Teaching People: Human Connections in the Humanities

Two long-haired brown dogs relaxing on the sand. They share strong connections, evident through playfulness and an absence of personal space.

At last year’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria BC, I gave a talk titled “Empathy in Post-Pandemic Education.” In that talk, I argued that demonstrating empathy in the classroom can help sustain modern education. To show empathy in our classes, I said, teachers need to do three things. We should 1) listen with our whole selves, 2) distinguish cognitive and affective empathy, and 3) attach empathy to physical space. By teaching with empathy, I said, we can make up for what we’ve lost with the pandemic-initiated push toward virtualization. I distinguished between human connection and technological connectivity—an essential distinction when working with virtual or hybrid courses. I argued that while technology promises instant connectivity, lasting human connections drive education.

This post is the text of a talk I gave at the Teaching & Learning Summit at Central New Mexico Community College on March 7, 2024.

Today, I want to make the case for human connections in course design, regardless of modality—flexibility that I hear your two schools navigate constantly. I want to introduce the idea of a humane classroom. It’s a take on what I like to call “humane technology”—the use of tech in ways that intentionally benefit users, protect their privacy, and enhance their agency. (You know, the things Silicon Valley consistently fails to do.) I’m going to argue that our course design can do those things while still making room for us to implement digital technologies. All it takes is human connection.

I admit that forging human connections can be hard, especially in the digital humanities. In a big-tent field allegedly all about people—we call ourselves humanists, after all—DH has a way of focusing on our tools to the exclusion of our tools’ users and designers. I’ve seen too many people (and programs) lose sight of the human element. We get excited about our tech and allow it to distract us from the people involved. I want us to think for a bit about how we might keep all our classes focused on our humanity. How might we become teaching people who focus on teaching people?

The Humane Classroom

I propose a humane classroom—a space where caring for and about learners and labor takes priority over content and control. The humane classroom is intentionally and thoughtfully designed to keep our attention focused on the people in the room and the ways we can help each other grow and develop. They are spaces that flatten hierarchy but build authority; spaces that eschew punishment but celebrate consequence; spaces that rely on humility but build confidence. Above all else, the humane classroom foregrounds independence and personal development. Building a humane classroom challenges our assumptions about normalcy and priority.

Three ingredients forge the connections essential to a humane classroom: policies, content, and assessment. By aligning these three components, a classroom becomes integrated and integral. Its values become apparent equally through its design, execution, and outcomes. And while I’m convinced a humane classroom becomes most effective and honest when all three components are in place, I suspect that adopting any one of the components alone will lead to greater trust and efficacy on its own. In other words, I hope you try out even some of these ideas in your own classes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at each of the three core components one by one. First up: humane policies.

Building Connections through Humane Policies

A former colleague of mine had a T-shirt he wore proudly on the first day of class each semester. The shirt was black, with the words “IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS” displayed in bold, white lettering. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the colleague in question was a middle-aged, white, cis-gendered man with a beard and an actual tweed jacket with elbow patches. That he sported a ponytail instead of a pipe, I tack up to his being born in the early 1970s. But I digress. My point here is that there’s a certain standoffish mystique invoked when we use a syllabus as so much Teflon, deflecting student questions, refusing to engage, and complaining that students don’t read that important document. There is a better way; it just takes a bit of trust and patience.

I’ll start with an assertion: Well-constructed policies, whether we’re talking about education, nonprofits, or international politics, should be designed to bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number, while protecting all groups. For government policies, that means trying to benefit as many people as possible without infringing on the rights or opportunities of minority interests. In a classroom environment, there’s usually one instructor and dozens of students. That means bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number should compel us to create policies that actively help students.

Because instructors are outnumbered, policies should protect us from the dominant majority. Notice how odd that sounds, positioning instructors as in need of protection? Being honest about numbers inverts the traditional power structure in class. This honesty grants authority to the students and reminds us that their needs take precedence. Adopting this perspective for the past decade has kept me humble…and determined. That humble approach has also led to refreshingly simple and beneficial course policies.

Student-Authored Course Policies

At the start of each semester, my syllabi include no policies. In their place, I add stock text to the effect of, “we’ll write these collaboratively and finalize them by unanimous agreement during Week 1.” During our first meeting, I share the arc of the course and my enthusiasm for the topics and assignments we’ll explore. Then I ask students what policies they expect (or want to see) in our syllabus. After we get past the initial deer-in-headlights phase, their responses indicate two things. First, students have been indoctrinated to believe course policies are supposed to be punitive, arbitrary, and unrelated to learning. Second, students want an education that looks very different from what we usually offer.

