The Evolution of a Teaching Persona

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.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Teaching Persona

  1. It’s important, with one’s students, to come across as authentic and transparent. Another perspective on this comes from George Keller who would discuss this idea of managing different personas as an educator or administrator in higher education. I had the pleasure of taking several courses with Mr. Keller when I was a student in Penn’s higher education administration program. He talked about the importance of the president, for example, taking on different roles for different campus events and situations. As a cheerleader for sporting events, as kind and gentle father/mother figure for convocations and as pillar of strength for campus crises. He gave the example of presidents who used their experience as psychologists or theatre player to take on these different roles as needed to give particular constituents what they needed from the president. You can make a case that to do so makes you guilty of psychological manipulation, but some presidents saw this as a necessary part of their duties – and when done well it gave reassurance and confidence to the campus that all was well. Academic librarians could learn from this as they play different roles too, educator, one-on-one counselor, rapid delivery consultant (at the ref desk) and collaborator with faculty – among others. Or perhaps the best advice is to just be yourself – if it works well for you. But sometimes we may just find it easiest to get something accomplished with a bit of role playing.

  2. It is important to come across as authentic, but I’m not sure what it really means to BE authentic. We’re transparent, but only about certain things. We are of necessity different things to different people, and even if we’re being authentic, we still let our different audiences see only what’s appropriate, at least if we’re aware of ourselves. My colleagues see a different me than my students than my friends than my daughter than my wife. It’s all or mostly authentic, perhaps, but certainly not transparent. I may be having a lousy day or be angry over my morning commute, but I don’t allow students to see that anger. Reading the recent NYT article on teasing made me think of my own relationships with old friends. Teasing or sarcasm are a natural part of some of them, and we indulge in it equally, but that sort of behavior would be inappropriate with colleagues or students. I’ve been told I can be quite flirtatious, but again, completely inappropriate in the library or the classroom.
    The teaching persona is a crafted part of oneself, like the professional persona. The teacher should be friendly, reasonable, intelligent, engaged, engaging, sociable, intellectually stimulating, calm, considerate, etc., regardless of how the teacher is or is feeling at the moment. The closer your real self is to a good teaching persona, the better teacher you’ll be.
    Or consider the professional persona, or more narrowly, even just the blogging persona. On this blog, I rarely write about a lot, or even most of the things that interest me, only those things related to libraries, academia, or intellectual life in general. Though occasionally I’ll write about my family or other subjects, I don’t write much about my interest in film or music, don’t discuss most of what I read, and rarely write about politics (the exceptions being during the recent election) even though movies, music, books, and politics take up a lot of my attention. On this blog, for the most part, you’re not getting ME, but only the part of ME that I want you to see, because I assume – perhaps mistakenly – that readers of a blog called “Academic Librarian” won’t be interested is a post about great movie character actors, which is something I’d like to write about.
    Finally, I don’t see it as manipulation at all. It’s acting, but it’s not deception, and it’s the deception with students that would be ethically suspect.

  3. Pingback: Teaching Personas – Teaching for Learning & Teaching Who We Are | TILT

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