As university instructors, we have the chance to learn with and from students at a crucial time in their lives, and to empower them with the ideas that they need to make sense of themselves and change their world. This is a critical opportunity, and if we leave them alienated from the learning process, we will have failed them and ourselves. That is why I work to make my classroom a place where every student feels like a citizen, a full participant in a classroom that they know is their own, rather than an observer or an outsider who passively watches the process.
I position myself in the classroom, not as a lecturer or a didact, but as a resource and an advocate. Although I have knowledge and skills to offer my students, I am seeking to understand the material better just as they are, and I let them know this. I construct my classroom as a forum for discussion, a place where learning is collaborative and communal. For example, I regularly use hands-on activities, peer assessment, and small group work designed to encourage students to learn from and teach their peers, rather than simply listening to my limited perspective.
I encourage students to learn from one another, which sometimes requires them to challenge one another. This is not always comfortable; however, it should always be safe. I make it clear, both with course policies and through my actions, that classroom disagreements must respect the humanity and dignity of all persons. Students need to understand that no form of "punching down" is acceptable in a learning environment. I model and enforce this behavior while challenging students' ideas in the form of lively, constructive classroom discussion.
Building an inclusive classroom also requires giving attention to unjust material barriers, such as those faced by students with disabilities or economic disadvantages. Although I cannot eliminate all such barriers, I work to employ pedagogical strategies and course policies which reduce their salience. Whenever possible, I assign only readings and materials which are open-source or can be shared for free, rather than requiring students to pay for textbooks. I offer flexible deadlines and attendance policies; this works towards building trust, and students regularly express gratitude for it. I encourage collective note-taking in shared documents so that students can access and build on each others' knowledge. Whenever possible, I offer a variety of options for students to demonstrate their learning, including standard written essays as well as presentations, structured panel discussions, analysis of media or fiction, and recorded interviews or podcasts.
My experience as a teacher, and as a student, has taught me that forging relationships of trust, encouraging collaboration and community, working to reduce barriers to entry, and, in general, making students feel as if they are welcome in the classroom can go a long way towards empowering them to excel in their studies and gain the epistemic and practical tools they need. I believe that my ability to do this puts me in a position to be an impactful and effective teacher, not just for students who are already likely to do well, but for every student I teach.
In the spring of 2020, I received the Outstanding TA Award from Syracuse University in recognition of my skills and impact as a teacher.
I make it a point to regularly collect and respond to feedback. I do this by collecting anonymous written comments, giving in-class polls, and sometimes simply by asking them to speak up in class about how things are going and responding to their suggestions in real time. In the data I have gathered, students consistently comment on the quality of discussion and the engaging nature of the way the class is presented. They appreciate the chance to collaborate with fellow students, and they feel genuinely motivated to contribute and to be a part of the classroom community. Moreover, students often express their gratitude for my reflexive, inclusive classroom practices. They can tell that I genuinely want to hear their perspectives and I am committed to working with them towards meaningful learning, rather than simply requiring them to jump through hoops.
Below I have included examples of both official feedback given through the university, and unofficial feedback in the form of handwritten notecards that I typically collect partway through the semester.
Over the years, many students have thanked me personally for my work as an instructor and a TA. The following are a sampling of unsolicited emails, each from a different student. I have redacted students' personal information as well as instances of my previous name.