On Authenticity and Rough Edges

On average, I feel I’m part of a generation of academics that cares much more about teaching and pedagogy than some of our predecessors. It is still possible to get and keep a professorship while dedicating a minimum amount of time and attention to teaching, but it is no longer as “uncool” to care about teaching well and want your students to succeed. There are more courses and programs and certificates focusing on pedagogy. Be that as it may, I can still relate to Sarah Deel’s account of trying to find a teaching voice while feeling there was little emphasis on teaching as a craft (published in 2004).

She talked about the questions she kept asking other teachers regarding how to interact with her students, and the similar question I’ve asked to a number of pedagogy researchers is “how do I respond to wrong answers without shutting students down?” I’ve gotten some technique suggestions, about making sure to say “I see where you’re coming from” or “Nice thought”, or putting the answer to the room for additional commentary before you come in from on high and pronounce their answer incorrect. Some of these technique suggestions have been better than others, but none of them have really addressed the problem I actually have–no matter what words I say, the students can tell that it means they’re wrong, and hear the tone of my voice, and feel, to varying degrees, publicly shamed. In my experience, every time, they’ve seen through my attempts to be encouraging by saying the right words.

I, too, am a young person afraid of failure, riddled with impostor syndrome, still fighting my impulses to act like I already know everything so no one else will question my right to be in the room. I have a hard time accepting challenges to my intellectual statements, no matter how minor, gracefully. I would like for my students to believe that failure is a part of the learning process, and that their contributions–even incorrect contributions–are valued because the whole room has the chance to learn from them when they are shared. I would like for them to understand that they are always going to fail sometimes and it is best to practice when the stakes are low. I would like my students to learn a lot of lessons that I’m still learning myself.

This is where I find myself: I want my students to feel free to ask questions, to be active participants in their learning, and to think for themselves. I don’t think that this is truly possible for every student if they only feel comfortable speaking up when they’re already sure that they’re right. It is my job, as their teacher, to foster a learning environment where it is okay to try things and be wrong. My students have to understand that wrong answers themselves are an integral part of the learning process, and not just less valuable versions of right answers. I am an extremely bad actor, so the conclusion I keep coming back to is that I need to really believe in the value of students speaking up with wrong answers in order to accept them graciously. (This is not a conclusion many pedagogy researchers I’ve talked to have been swayed by, but it is one I keep coming back to for myself nonetheless.)

As I said, this is a lesson I’m still struggling to learn in my own life outside of the classroom, and the likely-easiest solution–to admit to my students that I too am afraid of failure even though I believe it has valuable things to teach us–still involves admitting that I don’t have it all figured out. I’m open to advice, and happy to hear technical suggestions, but at the end of the day I think this is a part of myself I can’t selectively turn off when I’m in the classroom–I need to tackle my aversion to failure in all parts of my life. In the meantime, maybe the best thing I can do is be aware of it and catch myself when I’m imparting those same messages to my students. Or–horror of horrors–be honest about my goals and where I’m struggling with them.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I definitely also struggle with the ability to accept failure but I also understand that failure is such an important part of learning. Though I’m no expert on pedagogy, I definitely always appreciated when my own professors in undergrad admitted that they struggled with a concept when they were in my shoes, or even admitting that something was still confusing to them. I think creating an environment where everyone is allowed to learn from each other is really important, and I think this kind of environment allows space for failure.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I think achieving this level of awareness regarding where you stand in your teaching journey and being open with yourself and your students is putting you on the right track! From a student’s perspective, I think openly talking about things like fear of failure and “wrong answers” makes the relationship with the professor more human and will have a lasting positive effect inside and outside the classroom.
    Good luck!
    Sam

