In professional counseling, counselors generally consider it a favorable outcome when clients “hear” our voices in various situations outside of the therapy room.
A client hearing the soothing voice of their therapist in an anxiety-provoking situation, “Calm down. Take a deep breath.”
A couple, in the middle of an argument, collectively recalling the advice of their therapist about effective communication.
A man experiencing depression, working through a thought record exercise step by step, remembering his therapist’s instructions.
These are some examples of what I mean by “hearing” the therapist outside of the therapy walls—essentially, it is an internalization of the counselor’s voice.
Even though the classroom space is necessarily different from a counseling one, it strikes me that given the frequency and the duration of my interactions with students, they are also likely to internalize certain things that I say or do in the classroom; that they “hear” my voice throughout the academic term, and maybe even after. In this blog post, I would like to provide some reflections on this notion of my students internalizing some of the things that I say in the classroom.
Before I go on, some caveats are in order. Of course, I do not mean a literal hearing of voices inside one’s head, which is a different topic. Relatedly, even though in this blog post I focus on words only, I don’t assume that verbals are the only way that the various aspects of the teacher are internalized by the student; sometimes the most powerful internalizations are the nonverbals. Also, this type of reliance on the teacher should be temporary—we would expect that students who are currently in class or recently removed from it to “hear” the teacher more frequently and loudly, compared to people who were in class a long time ago (although, I do think that effective teachers will have lasting impact on students well beyond the time in the classroom; but how they are “heard” by former students might evolve over time, both in intensity and content). Finally, I deeply recognize that the goal of teaching is not to form “mini-mes” among my students by having them internalize as much of me as possible (what a genuinely scary thought, if that were to happen); but there is the reality that, just like in counseling, certain messages will “stick” with my students more than others.
Now that I have established what I mean by students hearing my voice, for the rest of this post, I would like to turn my attention to how I might categorize the different voices that students might internalize.
I notice that students are prone to internalizing my content-based voice. I am currently teaching a class called Advanced Research Method in Cross-Cultural Psychology, and one major point of emphasis in this writing-intensive course is American Psychological Association (APA) style writing. Sometimes APA style requirements (or any typical academic writing styles, for that matter) can feel so petty in the big scheme of things. These days, I find myself repeating lines about formatting (“double-space consistently throughout the manuscript”) and leading zeros (“if a statistic cannot be greater than 1, do not include the 0 in front of the decimal”). Trivial indeed, considering all the other scintillating things that I want to teach in psychology; but my students have heard me repeat this line so many times that they can now complete my sentence, “If a statistic cannot be greater than 1…”
But another type of voice that I want my students to internalize is one that can generalize across assignments of a course, or even across courses. I will call these bigger picture voices—as in, these are “meta” statements that encourage the students to take a step back from the details of something like APA style requirements. This is why we in liberal arts institutions tout the value of liberal arts education: it instills thinking skills that one can carry across different settings. One of my professors in graduate school had a favorite saying in a content-heavy statistics class: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” [I have since preferred “Don’t lose sight of the forest among the trees” to mean the same thing]. Yet another way to capture the same message: don’t just focus on the what, but also think about the why. Even seemingly arbitrary rules like the one about leading zeros have their rationale (e.g., organization, parallel structure, and clarity).
Furthermore, I find a particular kind of delight when I can encourage students to think about Christian virtues that can carry over into other settings. Take the Limitations section of a research paper, for example. When we discuss the content of this section, I implore students to also think about the Christian virtue of humility in being able to name our (or more precisely, our project’s) shortcomings clearly. I hope that students will internalize this messaging of a humble, vulnerable, and transparent posture in all that they do, even if they might forget the details of what a Limitations section of an APA style research paper might look like in the future (but hopefully, not too soon).
Here is another example: APA style requires that demographic information (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity) in the Method section be listed in a way that is purposeful (e.g., don’t unintentionally prioritize one group over another by haphazardly ordering them). This type of requirement naturally can lead to meaningful conversations about equity, power dynamics, amplifying the voice of the marginalized communities, and so on.
The third type is what I would call “biggest picture” voices. That is, I pray that my voice in the classroom speaks to who God is, who my students are in relation to God, and how this relationship informs and energizes the work that we are called to do. I confess that this is a continued area of growth for me, as so many times the content-based and (to a lesser extent) bigger-picture voices take over. Does my voice recognize and affirm the image of God displayed among my students? Are my students hearing me say, in a variety of ways, that their presence in my class is not only appreciated but necessary for our communal learning? Are they able to internalize the critical message that they are loved God and that out of an overflow of God’s love for us, we can and should love others? Do they consistently hear from me that the ultimate reason why we need APA style is to be able to love our near and far neighbors more effectively, including the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) among us?
Sometimes, I fear that the voices they hear more often from me are complaints masked as intelligent critiques; sarcasm disguised as cleverness; putdowns portrayed as acceptable attempts at humor. And whenever I catch myself expressing these voices in the classroom, it is a truly humbling opportunity to repent of my sins and to try to do better.
At the end of each academic term, I give the students a brief survey about their experience in the class, including the question, “If you were to think back to this class five years from now, what might you recall?” Essentially, I am asking students, “Which voices were strongest in this class?”
Whenever I look over the student responses to this question, many of the responses are about content. Understandably so. Sometimes, the “bigger picture” skills like cultural competence or examining one’s own biases make an appearance. All great. But the responses that bring me most satisfaction—again, admittedly an infrequence occurrence, but I am hoping to increase it—is when students speak of how the class helped them grow in their understanding God, others, and themselves; that the voices they recall reflect the most foundational truths:
God loves me.
I am valued. I fully belong. I am a part of this community.
I am to love others, including (and especially) those who are different from me.