THR Web Features   /   April 4, 2024

Facing It

Bias and Vulnerability in the Classroom

Evan Gurney

( THR illustration; Shutterstock.)

“You need to work on your face.”

I am neither an actor nor a clown and certainly not a model—I teach literature at a university. Far from friendly advice from a colleague, these were serious instructions from an administrative superior. I was meeting with an academic official after the first few weeks of the semester, having contrived to be the school’s first faculty member whose teaching triggered a new “bias response” system that allowed individual students to register anonymous complaints. It was an anxious experience: After being notified of the accusation, I was compelled to wait a week before meeting with the administrator, who withheld any contextual details of the allegations and chose not to consult any details of my prior teaching record. During sleepless nights I racked my brain for a memory of some potential offense. What was it I had said about Plato? Had I criticized a senator, or worse, a celebrity singer?

So when it turned out that my offense amounted to “exclusionary non-verbal facial cues” (it was never clear if these were the student’s words or the administrator’s), I was relieved, a little frustrated, but mainly confused: I hadn’t slept for a week because a student felt like I looked at him or her the wrong way? The administrator considered this matter to be extremely serious, prompting his instructions to “work on my face.” When I asked how I ought to perform this labor, he replied, without a hint of irony in his voice: “I recommend spending ten minutes every morning looking at the mirror, working on your facial expressions.” At this moment the administrator could not have known what I thought of his advice, because I was working exceptionally hard on my face.

I am sensitive about my face. Not long before this episode I had brain surgery to remove an invasive tumor and half of my face remains numb from the trauma. On the left side of my face, I cannot feel anything from my upper jaw to the lower quadrant of my mouth, and it seems to have affected the muscles too—I cannot manipulate or contort my face as I would wish. My wife keeps an eye on me when we’re eating in public to signal if some marinara or tzatziki has missed its target. I would never know. Once I was lecturing a classroom of students whose collective attention toward me was so rapt, so mesmerized, I was convinced I must be Cicero reincarnate, until I saw out of the corner of my eye a ribbon of drool descending to the floor. It was hilarious, this classroom misadventure, as are most of the foibles that ensue from my trivial disability. Harmless fun. Until you are told it is not drool on your chin, not spaghetti sauce, but a big smear of bias and you need to work on your face. Then what are you to do?

What I have been doing is thinking about faces. I have been thinking about the story of Cupid and Psyche, for example, how the jealous god forsakes his lover for sneaking a look at his face. But I am the one punished in this version of The Golden Ass, and what better allegory for a prolonged administrative inquisition than Psyche’s tedious chores?

Or maybe I am letting myself off the hook too easily. Let us set to the side how this system of student reporting can weaponize biases of a different kind. What if I did make a bad face? What if it wasn’t a grimace born of dyspepsia, or a wince from pivoting a sore hip flexor, but a bias truly unmasked? What if, like the Montagu foot servant thumbing his nose at Capulets, I frowned at certain students as my gaze passed by, and let them take it as they list? Or, more plausibly, I found it difficult to interact with a student for reasons obscure even to me and it showed briefly on my face? To riff on Shakespeare once more, perhaps the face is the thing wherein you catch the conscience of the classroom king.

It is a nasty secret, but most faculty find it easier to teach certain students rather than others. These biases are often a simple story of faces, too, though not, perhaps, the conventional prejudices of sex, race, or class. Instead we are drawn to students who show interest in our courses, who seem engaged with the assigned material, who listen with attention to their classmates and their teacher. Especially to me. I am a sucker for students who hang on my every word.

But I have learned from experience not to read too much into these student faces. Too often I have glanced at the books of apparently bored students who were in fact busily littering their margins with questions and commentary. Even better are the students who seemed uninterested in class but write letters or emails years afterward about how a certain lesson transformed their lives. On the other side there are plenty of students whose enthusiastic participation serves as mere cover for their lack of preparation. No, I don’t measure students based on their expressions. Reading words is hard enough for me without having to read faces too.

I suspect my administrator has read scholarship identifying the widespread and deleterious consequences of non-verbal facial cues, an academic offshoot of the larger trend in social and behavioral psychology. I, too, have read the literature in support of these claims, but I find the general thesis to be thin and unconvincing, as if there were a reliable link between a raised eyebrow and the myriad psychic motives that might produce one. Not that I disbelieve in the existence of bias, implicit or otherwise, but I am skeptical that our faces are reliable vectors of authentic and deeply-held convictions that will shape our speech and actions.

These psychological studies treat the mind as a static and legible text. Various forms of the Implicit Association Test assume, for example, that our initial reactions (how long our eye lingers in response to an image) disclose an associational preference for one thing rather than another. There are more sophisticated versions of this psychological experiment, but they nearly all presuppose that facial cues are revelatory, bringing to the light otherwise covert psychic traits. Yet the troubled history of physiognomy ought to remind us that faces cannot provide a window into our souls: Guided by this scientific art, judges sometimes evaluated the non-verbal facial cues of the accused to determine whether they were indeed guilty. Did the woman’s smile reveal an unremorseful witch? Did the woman’s tremble reveal a witch stricken by conscience? I will let the physiognomists and behavioral psychologists decide.

