Schtick

When I was in college, I planned to be a high school English teacher.  Thus, I was required to take a variety of education classes, including what we called Materials and Methods of Teaching English.  Essentially, the course was designed to give students tools that were specifically geared toward teaching English classes, not just toward teaching, in general.  Our professor for that class once said, “Teaching is 50% acting.”

I thought about that this past week when one of my students referred to my class as a stand-up routine (it’s not really true, of course, as I would be awful at stand-up comedy for a whole host of reasons).  Clearly, though, I tell a good number of jokes in class, and many of them are, by my own admission, awful.  I refer to this (and a variety of other behaviors) as my schtick.  A more professional term would be my teaching persona.

Schtick is a Yiddish word that originally meant “piece,” as in a piece of a performance or a piece that was performed, and Jewish comedians who performed in the Catskills would use it to refer to a particular part of their acts or the entire act they were doing.  One comedian might center his entire routine around his nagging wife, and he (and others) would refer to that as his schtick.

Using this term (as well as the 50% acting comment) makes it sound as if I think I am not truly myself in the classroom, that I am doing little more than taking on a role that I play for fifty minutes or so, then go back to being myself.  On one level, this is true.  I am not the same person in the classroom I am outside.  While I do tell jokes outside of class, if I’m having a conversation with my wife or friends, I use very few jokes or even puns, though I do still tell them.

To some extent, we all play roles in our jobs, especially if part of that job involves talking to any remotely large group.  When I lead a meeting in our department, I am different than if I am simply a member of a group that is having a meeting.  Given that I hate meetings, I am usually very focused when leading, as I want to keep the meeting as short as possible.  When I am not leading it, I become more of the comedian, as I know we’re going to be there the entire time (as I’m not in control of getting us out early), so I want to make it at least passably enjoyable (it almost never is).

In the same way, my schtick varies a bit from class to class.  In the first-year writing classes, we don’t really need to cover any particular material, given that the focus is on helping them write better.  Thus, I have more flexibility in how we spend our class time.  I have more freedom for digressions, stories, and jokes.  In upper-division courses, though, where they need knowledge for future classes (or graduate school or teaching or whatever they hope to do), I am more focused on making sure we talk about certain ideas or subjects.  I do still tell a few stories and jokes, though.

However, the schtick I use in class is not really a role I put on.  At the core of it, that persona is still very much me.  I do enjoy telling jokes and making people laugh, and I enjoy laughing with other people.  I love telling stories, so I do that in class, as well.  I simply do all of these things with greater frequency than I would if I were having a conversation with a small group of friends or talking with someone one-on-one.

To be effective, a schtick has to come from who one truly is.  I could never walk into class and put on a role that is not me and expect it to have the same effectiveness that my current approach has.  I have trouble being the stern authoritarian, though I have had to play that role at times (such as when students cheat).  Similarly, I am not a nurturer by nature, so I cannot play that role in class (or outside, as I have to relate to students there in a way that is honest for me, as well).

I know full well not every student responds well to my approach.  Those students who believe they are serious about learning and serious about their grades view my digressions and jokes as a waste of class time.  They are often frustrated with my ineffective use of class time.  I know this because they tell me, either on evaluations or in person (one of the benefits and drawbacks of my approach is that students often feel free to tell me things).  My schtick isn’t designed for them.  In fact, on some level, it’s not for the students at all.  It’s really for me.

While I hope the persona I use in class is one that works well for students, in the end, it has to be something that works for me.  It has to make my teaching of the class feel natural to who I am, even though it is partly adopted for a period of time.  Standing in front of people for close to an hour, talking about writing or literature, is not natural, even for those of us who have been doing it for a couple of decades.  We need a way to do it that makes it feel as natural as possible.  For me, that involves stories and jokes and digressions.  That’s what I do, and I’m schticking to it (I couldn’t resist at least one).

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