Crafting a Teaching Persona

February 06, 2007

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T.S. Eliot's title character speaks anxiously about preparing "a face to meet the faces that you meet." That line, like the poem as a whole, describes a painful emotion shared by many artists and intellectuals in the years surrounding the world wars, as they witnessed the fracturing of both personal and national identities.

But Prufrock's description of plastering a mask over the messy tangle of physical and psychic parts of which we are composed has always seemed to me an apt description of an activity in which every teacher engages at the start of the semester: the construction of a teaching persona.

We all have multiple personae: The face that meets my children during the day is not the face that meets my friends out for a beer in the evening, and neither of those faces greet my students on Monday morning in the classroom. I've often wondered what my students would think if they saw me growling on the floor like a lion with my 2-year-old twins on my back, or sitting at the piano with my 4-year-old, improvising the lyrics to a song about breaking wind.

While I have had more than a half-dozen years to find a teaching face that feels comfortable to me, I'm still not sure I have settled on one yet. Some days in the classroom I want to be the laid-back, sit-on-the-edge-of-the-desk seminar leader, and sometimes I want to be a fiery orator, making converts to the religion of the written word (and sentence, and paragraph, and so on).

I wonder whether I have to settle on just one. Is there anything wrong with presenting different faces to my students? Should I continue to work on presenting a coherent persona in class, or is the hope of finding one a chimera? And what kind of persona, if any, will help students learn most effectively?

Those questions came to mind as I read two excellent books on teaching this past month, Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature and Jay Parini's The Art of Teaching. A sabbatical has helped to spur my reflection on the topic as well, since my teaching persona has been in the closet for eight months now and will remain there for another seven months. Every now and again, I open the door a crack and take a look at it, wondering whether I should use my time away from the classroom to give it some fine-tuning.

Showalter and Parini present very different perspectives on the issue. Showalter addresses it in a section called "Personae: The Teaching Self," in which she argues that our "critical beliefs" about our discipline should match our teaching personae. She points out, as an example of inconsistency, literary critics whose generous critical perspectives are betrayed by their petty and harsh classroom behaviors.

She also refers to the distinction between our "true selves" and our teaching personae, and suggests that we should offer those true selves to students as much as possible, forgoing artificial teaching personae. Her reasoning makes good sense, especially for teachers in the humanities. If we want our students to reveal themselves in our classrooms, to show us their ideas and beliefs in a discussion without fear of mockery or dismissal, we owe them that same level of self-exposure.

I find myself uncomfortable, though, with the idea that I have a "true self" that I can lay out in the classroom for my students. I don't feel a tiny ball of selfhood buried in my torso somewhere. So perhaps, to follow Showalter's dictum, I might think about incorporating as many of my other selves as possible into my teaching personae -- offering glimpses of the father, the husband, the writer, the musician, and so on.

But Parini offers a different way to think about the question. Parini does some analytic work on the word "persona," tracing its meaning to theater in the ancient world, and noting that its etymological roots imply a mask that one speaks through. He does not see that in negative terms. We need to wear a mask of some kind, he argues, to give sound to our voices.

He details the long series of masks he has worn as a teacher, bouncing back and forth between them, as I have frequently done, but by the end of the book he seems fairly settled into his teaching persona: one that cares deeply about literature and his students, that interacts with students easily in and out of the classroom, and that models for them a lifelong commitment to writing and literature as the best motivation he can provide to inspire them to do likewise.

Most important, Parini urges us to think deliberately about our teaching personae, even so far as to reflect on the clothes we wear in the classroom, which are always, in his words, "rhetorical choices."

That both Showalter and Parini devote space to the topic in their books -- and most teaching guidebooks have at least a few words to say about it -- suggests that your teaching persona is worth some conscious reflection.

Looking back at the start of my own teaching career, I see now that I made lots of choices that were designed to shape my teaching persona, but I did so in haphazard ways. A more deliberate effort to think about who I wanted to be in the classroom might have saved me a lot of anxiety during those first few years of teaching.

With that in mind, what can we say, in very practical terms, for a teacher who is in the classroom this semester and wants to begin thinking more carefully about her persona?

Drawing on both Showalter and Parini's perspectives, I'll venture two specific suggestions.

First, let me expand on Showalter's point and suggest that our teaching personae should be consistent not only with our convictions about our discipline, but also with our classroom practices and the learning objectives we set for our students.

So if you run a discussion session in which you hope to encourage your students to explore the family dynamics in their lives in light of a set of sociological principles, then you should model that behavior for them with some public reflections on your own family dynamics. If, on the other hand, you expect dispassionate analysis of case studies, then keep the focus on the texts and ideas, and keep yourself in the background.

Likewise, if we want students to love our disciplines -- or particular texts, thinkers, theories, or ideas -- as we do, then we should not hesitate to let them see our own devotion to those intellectual pursuits. When we demonstrate enthusiasm for the subject matter of our courses, we may inspire our students to enthusiasm. When we display a generous and welcoming attitude toward student comments in our class, we may inspire students to treat each other with greater respect in their discussions.

But our teaching masks are not forged exclusively in the classroom, as Parini's point about dress makes clear. Many choices we make unrelated to teaching -- how we dress, talk to our colleagues, decorate our offices and office doors, sign off our e-mail messages, and so on -- will influence how our students see us in the classroom, too.

So those choices, like the choices we make in the classroom, are worth thinking about. What does it say about your teaching persona if you put a political bumper sticker on your office door? Are you someone who uses your position to proselytize for your personal beliefs, or are you someone who students can look to as a model of how to hold strong political convictions, and stand by them? Or what does it say about your persona if you demand student work on a strict deadline but don't hold your office hours with any regularity? Or don't return students' work promptly? Are those contradictions in your teaching persona?

Such choices certainly could have an impact on student learning. And that, ultimately, should be the test of any decision we make about teaching.

I'm not suggesting you inventory your office, asking whether a glass or stone paperweight will help students learn more effectively. Or that you contemplate whether the red or the blue shirt will make for a better class discussion. Most of the time, when I'm getting ready for class and rushing around the campus, I wouldn't notice if my hair was on fire. Every move we make doesn't need close scrutiny.

But faced with a choice that might significantly affect the way students view you as a teacher, think about it, and make the one that will motivate students to learn.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons From the First Year" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). He writes about teaching in higher education and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at