By Lisa Paciulli, Mary Estrada, and Heidi Echols
Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and Poole College of Management
Imagine that two instructors are teaching and during a lecture, one spills coffee on herself. Students rate the instructor who spilled the coffee as more likable. This phenomenon, the Pratfall Effect, describes how interpersonal appeal increases after an individual held in high esteem makes a mistake (Aronson et al., 1966).
Faculty are individuals “held in high esteem,” and the Pratfall Effect can increase faculty appeal to students. Teaching with more appeal, authenticity, and humanity is receiving more attention as a way to re-engage with students and meet their emotional needs near what we hope will be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic (Ashby-King, 2021). Teaching with authenticity means showing students who you really are, while teaching with humanity is showing your humanness and benevolence (Oxford Languages, 2022). Building instructor credibility through formality and being the “sage on the stage” is giving way to the “guide on the side” philosophy (Morrison, 2014).
Many college students feel like impostors in the Ivory Tower (Hoang, 2013). We can help students feel like they belong by showing them that we too are human and flawed. Sharing information about who we are outside of our instructor roles shows that we have a life outside of academia, and gives students a more holistic picture of us. This allows students to better identify with faculty, and gives them unspoken permission to express their human side and to balance interests outside of academia, too.
Many instructors are reluctant to forgo their professorial persona because they fear losing credibility and/or gaining a reputation that they and/or their courses lack rigor. Showing your vulnerable side can feel risky, particularly for women and instructors from underrepresented groups. After all, vulnerable does mean being susceptible to harm (Oxford Languages 2022). Women faculty of color at a large, predominantly white research institution experienced gendered racism in their interactions with students, and found that white male students challenged not only their authority, but their teaching competency and scholarly expertise as well (Pittman, 2010). Moreover, a female instructor of a large-enrollment course in the College of Sciences remarked that if you show weakness, students may think of you differently and try to take advantage of you. Also, a Poole College of Management professor remarked that revealing your humanity seems somewhat “unprofessional.” We understand that sentiment, but even the business community sees authenticity as the gold standard for leadership (Ibarra, 2015). CEOs now pay thousands of dollars a day for empathy workshops (Smith, 2022) as managers learn how to balance the tension between authority and approachability (Podolny in Gruenfeld, 2021).
Faculty are also learning how to balance the tension between authority and approachability by moving away from being strictly formal to showing more of their personal and caring nature. Marcy Bullock, Director of Professional Development at NC State, coaches students on how to create professional profiles. Marcy’s own Twitter profile now shows her dressed in a t-shirt holding a pet. When asked about this, Marcy remarked that, “authentic is the new professional!” In addition, think of the photos of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue or playing “Lina” his violin that evoke different emotions than the more stoic photos of Einstein. “If Albert Einstein can show other sides of his personality without it affecting his science or credibility, then so can we instructors” (C. Emdin, pers. comm.).
If you are considering reengaging with your students by being more authentic and showing them your humanity, here are some ideas!
Examples of Authenticity
- Telling students you don’t know the answer to a question.
- Telling students about obstacles you faced, past mistakes, courses you failed, etc.
- Sharing personal information such as how many children / pets you have, hobbies you enjoy, etc.
- Expressing emotions such as fear or discomfort about current events.
Isn’t it time that we all dipped our toes in the teaching waters of authenticity? Being more authentic and kind not only makes us more relatable to our students, but it is better for faculty, too. Not having to hide or compartmentalize parts of ourselves alleviates stress (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007). Thus, give yourself permission to bring your authentic self everywhere, even into the classroom!
Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966). The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science. 4(6):227-8.
Ashby-King, D. (2021). More than just a variable: COVID-19 and the call to complicate communication education research. Null 70(2):205-7.
Emdin, C. (pers. comm.). Embracing vulnerability and authenticity to unlock new possibilities. Top Hat Talk. April 28, 2022.
Gruenfeld, D. (2021). Acting with power: Why we are more powerful than we believe. Currency, Random House, Penguin Random House.
Hoang, Q. (2013). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming internalized barriers and recognizing achievements. The Vermont Connection, 34(1). https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol34/iss1/6
Ibarra, H. (2015, Jan-Feb). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review Magazine. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox
Morrison, C.D. (2014). From ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’: A good start. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching. 8(1), 1-15.
Oxford Languages (2022). Definitions of vulnerable, authentic, and humanity. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/vulnerable#:~:text=vulnerable-,adjective,easily%20hurt%20physically%20or%20emotionally
Pittman, C. T. (2010). Race and gender oppression in the classroom: The experiences of women faculty of color with white male students. Teaching Sociology, 38(3), 183–196. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X10370120
Showers, C. J. and Zeigler-Hill, V. (2007). Compartmentalization and Integration: The Evaluative Organization of Contextualized Selves. Journal of Personality 75(6):1181-1204. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00472.x
Smith, R. A. (2022, May 10). Why Is Your Boss Asking About Your Feelings? Inside the Empathy Management Trend. Wall Street Journal (Online).
Be so completely yourself that everyone else feels safe to be themselves too.
– Unknown Author
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