I can't sing. Never could, never will.
I mean, sounds come out of my mouth, but rhythm?...pitch?... those preciouses have never been mine.
Periodically, if I’m singing along to the radio, my husband will stop what he’s doing and just stare at me in disbelief.
This should give you a sense of the awfulness that is my thinking. Once, during a candlelight vigil held by an anti-death penalty group on the evening of a man’s execution, a friend turned to me after a round of “Amazing Grace,” and said, “Wow. You are a bad singer, aren’t you.” Even at this most serious of occasions, the petty thing that is my singing voice was notably bad enough to merit comment.
So, it should be no surprise that I have an ugly Om. I think, like my singing, it sounds kinda flat.
But the thing is, it still works for me when I’m true to it’s sound. And here I think the extended metaphor about my singing has to end. The singing does not work. Trust me.
But the Om does, and as we’re preparing at my campus for another school year, I’ve been thinking about being authentic to your voice and what works for you.
The thing about chanting “Om” in the long resonant way you may have heard at the beginning or end of yoga classes, is that it doesn’t really need to sound good to do the work you need it to do.
Now, do I wish my Om sounded good? You bet your asana! But, I’ll file that under the category of wishes that don’t tend to get in my way much in life: I wish I had a great eye for design, I wish I had a better memory, I wish was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, etc.
The thing is, that when I’m really doing my practice, my ugly Om gets me where I need to be. I love that it’s more sound than word. I love that it makes me feel connected to others around me. I love that it’s connected to many thought and belief traditions. I love that it reminds me of the relationship between sound and body. I love the feeling of vibration in my skull.
When I’m focusing on my own practice, I get all that, even with my ugly Om.
But, as you can see, I’m using that niggling little word, “when.”
Sometimes how other people sound distracts me. Especially when students or teachers get very sing-y and pretty with it, and I start thinking about how short my Om falls. Then, it strangles in my throat, it’s off, off, off, and not just from them.
It’s off from me too.
And then, not only do I still not have a pretty Om—just some wretched, strangled syllable, unable to crawl fully from my mouth—but I also don’t get the benefits that I get when I’m true to my ugly Om.
I’ve been thinking about this lately both because I Omed ahead of the rest of yoga class today, but also because I’ve been doing some mentoring of early-career teachers lately.
In response to questions from my TAs about how I want them to dress or conduct themselves in their discussion sections, I’ve been saying, “be professional, but also, figure out what that means for you. You need to think about the way you show up in a room given who you are and think about what the professional that goes along with that means to you.”
When I first started teaching, over a decade ago, I was very young, very close to the age of my students. I remember buying clothes that would disguise the proximity between our ages—a number of striped, button down shirts from TJMaxx, as I recall. The thing was, I hated these clothes. I felt like some weird imposter. Worse, it seemed like what I was mimicking was someone’s wardrobe from Working Girl or 9-to-5. Needless to say, the clothes didn’t last. I had to find the version of professional that worked for me.
I think this is true of teaching personas, or other creative or artistic personas more broadly. When I began writing as a graduate student, I was reading a lot of difficult, Marxist-inflected theory as well as law-and-literature materials. My writing became plagued by the verb “produces” and a tendency to refer to people as “persons.”
Like those striped shirts, I was here trying out a voice that didn’t fit. In both cases, I was worried about my lack of fit; I worried that I didn’t look or sound right. But the imitation was worse.
There’s a tradition among college teachers to not smile for the first two weeks of class. The theory is that you need to seem like a hard ass so that the students will respect you. The stony-faced professor conveys gravitas, is the theory.
That teaching persona is so so different from the way my personality is interpreted and the way I engage with the world. I am smiley person. It just looks weird when I try frowning—I’ve practiced, believe me!
Instead, the buy-in I get from my students has to come from a different place, one that is truthful and sustainable for me. My professionalism comes through my habit of being rigorously organized, and my seriousness comes in the form of a deep enthusiasm for my subject matter and for teaching more generally, not in the form of affective gravitas.
The point is, this is what works for me. It’s what “sounds true” when I step into a classroom. It’s not traditionally professorial. But then, traditionally, I wouldn’t have been part of the professoriate. It’s my ugly Om, my variance from being a corduroy swathed old dude.
It’s what works for me. It won’t necessarily work for every one of my new TAs; they’ll have to find their own ugly Oms.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote