Friday, December 04, 2009

Curtain up

My least favorite part of every class is the several minutes before it actually begins.

I tend to show up a bit early, to ensure that the room is in order--the chalkboard erased, the portable podium removed, the desks arranged into a semi-circle--and to facilitate the returning of response papers or to get my own materials ready to go. The problem is, one either leaves not enough time or too much time, and when it's the latter I never have any idea what to do with myself.

My students are usually chattering among themselves, or at least clutches of them are, and since my classes are not seminar-style even when they're seminar-size, the room set-up isn't conducive to my making jokes or chit-chat with them even if I were inclined to do so. Instead, I busy myself with my materials, dog-earing pages of my text and writing unnecessary notes on my lesson plan. If I have quite a lot of time to kill, as I sometimes do when I teach back-to-back classes in the same room, with a 15-minute passing period between them, I sit behind my desk, quietly reading. Eventually I plunk myself atop the instructor desk, waiting for the last 30 or 60 seconds to pass, swinging my legs and smiling in what I hope is a genial rather than striken or maniacal way.

I always feel terribly unnatural and terribly self-conscious in those minutes, as if someone had raised the curtain before showtime and caught me out of character, lolling around or doing breathing exercises or reviewing my cues. Because that's the thing: as soon as class begins--as soon as the second hand hits 12--I'm all energy and good humor and animated intensity. I hate revealing that my teaching persona has an on/off switch; ideally, I'd like to stride into the room already in character and launching immediately into action.

But who knows? Maybe there's something useful about breaking that fiction and letting my students see me when I'm just on standby: in costume and stage makeup, but still waiting in the wings and fidgeting with my props.

18 comments:

historyenthusiast said...

I feel the same way! I usually try to avoid coming too early so I can avoid that awkwardness (and usually I don't have back-to-back classes in the same place).

If you figure out a way to make that less awkward, please let me know!

Prof. de Breeze said...

This is exactly why I always get to class about a minute after the start time. I usually end up going over by at least a minute at the end of class anyway, so I figure it's a wash.

Bavardess said...

Maybe you need the academic equivalent to a green room, so you can maintain the mystery until the last minute.

life_of_a_fool said...

I'm so glad the first two commenters do what I do -- I aim to get there right at the time the class starts to avoid this. I am usually the last person in my hallway rushing to class. It's worse when all the chatter goes to silence as soon as I walk in.

I do love the idea of you sitting in front of the class maniacally swinging your legs to get their attention. :)

Fretful Porpentine said...

I am so glad other people find those moments as uncomfortable as I do. I've gotten into the habit of setting up my images and video clips fifteen minutes early, ducking out of the room, and coming back thirty seconds before the class begins, and I still feel dead awkward in those thirty seconds. (I don't do small talk well, and I'm not sure what else to do.)

Flavia said...

I wonder whether this is a problem that's peculiar to introverts, or whether everyone in a performing profession feels it to some degree?

Putting on one of my public selves, or moving from one energy level to another, always feels like a deliberate flipping of the switch. It certainly doesn't feel unnatural--all my selves are genuine aspects of my personality--but I worry that it seems that way to others.

Sisyphus said...

Exactly!

Except for me it's more the "I can't do small talk/what if the students try to bite me or something" thing and less of the putting on a public stage face thing. (at a big public school like I'm used to, the first extended personal interactions you tend to have with students are the angry/tearful "how dare you give me this grade" ones)

I think I have that same lost look when I first enter a party (or, god forbid, a conference mixer) and scan the room looking for someone I know to glom on to.

Bardiac said...

I used to feel way more awkward than I do now. Now, I either sit and swing my legs with a maniacal smile, mentioning to any student that looks up how excited I am to be teaching Titus or whatever. Except in bigger classes, someone always needs a fire put out, and that minute or two can be enough to set up an appointment.

squadratomagico said...

I chat with a few of them. Since I teach in a large school with large classes, I enjoy the opportunity to interact with a few students in a relaxed manner. And since my lecturing style is also fairly relaxed and informal, there isn't a big style break.

