In my first year of full-time teaching, an essential part of my class prep was watching standup comedy. I would study the pacing—the strategic pauses, starts, stutters, spit-takes—and I would study cadence—the lilt from soothing to apoplectic—and I would pay attention to the almost accidental construction of narrative—how stories were built up from slow accumulation of seeming tangents, how arguments were assembled by juxtaposition of examples. It wasn’t anything that looked fancy on the surface; rather, it was another genre of stage magic—not looking fancy was the art.
So I studied standup. I watched dozens of routines. And this felt, at the time, necessary for my pedagogy. This was years ago. I was on a one-year contract at a large state university in a large joint religious studies and philosophy department in which about fifty percent of the classes were covered by contingent faculty, folks who were perceived by their tenured and tenure-track colleagues to be little more than temporary labor. While I had felt (and still feel, in hindsight) lucky to land the position, as soon as I arrived on campus it felt less like a step toward a promising career and more like the end of a potential career: contingent faculty, at least in my experience, were nudged toward feeling like failures. There were other issues with the job, but for present purposes I need only note that this particular “teaching context” did not inspire great confidence, and this was one reason I emphasized the performative aspect of my teaching, the entertainment angle. I liked, maybe even needed, the feeling of capturing a room, not just keeping the students awake but really owning their attention, able to generate responses on cue—laughter, shock, intrigue, the pleasure of the smooth or slant connection between facts or events.
I think a certain degree of shtick is important to the work of teaching. I think entertainment is important in the classroom. But I was asked to write about “teaching persona” and while my immediate association with that phrase was the theatrics, the performative, the standup routine, my most urgent thought was the need to go beyond that, to offer something beyond the “persona.”
I am thinking of this alternative to the performative in terms of risk and vulnerability. More specifically, instead of performing for students, I want students to have opportunities to see me in what I would identify as an authentic mode, i.e., as I would be alone in a room (were I talking out loud), wrestling with ideas and questions, usually staring at a high diagonal and flailing with my hands. The most valuable teaching “persona,” for me, is that which offers an open glimpse into me as a fellow human engaged in—and thus modeling—the most important work of the student, which is thinking, which is analyzing, which is making connections and drawing conclusions, theorizing-on-the-fly, failing and failing again in order to fail better (to reference both Beckett and my last essay for this blog).
When I look back on that first year of teaching, I can remember many teaching moments—in classrooms, in independent studies, in meetings with students—and while many of these are performative—and “successful” in the sense that students responded to me and engaged the material—those that strike me now as most successful were those in which I left the lessons of standup behind, those in which I dropped all pretense of performative mask and was suddenly just me, enthused or uncertain, befuddled or irate, fascinated or lost—or some combination of all of the above.
For example: one morning, before class, in my office, I was writing a short essay, later published in Religion Dispatches. It was about witchcraft, more or less. And I went in to class (I don’t remember what class it was) still very much in the process of thinking through this essay, my argument, the material, the case under consideration. And I took a few minutes, at the start of class, to share this, to think out loud. At the time I think I thought I was departing from script and thus failing, a little, at my job, at the task at hand. But in hindsight I remember the eyes of the students, the questions, the discussion, the back-and-forth, and I feel that this was a moment in which I really got through to my audience about what I take to matter most about what we do.
So this is the only slightly buried claim: what I think matters most about the work of teaching religion. To be sure, we have multiple tasks, but I think that beyond reiterating that which must get memorized or describing that which needs to be described what we must do, more than anything, is help our students think, meaning more specifically how to see the way the world is organized and imaged and assembled, to parse out claims and processes of authorization. I want to help students to think, critically and carefully, and I think the best way to do that is to show them that I, too, am thinking—indeed, to show them myself as I am thinking.
There’s wonder, for students and teacher, in coming to realizations for the first time, and while this can be tricky to plan, even unpredictable, I can suggest two rather basic tactics to help model thinking in the classroom: teach, teach about, and teach with your research; analyze documents together, for the first time, with the class.
