Facing The Frontier: Long-time teaching assistant to first-time (reluctant) instructor

BY: Sarah Ranlett, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

In the course of pursuing a doctorate (as I currently am), teaching has never sparked in me, the most joy. For me, the most joyous aspect of the graduate program has always been the research (I’m an archaeologist studying some of the earliest symbolic behavior and visual imagery – “art”, if you will – in France). I love the hours spent in solitary communion with objects and authors that have shaped our picture of the very origins of modern behavior. I feel excitement over the fieldwork that continues to add nuance and dimension to that picture. Don’t get me wrong, it is uniquely rewarding to watch an undergraduate student engage (enthusiastically, even!) with a topic that I have dedicated my life to. It will always be a pleasure and a privilege to introduce them to the sites, objects, narratives, and ways of thinking, that have the potential to change how they view their place in the world, just as professors did for me when I was on the other side of the lectern.  However, this has never been my favorite part of academic life.

It was with some excitement, but mostly impatience at being taken away from my research, that the realities of life outside the funded cohort led me to take on my first appointment as a course instructor. Of course, it was for a third-year course outside of my sub-field. I love a challenge. Apparently.

This course, to my surprise, remains rewarding and pleasurable to teach. It is me and me alone (well, me and the fossil record) setting the narrative for the course. I feel a degree of pride (ownership isn’t the right word, but…) in those ‘aha!’ moments for students when they make an insightful connection, or understand a new concept, that you just don’t feel when you are a teaching assistant delivering someone else’s narrative. What I did not expect is the newfound appreciation that teaching has given to my own research. By the time one is in the terminal stages of writing a dissertation, you are so far inside your own effort to expand the boundary of the discipline by a tiny measure, that you lose sight of the forest for the trees (and then lose sight of the trees for the leaves…). Teaching has proven to be a weekly affirmation that the research I’m doing on one small corner of the archaeological world, contributes to topics that students are reading about each week, that span subfields, and is relevant to any number of debates. It is a forced perspective that one doesn’t find in the library stacks, museum collections, or excavation trenches. I am more dynamic as a researcher and, in turn, more invested in the course material as an educator. I watch students engaged in the material, have opinions, and care! This kind of immediate gratification is hard to come by in a discipline where research can take months or years to reach a wider audience. I had always conceived of teaching as an act of giving on the part of the instructor but this experience has shown me that it isn’t that at all.  I am getting just as much out of teaching this course as (I hope) the students are. While I remain agnostic on the joys of teaching, I’m a bit closer to being a believer.

Sarah Ranlett

PhD Candidate

University of Toronto



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply