Thursday, November 15, 2007

Say it like you mean it.

I have a new obsession: Musical Theatre. It's like an addiction: I now need a daily fix via websites like Musical Theatre Audition or Talkin' Broadway. I'm not entirely sure where my habit has come from, as I don't generally consider myself to be particularly theatrical in nature. (I am actually quite obsessive, but that's beside the point.) Colleagues of mine (should they bother to read blogs) would snort in rebuttal and they are to some extent justified—I've passed more than once across the stage and not always in the background. I will also readily confess to an avid fandom of live productions. (It's unfortunate there are so few in our small community.) But I'm not really an actor. I merely dabble. So my current daily devotions seem a disproportionately large step up into Obsessionland. What worries me is I’m not altogether certain if the inordinate amount of time I’ve been spending getting my fix will have any positive outcomes for what I actually do for a living.

I once had an extremely enlightening conversation with a professor of psychology while we both were participating in a professional development workshop. She explained that her teaching persona is very different from her private persona, and that it often poses a problem for people who encounter her in both of these spheres. She, like me, is a decided introvert, and we both had faced queries from relatives wondering what would possess an introvert to enter so public a profession. My aha! moment of the conversation came when it occurred to me that teaching is like acting. I develop a motivation (more for the students than myself, but occasionally I have those days), rehearse lines (questions for the class are printed clearly in my notes--word for word), experience pre-stage jitters, and then morph into Teaching Me as I step out onto my mini-stage. Teaching Me is (at least in the script) a confident, knowledgeable, outgoing, receptive, interactive, and engaging individual. One might consider student theatre critics with student evaluations as assessments of how well the actor is performing the role. Since Teaching Me is a people-oriented person, and I just pretend to be that person while standing in front of a room full of bodies (who seem quite happy to enter into the theatrical deception), the profession doesn't appear quite the stretch for the introvert as it might at first.

What disturbs me lately about this little revelation is how much of my identity in my own mind is wrapped up in what I do for a living. What I accomplish as Teaching Me has become a vital part of my own feelings of self-worth. My life has become decidedly one-sided: I am unmarried and have no children, I’m not particularly involved in the greater community (although I’m sure one exists outside my department), and I don’t spend time on any outside causes. (I may later decide to write about guilt this causes Teaching Me.) If what makes me Me isn’t even the real Me, am I being disingenuous even to myself?

My frequent surfing of the musical theatre pages has focused primarily on what constitutes good singing and acting. It spills over into the rest of my day—I find myself much more observant of the physicality of speaking and communicating. What value do posture, gesture, facial expression and movement really add to the content of the spoken word? That they do add value I already presume, having myself sat through one too many monotonic lectures. However, the presence of animation does not necessarily mean value added. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what you can find on YouTube, but I have also in the past week seen many snippets of high school theatre productions in which the physicality of communication could not in any way be construed value added. I wonder how much of Teaching Me’s animation appears equally contrived.

To close the loop I really should go back to what we were doing at the professional development workshop: videotaping ourselves, watching the tapes, then engaging in discussions of not only what we (the teachers) did but also what we (the students) heard and saw. (I must say there’s not much that’s more humbling than having to sit through one of your own classes—from the other side of the desk.) And here’s where I’m beginning to think the actors have one up on us. One of the most frequent pieces of advice in those discussions was always, “Be genuine!” As if we always have a good handle on what that is. Since I’m pretty convinced that Teaching Me only makes infrequent appearances, I’m not sure what it means to “be myself”. However, it makes sense when I read that standing with posture X elicits reaction Y from an audience, but posture N only gets reaction P. I can even test it out myself; something that of course has Scientist Me rubbing her hands together with glee.

It's just too bad that reading the reviews for “Zombie Prom” haven't led me to any great new insights for tomorrow’s class on solving water flow problems using Darcy’s Law. But it just might get me into the chorus of the local production of Grease. (Auditions are a week from Sunday.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Do. Or Do Not.

I'm not a natural writer. In fact, putting word to page (or rather, screen), is not only frustrating but frequently unsatisfying as well. I always feel the word I really want it just beyond my brain's ability to formulate exactly what I want to say. However, after numerous encounters with other blogging academics I've been for some time convinced of the value of writing 1) for practise, 2) to establish a (potentially) usable record of ephemeral moments in the classroom, and 3) a somewhat more useful alternative to for those moments in my office when I'm trying to work up the energy to walk out to the car and go home.

I am still sitting in the office. In Halloween costume, actually (and appropriately so, one might consider, given it's the 31st). Yesterday I gave a brief presentation to some faculty on my summer exploits--and it wasn't so much the presentation that sticks in my mind but the introduction that I got from the Dean of Faculty. He commented on my 9 year streak of putting on geologically-related outfits every year. I heard, albeit second-hand, that the topic surfaced again at the faculty coffee hour this morning ("Anyone seen the geology professor this year?"); I myself was frantically trying to finish entering some exam grades at the time. But the shoes pinch, my contact lenses are dry from the excess of makeup, and the jacket of sofa upholstery fabric is starting to chafe...and I wonder if it is all merely a subconscious ploy on my part to ingratiate myself with my colleagues. No student has ever commented on the outfits, nor have I ever seen evidence of any of them understanding anything better as a result of what in some cases are extremely madcap representations of some aspect of geology. (Case in point: last year's "geyser" get-up required an abundant imagination to interpret.) This year I was mistaken for Paul Revere twice and Ben Franklin more times than I can count. No one considered James Hutton at all, although his name appears periodically in class (including on an exam).

Maybe it's just a way to be different--at least most students recognise me by name (Hutton notwithstanding). Most educators I know do what they do because every now and then a student will come up and make a comment that takes them aback. An "aha" moment, if you will, where we finally see that the student also finally sees. A friend of mine in the communications department just wrote a great posting about those moments in her blog this week. Like that time I was a local topographic map and a student went hunting for a relative's home down my left leg (along the river)... then said, "That's so cool."

Since it's now 8:02, and the building has been quiet since 6:30, I doubt that will happen this year. I likely should have gone home an hour ago and taken the shoes off, the contacts out, and put the jacket back into the "Halloween" box (with the vest, pantaloons, and pocket watch). Tomorrow morning the geomorphology class gets to play with the stream table, which is extremely cool. One of them might even think so, too.

And if anyone has any ideas about costumes for next year, let me know.

Addendum: Just read a keenly perceptive essay from the Chronicle that puts a more apt face on the pain of writing..