One of the most frequent comments I receive on student evaluations is that my enthusiasm for the subjects I teach is infectious. Students tell me that I help to enliven topics they would be otherwise uninterested in, and that my obvious joy for what I teach motivates them to enjoy the topics as well. This enthusiasm often translates into electrified classroom meetings that are full of lively discussion and collaboration between students. Regardless of the topic, there are very seldom days when I am met with silence from my students. I have been asked by a few instructors how I manage to build such an enthusiastic community in my class, and how I maintain my own enthusiasm when teaching occasionally dry material.
And my secret? Batman.
I’ll start with a short anecdote. I teach a course in Digital Literacies, and a part of the course content is giving students a short introduction to HTML coding. My own HTML skills are sketchy at best, and my first semester of teaching this course, I was barely keeping a few chapters ahead of my students. I was completing each example in the book as I went, so that I could support my students and walk them through the mistakes that I had made. As I was doing the exercises, I found myself changing the standard text in the book to examples about Batman (my favorite superhero). These examples were frequently funny (I laughed, anyway), and creating the sample HTML text files became something I was excited about instead of a drudgery.
When discussing a chapter from the book with my class, I would share these examples with my students. Students often laughed at my irreverent hatred of Superman or my long dissertations on what makes the best villain, and as a class we began to look forward to HTML days. Students began to write new prose for their own examples, finding topics that interested them and conducting impromptu research. Before long we were discussing as a class the rhetorical purposes of using different HTML codes: why using italics conveyed sarcasm about the Batmobile better than bolding, for example. Despite the fact that Batman was not directly related to the course content, tailoring my examples with my own interests helped to tie the HTML coding to the complex rhetorical theories we were engaging in the course.
What’s more, students began to bring in their own Bat-examples to the class. They would tweet me with pictures or videos they found while surfing the internet, and would save Bat-stories to share. As they became comfortable sharing on twitter or in class, their conversation topics shifted from Batman to a number of different things. Students were obviously thinking about the class during their downtime, and they created a tight-knit community together (two years later, even after many have graduated, a group of students still talk several times a week through twitter).
Unexpectedly, sharing my own passions with the class had huge ramifications. For the course content, for the community created in the room, for the ways students thought about the course and the ways they thought about me. I wasn’t enthusiastic about HTML. But aligning HTML with Batman helped me to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm, which was immediately echoed by my students.
We often tell our students that they will be more invested in a topic for which they feel passion. We help students choose paper topics that incite their enthusiasm and engagement, or help students find a personal connection to topics that may seem uninteresting or irrelevant. However, I think that occasionally we as instructors forget to find our own passions for things, particularly those of us who may be teaching outside of our own discipline, or teaching the same course over and over again.
I am lucky enough to be consistently teaching topics that excite my passions, align with my personal interests, and provide a platform for investigating exciting new ideas. But even within these courses, I am often stymied by topics that I don’t care for. Teaching citation rules, for example, is never something that will excite me. Creating embedded citations for Bruce Wayne, however, will always be awesome.
In addition to making occasionally dull material more vibrant, sharing my passions with my class helps them to see more of my own personality. It can be scary to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for things, I think. It makes us vulnerable to open up to others like that, and is something I was actually warned away from when I started teaching. I was told that I “laughed too much”, and that students wouldn’t take the course content or myself seriously. What I’ve found, however, is that once I’ve shared an interest with the class it becomes easier to be enthusiastic about everything. I can show my class that I am as passionate about Plato as I am about Batman, which can help students make connections between their own interests and the course readings. Being open and enthusiastic with my students, about all kinds of things, encourages them to demonstrate their own enthusiasm.
When I am able to share my own passions, students are more willing to share their own. They are comfortable sharing real joy or frustration with the readings. They know they won’t be judged for their own interests and our class discussions are littered with diverse examples drawn from students’ own passions. We occasionally get a little off topic, sure, but as long as the students are demonstrating critical thought and engaging in genuine conversation with each other, I don’t mind.
Don't be afraid to share your own passions, whatever they may be. Research interests, the band you saw this weekend, the really great meal you made, that sweater you knitted for your cat. I am able to foster an open, enthusiastic, collaborative environment in my classroom by being honest about my passions, and sharing them with my students.
What do you do to encourage your students to be enthusiastic about course content? Share your strategies in the comments below!