End of Semester Lessons: What My Students Taught Me

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.

I had the pleasure of starting each Tues/Thurs with this incredible group #HDFS429

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.

Next up came my HDFS 497A: Autism course–do I look excited to see them? That’s how I felt every day coming to class 🙂

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.

And then my day ended with my largest class–HDFS 229 #LovedEveryMinute

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.

4 Best Things Online This Week

In this next edition of “What thrilled, engrossed, and overwhelmed Sarah during her web-browsing this week?” there is a distinct mixture of the frothy and the bitter. We don’t live in a world of pure confection, but at the same time sweetness remains for us to enjoy despite the cruelty. So, here goes:

Library 2.jpg

  1. Operation Mason Dixon has only just begun and already it deserves a bookmark for you to track Elise’s experiences as she pummels through her final year of Ph.D. studies as a Developmental Scientist. Being a Developmental Psychologist myself, I was thrilled to come across this blossoming blog via Christina & Kamille’s Twitter account. Being a suburban white woman charged with teaching courses that deal with risk, resilience, and intervention, I find myself in a constant struggle to provide my students with a whole and authentic perspective on these issues (including Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity) given the fact that I am a privileged White woman. I am lucky to encounter students from diverse backgrounds and to have the opportunity to learn from them every day that I am in the classroom–teachers are indeed meant to be taught–but Elise’s most recent post observing how academia is at odds with the racial turmoil in our country and that our field of Developmental Science is failing people of color zeros in on the discomfort I regularly feel in my own classroom: our field is not doing justice to the scientific pursuit of eradicating injustice. And so teachers like myself are left to teach our students how to make the world better with fistfuls of studies offering caveats like “all upper middle class sample” or “only 20% of participants were African American, or Latino/a, or Asian” and only a few pieces of research that begin to approach a real representation of the developmental experiences of American infants, children, adolescents, and adults. When the teacher is privileged and White, like myself (for me to look at the trajectory of my life and say otherwise is to ignore the imbalance along racial and socioeconomic lines in our country), the inadequacy in addressing this injustice is only multiplied. I look forward to reading more of Elise’s work and about her path to earning her doctorate, which is a journey that I hope proves expeditious: Our field needs her.

NPR 100 Things

2. Sweet goodness, have you seen NPR’s 100 Things You Might Also Like? The media experts at our National Public Radio have offered their own recommendation flow charts to help you locate your next novel, film, or TV show based on media you’ve already determined you love.  It’s a rabbit hole worth your time–dive in!

Bellwether Friends

3. My love for librarians offering their views on popular media only continues to grow. Two Bossy Dames is like a gateway drug to an entire Twitterverse of fabulous, professionally trained connoisseurs of literature, film, and everything in between. Enter Bellwether Friends. Their weekly podcast offers four libraries from across the country discussing topics from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to classic films, X-men, and book covers of yore. It is a veritable smorgasbord of pointed critical commentary, genuine fandom, and recommendations to add to your To-Be-Read and To-Be-Watched piles.  Follow them on Twitter to keep up with it all.

by Barry Deutsch c/o Jon Greenberg

4.  Speaking of Two Bossy Dames, thank you for their link to Jon Greenberg’s blog and his Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston.  Referring back to the first item in this post, myself and other (White) academics in the social sciences need to actively educate ourselves about the issues our country, and as a result our students, face. Greenberg offers a compendium of sources informing and energizing White Americans to take responsibility for the prejudices roiling under and above the surface of our country’s daily existence and, even more importantly, to become involved in putting an end to them. Many of us educators have time off in the summer–what better time to activate our own learning than now? #BeforeFallSemester