Advice

Persona Matters

We work so hard to get the content right that we sometimes give short shrift to our delivery methods

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

December 19, 2016

Just as interesting as Jordan Schneider’s fine essay, "Why I Curse in the Classroom," were the responses — the horrified reactions of those who believe the sky will fall if a professor uses a four-letter word in a college classroom.

Most amusing were the folks who claimed that potty mouths curse because we are bereft of linguistic skill. Some of the best writers I know speak and write using many of the Anglo-Saxon words that George Carlin said you can’t say on television. Frankly, people who curse a lot offend me far less than folks who don’t know the difference between "reign" and "rein" — and who can’t rein in their own strung-out sentences.

Both the essay and the intemperate comments were useful, though, as I thought about my own language in the classroom. I realized that, for better or worse, my voice is always recognizably my own — both in person and on the page. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point.

Twenty years ago, Jay Parini wrote about the teaching persona for this publication: "Nobody just walks into a classroom and teaches without some consideration of self-presentation, just as nobody sits down to write a poem, an essay, or a novel without considering its tone and texture, the voice behind the words. Teachers, like writers, need to invent and cultivate a voice that serves their personal needs, their students, and the material at hand." Parini explored the idea more fully in his 2005 book, The Art of Teaching, revisited in these pages by James M. Lang in 2007.

I am usually annoyed by the lingo that goes along with the scholarship on this — the "sage on the stage" or the "guide on the side" — as if anything complex can be reduced to jingly slogans. But the idea of considering how you choose to present yourself to your students is, of course, an essential part of being a professor and Parini is right to connect that with writing.

Academe spends little time training those of us who will spend most of our time teaching. And then we work so hard to get the content right that we sometimes give short shrift to our delivery methods. If you don’t think you have a teaching persona, you might want to reconsider. Likewise, you would do well to be aware of the persona you’re projecting on the page.

In a class I teach on nonfiction, after students read an essay, I often ask them to describe what they imagine the writer looks like, or who he or she reminds them of. After we read Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own," students often say she puts them in mind of their most beloved professor, or their mother’s funny, wise friend, the one they always hope will stop by for a visit. Ben Franklin is the garrulous uncle with lot of stories — often salty. Jonathan Franzen is the front-row student whose hand shoots up first whenever a teacher asks a question. Susan Orlean is the girl everyone wants to be friends with.

We talk about how literary personae can shift — depending on the piece and on what the writer is trying to accomplish. The George Orwell of "Politics and the English Language" wears a tweed coat with leather elbow patches and holds a pipe; the Orwell of "Shooting an Elephant" slumps at the end of the bar nursing a beer.

I was often surprised when authors whose books were important contributions to their fields -- yet utterly boring -- turned out to be delightful and fascinating people.
Recently, during a talk on how to craft book proposals, I was discussing how to write the overview section, when a woman stopped me. Wasn’t the overview, she wondered, the place to give all the technical facts and the analytical outline of the topic? In, you know, a kind of dry and boring way?

"Is that what you’d want to read?" I asked.

"Of course not," she said, waiting not even a nanosecond to answer.

"Why, then," I asked, "do you think an editor would want to read that kind of prose? Is that how you’d introduce the project to a good friend or colleague? Is that how you’d get a stranger interested in what you had to say?"

As writers, our job is to write like the best, smartest version of ourselves, deploying whatever persona will help us get our points across. That means marshalling the information we find most interesting, using language that properly conveys the content, but thinking, always thinking, about who you want to be on the page. (I know, for example, that it’s correct to use whom here instead of who, but whom has the whiff of a pedant and so I’m choosing to go with the colloquial, common, if incorrect, usage — because, well, that’s how I roll.)

When I was an editor of scholarly books, there were always some authors I was especially eager to meet in person. Even if, in hundreds of manuscript pages they never used a personal pronoun, I still had the sense that I knew them — and would like them. These were writers who understood that my pleasure as a reader was as important as their content. As they wrote, they understood they were crafting on the page a guiding intelligence — regardless of whether they used "I" — who would lead us through their research and arguments and bring us into their world.

On the other hand, I was often surprised when authors whose books were important contributions to their fields — yet utterly boring — turned out to be delightful and fascinating people. What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t their personalities emerged on the page? I wish I’d had the confidence then to tell them what I’d say if I were still an editor now: "This doesn’t sound like it was written by you. In fact, it doesn’t sound like it was written by a human."

Likewise, I have friends who are good teachers, but when I read their academic work I wonder what demon possessed them when they sat down to write. What happened to transmogrify a lively and engaging person into a pedantic bore? They channel the persona of The Scholar — a supercilious and unapproachable Casaubon-like figure intent on solving the key to all mythologies. They cloak themselves in jargon and perpetrate sentences that go on at headache-inducing length without ever saying anything meaningful or even understandable. Only a naïve and intellectually starved young girl living in provincial Middlemarch could find these figures impressive.

What if, instead of contorting themselves to fit into some uncomfortable formal wear, my funny and warm friends wrote they way they spoke?

Perhaps that means occasionally taking advantage of the best of their vernacular, to be on their topics like white on rice. Maybe they could throw in the occasional expletive to make a point. Is their speaking voice inflected with the clipped no-nonsense of a New Englander? Or the allusive elegance of a well-educated Brit? Why not let that color their pages?

Recently, I asked my friend Dave — whose lectures on American politics I’d been attending for the sheer pleasure of listening to him speak — if he wrote the way he lectured. Did he deploy his great sense of humor, his talent for narrative, his ability to explain complex ideas in ways that were clear but not simple?

He looked at me as if I’d wondered when he’d stopped shaking babies.

"No," he said. "I write for other scholars."

So I took him out behind the school and beat some sense into him.

No I didn’t. Though I kind of wanted to. Instead we had a conversation about the ways I thought he could be even more effective as a scholar if he used parts of his teaching persona in his written work. And I pointed out that often the entire readership for most journal articles consists of the writer, the editor, and the peer reviewers. Maybe he’s not really writing for that many other scholars, and maybe reviewers would enjoy his sense of humor and gifts for narrative as much as his students and I do.

Teaching and publishing are the two most important parts of our jobs. Ideally, they should feed each other. Perhaps we can use similar tools to get better at each of them. Being oneself on the page, on the stage, or in the seminar room is a good first step.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.