Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking and writing about something, as I do with higher education and learning, you can start to get a little defeated in thinking about all the things that seem to be going wrong.
But every so often something pops up that reminds me that lots of people are working on various problems, and progress is possible.
This was my response to Ashley Mowreader’s recent article on the Faculty Approachability Project, the brainchild of Chris Morett, who wants professors to be more empathetic and welcoming (approachable) in order to help students improve their engagement and learning.
To help achieve this, the Faculty Approachability Project has developed a tool kit in order to help faculty work on their approachability.
One of the recommendations in the tool kit is to “demystify yourself,” which may include smiling, engaging in small talk prior to class, revealing your own doubts or sharing some aspects of your own intellectual and academic journey.
I think this is excellent advice. I can say that this ethos has worked well for me in terms of getting students to buy in to the course.
Though I also should also say there was a time somewhat early in my career where I was told that it would be better to do something close to the opposite, also for the sake of my students.
As a contingent faculty member, it was rare for me to be observed as part of my employee evaluation, but it did happen every so often as a particular chair realized they had a small army of instructors who had often been hired off a CV and short interview (sometimes without the interview) working under them whom no one had actually seen at work.
At the time of this observation, I was several years into teaching and had become quite comfortable in the classroom, mostly confident in what I was doing in terms of my teaching persona. I still had a long way to go on the evolution of my writing pedagogy, but the attitude and approach I brought into relating to students was well established.
The observation was on balance quite positive, but I cannot forget how I was dinged for being “too familiar” with the students in a way that the observing tenured faculty member thought might harm my classroom “authority.”
I have zero specific memory of what I might’ve done to raise a flag, but if it was typical of what I tended to do at the time—I was likely the first one in the room, playing some music over the class AV system, greeting students as they entered, asking general questions about how things were going or if anything was happening on campus, following up if a topic of interest arose.
My classes often had a “soft opening” where the chitchat would segue to something more purposeful and focused on the agenda of the day. It rarely happened at the exact moment class was supposed to start, but I liked how it seemed to put students at ease when it came to contributing to the more substantive work.
Later in my journey I would be a little more purposeful in these preclass moments, putting a hopefully provocative and relevant question on the board for students to see as we entered. Sometimes that discussion sprawled over the duration of the class, whatever else I had planned seeming less important than the momentum of what the opening question had started.
Because I was comfortable and confident in what I was doing, I didn’t let the sour note in the observation evaluation shake me up too much, but it was interesting to me at the time to see that this well-established and successful professor, who to my knowledge was also an effective teacher, would assume that projecting authority was the route to teaching success.
There was a good reason that I did not spend my time trying to project my authority in the classroom: I had none. This was most definitely true when I first started teaching as a graduate student and I was given a class roster, a grade book and a textbook and was expected to help 40 students in a developmental English course improve their writing enough to allow them to matriculate into actual credit-bearing courses.
I was also 24 years old (younger than about a third of my students) and had at best a shaky handle on the underlying material, particularly in our mandatory grammar lab. I had lots of business casual wear from my pre–grad school paralegal job, so I did at least wear a tie.
For a few weeks I tried to project authority, bluffing or deflecting when I didn’t know something or when a plan had gone awry. I spent a lot of time reading the textbook out loud in my most serious voice. I dreaded each class period, wondering when I would be fully exposed as a fraud.
Finally, one day, I dropped the act and answered, “I don’t know; let’s figure it out,” to a student’s question, and it was as though a sudden burst of additional oxygen entered the room. I don’t know if we found an answer to the student’s question that day, but we at least modeled what figuring something out looks like.
It all felt so much better. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t engaging in my usual parade of incriminations about what happened in class. Students seemed to appreciate the honesty. They knew they were stuck with someone green, but at least he was going to do his best, and I did.
Very quickly I stumbled on what would become one of the three pillars of my core teaching philosophy: transparency. I wasn’t going to pretend to know something I didn’t.
Over time, even as I gained more experience, got more confident and knowledgeable, and, let’s face it … much older-looking, I maintained transparency as a way to be approachable to students because that seemed to work well for me.
By the time I could project authority, I didn’t really want to.
As the Faculty Approachability Project shows, there’s a lot of evidence that being approachable can be beneficial to students. Past research from Gallup-Purdue showed that students feeling like a professor cared about them was strongly correlated with future success and well-being.
That said, I’m not one to argue that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach for reaching students and getting them engaged. Teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to a discrete set of methods or behaviors that if followed every time by everyone will result in inevitable success. It’s quite possible that authoritative is the right approach for some.
The big takeaway for me is that what you project to students should at least by authentic.
Whatever form it takes, authentic is going to be human, and humans are more approachable than “professors.”