Evidence of Indoctrination: Attendance Policies

When I ask students what policies they expect or want, often students mention attendance first. Their initial idea for language typically starts with, “after three unexcused absences, you lose a letter grade.” This seemingly innocuous and nearly ubiquitous standard carries with it some dangerous and telling assumptions. First, it assumes the instructor knows better than the student what constitutes a valid excuse for missing class. Yet how many of us have canceled a class or two for a much needed “mental health day”? Is our own excuse a valid one?

The second assumption of their default attendance policy is that missing three days of class is totally fine, without consequences. Why three? And why do we use the same number for classes that meet three times a week and those that meet only once? If students miss three days of my once-per-week classes, they’re going to have serious problems.

And that brings up the third assumption with the standard approach. It assumes there’s a grade to deduct points from, and it ignores the double jeopardy that deduction imposes. Generally speaking, if a student attends less than 80% of our class sessions, they fail my class. They don’t fail because I take points off. They fail because they’re so far out-of-touch with what’s happening that they lose track of assignments and concepts from class. Taking points off only adds insult to injury.

Attendance Policies in Practice

What might an attendance policy look like if designed to be helpful and to focus on learning? Here’s what students in a sophomore-level class created last semester:

Students should come to every class. Students should be in class as much as possible. If you miss more than 20% of our class sessions, you are likely to fail because you will miss too much discussion and material. 

While in class, students should be engaged in conversations with other peers or with the professor. Conversation should be effective, contribute to the conversation, and to the best of one’s ability.

If you are unable to attend a class, you should:

  • Refer to the agenda slides to see what happened
  • Check Canvas for any approaching deadlines
  • Contact a classmate to learn about the conversation you missed
  • Make sure you are prepared for next class

Notice how this policy turns the traditional approach on its head. First, it assumes positive intent. It starts from the understanding that attending, not absence, deserves emphasis. It offers a warning—not a threat—about deviating from that default. Instead of threatening punishment, it offers a rationale for the negative effects of that deviation. The policy then helps students by listing actions they should take in case they can’t make it to class. There’s no punishment involved, no threats, and no need for documentation or judgment about validity. This policy treats students like adults, the class like a resource, and attendance as the norm. And it works beautifully.

Evidence of Teacher-Centeredness: Grading Policies

Removing the grading penalty from attendance allows extra flexibility with our grading policy. But again, students’ defaults are telling. They usually suggest percentages based on assignment type—20% for homework, 30% for exams, etc. (As an aside, grade books averaged along those lines tell us how students rank by assignment type, not course content. Such grade books do not reveal how well students understand each course concept. All they reveal is who is best at homework and who is best at exams. As though that matters.) Then come discussions of late-work penalties and extra credit. At that point, grades become a complex mechanism for surveillance and bureaucracy, not learning.

When students propose a percentage of their grade from exams, I ask if they want exams. That’s when things get interesting. They realize that exams are arbitrary, that grading homework assignments is arbitrary, that the category percentages are arbitrary. They discover that our defaults are born from expediency, not pedagogy. Those realizations allow us to back up and discuss the role and importance of grading. Students see very quickly that grading policies are designed to serve teachers, not students. I’ll skip details of how that conversation typically progresses, but where we end up is illuminating. Turns out, students don’t actually want grades (who knew?). In a writing class, they want:

  • improvement-focused feedback on their work,
  • reassurance they’re on the right track, and
  • options for recovery if they aren’t.
Humane Grading Policies in Practice

Here’s how these goals play out in my classes: First, we agree assignments won’t be graded. That alone makes me feel like I’m getting away with murder, because I hate grades. Much as I’d love to go off on the evils of grading here, I’ll play the “beyond the scope of this paper” card and move along. In exchange for not grading anything, I commit to providing feedback on every major assignment, anticipating revisions. Without grades, I need a different solution for providing a baseline of reassurance. Basically, I need to tell students whether their work achieved its purpose. In conversation, I use thumbs-up/thumbs-down language; in our LMS, I use complete/incomplete grading presets. If a student’s goal is to pass, they ensure a thumbs-up and can breathe easy. If a student aspires toward a higher grade, they review the feedback, make appropriate changes, and chat with me about their revisions.

