David Brooks recently wrote “The power of the particular” (NYTimes, June 26, 2012). In this article he tries to explain how it is that Bruce Springsteen (aka, The Boss) is so wildly popular in Europe with such a young crowd.
No, I’m not going all “Entertainment Tonight” on you. I found his analysis related to part of my theory of teaching. Brooks explains how we all have a need to create detailed (sometimes imaginary) worlds as a way of orienting ourselves in the real world. We are also attracted to these detailed imaginary worlds — think Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, Tupac Shakur’s Compton, or Springsteen’s Jersey.
Thus, paradoxically, Springsteen’s very localness attracts him to people around the world. As recounted in the article, tens of thousands of Spaniards can be seen at his concerts deliriously singing “Born in the USA” at the top of their lungs. Oh, really? You were? Probably not, and probably won’t be there any time soon, but these people relate to his world in a deep way.
Brooks takes the following lesson from this:
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
This sounds exactly right, but I think it can and should also be applied to teaching. This very much echoes what I tell young professors who ask my advice for how they should act in class. I have always told them to be true to their personality. If they like dumb jokes, then tell dumb jokes. If they love talking about their family or hometown, then do so. If they are hyperactive, then let that come through. If they have a particular fondness (or disdain) for a particular part of their field, then let that be apparent. They should let out their personality.
In short, let the students see you as a whole person. Only then will they treat you as a person, listen to you as a person, and truly hear you if you have to give them some positive reinforcement or strong critiques. They will be able to recognize the words as coming from you, a fully-formed individual, and not from some one-dimensional automaton who does not have their best interests at heart.
I have always considered this to be my greatest strength as a professor. I’m not the greatest lecturer and I’m no treat to look at and I’m not the world’s smartest person, but I do care about my students and I let them see my personality. It allows us to have more meaningful conversations, relationships, and — maybe surprisingly until you reflect on it — learning.
If you let the students into your world, they will let you into theirs. And then true trust, teaching, and learning can begin to flourish.