We all have a variety of tics when we teach, some thing(s) students use when imitating us, as we know they do (we did the same thing when we were students). These are different than schtick, as these are unconscious (or at least they began that way). As we end this calendar year, then, I thought it would be fun to look back over my career and take a look at the way my tics have changed and even the way I have tics in what I emphasize in my teaching.
First, though, I need to say one thing about tics that I always try to convey to my students when we’re talking about public speaking. We all have tics, and we’re always going to have them unless we become like my friend from my first year of full-time teaching. She was so worried about any kind of mannerisms that she stood in front of the class with her hands at her sides the entire time, not making any gestures at all. Of course, this became a mannerism of its own, but at least it was conscious. There’s nothing wrong with tics as long as they don’t become so distracting that students (or we) can’t function, which almost never happens (and I say that having had some professors with so many (and so obvious of) tics that they seemed a parody of Rainman).
Before I had my first full-time job, I had taught as a graduate assistant and adjunct professor. If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I didn’t have any tics. In fact, sometime during the fall semester of my first job, I made such a comment in class, and the students just laughed. I challenged them to name even one, and they listed more than ten without having to think about it (these were high school students, by the way, who are much more observant than college students when it comes to such things).
From then on, I’ve been much more aware of my behavior in the front of the classroom, though I still don’t try to prevent them from happening. Still, I miss them. When I was teaching in my second high school, the students noticed that I used the word “essentially” quite often. They asked me about it one day, and I admitted I was not aware of using it. I tried to think of why I did so, and I started my answer, “Well, essentially, . . . ” Everyone laughed at my response, as I sounded like the characters who surround Bartleby in Melville’s short story, as they all begin to use “prefer” because of his influence.
Oddly enough, though, my mannerisms change almost annually. If you were to ask my current students about my tapping on the desk before starting class, they would have no idea what you were talking about. However, just a few years ago, students commented on this behavior quite regularly. I would take the roll or get what I needed from my folder for that class, then rap on the desk or lectern a couple of times, just loud enough for me to hear, then start class. I never purposefully stopped doing this; I just know that I don’t do it any longer.
What I find even more interesting, though, is how my focus in class changes along with those mannerisms. Part of that change is clearly caused by the fact that students change from one class to another, even if none of the material changes. Thus, they push the class in one direction or another (I use a good deal of discussion, so they have the ability to change the conversation).
I see this in Contemporary Literature more than anywhere else, as I teach it every year. One year, students became fascinated with the idea of subverting a dominant narrative (the same year as the desk tapping, actually), so everything seemed to center around that idea. A year or two later, I purposefully talked a good deal about the power of story. The following year, I had some students who were reading everything quite critically (in the negative sense of that word), so I talked about reading through a lens of faith, essentially giving the writer the benefit of the doubt until she or he proved otherwise, as well as loving one’s neighbor (the characters) as oneself.
Oddly enough, the one theme I’ve become most known for in my upper division courses is one I never purposefully chose. It found me, one might say. Students have joked and still joke that we’re going to talk about identity at some point in the course. It comes up when I haven’t planned, and we end up talking about it regularly throughout the semester. We all have mannerisms when it comes to themes and interests, it seems.
I have found it is better to embrace these tics rather than to push against them, as my friend so memorably did. These make us who we are, and students need to see that side of us. If we deny those behaviors, we become nothing more than automatons, conveying information. We can use them, though, to help students see us as people who are just as imperfect as they are.