‘Tis the season…for conferences. This week it’s the 2013 John Douglas Taylor Conference at McMaster University – “You Can’t be Serious.”
This afternoon, I attended a Round Table Discussion on “The Engaged University” where the panelists considered the “possibilities for ethical encounters through university practices of community engagement.” Edward Bartlett and Katia Hildebrandt, both of University of Regina offered an intriguing discussion of our serious and silly sides in the academy. Drawing upon Erving Goffman, they argue that, as participants in the university, we all select masks related to our serious and silly selves. Whether or not we select a serious mask depends upon the situation and our role within it. They note that professors are accorded serious masks in their roles as respected authorities, but may of course also choose a silly mask when appropriate. In contrast, undergraduate students have more freedom to wear their silly masks. Ever sit at the back of a lecture hall? See all of those laptops open to facebook – that’s the silly mask.
The crucial point that Bartlett and Hildebrant make is that graduate students experience a more challenging hybrid identity. A graduate student might where their “silly” student mask in the classroom in the morning, and then re-enter that space in the afternoon wearing their “serious” mask as a university instructor.
When I think about many of the professional development challenges that I experienced throughout my PhD, I think this articulation of the dual-identity really captures well the confusions, frustrations, and marginalities of the graduate student position. Being at times a student and at others a member of staff renders interactions with other students and staff complicated.
My personal inclination is that, as apprenticing academics, graduate students should be accorded more seriousness. If graduate students are expected to mentor undergraduates through running tutorials and working as sessional instructors, then they should be treated as serious contributors to the education process.
When I look back on my experiences as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, the negative moments that stand out for me are all of the instances where I felt vulnerable or marginalized in relation to my undergraduate students and the department, and consequently over-reacted (defensively) in order to reinforce my serious mask. I was seeking power, not because I derived pleasure from power, but because I felt utterly powerless in my role as an instructor.
How do you balance your serious and silly identities in the classroom?