Thursday, March 01, 2007

Teaching sociology: The usefulness of authentic self-presentation

It’s a natural and understandable tendency for professors to engage in strategic self-presentation when they teach; i.e., try to present themselves to be more “professor-like”. This includes dressing up, portraying oneself as knowledgeable, keeping an even emotional tone, and so forth.

I’ve concluded, though, that this isn’t really a good idea, and in terms of one’s teaching style, professors should seek authenticity—finding their “voice.” In my first years teaching, I tried to be professional and act like I thought a professor should act. In fact, I even wore a coat and tie to class my first semester (that didn’t last long!). Once I got tenure, I decided that the self-presentation was just too much work, and I resolved to do pretty much whatever I felt like in the classroom.

I now wear jeans & a t-shirt when teaching, except when I wear a Hawaiian shirt, and I’m usually barefoot. (Hey, I’m from California). If a topic comes up that interests me, off we go into a digression. I constantly joke around. If I get bored in lecture, we skip that section. When I’m hungry, I mooch from students who have food on their desk. If I don’t know about something, I say so right away. Basically, I show fairly little impulse control when I teach—what they get is who I am. (I draw the line at criminal offenses--at least felonies).

When I made this change, I figured that the quality and ratings of my teaching would go down, but that I would be happier. Well, the latter certainly happened, but not the former. In talking to students, they either don’t care (in the case of clothing style) or appreciate (joking around) the changes.

This leads me to the general point that following a standard, conventional style of teaching is over-rated , and I think most faculty would do well to develop their own, more authentic style of self-presentation.

For additional essays on teaching sociology:


Jay Livingston said...

Tests can also be tools for learning. Sometimes, though rarely, when I really do it right, I can construct a series of questions that build to an idea or realization that the student might otherwise not have had. That is, if I'd asked Question #5 first, most students would be baffled. But if they first do #1, which they can get fairly easily, and then #2, and so on, when they get to #5, the previous four answers make this one seem almost obvious. So in doing those first four questions, they've learned something.

Brad Wright said...

What a clever idea... I'll try it in my next test.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brad-
I dig your teaching style. I'm doing some research on alternatives to teaching sociology using a textbook. You strike me as the sort of Professor who might employ such an approach. I'm curious as to what you assign your intro students in terms of readings (?)

Brad Wright said...

Hello APB,

I'm not sure that I've figured out the reading thing...

In my criminology class, I assign a text that covers criminological theories (which I find students need help on).

Then I create a reader of research articles and chapters to cover the substantive issues.

This works pretty well but not great. Any ideas?