Reflective Practice

Teaching with Feeling

Photo by Михал Орела:

By Hilarie Ashton

We do not talk enough about feeling. “We” is a slippery,  umbrella-like term which always requires contextualization; here I mean academics, students, and faculty. That is, those of us invested in “the life of the mind” don’t talk often enough about what it’s like to be or do something in our body. We privilege the in-progress or completed act—writing a paper, taking an exam, getting a grade—over the sensation and experience, when it’s only through the sensation and the experience that we really know what the act is like. To some degree, this elision makes sense: feelings are almost necessarily elusive and subjective, and as a result, hard to talk about. How do we get at a shared vocabulary?

The more comfortable I feel in the classroom, the more I come back to an early teaching philosophy statement I wrote, in which I described my own style as “teaching with feeling.” I thought of it then as a kind of improvisational teaching that was coming out of many of the same practices and philosophies I wrote about in my last post on teaching with the body. 

When I wrote that piece, I hadn’t yet read Herbert M. Greenberg’s Teaching with Feeling: Compassion and Self-Awareness in the Classroom Today (Macmillan, 1969). Coming from the perspective of educational psychology, Greenberg tracks the impacts—negative and positive—of teaching with attention to feeling. What I appreciate most about his analysis is his attention to structural-to-personal forces like racism and imposter syndrome. His book, though, is really about feelings, plural, and the effects they have on a classroom.

With more teaching experience under my belt, I now think about teaching with feeling as the attempt, not only to stay in the moment and stay empathetic, but also to develop that shared emotional vocabulary—an emotional context, if you will—so that students and teachers can better understand where the other is coming from.

When I use the phrase “teaching with feeling” with reference to teaching practice, I don’t mean my personal feelings so much as the act of feeling, one that works to create the kind of classroom community students and teachers can create together when the realities of human emotion, various shared and individual ontologies, and different approaches to culture are openly at play. Teaching with empathy and teaching with awareness might be good alternatives. Sarah Rose Cavanaugh has taken on another version of Greenberg’s problematic with The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (West Virginia University Press, 2015), in which she argues, drawing from the field of affective science, that to get students’ attention and change their view of the world, “there is no better approach than to target their emotions” (xiii). I appreciate her acknowledgment throughout the book of it being worth both acknowledging the presence of emotions in the classroom (the emotional elephant in the room?) and using it to help students learn. More problematically, her discussions of humor, supportiveness, warmth, and confidence later in the book ignore gender, race, and cultural background entirely, when both research and experience show that these practices are can resonate differently with different students.

In practice, this kind of teaching with feeling can work in a couple of ways. Since its bedrock principles are presence and empathy, the core action is to treat others as full people who have the best of motives. Teaching with feeling means treating students as thinking adults and as whole people who have more going on in their lives than our class. It means always being open to their ideas and interpretations of course concepts and texts (perhaps easier to do in my humanities disciplines than in the hard sciences, though I’d love to hear from STEM folks on the roles of ideas and creativity in their classrooms!) At the same time, it encompasses expecting a lot of students and holding them to high standards, so that they can grow as writers, discussants, thinkers, and engaged citizens.

You can even teach writing mechanics with feeling, since the importance of clarity and context underpin its success. I tell my students that grammar, for instance, is not an inflexible standard—it’s a tool that responds to different rhetorical contexts in different ways, and it should be wielded as such. “Standard American English,” as many know, is a chimera—it doesn’t exist in practice, since none of us speak with complete grammatical correctness. Thinking about grammar in a teaching with feeling framework means opening out language to include empathy for and interest in other ways of speaking and communicating, from American Sign Language to patois to slang to emoji. In this way, spoken and written language becomes something that lives and changes according to participants and context, rather than persnickety forms to which everyone must mold their ideas.

Teaching with feeling might sound to some like group therapy or story hour.  I think to conceptualize it that way, though, falls short. Teaching with feeling doesn’t mean teaching only with feeling: it means allowing more space for the experience of the act along with the act itself. So learning becomes more capacious, with more room for acknowledged error. It doesn’t replace challenging assumptions or holding students to high standards; if anything, it should complement those things. Teaching with feeling reminds us of our common humanity in a world that certainly doesn’t apply the rights of humanity to everyone evenly, and on my hardest days, teaching with feeling reminds me that at the very least, my students are learning how to fight against these tragedies, even in the smallest of ways, and every little bit counts.

Hilarie Ashton is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a contributing writer to Visible Pedagogy.

1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this. I find that our grammar and vocabulary discussions in English 1101 get pretty emotional, and are really enjoyable as a consequence. What kind of word *did* you use — okay, even if it wasn’t the “right” one? What were your intentions when you used it (the best of intentions, probably)? How many ways could that be misinterpreted? How does this stuff called English even work as well as it does half the time?
    Getting stuff wrong is fun when the emotions behind the choices are revealed.
    You also get to see how language works at its most basic level, and appreciate the message it’s trying to carry more than the method. Revealing emotions makes the students truly want to get the language right. They try harder at grammar and vocabulary because they feel how good it is to be properly understood.

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