That last bit is important. To get me to re-review their work and provide additional feedback, students visit me during office hours. This ends up being a trade-off that benefits everyone. By allowing students to revise and resubmit any major assignment as many times as they’d like—yes, you heard correctly—this flexible policy addresses their desire for recovery options in case things go south. But it also protects me as the minority. By requiring an office visit, I make sure their revisions justify the hassle. Students don’t just change a couple of words and resubmit their paper. They make substantive changes, and we engage in dialogue about their revision process. These conversations are collaborative, productive, and focused on writing improvement, not a grade. Discussing writing progress allows me to build connections with students over their work as they learn to think differently about writing.

That sense of teamwork brings me to the second component of the Humane Classroom.

Building Connections through Humane Content

Much of what we do in higher ed centers on helping students learn to think differently about our disciplines. In many cases, that means engaging with what Meyer and Land call “threshold concepts”. Those transformational concepts alter students’ perspectives so much that they end up seeing the world around them in new ways. They learn to view situations through the eyes of our disciplines. We are, therefore, teaching students to become novice versions of ourselves. In my writing-studies classes, for instance, I work to create novice rhetoricians.

But how does that work if we teach classes for non-majors? Many students in my classes are education majors who don’t want to be rhetoricians—they just want to be teachers. As a result, students and I might seem from the outside to be at cross-purposes. I want to introduce them to how we think in rhetoric/composition, but they want to learn to think like K-12 educators. Such tensions might show up with your students, too, masked in statements like, “this material is boring,” or, “I don’t get how this applies.” You might also have heard colleagues who complain, “my students just aren’t motivated.” These are all indicators that the teacher and the student disagree on goals.

In writing classes, the subject of our writing can become a trigger for those sorts of comments and misalignments. Any writing teacher will tell you students’ favorite thing to write about is themselves. But that gets tricky if we want students to study new ideas and apply their learning to new situations. How can we encourage growth and learning if students want only to focus on who they already are?

Collaborative Teaching

To answer that question, let me first rephrase it. How can we encourage growth and learning if students want only to focus on what they already know? The idea here is to “meet students where they are” with a twist. Use their lives as the content and our disciplines as the lens. In my classes, I teach students to view life through a rhetorical lens. When it works well, they apply that lens outside my classroom, meaning my class is living in their brain rent-free. Victory! I still remember back when I taught high school, a student cursed me because while they were in a theater watching a new movie, they found themself analyzing the film’s plot as it went along. I had ruined their ability to watch movies without thinking of how story elements combined to make it all work. As the kids today say, “Sorry not sorry.”

When students and teachers alike leverage their unique strengths, meeting in the middle happens almost automatically. Students bring the enthusiasm, energy, and curiosity; teachers bring the analytical perspective, wisdom, and expertise. In this way, students’ prior knowledge and lived experience hold value in class. Honoring what students already know acknowledges the contributions students make and helps resist what Freire calls the “banking model” of education. Again, this flips the traditional classroom hierarchy. The traditional approach assumes students know nothing and need to be given all relevant information within the course. By meeting students in the middle and using their experience and interests as motivation drivers, students gain respect and dignity. Our expertise becomes a resource that students can use to help them achieve their goals.

Some examples should help illustrate how this can work. Specifically, let’s look at collaborative teaching in introductory-level courses, where key concepts are just developing and students are less familiar with disciplinary norms.

“Research as Genuine Inquiry” at UCF

The general-education courses at my alma mater, the University of Central Florida, include a two-course writing sequence that starts with an introductory “Writing About Writing” class introducing threshold concepts of writing studies. That first class helps students see writing as community-situated and socioculturally constructed. The course sequence culminates in a semester-long, student-designed primary research project. Students design their projects as a way to explore situated writing that matters to them—whether it supports a hobby, champions a cause, or relates to their major. The context students select to study is entirely up to them, which virtually guarantees student interest and motivation to learn more. And students know that, within their chosen context, they play the role of scholar applying theories from the rhetoric and composition domain to their study site.

