What Are We Saying To Our Students?

A little while ago, some academic friends of mine did a Twitter search for student tweets about their professors. A lot of it was funny, some of it actually sweet and touching, some of it mean-spirited, and some of it made no sense whatsoever. But there were also a number of tweets that made me do a double-take:

“My professor just gave us the class syllabus…Lol class has been in session for 5 weeks.”

“my professor just did a horrible racist jewish guy impression”

“Also what type of professor gives you a bad grade on a paper and the only comments written were ‘incorrect use of a semicolon’ and ‘good.'”

“Why did I lose five points for turning in my assignment an hour late, but the guy sitting next to me faced almost no penalty for plagiarizing his paper off of the internet?”

I can’t help but wonder what those students thought about their place in that faculty member’s class, or at their university in general. What was being “said” to them on a regular basis? Were they being told they belonged at that university? Or were they being told they didn’t matter, shouldn’t be there, couldn’t measure up?

Now, one might reply “these seem like pretty exaggerated cases; I’ve never seen anything like that.” And, to be honest, my first reaction was to try and place these experiences as outliers. But when I really thought about them, I realized that I’ve witnessed similar things to all of the above examples in my teaching career. And at the time those happened, I either could not or did not do anything about them.

What stuff like this makes me think of, though, is the question what are we saying to our students? Critical Pedagogical theory has a concept called the “hidden curriculum,” which I think is an important concept for us to use when we think about our work. We have a formal curriculum—the classes, learning outcomes, course materials, etc.—that students are asked to go through as the chief part of their higher education. But we also have a hidden curriculum: the things our students learn without us even realizing that we’re teaching them. Every space on campus is a teaching and learning space. And all of us should be asking what we’re teaching, and what our students are learning. In a classroom where the instructor always calls on male students, what are students learning about whose voice matters? Waiting in line at Einstein’s, a student hears two staff members joke about the frustrations they have with a particular student—what is that student learning about how they can find help with their own problems?

There are lots of things we can all do to ensure that the “hidden curriculum” of our institution isn’t one that’s pushing students to the margins, or implying to them that they don’t belong here. We can structure classes and select course materials with an eye towards inclusion. We can work to ensure we approach policies and procedures with an equity mindset. And we are indeed doing a lot of this type of work.

But what about our everyday interactions with students? What are we “saying” to them with, for example, our emails? Or our body language and tone of voice? Or how we acknowledge (or don’t acknowledge) them in various campus spaces? What happens when students believe that they’re seen as less-than, or treated uncivilly by faculty or staff? At the very least, it isn’t going to help promote learning or success.

It’s worth taking a hard look at some of the most routine—yet most frequent—ways in which we interact with our students.

  • What do our emails sound like? Listening to emails you send being read out loud is a really interesting experience, and worth trying. In the medium of just plain text, where students cannot see our facial expression or hear inflections in our voice, we might be conveying a tone that’s far more negative or snippy than we’d imagine. Because emails are the most common way we interact with students as faculty and staff, paying attention to tone and phrasing can make a significant difference.
  • What is our language around and about students? Do we complain about students in public spaces, where other students can hear? Do we use profanity to the point where it’s not so much an attention-getter as it is something that makes students feel awkward? Is our default approach to see students as adversaries, or as allies? Words matter, and sometimes in ways that we don’t intend.
  • How easy is it to contact usDo students have to leave repeated voicemails to get a return call or email? Is our voicemail box full, so no one can leave a message at all? How long does a student have to wait to get a reply to their emailed question? If they come to an instructor’s posted office hours, is that instructor actually in their office? No one likes a run-around, and sometimes our students have to engage in one just to speak with us, even if we aren’t aware, or don’t mean for it to happen.

Looking at the ways in which we “say” things to our students can be difficult; it may require us to admit we have not always been the most skillful communicators, or that we’ve conveyed a message that we most certainly did not intend. If we want to create a campus community where students genuinely feel they belong, however, it’s work that we regularly need to do.

If you’re interested in diving more deeply into what we “say” to our students, I highlyr recommend a book collectively authored by Michigan State University communications students called To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching. It’s an eye-opening and fascinating read. We are ordering a copy for the CETL Library, so hope to have it available for checkout within the next few weeks.

This week in cetl

Thursday, Feb. 13, 11:00-11:30 AM ♦ Lunch and Learn: Bandwidth Research

Have you ever wondered “how many times does it take to explain [X] before [Student] gets it?” Or “why can’t they do this one simple thing they need to do?” Sometimes our frustrations in this regard stem from causes that aren’t immediately apparent. This lunch & learn will introduce you to research on “cognitive bandwidth,” in particular things that can prevent our students from utlizing theirs to its full extent. We’ll talk about why students might struggle with even the most routine-seeming tasks, as well as some strategies we can use to prevent our campus spaces being places where some students have their available bandwidth restricted, instead of enhanced. We’ll meet in the CETL (Rasmussen 208), and would love to see you there. As with any event hosted by CETL, all faculty and staff are invited to attend.

Finally, if you’ve ever played D&D or other role-playing games, you’re familiar with the idea of a character’s “alignment,” or moral worldview/orientation. As I was doing some reading about email interactions with students, I came across this chart of common email sign-offs and what alignment they reveal. I got a chuckle out of it, and I guess I’m OK with my neutral-good result.


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