  3. Hello,

    Your comments on having a hard time accepting people challenging your intellectual statements is something I struggle with too. I have always hated to be wrong about anything. I have always prided myself in that if I spoke up on a topic, what I said was correct, because I never expressed my thoughts or opinions unless I knew for a fact that they were right. Similarly, I prided in my work being flawless. I believe this is generally a good goal, however it has forced me to be somewhat of a perfectionist in everything I do. When I began writing papers, researching and completing all of the work I have had to do in graduate school, I learned that being a perfectionist with everything in grad school and life is extremely time consuming and tiring. I began having to modify this policy when I was writing my master’s paper. When I was finalizing edits to the paper, I couldn’t change one thing without having to go back through and read the whole paper again after the change. In my perfectionist mentality, I was afraid that when I made the change in the paper, maybe I accidently deleted something, hurt the flow, messed up the formatting, etc. After re-reading my paper too many times to count, I had to realize that it was okay for there to be one or two small errors in the paper, because that’s what my committee, the editor, and the peer review process were for. I just hated to be wrong so much that I avoided it at all costs. This is something I still struggle with, though I have made progress since then.

    Austin Garren

    1. Hey Austin,

      I’m glad to hear you’re coming to grips with the benefits of collaborative editing and the inevitability of small mistakes. Something I’ve found very helpful is an idea that goes by a few different names but I’ve sometimes heard called “the 90% principle”–that you’re aiming to get your work to 90% of what you think would be “perfect” or “complete” when you decide to get pass it along for feedback/turn-in. The idea is that it’ll take you nearly as long to polish the last 10% of any project as it will to do the first 90% (give or take). At some point, pragmatically, one has to step back and ask whether the time spent on polishing and perfecting is a better use of time than being able to drive a new project forward.

      I appreciate your perspective, because when I wrote this post, I was thinking more of situations where existing knowledge is tested on the spot than something you have time to work on. Those, to me, are two very different spheres–paper-writing, presentation-crafting, and other long projects are more of a practice, polished by time and focus, while on-the-spot questions in presentations or exams is a test of past practice. I just finished prelims, so I have those a bit on the mind, perhaps! I did quite well in my oral prelims, but I was much harder on my answers than any of my professors were. I think in those kinds of extemporaneous exchanges (in the classroom and out), it’s especially important to not put a moral value on incorrectness or naivety if the goal is effective learning. But students also have longer-term projects in classes, and those are more often the portions they’re being graded on, so you’re right that those concerns are also very relevant to teaching and to setting expectations for students in the classroom.

      Best,
      Leah

  4. Thank you for sharing these reflections. I can very much relate to the challenge you are thinking through about how to guide students through the “correct” way of reasoning required by a certain field without creating a judgmental atmosphere. In the humanities classes that I teach, there is perhaps less of a clear distinction between right and wrong answers, but when we are doing close reads of a text sometimes there is a specific answer that I am looking for. In other cases, I am looking for more creative responses, but there is a difference that I am trying to help students to identify between responses that are thoughtful and coherent and statements that are rambling and difficult to interpret. In this case, it isn’t so much about right and wrong answers as it is about better and worse reasoning. But I do agree with you that many students are very unwilling to speak up in class to begin with, and as instructors we sometimes have to take extraordinary efforts to encourage these students to feel comfortable enough to speak. Sometimes, when I back off and let the students just chat freely with each other, I am not sure whether I should be guiding the conversation more actively, or whether they need the opportunity to share their thoughts without judgment. Of course, most of my comments are more relevant to humanities classes, but even science courses as I understand it often have a more intangible social or values based component, whether this is communicated implicitly or explicitly. In relation to the fear of speaking in class, I attribute this partially to the dramatic transition from high school teaching (sitting passively in a lecture, or answering pre-written response questions) and college teaching (much more active participation required). I also think that some students may fear that they sound uncool by showing they care too much about the material. Some students, in fact, pretend during class not to have done the reading when I can tell by their response papers that they have–I’m still figuring out what to do about this!

    1. I really appreciate your perspective from the humanities! I think your comments are very relevant, and that teaching in the humanities and sciences is not always as different as some science instructors would assert.

      One thing I’m picking up from a lot of the comments on this post is that I might need to move away from judgments of “right” or “wrong” when the questions I’m asking aren’t necessarily ones with a single correct answer. I like your framing of “thoughtful and coherent” vs “rambling and difficult to interpret”. I don’t have a good sense of how active you or I should be in classroom discussions–I suspect that it may be a factor that’s part of a teaching style more than a question with a “single right answer”. I do think it’s important to guide the conversation back to the subject of the class and keep it moving, when necessary, but that it also creates a much more open atmosphere when students are bouncing off of each other’s comments rather than having the professor talking in-between each response. That leaves a fair amount of wiggle room in the middle.

