Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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“Just Be Yourself”: Old Fart Edition

Posted by Arjendu on February 27, 2009

[Okay, so I am more like a mid-career fart, but compared to Melissa …]

So. Great post, as usual, by Melissa, prompting this quick post, in an attempt to provide another perspective on the same questions. To the extent that we contradict each other, perhaps it serves to confuse you on a higher level, in keeping with the mission of this blog.

Teaching as performance: my first non-grad-school teaching gig was at Rice University where I taught 100+ students per session in two back-to-back sessions in a very large lecture hall for introductory physics. I used to be completely drained by the end of those two hours. And since then I have no illusions that I am performing when I am teaching. Not theater, but performance nonetheless. In my case, in my largish lecture classes, it can be an improvised, audience-participation-heavy reactive performance — with delivery of content, structured exercises, etc, all that but also a pretty conscious effort to catch the eye of the students, look for puzzlement, react to it, go with the flow of a particularly good question or an intriguing comment, or to realize that the material is not sinking in, for whatever reason, and to stop, and wonder why, and back up, and all that. It’s not something super-conscious on my behalf, but it’s how I find myself teaching. And if I am ever under the weather, or on Nyquil or something, the change in atmosphere in the class is palpable: The same notes, the same transparencies, and the class is a clunker. And if I’m in form, feeling good and chipper, I can take a couple of paragraphs of scrawled notes and make the class float for an hour. You might be thinking: Oh, that’s just who he is, an entertainer and a performer, so he’s being himself. I assure you that I used to be, and can still be, painfully shy, particularly in public. But it is true that who I am in public has shifted considerably since I started teaching (which happened when I was already past 30, so you might think that my personality would’ve been set). But who I am in class is a whole different creature, it seems.

I can’t be who I am not, so I’ve quit trying to emulate my remarkable colleagues. But I am still not just being myself. My best way of formulating this is to say that I’m trying my damndest to be my best self. Which is to say, performative. And authentically myself.


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