I think this may be one of the advantages of a large school. I think I would feel more awkward in a small class, where I really would instantly be the center of attention. In a large class, most of them go about their business while I chat with one or two other students.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm a real extrovert - I love getting to class 5 to 10 minutes early, and chatting with my students. It's a good way to get to know them, and they seem to be more comfortable with me, and so more likely to come to office hours. I usually start the first day of class by asking them if they've seen a really good movie recently, or read a really good book. It usually works out that some of the better students make a point of coming early to chat, if their schedules let them. It also seems to have cut down on the bullshit excuses for missing class or handing in late work, although I'm not sure why. Sometimes I'll say something, and they'll just smile awkwardly, and I'll go over my lecture notes - I don't keep talking if they clearly don't want to.
Barb

Digger said...

OMG, me too. I've tried chitty-chatting with them in the down time, but it seems to always go badly. I aim for 5 mins before class, which is enough time to get my crap together... but if I'm really early? Yeah, just standing there with a blank look until I'm "on" at the start time. Mostly, they just ignore me, but I'm still self-conscious!

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Thank you for articulating this. I've always been jealous of the profs who chat easily with students before & after class. Some of them just seem to be mobbed by their students, like they're the Beatles -- but that's never been my experience. I often have classes back to back in the same classroom, so as one group of students trickles out, another trickles in -- and I'm just there, at the front of the class, killing time. I usually try to pretend like I'm busy thinking deep thoughts but usually I'm just self-conscious and uncomfortable. So, count me in favor of the green room -- especially if there were a costumer, a make-up artist and hair stylist, and a few snacks in there too.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Oh, and a masseuse! A 10 minute shoulder rub between classes would be ideal!

What Now? said...

I always had much the same difficulty, so when I made the switch to HS teaching, one of the (many) things that worried me was that suddenly my office WAS my classroom, which means that I was always on display to a greater or lesser extent, both between classes and even during my free periods. What that has meant in practice is that my performance mode has stretched so that I'm pretty much in that teaching mode all day long, so the in-between times no longer bother me; I'm doing the same performance when I'm "on" and when I'm "off." Now that discomfort has moved to the school's various social occasions between faculty and students; apparently once the school day ends, I find it difficult to just chat with students in the easy way I could not two hours earlier!

Lucky Jane said...

The One Thing I was told to work on in my third-year review (and they always have to tell you to work on something, to cover their erses) was my teaching, so I went to my uni's Center for Teaching Awesomeness, which recommended going to class early to (yawn) establish a rapport with the students.

I must say doing so worked, for the most part. I know all sorts of things about those students. But I agree about the awkwardness. The classrooms in the building that houses my department all have these clocks that look like the displays on digital watches ca. 1983, and the room tends to fall silent the last thirty seconds before class officially starts. And since it's unfair to start class before class starts, I confronted the awkwardness by saying, "Now it's time for our Awkward Silence." We'd glare at each other until the :59 turned to :00. Most of the students tittered endearingly, but I did get burned on a course evaluation that called me out for "awkward silences every class." (To be fair, that student had all kinds of issues with me not stamping As on all her papers.) Well, Sunshine, just arrive later. Or be in performance mode the whole time. Grrr.

Digger said...

Lucky Jane, grade her down on participation for -her- awkward silences! Takes two to be awkwardly silent! (Yeah, someday I'll take my own advice, too...)

human said...

My first ever class of students filled out their evaluation forms today. So we'll see how that goes. Went. In a few weeks.

The thing that jumped out of this for me was that you sit on the desk. Of course I've seen instructors do that all the time, but... somehow... I couldn't possibly bring myself to do it. Just like I can't bring myself to dress in anything below business casual on teaching days - jeans are right out, even though I've seen loads of other people do it. And I'm not normally a formal person or someone who fusses a lot about clothes. I just... couldn't possibly. It's weird.

anumma.com said...

For me, it depends on the rapport I have with that group.

If we have it, then those minutes before the curtain rises are fine: I feel like we're all standing in the wings, going through our individual warm-ups together.

If we *don't* have it, well, it's pretty dreadful, and just as you describe: like hostile theater critics, staring skeptically at who I "really" am while I try to get into character.