There are essays to mark yet and a final exam to invigilate, but as of today I’ve wrapped up my second term as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in the Department of Humanities at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
Here are some key insights I’ve gained through this experience:
- I enjoy teaching at the post-secondary undergraduate level.
- I love the Humanities.
- I feel a special affinity to SFU and particularly the Burnaby campus.
My enjoyment has come from the interaction with students in an environment which encourages discussion. And there have been many ideas to discuss! Our texts this term ranged from the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles to Plato’s Apology to the medieval French chanson de geste, The Song of Roland, to The Prince by Machiavelli, to the slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and the contemporary play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.
This literary selection speaks to me of the breadth of the human experience, the vast scope of history, and the value of the big picture. It’s also about connection from one era to the next, from the people of yesterday to those we share the world with today. Machiavelli, for example, talks about political power and while our context is radically different from 16th century Italy, when we try to understand recent Canadian political scandals such as the Robocall affair or the F-35 fiasco, are we not considering some of the very same principles he explored in his writing?
It may be depressing to think that with all of humanity’s progress, human beings and human nature seem to remain stubbornly the same. Perhaps, on the other hand, there is reason to be optimistic since the study of texts such as these validate and reaffirm our human existence. We have a place in this world and we have the ability to expand and enhance our understanding of who we are. Study in this area helps us see the connection to where we’ve come from and perhaps will help us carve out a better path to where we hope to be.
Here’s something else I’ve decided based on my experience at the university. Education in K to 12 is due for an overhaul. We see this “renaissance” starting in the inquiry-based pedagogical approach that is taking hold and in the support initiatives which recognize the needs of the whole child such as self-regulation. But systematic change is needed.
And we need to make sure that students know how to ask questions and establish their own expectations around their learning experiences.
Each term, I’ve started off my tutorials asking students to identify the expectations and the concerns they have regarding the course. While they seem to have no difficulty in listing their concerns — the amount of reading, the writing load, marks, and so forth — they seem unable to verbalize their expectations.
Is this perhaps because the system has always told them what to expect and what their learning outcomes ought to be? Have we failed to inculcate our students with the ability to independently identify what the purpose of learning is or what their optimal learning experience may look like?
It seems to me that at the very least an undergraduate should be able to say, “I expect to learn.”
And if I can play a part in that learning, then I think, after years of searching, I may just have found my life’s passion.