On a rainy April afternoon, students in the back row of my class whispered to each other as I, increasingly irritated with their disengagement, stood at the chalkboard lecturing on Death of a Salesman. I am usually one to let such distractions go, but I finally stopped mid-sentence, asking, “Do you have a question?” Sitting up in her chair and turning her laptop screen toward me, the student hesitated and answered, “Sorry, but we just read that Prince died.” The classroom filled quickly with questions of “What?” and “Are you serious?” Taking a few moments to check my notes, I hurriedly finished what I was saying about spectacle and sequence and dismissed class a few minutes early—a move I rarely made. Before all my students had left the room, I was visibly shaken by the news. Years later, the memory of that day still burns, in part because it was the first time my students had ever seen me vulnerable—so far removed from costume and character.
I learned very quickly that academia demands a degree of performance. Because I was relatively close in age with my students when I first started teaching, I took my colleagues’ advice early and in earnest: don’t show too much emotion, don’t reveal anything too personal, develop a rigid teaching persona and stick to it. Indeed, every interaction with my students was a rhetorical choice: from how I styled my hair to the outfit I wore when handing back graded essays. And so, for many years, stepping through the classroom door meant turning on a switch.
The pandemic, however, shattered the stage I was comfortable on and, whether I liked it or not, revealed a different version of myself. Conferences with my students no longer occurred in an office lined with literature anthologies and teaching certificates. Instead, students saw the mundane objects of my everyday life: coat closets, coffee cups, and, on one unfortunate occasion when I repositioned myself on Zoom and failed to angle my computer’s camera just right: my shower curtain. Devoid of classrooms, chalkboards, diplomas, and podiums, the distance of distance education somehow diminished.
Our collective experience of teaching online during a pandemic offers a new perspective on what it means to be vulnerable in our professional lives, which may, in the end, make us better instructors. Because the pandemic forced many of us to blur the lines between persona (a word derived from the Latin for “mask”; as in a character playing a role) and person, returning to face-to-face instruction provides an opportunity to reexamine our teaching personae. Furthermore, instructors in the humanities are well situated for this timely introspection. Because humanities courses ask students to think critically on important issues, it makes sense that we have a duty to remove, or at least adjust, our masks. As bell hooks (1994) asserts, “The empowerment of students cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks” (p. 21). I am not suggesting that we invite students into our personal lives but to instead work on crafting a teaching presence which is both genuine and intentional. Instead of sharing with students our weekend plans or commiserating over how we couldn’t find a parking spot, we should save the personal anecdotes for that which is truly personal: our travel experiences, research interests, and writing processes, for instance. Importantly, an authentic teaching persona, in my view, means showing genuine interest without advancing entertainment.
Indeed, we must be careful not to confuse embracing an authentic teaching persona with lowering our teaching standards or diminishing our student expectations. While pivoting to online classes during a pandemic rightly demanded a more compassionate, flexible approach to teaching, it’s worth revisiting our methods, particularly as they relate to persuading students to “buy in” to our courses. In his 1997 essay “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, examines the consumer-driven trends in higher education which we still see in 2020. Edmundson illustrates the consequences of students primarily concerned with “enjoying” their college classes and denounces the professor’s role as entertainer-in-chief. He does not blame his students for this “buy in order to be” mentality in higher education and insists instead that “university culture, like American culture writ large is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of good and images” (p. 40). Instead of one-liners and self-deprecation, Edmundson advocates for genuine enthusiasm about intellectual ideas. In short, authenticity in higher education does not always mean enjoyable, or even agreeable—and that’s okay.
Despite our attempts to engage students in our online classes via discussion posts and Zoom lectures, moving our classes online left us without an important (albeit oft overlooked) manner of instructor-student interaction: making casual conversation before class, waiting in line for coffee at the union, and simply greeting each other while passing through campus. Despite being among my students, in these moments I did not consider my teaching persona and instead interacted with my students differently, which is to say authentically. Should this distinction bother me?
To answer that question, I would posit that to align our teaching personae more closely with our authentic selves, we first have to work on pursuing more closely our interests and passions outside of teaching. Not long ago, I was a writing instructor who did not write and a literature teacher who rarely made time to read anything besides what I was teaching. If I want to show genuine interest and excitement inside the classroom, I need to live that way outside of it too. Surely the uncertainty of this pandemic has made almost everything in our lives feel more immediate. With our virtual visages and augmented avatars ever at the ready, perhaps this is the time to teach as our honest and present selves.
Edmundson, M. (1997, September). On the uses of a liberal education: As lite entertainment for bored college students. Harper’s Magazine, 39–49. http://archive.harpers.org/1997/09/pdf/HarpersMagazine-1997-09-0059290.pdf
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
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