Engaging Authentically with the Whole Person

Centre for Teaching and Learning's Executive Director shares why "engaging authentically" is core to their teaching philosophy.


I think one of my shining moments in supporting student success would have to be from my Fall 2019 teaching when I was teaching “Communication in the Life Sciences” to a brand-new cohort of first-year, first-term BioChem students, many of whom were international students arriving for the first time as well to new lands and a new country. My disciplinary background in academia is English Language and Literature, Cultural Studies, and Fine Arts: Studio, and I myself had never set foot in a BioChem classroom in my undergrad studies nor in my educational development work. But writing-across-the-curriculum, multimodal communication, and Frankenstein are some of my key pedagogical passions1, so I was determined to connect with my students that term just as I have in every other teaching event I’ve led. This story is one of my shining moments in supporting student success because, before the Fall term was even three-quarters over, my students actually told me to stop supporting them. (No joke – but stay with me.)

One of the core tenets of my teaching philosophy as an instructor and as an educational developer is to engage authentically with the whole person of my students/participants – individually, and collectively. And to engage not just authentically but vulnerably, too. Because my BioChem students were required to take this course and because they had to do it in their first term of their studies, I suspected there might be some negative affect towards my classroom, my syllabus, my background, even toward me, because these students chose BioChem (and were offered admission to highly competitive post-secondary programs and chose this one specifically) yet now had to spend 20% of their first Fall term in “an English class.”

On the very first day, instead of going over the syllabus with them, I did a “Hopes, Fears, and Dreams” activity with them where I got them to anonymously write down on coloured sticky notes what their hopes, fears, and dreams for this course were. And I told them to be honest. And I told them they could be brutally honest. (I also told them, to tacitly set the bar I myself was hoping for, fearing for, and dreaming for with this opening activity, that a student of mine once even wrote: “I hope you don’t teach us anything important so we can just nap.”) Of course, when I collected all the stickies from this Fall 2019 BioChem class, three of my students had also sassily written down this Hope verbatim to recycle it (which I loved, and it got my students giggling together a bit and began to develop that very first day the kind of classroom culture I so need to teach authentically myself); but I also received other honest, vulnerable hopes, fears, and dreams like (and I’m paraphrasing here):

  • I hope you aren’t a hard marker. I need really high grades to keep my scholarship and stay in my program, and English was my worst subject in high school.
  • I am afraid this class is going to be so much homework and reading and writing that I won’t have time to study for tests in my other courses.
  • My dream for this class would be that I can actually learn how to write a good lab report because they aren’t teaching that in my science courses but we need to do it.2

After reading all their stickies aloud and sticking all their stickies to the whiteboard at the side of the room in clusters of blue-stickies (Hopes), orange-stickies (Fears), and green-stickies (Dreams), I shared with them some of my hopes, fears, and dreams for this course with them:

  • I hope you come to feel that you can bring your whole selves to class, to e-mail, and to office hours so that I can help you succeed in any way you might need help succeeding this term.
  • I am afraid that I have never once set foot in a BioChem lab or classroom (until now!) and that I might not always be able to help you with the science-content-specific aspects of science communication.
  • My dream for this class is that we all will become better communicators – in science and in general – and that this class won’t be a burden on top of your core studies but an actual, practical partner to them.

I don’t know if my students believed me that first day – remember, they hadn’t even yet seen the syllabus – and while I might be misremembering, I don’t believe I saw any eyerolls or heard any grunts. But each class with them (we met twice a week for 80 minutes), I reminded, reiterated, and (re)introduced with them my hopes, fears, and dreams, until one day in early-November, when I asked how they’re all doing, how are their midterms going, how are they navigating campus, the residences, the city, etc. etc. etc., one of my students put their hand up mid-check-in and when I stopped speaking and called on them, they said, “Professor Mayberry, no offense, but we get it. You care about us. You don’t have to keep asking us every class.”

And you know what I said to that student and to the whole class, smirking a bit as I said it? I said, “Thank you, Tommy3. Feedback is a gift and I love gifts, but I won’t stop checking in with you. I don’t know how each of you is doing each time I see you, and I can’t know if one day one of you might really need to know that I am still here for you. So I say it.”

“Tommy” smiled and nodded, and I saw several other of my students smile and nod, too. Then I said, 

“So, Tommy: how are you doing today?” We all laughed and opened our Frankensteins. 

Yes, I assigned Mary Shelley’s iconic 1818 novel to first-year, first-term BioChem students who took this course with me as compulsory to their Hons. BSc degree studies…and they loved it, let me tell you!

One of my students did also write (and I will never, ever forget this, my own reaction, and my class’ reaction): “I hope you don’t make us read modern literature like Shakespeare.” Remember how I hadn’t shared the syllabus with them yet but started right into this “Hopes, Fears, and Dreams” activity? Well, it was time to be sassy on my part now and do a quick mini-lesson on what is Modern Literature and where Shakespeare falls in literary movements (spoiler alert: Shakespeare is not Modern!) "Oh, and another spoiler alert, class; we are reading a novel together in this course, but it’s from 1818, not the late-1500s/early-1600s. Oh, and it’s written by an 18-year-old girl (kind of your ages, right?) who was fascinated with biology, chemistry, physics, science, ways of knowing, bodily origins and futures (all the things you’re interested in, right?) and who was reading and responding to science trail-blazers like Pythagoras, Galvani, Leeuwenhoek (you’re studying these in your core Science courses right now, too, right?)." See? Sassy.

Their name wasn’t Tommy, but I use my own name as a placeholder for modelling asking for and using our students’ names in our teaching events so that we can connect as real people and as whole people.

hym-tommy.pngAbout Tommy

Tommy (he/she/they) is the Executive Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning, and a scholar, professional, and academic drag queen with a background in diverse teaching and instructional facilitation in academia as well as industry. As a sought-after speaker on the topics of “Gender Pronouns and Cultures of Respect” as well as visual pedagogies and LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, Tommy has presented their scholarship and research findings nationally as well as internationally, in places such as Oxford, Washington DC, Tokyo, and Honolulu. They strive to embody and model decolonial, anti-racist, and equity-driven intersectional visions and leadership. Tommy was a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow during their PhD work and is also a recipient of the University of Waterloo’s Award for Exceptional Teaching. They are co-editor of the forthcoming book, RuPedagogies of Realness: Essays on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Teaching and Learning (McFarland 2021), and they serve as the Vice-Chair, Communications on the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) national Executive.