- Quis docebit ipsos doctores? A Graduate Student Perspective on Learning to Teach Classics
The field of classics has traditionally prepared many of its college- and university-level teachers by more or less directly plunging them into the classroom, having [End Page 104] them “learn on the fly.”1 Most professors enter their first full-time teaching positions having obtained teaching experience as graduate students, but rarely is this experience accompanied by formal training in pedagogy. As a current Ph.D. student who has taught various undergraduate courses in the fields of classics and English literature in the City University of New York system over the past five years, I would like to reflect upon some of the challenges that come with being cast into the teaching role with little to no prior formal educational training. By outlining some of my personal experiences as a classics instructor, I will provide a lens through which to examine some of the problems and growing pains a graduate student instructor might experience when trying to figure out how to teach, and I will also suggest that some aspects of my experience may reflect an ongoing shift (for the better) in how the profession is training new teachers. Many of the issues I will share are common to the general experience of graduate students or recent Ph.D.s teaching classics, while others are more specific to teaching in a large urban university system.
In the fall of 2008, I started teaching my first undergraduate course in classics, a core-curriculum course called “Classical Cultures” intended to expose students to works of Greek and Roman literature in English translation. A couple of months before the course started, the department in which I would be teaching provided me with a sample syllabus that an instructor had used to teach the course previously. I was told that I had the freedom to adapt this syllabus as I saw fit, but I was not totally sure what to do with this information. Having never designed a syllabus and having never received any training in this, I was nervous about making too many alterations to the sample syllabus. To be sure, the department offered a three-hour orientation session a few days before classes for the semester started, and has continued to do so prior to each semester I have taught there, and these sessions have been very helpful in elucidating departmental policies and planting the seeds for certain teaching skills to be developed. At the same time, a three-hour session is perhaps not enough, especially for someone going into their first semester of teaching classics.
To return to my first syllabus: I had never even selected or ordered textbooks for a course, making me still more hesitant to adopt sweeping changes. Regarding the course policies on the sample syllabus, I could see that expectations for aspects such as attendance, participation, and submitting work late were not specified, but I was not really sure how much specificity was necessary. Feeling as if in a state of aporia, I naturally turned to my own past learning experiences as a way of reflecting on these issues. Typically, the syllabi I had received for both my undergraduate and graduate courses gave little explanation about the criteria in question. While such ambiguity might suffice in certain learning environments, I quickly came to believe that the lack of a precise and detailed policy about such matters, at the school where I was now teaching, could unintentionally give rise to a set of problems and complications. [End Page 105]
In fact, I soon realized that my entire learning experience had occurred in environments dramatically different from the one in which I was now employed. While I was greatly excited by the opportunity to work with students from a diverse range of backgrounds—in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, educational experience, age, and disability status—I was not sure how to handle myself as a teacher in such a dynamic situation. Since I had not yet established any practiced or favored teaching approaches, my first instinct was to emulate my favorite teachers, and to try to avoid being like the teachers I disliked...