Teaching as a performative art (also a follow-up on Adi’s post)

A few days before reading the excerpt from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, on the drive home after a frustrating couple of days in the classroom, I found myself pondering on the performative aspect of teaching. Teaching, to a great extent, is a performative art. When the “audience” responds positively and reciprocates, I have a good day in the office. When the response to my thought-provoking questions, carefully-timed jokes, and explicit statements on the relevance of the topic in question are blank stares into space, I feel completely drained. This performative aspect in teaching strikes me even harder after our discussion of radical pedagogy: how much personal or non-academic interaction one chooses to have with students and how much one’s choice in mannerism and outward appearance play a part in students’ learning experience. To expand on this interesting discussion, I’d like to share some of my own decision-making process on these subjects.

Personality does affect one’s teaching style. That said, I do think pedagogical approaches can be learned and developed just like how one develops disciplinary knowledge. I’d like to think that every teacher makes conscious pedagogical decisions about how much of their personal life and/or experience is revealed/shared both in and outside of the classroom when interacting with students. Every moment of interaction can be a teaching moment, and the performative aspect of teaching manifests itself when one teaches by example. For me, professionalism is essential in my interaction with students. If we consider college a form of apprenticeship to prepare students for their professional lives, then students need to learn how to be professional and respect professional boundaries (yes, boundaries can be challenged and approached with creativity, but let me finish this thought…) I tell all of my students on the first day of the class that our relationship is professional, which means that both the instructor and the students have responsibilities and must keep their respective ends of the “contract,” so to speak, in order to have a fulfilling learning experience. Upholding professionalism does not mean that I have no personal interaction with students at all or that I am aloof or unfriendly. I do, however, set parameters of my interaction with students from the start, as well as establish my authority (not a word with positive connotations in a shared-learning environment, I know, but not so negative considering the big picture of teaching and learning), which is derived from my disciplinary expertise and my professional role in a university setting, not because I consider myself superior to the students as a person. What is important in my teaching is that students learn the methods with which information is treated and knowledge is generated in my discipline. The emphasis on professionalism sometimes has the effect of a “threat”: “You agreed to enter a contract with me on the first day of class, as the syllabus describes. So after I have reminded you over and over again of the deadline of an assignment and you still fail to submit it in time, or after I’ve helped you learn and review the materials over the course of several weeks and you still do not study for the midterm, then you have to bear the consequences of your own action.” But professionalism also helps to set clear expectations, both for me and my students. I rarely deviate from the syllabus and give students every piece of course material promised on the syllabus. When I mark a student down in an assignment, she will know (after a bit of explanation) that it’s not because I don’t like her personally but because she does not fulfill the requirements of the assignment. I hope she will apply that principle to other areas of her life. If students don’t quite know how to draw the line between the professional and the personal, I consider it my responsibility to teach them. I may not be the most personable professor, but students have told me that I am fair, and that I am very clear on expectations and I help students meet expectations.

My choice in making professionalism the principle of my interaction with students also has a gender dimension, as well as a consideration for what my public persona (what I wear, how I walk and talk, my command of the English colloquialism, etc.) does to my effectiveness as a teacher. I am impressed by some of Josh’s implementations of radical pedagogies, especially the office grading, the meditation, and the deliberate choices in outfits or appearance. On the “being personal” and “being weird” aspect, though, I’d like to hear everyone’s thoughts–I’ve been thinking about it all week. When I first started teaching as a faculty member, I received numerous advice from female mentors and colleagues on how a relatively young (or youthful looking), petite, international, and female faculty member should carry herself so that students would respect (out of fear or fondness, either way) and not walk all over her. I’ve been told that I need to be stern, strict, and in control, and have an imposing presence through my choice of wardrobe. Although teaching is performative, one still cannot be what one is not. It is difficult for a youngish petite female professor who’s just starting out to strike the right balance, especially when one needs to determine what one is comfortable doing. In very generic terms, female professors are expected to be nurturing, friendly, perhaps easier to negotiate with, and possibly being more easily disrespected by students (and their parents). Being liked may mean less respect for the professorial role (Adi provided a perfect example of how students would expect special treatment because of a perceived rapport with the professor), and yet demanding respect in the wrong way could make one lose students’ fondness, and ultimately, respect. I learned these the hard way in my first full-time teaching position somewhere else several years ago, where classroom discipline was an issue I had to deal with for the first time in my teaching experience, and I was terrible at it at first. My confidence in asserting my authority (as a subject-matter expert), presenting course materials, as well as the command of the English colloquialism have all improved over time, but lessons learned from my first full-time teaching job continue to be a reminder of the gender, age, nationality/ethnicity dimensions of the performative art called teaching. I dress relatively formally and conservatively at work; I usually choose to use humor rather than reprimand in my teaching when I enforce my rules, and I choose to lay out expectations and policies very clearly on the syllabus. There isn’t a perfect formula when it comes to putting oneself out there. I am interested to hear what everyone has done that works in their teaching and how “performative” you’ve been in your interaction with students.


2 thoughts on “Teaching as a performative art (also a follow-up on Adi’s post)

  1. Josh Birnbaum says:

    Excellent thoughts, Ping-Yuan. I enjoyed reading about your process. You create an interesting distinction between the personality choices of an educator and the responsibilities of said educator.

    Despite being a self-proclaimed weirdo, I do set clear and rigid expectations for students. Perhaps this is why I confound them — I dance around in front of the class in purple pants like a mystical beard fairy, and then still fail them when they miss a deadline. Last semester, I taught a senior capstone class in which I had 13 students. Only 11 passed. The two who did not will have to come back for an extra semester since we don’t offer the class currently. They knew they were cruisin’ for a bruisin’ as I had communicated expectations with them all semester, and graded fairly and explicitly with rubrics, written feedback, class critique, and office hours discussions.

    You are wise to point out the gender dimension to our roles. I also think there’s a dimension to race, age, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds that impacts who we are and how we are perceived by the academy (which has its own white/male biases, as bell hooks aptly points out).

    We all have to find our own way in teaching, based on the cards we were dealt and the moves we decide to make. It’s important to have these kinds of discussions that help us challenge our current selves, in order to discover the selves we can be. I look forward to hearing other’s thoughts on the performative personae of the teacher!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Herta Rodina says:

    Ping-Yuan’s observations and Josh’s comments about the role of gender, age, national origin, and so forth really resonated with me. My teaching persona has changed over the years, as I’ve gained insights from successes and failures and perhaps have become more americanized. Nevertheless, a few constants remain, and sometimes they trigger student comments or disapproval because my behavior doesn’t match their expectations. I don’t smile much (and when I do, I don’t show all my teeth so it’s easy to miss); I’m not maternal and never have been, despite being in the same age range as many of my students’ mothers; students say I’m fair, respectful, and have a sense of humor, but I don’t get high “nice” ratings, probably because I see nice as belonging to non-professional interactions. I could go on. Teaching a language and a culture allows us to discuss differences of behavior and expectation in class, but students don’t always internalize it. I try to see my teaching self from their point of view, but in the end I can only change what’s not too far beyond my personal perception of my professional comfort zone.

    On a related note, ICYMI, here’s a recent article about unconscious gender bias in student evaluations:


    Liked by 1 person

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