Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gimmicks and gambits and bits

On the last day of classes I ran into one of my colleagues and we chatted about how things were winding down. He talked about the research presentations his students had done, and then he mentioned a particular student by name.

"You've had her before, right?"

Yes, I said, in three classes: two last semester and one this semester.

"I thought so. She's absorbed some of your teaching persona."

Now, it's one thing to know that one has a teaching persona and to be occasionally aware of dialing it up or down or modulating it for a given circumstance; it's another to think of it as something readily recognizable by others and available for appropriation.

But of course we've all constructed our teaching (and our paper-delivering and maybe even our networking-at-the-conference-bar) selves from somewhere, and usually from many somewheres: just as we pick up bits of knowledge and pedagogical tricks from our own teachers and colleagues, so do we pick up ways of embodying authority and collaboration or whatever else we do in the classroom. We choose the techniques and the modes that work with our own personalities and values, and we make them our own--but probably relatively few of us think we invented our teaching selves wholly from scratch.

As for me, I can't itemize all the parts of my teaching persona, and I'm sure I've been influenced by people I'd never suspect and in ways I don't recognize. But two of my college professors I can immediately point to as foundational.

Both of them were literature scholars, and both were young or young-seeming, though they were at different points in their careers and one was male and one was female. What they had in common, in addition to their youth, was a wacky, irreverent, and colloquial way of talking about the difficult texts they taught. I never doubted the ferocious intelligence of either, but they had a warm enthusiasm for the material that conveyed how much fun all this geeky arcana was to them. Both had a habit of paraphrasing or summarizing in hilarious shorthand ways (some of which I have preserved in notebooks or book margins to this day). And both dressed hyper-professionally, even extravagantly, perhaps to compensate for their youth and informality.

And, uh, that's me. I mean, I'm not either of those professors--not as a scholar and not as a personality. Probably no one who knew either of them and who knows me would recognize anything other than the vaguest of similarities. But I see it. The high-low approach that I associate with both professors is pretty central to my own self-presentation in the classroom, in part because it's what made me feel able to be a scholar, and to overcome my own insecurities and self-doubts. (The combination of dressing the fuck up and being relentlessly self-mocking means you can get away with a lot.)

I'm sure both those professors would be weirded out, were they to know how influential I feel their examples were for me; I'm a little weirded out to hear that one of my own students has apparently adopted some of the same mannerisms from me that I feel I learned from them. But I suppose it's a tribute, all around.


Do you have professors (or colleagues) whose personae you've adopted or adapted? And if so, what made the fit feel right?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

My first Shakespeare professor was a dean, so he only taught one class per semester -- Shakespeare. He always said that the classroom was his haven, and he talked to us with such passion, often putting his entire body into it when he read aloud to us. The class was run like a discussion, but he did about a 15 minute lecture at the beginning of each class before we discussed. Then, when students spoke, he reacted with the most sincere enthusiasm and sometimes smacked the podium and said, "YES!! Oh my god, that just gave me an idea..." He was both high and low in his approach, sometimes dumbing things down so that we could understand it on a basic level first, and then talking about the language after we were ready to know more.

In my own teaching, I have mirrored him in my passion and enthusiasm. I have also taken a technique that he used at times -- to take one word out of a play and contemplate just that one word for the entire class period. This semester, my Shakespeare class spend entire class periods on the following words: honor, tyrant, sacrifices, and whore. It was a phenomenal experience, looking for those words and thinking about them in context across a few different plays. (I was thematically interested in intertextuality this semester, so we were looking at multiple plays on many days.)

So, to answer your question, yes. There are other professors who have influenced my teaching, too, but this guy was the most important one.

Renaissance Girl said...

Yes, yes to all parts of this cool post.

I have students who've taken multiple classes from me, in whom I can actually trace the evolution of their appropriation of some of my tics or traits. One former mentee who has become a dear friend laughs self-consciously every time she makes this one gesture when she's searching after just the right word, because we both know where it came from (though I don't know where I picked it up myself).

I also get the high-low thing: I go extremely casual in my classroom self-presentation (shorts and T-shirts, endless mockery and slanginess) in part to counterweight the high intensity of the discourse and analysis I'm going to force them into. I know where I picked up that pressure-cooker intensity: a professor in one of my masters programs. My spouse entertained her for a week not long ago and kept calling me to say, "Geez, she's just like you in the classroom!" to which I would respond, "No, I'm just like her. That's where I got it." But all the students were scared of her, so I tried to cut the intensity, as it were, with an approachable self-presentation.

As Fie said, there were other models who contributed to my sense of what a classroom persona might do, might look like. But this woman was the most formative for me.

Anonymous said...

Haha, this reminds me of my favorite Humanities teacher, in middle school. He was very animated and enthusiastic.

I remember one instance where he was talking about the 5 paragraph paper, parts of speech, and so on. At one point, he called out to a student, "Brad, what do LINKING verbs do?" and linked his two index fingers together for effect.

After a brief pause to recognize he was being called on, the student responded meekly, "umm... they... link?"

And the teacher lept backwards, tugging his linked index fingers together, all while shouting "GEEEENIUS!!!"


Flavia said...

Thanks, both, for playing!

