This election season has proven divisive among Americans, creating deep wounds from the words that have been used. The rift between groups in America are not going to heal just because the election is over with and it will take time for the nation to recover. Now consider how this election season has affected your students. They have surely felt the impact of the negative rhetoric. Have you addressed this in your classes? More importantly, have you considered how your words as an educator influences your students and their worldview?
What you say and what you do as an educator shapes how your students view the world, how they participate in the learning process, and more importantly, your words have a direct impact on their level of motivation, determination, and persistence. Do you know the power you have given to your words right now?
As you reflect upon your work in the classroom, along with interactions you have with your students, do your words reflect what you see in your class, what you believe as a person, or what you hope your students will accomplish? While it may not seem possible to make a distinction between these perspectives, there is a difference as we all hold one primary lens through which we view our students. And during a volatile time, especially when emotions are running high, it may be difficult to override personal feelings while interacting with our students.
Now more than ever is a time to reevaluate the words we use in higher education. We can either give those words the power of influence and inclusion, or we can leave them unfiltered and create division, separation, and feelings of discouragement. What I want to share with you are strategies you can use to self-assess how you communicate with students, which I have also utilized now during a time when so many students may be feeling uncertainty or fearful about the future of our country.
Words Create Worlds
The Center for Appreciative Inquiry coined a phrase, Words Creates Worlds, and this acknowledges the influence our words can have on us and others. How do we realize the impact of our words? When there is a large-scale event, such as an election, it shows us the multiple realities that exist as people share their view of candidates and our nation. In a college classroom, words create worlds during interactions with each other – especially during class discussions. Those words are felt and internalized within the spirit of our students. Regardless of where they begin academically, or where they are at now academically, every student can continue to grow and develop. Yet an instructor can cause that spirit to flourish or become diminished based upon the words that are used.
As an instructor, consider the impact of your own views. As you read or hear the news you are going to process that information through filters you’ve created, which includes biases and opinions. If something negative has been reported, you will process it through these filters; and it may influence your worldview. The challenge is preventing negativity from influencing how you see your students and remaining neutral regardless of the rhetoric used. While you are in the classroom it is vital to remain open-minded, see individuals as people rather than groups, and remain objective and rational (rather than subjective and emotional) – if you are going to create a welcoming atmosphere.
The Connection to Learning
Learning involves more than what goes on in the classroom. It is much more than the process of reading a textbook and memorizing information for an exam. Instead, the learning process centers on what occurs in the mind as it is a cognitive activity. Cognition involves the mind receiving input, processing it, and producing some form of output. The input is the subject matter, the context provided, the instructions or criteria stated for completing the required learning activities. Cognitive processing occurs when effort is applied, energy is expended, creativity is initiated, and the intellect is engaged. The output consists of thoughts, ideas, analyses, written papers, plans, etc.
However, it is important to consider that the mind is not a machine and is influenced by feelings and emotional reactions. As students are involved in the class, they may experience negative emotions or reactions. A common emotion that students experience while working on assignments is frustration. This in turn influences and often disrupts the cognitive process, and it may discourage their creativity or reduce the effort they put into an assignment. In contrast, if students experience positive emotions and feelings while interacting with the class and their instructor – they may feel encouraged to put in more effort and become more creative.