I’m pretty shy. You wouldn’t know it to watch me – I’ve learned how to handle most of the superficial stuff that makes up day-to-day interactions – but deep inside I’m pretty scared of talking to strangers or making a spectacle of myself.
But when I walk into my classroom, I’m completely at ease. I’ve never experienced more than a second’s hesitation in front of my students. At the beginning of every semester I walk into my classroom, look at the 33 strangers looking back at me – none of whom have any particular desire to be there, and wouldn’t if my class didn’t fulfill a requirement – walk straight to my lectern, and start talking. “Hi, my name is Dustin, this is Women’s Studies 113, and I’ll be your professor. Let’s get started."
Easy as pie. I don’t stutter, I don’t "um" and "uhh”. I don’t fumble around for words. I don’t have any of the nervous tics that I have whenever I approach strangers outside of the classroom.
Why is that?
The reason is simple: I own my classroom. It’s my territory. Not literally, of course, but figuratively – these students are coming to me in my space, and within that space I am totally confident.
What makes it mine is not the space itself – the classrooms I’m assigned change from semester to semester anyway. No, it’s what I bring with me into those spaces, the claim I’ve staked out with my years of education and hard work, the expertise I’ve demonstrated in my academic work and my publications, and the dues I’ve paid in my previous classrooms. Standing in front of a class full of students, I’m home.
We all have a territory.
Everyone has at least one place where they are totally in charge, where by dint of their competence, their familiarity, or their hard work they can assert themselves more strongly than anywhere else. Most of us have more than one. It might be a physical space – the store you work in, your office, your workshop. Or it might be a field of endeavor – a hobby, a business specialty, an academic discipline.
My territories are my classroom, writing, my own websites, and anthropology. Within the folds of any of those “places”, I’m at home – I can make a mark.
That’s not to say these spaces don’t pose any challenges. They do; in fact, it may be by dint of those challenges that we earn our sense of belonging in them. Every class, I have to work out how to present the material at hand, adjusting my approach to suit the attitudes of the students in my class. Students ask difficult questions, and I have to come up with answers – or at least reasonable ways of addressing the questions.
In writing, too, I am constantly looking for an adequate way to express what I’m thinking, and reviewing the shortcomings of earlier works hoping to improve my future ones. My more journalistic writing is always a challenge, as I usually have no knowledge of a topic beyond what everyone knows, and have to work out how to become an expert in the short time before my deadline.
Each of my websites presents a range of challenges, from producing enough content to promoting them adequately. Likewise, my academic specialty presents challenges ranging from thinking up interesting new research angles to keeping up with the latest literature.
In a sense, then, the territory is not defined by having overcome its challenges but by the challenges themselves, and our willingness to face those challenges, to wrestle them into submission and make them reveal their mysteries, so we can move on to the next challenge better-prepared than we were before.
Defining your territories.
Where are you strongest? Where do you feel most comfortable facing whatever challenges are thrown at you? It’s worth thinking about, because staking out these spaces is an important step towards building up our commitment to do battle.
Just as important, though: where don’t you feel strong? Where do you feel out of sorts, fraudulent, constantly on the verge of being exposed for the wretch you secretly know you are? I’ve got news for you – feeling that way doesn’t mean you’re out of place, and it doesn’t mean you really are a fraud. What it means is that you’ve staked out the boundaries of your territory but you haven’t made it your own, you haven’t thrown yourself into the fray with everything you’ve got.
What’s keeping you from truly owning your territory? What barriers stand between you and the throne? Answer these questions and you’ll be well on your way to taking your rightful place at the heart of your territory – or in front of the class.