– Melissa K. Downes
Even as a novice teacher, I had few problems with being taken seriously by my students, with being heard and seen, or (on most days) with students following through on what I asked of them. Moving to Clarion did require some adjustments: some students needed more help to successfully make the transition to college and to my expectations. However, I seldom have had to deal with that feeling of invisibility, of being dismissed, unheard, or disrespected by my students that I would hear discussed by other young, female teachers. Some part of that difference may well have been that I was just a bit older, and I was not (and am not) petite: I had to confront less of the gender bias that still shows up in classrooms.
Recently, as I have grown noticeably older (sigh) and bigger (sigh, again), I have sometimes found my students looking through me. I have felt transparent. Or students have more easily misunderstood me as a stereotype of a grandmother or kindergarten teacher. Nowadays, first-year students frequently type Mrs. Downes on the tops of papers and in emails. While I do think that age, combined with gender, is part of the shift I sense, it may also be that our culture increasingly dismisses and devalues teachers, and my students echo that attitude.
Since such assumptions or blind spots interfere with my students’ ability to be successful in mastering the material, developing the skills, and earning the grades they need and want, finding strategies to make myself more present for my students is not merely important to my sense of self, but to their success.
What advice can I give myself as I notice these trends? What advice can I give to others who — because of cultural attitudes and/or size, gender, age, or race — find themselves overlooked, not seen?
To be transparent can mean to be almost invisible, see-through. Paradoxically, it can also mean to be easily “detected or understood” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). As I reflect on this, I think the best advice I can give to those who feel transparent in front of the classroom is to be transparent with their students: the more we make our students aware of why we do what we do and why we ask them to do what we ask of them, the more present we are for and to them.
As a teacher, I have never wanted to be “the (wo)man behind the curtain.” I like my students to see and know why I do what I do and how what I do ties to what I hope they can achieve. I have always believed in and practiced transparency, but I think it is time to be even more assertive and strategic in that practice. In a world where transparent can be defined as “fake” (Urban Dictionary, 2016), I want to strive to be even more open, more honest.
One of the first places I try to practice transparency is in my syllabus. I like my syllabi to be teaching instruments, which help students think about different ways to be professional and aid students transitioning from high school to college (a major part of my student audience). Sometimes, especially in my lower-level courses, I am training them as much to be students in a university as I am training them in critical literacy, writing, and thinking or in literary interpretation. For example, I expect not just attendance, but active participation in my classes, and I design lesson-plans that promote such active participation, but my students bear part of the responsibility, and I make that clear in every syllabus, though I find that reminders are sometimes necessary.
Class Participation, Professionalism, and Attendance: Notice how attendance is only one part of that title: showing up, by itself, is not enough, though showing up is important. I see this class very much as a group enterprise in which each of you shapes our discussions with your questions and ideas. Asking questions, discussing, and listening to the opinions of others form the basis of this class. Our goals as a class will be to form a community of readers, writers, and speakers who both enjoy themselves and help each other learn skills. Therefore, PLEASE SHOW UP and SHOW UP PREPARED! Active participation in a discussion class like this has a decided positive effect upon the class, your learning, and your grade. (ENG 111 syllabus, Spring 2016)
Both in the syllabus and throughout the class, I try to emphasize the value and relatedness of the assignments, expectations, and course objectives to each other and to their lives as students, professionals-in-the-making, and citizens. Many times my student have felt that in high school they were given “busy work,” work that they did not see as moving them forward or having a purpose. I always try to emphasize and explain how what I ask them to do is tied to outcomes, to their own learning, and to their futures. For my Eng 111 courses, I have even designed a document called, “Why We Do What We Do in College Writing” and I pair it with a copy of my department’s shared outcomes for Eng 111, so they can see how what I ask of them aligns with larger outcomes.
Professionalism and Civility: One of the ways to become more effective and persuasive as a writer and a speaker is to build your ethos, to become more credible. Taking this a step further, part of being a student and part of being a person surviving in this world is the ability to adapt to the rules and expectations (rhetorical rules) of a particular audience and build your ethos with that audience. (ENG 111 syllabus, Spring 2016)
Along with helping students understand why we do what we do in terms of how what we do meets various outcomes, I also try to emphasize how course outcomes, activities, and requirements apply to their lives outside my classroom and beyond the university. In many of my courses, at least one lecture/discussion (often the first) deals with how course content and assignments aid and enrich students beyond the classroom. In my British survey course, for example, I discuss the value of studying the sweep of British literature in terms of cultural capital, historical literacy, and a greater understanding of other literatures, as well as emphasizing how such study enhances “English major skills.” I recently followed that initial discussion up with one focused on how the course enhances more general, career-focused skills, particularly through the development of English-major skills.
Transparency is sometimes defined as “simple,” as well as “clear” (Macmillan, 2016). Yes, verbosity—even pomposity—can be a protective reaction to people questioning one’s authority. However, I tend to resist an over-simple belief that simplicity and clarity are the same thing. I want my students to learn to handle complexity well, even appreciate it. Certainly, I want them to be able to understand complex things clearly. The world my students will live in will be complex, and simple answers usually won’t work. My students need to see that when I challenge them with complexity, I’m trying to help them, not trick them. Clear answers are often complex and challenging — and learning that is neither simple nor easy. One of the ways to make learning this hard lesson easier is to practice transparency in the classroom, making sure my students know that there are reasons for what we do and what I ask of them.
Welcome to College Writing! Think of English 111 as a course on certain survival skills for college and beyond. We’ll be working together on reading, writing, and discussion skills that can aid and empower you, not only in this class, but also in other courses and your career. We will focus particularly on critical reading, listening, and thinking skills, and on effective writing processes, techniques, and conventions. We will also build rhetorical skills, such as adapting to different audiences, and work on developing skills in analysis, research, and argument. Finally, this course will draw attention not only to the beauty and effectiveness of language, but also to its powerful controlling ability in our lives. (ENG 111 syllabus, Spring 2016)
I would love to hear how others cope with students who look through them and disengage from learning. I do believe that moving toward a greater sense of purpose and clarity in teaching is part of the answer: to push the transparency metaphor further, we can let light shine through us—in a good way.
Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at email@example.com