with English department colleague Francisco Delgado.

Francisco Delgado: How has teaching changed how you approach your work?

Anthony Teets: Teaching goes beyond the classroom experience. Before coming to Stony Brook as graduate student I worked in the corporate world with eight-hour shifts, mandatory overtime, and limited days off. After work most of my friends would go get a beer, watch movies, or do something besides work. My greatest pleasure after work was reading and visiting the library on Sundays. I knew I had to make a change in my life and get a degree. I came to Stony Brook prepared to spend most of my time researching and dreaded the teaching part. It was not until I discovered how the research could aid my teaching that I began spending more time lesson planning, grading, and working with students. Teaching has changed the way I approach work because I no longer see it as a duty but as something that helps me do my research.

Francisco Delgado: What have been some of the obstacles you have faced during your teaching?

Anthony Teets: I always feared course evaluations because that was the one moment when I got to see in the “qualitatives” what students in a casual state of anonymity really think about me and my teaching. One student wrote that I was a “rambler” and another hated the fact that I made students do presentations in class. This person wrote: “Had I known I would have to listen to other students fumbling through a presentation, I would never had taken the class.” As it turned out this was the only negative feedback in the class. I have overcome fear of these kinds of evaluations by being sensitive to their voices and needs while using the criticism to test my weaknesses and strengthen my capabilities.

There is also the fear of students who know or appear to know more about the topic I am teaching. Anyone can have that experience when they encounter the first student who questions a statement. I learned how to re-direct a student’s hubris by drawing attention to the complexity of any issue and the best way to do that is to ask the class what they think about the topic. “Do you agree with student X on this?” Most students are sensitive and will capture these moments as learning experiences. They will generally fall in and start offering alternative positions or asking for clarification. I had to learn the basic five-minute rule, which is: after you ask a question, wait for the first person to speak. The dead silence can be deafening, but you have to let it happen. In such cases five minutes usually turns into less than a minute, but it feels like an hour has gone by. I had to overcome the temptation to answer my own questions.

Francisco Delgado: It is so difficult to resist that temptation, especially after only ten or fifteen seconds of silence. Have there ever been times when the silence persisted? If so, how did you respond? Did you try to ask the same question again using different words? Did you begin a whole new line of questions that ultimately returned to your original question that went unanswered?

Anthony Teets: Getting through the first few minutes of classroom silence after posing a question is like reading an imaginary scroll over your head that lists all your embarrassing blunders. I have found out a lot about how my facial expressions and bodily movements can alter the way students respond. If you get up from your seat for example, and turn your back to the class standing pensively by the blackboard, someone will start talking. It always works for me and I think they are afraid that an impromptu homework assignment is going up there or that I’m going to start a lecture. Don’t worry, someone will finally talk. In the rare cases where I have had to rephrase my question or provide more details to get students on track thinking, some student will invariably step in and open a new topic for discussion.

Francisco Delgado: What on-campus teaching resources do you find particularly useful?

Anthony Teets: I am currently teaching writing courses, and as a grad student I mostly taught writing courses. The writing and rhetoric program schedules departmental sessions that delve into the best way for instructors to ask general questions and to generate new sets of questions about teaching writing. It’s important to take the time to attend these meetings and converse with colleagues.

Francisco Delgado: How do you consider your teaching and your research to be related?

Anthony Teets: In my graduate career I only experienced two classes where I was able to incorporate my research completely into the course design. I taught an introductory drama class, and I incorporated reading materials from my dissertation into the syllabus such as Christopher Marlowe’s rarely read play “The Massacre at Paris,” Chapman’s “The Tragedy of Bussy D’Ambois,” and Dryden’s “The Guises.” By integrating the plays into an overall theme of British attitudes toward the French over several centuries, the students were able to grasp continuities.

Francisco Delgado: What are some ways that you simplified these complex reading materials?

Anthony Teets: The drama course was focused on a specific theme so there were specific passages in each work that I would present for close reading. My midterms and quizzes were also organized around the same themes, and soon students would start looking for similar patterns in other works. In another course I taught on queer theory the texts were very difficult even for advanced students. Again, the same practice of focusing on a specific passage in a text and breaking it down in class then relating it back to the author’s theoretical position helped students contextualize the tough theoretical work.

Francisco Delgado: Teaching and research can definitely require two different styles of reading. So even when we can teach texts that are part of our research, it remains a tough balancing act. What are some of your strategies for balancing the two?

Anthony Teets: This was another obstacle I encountered as a graduate student, which was how to balance the teaching workload with my research and dissertation writing. Knowing how many courses to teach was my problem as I would have accepted as many courses as I could get and then regret it later. In one semester I accepted four teaching units and this was when I was writing an important chapter for the dissertation. I realized that I had misjudged my ability to grade and stay on track with my dissertation writing. I quickly learned how to turn down the offer to teach more courses.

Francisco Delgado: During that semester you had with four teaching units, how were able to make time for your research?

Anthony Teets: That semester was very difficult because it was the first time I taught that many classes. However, because the classes were on Tuesday and Thursday, I did have days between to catch up on readings. I was fortunate to be living on campus during that semester and generally the library was open until midnight. I would never recommend teaching that course load to a graduate student living off campus.

Francisco Delgado: What advice would you give to new graduate student instructors about striking the right balance?

Anthony Teets: Don’t overload yourself with teaching, but at the same time use the teaching as a way to prepare for your first job interview. Potential employers will most likely ask you for a sample syllabus and have you prepare a short teaching demo. If you think that it will fit, don’t be afraid to incorporate your research project into your teaching. But you can focus on teaching students your own research methods. You can show students how you conduct research and allow them to ask you about what your work involves. Sharing your research methods with your students is a great way to teach them how to think about their own work. You can pass on your experiences to students who are just beginning to explore what research entails. Many of our students don’t even know about search engines such as Google Books. Become a pro at using bibliographies and footnotes to shorten your research tasks, then show the students how to do that by adding research projects to your syllabus.

Francisco Delgado: Thank you so much, Anthony!

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.