Developing close working relationships with your professors is by far the best way to get involved with research and other fellowships here at Pitt. My faculty mentor, Dr. Lori Campbell, has actually been a part of my journey at Pitt since before I even officially started here. In the spring of 2019, just a few weeks before my first summer classes, the Fantasy Studies Fellowship (a fantasy book club sponsored by Dr. C) hosted a diversity panel called “Many Worlds, More Voices.” This panel invited three authors to campus to speak about diversity in fantasy and science fiction. Among the panelists was V.E. Schwab, New York Times Bestselling author of Vicious and the Shades of Magic series. I was a longtime fan of Schwab’s writing, and interested in the subject matter, so I made sure to attend the panel. It was my first ever Pitt event! Afterward, I reached out to Dr. C to let her know how good I thought the panel was, and to ask how I could get involved with the FSF. That fall, I took her “Harry Potter: Blood, Power, Culture” course, and in the spring, I worked as a UTA for her UHC course “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Counter-Culture.” Now, a little over a year later, I am also the Vice President of the FSF. I am so grateful for Dr. C’s guidance, and the ways she looks at literature and education have definitely influenced my own thinking for the better.
After my experience as a UTA in the spring, Dr. C invited me to TA for her again this semester, this time for “Harry Potter.” Since I had already taken the class and also worked with Dr. C before, it was the perfect opportunity for me to turn my teaching experience into a CUTF.
Moving from the role of a student to the role of a collaborator with Dr. C has actually been a fairly smooth transition. In the spring when I UTA’d for “Tolkien,” I was given the opportunity to teach if I chose to, and of course to observe every class period. I think that working more behind the scenes in the spring semester definitely prepared me to take a more active role this time around, and I have had the chance to do so both during regular class time and in leading out-of-class discussion groups. One of my largest apprehensions, or perhaps insecurities, about teaching has been simply adapting to being the authority figure in a lecture scenario. Gaining the confidence to answer questions assertively and learning to do things like keep a discussion on track are much easier said than done! That said, I am becoming better with this as time goes on. Another daunting thing comes in the form of those moments of being faced with silence, when it seems like no students are willing to engage in the discussion or answer questions. When I expressed that I was nervous about this before my first time teaching this semester, the most basic advice Dr. C gave was to simply reframe the question, because sometimes all students need is another angle for things to “click.” She also suggested that sometimes they may just need a few moments to think about their answer, and that giving them that time and acknowledging that you have asked a complicated question can give them the confidence to give it a shot. Another way that she actively encourages students to share their thoughts is by reaffirming that there is usually no “right” answer when it comes to discussion. Our class has definitely benefitted from this, and some students have become so passionate about discussion that on several occasions, they have stayed behind after class to continue expressing their viewpoint!
I do find that I notice these teaching strategies more in class now that I know to look for them. Paying attention to the teaching of a lecture rather than just the lecture itself is a different experience. I am glad to have had the experience of taking “Harry Potter” as a student last year, because my familiarity with the course has allowed me to really expand the way I look at it now.
One of my favorite parts of this class so far has actually been providing feedback on writing assignments. I think that my past experience with the course and the materials has also allowed for me to do this even more effectively. Writing is a passion of mine, and helping students to look at things in a new way and to craft the strongest possible iteration of their assignment is both fun and rewarding. Overall, “Harry Potter” has been a wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester brings.
If I were giving advice to other students on how to connect with faculty mentors, I would say that when you hear a lecture, read an article, or take a class with someone whose work or teaching you admire, let them know! Send a thank you email, and ask how you can become more involved. I’ve made connections with other professors in this way as well, and those relationships have all, in different ways, helped to guide me on my undergrad journey and as I prepare for grad school. This also goes for those students who want to learn more about teaching but aren’t sure where to start: your professors are your best resource! You can also sign up for Education classes; last fall, I took a course which not only taught me a lot about teaching, but also connected me with multiple Education professors that I still communicate with a year later. I strongly suggest taking initiative and reaching out—your professors want to help you succeed!