With a 30-year (and counting) career as a contract faculty member in several humanities departments at Trent University, Dr. Molly Blyth has lots of stories to tell about teaching.
She also uses stories to connect with her students—both the stories that emerge from the course content and students’ own stories. “I really believe strongly in storytelling, that there’s no such thing ‘truth’ or a ‘fact’ outside of context,” she explains. “With stories, you can understand and connect with students, and they can connect with each other.”
The stories continue long after students graduate. Many former students have emailed Dr. Blyth to tell her about how what she’s taught “has helped with their own lives and relationships.” One such story came from a former Indigenous Studies student now working in health care: “She told me theory had helped her become self-reflexive—that by understanding her own cultural viewpoint and knowing she was seeing the world through her own specific lens, it opened her up to the different perspectives of people from all kinds of other spaces.”
Her own experiences as a student contributed to how she delivers theory: “I decided to ensure that what I teach is accessible, and that I didn’t turn theory into an elitist discourse,” she explains. “I think theory is liberatory, and it shouldn’t be just within the ivory tower—it’s got all kinds of applications in real life.”
This term, Dr. Blyth is teaching two courses with a total of 75 students. Documenting Canada, cross-listed in English, Canadian Studies, and Women’s Studies, considers several Canadian documentary films and “a couple of creative films, all of which look at intersections of identities, and the ways contemporary film is overturning mainstream understandings of identity,” she says.
Tracy Deer’s Club Native, for example, brings up “the struggles and difficulties experienced by young Indigenous women who are living in between Mohawk culture and contemporary [Western] culture, and how they celebrate that space in between rather than choose one or the other—rather than being categorized,” says Dr. Blyth. “Students love it.”
Teaching a group of Cree students in northern Ontario first sparked her interest “in issues around white allies and decolonization,” she explains. “I realized that some suffering and risk-taking is part of it—that it takes some courage to get engaged, but that it’s really important. Also, I’ve heard many Indigenous people say they just don’t have the time to educate white people about all the issues. So there has to be a way for non-Indigenous people to take up this challenge of decolonization.”
With such goals in mind, she’s a great fit in Canadian Studies, now the main department with which she’s affiliated. “It’s a very politically engaged department,” Dr. Blyth explains. “Many faculty members are interested in social justice issues.” She adds that she feels her colleagues recognize and respect the work she does, both teaching and research. This was officially recognized in 2009, when she won the Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching. Nominations, from faculty, students and alumni, referred to her “passionate ability” to encourage students to become “more critically and positively engaged citizens of the world.”
Later in 2016, Blyth will celebrate the publication of a co-edited critical edition of an early 19th-century slave narrative by Mary Prince, transcribed by Susanna Moodie (then Strickland). Many students are familiar with Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, but few know she was also an anti-slavery activist. “Through my post-colonial theory work,” Blythe says, “I became interested in slave narratives, and I discovered that Moodie’s was instrumental to the final vote to abolish slavery in British parliament.”
Despite the fact that as a contract instructor, she can’t take paid sabbaticals to do research as can tenured faculty, she believes research is integral to teaching: “I believe you’re a good instructor only if you’re also a researcher.”
That said, both the University and CUPE have helped Blyth achieve her research-related goals. “I’ve received lots of support from the CUPE Professional Development fund—it’s been terrific,” she says. In 2000, the University’s Academic Innovation Fund provided her with $5,000 to travel with students to Dartmouth College, New Hampshire to attend a conference organized by the Native American Studies Department. In fact, while teaching Indigenous Studies courses, Blyth took her students to three different conferences. “It was really fun and a great way of seeing what was going on outside, especially in the US, in terms of the issues we were dealing with,” she says.
Teaching at Trent and watching her family grow, she realized she was here to stay. “I knew there was no way I’d leave while they were growing up, to find a position elsewhere. But I’ve not had to make a living here, there and everywhere, so I’m privileged in that respect. And that’s allowed me to be a better teacher,” she says, though she admits she sometimes had “a hard time making ends meet.”
Dr. Blyth also has a story about her children—four, in what she describes as a “blended family.” All of them went to university in Quebec; all but one “trickled back” to Trent. “They adored it, and they did really well and established those extraordinary relationships with their professors that Trent is known for,” she says.
As for her own role as Trent faculty member and parent, she thinks she’s influenced her children by “just really loving my teaching, and by talking about ideas—all the conversations we’ve had have informed their values and their politics, and I’m grateful for that.”
Dr. Blyth says she plans to continue teaching indefinitely, “as long as I’m not taking a job from someone younger. I’m still enjoying myself and feel that what I’m teaching is making a difference for students. I’m aware that recent PhD graduates would love the opportunity to teach these courses. But I myself got my PhD a bit late—which is a bit of a feminist issue—so I would like to keep going.” All in all, Blyth says, “I’ve had fun!”