Teaching on the brighter side! by Joseph Hassert

A huge thanks to our first guest blogger who was brave enough to share a different perspective on teaching, please enjoy and let’s have some great virtual discussion!

Teaching on the Brighter Side
Joe Hassert
Communication Studies

I believe in praxis, that the most important concepts and theories we have are those that can be put to practice in a way that enriches our lives. As teachers we are so concerned with other people’s learning—effectively aiding our students’ growth and accurately assessing their progress—that we can overlook the ways our course objectives are applicable to our daily lives. I want to take a moment to reflect upon the ways that some of the core lessons of communication studies can be brought to bear on the everyday lives of teachers. I want to focus in particular on how I believe three major concepts can improve our experience and enjoyment of a life dedicated to working with students: the constitutive view of communication, self-fulfilling prophecies, and mindfulness.

In a nutshell, the constitutive view of communication holds that communication—the words we use and the way we use them—shapes our perceptions of reality. Communication is like a set of sunglasses through which we see the world, not “as it is,” but as it is shaded or tinted by the language use that mediates it. When we use the word “kids” to describe the students in our classes, for example—a practice that I feel is all too common on our campus—this language choice acts upon our attitudes and perceptions. Though it may seem like a small gesture, the repetitive use of this descriptor naturalizes it, and it becomes contagious. Other teachers and staff pick it up and use it. Further, I believe calling university students “kids” changes the way we see and treat them. We begin to see them as less than adults. We see them as dependent. We see them as incapable of taking responsibility for their lives, despite that fact that many have overcome real hardships to get here, that all have had lives full of rich experiences before arriving on campus.

Related to the constitutive view of communication is the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies. I tell my public speaking students that if they think they are going to give a terrible speech, there is a pretty good chance that will in fact give a terrible speech. When positive, self-fulfilling prophecies can be empowering; when negative, they can be devastating. Teaching can be very frustrating. Students sometimes push the limits of course policies, due dates, and common decency. In narrative theory we say that the most reportable events are the ones that involve conflict; so perhaps it is only natural for teachers to share these stories first and most often. However, I worry that the sharing of “bad student narratives” and the chain reaction such sharing often sparks, might operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Venting is certainly a healthy practice to a point, but when we only discuss the negative aspects of our jobs with each other, we could be adding to the heap of bad feelings. We could be creating the environments that produce “bad” students.

All of this brings me to the concept, mindfulness. As communicators we are awash in communication. Like the proverbial fish unable to see and name the substance it swims in, communication practices—the words we use and how we use them—often go unnoticed. The myriad micro-choices we make in the mundane affairs of our lives pass us by and are laid to rest in the unconscious mind. It is my hope that this short entry on the praxis of communication studies in the lives of teachers encourages you to stop and think about how you talk about the work you do. By making tiny changes like no longer calling students “kids” and checking the frequency and intensity with which you share “bad student narrative,” I hope that we can collectively make this life as educators more satisfying to us all.

When I start to feel the stress of the semester, I think about how as I walk into the building each morning, there is almost always a student ahead of me who pauses for moment to keep the door held open for me. Often there is a stream of people, one after the other, each taking a turn holding the weight of the door for the one behind, each pausing for a moment to pass it off to the next. It’s such a small gesture, but I think it is a profound metaphor for what it is we strive to do here every day at this very special place.

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