I will never forget the time I hired a team of social media experts to provide professional development for my fellow faculty members at a small college. As they deftly covered how to best use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to connect with students, they suggested that it was important for faculty members to share information about all areas of their lives: families, hobbies, pets, musical interests, triumphs, frustrations, and more. To do less was to risk being perceived as inauthentic, a sure turnoff for our then-Millennial students.
All around the room, you could see Gen X faculty members break out in a cold sweat.
Millennials, and now Gen Z students, have grown up with their lives on display. Some of it is voluntary, as when they share play-by-play views of their day through Instagram. Some of it is the climate in which they were raised, with a team of adults that included parents, teachers, doctors, coaches, and others knowing their talents, weaknesses, medical histories, and more. For these younger generations, failing to share one’s complete background would seem artificial, unnatural, and, yes, inauthentic.
However, Gen X (and older generations) grew up in a completely different environment. As we entered the workplace, we were told to hide any tattoos and cover up any piercings that weren’t the standard issue one hole in each earlobe. In some environments, we were told to remove any potentially controversial bumper stickers from our cars so as not to expose any political position or musical taste that might offend a boss or a client. Women, in particular, were encouraged to avoid putting photos of their families on their desks, lest they create the impression that they might have priorities that competed with work. Everyone was counseled to have a professional work face and to appear to be always available for additional work responsibilities. Especially for the cohort that graduated college into the recession of the 1990s, it seemed like a pretty good strategy.
That professional development, however, makes the idea of sharing the minutia of one’s life a bit daunting. However, there are ways to share one’s personal side with students without dying of exposure.
Practice “planned spontaneity.”
Being authentic doesn’t mean saying or sharing everything that happens or that comes into your mind. Decide each day on a personal-life anecdote that you would be comfortable sharing, especially when talking to your students, and use that story as a way to connect. By deciding in advance, you maintain control over how much of your personal life you share, and your students get a glimpse into your real life.
Choose your office artifacts carefully.
Gone are the days when family photos are verboten, but that doesn’t mean that your office has to be a complete exposition of the most intimate parts of your life. While you may not wish to display political paraphernalia, today it is perfectly acceptable to have souvenirs from your favorite band, a cherished hobby, or a significant life event in your office
Share your real feelings about your discipline in class.
Students want to know more about their professors, and one of the easiest things for professors to share is their real feelings about their subject matter. If there is a section that you found difficult to understand the first time out or that you still struggle with, tell your students. This little bit of authenticity goes a long way toward letting students know that their own feelings of confusion or problems staying uniformly interested in the material are not abnormal. It is an added bonus if you can explain what made you like or understand the material at hand, even if this was not the case when you first encountered it.
Meet your students where they are.
Sometimes the best way to spark an authentic interaction with your students is not sharing pieces of your own life but sharing pieces of theirs. Ask about what television shows, music, or books your students are consuming, and then partake of them as well. Your authentic moments can be fueled by expressing interest in their passions without exposing your own.
Keep some things to yourself.
Younger generations may feel comfortable sharing most of their lives with their friends, but there is no reason you should feel compelled to do the same. In fact, there are many reasons one might wish to keep details of family life, certain hobbies, or political opinions to oneself while in the classroom. Never feel pressured to reveal more of your private life than you are comfortable with.
I was one of those faculty members sweating bullets when our consultants urged authenticity. However, with a little advanced planning, I have been able to share parts of my life with my students without feeling unduly exposed. You can too.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the editor of Academic Leader, the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, and the owner of Hilltop Communications. She is the author of The Care and Motivation of the Adjunct Professor.