RG, your comment is making me think more about the bodily and gendered component here. It's obvious, I think, that those who provide our formative teaching personae have to align with something that's already there in our personalities: I've had awesome teachers from whom I may have learned specific pedagogical tricks and strategies--but whose ways of embodying authority or teacherliness just aren't mine and don't work for me (I'm thinking here of the best TA I ever had, whom I adored, but whose persona it would never occur to me to adopt).

But I wonder whether we tend to seek out other (and maybe more obvious) kinds of similarity, too. My hunch would be that we're rather more likely to take on the personae of people who share with us whatever external markers we personally consider important or potentially problematic, such as as class, race, gender/sexuality, physical size. I'm not saying all those elements have to be in place (far from it!), but teaching is so physical and performative, and leaves us so vulnerable and open to scrutiny, that I think it helps have seen someone else negotiating in the classroom whatever issues are touchiest for us personally--for example, being an out gay man, or a powerful, jock-y woman, or a small, slight, person of color.

Both my models were crucial to me. But I'm sure I took much more from my female instructor, though I only took one class from her and we're probably less alike (to the extent that I can make assumptions about her personality). But I had very few young female professors, and she was the only one who suggested a way of being in the world that had any relationship to anything I could imagine wanting (or being able to achieve).

Doctor Cleveland said...

I recently had a grad student tell me that a bunch of the students have an ongoing discussion about my classroom tics and verbal habits. (I'm DGS, so I loom artificially large from their viewpoint.) This was prompted when she asked me a question and I said I had a two-part answer, which made her laugh. (Two-part answers are apparently a big thing with me.)

I've always been very aware of how much I borrow from two of my undergraduate professors, both of whom were young, male junior professors and therefore obvious role models for me. But I'm only gradually noticing the influence of a very senior female professor whom I only knew through large lecture classes.

One of the things my students have pointed out as a "very Dr. Cleveland answer" is something I clearly got from her: swiftly saying "I don't know" when asked something outside my expertise.

Renaissance Girl said...

Flavia, I'm so intrigued by the relationship between the points you originally raised and the gendered/embodied aspects of identification. When I was thinking of the teachers who have influenced me most as a thinker and scholar, they were almost all older males. My beloved mentors in my fields have all been old white guys, and I adore their brains roundly and have a pathological desire to have them adore my brain back. In fact, the female professor I wrote about above was the only person in a significant mentoring position to me who was female--and she and I don't really overlap in terms of our intellectual interests and pursuits, so I don't think of her as a mentor in that way, not least because we never became close enough for me to consider her my mentor. Still, she's the one that immediately comes to mind as a pedagogical model for me. I think you're dead right that it has something to do with seeing a potential version of the self in someone else. (Indeed, as I think about it further, I suspect we never developed a close relationship precisely *because* we're so similar, physically and performatively.)

Flavia said...


Yes, that exactly what I mean. I took classes (plural) from my male professor before taking any from my female professor, and I loved everything about him as a teacher and a thinker. But I never looked at him and thought that who he was and what he did was something that I could do. My second professor, first of all, reinforced that this was a thing--a way of relating to texts and to being a teacher and a scholar--but more importantly allowed me to see it as within the universe of possibilities for people more or less like me.

It's not that she made it seem easy or attainable; in fact, she was 100% more intimidating than my male professor, I never felt smart around her, and she's probably less like me temperamentally than he is. But she seemed to inhabit the same universe that I did, albeit on a much more exalted plane. My male prof might as well have been a different species.

Dr. C., though, raises another question, which is whether our influences change as we age. Maybe we're just better able to recognize them--but it also seems possible to me that our teaching persona shift and change as we age (and as the nature and source of our authority changes--no one is a Young Turk forever!), and that maybe then other influences come to the fore.

Dr. Koshary said...

"Both had a habit of paraphrasing or summarizing in hilarious shorthand ways... And both dressed hyper-professionally, even extravagantly, perhaps to compensate for their youth and informality.

And, uh, that's me."

Yup! I also drink from this well. The odd thing is that I had only heard about such an approach when I had to start teaching full-time; I never had a professor who performed this way. My own teaching personality is as much cobbled together from informal conversations with my advisors as it is my continuing loving (?) parody of a serious scholar who has to reach a bunch of unenthusiastic students. I might actually need psychotherapy to figure out exactly whence I have drawn my models for my teaching persona — it's that buried and disparate, to my conscious mind.

At any rate, I'm sure I'm the only member of my department who ever thinks of putting on a sport coat to go teach.

tony grafton said...

Yes. Every now and then, when I'm teaching or when I'm commenting on student work, I hear myself speaking or writing in the voice of two of my undergraduate mentors--one female, one male, both young-middle-aged when they taught me--and I smile and remember them. It matters a lot to me--partly because the male one died in his fifties, a bitter loss to his students and the world, and I am glad that a tiny bit of his wonderfully distinctive voice will survive as long as I am teaching.

My students certainly pay attention to (and mock) me, my qualities and my mannerisms, as they have for years. I remember a note in an undergraduate weekly, years ago: "The only think we're afraid of is that Professor Grafton's head will roll off and we'll all be crushed." (It's a reasonable thing to worry about, I do have a great and mighty head.)

But I have no idea if anyone is still doing things in the classroom that he or she picked up from me. I hope so. It would be nice to think Non omnis moriar, wouldn't it?