Free Expression, Freeing Expression

When professors divulge their own identity and personal experiences with the class, discussions are more fulfilling and offer opportunities for growth.

By Isabella O'Reilly

I always study on the A-level of the Regenstein Library because on the first day of O-Week, my peer mentor told us about a late night she had there while studying for finals. I sit in the same seat in chemistry every class solely because I recognized the person next to me on the first day. Many of my friends have been shaped by similar experiences and have developed similar habits. As impressionable young people thrust into the new environment of a college campus, we tend to be more influenced by our surroundings than we might expect, which gives our instructors, people in positions of authority, a great deal of power. A professor expressing their views could easily unintentionally force students in their classes to conform to them. That being said, when a teacher shares their identity, class discussions can feel much more intimate and individualized. Sharing personal experiences helps to both further and ground the discussion, resonating more with those who participate. It’s the responsibility of our professors to create a safe, non-judgmental environment so that sharing their identity and personal experiences will encourage discussion and exploration rather than the suppression of creativity.

It’s true that when professors actively participate in discussion, there is a risk that students will feel obligated to think in the same manner as their teacher, thus potentially dampening independent thought and creativity. But doesn’t following this line of thinking go against the free expression that is emphasized at our own school? Our university claims to provide “an education that fosters free expression and empowers students to engage with challenging ideas.” This free expression should apply to professors as well: Barring professors from sharing their identity in any manner is an infringement on this statement that we pride ourselves on. However, it is important to first establish the classroom as a safe space so that a professor sharing their identity is not only possible but also beneficial. Even in a classroom setting, true neutrality is impossible; instead, acknowledging this idea right off the bat allows for the students to feel the full impact of the class. As a first-year, the classes I took this past quarter were all Core requirements that involved little discussion. Yet there were still moments when I believed that if my professor had connected our discussion to the modern world and shared their own personal experience, I would have walked out of class contemplating the topic even further.

Even in high school, I found that the more personal a class discussion got, the more room there was for growth and learning. Specifically, I participated in The Identity of Self, a class in which each student discussed and explored their identities through the various works that we read. My teacher refrained from sharing her own identity or commenting on others’ journeys until the last week of class. As she told her personal story, our entire class was transfixed by what she said: She used a racist demonstration that was targeted towards her in a high school volleyball game to bring her team to the championship. This story still resonates with me to this day. I do not think that how I feel about my own identity would have been the same without hearing about and learning from her experience. However, thinking back, if she had shared her experience with the class earlier, I likely would have attempted to mirror my own experience after various aspects of hers, as she too is a biracial Black woman. In this moment, I realized two key things: how impressionable the human mind is and how, by sharing her narrative, my teacher positively impacted the lives of several students. She allowed us to expand upon our own experiences and learn to prepare for future journeys. We walked out of the class better equipped to handle real-life situations, and that is what we should expect for our college classes as well.

Each person—student or professor—walks into a class with their own unconscious biases, regardless of race, gender identity, sexuality, and more. These biases affect the way we think and operate in life. However, there is no way to dismantle our own implicit biases unless we share and actively discuss them with people who are different from us. Our classes at UChicago are meant to further our education in a way that is applicable both inside and outside of the classroom, and discussion allows us to grow outside of the written curriculum.

Cherie Fernandes published an article earlier this year about her stance on the sharing of identity in the classroom. In her article she states, “any individual’s engagement with a topic is inevitably filtered through the prism of identity, it is prudent to recognize and account for its influence in academic environments.” This statement highlights the undeniable benefit of professors sharing their identity. It is naive to believe that anyone, even a tenured professor at a prestigious university like UChicago, would be able to fully separate themselves from their identity when participating in class. Early acknowledgement and sharing of these unconscious biases can not only set the stage for the rest of the class but also allow people to come into the classroom with an open, knowledgeable expectation for discussion.

In a world where vulnerability can often be dangerous, sharing should not be forced and is best done in a safe space: one fostered by the professor and upheld by the class. A safe space allows students to speak their minds freely on topics pertaining to the discussion. Yes, it is naive to believe that everyone will feel comfortable to share their experience and it is naive to believe that a safe space is completely realistic, but as a student body, we should strive to make the classroom one of these spaces. In my personal experience, when a safe space is established, students are able to not only flourish in the discussion, but also reevaluate their own views, attitudes, and perceptions and gain significantly more from the class. In that same high school class on identity, when we watched Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, I was able to hear new perspectives on Malcolm X’s influence as an activist from my fellow classmates that I believe would not have been shared without the establishment that their beliefs would be respected. I did not agree with all of the things that were shared—some I even adamantly disagreed with—but hearing from others allowed me to adapt and grow my own conclusions based on the new perspectives.

When a professor contributes to a discussion, they should encourage students to express and elaborate—even push back—with their own opinions rather than inhibit students with opposing viewpoints from sharing. Even though we would like to believe our campus, and the people on it, are not immune to outdated and offensive beliefs, many students and even staff have never been exposed to situations where they realize that their views can be detrimental to the well-being of others. Discussion is an integral part of shifting a person’s understanding of the world. If the classroom is established as a safe space, everyone, including the professor, should be able to share their identity. We as students and human beings grow from communication, and the relationship between a professor and students in a classroom setting should not damper this important discussion. After all, the University of Chicago is trying to prepare well-rounded, well-adapted people to send into the workforce.


Isabella O’Reilly is a first-year in the College.