Professor Joanne Tompkins — currently seconded from her position at the University of Queensland to work with the Australian Research Council as Executive Director of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel — kindly agreed to chat with me about performance and pedagogy, and I couldn’t be more excited to share what emerged from our conversation!
We talked across a range of subjects from performing in a classroom over time to costuming to teaching to different audiences. We chatted so much, in fact, that the conversation will be spread across two posts!
Rather than edit our conversation into the appearance of formal interview, Joanne and I curated excerpts around key topics.
This post’s topics include: “Performing in the Classroom” and “On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences.” Part II will feature “Classroom Behaviours,” “Technology in the Classroom,” plus “Looking Forward and Looking Backwards: On Teaching Over Time.”
On Performing in the Classroom:
KB: I tend to approach teaching from the perspective that there is always a performance-element to teaching and that element is immensely personal. Is that true for you?
JT: Yes. Absolutely. I’m not a performer in the formal sense at all. I’m not an actor or director. But maybe if we all have a percentage of a performer in us, that’s where mine comes out.
KB: Do you think your performance has changed overtime? How did it look in that first classroom as a TA? How did it look somewhere in the middle? How does it look now?
JT: It has changed. Certainly, if I could look at now first: my confidence levels are much higher. One of the things that I have taught new teachers is to remember that you know more than the students do; remember that you can answer their questions, and in the cases where you can’t, this is what you do: say “Interesting question. Let’s all think about this for next time” – but make sure you return to it next class.
Now, I know I can rely on experience to answer those tricky questions, and in my current position, it’s politically tricky ones as well as the intellectually tricky ones. There’s that confidence of knowing how to do it and knowing I can do it. That assurance is what comes with age and experience.
In the middle, I would’ve gone into a classroom, adrenaline always running, and having enough materials with me to be prepared for anything. So, if the class plan failed, there was a backup plan, even if not a formal one. If the students had all of a sudden read the material and wanted more, I was ready. If they hadn’t read the play at all, I had different ways of dealing with that. Because, while I knew I had the reserves, I wasn’t always sure I could rely on them in the moment.
At the beginning, it was just fear and trepidation (laughs) and the constant self-doubt about “can I do this?!”
KB: How do you feel that your outside, formal work and your self in the classroom integrate? Or do they integrate?
JT: I think they do and they don’t. I would go back to what I said about the performance comment. I think I do perform in a classroom. People I know well might be surprised to see me in the classroom. It’s not Jekyl and Hyde but I am more expressive in the classroom, trying to bring the students or audience with me physically as well as intellectually. So, I think that’s the big difference. I know I did that when I was lecturing at the University and I know I do it in my current role now. I ask questions like “do you understand what I mean? Am I making sense?” a lot.
KB: Has that changed over time?
JT: I don’t think it would’ve been the same when I was in my Masters (when I first began teaching) because I was still very much developing that persona–or what an appropriate persona was and trying to keep it together. I can remember wearing suits: dressing up (it was the 80s!). I had a costume. I was young too, so it was my way of setting boundarires which worked for me. It probably didn’t matter to the students!
KB: That’s super interesting. For me, who was an athlete in my undergrad, I was always the kid in the back of class in sweatpants. So, when I was first TAing, I really had to figure out the costuming, to find the balance between setting a boundary and my personal style – which tends to be more laid back.
JT: It does take a while, but you’ve hit something. Every time you move geographically or move into a different teaching role, there are those specific geographic/contextual differences.
KB: Yes, and I’ve found that it shifts over time as well. I have tended to read a little closer in age to my students than I am. They’re often checking my cultural references to place me in time. It doesn’t bother me but I realize eventually I’m not going to going to read that way anymore. It’s already happening as a basketball coach. I used to read like their older sister. That isn’t true anymore. And, it changes how I can relate to players, which changes how I coach them.
JT: I find the cultural references fascinating. I had prided myself for a long time on being able to maintain them. Certainly more with the main television programs. Then, I could tell I was starting to lose it.
That’s one of the things that — to be totally honest — terrifies me about walking back into a classroom after having been out of it for so long in various administration positions: that I will have truly lost a connection to the students. I’m not sure how to engage with young people now in a way that gives them the examples they need.
But I can still do it in my ‘teaching’ now, which takes the shape of outreach to universities, because they’re more my peers. They need the cultural referents as much as other kinds of connection, and I have those at my fingertrips.
On Teaching to Different Kinds of Audiences
KB: What are the differences between teaching to peers vs teaching to people that would identify as students?
JT: Let me separate first, students in a university vs academics in a university and the kind of work I’m doing now. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in advance of this chat is the kind of teaching I do now. One part of my job is going out to universities or to academic organizations to talk to people who want to know how better to understand and be successful at getting Australian Research Council grants. What I do now is kind of equivalent to teaching but it’s to my peers.
With the university student, I would typically demonstrate how fascinating and exciting I found this material to be and use that as a means to bring them along. Obviously, it doesn’t work every time. But, by and large, I could make it work.
Now, my audiences are, I guess one of the best ways to describe them, is skeptical. These are my peer audiences. They know how competitive ARC grants are and they’re skeptical about their abilities to get them and they’re skeptical about my abilities to tell them anything they don’t already know.
I work very hard to get past that skepticism with tips and tricks, changes to the rules, ways to shape your wonderful project to engage your assessors.
The more transparent I can make an otherwise opaque system, the more likely audience members are to feel that they got something out of a presentation. And that’s my aim in my current form of teaching: to make the system much more transparent than it often is. I try to make it seem doable without ever hiding how low, shall we say, the success rates actually are.
KB: Are there any prep or structural differences in your approach to teaching peers?
JT: I have to leave a lot of time for questions. I’m not one of those people that insists on presenting and then leaves time for questions. I always insist that if you’ve got a question, you ask it as I’m going through. But it always takes a while for the first person to get the courage to put their hand up.
That’s not something that you can always do in, say, a lecture context. But, what is interesting, even with colleagues, is that I still get that fear of asking the dumb question. That fear doesn’t go away. You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your peers.
Tune in next post for the second half of our conversation!