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Saturday, December 02, 2023
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Timothy Boyd: Master of Space and Time

In a lecture hall, 200 students are forced to huddle and crowd into a corner of the room, stuffed so close that they press against each other. They're close enough to smell their fellow classmates – their perfumes, their body odors – and they're noticeably uncomfortable. To demonstrate the appalling conditions of the African slave trade and its slave ships, Timothy Boyd doesn't just tell his students – he shows them.

Boyd, an associate research professor of classics, has taught at UB for 12 years. Over those 12 years, his teaching methods became well known, and are recommended among the student body. As freshmen became sophomores, they made sure to recommend Boyd's World Civilizations classes to the next class of freshmen; soon he became the must-take General Education professor. From attending college in Amherst, Mass. to teaching classes in Amherst, NY, Boyd has employed his passion for learning and bestowed it onto his students – one year at a time.

"One of Dr. Boyd's greatest assets is his innate ability to understand students – whether in individual conversation or all packed into a lecture hall," said Michael McGlin, a graduate student of classics, has been a Teaching Assistant of Boyd's for two years.

Boyd grew up close to Princeton in rural New Jersey. To get to school, he would board his school bus at 7 a.m. only to arrive an hour later. As an only child with parents who allowed him to watch TV just on the weekends, Boyd had to find alternative ways to entertain himself, often using his imagination as the outlet.

As he grew up in the country, Boyd had an abundance of land to run around on. He also read books of adventure, science fiction, and military history, and he enjoyed writing – especially poems, some of which were published in his school's literary magazines.

Like many, Boyd was not blessed with the foreknowledge of what career path he would eventually end up on. As he matured, so did his career goals. At one time, he thought he would be an archeologist. At another point, he believed he could be involved with drama, and still he's not quite fully sure.

"I might be a cowboy when I grow up, but it depends upon the possibilities for health care," Boyd said. "And I could never roll my own cigarettes – and I don't smoke, anyhow."

Drama and performance were a passion of Boyd's for a long time. As an eighth grader, he performed his first play and in 1970, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, intending to be a drama major. But he would eventually graduate with a bachelor's degree in Greek.

"The first drama course I took was so awful, the professor put himself to sleep, he was so uninvolved that I changed to classics and did Greek and Latin instead," Boyd said.

But college wasn't as easy of an adjustment as Boyd believed it would be. After living under his parents' watchful eyes throughout his childhood, Boyd was thrown into a completely different world – one with almost no supervision at all. As a middle class, public school graduate, Boyd found himself in a new scene surrounded by people completely different from him. Many came from wealthy, privileged backgrounds and were already independent.

That didn't stop him. He was determined to persevere.

"It was sink or swim and there were times – especially in my first two years – when I was closer to drowning," Boyd said.

Boyd decided to swim.

After graduating with his Ph.D. from Princeton University, he returned to school once more, but this time as a professor.

As a researcher of ancient languages and civilizations, Boyd wasn't just gifted with the ability to travel around the world, but to travel through time, stepping on the same soil as the emperors, kings, and revolutionaries – the same individuals that he discusses in his lectures. From Pompeii in the spring rain to Istanbul at sundown, there is no way to choose a favorite destination, according to Boyd, just as he cannot choose a favorite class.

Those first-person instances are not Boyd's favorite aspect of his job. It's the act of teaching itself and seeing his passion for learning transfer onto his students that he truly enjoys.

"One of the best compliments I've gotten from students over the years is: ‘I used to think that history was boring until I took World Civ.,'" Boyd said. "My job is to point enthusiastically towards the subject and hope that students believe my enthusiasm and try the subject for themselves."

That's something that Boyd wants to instill on his students in his courses.

"College should be a mixture of work and fun, and if you major in something you really enjoy, what's fun and what's work begin to come together in new and pleasurable ways," Boyd said.

But even if students aren't going to major in classics, that doesn't mean they don't find Boyd's classes fun.

"All of my friends took him and they were saying how he is the best World Civ professor," said Gunjan Shah, a junior biological science major. "His attitude with students is very friendly, he always tries to make class entertaining and fun."

Boyd understands that his students' college life is much different from how his own was, and his teaching style reflects that. If he could hand out grants so his students could focus entirely on studies like he was able to do, he would. Although he didn't need to have a job like many students do now, he understands the extra weight it puts on them.

"Now, so often, I see how tired many of my students are because they have to spend long hours at outside jobs, just to survive," Boyd said. "I also think that can be taken to extremes – making money isn't necessarily the only or best way to see your future. If your heart is in a subject, perhaps it's better to accept less in the way of compensation and be happier doing what you really want."

He found that himself in teaching.

As an endlessly curious man, Boyd is always on a mission to learn about anything and everything – whether it's ancient languages, cooking, or construction – if someone knows more than him about any subject, he wants to listen and learn. He asks questions and absorbs information, expanding his knowledge as far as possible.

"Working with Dr. Boyd gives me immediate access to a great mentor, a wonderful advice giver, a friendly ear, and the chance to be an audience for his stories and sense of humor," McGlin said. "He has a sixth sense to know when TAs or students need a boost, a pointer, or a cheerleader, and he helps in such a genuine way that it results in students wanting to succeed to pay him back for his kind words."

In his World Civilization lecture, Boyd keeps the attention of his students through his arresting voice and assigning his subject matter an entertaining twist. He also gives memorable demonstrations.

Boyd never uses Powerpoint for his lectures, unlike many 200-person classes. Instead, he favors an overhead projector and props.

"The overhead allows Dr. Boyd to be Dr. Boyd – to be as creative as he wishes – he is free to draw diagrams, highlight special things, draw pictures, add commentary, add lists," McGlin said. "The best ideas sometimes are those spontaneously created – a chart to document contrasting elements of a king's reign, religious beliefs – and this simple fact helps his students to create new study methods, and TAs to create new teaching methods."

One of the most memorable demonstrations, according to McGlin, is when Boyd brings in replica Greek, Roman, and medieval weapons to show ancient military tactics as well as technology. It makes for a good show before and during class. The TAs often face weird looks when walking through the Spine, arms full with artillery.

"Getting on the bus is pretty funny. Everyone gives us a wide berth," McGlin said. "Professor Boyd jokes that he is the only professor to come to class fully armed, or with bodyguards."

Boyd's charisma, energy, and engaging style of teaching are popular across campus, and in 2005 he was awarded the Milton Plesur Award for Distinguished Teaching. The award is given by the Student Association and was created to recognize exceptional teaching.

"Professor Boyd's class is for anyone. History can be a polarizing subject," McGlin said. "Prof. Boyd has a magical ability to resuscitate history into a living, breathing subject and make it accessible to everyone. He is completely disarming and genuine and is even able to coax questions out of students in a 350-person lecture hall. He even gives out shiny new quarters to students who do so."

Whether he's collecting ancient armor and bringing home a new helmet for his son Alisdair, or being stopped on campus by flattering students, Boyd's passion for learning and living emanates wherever he goes.




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