Reflections Newsletter

Passion in the Classroom: Reflections on the Use of Emotions in Teaching and Learning, Spring 2001

by Lesley D. Harman
Faculty Associate, Teaching Support Centre
Number 45, April 2001

Did the title of this article spark an emotional reaction in you? The word "passion" is hardly neutral. What the word evokes itself brings us to the doorway of the world of the emotions, rarely talked about or addressed but indeed central to the lives and experiences of teachers and learners alike.

I first came to examine this question by the back door, when asked to give a talk on "difficult dialogues" in the classroom. This led me to think about emotions as a problem in the classroom. One source defined a "difficult dialogue" as any interaction involving a topic or issue which elicits a strong emotional reaction, such as anger or fear.1 For a topic to do this usually means that it has struck a nerve, it has penetrated to the core of "who we are". So called "hot topics" can predictably elicit such reactions. Clearly there can be other "strong emotional reactions", pleasant and powerful, which may enhance the learning experience. In an interesting paper on the memories of graduates of an American college, Barbara Carson observes that the most "effective" professors are remembered for their passion for their subject matter, their passion for teaching, and their ability to instill enthusiasm in their students. In turn, the "least effective" professors are remembered for their lack of passion for their subject matter, their lack of passion for their teaching, and the fact that they did not leave their students feeling enthusiastic.2

There was a time when I thought that "passion" was just simply a good thing to have. I see the world through an emotional lens, much of the time, and in my own life I have found understanding to be enhanced by an emotional component. Has the lesson touched me in an unforgettable way? When I review years of student feedback, the most frequent, positively framed descriptor of my teaching style is "passionate". It has been my experience that students learn better and lessons have greater impact when they are personally touched by a message. For this, eliciting feelings of compassion, empathy, commiseration, excitement, enthusiasm, optimism, even sadness can create an opening to insight which no other method that I know of can do. The most effective way to do this is through the telling of stories.

Storytelling as a method of conveying lessons as well as creating group cohesion is as old as human language itself. Storytelling can be a humanizing, equalizing experience. Students often enjoy seeing the human side of their professors. Stories make us vulnerable, allow our passions to be revealed. Stories need not take hours to tell. My style is to punctuate my lectures with examples of difficult concepts. And these examples most frequently come out as stories. The "thirty-second story" can elicit a world of meaning. Each note of commonality, each point of shared lived experience produces a layering of understanding which requires no further explanation. Huge vistas of human awareness can be traversed in under a minute. Group experience is formed through the shared memory of the story and discussion or comments which ensue. This itself becomes part of the story of the class, the rich human tapestry which can be woven in the course of an academic year. Near the end of the year one can tell a story simply by asking a question: "Remember when I asked everyone way back in October if they had ever felt "the penny drop"?"... another story, another realization, another memory. In my career, these have been wondrous, memorable teaching experiences for me and my students. Would that it were always this way.

In an effort to create and sustain an enriching learning environment, even the most concerned professor can be operating on the basis of certain assumptions which may move the use of passion into the dangerous realm of "difficult dialogues". A story is not always humanizing, just as a joke is not always funny. I remember the very first time that I became aware that I was living in a totally different universe from my students. It was around the time of the Gulf War. I am a pacifist and the mother of two sons. The thought of war to me evokes images of the lowest depths of human greed, waste and destruction. The thought of the son of any mother going off to face such horror, having to kill and possibly be killed himself, I thought, must produce a shared emotional reaction in everyone else. Isn't everyone a pacifist? Doesn't everyone agree that defense dollars would be better spent on breakfast programs for Canada's millions of children living in poverty? Well, apparently not. I found myself in the middle of attempting to elicit a shared emotional reaction from my class. "Let's talk about the war", I suggested, assuming that there was a shared concern, fear, dismay at the state of the world. What came back to me from the sea of young faces was a mixture of apathy and resistance. I was shocked. "Don't they care?", I asked myself. And then I asked them. What I learned changed me. I learned that most of my students were in favour of war, and those that didn't have an opinion simply did not care. But more than that, I learned the biggest lesson of my teaching career. And that was to take a good hard look in the mirror, and examine my assumptions very carefully.

The assumptions that had hitherto gone unexamined in my teaching, in my storytelling, in my use of passion in the classroom, had to do with precisely the idea that my "audience" and I shared the same universe of discourse. That the same things mattered. That we had shared experiences, shared relevances. That we belonged to the same group. I was forced, in other words, to ask myself for the first time, "Who are 'we'?". Over time, this has become the question that I try to remind myself and my students to ask as we attempt to become aware of what it means to live in an increasingly diverse society. Assuming that everyone will respond in the same way to a story is to assume a homogeneity that is simply not there.

We all have such blind spots. I use this word in the sense intended by my driving instructor when he reminded me to "always check your blind spots". "You know", he would say, "you could be driving along, look into your side view mirror and think there was nothing there. If you don't shoulder check you might never know there was a Mack truck right beside you". Thirty years later, that story has stayed with me and been repeated countless times. For it speaks volumes to how the seemingly obvious can be so invisible to us, depending on our standpoint.

