What does teaching feel like?

In this post, J. Sumerau asks us to consider and reflect upon what teaching feels like and how such feelings may vary and / or be illustrative in relation to different people, approaches, and social locations.

This week I experience one of my favorite times of the year – the beginning of classes for a new academic year. As I walk to and through campus, all the signs are there that a new year has begun. Some of the students are excited, others are nervous, and still more seem just plain lost as they look around for some kind of guidance. Some of the faculty are bouncing around with glee, others appear annoyed beyond belief, and still more are arguing about parking. I always experience a mixture of fear and exhilaration personally, which I figured I’d write about for a bit since it makes me wonder about variations in how teaching feels for different people.

In terms of fear, I find myself locking up – physically, emotionally, and even mentally – this time of year with anxiety about the fact that I must talk to and deal with people constantly from this point forward after a summer usually spent mostly in isolation – or as some friends say “hiding in my cave.” While my students rarely believe it until they see me outside of school, I’m not very social and interpersonal interactions are often very difficult for me to navigate so when I’m able to I simply avoid interacting with people (I prefer to watch them from a distance so to speak as I roam around cities alone listening to random conversations and / or whatever records I’m interested in at the moment). There may be nothing more awkward in my daily or normal routines than the thought of speaking to a room full of people and / or making small talk in a given hallway, and yet these are two of the most common elements of my occupational experience.

Companions who understand this about me sometimes express surprise that I love teaching as a way to make a living and spend my time. The answer lies in the other side of the coin – constantly doing something terrifying is in many ways exhilarating and never boring for me. My life – especially the parts that require human interaction and communication not accomplished via typing – feels like a constant adventure, a kind of boxing match between my fear of people and my desire not to be ruled by fear. While I have friends who spend days and hours deciding exactly what to say and do in classes, I almost never have any clue which of twenty or more outlined directions any given class might go. If I try to be more specific than that – as I learned by trying to do so in graduate school – I lock up, have a panic attack, and can’t speak. For whatever reason, deciding exactly what to say ahead of time creates more anxiety because I then worry about going off script or forgetting something important so – in much the same way I approach presentations at conferences – I instead come up with a bunch of different possible scenarios and then read my audience for cues as to what might be fun and useful (i.e., the same way I navigate interpersonal interactions outside the classroom).

If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that there may be an unlimited amount of ways to teach well, experience classrooms, and manage the self and the class in educational endeavors. From the colleague I know that designs a specific game for each concept to the colleague I know that maps out every possible student response so ze has an example and / or resource ready at hand at all times, people prepare and experience classrooms in a wide variety of ways. From the colleague that giggles whenever anyone says “course prep” because ze does not do any of that “boring stuff” and instead uses improv experience to run classrooms based on topics ze already knows well to the colleague who spends the entire summer preparing detailed and sophisticated lectures with graphs and charts because the structure eases their own anxiety about talking in public, the spectrum of possible approaches suggests – and I admit I’ve benefited from personally thanks to countless conversations with others on the matter – a wealth of information to be found sharing teaching approaches, experiences, and styles with one another.

These simple observations about the experience of and approaches to teaching lead me to wonder how others experience these dynamics. While rarely mentioned or written about (that I have seen) aside from social media posts here and there and online groups where teachers share frustrations and celebrations during the year, the way it feels to teach is likely a fascinating topic and would likely reveal a lot about the ways educators navigate the world and their lives within it. As I continue enjoying the fear and exhilaration of my own latest week one, I thus ask us all to reflect on what it feels like to teach and what lessons we could learn about teaching and ourselves from such reflection.

Teaching Where It Hurts

In this post, Xan Nowakowski and J. Sumerau reflect on their experiences personalizing sociology in the classroom (see their recently published Teaching Sociology article on this topic here) in hopes of facilitating dialogue and debate about the benefits and limitations of incorporating professor biographies into sociological curricula.

