By Bailey Dick
My AP Lit teacher was so prone to one-liners that someone created a booklet full of them. When someone would make a point in a class discussion, she’d exclaim, “Alas! The very day!” When one of us would steer us off topic, she’d crawl on the floor, assume the fetal position, and croak out, “I’ve lost the will to live.” Her one-liners were iconic, but the one she was most famous for was: “May your weekend be filled with decaffeinated tea and chastity.” She was my favorite teacher I’ve ever had.
At the time, I was delighted by her Brit Lit-infused vocab and the general exasperation that comes with teaching 17-year-old girls for decades. But now, after seven years of teaching myself, I understand she was really manifesting, hoping beyond hope that we’d be safe while we weren’t discussing Hamlet or Wuthering Heights in her classroom.
Toward the end of this spring semester, one of my students pointed out that I’d been inadvertently doing the same thing my AP Lit teacher did: Squawking a handful of the same phrases at my own students as they left the classroom. I don’t know if my students are as delighted by my fervent pleas for their protection to God, the universe, karma, whomever would listen, as I was at the same pleas my own teacher made. But I do know my students have heard directly from me that I care about them.
I was asked to write this column because of a teaching award I won recently. And over the last year, I was asked to be part of a teaching panel at last year’s AJHA, presented at my school’s colloquium series and to a graduate class about my teaching and research, and have been taking a year-long course for faculty that shares best practices for the classroom. In each of these settings where I’ve been asked to share a bit about how I teach, someone has been totally thrown off-kilter whenever I’ve brought up the care work I do in the classroom, whether it’s stocking my office with snacks and personal hygiene items, not having an attendance policy, or occasionally bringing a treat for my students. Years ago in grad school, I had a course supervisor storm through the halls of our building, flinging open doors looking for me, furious that I was trying to “rig” my student evaluations via cookies, when really, I just knew my students were stressed out, away from home for the first time in their lives, and hadn’t eaten any non-cafeteria food in a while.
I’ve been wondering for years why some professors seem to blanch at any mention of care, and the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to believe that it’s because so many academics have been shaped by an education where genuine care is unheard of in the classroom. Whether the hyper-competitivity of graduate school or the golden calf of objectivity in journalism that keeps compassion at arms’ length, those of us who have worked in, research, and now teach journalism may feel deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of integrating more care work into our teaching. But bell hooks, whose work is the foundation of not only my own teaching but much of my research, argues that love and care not only belong in the classroom, but that we as educators need to model that love and care for ourselves, too:
“Realizing that my students were uncertain about expressions of care and love in the classroom, I found it necessary to teach on the subject. I asked students once: ‘Why do you feel that the regard I extend to a particular student cannot also be extended to each of you? Why do you think there is not enough love or care to go around?’ To answer these questions they had to think deeply about the society we live in, how we are taught to compete with one another. They had to think about capitalism and how it informs the way we think about love and care, the way we live in our bodies, the way we try to separate mind from body. There is not much passionate teaching or learning taking place in higher education today. Even when students are desperately yearning to be touched by knowledge, professors still fear the challenge, allow their worries about losing control to override their desires to teach. Concurrently, those of us who teach the same old subjects in the same old ways are often inwardly bored-unable to rekindle passions we may have once felt. If, as Thomas Merton suggests in his essay on pedagogy ‘Learning to Live,’ the purpose of education is to show students how to define themselves ‘authentically and spontaneously in relation’ to the world, then professors can best teach if we are self-actualized.” (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, 198-199)
Care and love can be scary. And for both our students and us educators, it might feel like we’re breaking some unwritten rule.
To which I say, “Good.”
Caring for and loving our students shouldn’t be seen as wrong, extraordinary, or even something deserving of an award. Rather, it should be the baseline, the norm, the prerequisite for being entrusted to learn with and from one’s students–and this is true now more than ever..
The majority of undergraduate students meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health problems, nearly half have symptoms of depression, more than a third experience anxiety, and 15% of our students have “seriously considered suicide,” which is the second leading cause of death among college students. The students in our classrooms are increasingly faced with food insecurity, crippling debt, learning loss, and the responsibility of caring for a family member. Many members of the professoriate may not be able to directly relate to many of the experiences their students face given their own socioeconomic privilege. And still many professors feel the need to maintain rigid classroom norms, practices, grading and attendance policies, or expectations of our students that fail to consider their realities. Just because something was difficult for us, why should it be made even more difficult for our students, given their current situations? Our students have many more things to be stressed about besides our classes and self-created policies. In addition to reassuring our students that we’re aware our classes aren’t the most important thing happening in their lives, we can be flexible in how we assess student learning, allowing them to demonstrate learning in a way that works best for them, and asking “Why not?” rather than “Why should I allow that?” in response to student questions about learning.
So many of us in the academy are exhausted, overworked, and underpaid. And the prospect of having to pour even more into our students at times seems like a herculean task. This is doubly true for women and people of color who shoulder the majority of the unpaid care labor burden both at work and at home.
I’ve found my own teaching is more fulfilling and energizing when I’ve oriented it in a framework of care, respect, and reciprocity, in seeing my students as not “kids,” but fellow adults from whom I have the opportunity to learn, and as people who are (blessedly) far better and brighter than I was at their age.
There are so many incredible teaching resources out there for both journalism educators and for media historians–resources folks like you have created and shared, and that I’ve been lucky enough to use. I don’t have anything to add to that canon in this column.
Instead, I’ll leave you with the one-liners I repeatedly holler at my students:
Our students need to be loved–aggressively. I hope you’ll start yelling (at least in this particular way) at your students, too.
- We live on a floating rock in space. There is nothing worth being stressed over in this class.
- Stay hydrated and please drink some water.
- Make good life choices.
- I’m so proud of you.
Bailey Dick is an Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University.