Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Authenticity, by Andrew Colgoni

Here’s the thing: inauthenticity stinks. I mean that quite literally. People can smell it when you act like someone other than yourself (excepting the best sociopaths, of course). There was a reason that your mom always told you to “just be yourself”. It wasn’t because acting is hard, it’s because everybody has a finely tuned radar for fakers (fadar?). In fact, I’ll bet that when you are inauthentic, you can smell it on yourself, too. It’s like that time you stepped in dog poop, and then were sitting at the park bench wondering “what’s that smell?” Happily, you could wipe your shoes furiously on the grass before you had to walk on carpet.

Ok, so why am I spending so much metaphorical language on inauthenticity? I want to relate this to teaching. Some of the finest tuned fadar there is exists in students. Those clever kids just know when you are trying to be hip with the youth. Remember back in the 90’s when everyone tried to blend hip-hop with anything else to give it a veneer of cool, but it just seemed off? That’s how you look when you go up in front of a class and try to be something other than yourself. Now, I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t be a little more enthusiastic than normal, that’s ok. But you shouldn’t be so over-enthusiastic that it makes people question your sanity, especially if you’re normally subdued.

The same goes for using youth ‘props’. We seem to think that we need to connect with the youth by ‘speaking in their language’ (a topic I could rant about at length). So, we think, “Great! I’ll look up what the youth are into, and co-opt that!” We show up to class with a bag of internet memes and rage comics and use that to illustrate our points. But here’s the thing: if you don’t usually make memes, it shows. The students know it, you know it, and everyone’s a little weirded out.

The lesson here isn’t simply don’t use memes, or don’t get rowdy. Rather, if you are actually into memes or are naturally freaky, then go for it**. If you like horrible puns (the man who fell into an upholstery machine is now fully recovered*) roll with that. Big into sci-fi? Then reference that, fellow browncoat. What happens when you do this (what we call “being yourself”) is that your actual excitement and passion will show through, and you will bring your students along with you. And, hey, isn’t bringing students along with you what teaching is all about?

So, before you go into that classroom, wipe your shoes furiously on the grass.

Andrew Colgoni is the Science Fluencies Librarian at Thode Library at McMaster University. He tweets @colgoni.

*Borrowed shamelessly from @omgthatspunny.

**One exception: if you are really into clip art, and I’ve seen lots of librarians that are, don’t go for it. Try a different passion.


  1. Authenticity when speaking to kids usually equals actually listening to, and letting them, speak and interact for themselves. Not the topic of the post but many speakers seem to forget that.

    Back to the post - unfortunately my authentic self sounds like the bastard love-child of Tyler Durden and Lewis Black when I speak to large crowds of youth...and it is a blast.

  2. Thanks John, you're right, authenticity in teaching is a much deeper topic than my admittedly superficial rant.

    Back to your comment - your authentic self sounds awesome, and vaguely dangerous.

  3. Rule #1: Don't make a fool of yourself!
    Rule #2: Enthusiasm and competence is what people care about.
    Rule #3: Clip art is just sad.

    1. This a fine summation. I'm glad everyone is on board with Rule 3.