In practice, that means students study writing situations with which they have direct interest or first-hand experience. In exchange, students know their instructors have more experience with the analytical approaches and publication methods they’re expected to invoke with these projects. Progress-check conferences for this class thrive on collaboration because both parties need the other person’s expertise to get a complete picture of the project. Students teach the instructors about situations surrounding the writing they study, and instructors help students refine their research protocols and writing style. Neither person is an expert in both domains, so it is only through collaboration that these projects can be successful.

“Introduction to Writing [Studies]” at Kean

In my current Introduction to Writing classes at Kean University, I take a similar approach, familiarizing students with foundational concepts in my field. This second-year course (required of English majors and education majors with a writing specialization) explores:

  • their process of literacy development,
  • their membership in various discourse communities,
  • their flexible composition processes, and
  • the ways their experiences could lead to a writing-focused career.

In each of those cases, the student’s experience and interest determine what they study. My goal is to ensure their analytical work is informed by relevant writing-studies scholarship. As was the case with the UCF research projects, each of these assignments thrives on collaboration. Students provide the content (the selected literacy, the discourse community, the personal process, and the career choice). For my part, I provide the familiarity with the discipline and help shape their perspective on the material they choose to study. I encourage them to dig deeper, engage more fully, and challenge more of their assumptions.

Students in this class regularly share two unprompted observations with me. They say these assignments are challenging because they’re being asked to think in new ways, and they have to untangle new concepts each time to make the assignment successful. But they also tell me they like the assignments because they feel like they’re writing about themselves. They feel a sense of authority over the material that balances the uncertainty of engaging novel and challenging concepts.

“Writing for Digital Spaces” at Kean

My favorite class to teach lately has been Writing for Digital Spaces. It’s a junior-level class, so I’m able to drop heavier amounts of theory into our discussions. The richer content gives students more to chew on, making our conversations more original and complex. I’ve taught this class a handful of times now, and I’ve experimented with significantly different approaches. The results of those experiments are telling.

The second or third time I taught the course, in an effort to balance topical content and self-motivated student projects, I gave students an option for their approach to class. They could choose any of the following:

  • The DIY Approach (Do it Yourself) — Create a website from the ground up, using a content management system of their own choosing, for whatever purpose they desired.
  • The KISS Approach (Keep it Simple) — Use Google Sites to build a basic, template-driven website for their own purposes.
  • The Stay-the-Course Approach — Create synthesis essays for each module, demonstrating facility with the theory we discussed in class and refining their skills composing academic texts.

I created the Stay the Course option in response to frustrations from previous classes where our English majors steadfastly resisted any assignments that were anything other than writing essays. In short, students knew their strengths and wanted to lean into them. (This is the English-major equivalent of the education majors I mentioned before who care little for rhetorical studies because they are intent on being K-12 teachers.) As the semester progressed, I discovered a few surprises, in each of the course options.

Results for Each Option

First, students who opted to Stay the Course did not want to write essays; they just wanted even less to make websites. The prompts, then, came across as arbitrary and forced; as a result, so did their essays. Students who opted to Keep it Simple felt unchallenged because Google Sites simplifies the website-creation process to the point of being restrictive. These students couldn’t be creative or expressive, and the entire project felt like a worksheet, giving students tasks to complete and placeholders to fill in. Students who chose the Do it Yourself option struggled more because their assignment was more open-ended, and the technology they used was less prescriptive than either my essay prompts or Google Sites. These DIY students had agency, flexibility, and challenge.

This DIY group got the most out of the class and engaged most fully. They were more invested in our discussions and more committed to their projects. And they were more proud of the results. One student showed his website about alternative special-ed approaches to a local school principal, and the administrator said he was ready to hire this student as soon as he graduates. Another student has continued posting to the inspirational blog she created in the Spring 2023 semester as recently as three weeks ago.

These results show that students’ sites meant more than simply completing an assignment for class. To make that work, students selected the topic and provided the motivation keeping the project moving along. For my part, I provided technical support and assistance with the process based on my experience with websites and content-management systems. The students and I each contributed our unique strengths and made the project successful.

Here and Now

But you shouldn’t need my examples to convince you. Consider conferences like this one. Although we undoubtedly share many values and priorities, each of us brings a unique set of experiences, perspectives, and expertise. Those distinctions make for productive, purposeful conversations. Our conversations are designed to challenge and inspire us to change our practice, in many cases, in short order. Each of us is expected to contribute consideration of our contexts, specific concerns, and personal expertise to each topic we address. In return, we expect to be able to apply what we learn to our specific situations once we head back to the daily grind. Indeed, we might feel pressure to do that as soon as we’re back to the office.

