Theatre and Collaboration: Finding a Mentor and Learning How to Teach

Example for Current Project
Project learned at Cobalt Scenic Studios | Painted by Jess Fitzpatrick

When people ask me how I found my faculty mentor for this fellowship, I tell them that it was actually flipped. My faculty mentor, Gianni Downs, sent me an email with this opportunity after I expressed interest in TA’ing his scene painting class. Together we worked on what this project could be and how I could incorporate my previous research into being a TA. While this isn’t necessarily the traditional path towards finding a mentor, the theatre department isn’t exactly traditional. The department itself is on the smaller end, and we have the unique experience of working on shows with many of the department’s faculty through UP Stages’ production season. So a professor you have for class one semester could also be the director, designer, or choreographer of the show you’re working on. The necessarily collaborative nature of the theatre department quickly creates a small community in which everyone sort of just knows everyone. I met Gianni the first semester of my first year because I took his scenic design class. From there, he became my advisor as I began to scenic design shows for the department. Through the years, he’s advised me and many others on research, teaching, and design opportunities. I’ve taken most of the classes he’s taught and also now TA’ed for a couple of them. While it might not be this easy to find a faculty mentor in a larger department, my advice to anyone looking is to find a professor you like, who teaches classes interesting to you, Take several of their classes and strengthen that relationship. If you already know that you like how a certain professor teaches, then you are more likely to enjoy their other classes and feel more comfortable collaborating with them, especially on teaching projects such CUTF. 

Now that’s not to say that just because you’ve taken some classes with a professor that the jump to collaborating on a class is any less steep. Rather that you have a foundation in their teaching style and feel confident that you have something valuable to learn from them. What I have really appreciated about working with Gianni over the last couple of years, is that he consistently checks in to make sure that I feel like I’m getting what I want out of the opportunities he mentors me through and that I am not overwhelmed by the workload. It can be really easy as students to feel so lucky to have an opportunity that you forget to make sure that you are getting what you want out of it. Through collaborating with Gianni on classes, I have learned how to be upfront about what I feel I can bring to the table in order to better the class, what my weak spots are, and what I experience I want to gain from the collaboration. While it may feel awkward or self-serving to bring up at first, it helps make sure that you are both on the same page and working towards the same goals. More practically when it comes to working together in the class, I’ve found it extremely helpful to meet beforehand and discuss my role in the classroom. Am I there to help plan the course,  prep materials and the classroom, give presentations or demos, lead the class one day, or provide feedback to students’ work? When and how I am doing these things? Nailing out the practicalities of your work before the course begins and checking in throughout the semester to review and reevaluate are both extremely important to understanding what’s expected of you.

 If that all sounds completely overwhelming to you that’s okay. That’s why your mentor is there to guide you through it. But also, if you’re interested in teaching but don’t feel ready quite yet to jump into TA’ing and finding a mentor, Pitt’s Department of Education offers some wonderful intro level classes on teaching and education that go through the fundamentals in an accessible and low pressure environment. Whatever path you choose it’s important to remember that you are a student and teaching is a skill that can take decades to learn. It’s okay to make mistakes, and hopefully with the help of your mentor or professor you can learn from them.

Class Demo Prep

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