By Elizabeth Decker
After several semesters of college teaching, I came to notice a distinct pattern in the responses to my teaching style: I am consistently told that I am “nice.” This feedback has come in informal conversations with students, in my post-observation meetings with senior faculty, and on the crowd-sourced professor evaluation site, Rate My Professor (the subject of a recent post by my TLC colleague). In my second year of college teaching, at a public university that serves many minority students, my observer remarked that I was very “nice” to my students—and that being nice would get me everywhere with a group of students who are used to being overlooked, neglected, and marginalized. More recently, I was observed giving a gallery tour to public school students in one of our city’s most venerated art collections. My observer, a foremost figure in museum pedagogy and education, reported that the greatest quality of my teaching was that I was inherently kind, because as she said, “kindness cannot be taught.”
My reaction to this appraisal, both at each individual incidence and also in a more reflective sense, is two-fold: on the one-hand, surprise, because this niceness, or kindness, that I seem to emanate, is not intentional; I never set out to be “nice” or “kind.” And in fact, I am not sure that anyone in my personal life would agree that I’m a noteworth-ily “nice” person. But more importantly, being perceived as nice seems to stand in opposition to qualities associated with effective instructors, who are often described as rigorous, inspiring, inventive, thoughtful in course and assignment design, capable of drawing connections between course content and the real world in ways that will prepare students for success in their personal and professional lives. Yet, niceness—a term that implies kindness, fairness, and caring about my students—seems to be fundamental to my teaching personality. And I think back to the worlds of my early observer: that in the act of practicing kindness with my students, I open the door to pedagogical possibilities that may not exist otherwise; that only once they feel valued and respected as individuals can our work begin.
And so, I embrace the possibility that without kindness, perhaps none of my other work matters. That without investing in my students as people, with their own unique and complicated feelings and developing sense of self, it might not matter how rigorous my assignments are, or how innovative I am with digital pedagogy. Especially in our current political climate, being nice—caring about the people in our lives, flawed and imperfect as they are—takes on an outsized importance. In response to a presidential administration that thrives on name-calling, in an America where it seems that being anything but white, male, and straight has become a cause for persecution, maybe being “nice” to my students is the best thing that I could be, and the best value I could impart to them, after all.
Elizabeth Decker is the TLC Program Assistant. She received her Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center.