Reflections 1: Anxieties of a Graduate Teaching Assistant

For postgraduate students there is a tendency to feel our identities have been subsumed under the research we carry out. The dissertation reflects the ultimate form of self-expression even if it is the ideas, not the sentiments behind them, that determine its value. However, there are other instances where the ‘personality’ of research carries great currency in academia. In their second year, several PhD students opt to teach undergraduate seminars. What I have learned from this experience, thus far, is that how I engage with the material shapes their educational experience in the classroom.

This term, one of the modules I’m involved with is taught by my supervisor. Knowing him quite well, it is interesting to see how much of his personality comes into the content of the course. The lectures and seminar activities demonstrate a comprehensive presentation of the module’s topic but also relate back to several critical issues approached in his own research. While he is careful to establish a line between content, criticism, and even personal sentiment, the environment of active engagement that he creates prompts students to do the same. Not all academics are comfortable bringing passion into the classroom.

Typically, my approach to teaching seminars is to establish a sense of continuity with the lectures, even if it means adopting a teaching style different from my own. GTAs often teach seminars outside their areas of specialization, so in many cases letting the module convener take the lead is the safest approach. However, this term I’m teaching a course in line with my research interests and an opportunity has presented itself to give a lecture on my dissertation topic. The project is quite niche, involving poetry and music that would be unfamiliar to many of my colleagues, let alone undergraduate students. It is the broader cultural phenomenon that this material reflects that makes it relevant.

In every seminar I teach, I open the discussion by asking what the reading is bringing to current scholarship. It reminds students that the research they’re engaging with is not important simply because they’ll be assessed on it, but because it is making an impact on the outside world. With respect to our own research, I think this is something that we as postgraduate students sometimes forget. The viva for us is akin to the final examination for undergrads, at least for now, carrying a greater stake over the dissertation’s potential legacy. Having to validate my research by showing its relevance in broader scholarship means interrogating it in a way that leaves one feeling quite vulnerable. Do my questions matter? Will these ideas serve as a torch to explore further avenues of inquiry? In the end, perhaps these determinations are not measured in peer review but in the classroom as well.

Nicholas Rheubottom is a second-year PhD student in Music Research at King’s College London and an editor of the Still Point Journal.


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