Every year as I’m finishing up another year and recovering from the pressure of teaching I read around in a handful of books on the subject that have been influential for my thinking, looking for inspiration or reassurance or something. This year I’ve been rereading portions of Banner and Cannon’s The Elements of Teaching, which I always find calming and thoughtful. I was just browsing the chapter on Character, which gives several tips: a teaching character must be authentic and consistent, distinct and individual; it means showing humanity by acknowledging lapses and errors and requires sociability; and it should mature with age.
Banner and Cannon note that “a trap young teachers often fall into is that of assuming ‘teaching personalities’ that are not their own. Such teachers are like unconscious actors; they are playing roles based, often unknowingly, on the favorite school teachers or college mentors of their own youth” (108). My only disagreement with this is to always consider it a trap. They remark that when 23-year-olds face 18-year-olds, they can’t play the graybeard. I started teaching freshman when I was 23, and this is certainly true. I could no more have been myself in front of those 18-year-olds than I could have plausibly played the graybeard. Still, based upon readings at the time on teaching persona, I did deliberately fashion one for the class, and it was indeed based upon a specific professor I’d had in college, which is not to say that it wasn’t also me.
My last year in college I took a two-semester sequence on critical theory from an English professor. We read in the history of critical theory from Plato to Derrida, and the lectures and discussions were engaging. The professor was very intense and treated whatever we were reading as well worth the intellectual effort it took to get through it. Everything was important. You knew this from the intensity of his lectures and comments. I’m thumbing now through one of the textbooks that year, David Richter’s The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Assuming what I marked up was what we read (this was seventeen years ago, after all), we read Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, Dante, Philip Sidney, Hume, Kant, Hegel, T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke, Marx, Georg Lukacs, Benjamin, Freud, Frye, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, de Man, Edward Said, Gilbert and Gubar, and Cixous among others. I’ve read few of these for years, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading the post-structuralists ever again, but this was the intellectual meat of my youth and much of it I first ate at this professor’s table.
Though I had a number of good professors over the years, he still remains my touchstone, and I still recall my months working with him. He still remains the most intellectually serious and engaging professor in the classroom I’ve ever encountered. From him I learned not just to read or think intensely, but to try to communicate that intensity, that passion for ideas, to my own students. He showed me in his own teaching what it was like to live with ideas. I went to grad school in English thinking I would encounter this same intellectual rigor and passion. C’est la vie.
I entered the classroom with the same intense demeanor, and I always try to convey the intellectual worth of whatever I teach, but I’m sure I looked ridiculous as a baby-faced twenty-something talking about whatever fluff was in our rhetoric readers as if it were Kant or Hegel. Other young teachers played the hipster or the clown, but I couldn’t do it. Playing the graybeard, I wanted gravitas, and the only way to achieve it was, I thought, with the serious demeanor. I was serious about my ideas and the intellectual life, but there are other ways to achieve that. Seriousness doesn’t make up for inexperience, ignorance, and bad teaching, all of which were my lot when I began.
“Character should mature with age.” I read that line and laughed at my earlier self in a way that my earlier self probably wouldn’t have appreciated. When I started teaching, speaking in public terrified me. It literally made me sick; my stomach would ache before every class began. Combine shyness with inexperience and only a passing familiarity with the material, and you have a good recipe for my first year. I pity those poor students I had that year, and I used to hope later that if I encountered them again they wouldn’t remember me. I grew my hair long and grew a beard so they wouldn’t recognize me.
As I’ve gotten better at teaching, my teaching persona has edged ever closer to whatever might pass for my “real” persona. After enough years, I’ve started to grow more comfortble with myself in the classroom, more comfortable tolerating a certain amount of levity and personal disclosure I couldn’t have mustered seventeen years ago. Because I know how to maintain control, I don’t fear mutiny. Because I’m confident in my abilities, I’m more willing to admit my weaknesses or my lapses. Because I’m not trying to persuade my students that I’m not a fraud, I also tend to be more open and even to like the students more. An actor sees an audience, but I see individuals and personalities, and, I think, come across as more of a real person to them in consequence. And, ironically, now that I have a beard and it is in fact going gray, I never feel the need to play the graybeard.