Laurier Brantford's Peter Farrugia shares how rewarding, yet challenging, it can be to teach first year students
Teaching first-year students can be both incredibly rewarding and very challenging.
Dr. Peter Farrugia, a contemporary studies and history professor at Laurier, will attest. "We come out of grad school, an environment where everyone around us is equally knowledgeable and invested in the subject matter, and we begin teaching a first-year course, and we don't realize that we can't pitch the material at that level," says Farrugia, the Contemporary Studies program coordinator.
"That was certainly something I had to learn, as I started off with very high, somewhat unrealistic, expectations," he adds. "New teachers, in the past especially, often weren't fully aware of the environment in which they're teaching, where there may be a lot students taking the first-year course as an elective, or to fill a slot in their timetable."
Before landing a teaching position in Laurier's Department of History in 1997, Farrugia taught on a part-time basis at a number of universities, after completing his Honours B.A. in History at Trent University, then doctoral studies at Worcester College, Oxford University. In 1999, he was hired as one of three full-time faculty at the new Brantford Campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.
And while Dr. Farrugia instructs courses at all levels, from the third-year “Contemporary Europe (1945) to the Present”' to the fourth-year History course “International Relations,” he enjoys the challenge of teaching bigger classes, such as CT 121 “The World in the 21st Century.”
"I see it as an opportunity to excite students about contemporary studies," says Farrugia. "I think first-year courses are arguably the most important courses in whatever discipline. And because that first year is so critical, I do my best to emphasize my own enthusiasm for the subject matter, and demonstrate to the students how contemporary studies is relevant to whatever they choose to do in their post-university career."
He adds: "Having said that, I think regardless of the size and setting of the classroom, or year level, the genuine enthusiasm of the instructor is something that will either engage a student or turn them off completely. And I don't think you can manufacture that enthusiasm if you don't truly feel it."
Farrugia says a first-year contemporary studies course usually makes for a class of diverse interests, and an exciting opportunity for him as an instructor: "Here at Brantford, where contemporary studies is a core program, you might have a criminology student sitting next to a journalism student right next to a continuing education student. So, their interest levels might vary a little, along with their specific goals, and that's definitely something you have to take into account when teaching."
That's why Farrugia strives to use various teaching methods within the classroom to engage and encourage active learning. "Variety is important, as I try different ways of presenting material while mixing it up -- from power point presentations, to traditional straight lecture, to breaking bigger classes down into smaller units to tackle specific readings or issues," he says. "Sometimes I surprise them with something radically different, like in first year I do a re-enactment.
"Just as instructors have different teaching styles, students have different learning styles," he adds. "So, just standing there in front of a classroom, reading from a text book, is not going to engage them. And I can see that a lot of graduate programs now include explicit attention to teaching. I don't think that was the case 20 years ago.
"I know that I've certainly been impressed with some of the recent additions we've had at the Brantford campus. I'm talking about new teachers who have hit the ground running, and have really impressed me with their teaching skills. Grad students are more prepared these days."
Feedback from former students he has taught is something Farrugia highly values: "We've had students go on to work in disciplines like history, religion and culture, philosophy, and environment sciences. We've also had people go into law, or teaching, and the feedback we get from them is they feel that, compared to their peers, they have a little better understanding of how their specific area is connected to wider issues across society.
"And that's rewarding to hear, because that's what we as instructors are trying to do. We want to get our students thinking about something like climate change, or war and peace, or income disparities, and understand how those things are all multifaceted. And that you can't just look at these issues from an economic point of view, or a historical perspective — but rather you need to bring multiple lenses to bear."
Farrugia concludes: "Teaching those first-year courses, I get to see how the students -- by the time they are seniors -- gradually realize how contemporary studies and history is applicable and has value to whatever they want to do in life -- whether that be law, or teaching, or journalism, or working in an office, or for an organization. I've learned through experience how incredibly rewarding it can be teaching those first-year students."
And that's why Dr. Farrugia is up for that challenge.
Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at
Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University
Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is
a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer
for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).