Reflecting on the academic year that was, part four (A Teaching Assistant’s POV)

GUEST POST By Madison Bettle


In 2010, I began my graduate studies at Western University. I finished my MA in English in 2011 and began my PhD a few months later. I’ve had multiple TAships over the years: Science Fiction, Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory (for first years), Jane Austen in Popular Culture, as well as 19C British literature. In these classes, I presented hour to hour-and-a-half long lectures. Over the years, I’ve also had the chance to do many “pocket lectures” (brief 10-15 minute lectures in the middle of a class, something I continued to do in Dr. Solga’s class). One of the most useful experiences I had was when I was given tutorials to run for Narrative Theory. I was able to design different learning exercises (such as asking my students to watch Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax – the original – and then requiring each group to respond to it using a specific literary theory: for example, Marxism, Postcolonialism, Ecocriticism, etc). I suppose my inspiration for “group work” exercises stemmed from this class (and I eventually got to apply my ideas in Kim’s classroom).

My research areas are Victorian and Postcolonial literatures, though I have “tertiary” interests in Austen and Postcolonial Ecocriticism. If someone asked me tomorrow to teach a course on Austen, I could do it without missing a beat. I’m currently TAing for an online first year class and we’re studying Austen’s Northanger Abbey right now. Great way to spend one’s summer!

My dissertation focuses specifically on masculine trauma, 19th Century adventure fiction (such as that by Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, among other books), and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. I spend most of my days poring over historical manuscripts that specifically reference or recall the Mutiny in order to prove that adventure fiction writers, even 40 years later, were still haunted by the event. Nothing beats getting to reference “the horror, the horror” in daily conversations!

As Kim’s Teaching Assistant for 20th Century Drama this year, I spent most of the time outside of my comfort zone (and loving it). When I was first assigned this TAship last summer, my initial concern was that I wasn’t going to be a good enough resource for the students. They’d surely “sniff out” that I didn’t belong there.

However, after Kim dubbed me our “expert learner” I felt better about my role in the classroom. Based on my past experiences with different online platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, I decided that the most effective way to help students (since I didn’t have a tutorial) was to use the resource already there: the class’s wordpress blog.

As Kim mentioned in a recent post on this blog, I created the “Supplementary Course Reader” tab in order to “reach out” to students and feel more involved in the class. I also had the opportunity to present multiple pocket lectures throughout the year, many based on posts I’d write for the Reader.

The Reader served multiple functions:

  • It provided a space for me to write down my “first impressions” of the assigned readings. Like the students, I was reading the material for the first time. Students often told me that seeing my initial impressions helped them shape their own approaches to the text as time went on. More often than not, Teaching Assistants are assigned courses outside their own area. For those looking for ways to still contribute to the classroom and student learning, I highly recommend this option.
  •  My posts took a number of forms: critical summaries, my own questions, additional research I discovered, and even a few informal essays I wrote in response to the course material. I changed it up every so often because I knew students wouldn’t necessarily have the time to read more extensive posts (and I sometimes didn’t have enough time to do more). Additionally, each student learns differently: some need summary, some struggle with asking the right questions, and some need help moving beyond the material itself. A “Supplementary Reader” isn’t more information students “need” to know; the Reader provides students the tools to better appreciate and understand the primary material they’re reading. In fact, I was rewarded by my efforts as one of my students approached me after I posted about language in Maria Kizito; she told me she was inspired by the lesson and then chose to write her final paper exploring the issue. I’m very happy to say that student was recently accepted into the English MA program at Western.
  • “Historical Background”. Given the vast amount of history touched on in the many plays we read this year, there was a ton of information that students wouldn’t necessarily be aware of, nor would they have time to learn about it formally in class. Some of my posts, especially regarding Residential schools in Canada (in relation to Tara Beagan’s play, Miss Julie: Sheh’mah), the AIDS crisis (for our week on DNA Theatre’s The Last Supper), and the Rwandan genocide (for Maria Kizito, as well as for Michael Redhill’s Goodness), provided historical information rather than an “argument” in relation to the primary texts. I was happy to see students draw on the information they learned from the Reader in their own class presentations, particularly in the “Peer Teach” exercises that I helped lead in our class.

While all posts were extremely interesting to research and write, my favourite by far was my very first post on A Doll’s House, the first play listed on the course syllabus. As someone who specializes in the nineteenth century, it meant a lot to me to be able to share my knowledge of my own area with the students at the very beginning of the year. I was able to demonstrate (despite my lack of background in 20th Century Drama) that I could still talk about relevant course themes in critical ways.

In Kim’s post on May 19, she suggested asking students to create their own Supplementary Course Reader as a way for them to engage with the course material. I am thoroughly on board with this idea, as I think, once students get the hang of it, it is a great (and safe) space for them to push their knowledge of course material beyond the course itself.

Moving the discussion of the Supplementary Course Reader in another direction, however, I’d like to end this post on issues relating specifically to Teaching Assistants. Many of you reading this are most likely academics or teachers. You went through graduate school and were may have been a Teaching Assistant yourself. The dynamic between Professors and Teaching Assistants is something many institutions are still trying to get “right”. I’ve heard some horror stories over the years from colleagues and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had such positive experiences.

However, while all my experiences for the past five years have been positive, no TA assignment afforded me with as much opportunity, knowledge, and pleasure as my recent TAship with Kim. Although she was under no obligation to include me to the extent that she did, her willingness to support my individual learning and teaching pedagogy gave me the necessary expertise and confidence to one day teach my own course.

My Supplementary Course Reader, therefore, was more than just a resource for our 20th Century Drama students; it is a testament to Kim’s treatment of me as an equal, and for that I am forever grateful. In these uncertain times for Graduate students, I can only hope that other Professors look to their Teaching Assistants the way Kim looked to me. I also hope that one day (should I ever become a Professor) I might inspire in my Teaching Assistants the same passion for an area outside their own research that Kim instilled in me.

Madison Bettle