I was recently on a roundtable about the politics of teaching personas at University of Oregon’s annual Composition Conference. This is what I spoke about:
One of my first teaching mentors told me that we’re all haunted by the ghosts of past instructors. Our teaching personas, that is, are haunted by these past instructors and shape the way that we engage with our students, at least initially. Personally, I’ve been haunted by a series of wonderful, engaging, funny, but most of all extroverted ghosts.
As instructors, we’re often told that we need to be mindful of the particular needs of the introverted, or quiet, student. But the assumption is often that we ourselves cannot be quiet; the requirements and constraints of the job require us to assume extroverted—or loud—personas.
For a long time, I just took this assumption in stride, trying to craft a teaching persona that was louder and more energetic. But in the past year, I’ve started to wonder why that impulse has been so strong. I’m not questioning the value of the exuberant, loud, extroverted instructor or the specific classroom environment such an instructor creates, because I think that value is very real, but I am questioning the unspoken assumption that the quiet classroom and the quiet instructor are necessarily detrimental to student learning in a discussion-based course.
At this point, I think it’s probably necessary to clarify what I mean by “quiet instructor.” I’ve been throwing around terms like extroverted and introverted, which are by nature reductive categories, and they might lead one to assume that a quiet instructor is someone who doesn’t speak much in their classes. Someone who is shy or reticent, perhaps. That’s not quite what I mean. I, personally, talk A LOT in my classrooms. I ask a lot of pesky questions. I give a lot of presentations and mini-lectures. I read passages from our assigned texts aloud, and I ask my students to do the same. Yet nearly every year when evaluation time comes around, I have a student who says something along the lines of “she was nice and taught the material well, but she was quiet.” When I say “quiet instructor,” what I really mean is someone whose first impulse is not necessarily to engage vocally. Someone whose energy is not always obvious in a physical sense. Someone who embraces quiet space and time in the writing classroom.
With my remaining time, I want to think about what’s politically at stake when I (and others) embrace loud personas instead of quiet ones. And I want to gesture toward what the quiet persona can specifically offer to a successful writing classroom.
So, what’s at stake?
- I think this question is first and foremost one of representation. And not just in the sense that quiet instructors need to represent the specific value of a quiet identity for quiet students. What’s at stake is the representation of alternative ways to engage in discourse. So many of our metaphors for writing and discourse communities in general are vocal ones, which is not only potentially ableist, but also a very narrow way of thinking about the ways in which we, as humans, engage one another productively.
- Additionally, I think that failing to explore the potential of the quiet persona contributes to an overemphasis on the IDEAL TEACHER. We feel the pressure to be the ones who stand on desks and recite poetry, the ones who bellows passages from Shakespeare’s plays.
- Finally, I think that assumptions about what style of engagement makes a good instructor lead many introverted or quiet individuals to adopt more traditional, authoritarian classrooms—which work wonderfully for some of us, but can often be dull or unengaging for others. These assumptions limit our potential.
I’ve really just begun experimenting with ways to successfully incorporate a quiet praxis within the classroom, so I have no definite answers for what a successful quiet instructor looks like or does. But I do think that a quiet instructor needs, like her or his louder counterparts, to lead by example when it comes to discursive engagement.
In the past several terms, I have experimented with this by turning to digital humanities and convergence culture practices for inspiration. If increased digitization means that it is the age of the geek, it also means that it is the age of the introvert. We are able, increasingly, to participate in rich discursive exchanges without so much as opening our mouths. While I won’t (and don’t want to) move away from in-class verbal discussion any time soon, I am allowing and encouraging both myself and my students to engage one another in increasingly nontraditional, quiet ways, such as Live Tweeting our discussions, using a roulette wheel to determine who responds to a question and in what way, exchanging business letters to supplement face-to-face conferencing and more. As Susan Cain suggested in Quiet, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” I think that this is just as true for instructors and pedagogies as it is for students.