It’s another finals week here at Penn State, which means the campus is slowing its pace, faculty are storing away their lectures and exams, and the air is vibrating with the excitement of seniors heading off into the next stage of their lives. The end of each semester brings with it a bittersweet taste–satisfaction looking back on another semester completed, but also loss as the tethers uniting each of my classes come unmoored and we go our separate ways.
If there is ever a constant in teaching, it is change itself.
This semester was particularly powerful for me, as it coalesced with shifts in my own private life. I’ve been writing more nonfiction along with fiction, and with this emergence my own thinking has shifted into territories I’ve failed to explore before, much to my own detriment.
Growing up as a white woman in the privileged middle class amidst an essentially homogeneous white community, my cultural experiences were limited. Likewise, my abilities to comprehend what it means to be a person of color in our country or a person in economic disadvantage were similarly limited.
This is one of the reasons I so greatly treasure my role as a university lecturer–every semester I interact with 400+ new students from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing their own experiences and uniqueness to the classroom. It is such a gift to have a profession where I am guaranteed the opportunity to interact with individuals different from myself and to explore these cultural distinctions within the supporting framework of developmental science.
This semester, the main lesson I’ve taken away from my students is the value of authenticity and honesty. Heading into my classroom in anticipation of tackling topics such as the intersection of race and poverty in the US, or the impact of media stereotypes on children’s ethnic and sexual identities, I remained unsure of myself, semester after semester. How could I, a privileged hetero white woman, speak to the challenges, prejudices, and violence directed at people of color in our country or to the confounding of race and financial opportunity in the US? How could I speak to the experience of being a religious or sexual minority or as a parent of a child with special needs?
The answer, of course, is simple. I cannot speak to these experiences with any element of truth, because I have not lived them. Although I can provide evidence from the scientific inquiry into these topics, the essential components of human experience that embody each of these life paths is out of my grasp.
And this semester, I finally owned this fact. I did not avoid the subject or bury it under statistics and references to various studies. I admitted my limitations, and I asked my students to help me. This was the most relevant in my HDFS 429: Advanced Child Development course, where we specifically discuss risk and resilience and examine media and race, although all of my courses collide with these social justice issues in some way.
At the beginning of these specific discussions in HDFS 429, I stated outright that I’ve benefited my entire life from white privilege and that I have no way of knowing what it is to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it means to be poor, either. And I absolutely don’t understand what it is to be both. In my other courses, I made similar efforts to disclose my authentic self, in order to provide it as a contrast to the breadth of the human experience.
In this disclosure–in owning my white privilege rather than pretending it did not exist–something wonderful happened. The atmosphere of my classrooms opened up, and my students began to incorporate their own authentic experiences in our discussions of developmental science, whether those experiences mimicked my own or provided a new perspective I could not provide. I felt a freedom in the classroom that I hadn’t felt before, and I can look back and realize that this freedom emerged from me acknowledging what I did not know to my students, thus giving my students room to teach me.
The greatest joy this semester came when my students accepted who I am and am not, and then offered to educate me in part by sharing their reflections on their own journeys in life thus far. In every class meeting, my students took me by the hand and pulled me forward, closer to understanding, empathy, and wisdom.
And this is where I find myself at the end of this Spring semester–wholly myself and wholly listening.