Trial by Fire: Reflections on a first TA assignment.

Today’s post is the last in a series from our fall semester TA, Molly, who was a first year MA assigned to the project with little to no background in our areas of focus. Here are her thoughts on surviving her first semester of grad school and her first TA ship. Everyone at FSTS would like to thank Molly for her hard work over the semester, and looks forward to watching her succeed in her chosen field.

 All I know is that…if I don’t know something, somebody else probably does.

There comes a time in the life of every grad student when she is asked to teach a room full of undergrads about something she knows absolutely nothing about. While that was, apparently, not a problem for Mr. All-I-Know-is-That-I-Know-Nothing Socrates, for me that time came repeatedly over the course of this term. Being the TA for From Stone to Screen has been quite an interesting whirlwind-style experience for a first-time TA, a trial by fire for the teaching initiate, if you will. When I first joined the project, I knew exactly one thing about our collections, namely that there were squeezes. I had also just done two years of language study, exclusively, so, as a (then-)hardcore Hellenist, my Roman history was fuzzy, and my Near Eastern history was nonexistent. Thus, when I learned that I would be teaching undergrads about Roman coins (gasp!), Egyptian amulets shaped like weird animals…among other things (oh my!), and over 200 artifacts from Bahrain (eegad!), I calmly nodded and accepted the task. “Why yes,” I said with my very best fake-confident voice, “of course I can do that!” Noooooo problemo.


This is how I dress for all my teaching gigs.

Then I went home and panicked to my poor, defenseless boyfriend. “I don’t remember anything about Constantine!”, “What on earth can I say about this lumpy figurine?”, “I don’t know anything about coins except how to spend them!”, “Bahrain is definitely…a place…in the world.” What could I, but a wee, scared first year MA student who knew an awful lot about ancient cured meats and absolutely nothing about numismatics, possibly have to say about, for example, a Denarius of Caracalla?


At the time, my scholarly opinion was that Mr. Imperator “looks real mad.” O.J. Todd Collection, Coin 38: Denarius of Caracalla (obverse), 217 CE

As it turns out, I couldn’t say much except that his expression was very grumpy, but fortunately I learned a ton in the process of researching our artifacts, and not all of it was about the objects themselves. For one, I learned why we’re all specialists: there’s a TON of information out there, and it’s impossible for one person to memorize all of it. Second, I learned how valuable it can be to collaborate with those specialists in order to do the best possible job of teaching. As grad students, we’ve grown accustomed to trying to hide the fact that we just don’t know everything, and I think that comes to the detriment of our education and our work; we worry that the fact that we can’t remember something we learned, or that we never learned something that we should have, will cause some sort of grave, career-ruining disappointment. Instead, it gets in the way of us working with others to become better teachers and scholar than we could be on our own. And isn’t being a better teacher and scholar the whole point of what we’re doing, anyway?

For example, when I started working on a teaching module about Roman coins for the University of Otago in New Zealand, I had no idea how I would be able to learn or remember everything I needed to know in time to finish the project. When I first spoke with my collaborator, Chloe Cabanne-Martin (the curator of our O. J. Todd collection), I had to admit that I didn’t know the first thing about numismatics. She (very patiently) taught me what she knew, and when we found gaps in our knowledge, we consulted Drs. Matt McCarty and Gwynaeth McIntyre (who is overseeing our work on the teaching module and collaborating with us to put it together), and we even arranged a Skype session with a friend of mine back in Philadelphia, Jane Sancinito (you can see her guest post on the FSTS blog here), who I’m pretty sure knows everything there is to know about Roman coins.

“one of the great boons of academia is that we are constantly surrounded by experts on everything imaginable, and that gives us an incredible opportunity for collaboration.”



It can be tricky sometimes, but as you can see by their dress, these otters are clearly too late to be a Roman Imperial family. Image ©2013-2015 KingLeonLionheart

Was it a little embarrassing to tell a prof that I couldn’t remember most of what happened in the 4th century CE? Sure, but it actually turned out that looking at and researching artifacts with some guidance from profs and friends was a great way to review what I had forgotten. The last time I took a Roman history class was four years ago, so by the time I got to the O.J. Todd Collection, I couldn’t tell a Severan from a sea otter (okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration). If you asked me what “asses” were, I would have pointed you to the Republican presidential candidates rather than to a large, cast bronze Roman coin that was worth about 1/16 of a denarius. If you said “exergue,” I would have said, “gesundheit!” Now, I’m almost finished co-creating a teaching module that I can honestly say I’m pretty proud of, and I also know way more about Roman coins than I ever thought I would, plus, I am now a total champ at telling apart Roman emperors and aquatic mammals.

In the end, it’s actually really cool to think about the fact that I can now teach a classroom full of people about something that I didn’t know the first thing about in September. It’s also neat to have learned about something I never would have read about on my own and to do so by reading the awesome books that they recommended (rather than slogging through all the relevant, or deceptively irrelevant, books in the library) because, well, they’ve already read all the books and know which ones are worth reading. So, I’d say, maybe Socrates was onto something when he went around asking people questions, except, perhaps, for the fact that he was trying to prove that everyone else didn’t know anything either. In reality, one of the great boons of academia is that we are constantly surrounded by experts on every ancient thing imaginable, and that gives us an incredible opportunity for collaboration.

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