Posted by: kwhessel | October 27, 2010

“But when in other habits you are seen”

It is late October, and despite my academic commitments, teaching and reading which persist in intensity even as the season is dying down, I cannot help but think of Halloween.  I still afford it no small measure of priority.  Surely, my fondness for ghouls and ghosts as entangled with gourds and cider partakes of some nostalgia.  I recall the youthful enticements of sweets and neighborhood sociability, and the thrill of becoming, for an evening, a licensed hellion.  But I suspect the appeal of the holiday has grown along with me.  Perhaps, in a profession for which self-branding is such a dominant and ever-present concern, one night a year of masquerade is a welcome, even a necessary diversion.  Though I may, in fact, recite “Tam O’ Shanter” at a Halloween party, or in a mellower moment “To Autumn,” on October 31st I need not be a Romanticist.

But what shall I be?  What an agonizing decision this can be for us self-fashioners.  We cannot merely decide what we will seem like on Halloween, we also must decide what we will be.  We decide upon the costume based on what it says about the submerged identity.  I find myself torn between several possibilities.  First, the Sublime.  In this costume I dress as normal, except I wear a cap with a lime glued to the bill.  I am sub-lime.  But who am I sub-sublime?  Clearly I’m intellectual: I’ve dressed as a concept for Halloween.  But I’m also flippant—I’ve reduced a complex philosophical idea about the limits of perception and expression to a fruit pun.  Don’t worry about me; I don’t take things too seriously.  It appears I have a wry sense of humor.  And there’s more than a little exclusion to this costume; depending on what Halloween party I’m going to, I must expect that there will be some who don’t get the joke.  But I’m comfortable with that; in fact, I wouldn’t mind having to explain the joke.  Perhaps this costume also says: “I’m fairly casual when it comes to Halloween.  You’ll not confuse me for a Halloween enthusiast.”

Or there’s Jareth, the goblin-king, from the movie Labyrinth.  This one’s primarily nostalgic and a bit more earnest; it gazes fondly on the same childhood that engendered my love for the holiday.  It took some assembling and, unlike the sublime, is not dismissive of the festivities.  With its revealing tights it’s also a bit more daring—a flamboyant statement of personal bodily comfort.  Or there’s Bill Compton from True Blood: pop-culture savvy, less exclusive than the sublime and less nostalgic than the goblin-king.  This one announces, “I participate in my own cultural moment.  I am not too cloistered to Pop.”  There is also a whole host of possibilities already discarded for the undesirable personas (undesirable at the present time) they manifest.  The perennial dead celebrity costume is too callous and may gesture towards an unoriginal sense of humor.  Ditto, the ironic disaster costume.  And while historical, literary, or political personas are not off the table for Halloweens in perpetuity, each would announce affiliations I don’t currently feel compelled to own.

This year the problem is complicated by the fact that I’ve invited my Shakespeare class to attend on Thursday in a Shakespeare-themed costume.  I’ve devoted some time at the beginning of the period to having a costume contest, judged on cleverness and creativity.  And I should probably participate, for what kind of person wears no costume.  Now I must fit the costume to a new context: the classroom.  It will not merely generate an identity, but an identity-as-instructor.  The possibilities repeat themselves: do I go as a character (perhaps Malvolio cross-gartered), an absurd detail (Titus Andronicus’s disembodied hand), a genre (comedy).  So many possibilities.  How will I ever settle upon one?  Have I properly considered the pedagogical repercussions of each?  Beset by such a plethora of identities, how could I not despair?

Except, it occurs to me, I have already worn costumes to teach because, in some degree, this is what the “teaching persona” always is.  And as assiduously as we focus on the “seems” of the persona, we take for granted the “is” that we are constantly constructing.  Underlying each in-class tic and foible is an out-of-class phantom identity.  Have you ever gone to class dressed as the “wise fool”?  This persona is often characterized by a self-deprecating humor that never spills over into buffoonery.  The fool’s prerogative is the juxtaposition of gravest truth and levity, and as such the fool often pitches its voice into mock gravity when reading, or transports high literature into foreign contexts to absurd effect.  This persona announces an identity capable of unserious engagement.  It attempts to bridge the various gaps between students and instructors by transmuting all concepts into their least-threatening forms.  The out-of-class fool must be approachable (because harmless), lighthearted, jovial, a committed ironist.  At the same time this persona secures its self-assuredness by asserting, in a move surely crafted to anticipate the myriad ego-battering dangers of teaching, “you cannot make light of me, for I have already made light of myself.”

A related but distinct persona is the “comedian.”  Also operating by humor, but relying less on the diminishment of seriousness and more on a carefully crafted comic timing, the comedian is more charismatic than the fool.  Then there is the “lover of literature.”  In class this persona will sometimes be overcome by the course texts, even to the point of being (strategically) unable to articulate how impressive or important the text really is.  Sometimes too this persona allows the effects of textual sentiment to play upon its countenance.  All of this is a calculated performance to establish the passion of the out-of class identity, as well as its seriousness.  Also worth considering is the “authoritarian,” who makes much, in class, of the rules and expectations of the course.  Conspicuous about the authoritarian is that, rather than communicating an out-of-class identity, this persona assures the students that such an identity exists, but that they will have no access to it.  Another fairly common persona is the “molder of minds” who demonstrates a strategic disregard for the stuffy conceptual detritus that accompanies literary formalism.  This persona communicates to the students that it is less interested in filling their minds with literary facts and more interested in activating their potential.  As such, in-class conversations wax philosophical or broadly cultural.  As with each other instance, this persona creates its corresponding identity: one approachable for its worldliness, for its broad range of ideas, for its commitment to spilling outside of the boundaries of the traditional.  In each case, the implied identity serves as the truth-of-personality that allows for today’s student to identify with an instructor he or she knows almost nothing about.

No doubt, I have not exhausted the list of possible personas.  And I suspect that very rarely does an instructor or professor pass even an entire week dressed solely in one or another pedagogical costume.  Where Halloween lasts only one evening, teaching is most often a lifetime commitment.  It may be tempting to presume that the personas we adopt in-class arise from our innermost personal convictions, but it is far more advantageous to consider that the identity comes after the persona, a means of backstopping the complex of rhetorical and pedagogical decisions that we make every day.  One class may respond better to the assured confidence of the comedian, while another warms to the affable stumbling of the fool.  In a moment of weakness any class (and perhaps many instructors and professors) may need the alienating distance of the authoritarian.  Considering these personas, and even the communicated identities underlying, as so many interchangeable strategies helps to keep us from being entranced by our own costumery.  It is, after all, when we believe that the failures of any given persona to connect in the classroom arise from an inborn character flaw, rather than a rhetorical or performative misstep, that we fall into pedagogical despair.  It is when we assume that a persona has blossomed from some incontrovertible aspect of our stable selves that we are deprived of the fluidity necessary to good teaching.

Such a mistake would be tantamount to imagining that my Halloween costume reflected who I was, rather than who I had decided, for the evening, to be.   That would in turn mean dressing in the same costume year-in and year-out.  And while I have, in bygone busy years, over-relied on the at hand ease of the cowboy costume, I would hate to be doomed to the poncho and Stetson for all eternity.

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