For years I had the standard “come talk if there’s a problem” statement of bonhomie and support on my syllabus. I stated it explicitly at the first class meeting. And no one ever came.
I’ve been thinking about inclusivity in teaching in the context of my large (150 students) lecture. I have participated in a lot of really fabulous CAT seminars, courses, and workshops, and have been exposed to so many wonderful ideas, but let’s face it – lecture halls are not designed for much interaction between students or even, if we’re honest, between student and lecturer. So how do we develop human relationships in a large-scale situation?
It’s difficult to look beyond the limits of the situation, but it’s important to try because the student pool represents a deep resource of experience, a lens through which they can understand the course material and, if you manage well, help each other to understand it as well. Students often are unwilling to share from their own experiences in a large lecture format, and there is no chance that will happen if they are not comfortable interacting with the lecturer. Interaction isn’t automatic, and it can’t happen without trust.
As a result of participating in the Provost’s Teaching Academy, I designed what I now call the Index Card Exercise. I distribute index cards on the first day of class and ask students to take five minutes to write their preferred name, pronouns, and what they are most excited about for class. Like most large lectures, it’s mostly a captive population fulfilling a requirement, so I figure any attempt to limit the adversarial relationship between student and course material (and instructor) is worth the attempt. The final question I ask is: “Is there anything I should know about that might impact your ability to succeed in this class?”
It turns out there’s plenty that students want me to know. I’ve had students with babies, recovering from cancer, taking care of elderly relatives, working full time to pay their bills – in short, students in my class are experiencing a lot of life while they also try to keep up with a full course load. Most of them don’t want to appear to be asking for a favor and would never approach me, and many state outright that they don’t really expect anything, but because I ask, they tell me.
The benefit to me of this exercise is that I am more aware of their struggles, and I’m reminded of their humanity. The benefit to them is the proof that there is substance behind my claim to concern. I may not be able to match every name with a face, but I read those cards and I remember nicknames when we email. I reach out to students whose circumstances seem particularly precarious. And the students respond. I’ve never had a student express their preference for a non-cis pronoun, but quite a few have made a point of conveying their surprise and approval that I ask. Suddenly, with those four questions, I become approachable and relevant.
It’s tough to imagine ways to find common ground with students in a large lecture, but it’s important to try. With my science background, I have to fight daily against the notion that teaching in active ways, employing new pedagogical ideas, is simply babying the students. Building a relationship with them helps on so many levels, though: I see potential problems in time to be proactive, I enjoy teaching more, and I start with the students’ trust that they can come to me early and work with me to avert disaster. Does it work all the time? Of course not. Like all of teaching, there’s an element of trial and error; sometimes a great idea just doesn’t work out. You can tweak it next time, or you can abandon it in favor of a different exercise, but the important thing is to keep actively building those bridges. Even a failed exercise, if you practice transparency about what it was meant to achieve and how it went wrong, can foster a supportive learning environment where students can achieve significant personal and academic growth.
Angela Bricker is Assistant Professor in the Biology department of Temple University's College of Science and Technology.
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