It would have been easy to title this post “On Being Recognized.” As I go through troves of my own and students’ writing, the passive voice haunts us all.
The passive voice is what we tend to encourage in Standard Edited English (aka, white middle class academic English).
And the passive voice can be tremendously useful — indeed, it’s preferred in many languages, and it would serve us well to rethink the ways we often issues blanket critiques of “passivity” in English — but in SEE, it too often serves to erase. To actively erase.
As it does in mass-produced U.S. history textbooks:
“Slaves were brought to the United States.”
“Native Americans were wiped out.”
“Another Black child was shot in the street.”
And so when I want to write about the importance of recognizing our students — and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment — I want to make it clear why I made the rhetorical choice (you can tell I’m teaching again by the language I’m using) I did in the title.
Because if I had written “On Being Recognized”, the question would remain: by whom?
So I answer: by us. And right away: on the first day of class.
I’m writing about several things here. I’m writing about making sure our students can recognize themselves in our course readings. About making sure our students can recognize their own voices in our syllabi. About making sure our students know that we recognize them: that they are seen, that they are heard, that they are, in essence, respected.
That they are recognized as full human beings in our classrooms.
There are any number of ways to do this, and any number of ways that our various identities can both create obstacles to and encourage this.
Part of that is giving an accessibility section “prime real estate” (forgive the overtly capitalist metaphor) in your syllabus, rather than shoving it in the back section that no one will read. And this accessibility section needs to be more than funneling the students who already have access to some services to your campus’s (often itself underfunded and inadequately equipped to serve our students) dis/ability service’s office. A potential — though of course not perfect — example, which includes references to free immigration services for students targeted by the government, is here.
Another part is committing to remember students’ names as quickly as possible. I do it by collecting index cards (with their names and preferred gender pronouns and other such information) as students finish them on the first day, and go around systematically matching names to faces as the other students finish up. For those without a decade of experience working with young children (trust me: you need to remember their names right away) and/or who have any number of learning preferences or neurodivergences that would prevent such rapid-fire learning, name cards on every student’s desk (and your own!) and verbally stating names before statements can be very helpful.
Finally — for today, anyway — every term on the first day of class, I have my students write to me about the ways they’ve learned best in the past, as well as the things that prevent them from learning well. And every term on the second day of class, I give them their letters back, accompanied by a letter of my own, responding to what they’re saying; letting them know which tendencies I share, how I can make sure their preferences get integrated into our class, entreaties for them to please feel free to stop me if I ever talk too quickly or ask if I don’t repeat myself with enough clarity. In many cases, these letters are the first correspondence from an instructor that doesn’t come with a grade.
This kind of interaction is so important, because we routinely see students without truly noticing them; listen without truly hearing; read without truly responding.
Figuring out as many ways as possible to demonstrate our recognition of our students — and putting in the labor required to actively recognize them rather than performing the appearance of such — has got to be a central part of pedagogies that prioritize student-centered classrooms.