My discipline, sociology, has been revolutionized by the infusion of the understanding that one's standpoint colours one's experience of the social world. Most credit the origin of this challenge to the work of Canadian feminist giant Dorothy E. Smith.3 And while in the early days of developing an awareness of standpoint it was applied primarily to women's experiences within patriarchy, we can see that it is a generalizeable way of understanding being human within an increasingly diverse society. Adopting a standpoint perspective allows for the possibility of understanding that individuals' group membership will determine the extent of their shared membership in relation to whatever constitutes the "dominant" or powerful group in a particular setting. The dominant group is in a position to define the "other". In the classroom, being "othered" can generate very strong emotional reactions in students and professors, such as anger and fear: anger at being devalued, excluded and silenced; fear at the prospect of using one's voice, rocking the boat, drawing attention to one's otherness.

In her book, Feeling Power: Emotions and Education, Megan Boler challenges us to see how emotions can be both oppressing and liberating. I find this approach to be both illuminating and useful. For Boler, "within education, as in the wider culture, emotions are a site of social control".4 What she means is that groups have been historically made "other" through the use of emotions. She also sees the liberatory potential of emotions: "Emotions are a mode of resistance-to dominant cultural norms, for example, or to the imposition of authority."5

Increasingly, attention is being drawn to questions of diversity in the classroom. This is a complex issue. Magda Lewis lists "the social location of teacher and students; the geographic and historic location of the institution in which they come together; the political climate in which they work; the personalities and personal profiles of the individuals in the classroom; the readings selected for the course; and the academic background of the students" as all factors which contribute to the "pedagogical moments" in a university learning environment.6 Simply becoming aware of the fact that different experiential backgrounds will produce different responses to curriculum can help us to maximize the positive uses of emotions in teaching and learning. Auletta and Jones argue that the way that students feel, both about themselves as well as about the material they are learning, has a direct bearing on their motivation to learn.7 For Bess, "motivation is enhanced by the provision of opportunities for individuals to demonstrate their competence in work that has meaning and is related to institutional outcomes bearing on values important to society".8 Bernard Goldstein points out that creating an inclusive learning environment is not so much about curriculum as climate. He observes that even science is not neutral: "A scientist, after all, is a member of a community of understanding in a culture composed of diverse and often conflicting influences. Thus, there are no aspects of the curriculum or human knowledge that are free from social influences".9 Ellen Junn makes the point that "deepening students' multicultural knowledge and awareness affords them the potential of critically viewing the world and themselves from multiple, complex, and interrelated perspectives".10

Emotion can be a very powerful tool. The messages transmitted through compelling stories may be frozen in time in the memories of our students, recalled years later when most of the rest has been forgotten. To most effectively seize a teachable moment, however, it can make a difference if we know who we are, and who our students are. In asking "who are we?" we can take important steps toward honouring otherness. That in itself will open us up to a more positive and humanizing experience of emotions.

Lesley D. Harman is Associate Professor of Sociology at King's College, The University of Western Ontario. She received her Ph.D. in 1983 from York University and has been teaching in the university classroom since 1980. She has taught at York, Trent, and The University of Western Ontario. She received the King's College Award for Excellence in Teaching for 2000.


1 "Difficult Dialogues" educational videotape, PBS Adult Learning Service.

2 Barbara Harrell Carson, "Bad news in the service of good teaching: Students remember ineffective professors". A paper presented at the Lilly Conference on Teaching, Miami University of Ohio, November 1996.

3 Dorothy E. Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1987.

4 Megan Boler, Feeling Power: Emotions and Education, New York: Routledge, 1999, p. xvii.

5 Ibid., p. xviii.

6 Magda G. Lewis, "Interrupting patriarchy: Politics, resistance, and transformation in the feminist classroom", Harvard Educational Review 60: 1990, p. 487.

7 Gale S. Auletta and Terry Jones, "Unmasking the myths of racism". Chapter 9 in Diane F. Halpern and associates (eds.), Changing College Classrooms: New Teaching and Learning

Strategies for an Increasingly Complex World, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993, pp. 165-174.

8 J. Bess, University organization, New York: Human Sciences Press, 1982, p. 24.

9 Bernard Goldstein, "Cultural Diversity and Curricular Coherence", Chapter 7 in Diane F. Halpern and associates, (eds.), Changing College Classrooms: New Teaching and Learning Strategies for an Increasingly Complex World, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994, p. 117.

10 Ellen N. Junn, "Experiential Approaches to Cultural Awareness", Chapter 8 in Diane F. Halpern and associates (eds.), Changing College Classrooms: New Teaching and Learning Strategies for an Increasingly Complex World, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994, p. 130.

Teaching Support Centre
Room 122, The D.B. Weldon Library
Western University
London, Ontario N6A 3K7
(519) 661-2111, ext. 84622