For that matter, the initial invitation for me to join this event emphasized ideas or practices that can be implemented on Monday. Y’all are a pragmatic bunch, and I applaud your determination. My current school works hard to ensure our research and our curriculum emphasizes context and location in an effort to connect with, and thus enrich, our surrounding community. I’ve found that institutions dedicated to social mobility and workplace preparation generally aim for rapid application and leave lofty “life of the mind” concerns for the Ivy League. I challenge all of us to view that orientation as a strength—an invitation, even, to draw students into the classroom, led by their own interests and experiences.

But speaking of immediate application, I acknowledge that much of what I’ve discussed so far—humane course policies and humane course content—belongs in a syllabus. That ship has sailed for this semester, and you can’t change your syllabi tomorrow. So let’s move on to assessment for a look at implementing the Humane Classroom mid-term.

Building Connections through Humane Assessment

You’ve already heard my thoughts on gradingI make no secret of how much I loathe the practice and often wish I could outsource it. But assessment is altogether different. In the right circumstances, teachers’ assessments can offer students clarity or insight. Our experience within our disciplines means that, especially in lower-level undergraduate courses, we are better-qualified than students to judge quality based on disciplinary standards.

But generally speaking, assessing work tends to be detached and inhumane. By contrast, offering feedback builds connections and highlights the human behind the work. As long as I have assignments that are purpose-driven and related to disciplinary activities (not isolated classroom activities), my job is to give students feedback that will help them become better practitioners within my discipline. Students know this, too—as evidenced by their anti-grading principles mentioned earlier. Instead of grading, I assess student performance and offer feedback accordingly, aiming for personal development.

In most cases for me, that means helping students become better rhetoricians. For you, that might mean helping students become better literary analysts, or digital humanists, or inspirational poets. In each case, our feedback should work to help students develop into that better version of themselves. Let’s look at how three kinds of assessment—formative, summative, and self-assessment—can build robust human connections in our classes when combined in service of personal development.

Formative Assessment

The first writing assignment of each semester exhausts me. That’s because the first assignment requires the most cautious and elaborate feedback. Students are new to the content of that particular course, often new to my style of teaching, and frequently new to writing studies as a discipline. The first major assignment of the semester serves as one great-big introduction to all three.

But providing substantive feedback on that first assignment is both warranted and rewarding. If done correctly, good formative feedback helps align goals and reinforce shared values. I mentioned before that students want improvement-focused feedback and reassurance they’re on the right track. Now before anyone accuses me of an “A+ for everyone!” mentality, I want to point out that focusing on improvement means starting from an assumption of imperfection. Being on the right track implies we’ve not yet arrived. When students view the semester as an opportunity for practice, growth, and development, assignments become experiments. They are opportunities to play with ideas and practice new approaches.

The trick to giving effective formative feedback involves two steps. First, imagine what the student’s work could look like if it were a better version of itself. Then give the student suggestions for how to move from where it is to where it could be. Let me be clear: This kind of feedback is hard. It calls for imaginative thinking and diplomatic responses focused on possibilities, not realities. Good formative feedback looks not at what is but at what could be. And because we see so many assignments over time, we should be able to suggest paths toward improvement. That improvement is the ultimate goal of helpful formative assessment.

Summative Assessment

By contrast, the end of the semester calls for summative assessment. This kind of feedback addresses not what could be, but rather what is. Students learn from summative feedback how well they performed on class activities. For that reason, we usually talk about summative assessment, not summative feedback, because there’s very little additional insight provided. At the end of a semester, we’ve run out of time to help students improve, and both we and our students are likely burned out and just ready to be done. Use the end of the semester to review progress, not offer guidance. At the risk of being too assertive, I’ll go ahead and offer a bold statement here: Providing formative feedback on finals is a waste of your time. Instead, confirm for students how far they’ve come and what they’ve achieved.

Basically, if a student has understood the course’s intended outcomes, summative assessment identifies how well students achieved their own related goals. With effective and strategic formative feedback throughout the semester, the subsequent summative feedback should not be a surprise. By the end of a feedback-rich class, students tend to know whether they’ve succeeded in the course without external validation.