Research fuels teaching far beyond content. While I appreciate the privilege of being able to teach classes that deal directly with the subject matter and questions of my research (this semester I have both “Religion and Law” and “Religion and Race” classes, with sessions of each dedicated to work I’m currently writing), it’s worth emphasizing that any reference to, example made of, or connections with research can be, in my opinion and experience, profoundly useful for teaching. Students need to hear about our work not so they’ll be impressed and we’ll have more authority; rather, students need to know that we’re doing what we’re asking them to do it, that this is, indeed, what we do—think about things, wrestle with questions, examine case studies, use theory, analyze, redescribe. There’s something humanizing about this, which has consequences for the texts under class consideration, too. If students see the books they’re reading as products of fallible, but striving, thinkers—people like them, doing what they’re being asked and trained to do—there is less of a default deference to the text qua text and more the sort of dialogic engagement I think we all want students to have with us, in the classroom.
The use of new primary sources is, for me, more tenuous, but having just finished my inaugural lecture for this semester’s “Religion and Race” class, I can offer at least one example. The course begins with the idea of categories and categorization. In the opening minutes I want students to see how purportedly ‘objective’ or strictly descriptive taxonomies can imply hierarchy, how categorization is an interested, a human, a political act. I also want them to see, from the very start, that the employ of “scientific rhetoric” or “scientific discourse” brings with it an authority, predicated on objectivity that is often completely absent. There are elements of this lecture (and it’s largely lecture, especially since this is the first class meeting) that are locked in digital place: I have a picture illustrating the once dominant theory of “the three races of mankind,” a chart tracing out the migration of each of Noah’s sons, and, toward the end, I have multiple images of post-aliyah life for Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews, in Israel (organized around the process of such folks suddenly “becoming black” and the social processes of “becoming Jewish” and “becoming Israeli”). But there are also moving pieces.
At the very beginning of my lecture, where what I need to show is the act of categorization, draped in the trappings of science, making claims about race, I can use any number of images of racial typologies that employ scientific rhetoric. The archive on Google image search alone is deep. So, today, this morning, I selected one I had never studied before, substituting it for one already standing as a slide. I did not examine the full implications of this picture, but, trusting the source and recognizing, at a glance, that it would work for my purposes and function as a primary artifact for analysis in class discussion, I pasted it in place and headed off to class.
So this is part of what I mean by risk. Rather than the well-rehearsed joke, the memorized lecture, what I gave my students was the experience of reading an image together.
To be sure, I have advantages over them, in this activity. I have years of training and experience, and as curator of the slide show I knew the logic of the image’s inclusion, knew some of the things to look for, had my own (interested, political) agenda for making this picture the focus of our collective attention and inquiry. But I was also forcing myself to think in-the-moment, to model analysis as a process of searching rather than a proud assertion of results. I was engaging with the class in the act of explaining the explanations offered by the categories given, which, as you can see, link imagined human racial types and animal taxonomies to geographic environments. My students were puzzled, then fascinated. “Hierarchy” was one of the first words thrown out—by them, not me. Discussion followed about skull shape, about “norms” and their relation to aesthetics, about costume, and, yes, about scientific rhetoric, about bias and interest, about politics. We had worked together through a primary source that shows a great deal about race as a contingent human construction, that shows a great deal about the mobilization of authority and the presentation of the ideological as the natural—which we’ll take up in more depth, as a class, when we meet again next week.
We will return, too, at some point in the semester, to this image. There is, of course, much more to say about it that our brief analysis brought out, but by the time the students encounter it again they will be in better positions to see and understand what it is doing, what it contains. They will, by then, have done more work, gotten some practice.
And that’s the persona I’d suggest is most worth thinking about, most worth attempting to model, to show—the teacher as one who practices alongside her students, in the sense of always working toward greater proficiency at a skill. I do not want to be the standup professor, the one with the smooth timing and the well-rehearsed lines. For me, a more valuable and effective pedagogy is one that puts me in a more vulnerable position, that models the stuttering fallibility of what we really do, as scholars, as intellectuals, as thinkers. I want to pursue a pedagogy that shows me as a thinker, thinking with and alongside the class.