The “Us” in Teaching

Steve Volk, October 31, 2016

"The Night School" (1873). The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1873

“The Night School” (1873). The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1873

The move to “disrupt” education usually focuses on replacing or at least supplementing face-to-face teaching with a remote instructor. Online teaching offers the promise (not the certainty) of a brilliant instructor orchestrating a well-crafted course that can reach thousands of students around the world. It is distance education, and if the reach of distance education has expanded impressively, the idea itself is hardly new. When I was growing up, I “attended” a distance education course via a television program called “Sunrise Semester.” My teacher, standing in a sparsely outfitted classroom studio in New York (I was in L.A.) endeavored to teach me algebra at 6:30 AM. The fact that I became a historian rather than a scientist provides some indication of how that turned out.

There’s a lot that can be said about the potential of distance learning, but much is sacrificed as well. By removing the teacher, what online learning disrupts is the personal interaction that has been at the heart of teaching and learning since, well, the beginning. Socrates and Plato, the Buddha and Trapusa.  Removing the physical presence of the teacher removes a vitality that is often at the core of what we are able to accomplish in the classroom.

The virtual teacher is deprived, for example, of the ability to look at the students and see when they get it and when they’re lost, when they’re engaged, and when bored.  But as important, our actual presence in the class allows students to look at us.  And look they will. Jane Tompkins, writing in her memoir, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (Addison Wesley, 1996) observed that:

Practically everything about you is open to inspection and speculation when you talk in class, since, in speaking, your accent, your vocabulary, the intonations of your voice, your display of feeling or lack of it, the knowledge you can call on, or not, all contain clues about who you are – your social class, ethnic background, sense of yourself as a gendered being, degree of self-knowledge, the way you relate to other people” [210].

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States "Brooklyn - 112 Schermerhorn Street" The New York Public Library. History, Local History and Genealogy, Digital Collections.

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States “Brooklyn – 112 Schermerhorn Street” The New York Public Library. History, Local History and Genealogy, Digital Collections.

What this means is that we, our whole persons, are always present in our teaching, as obvious as this may sound. “We teach who we are,” Parker Palmer once remarked. The best advice that I received when learning about teaching, and the advice that I give when reassuring beginning faculty, is that as teachers we have to be comfortable in our teaching skins; we have to be who we are – authentic, if you will – when we teach. So learning how to teach is often a process of learning who we are. Tompkins agrees. “People who take the classroom seriously,” she writes, “have invested themselves in perfecting a certain kind of performance…Slowly, with practice, the classroom self becomes the only self [210].”

When we teach, it follows, we teach “at the crossroads of the personal and the public,” Palmer cautioned, “and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites intersect” [66]. Which, of course, is easier said than done. There are myriad ways in which the personal and the professional flow into each other these days, no more so than when we disclose our likes and dislikes on social media platforms. But the question here is: if we teach “who we are,” and if everything we do in the classroom is observed (and often critiqued) by our students, to what extent do we allow ourselves to bring the personal into this public setting. In short: to what extent do we allow ourselves to talk about ourselves in class? And, if we do, is there not a danger that all we’re doing is teaching about…ourselves?

On its face, it seems ridiculous to pose these as questions since (as Tompkins noted above) our students are always aware of the embodied us who stand at the front of the class or sit next to them at the seminar table. For students, there is very little separation between what we teach and who we are as teachers. And since that’s the case, it’s also true that who we are includes the particularly grumpy us whose article was just rejected by a leading journal, the us who is rushing to pick up our daughter from day care, and the us who is rendered incoherent by the latest killing or political outrage. It includes the us who is black or white or brown, male or female or transgender, the us who dressed smartly that day and the us who threw on a T-shirt and jeans at the last minute.

Cornel West

Cornel West

(I remember a comment from a student’s end-of-semester evaluation shared by a colleague: The student observed, whether critically or not it’s hard to say, that the instructor never wore a belt with his jeans. Oy vey.  By the way and while we’re on the topic of fashion, Jay Parini, in The Art of Teaching (Oxford 2005) has a lovely chapter titled “By Their Clothes Ye Shall Know Them: On Academic Dress.” Also, you might want to check out the videos on “Cornel West on Clothing + Style” that appeared in the threadbared blog.)

So we must admit that there’s no way to leave “us” out of our teaching, nor should we. And yet, much like high schoolers who are nagged never to let the first person pronoun parachute into their essays, teachers are warned (note passive voice: by whom, we ask?) not to bring personal anecdotes or life experiences into the classroom. We are here to teach art history or Russian, the voice in our heads chides, not to talk about our summer vacations, the protests we led as undergraduates, or the fact that our cherished pet just died. But is that good advice?

“Fearing an unseemly eruption of ego or a descent into antediluvian anecdotes,” writes Ted Gup, a journalism professor at Emerson College, “I have tried to avoid indulging in show-and-tell, preferring to focus on the writings and techniques of others. But,” he now adds, “you can go too far in concealing your own chops, obscuring that the principles you teach were absorbed in part through your own endeavors. In that sense, you might be shortchanging the very students you seek to shield from too much First Person Pronoun.”

Certainly, there are faculty who are comfortable with sharing the personal with students, and others who aren’t. What is more, the decision to talk about oneself can be particularly disconcerting for faculty of color and women who may be (or feel) disrespected and have no desire and no intention to bring their personal lives into the classroom. “Dealing with students who don’t respect you is maddening,”  David Gooblar observed in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “and opening yourself up to that prospect by deviating from the role of the impersonal instructor can feel like a risk.”