You might notice here that I don’t have much to say about summative assessment. That’s because summative assessment rarely comes from a place of care and does little to benefit students. When classes work well, summative assessment just reinforces what students already determined on their own. And that leads us to the third, and most often overlooked, form of assessment.


One challenge I often face in classes comes from students who have been trained to write not for real-world scenarios but rather for the teacher. If a student complains that they don’t know what I want on a paper, I’ve failed to do my job. If a student asks me to just tell them what to do, I’ve failed them as an independent thinker. When a student pleads for direct instruction to satisfy grading or course requirements, that student abdicates agency. To invoke Freire again, these students are begging to be oppressed. Any time a student cries out for specific instructions, that shows a massive failure of our education system. Better feedback (along with better assignment design) can help avoid those soul-crushing moments.

Earlier, I said our assignments should ask students to engage in disciplinary practices. With good assignment design, students understand that their job isn’t to please the teacher. They see that the goal is to get better at being a certain kind of person. Maybe that sounds lofty, but isn’t that the point? Shouldn’t our classes help students see themselves beyond the classroom?

I want to take the idea of self-assessment one step further. If our formative assessment focuses on student self-improvement, students should, by semester’s end, be able to by themselves assess how much they’ve improved. And if formative assessment helps students understand disciplinary goals for success, they should be able to self-assess how well they’ve achieved those goals. Basically, if we do our jobs right, students shouldn’t need us by the end, and our assessments shouldn’t matter any more. Essentially, student self-assessment should be the ultimate goal of each of our classes. If students learn things in our classes, that’s great. But if students know they’ve learned things in our classes, that means they’re more self-aware. That can make it more likely they’ll transfer their learning to other domains, extending the benefit of our classes further into their lives.

Assessing Values

At the risk of sounding like a shill for administration, I want here to point to CNM’s core values. Those values admonish everyone at this institution to be caring, connected, courageous, ethical, exceptional, and inspiring. What might it look like if you asked students to grade their performance in class using those as their metrics? (Shameless plug: If that question intrigues you, I invite you to join my workshop tomorrow to help us consider an answer.) As for assessing values as metrics, I bet students know whether they are being caring and ethical, even without our help. And what about being exceptional? The only way to know what constitutes “exceptional” is to first know what constitutes “normal”. Thus, students would have to recognize “normal” performance before they could assess whether they are an exception to that norm.

Identifying such deviations is easy for instructors because we see many examples of each assignment, and many of us have been teaching familiar classes for years. But students experience these assignments by themselves and only once, making it hard for them to get a sense of what is or isn’t normal. Instructors can address this challenge by giving students sample work and/or real-world examples of the genres they’re creating. (As an aside, offering sample texts for students to emulate constitutes a best practice of writing across the curriculum.) Providing assignment examples helps students self-assess their exceptionality.

Fortunately it’s rather simple to obtain sample assignments. Asking students (after grades are in) for their permission to share their work as an example for future students serves as a nice confidence boost. If it’s your first time trying a new assignment, providing time and guidance for peer review works well. In my classes, students often say they appreciate reading others’ work almost more than they appreciate getting feedback on their own work.

Connections via Pedagogies of Care

“Self-assessing exceptionality” sounds like a lofty goal for higher education, to say nothing of a single class. But as long as we remember that our obligations in the classroom are to the students, not the material, it’s easy to stay focused on personal growth and intellectual development. Students know this intrinsically—they can distinguish between teachers there for their egos and those who work toward shared and open learning. By keeping our policies, content, and assessment focused on people, we create humane classrooms that enact pedagogies rooted in empathy and care. By caring for the students in our classes, we provide a nurturing environment filled with optimism and challenge.

And now that I’ve used the word “nurture”, I’d like to address a common concern I hear voiced in response to pedagogies of care. Those of us who orient our pedagogies toward people, not content, sometimes hear that we are “touchy-feely” types or that our classes “lack rigor”. I’ve even heard extreme objections accuse this approach of “coddling” students.

Advocating for Pedagogies of Care

Let me start my response by saying I have never once felt like I was coddling anyone while determined to care for students. Instead of “coddling”, it’s more accurate to say I was “respecting” them. I respect students as agents of their own learning and growth, able, perhaps with guidance, to express their needs, their abilities, and their goals. Indeed, students often mention toward the end of the semester, without prompting from me, that by allowing them to write their own course policies, I demonstrated from Day One that their input would be essential to the course and that I welcomed their contributions, both of which are of course true. I’m just surprised that’s unusual enough in their experience to make my class distinctive.

