Dr. Humphrey, Tear Down this Wall!

I had a wall.

It separated me from my students.

It was constructed out of my understanding of “professional distance”.

Outside this wall laid the expanse of my expertise. Like any other expanse it had its limits. And, beyond its limits, there was wilderness. It was full of the unknown (still is).  I used to give my students tours of this expanse twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes at a time. I built privacy fences to shield their eyes from the wild places that scared me the most. And, I strategically steered our discussions away from the things I did not know.

Although it was risky, every so often, I would entertain a “What’s out there?”

Honestly, it wasn’t a risk.

I could flip the kill switch by saying “We need to move on. We’re falling behind”. And, the qualifier “You know this is outside my area of expertise” gave me ample cover.

But, there were times when I would join them in pushing the boundaries of the theoretical framework, exploring nuances in the model, and discovering alternative angles in the analysis. It was exhilarating. It was iterative. It was back and forth. We were learning together. And, sometimes the learning would spill out of classroom and into the hallways, across campus, and into office hours. I could feel the hierarchy collapsing around us. I could sense camaraderie. It felt like we were on the verge of something sacred.

Alas, these moments were fleeting. Sooner or later I would retreat back behind my wall and reassert a “healthy” distance in my teacher-student relationships.

Yet, through these moments, I learned that there was more to this thing called teaching. There was something timeless, instinctive and soul-stirring. But, as long as I met and only met them within the expanse of my expertise, our interactions were hopelessly limited in depth. And, that something sacred would prove to be elusive.

What was that something sacred?

I would soon find out.

In 2007, I gathered in circle with a group of students to implement a three-phase, multi-partner indoor air pollution project. It was well outside my area of expertise. And, if it was going to work, it would take all of us. We imagined, researched, and planned together. We flew on planes together. We traveled in taxis together. We shared a one-room cabana together (without walls). We talked late into the night together. We laughed together. We ate together. And, we gasped at incredible horizons together.

These moments gave way to questions like: Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we belong? What are we meant to do?

We turned to each other for experiential wisdom.

At first, I was hesitant to participate. I was not trained to lead discussions like this. These were very personal questions. And, it felt like I was breaking some code of professional conduct by answering them. But, they kept asking. So, I took down my wall. I started sharing some of my stories. And, that something sacred started to emerge.

In the process of creating the project, we were re-creating ourselves.

The project became the medium through which we reflected upon our humanity.

We were seeing each other.

We were finding solidarity.

But, it was my first taste of solidarity. It made me uncomfortable. What would my colleagues think if they could hear our conversations?

So, on the bus ride back to the airport, I informed my students “When we get on the plane the wall is going back up.”

It didn’t. We shared a few more stories on the flight home.

On our final descent, I told them “When we land in DC the wall is going back up.”

It didn’t. We told a few more truths on the van ride back to Fredericksburg.

When we pulled into campus, I told them “When classes begin on Monday, the wall is going back up.”

It did. A bit. But, not for long.

New students kept arriving with their chisels and sledgehammers.

They wanted more from me. And, the work we were doing together demanded more.

It demanded a different kind of teacher – a Tribal Teacher.

So, we took the wall down.

They saw me as the imperfect man that I am. They saw the things that I needed. And, something unexpected happened.

They gave me gifts.

They pushed me to see my oppression and my slavery and my immersion in a complex of norms and mores that limited my ability to be fully human and fully me.

They gave me consciousness.

They “radicalized” me (ht Paulo Friere)

They initiated a process that has healed my heart, healed my relationships, and healed my soul.

They created the possibility for me to achieve what I was destined to achieve.

With them, I reclaimed my humanity.

I saw the malleability of the world around me.

And, they gave me courage to turn upon the system that had enslaved me for so long.

They made me a creator of my own future.

In many ways, you can say that they saved my life.

I can only hope that I have done the same in turn to them.

That’s that something sacred I was talking about.

[bctt tweet=”In the process of creating the project, we were re-creating ourselves. #TribalTeaching” via=”no”]


Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (www.shawnhumphrey.com)

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PhotoCredit: Jan Smith

3 Responses to “Dr. Humphrey, Tear Down this Wall!

  • Inspiring post, Shawn. I hope some day my kids will have a professor like you. Some of my best memories of Earlham were with profs whose walls came down. There were one or two times when I wished I hadn’t seen what was on the other side of the professor’s wall. Do you have students who wish the wall was back up? When I taught at Temple University I found many students who were anxious when I would step off the stage and venture off into the wilderness with them. Some of these students were single working parents who had their eyes on the prize of a degree (undergrad or grad) and the promise of more time with their friends and family, and more money in their pocket. Their incentive was to become socialized as quickly as possible into the profession of social work and then move on. There were other students, more traditional in terms of age and life experience whom I suspect found it confusing to go from traditional “walls up” professors to a professor whose walls were down. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I am in the classroom because I start at Loyola Chicago at the end of August. Fresh start. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m going to be on the lookout for times when my students and I fall into professional distance…

    • BluCollarProf
      3 years ago

      Hey Jonathan. I have a post I have been working on title “When it Vulnerability TMI (too much information)?” I essentially live two lives as a professor. My life with my La Ceiba students living Tribal Teaching. And, then there is my life in a large Principles of Microeconomics course. In the latter class, the wall is up…not too high. But, it is up. It takes a lot of trust and reciprocity to share my vulnerabilities and to “stay professional” or “maintain authority”. Both of which I am pushing the boundaries on. I want to see how far I can take it. But, I also have limitation (which I am articulating in the post I mentioned). We need to chat sometime soon. I think I can learn a lot from you. Thanks for all of your support and thoughts! – shawn

      • Shawn – I look forward to your next post! I didn’t realize the different teaching environments, but it makes a lot of sense that you’d use different approaches in those very different settings. BTW, your work with bringing microeconomics out of the classroom and into the world is fantastic. Much respect. Yes, let’s talk some time. Good luck with the beginning of the semester. – Jonathan

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