Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part III

So far I’ve shared a few resources and readings on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students in the classroom (Part I), and in the last post I shared some practical strategies that can be planned out for the first week of classes (Part II). In this post I’m going to focus on how I’ve been talking to my students about contacting me and visiting my office hours. Though a “contact me” discussion may seem off-topic considering the theme of these posts, I believe–especially in the first-year composition class–my role is not only to answer students’ questions about academic writing and the class in general, but also to be knowledgable about resources available on campus and to help connect students with those resources. This role seems even more important considering the unique challenges gender non-conforming students run into as they navigate and are asked to participate within an institution that often privileges binary gender identities (I’m thinking now of the debates currently surfacing at UWM about who is allowed to use what locker rooms in our athletic facility and question of whether or not the university has enough inclusive bathrooms around campus). I would like to be transparent as an ally in light of these challenges, and one way to do that is to consider carefully the language used to invite students to contact me during office hours, email, etc.

In addition to these concerns, as I was changing some of my first day policies and revising my syllabus, I came across this funny/goofy/endearing video created by an Arizona State professor on faculty office hours. This video pushed me to consider why so few students came to my office hours (or did not contact me until they were in a position where they were nearly failing the course). Again, I always thought of myself as friendly and inviting in demeanor, but when I looked back at some of the language in the “Contact me” section of my syllabus, I realized that sense of ethos wasn’t being communicated there. For example, this was my old syllabus “contact me” description, :

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

When I read this section more carefully, I realized I was modeling the professional aspects of contact with instructors (don’t use personal emails, I will get to you within a specified time frame, etc.) but I don’t actual encourage students to come see me during my office hours nor do I specify what they should contact me about.

During this semester, I revised and expanded this section, making sure to dedicate a lot of time to reading it on the first date of class:

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

Generally, keeping in contact with your college instructors is a good idea. I have office hours […] at the […]. I am also available via a scheduled meeting. Whether something is going on in your personal life or with your work or with your health, please contact me if something is preventing you from completing the work of the class. This doesn’t mean you need to provide details or that you will not be responsible for any missed work. However, we can meet up to discuss and work around the specific circumstances.

In addition, if you are struggling with the work of the class, the discussions, the readings, etc., please let me know sooner rather than later. I am open to making adjustments, especially if that means it may improve the community of our classroom. That said, this class will have a vigorous workload and should challenge you: it is important that you dedicate your time and energy to completing the work to the best of your ability.

Rather than being solely focused on establishing a professional relationship, I wanted my syllabus language to reflect how I ideally wished to work with students, that is, as three-dimensional individuals with identities and lives that aren’t limited to solely being a student in my classroom.

I understand this may invite a lot of emotional labor on an instructor’s part (I’ll make another post about the emotional labor of teaching and being a “good” feminist later–all which have been written about extensively in comp/rhet), but I believe in acknowledging that students have lives and the quality of those lives that may be effecting their work, I make room for meeting them in terms of their specific challenges. I hope this new language emphasizes to students that I am her to listen, I’m not here to judge.

So far, dedicating time and syllabus space to emphasize the relationship I want with students seems to have been effective. I feel like more often students are telling me information about why they missed the assignment or a class, whereas oftentimes they would just disappear from my class or not acknowledge that there was work they were missing. They have also been good about proposing alternative deadlines. For example one of my students is an police officer, and had to work long shifts between Monday evening until the start of our class on Wednesday. He let me know his work hours were shifting in the next week, but that he was more strapped for time for any long readings that needed to be completed. I’ve also had students come to me after class and quickly ask for suggestions and advice, some related to the class and some just information they thought I knew or would be willing to help them with. For example, one student was caught up in an email phishing scam. Another student came to me to tell me they had failed the class last semester and wanted to do their best to prepare for the research that was required for our class (this student uses the singular they).

I guess all in all, though I don’t have any numbers to compare student’s actively contacting me this semester  over previous semesters, my experiences so far suggest students are more comfortable reaching out. And once again, though the language and attention I put into inviting students to contact me stemmed from the concerns I had in regard to supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students, these practices seemed good for the whole of the class.

-KR

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