November 30, 2014

“Our romantic notion of the professor is so tied to a sense of the transitive mind, a mind that, in a sense, is always at odds with the body” – bell hooks (1994, p. 137)

Tell me if this sounds vaguely familiar… A couple of weeks ago, I had a lunch meeting with a faculty colleague. We met on campus and, yearning for a good burger over which we could talk shop, we headed to Smart Alec’s on Telegraph. Upon sitting, we heard a cheerful, but timid voice from the table next to us: “Hi Professor! What are YOU doing HERE?” The question was directed towards my colleague, and asked by a current student in one of their lecture courses this fall. My colleague’s response with a half-smile: “Hi! Yes, I actually have to eat food, too.” They went on to exchange a few more pleasantries before the student excused herself and left. A generally nice interaction with a student outside of class, but it served as a reminder to us both that many student’s perceptions of us as instructors are distorted—that we are all mind and no body.

In a completely separate situation, Berkeley’s own Teach-Net lit up a few weeks ago with discussion about how we can encourage students to visit us at office hours. The thread began with a faculty colleague recalling the story of a senior visiting office hours and admitting to the professor that this was the first time in their entire college career they had attended office hours! The essence of the message was succinctly put: “when students come to my office hours, I take them seriously, as whole human beings, whom it is my job to help succeed in school, work, and life.” The responding posts from faculty peers were insightful, honest, and even heartfelt in articulating how others on campus encourage students to come to office hours, and break down the invisible, but very real barriers between instructor and student. Most of the responses referenced ways the instructors admit and reveal things to students about themselves, in order to demonstrate humanity and encourage engagement outside of defined class time. I find it interesting that in an effort to treat students as “whole human beings” we are best served in acknowledging, or admitting, our own humanness. This happens in many ways, but it seems that one of the most obvious, yet difficult, may be illuminating our humanness through illuminating our faults, weaknesses, or imperfections that truly mark us as human.

I teach CW10A, Public Speaking, and I wonder if it would surprise many people to find out that someone who teaches public speaking has a diagnosed speech impediment? I stutter, sometimes it’s unnoticeable and I hide it well, sometimes it’s so bad I can hardly get a word out without stumbling over the same syllable for what feels like a thousand times. I could probably do a decent job hiding it from students, portraying an image of public speaking perfection with absolute knowledge and mastery of the content of the course. But, that would not be authentic or real, and I fear it would alienate my students from me. Instead, I openly talk about it on the first day of class when I introduce myself. It enables me to relax and stutter in class without embarrassment or fear of others’ reactions. It also lets students see, literally see, that if someone with a speech impediment can teach the class, they can succeed in it no matter what obstacles or fears stand in their way. I had not previously considered that another result of outing my stutter is that students are more likely to engage with me out of class, or during office hours, because it somehow makes me more human, relatable, and approachable.

There is a lot that can be said and done, in a very academic sense, about some prevailing student engagement issues, like office hour attendance (i.e., teaching students how to utilize office hours and what kinds of questions to ask a professor—see Berkeley Connect as an example of a great, fairly new campus program that supports student engagement in this way). But, perhaps a good start to solving the office hours problem, and likely many others that surround or stem from lack of student engagement (and maybe our own lack of engagement as instructors), is to humanize our classrooms by humanizing ourselves, considering ourselves as “whole human beings with complex lives and experiences” (hooks, p. 15).

As we are prompted to both ask questions and seek pedagogies that may provide opportunities for increased student engagement, hooks reminds us that we still operate in “[t]he public world of institutional learning[,] a site where the body had to be erased, go unnoticed.” And, she further problematizes this artificial divide between body and mind through revealing, “When I first became a teacher and needed to use the restroom in the middle of class, I had no clue as to what my elders did in such situations. No one talked about the body in relation to teaching. What did one do with the body in the classroom” (p. 191-192)?

Maybe it is not just an issue of what one literally does with the body in the classroom, but how we acknowledge the body in the classroom in admitting our own humanness. There are many other ways to address student engagement, but I’d like for us to consider this one avenue towards increased student engagement by revealing ourselves as normal (maybe not so normal), functioning (maybe not so functional) human beings just like our students, and how that process can break down so many of the barriers that separate us and differentiate us in ways that do not promote student learning. We should recognize the underlying problems inherent when we help to create a situation where students are too intimidated to approach us at office hours, or, as awkwardly amusing as the scenarios may be, when students genuinely express surprise when they see us doing things like shopping for groceries, eating food, playing sports, attending a concert – anything that exposes us as something other than just a discipline, other than just a mind.

References

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.