In line with the claim that pedagogies of care “coddle” students is the accusation that such classes lack rigor. Such accusations miss the point of pedagogies of care and of the humane classroom. As my earlier examples demonstrated, student-authored class policies focus attention on learning and improvement rather than bureaucracy and surveillance. Course content built around personal growth instead of content mastery focuses our attention on what students attempt and accomplish rather than what they fail to learn. Feedback-driven assessment focuses our attention on what can help each student become a better version of themselves. I don’t know about you, but any endeavor that helps guide people toward self-improvement and self-fulfillment is a worthwhile one in my book.

Common Resistance

I know I’m talking to a room full of humanists, but bear with me for a second. Folks who teach STEM classes frequently object to the notion of self-improvement or self-fulfillment as a classroom goal. They say humane classes sound great and all, but they’d never work in a “real” subject—one with “standards” and whatnot. These objections are rooted in external motivations for learning and externally imposed measures of success. In the case of medical classes, students need to pass an exam—whether for licensure or for med-school acceptance. “Would you want a doctor to operate on you,” detractors ask, “if that doctor passed because of self-fulfillment, not residency requirements?”

Responding to the Typical STEM Stance

I reject that stance on two grounds. First, I don’t know a single person who can willingly endure med school without at their core deriving a sense of personal fulfillment from that ordeal. Who signs up for so many years of hazing—I mean training—unless they are self-motivated? Even if the desire is purely financial, not humanitarian, in nature, they want to feel prepared by their classes, so they can establish their own meaningful goals. If the instructor is more familiar with the exam, so much the better: They become an expert, available as a resource for the students. My second point is that a doctor driven by self-fulfillment would understand the importance of continuing education and a professional reputation better than someone driven only to complete graduation requirements. I would trust a doctor more if they learned in a humane classroom environment.

Another objection I sometimes hear is, “Would you want a bridge-builder to pass because they gave themself an A?” Again, this misses the point. Engineers have to pass certification exams for credentialing. But more importantly, engineers create projects that they test before construction to validate plans. Who needs grades when you can see whether the product you create breaks under a stress test? I would much rather have engineers experiment with new approaches because they want to push themselves to learn instead of engineers who only follow in the footsteps of their predecessors because it’s predictable. Or consider seasoned practitioners. We expect established engineers (and doctors, to connect my examples) to be skilled due to practice, not exams. Why shouldn’t they learn the same way?

(Non-)Traditional Learners

Talking about learning for mid-career professionals brings to mind thoughts about adult education—something I gather CNM commits a lot of time and resources to. Conveniently, adults understand the value of humane education better than traditional students. If you’ve ever taught non-traditional learners, you’ve probably seen evidence of this. These students constantly relate classroom discussions to their lives, constantly bring in real-world examples from their work or experience, constantly demand near-immediate relevance.

Traditional-aged students, by contrast, typically do none of those things. At least in my experience (both as a teacher and as a traditional-aged undergrad in the Paleolithic Era), traditional-aged students are more likely to enter a classroom, sit, and wait to be given everything: content, relevance, goals, you name it. They are there to serve the system, not to find ways to get their education to serve them. That reaction is an indictment of our education system because it shows that we’ve taught students not agency but submission. Traditional students with this mindset think learning is a thing to be done for others, not for themselves. I can think of nothing more disempowering and dehumanizing.

Conclusion: Human Connections in Any Classroom

If you take nothing else from my talk today, I hope this resonates: We owe it to students to help them see education as self-motivated, self-determined, and intrinsically rewarding. We can only do that by bringing them into the experience at all steps in the process, putting them in control of their own learning.

Let’s make all our classes humane—there’s nothing to lose. Classroom orientation is not an either/or, zero-sum game. It’s not like saying “I teach people” means “I don’t teach content.” Instead, saying we teach people keeps us focused on meaningful applications of content. Because of course, content without people is empty. Orienting ourselves toward teaching people brings vitality and engagement to our classes, value to our role as educators, and purpose to the entire educational enterprise. Teaching people shows that more than anything, we value the most precious resource available at any institution. Humane classes reflect the real opportunities of education and offer hope for all our futures—especially the students’.