Before I started teaching, a friend shared with me learned wisdom from his time as a student-slash-instructor, that peculiar situation in which many of the GEDI order now find themselves. “You learn a lot about yourself by teaching,” he said. This didn’t make me excited. I already know a lot about myself — I kind of wish I knew less, actually. And I definitely don’t want undergraduates to serve as a mirror to any self-knowledge of which I myself am unaware, even if their youth and scholarly acumen could produce some creative insights. Like Sarah Deel, I’ve had age and gender-based concerns about emphasizing too much of my “real” self in the classroom. Young female instructors already have to work harder than their male counterparts to gain respect, and it seemed to me like “learning about myself” would only come through an over-emphasis on me in the classroom.
At the end of my first semester of teaching, I was emotionally and intellectually depleted. Instructors field everything from frequent, unnecessary questions about assignments (how many times can you say: i t ‘ s o n t h e s y l l a b u s) to potentially grave psychological issues among their students. This is all, of course, aside from the work of conveying the content of your course. It seemed to me then that people who take up teaching for the “soft” payoffs — the gratification of doing such meaningful work; a sense of connection to the rising generation — are in it for the wrong reasons. Teaching, I thought, should be about a love of the subject. Passion for knowledge, not people, is what makes a good teacher. Maybe it’s even okay to see it as “just” financial security while pursuing your own research.
Over time, my perspectives on this have become more nuanced. College kids have a sixth sense for BS — so the appearance of naturalness in the classroom is important, except you can’t be too natural if you yourself are obviously still in your twenties and of the gender that always has to fight to be taken seriously in intellectual professions. Yes, authenticity as a measure of success somehow seems unfair when “realness” can discredit you. What a mess!
For these reasons, Dr. Fowler’s paper on authentic teaching self is a bit of a godsend. I’ve sometimes found myself walking into the classroom while the mental tape in my head continually reminds myself that what’s about to happen is a performance. Dr. Fowler’s focus on the similarities between teaching and acting — and especially on the physical component of the teaching-performance — really compounds this. Good acting always includes some reality: actors are instructed to “think the thought,” to try to genuinely feel the emotion of a scene and get caught up in the story. This is why getting in and out of character is a practice, just like memorizing lines and stage directions. Likewise, I think there are shades and degrees of authenticity that you can exploit to bolster your teaching performance. I do care about my students, and I really love what I teach. Now I think of this positive regard as its own self-replenishing source of energy that can be channeled toward every element of teaching (including administration and grading).
Authenticity (or at the very least, its appearance) seems key to establishing yourself as a Yearner, too. Seymour Papert didn’t really investigate experience and demographic-based obstacles to the kind of paradigm shift he’s interested in — perhaps he does that later in the book. So I think Dr. Fowler’s tools are a little bit more useful to me than Papert’s theory, although I certainly read the former as a vehicle for the latter. In truth, I’m still not totally at ease as an instructor. My teaching “voice” is still relatively untrained. Only with more time will I be able to gracefully navigate the space between absolute transparency and an overly stiff professional mask, both of which are hardly ideal as teaching personas. Perhaps the self that I’ll learn “a lot” about will be composed of those parts I feel comfortable showing in front of students. Those elements of ourselves that we draw from when we teach have got to be some of the most timeless, the most meaningful.
For those not in GEDI, the Virginia Tech graduate pedagogy course, here are the writings I’m responding to in this post:
http://amynelson.net/grad5114F15/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/The-Authentic-Teaching-Self-and-Communication-Skills.pdf (I really like this one)