In my earlier life, I was an actress. I have been in many plays and musicals in school and community theaters, beginning in childhood and continuing through graduate school. This was good training for me as an academic, because there are many times in an academic's life where we have to do public performances.
(Now, as a good lesbian feminist, I know Judith Butler thinks that everything, including our gender, is a performance, but I don't want to get into all of that. I think that she has some basic points to make, but I want to talk about times when we consciously perform social roles. Let's just go with the acting metaphor and move on, shall we?)
Obviously, we teach classes, which is a consistent type of performance, similar to conference presentations. To me, classroom performance is the most basic. I know the audiences fairly well. In the classroom, they are the student body, who I see regularly in advising, and who gets profiled every year in that annual list of "these students have never known the world without the internet, they never knew a Reagan presidency, and they think you are old and out of touch." I play the role of the strict but friendly professor--passionate about my topic, interested in students, and in control of the room. The friendly professor becomes the thoughtful and critical researcher when I present at conferences. I tend to present at the same conferences yearly, so the audience is usually made up of friends, colleagues, doctoral students (not unlike the ones I teach and supervise), and other people similar to my overeducated demographic. I know what they are looking for, be they theoretical friend or foe, and I am prepared to engage them in what I hope is a fruitful dialogue.
Then there are performances where we chair meetings, provide supervision to staff or student workers, and meet with our funders and supervisors. These performances provide a little more challenge when they represent a new experience, but once you have done them for a little while, the nervousness wears off and routine sets in. You learn what affects work best with each group, how best to control the whiners, the oppositional, and the defensive, and you find out how to get through your agenda. I have found that I play the competent manager in these situations--as prepared as possible to provide needed information and give thoughtful feedback, while maintaining a strong but soft hand to move things along.
All job candidates know that we also play a role when interviewing for jobs. We have to juggle the various roles listed above, depending on the level of the job and the time in the interview (conference or phone interviews, small group meetings with students, meeting with the Dean or Provost, doing the job talk or class presentation, etc.). These activities are especially stressful, because one has to juggle all of these performances for several days, with many differing audiences.
Finally, though, there are the big performances. These are the performances that make me really nervous...the ones where you actually have to be yourself. Speaking as an invited guest at a conference. Winning an award and offering "a few words." A first speech to the folks at your new institution where you are the incoming leader. These venues require an honesty and integrity of the speaker that, while they should underlie the other performances, they are not the main focus of those performances. I have found that the best speakers I have seen in these settings are people who really share something about themselves, something that makes me feel connected to them while making me consider new possibilities for myself, my research, teaching, educational community, or profession.
Invited speakers who don't reveal something about themselves leave the listeners bored. An award recipient should never play humble about the award; you are either humble, or you aren't. Same goes for new leaders: if you are excited about the position and the location, say so, but don't try to fake it. People who try to play humble or excited are easily recognized...and it looks bad. And people expect some self-revelation, because it reveals the capacity for self-reflection.
I don't mind some self-revelation. Like most academics, for good or ill, I spend a lot of time thinking about myself--my strengths and shortcomings, the limitations of my own thinking, the places I can continue to grow and learn. I even include these reflections in my academic writings, sometimes, although I have found that to be challenging as well. Self-revelation is difficult I exactly because it is personal and private. You can't take refuge in a role or a script, you have to speak from the soul. But you have to have perspective on how much to share, remember your audience and your purpose for speaking, and balance your role (award recipient, speaker, leader) with your self.
Now that, my friends, is a challenge.