Teaching Persona and the Zoomified Classroom

A good friend of mine admitted that he was a pretty piss-poor teacher on zoom. He is, in the classroom, an excellent teacher, in no small part due to a charismatic persona which slides from serious to amused and from hard to soft with ease. It would be easy to imagine that he's just being tough on himself, but I think he's actually kind of right. He's not great on Zoom. Something about his instincts and his habits don't translate quite right and his inability to sense the physical cues of students distracts and frustrates him.

There is some sort of mismatch there or difficulty in translating teaching persona through the screen.

I feel this myself too, as I tend to be very intentional about when I'm stationary and when I'm moving during a class and particularly during large lecture classes. For zoom classes done in real time, I have done all the small things that can make a difference. This includes simply teaching standing up rather than sitting at a desk while teaching (for which a riser or standing desk is fairly essential). More extreme measures include setting up a green screen and shooting it newsroom-style, with most of my body in the frame. (And, no, that's not a very minimalist kind of edtech solution.) I even did a bit of outdoors stuff and various ways of interacting with my local environment so I wouldn't just be a talking head in a box.

Teaching persona is something that I think about a fair amount, in large part because teaching is, for a relatively introverted person like me, always a performance that reflects a truth, but is not equivalent to some personality or truth about me. There's very conscious daylight between person and persona. In that sense, technology is not some new impediment but rather just another sort of mask and not all that different in the abstract from the kind of teaching mask that one wears regularly. We are not our unvarnished selves in the classroom. I've seen many a young teacher be hobbled for a time by too close an identification of self and teaching self.

The move to online technologies has forced us to look in the mirror at our teacing selves. It's not just that a platform like Zoom (or Google Meet or Teams or whatever you're using) puts an actual video feed of ourselves back at us so that we can see our every facial tick and blemsih; being confined to the little box on the screen shifts the environment in which our teaching persona does its work. It makes us have to rethink that persona from the ground up. If I had a physical presence in a classroom that was an important part of how I appeared as a teacher, what happens when all those dimensions are cut off? If my voice was something that was the biggest distration in the room, but now students can mute me with the click of a button, what do I really have?

All of these sorts of practical issues of “how to teach with zoom” and the like are explored and adviced and tweeted about often — with lots of good practical tips. A lot of the advice is about the technology, about how to work with x tool or y platform. But I suppose the other way to approach it is to forget the technology for a second and ask the much more basic question about what persona you want to cultivate as a teacher. That's the essential question and really the precursor that needs to be asked before we even talk about technology.

To put it in a slightly different way, I'm concerned that we jump to questions of platform and specific technologies too quickly and too often. That's a pretty common technological misstep, endemic to pretty much all areas of technology use and adoption: focusing on the tools without thinking through questions of goals and needs.

For myself, I realized that I had thought through my online teaching persona in small pieces but not in an holistic way. I had considered a certain amount about performance but not thought through, for example, how regular messages from me play out as a function of persona. I tend to want to avoid spamming people's inboxes with class notices, but in an environment where I'm just a bit more distant physically, out of sight and out of mine, I probably do need to have a bit more present a persona through incredibly regular notifications. (I am, in other words, generally loud and present in a classroom but technologically quiet when it comes to email, mainly because I go through love/hate revelations with email and tend to have a pretty strict schedule of when I check email myself.)

It's not simply that some aspects of persona translate and others don't (though this is true) or that we can adjust technology to meet our desired persona as a teacher (which is also true); technology opens up possible elements of your teaching persona that may have been well off the radar before. It also provides tools for shifting from one sort of teaching persona to another. For example, in one kind of teaching that I regularly do, it is a bit more lecture-y to an audience that, for the most part, wants things a bit more lecture-y. So I pull out some presentational goodies for them, with a bit of OBS Studio and something that reads I suppose as a bit of newscast as well as lecture. (Again, that's not a “minimalist” setup by any means.) For another class, I have it looking like some sort of podcasting den, as if we're doing a call in show. (This one is a lot easier— think hacker chic.) It isn't exactly seminar and it certianly isn't the case that we're equals, but it is effective in making for a slightly more conversant kind of teching persona. In another setting it's a bit more like we're talking in the library and I'm grabbing books from my collection.

I've been thinking about this in part through the frame of online writing as well. I read a piece in passing about how, back in the day, an editor of early online editions of an established print publication had to help journalists negotiate the transition to online content. One feature that was very noticeable was that online writing allowed greater latitude for humor. So writers whose tone allowed for that or who explored that succeeded; those who couldn't overcome their journalistic voice did not.

So too in teaching humor certainly can be effective online. But more than that, there's something aesthetically diminutive about teaching in online platforms; this smallness resonates better with cetain aspects of one's teaching persona. Conversationalism, a kind of informality perhaps? I find that playing devil's advocate seems to work better than ever, as there is a real trend towards group-think, particularly in the chat threads that are churning while we're having a discusion over a video conferencing platform. I can be a troll in the chat and that works pretty well too; I suspect face to face I'd sound like a jerk. Being fairly open to the twists and turns that a lot of voices can have plays better. Quickness feels right where I might be more contemplative and allow more time in person. I find that I rely on a teaching persona that is even more about projecting a kind of calm intensity. That might be too subtle for a classroom, but it plays on the small screen. A sort of confined intensity. That fits my teaching persona pretty well, shifting from big to very quiet and from loud to soft as a matter of effect.

It's still really hard; in fact, it's certainly harder than any of the equivalent teaching I do face to face. But in some ways the thought process is the same. The technology is an amplifier, and it has some distortion and some areas where it is louder than other ways of doing things. But ultimately it's still about what kind of persona I need and want to project.

#minimalistedtech #teaching #teachingonzoom #onlineteaching #edtech