3 Lessons I Learned from Guest Lecturing This Semester

A year ago, I wouldn’t have even considered guest lecturing. Or maybe, more accurately, two years ago, since a year ago I was presenting a paper at a conference in Prague.

I’ve never been especially charismatic. On most occasions it takes someone else initiating conversation for me to work up the courage to speak.

Even after years of practice, when I teach I always write out notes just in case I forget something. I’m always shocked when I find out that a colleague just “wings it” – no notes, not even a Powerpoint to illustrate their points.

So you might be wondering how I found myself guest lecturing not once, but five times in the course of the last term. Well, we have to thank COVID-19.

Can you believe it’s done something good?

The pandemic led to more virtual events than I can count and more time connecting with like-minded individuals online than ever before. If it weren’t for the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have been considered a viable candidate for guest lecturing.

Heck, I didn’t even think of myself as a viable candidate when the instructors reached out to me. Imposter syndrome hit me and I’d question whether I had anything to contribute to people who had more experience than me in the field.

I’m just a graduate student after all.

While the fact that I am a graduate student is technically true, what isn’t true is that I wasn’t cut out for guest lecturing. I did have something to contribute. This was the first thing that I learned from my experience.

Guest lecturing can be daunting but rewarding

Lesson 1: You are the expert on something – that’s why you were asked to give a guest lecture

You might, like me, feel the dark cloud of imposter syndrome looming everyday as a graduate student. More so, if you’re a graduate student of color.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t belong, or that you have nothing important to contribute to the broader academic community. This is especially true when your ideas, opinions, and efforts have gone unnoticed and unappreciated for so long.

But what’s important to remember is that you do have something important to contribute, especially if you are a graduate student. Think with me for a moment.

Have you ever given a presentation or delivered a paper, at a symposium at your institution or at a larger conference?

Have you written a research paper on a specific topic?

Whether you’ve presented at a conference or not, you almost certainly have had to write a research paper. That means that you spent hours, days, or weeks delving into scholarship relating to a specific topic or idea. Sure, other people discussed the topic in the past – you wouldn’t have scholarship to consult if they hadn’t.

But the final product of your presentation or paper, informed by your own interests and perspectives, is uniquely yours.

That makes you an expert on the topic.

That is what you have to contribute, even if it was a one-time project that you forgot about for several months or years. Keep those papers, projects, and presentations. You never know when you might want to revisit them.

Lesson 2: I like to teach, but I like teaching things I want to teach more

Teaching in graduate school is generally not the most creative endeavor.

Most often you’re a teaching assistant who grades papers and/or leads small discussion sections of larger lecture courses. Rarely are you responsible for designing the schedule or selecting the course content. This can be a blessing, but mostly it’s a curse.

Classics programs pride themselves on giving their graduate students a breadth of teaching opportunities. I myself have taught courses on Greek and Roman archaeology, history of art, Greek civilization, writing, and Roman sport.

I can’t say that any of these courses particularly excited me when I taught them.

What excited me, however, was the freedom in selecting what I wanted to guest lecture on this term. All of my guest lectures were on topics that I felt pretty good about and was interested enough in to do them justice.

Even though all of my guest lectures were virtual (thanks, COVID), I found deeper enjoyment in talking about topics with which I had real experience.

This is something that is severely lacking in Classics courses in general. I don’t think grad students ever really have opportunities to talk about their own experiences.

This is particularly problematic for graduate students of color. We are so deeply inundated by the Classical Studies way of life that we don’t stop and recognize our own difference or how it relates to what we study and teach.

Lesson 3: Guest lecturing allows for more representation in our classrooms

I think that the real reason why I was invited to give so many guest lectures was because I am a graduate student of color. Don’t get me wrong: I do have some degree of personal connection with all of the instructors.

But I think the real impetus was to bring more diverse voices, faces, and perspectives into their classes.

I can’t say that I am upset about it. In fact, it has made me think more about my positionality as a Black woman in Classical Studies. It forced me to face both my joys and insecurities of being in this field.

It also made me wonder whether bringing in BIPOC scholars as guest speakers had occurred as much before the pandemic. My guess is that this wasn’t the case, but my hope is that it continues even in a post-COVID world.

We see now how easy it can be to reach out to others in the field. In the future, even if someone can’t visit in person, we should remember that virtual visits are an option.

As someone who never saw POC in the classes I took as a Classics major, I think that representation is so important. We need to do a better job of highlighting the contributions of BIPOC scholars in our classrooms.

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