Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Being Honest to One’s Students and One’s Self

This is a topic that has plagued my mind and my pedagogical experiences for as long as I’ve been teaching. I am a Hispanic female, and my culture of course influences my views of the world, the ways I teach, and the topics I integrate into course materials. At this point, I’ve taught at three different institutions, two of which have high concentrations of minority students. The other, the institution where I currently teach, is composed of predominantly white students. At my other two institutions, I identified with many of my students and felt right at home. At this institution, I often feel like an outsider when interacting with students and teaching them, and I am still trying to figure out how to deal with that.

How important is identifying with students? How does it affect your teaching?

Enter: a student who was in one of my classes last year. She identified as a Mexican-American and was from my hometown. On the first day of class, she came up to me and told me, “Ms. H., I’m so excited to be in your class. As soon as I saw your name on the roster, I instantly signed up for your class.” “Thank you!” I responded, and proceeded to ask why she chose my class in particular. “Well, to be honest, Ms. H., you have a Mexican last name. That’s why.” I was stunned. This was the first time a student told me that s/he chose my class because of my last name, and I’m assuming the look on my face spoke wonders because she followed up with, “I’ve never had a Hispanic professor here. I knew that, if nothing else, at least I would feel comfortable with you.”

Fast forward to the middle of the semester. She comes up to me after class and tells me, with a tremble in her voice and sadness on her face, about her experiences at our institution. “Ms. H., I feel lonely here. I don’t fit in, I don’t belong, I have hardly any Mexican friends, I can’t find my culture anywhere, and people give me dirty looks and sometimes treat me like an outsider. I know you got your master’s at UH – what’s their undergraduate program like? I’m thinking about transferring. I know I’ll fit in more there.” I wish I would’ve had time to prepare a better response. I was torn. Part of me wanted to tell her to stick it out, that hopefully she would find more people here with whom she could identify and that hopefully her time here would get better. The other part of me, though, wanted to tell her to transfer as fast as she could because yes, this institution and this city sometimes do not feel very welcoming to minorities and that I felt the same way she did. Coming from a city rich with different cultures, it was quite a shock to come here, where I’m part of the minority and where students tell me, “Oh, you’re Hispanic, Ms. H? I thought Hernandez was your husband’s last name. I thought you were white” or “Wow Ms. H., I don’t know very many Hispanic people who are getting PhD’s.” Well, why should it matter what color I am and what my cultural background is? Frustrating.

I talked it out with my student and told her that I often felt the same way she does and that hopefully it would get better. She asked me how I cope, and I told her that my cohort, my professors, and my department created a very welcoming and diverse atmosphere that made me feel right at home. I suggested that she do the same – try to seek out like-minded people, regardless of their race/ethnicity, and to make a home here with people who made her feel welcomed and comfortable.

I struggled with my response for a while, as I did not know if it was the right thing to tell her. Was it even my place to divulge such information about how I’m very saddened at times by the unwelcoming culture here? Should I put on a straight face and pretend that racial/ethnic differences are not a problem here? Was it right of me to somewhat convince her to stay, considering I knew that staying could potentially mean more terrible experiences? I’m not trying to villainize this institution or this city by any means – that’s not my intent. There are many wonderful people here who look past cultural differences and do not make an issue out of them. However, I can’t deny that being a minority here is sometimes a very difficult and exhausting experience.

At the end of the semester, she never told me what her decision was, and I didn’t hear from her again.

Fast forward to a few months ago: I see her at the library with a friend, and she looks very happy. I’m relieved that she stayed, and I’m relieved that she looked like she was enjoying herself. As soon as she saw me, she gave me a hug and thanked me for such a wonderful class and for talking with her about this topic.

Friends and colleagues, if you’re affiliated with an institution that might not be very welcoming to your culture or your ethnicity, how do you cope? Do you have students who often express these same feelings of “outsider-ness” with you, and how do you respond? I've been to countless diversity meetings and mini-seminars--which are helpful, don't get me wrong--but they don't exactly "teach" you how to have these difficult conversations with students. I’m asking because, at this very moment, I still have Hispanic/Latino students who approach me with these same issues and topics, and the conversations don’t get any easier. I adore my students and truly love working with them. I feel like being dishonest with them is the same as being dishonest with myself.

Thoughts are appreciated. J



  1. Lea, thank you so much for sharing these very important thoughts. I totally understand where you are coming from. As an instructor of color, I too face similar situations. Students who share my racial/ethnic identity feel comfortable talking with me about their situations. Personally, I give them time to share their experiences and also try to validate their feelings without questioning them. Some others in my position feel that such students take away too much of their time but I feel responsible as their instructor to listen to their life experiences and offer whatever comfort I can without compromising the truth. Honesty is the highest form of love. It is higher than loyalty in my eyes. Not just in teacher student relationships but in all relationships!! Hope this helps in some way. Life is so interesting! I am grateful to be a life long teacher and learner!

  2. Lea and Srivi,

    Your reflections are indeed very important, and I hope that I have something useful to bring to this conversation and that others will help us keep the conversation going. Like the two of you, I have struggled with questions of minority identity at our university; unlike "y'all," however, I have a last name that masks said identity. My last name contains no hechsher (look it up). Like my Jewish adviser, but unlike many of my Jewish friends, my name contains no "Stein," "Witz," "Gold," "Cohen," "Levi," or any other traditional Jewish marker, and therefore my students only know that I'm Jewish if I choose to tell them. Regrettably, I have chosen pretty consistently to try to "pass" (with the exception of one student who wore a kippah to class and another who told me he was Israeli).

