Post-PhD Life: On Teaching

There's nothing like teaching to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of one's own education to oneself.

This semester, I was invited to teach an introductory undergraduate course on museums and heritage to about 70 students at my old alma mater. It felt strange to step into the shoes of my former instructors and to teach students in whose seat I was in not so very long ago myself. I was very apprehensive at first: what was I supposed to say? What were the key concepts and how should I communicate them?

It took me a while to choose a good textbook. I ended up using Burcaw's classic text, which is a little outdated in its theoretical stance, but provides a solid introduction to the fundamentals of museum practice. The other candidates were either too theoretical or too US-centred to be of lasting value to those few of my students who would go on to become museum and heritage professionals. The Burcaw book also helped me outline my goals for the course: as it doesn't cover heritage at all, I was on my own for that half of the course, and so used the opportunity to invite lots of local professionals as guest lecturers, to give the students a sense of the range of heritage work and issues, as well as its presence in local public life. (This also meant I didn't have to lecture much for the first half of the semester!)

It was in planning the second half of the term that I realized how far I have come as a scholar and a professional. I decided to begin planning by listing all the things I thought were important to know about museums in point form: this ended up being way more topics than I had lectures available, so I had to cut down. Already, I started to gain confidence, as I didn't have to review any published authorities to come up with this list. Some of the topics, such as marketing, or new technologies, I felt nervous in lecturing about: I am not an expert, and I really thought that my ignorance would show. It turned out, however, that I had somehow (osmosis?) managed to absorb enough pertinent facts to compose a perfectly acceptable 75-minute lecture even on these. As for delivering lectures on my own particular areas of expertise - history of museums, display and design, collections management, curation - I had to censor myself in order to keep from going off topic and over time. My learnings, let me show you them! Plus (and those of you currently writing-up will be heartened by this) I was surprised at how useful my thesis was in composing my lectures. Time and time again I found myself dipping back into my thesis literature review sections to select concepts and references that were relevant. It felt good to know that my thesis wasn't all theoretical, but had practical value in my work.

So it turns out that I am not entirely the abstruse over-educated but under-experienced academic I thought I was. I know lots of useful stuff, and even my thesis contains information that is interesting not just to me and my supervisor and examiners, but also to undergraduates from all different backgrounds (the course doesn't have any prerequisites and is not limited to students of any particular major program, so alongside art, archaeology and history students, I also had people from kinesiology, among others!). I tell you this so that in your life-or-death struggle to finish your PhDs, you can take heart in the hope that you to, will one day feel like you know "enough".


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