I am not an expert. I do not have all the answers. I have a biased worldview. I make mistakes. When I speak in public whether in class or online, I’m scared. So basically I am not even close to perfect. I want you to know this. I want my students to know this.
Teaching is supremely hard in that your students frequently assume that if you are standing at the front of the room you know EVERYTHING about your subject. This leaves all of us with two choices. Either try to maintain that false “teacher as expert” image or be honest with our students about what we know and don’t.
When I teach sociology I am trying to help my students develop “eyes” to see at the sociological level. I want them to develop a sociological imagination. I want them to consider the social (and not only the individual) when they make decisions for the rest of their lives. Before any of this development can happen students must first acknowledge that their worldview isn’t unbiased and perfect. They must acknowledge that they have room to grow.
Almost every student is reluctant to do this because it’s scary. If there is no one “right” worldview and if I have mistakenly assumed my worldview untill now has been right and accurate, then the world is more complex than I thought it was. If the stereotypes and assumptions that I’ve never been bothered to examine until now are inaccurate and biased, then I have a lot of work to do. To ask students to hone their skills of seeing at the sociological level, is to ask them to admit vulnerability; to admit that they’ve got work to do.
And if you found yourself nodding along to the last paragraph about your students, stop and realize that you and I are also vulnerable to the same error in thinking. I mean I went to grad school. I study racism, sexism, classism, and all the other inequalities, so I am the last person who would say or do something that is racist, sexist, classist, etc. Right? By being a sociologist I am inoculated from reproducing inequality. I’m one of the good guys.
Having eyes to see at the sociological level is not an end state. You’re never “fixed”. I struggle almost daily with my privilege. Just last week I asked my class to define femininity in a discussion about gender and I said that long straight hair was commonly associated with being feminine. It wasn’t until after class that it occurred to me that by defining femininity this way meant that I was reinforcing Eurocentric beauty standards and alienating many students of color.
So what should I do now? I could hope that not many students noticed my mistake or I could use this moment to show my students how my social location biased my worldview. I can use the opportunity to teach my students about Eurocentric beauty standards. I can show them what honest critical self-evaluation looks like and role model personal growth. Lastly, I can apologize to the students I’ve alienated and try to reestablish trust with them.
If your goal as a teacher is to reach students and inspire them to be changed by the experiences you have together you have to role model vulnerability. Before someone is willing to change themselves they first must be honest about where they are and that ALWAYS requires vulnerability. You can’t expect many students to be willing to change if you are not willing to be vulnerable. Your students are smart they know when you are being honest with them.
I want to acknowledge that I, as a Euro-American male, am experiencing one of my many privileges here. When I walk into the room on the first day many of my students automatically extend to me credibility and authority. In these cases both are unearned. When teachers of color or female teachers walk into the room they are not only not automatically seen as credible, but in some cases they are automatically assumed to be non-credible and their authority will be challenged at every point. This makes showing your vulnerability all the more difficult, but it doesn’t change the dangers of the “Teacher as Expert” model.
I don’t have a one size fits all solution here. I am not prescribing a course of action that, if you start taking today, you will find your classes are 50% more awesome. I know many good teachers who are just trying to survive a hostile classroom. I can’t tell you what will work for you. However, I know the risks associated with pretending to know everything and role modeling a “I have nothing to learn” stance. To learn we must first acknowledge the areas of ourselves that need growth. How can we ask our students to do something that we won’t do ourselves. If you’ve read to this point, consider sending me your ideas about teaching with vulnerability. Email me at Nathan@sociologysource.com. Thanks!