An Historian’s Perspective on Teaching as Performance

Theatrical professors convinced me to enter the profession. While they were certainly intelligent, it was their ability to perform as professors that drew me in.

I didn’t consciously recognize that professors performed until I started teaching. I was faced not only with knowing enough history to fill 50 minutes or 120 minutes, but I also had to convey it in a way that kept students awake and interested. That was (and still is) the most intimidating thing about teaching–I can always refer to notes, but I can’t replace my personality. I tend to be introverted and not particularly fond of large groups with which I am expected to interact. That’s not exactly a recipe for success when it comes to teaching.

I don’t know when I first chose to do so, but sometime early in my teaching career, I adopted a teaching persona. I don’t want to give too much away, since some of my students read my blog (or claim that they do), but here are some elements of my professorial persona:

  • I throw out pop culture references with abandon. I try to make them relevant, so mentioning The Simpsons in 1998 was okay, but nowadays, it has to be Jersey Shore. (Not that I watch either one, mind you, but I know enough to be able to mention them for a laugh.) It helps students understand that I’m not quite an old fogey and that I probably understand something about their world.
  • I’m not above actually performing history. I’ve had students act out duels and the Brooks-Sumner incident, and I’ve acted out a Great Awakening sermon and the Salem witch trials.
  • There is also an element of improvisation in my teaching. In using Powerpoints the past few years, I started to get away from this, but I’ve determined to be less structured this semester. That means more writing on the board as students show interest in discussion; if that means condensing the breadth of topics covered in the class and skipping over slides, so be it. It’s harder thinking on my feet, but after thirteen years of being in the classroom, I usually know enough to keep the conversation going if students are interested.

By no means is my professorial persona exemplary. I have certain distracting speaking habits that I continue to work to overcome, and there are days when I simply don’t have the energy or patience to perform. I can say, though, that performance has helped students remember something about history. More importantly, it has helped me engage students more actively by pulling me out of my shell.

I should also point out that performance is no substitute for rigor and quality. Performance in the classroom can encourage enthusiasm about a subject among students, but enthusiasm should not be the most important objective. Performance should be a tool, much like technology, to grab students’ attention in order to teach them something of lasting value.

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3 Replies to “An Historian’s Perspective on Teaching as Performance”

  1. The good history profs I had were either good story tellers or had a good sense of humor. One comment I remember from British history was when the professor described Isaac Disraeli, the essayist and father of Benjamin, as a man who spent his life writing term papers. Another professor opined that graduate teaching assistants were two chapters ahead of the undergraduates.

    If you’re excited about what you’re teaching, the students will pick it up.

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