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Early Career Teaching Award spotlight: Q & A with historian Kyle Smith

Facilitating self-directed learning and analysis, helping students see material from a different angle

“There is little use in knowing every plot twist of a given text if one has no knowledge of the interpretive strategies at work, no idea of how to read the text within a larger rhetorical agenda, and no way of situating the text within a broader historica

Teaching analysis of reality TV alongside early Christian religion is one of the many ways assistant professor Kyle Smith of historical studies engages his students at U of T’s Mississauga campus.
 
“His uniqueness in teaching is his ability to expand the material beyond the books,” said Hammad Khan, a sociology PhD and one of Smith’s former Christian history undergraduate students. “His use of pop-culture, art, literature and material from other academic disciplines in topics of religion make his lessons insightful and fun.”
 
Khan said Smith “teaches with clarity and challenges his students to think critically” and inspired him to pursue a career in teaching. “His influence gave me the direction and motivation I needed in my own life.” 
 
Smith is one of four teaching leaders receiving the first-ever University of Toronto Early Career Teaching Awards this year. They are:
 
Kyle Smith, assistant professor, department of historical studies, UTM
 
This is the third instalment of the U of T News series of profiles on each of the winners (read about biologist Fiona Rawle; read about astronomer Mike Reid.) They are set to receive their certificates at the University of Toronto Excellence in Teaching Reception on Nov. 3 from 5:00pm-7:00pm in the Common Room at Massey College.
 

 
What drew you to teaching?
I didn't know too many academics when I was growing up but there was one father of a neighborhood friend who was influential. He was a law professor at the University of Kentucky. He had this very quiet and pensive demeanour. Unlike a lot of parents, he never told us anything. He'd just question us all the time and lead us to think about our own thinking.
 
For some reason, the trappings of an antiquarian academic life were also exotically appealing to me as an eleven-year old. My friend's father embodied all the old-fashioned, Oxbridge stereotypes of the university professor: he wore jackets with elbow patches; he rode a creaky bicycle to campus (years before bike-commuting was “green” or fashionable); his book- lined study smelled of old wood, pipe tobacco, and bourbon; and he rarely had any idea where he had left his keys. That seemed like an intriguing life to me, although it's far from the one I lead now!
 
Later on, when I was in high school, I spent a lot of time at Korean Zen Buddhist monastery in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. I'd drive there and camp out on their land for the weekend and spend most of the time reading rather than meditating in the zendo at 4 AM. That was very influential, too. I already knew that I wanted to study philosophy in university and, hopefully, become a professor someday, but those trips to the monastery confirmed it.
 
Why is integrating research and teaching important?
Although my research is focused mainly on Christian martyrdom literature from late antiquity, my teaching is not located solely in antiquity.
 
No matter what course I am teaching, I make a point of explaining how religious studies can be broadly important and applicable beyond seemingly discrete corners of abstruse research. For this reason, I am committed to integrating instruction in methodological approaches to religious studies alongside the primary material on which a course is based. My hope is that students do not passively receive the history of Christianity as an amusing catalog of dead antiquities, but actively engage it as a living object of inquiry with contemporary relevance.
 
My principal goal is to lay a foundation of primary material that orients students to a field of study. Upon that foundation, I seek to build a framework of analysis upon which students can rely to evaluate and synthesize the material they have learned. There is little use in knowing every plot twist of a given text if one has no knowledge of the interpretive strategies at work, no idea of how to read the text within a larger rhetorical agenda, and no way of situating the text within a broader historical context.
 
Uniting methodological instruction with primary material helps build direct and indirect links to a larger curriculum of study and the interstices between courses where the truest learning often occurs.
 
I can recall my own experience as an undergraduate in this regard: a course I took on The Brothers Karamazov came alive through a course on early modern philosophy that I was taking simultaneously. I intentionally design my syllabi along thematic and comparative lines to help facilitate this same sort of self-directed learning and analysis among my students. I often pair ancient texts with secondary sources that examine the thought-world of the primary texts, but then I integrate tertiary sources that may be temporally, culturally, or religiously distinct from the world of the primary sources. Introducing this third component is not intended as a way of making a blithe comparison, but rather of seeing the primary material anew and from a very different angle.
 
For example, in my seminar on early Christian asceticism we spend one session discussing the literary re-fashioning of female bodies that occurs in late ancient accounts of “harlots” who become holy women. Our primary sources are Greek and Latin hagiographical texts; our secondary sources are gender theory readings of these ancient texts; and our tertiary source is a chapter about the construction of female gender normativity from a recent study of “makeover” reality TV.
 
This approach allows students to use the primary sources to become familiar with the ancient texts themselves, the secondary sources to understand the primary texts more fully, and the tertiary sources to go beyond (and yet return to) both the primary and secondary sources to ask, in this case, fresh questions about gendered discourses in the late ancient Mediterranean world as well as twenty-first-century America and Canada.