Tip #3 from the Syllabus Challenge

Show students you are a real human.

The Syllabus Challenge provides critically reflective questions and practical ideas for inclusive teaching in action. Tip #1 covered updating terminology and Tip #2 focused on inclusive learning goals. Check out Tip 1 and 2 here. In this issue, we are going to challenge ourselves to let some of our academic walls down, embrace our deepest humanity, and connect with our students. You would be surprised how much this can impact student sense of belonging, motivation, and willingness to ask questions

Tip #3 = Show students you are a human

We might even need to take one step back. Do you remember that even in the classroom, you are still a full, dynamic, interesting, entire human being? Worth mentioning that the academy has trained so many of us to deny our own humanity and seek the myth of objectivity that would have us become distant and cold robots in the classroom. 

Most of you reading this have probably avoided being so far removed from your students, but if we dig a little deeper, those internalized messages may still be telling you to keep your guard up, keep ALL things personal private and withheld from your students, and maintain a strictly “professional” persona in the learning context you craft for your students. 

This is a false dichotomy. We can share our humanity while maintaining professionalism if we interrogate the assumptions behind “professional.”

Could there be downsides to our training to keep our distance?

I am here to say YES. There are major downsides. First, those of us from various marginalized and underrepresented groups in higher ed come from cultural and community backgrounds that do not separate personal and professional realms. That false separation is a characteristic of white patriarchal middle/upper class culture that has been deemed the “norm.” We must deny ourselves to keep the personal from our classrooms and our students. Second, distancing ourselves from students diminishes our efforts to build community, connect with our students as real life complex humans, and help them feel more comfortable approaching us with their learning needs. 

Of course, I am not asking anyone to remove all boundaries because boundaries are essential. But being human with our students does require us to be more vulnerable. And the benefits to their sense of belonging, seeing you as someone they can talk to, and finding ways to connect can result from even small glimpses into your humanity.

Let’s look at some ideas:

Add a personal touch

Include a picture of you to help students see you as a real person. How about a picture of you and your family? You and a pet? You doing something that challenges their “Professor” schemas? Why not share some personal information (that you feel comfortable sharing)? Pets, hobbies, background, surprising facts about you that make you human and approachable. Even sharing a favorite recipe could move you from cold/scary professor to approachable human.

My syllabus and the first week of class often include a picture of my kitty Guster, surprising facts like my clogging dance team life outside academia, and my go-to karaoke songs. To model that I am also a learner, I sometimes tell them I am “la estudiante de español” (student of Spanish). This was especially helpful to building community when I taught at a “Hispanic-Serving Institution” where a high % of my students spoke Spanish.

Include your teaching philosophy

One way to show you are a human is to share portions of your teaching philosophy. This gives students a chance to understand your approach to their learning. When they can begin to see how you give careful thought to your pedagogical choices and why you teach, they can begin to see you as an ally in their journey to success rather than someone standing in their way.

Imagine how these sentences might help a student view their professor differently:

  • My favorite moments as an educator occur after class or in my student hours (office hours) when students ask more questions or we discuss something happening in the world that connects back to our course.
  • By getting students interested in new topics, I enjoy the thrill of witnessing the energy they have when discovering something new.
  • I encourage students to maintain contact with me after leaving my classes, and my connections with students rarely end with final exams.
  • All students are unique and have something special that they can bring to their own education. 
  • Viewing teaching as the practice of freedom guides my decisions in course design.
  • One of my main goals in teaching: supporting traditional marginalized students in their discovery as knowledge producers and their ultimate academic success.

We rarely share our pedagogical philosophies or intentional design thinking when it comes to the course design and the thousands of decisions we make to create an effective learning experience. Why not share? 

 A note about intersectional social location:

We do need to acknowledge that sharing more of yourself can be easier for faculty with more systemic privilege. For me as a white educator, sharing more personal information and telling students about my life outside of work comes with less risk than my Colleagues of Color might face in the same situation.

When I first started out, I felt much less willing to break down those walls between professor and students because I worried they would question my authority, expertise, and think of me more as a friend. My worries stemmed from being a young working-class woman in higher ed facing sexism, classism, and assumptions that I was too young to know anything. My older, middle-class, and male colleagues did not have to worry about this in the same ways. All that to say each person has to weigh the “how” of showing students we are real people. And there are ways to do so that fit within your own individual comfort zone based on social location concerns.

okay, your turn!

How could you bring more of your humanity and “real life person-ness” to your syllabus based on the ideas in the Syllabus Challenge? Open the link and skip down to slide #5. That slide provides ideas and reflective questions for how you present yourself in the syllabus.

Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies.
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