Keeping that important caveat in mind, I have no question that to the extent that we bring ourselves into our classrooms as the actual people we are, our teaching (by which I mean our students’ learning), will improve. And sure enough, the research seems to back this up.

"Classroom discussion” (1971), The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Manuscripts and Archives Division

“Classroom discussion” (1971), The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Manuscripts and Archives Division

To cite one study of the many that exist, in 2014, a team at West Virginia University led by Alan K. Goodboy examined whether instructors’ self-disclosures in the classroom would influence or impact student learning or motivation. While the results of the study are nuanced, they are not unexpected.  Self-disclosure (i.e. bringing your personal life and experiences into the classroom) can have a positive impact on students’ (self-reported) learning. The impact is the strongest when the personal information that is revealed is more directly connected to the subject matter rather than tangential (so avoid the “let me tell you about the fabulous English muffin I had for breakfast!” disclosures). This kind of communication, according to the authors, can “create a more comfortable learning environment for students …help[ing] them feel at ease while receiving course information and…feel comfortable with the course content.”

The opposite, of course, can also be true.  What students deem to be “inappropriate” disclosures may not only divert from important content, but stray into “TMI” (too much information) terrain where students could find themselves privy to not just unwanted but frankly uncomfortable revelations. Students are not our confessors or our best friends and we all should know what doesn’t belong.

The question always seems to be: how do we observe the line between too much, or too little, “me” in our teaching? As Gup put it, “It’s all about balance.”

What We Teach and Who We Are

In the first place, relevance is a key issue in terms of what can, or should, be brought in, as the research suggests. If your personal experience helps students understand what they are studying, get a better grasp on broader issues of learning, or allows them perspective on challenges they are facing, it makes good sense to bring such experiences into the class. “I only talk about things that matter to me,” Parini suggests, “but I try to explain why these things matter in a way that students can feel what I feel about these things.” And he continues, “If all they want are the facts, they can look elsewhere, perhaps in a textbook. But not at me.” And Parker Palmer argues that “a strong sense of personal identity infuses” the work of good teachers who are able to “join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.” And, one can add, in the fabric of their work.

"Odysseus and the Sirens," Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century CE

“Odysseus and the Sirens,” Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century CE

The bridge linking personal and professional is a connection with deep roots in feminism and an acknowledgement that as we are the ones creating meaning, this meaning requires a reflection on one’s own identity. I recently had the opportunity to read an essay by Tom Van Nortwick, a colleague who recently retired from the Classics Department (“Who do I think I am?,” in Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship, Routledge 1996). In it, he discussed a series of autobiographical responses to works of classical literature that he had written over the previous years.

These essays — he begins — all take as their starting point a work of Greek or Latin literature that I have seen as representing in some way a problem or issue central to my own life: my response to Odysseus has changed markedly over the last twenty years. What does that tell me about my own journey from post-adolescence to middle age? The relationship between grief and self-knowledge in the Illiad mirror for me my own struggle to integrate my mother’s death into my ‘mid-life crisis’”[16].


But even if our creative work and scholarship do not align with a quest for answers to personal questions, our students will search for and find some answers to their questions in us, and not just in what we teach. Our students want to know how we got to where we are and what keeps us committed to our research or creative work. We may teach them physics and music theory, but what (I would hope) they are learning from us is how to have a conversation, how to investigate a complex problem, how to disagree with their peers and with us, how to live an ethical life, how to remain true to lofty values…and to do all this and still make a living. At the end of the day, this should remind us that we are, above all, role models for our students, which is yet another reason why it is so desperately important to have a diverse faculty.

Almost all advice about what belongs in the classroom and what should remain outside locates “politics” in the latter category. Gooblar is a case in point, arguing “I probably don’t need to tell you that personal stories about your sexual history, political beliefs, personal finances, and religious beliefs are probably not” good candidates for classroom discussion. Certainly, we’re not in the classroom to proselytize for a religion or sign up our students for a political party. That said, this year’s election (may it be over soon!) has raised the question for many faculty as to whether it is our responsibility, either in our role as intellectuals or in our capacity as role models, to challenge the candidacy of Donald Trump. Kathleen Iannello, who teaches political science at Gettysburg College, argues the case. “Everything we stand for at Gettysburg and other liberal arts colleges,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is at risk in the face of a Trump presidency… It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to the truth.”

In 1967, Noam Chomsky, speaking more broadly about intellectuals (and not just classroom teachers), raised a similar challenge in a seminal article in the New York Review of Books (“The Role of Intellectuals”) that held intellectuals to a higher standard of responsibility:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.

How we interpret Chomsky’s call to action, and the degree to which we bring our lives and experiences into the classroom, are personal, as well as professional, choices. But the point remains, and the research strongly confirms, that instructor self-disclosure, the degree to which we talk about ourselves in appropriate ways, helps students understand course content better, increases their affective learning, creates a welcoming classroom environment, boosts student motivation, and even can positively impact cognition (see Mazer et al, “I’ll See You On ‘Facebook’”). We should make the most of the opportunity we have to be ourselves in our classrooms…before we are all replaced by robots!

One thought on “The “Us” in Teaching

  1. Pingback: Can a Shot of Higher Education Immunize Against Authoritarianism? More thoughts on the purpose of an education | After Class

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