    Every semester I run through the same dilemma in my mind: on the one hand, (1) my Jewish identity and my scholarly identity have been intertwined since I attended B'nai Emet Preschool, (2) I am, as you both know, very proud of my heritage and my beliefs, (3) I enjoy teaching and learning about different perspectives, and (4) I want to help our university to become a more inclusive, tolerant, open-minded, and welcoming community. On the other hand, (1) I value honesty and loyalty in the classroom, but I also value boundaries and limited self-disclosure, (2) I had a traumatic experience at what I thought was a fairly open-minded campus back home, where one of my favorite professors was threatened and her property was defaced with racist insults simply because she was Asian-American, (3) If I am the first Jew that my students have met (and, for some of them, the only Jew they ever will meet), I worry about saying something incorrect--or, worse yet, saying something that is misinterpreted--about Jews or Judaism, and (4) With the contentious "situation" in the Middle East," a situation that gives me cognitive dissonance, I don't want my students to defer to my authority (or lack thereof), particularly when it is not directly relevant to something we are discussing in the classroom.

    Unfortunately, the "other hand" in this dilemma has won the debate with me. Yet, being a rhetorician who is fascinated by Jung's concept of the "shadow" (I am my adviser's child), I have to wonder both why I have let it win and what would happen if the other side took over. Furthermore, I wonder what will happen when I move to a university with more Jews like me.

  3. I related to your post in every single regard.

    1.) "Wow Ms. H., I don’t know very many Hispanic people who are getting PhD’s.” Well, why should it matter what color I am and what my cultural background is? Frustrating."

    I've heard these comments from students but also peers who've alluded to my being a token because I'm a Hispanic woman (double minority, woohoo, that looks great for A&M, doesn't it?!), as well as people I've known from h.s. (their parents too -- "Wow, Amanda is getting a Ph.D.? I didn't realize she was so smart."), and college (a friend recently told me jokingly her brother said almost the same quote above... and this friend is Latino!). My theory is that people are not used to seeing minorities in positions of power and many of us have been conditioned to have narrow views of who we think *should* be in such positions. I do not fit the stereotype most people hold in their minds of a Ph.D. professor, which is often an image of an older white man who is disheveled (i.e. doesn't put much attention into how he dresses/appears overall), socially awkward, and out of touch with young people but incredibly intelligent and respectable. I'm short, Hispanic, female, young-looking, enjoy dressing nice and accessorizing, am *not* socially awkward (meeting new people each semester is a job perk!), and yet I'm a hard working, intelligent person who stays up with current academic research in my area and pop culture so that I can be more effective in my teaching and relate to my students better.

    2.) "I suggested that she do the same – try to seek out like-minded people, regardless of their race/ethnicity, and to make a home here with people who made her feel welcomed and comfortable."

    It's no secret universities like A&M can be unwelcoming for people who don't neatly fit into certain categories. Though I do think A&M has good intentions when it comes to diversity and creating a more inclusive campus vibe, it is hard to actually implement. I think in this environment where young people live in a bubble with others just like them it is easier to maintain stereotypes about "others". This is unfortunate because for me, college was a time of exploration, discovery, new-ness, and fascination -- not an attempt to maintain sameness. Many people are most comfortable in a sea of sameness. Carving out your own space in that sea of sameness is crucial to thriving, surviving, and enjoying your time there. My cohort was diverse and my closest friends throughout my time at TAMU were international grad students! It was easy to relate and talk about life in Aggieland because, though we were all different (Latino American, Malaysian, Chinese, Indian), we had similar experiences. We learned a lot from each other and were able to make an otherwise oppressive environment livable. I am not saying that I did not also have wonderful friendships with peers and students who *did* fit the dominant demographics.

  4. 3.) "There are many wonderful people here who look past cultural differences and do not make an issue out of them. However, I can’t deny that being a minority here is sometimes a very difficult and exhausting experience."

    My strategy is to be as well-rounded and welcoming of diversity. I often tell my students that I have my own perspectives on things but that those are never be a basis for how I grade their work. I want them to express themselves and be open to other' views.
    I have also had Hispanic (especially female) students and students of color in general who felt really comfortable talking to me about class content and personal things relating to their experience at A&M. I welcomed such conversations and saw these opportunities as positive mentorship. I, too, had more than one Hispanic female student come up to me after the first day of class, introduce herself, tell me she was excited about the course, and (leaning in, looking both ways and almost whispering) tell me that I was the first Hispanic prof. she'd had at A&M --- and she said it with a tone of relief and excitement. I have also had students in more diverse universities I've taught at tell me that I'm an inspiration --because I'm so young, am a woman of color, and have accomplished so much-- and that I serve as a positive example for them and others who cross paths with me. I am always humbled by such unsolicited comments from students and, if anything, feel validated in the education and career path I've chosen.
    I get disheartened with the negativity stemming from these exact same identities and others' perceptions. But I ultimately choose to prioritize the *good* that comes from being a symbol of diversity. I have a good network of friends, family, and colleagues that help me through those conflicting times and make me see the glass as half full. It is emotional labor to deal with these extra issues that others may not confront at all. Exemplifying diversity is not easy, but it is definitely worthwhile!

  5. Lastly, in an attempt to answer your big picture question, I think it is best to be honest and couch your responses to students in your experiences and how you've dealt with things. I find it easiest to relate to people based on your own examples of experiences. This is also, of course, not to say that they will apply or be the best course of action for everyone, but they at least provide some food for thought. I would always relay options too - they have choices. They can choose to stay and adjust (which means different things to different folks), or they can leave and find a more automatically welcoming environment (but should remember that the grass is not always greener on the other side). Even those tough experiences of feeling like a fish out of water can be enriching to your broader future, though they may seem negative at face value. Honesty, pros/cons and costs/benefits analyses, and personal examples are definitely insightful.