As people who write about, teach, study, and engage in advocacy related to chronic health conditions, social inequalities, sexual and gender experiences and identities, and managing trauma, we have become intimately aware of the potential personal experience and stories can have for facilitating learning and motivating concrete action among our students, colleagues, and communities. At the same time, we know all too well that structural factors regularly limit who can say what in classrooms in much the same way they do beyond the academy, and that academic traditions have long privileged rational or remote notions of instruction over emotional and personalized approaches. As we did in our recently published Teaching Sociology article, we would like to encourage our colleagues to consider these options and structural patterns in hopes of spurring dialogue about the potential of using our own experiences within inequitable structures to help students and colleagues see the pain created by social inequalities on a more personal level.

As we did with the establishment of ongoing conference sessions, an upcoming book project, and the creation of this site, our focus here lies in the potential of writing (or researching, teaching and advocating) where it hurts. When Xan shares stories of almost dying or struggles with doctors and other medical professionals unfamiliar with what to do to treat their chronic physical health conditions, for example, students come face to face with the results of our flawed healthcare system in the midst of their own lives and worldviews. Likewise, when J. shares stories of being physically assaulted for daring to go on a date with a cute boy or watching a lover die amidst both caring and supportive and judgmental and hateful medical professionals, students witness the concrete tears, pain, and sorrow that come from experiences within interlocking systems of inequality embedded throughout our society. In these and many other cases, we utilize our own pain to pull social inequality out of the abstract and into the actual lived experiences of the students and colleagues who interact with us.

As we advocate in our recent article and practice in our own classes and on this site, we seek to personalize social inequalities for our students. Rather than things they read or hear about in class that happen somewhere “out there” unseen to them, we use our own experience and narratives shared by other people occupying marginalized positions or experiencing traumatic events to translate “out there” into personal realities with actual faces, personalities, voices, and bodies in the eyes of students and colleagues. In fact, both students and colleagues regularly experience their own organic emotional reactions to social patterns in the process, and tend to very quickly make the link that if it could happen to “their professor” then it could happen to “them” or “their loved ones” as well. Not surprisingly, such realizations very quickly transform societal patterns of inequality into anything but abstract concepts. As a result, our willingness to talk about the pain or teach where it hurts often translates into incredibly passionate and engaged rooms full of students especially willing to discuss and consider concrete steps they can take toward more positive social relations.

As we note in our recent article, we developed these approaches – individually and collectively – over time by building the entirety of our class offerings around discussion, consent, and application of scholarly materials to personal experience. In terms of discussion, for example, our courses are organized – from the first to the last day – around personal or collected emotional narratives that we share with students in relation to each course reading and topic. In so doing, we ritualize personal narratives within the class so students become accustomed to this form of interaction and dialogue throughout the course. Likewise, our courses are built upon an emphasis on consent wherein students are never required to disclose their own personal experiences or use ours in their work, but they are allowed to do both of these things on any assignment or in any class meeting where such things are relevant to the given assignment or class topic or assigned material. We thus remove grading from the equation by giving students ample resources to do just as well in the class no matter their experience and / or interpretation of the personal content we or other students share. Finally, we strategically link every scholarly piece or activity in a given class to specific personalized examples so students are able to always see the real world (or applied) aspects of the materials we cover in their own lives, in our lives, and / or in the lives of other people. Our experiences – as well as some initial negative experiences others have had when first attempting styles like our own without these ingredients – tell us these (and maybe other) efforts to create classrooms where students get used to and feel safe with vulnerability may be essential ingredients in personalizing instruction.

With all this information in mind, we invite dialogue, commentary and discussion on the possibility of personalizing scholarly work through teaching and other methods. Whether one seeks to join this conversation on this site or in relation to our call in Teaching Sociology or in any other space, we invite and appreciate other educator’s perspectives on these matters. To this end, ask yourself what ways you do or could personalize sociology? What might be the benefits or limitations of doing so? What institutional and structural steps might we need to take to serve and protect those who share their pain in the service of education and advocacy by and for their students and other colleagues? While we will not pretend to have some “right” or “absolute” answers to these questions, our experiences to date within and beyond classrooms tell us these questions might be incredibly important and useful in many ways.