I struggle with finding my authentic teaching voice because while I do not want to be an overly rigid and authoritarian teacher, I am also wary about not being taken seriously by students. As Sarah Deel’s piece explains, there are some gender components to this dilemma. Female academics may feel that they have to set a stricter tone to fight back against assumptions that they are unserious or not qualified. While perhaps it is true that male teachers can more easily get away with a relaxed demeanor, I am not sure that too friendly or casual of an atmosphere in the classroom is ultimately to the benefit of students no matter the situation. The deep social purpose of education may include forming friendships and connections, but it also includes goals such as overcoming intellectual challenges and practicing critical thinking. If students are too comfortable, they are not necessarily thinking critically. In addition, I wouldn’t feel motivated to teach if I felt that all I could offer to students was a social experience or entertainment event. I don’t think that having fun without critical thinking fulfills the purpose of education, even in the more free wheeling humanities classes which I teach in my department.
I have struggled with finding the balance between supportiveness, friendliness, and academic rigor in some of the classes that I have taught. During my first semester of teaching, I was much more nervous about interacting directly with students, and often reverted to authoritative lectures for most of the class. While some of the students complimented the lectures in the course evaluations, I also got comments indicating that some students found the lectures to be repetitive or not engaging. These comments convinced me that I needed to spend far less time lecturing and more time leading class discussions, no matter how difficult it can be to create a productive discussion class with undergraduates whose readings habits are often inconsistent. The interesting thing is that while many students have complimented my new discussion based style of teaching, some students will occasionally make comments that they find the discussions to be unproductive or not related enough to the readings. These types of students are actually craving more structure. If I simply let the students talk about very broad questions for most of the class, even I start to wonder whether what we are doing is academic enough. However, after a few of these free wheeling class discussions that I worried were a bit unproductive, I did notice that the student writing responses posted that week were much more sophisticated, nuanced, and engaging. This realization convinced me that even class discussions which may feel frustrating or unproductive to me are nonetheless probably of great benefit to some of the students.
I also resonated with Shelli Fowler’s suggestion that teachers should avoid posturing. One of the problems during the semester in which I mostly lectured was that I was trying too hard to sound like an expert on the stage. As a result, I put an enormous amount of pressure upon myself. I could never deliver or emulate the polished lectures delivered by seasoned and experienced professors that I myself had attended as a student, and as a result I worried that my efforts were not enough. I agonized about small mistakes or typos, rather than thinking about the big picture. Ultimately, I had to accept that what I had to offer the students, even as an inexperienced graduate student, was enough. I made a conscious decision during this second semester teaching to stop trying to seem perfect or invulnerable. I spend more time listening and asking questions, rather than acting as though I have all the answers. I feel much better with this approach because there is less pressure to always be perfect, and I feel like I am connecting better with students and engaging their curiosity.
Still, there are times when students do need more authoritative guidance. Some lecturing is sometimes necessary, and sometimes rerouting a class discussion helps things to flows in a more productive way. Even giving feedback on written work is an extremely uncomfortable task for people who like to be nice, but it is essential to helping students learn.
In conclusion, I ultimately feel less insecure as a more experienced teacher, and this helps me to feel comfortable with making mistakes and not having all the answers. This is not the same thing, of course, as not being prepared. I take the class seriously, but am not obsessed with perfection. So far, this approach seems to be working.