Curtain Rise, Class in Session

I clearly remember the day I came up with my project topic. Or, to be more accurate, the night I came up with my project topic. Not everyone my age actively listens to opera. But I was brought up in a very classically musical household, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. After moving to Pittsburgh we discovered the Pittsburgh Opera which represented a scaled down version of the Met Opera and an arts appreciation renaissance that was taking place right in our backyard. I’ve been regularly attending the Pittsburgh Opera since I was about 12 years old and on the spring of 2022, the exact same semester I was taking Women and Literature in my freshman year of college, I saw their production of Carmen. As soon as the titular character stepped onto the Benedum stage, I was hit with a wave of ideas that had been accumulating all semester. Carmen can be analyzed from various lenses but to me the opera is particularly applicable to Dr. Whitney’s class on women in literature and the intersections between them and monsters, the female body, and the historic struggle for power. The interest was always there, I just had to find a reason to apply it.

I knew I wanted to TA for the class since I took it and it was a simple matter of asking to be put on Dr. Whitney’s list for future semesters one day after class. I would advise students who want to connect with faculty by taking advantage of the first five minutes after class ends to just speak to your professors about topics you’re interested in. Whether they be class related or something you saw on the news or a novel or a movie, your professors are just as nerdy as you and want to hear what you think.

My experience moving from student to TA has been a learning curve. I’ve had to learn to be patient with the students and also keep myself concise when teaching them. For example, when I was giving a mini-lecture and leading our discussion on Carmilla, I had to give them time to gather their thoughts in order to answer my questions. Also I quickly learned that I needed to keep the discussion to one question at a time and navigate it very precisely in order to keep it to the themes pertinent to class.

In terms of my own project, my main concern at first was not knowing what to turn it into. A research paper? A bunch of quotes? A study guide? A creative short story? A lecture? A discussion? Before the semester, I envisioned I would make a study guide as I mentioned in my last blog but I changed my mind. Thankfully, the structure of Dr. Whitney’s class is the perfect answer for my question. I chose to focus on constructing a lecture that spoke about the history of Carmen and its cultural importance in the world we live in today. This would be followed by a class discussion based on questions I curated. I want to hear what the students think of Carmen and how it relates to the topics we’ve been talking about in class.

Finally, my advice for people interested in teaching is to be curious. This is in many senses of the word. You must be curious about the topic you want to teach. Where is the original source material from? Who created it? Why? What’s the historical context of the time? What was the response to their work? Are there interpolations of it that you’re interested in? Knowing as much as you can about a topic, feeding that curiosity, I’ve learned is a crucial part of preparing to teach. Also, be curious when you’re in class as you watch your professors teach. Learn from the best. If you have a favorite Professor, try to analyze how they structure their class, read their syllabus and take notes on it, make connections between their lectures, and pay attention to how they speak during class. For me, the best way to learn how to teach can be summarized in two ways: watching and doing. I’m very excited to continue both for the rest of the semester.

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