In the flurry of emails I received as a new graduate student this summer, I took notice of one request in particular. The Office of Student Affairs and the staff of the First-Year Experience were recruiting volunteers to be a Summer Reading Discussion leader for fall orientation. I was anxious to take advantage of as much as I could while working toward my PhD and thought that this experience would be good practice before the stepping into a classroom of my own.
Part of the new student orientation since 2003, the Summer Reading Program encourages incoming students to take part in a community reading experience. Each year a new title is selected by a committee made up of faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate students, with the goal of “engag[ing] the entire Lehigh community in discussions around a theme of contemporary interest and concern.” This year’s selection, No Apparent Distress by Rachael Pearson, M.D, will also be discussed in Critical Reading and Composition (ENGL 001), giving the students who participate a head start on their reading for the semester.
Signing up to be a discussion leader gave me a head start as well. Coming into Lehigh with a Teaching Assistantship was a little daunting. I decided that one hour of my time on the Sunday before class would make a good dent into the insecurity I was feeling as a first-time instructor. The First-Year Experience staff offered an orientation for leaders to prepare them for class discussion and activities, however it conflicted with my required TA training and I was unable to attend. Fortunately, I was provided with a well-stocked Course Site for the event, full of idea generators and handouts at my disposal. I also used some of the techniques discussed in my TA training when preparing for the day.
While I admit I was awkward at first, we quickly came to a comfortable level of dialogue. Working in groups, I asked the students to discuss their current ideas about health care and society and then share instances in the book that exemplified them. The students, well into their orientation, were comfortable talking back and forth and building one discussion on top of another. After the hour was over, I felt a little more confident in being able to initiate a conversation and, hopefully, the students felt more comfortable engaging in a class-like discussion.
Overall, being a discussion leader gave me a chance to interact with new Lehigh students just like myself, who were trying to find their place in this new environment. In the future I could see this as a sandbox opportunity for trying out new activities and workshops to engage students in considering the intersections between literature and social justice.
As nervous as I was, I am so grateful for the opportunity that the Summer Reading Discussion gave me, giving me a much-needed boost of confidence heading into my new role. I highly recommend that new TAs take advantage of the opportunity and that veteran students see it as a chance to welcome new students. I’m looking forward to next year’s new title and new group of first-year students.