Teaching Roman history for the first time

Arianna Zapelloni Pavia prepares to teach her class.

BY ARIANNA ZAPELLONI PAVIA, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

My life as a PhD student is not always easy. The commitment it requires sometimes feels like a heavy load that I am not sure I am handling well. On top of these difficulties, as an international student, I also face the challenge of being far from home. I have learned to accept that I will lie awake on certain nights and think of all the things I am missing out on back home.

Suddenly, in my second year, after only three days of training, I entered my first class as an instructor: 25 students are sitting in front of me, some looking at me with curiosity, others still busy with their phones, but all waiting for me to say something.

Honestly, I thought I would exit the classroom after my first day feeling unworthy. Looking back, I do not know exactly what happened that day, but as soon as I began talking, the insecurity and anxiety vanished. My fear of being ill equipped slowly faded away and made me realize that I am a young scholar who loves what she does, and facing the challenge of teaching is part of my role as a student. I recognized that I was just being myself, trying to pass on to my students my own energy and passion for the topic.

Now, teaching is one of the most stimulating and rewarding parts of my semester. It is amazing to see how the class develops its own personality and reactions to my teaching style. One of the most valuable things I am learning is that humor can be effective in breaking barriers between me and the students. I also noticed that making connections with personal experience helps students see Roman history as something more than just a remote past. Once, while reading Livy, I remarked that Camillus’s feelings toward Rome are the same feelings I have when I think about this city, my hometown. It is when I see that the students are becoming more engaged and are learning new concepts, while at the same time I manage to create a relaxing environment, that I know I am on the right path to one day becoming a professor.

Learning is not a one-way street. I, myself, am learning a lot. Every time I leave the classroom I carry with me new insights that I received from my students. Interacting with undergraduates from a wide range of disciplines, who do not necessarily have the background I take for granted, sometimes leads to questions about fundamentals of Roman history that many of us in academia consider self-evident. Moreover, explaining these fundamentals to students helps me to focus on the most important things, to simplify difficult concepts and make them approachable. As a result I have clearer ideas of the topic I am teaching.

Teaching is also a refuge for me. When I feel overwhelmed by classes and research, it is very comforting to know that I can still shut everything out of my mind for the two hours I spend in the classroom talking about the Roman Republic.

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