  5. Leah,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Deel reading! There were 3 aspects of your post that really hit home with me. The first was your core ‘problem’ with pedagogy advice – “no matter what words I say, the students can tell that it means they’re wrong, and hear the tone of my voice, and feel, to varying degrees, publicly shamed.” I have also struggled to critique my students (and peers), and often times how I interact with them is a reflection of this fear – that I never want them to feel inferior.

    The second thing that resonated with me was how you linked your concerns to imposter syndrome. I find that my personal experiences with imposter syndrome come from that feeling of shame or inferiority that you discuss in regards to your students. You can see the cycle that leads to: we are afraid to speak up to superiors for fear of being wrong, and then alter our interactions with subordinates so they don’t experience that same fear.

    The last thing that resonated, and brought it all home for me, was your discussion of ‘grace’. When you wrote, “I need to really believe in the value of students speaking up with wrong answers in order to accept them graciously”, I felt like I had an A-HA! moment. Yes there is fear, and imposter syndrome, and a feeling of inferiority at times. But if we convey to our students that this is just a part of the learning (and growing) process, and that we too have experienced it, I think that they’ll feel a sense of humility and empathy. And maybe if our critiques come with those emotions, we’ll be able to break a cycle of fear and end up being better educators and mentors.

    1. Absolutely! You said it so well, especially in the last paragraph. The motives that students pick up from what you’re doing really shape the classroom environment, and being up-front about what you’re trying to do will have an impact on that process. There’s sometimes a gap between the things I believe about learning and pedagogy–that there’s no reason to be afraid of being wrong in a space of learning, that everyone deserves to feel welcome and listened to in the classroom, that we’re all growing together–and the ways I actually act in the moment. I think grace is a big part of bridging that gap, which was and remains a big realization for me. I wish you the best of luck in your journey as well.

  6. Hi Sarah! Your post was very relatable and I’ve struggled with many similar practices. On the topic of students who give wrong answers to questions, I agree that it’s so important to encourage them and create a space where they feel comfortable being wrong. In the past, I’ve tried to start with “Thank you for sharing” especially in those cases, however, I’ve found that if this phrase is overused it starts to lose its meaning. I agree with your point that many times the words that you use are just as important as your tone and body language.

  7. > no matter what words I say, the students can tell that it means they’re wrong, and hear the tone of my voice, and feel, to varying degrees, publicly shamed

    I definitely feel that too. And there’s a really sinking feeling when the class becomes more and more silent whenever you put forward a question. Embracing your own mistakes is one approach, but there’s several ways I’ve seen that break this cycle. Switching out single-answer questions (What is the cause of ?) to many-answer questions (What are some causes of ?) is an inquiry that is more receptive to brainstorming ideas.

    Maybe your question needs a single answer, however. That might be a good chance to send a poll to the whole class and get each students’ thoughts. This both gives you a sense of how many students are grasping the idea, and what misconceptions are being held. Explore all the common answers with the class, and consider why they were chosen. Zoom and Mentimeter have tools for polling the class!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions! I agree that I’ve had much more luck with open questions, and that if I’m willing to wait expectantly and make strategic eye contact for long enough then I’ll eventually fish some answers out. But I’m always trying to make sure the quieter students feel comfortable speaking, which is where I’m still struggling.

      The post was written with open questions in mind, though. Even if I’m asking for examples of some particular phenomenon or asking people what kind of methodology they might use for a particular research question, which have multiple possible answers, it’s not true that all answers are equally correct. Someone can say that all fermented foods in the grocery store have live microorganisms, or propose a research plan with incompatible test types. And that’s really where I struggle, especially because I don’t want to set up an atmosphere where I’m the final arbiter of Objective Truth. Ideally the students will walk out of my classes with a better idea of how to check their own ideas, or how to graciously challenge and build off of each other.

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