As a professor of literature, I wonder how one is supposed to read a face. Which skills are requisite to interpret this remarkably intense, emotional, evanescent, and opaque text? There is not too little but too much meaning in a face, it seems to me, a perilously complex book that cannot be reduced into an isolated lesson. Consider the following classroom quiz on non-verbal facial cues.

1. You have just asked a question in class, and your professor is furrowing her brow, which means: a) she is concentrating on your question; b) she is angry; c) she is confused.

2. Now your professor is pursing her lips, so: a) she must be dissatisfied; b) she is stifling laughter; c) she is practicing controlled breathing.

3. After responding to your question, the professor smiles, because: a) she is a warm, compassionate person who loves the give-and-take of academic discussion; b) the condescending pedant is proud of how effectively she answered your question; c) she has worked her face into practiced obscurity, and who knows what she is actually thinking. (Answers to 1, 2, and 3: all of the above.)

That is not to say we cannot learn a great deal from faces. We know, for instance, the importance of facial recognition to infant development. Babies are in desperate need of milk and warmth, to be sure, but they also need to find themselves in the loving faces of those who hold them close: A face tells us we are safe, we are known, we are loved. The Genesis story of Jacob and Esau moves me deeply, depicting how a fraternal relationship wounded by blessings and birthrights can be healed by a merciful countenance. Seeing Esau’s face is like seeing the face of God, Genesis tells us, a moment of reconciliation that gives us a brief glimpse of the divine. In his essay “Lessons from the Art,” surgeon and writer Richard Selzer sees a godly power in faces as he traces the emotional aftermath of a tricky surgery that severs a facial nerve: The patient’s young lover alters his own face to kiss a beloved cheek that will droop forever, and Selzer marvels at the accommodating power of love. In Boccaccio’s penultimate story of The Decameron, set against the backdrop of the Crusades, Messer Torello receives salvation because his former guest, the great Saladin, recognizes his face, and suddenly so many cultural, political, and religious differences can be overcome, even in a time of war. Such is the power in a face.

There is another lesson in this story from Boccaccio: it is much easier to diminish a person’s life and dignity when you do not look them fully in the face and acknowledge their humanity. But even when we look someone in the eye, we are poor readers of faces. It is not merely sophisticated facial recognition technologies whose complex algorithms remain flawed and biased—we are too. Further complicating matters, we all wear masks to protect ourselves or to deceive others, and so it is difficult to distinguish an honest face from a contrived one. “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” as Shakespeare says.

I know a professor, one of the greatest teachers I have ever witnessed plying the craft, who delivers her entire lectures with eyes closed. Staring out into a sea of students and finding a single bored and vacant face short-circuits the whole endeavor. Far better, she claims, to cast bread upon the waters and lecture in the dark. But that is only when she lectures, the traffic moving in a single direction. Class discussion works best with eye contact all around, not merely directed toward a solitary lectern. I wonder if this particular generation of students has been shaped too fully by digital modes of instruction during the pandemic, when their faces were safely masked by black boxes on the computer screen—and later, to a degree, by the masks over their faces. I hated teaching in an abstract classroom emptied of bodies and faces, but many of my students and colleagues liked it. Or perhaps to put it another way: They might have felt the loss of classroom interaction, they might even have realized that their personal learning suffered, but the majority were willing to sacrifice these opportunities if it meant they could retain their impersonal, invulnerable positions of safe detachment.

I sympathize with my students’ desire to remain safely ensconced in their own private realms. I am, perhaps above all other identities, an introvert. I dread encounters with strangers. I find myself drained by trivial social interactions. It felt like a terrible irony when I discovered my vocation of teaching and learned that I could offer my best gifts to the world only at great personal cost. Before teaching others, I had to teach myself how to endure these moments of sociability. That is, I had to face my fears, and still do every day I enter the classroom. So do my students. Together, facing each other, spurred on not just by courage but also a commitment to reciprocity and mutuality, we display the ethical postures required for authentic learning.

My face bears the wounds of my past, although it is hidden to others. Some of my students face the world with more obvious wounds, the young woman with Bell’s palsy, for instance, or the man with a burn on his cheek. Faces are uniquely vulnerable—quite literally they bare our wounds, our vulnera—but they are also wounding, often the first weapons we bear against others. This is what it means to be human. We all have biases of one kind or another, professors and students, and we all perceive snubs from others in our turn, but we need to be honest and vulnerable to receive the full benefits of an education. I tell my students to bring all of themselves to the task of reading, even their wounded pride and prejudice, because sometimes wayward readings of a text serve as a crucial opportunity to discover rich meaning inside ourselves.

I mean to say that we all need to work with our faces, not merely on them. I wish my student, before accusing me of bias, had paused to consider the myriad meanings revealed but also shrouded by my face. I wish the administrator had not empowered this student to believe there was one single and correct interpretation. And I wish I had been courageous enough to insist that we all meet face to face. It would have been messier, yes, and riskier, too, but instead we missed a crucial opportunity to learn about and from each other, and the college classroom receded a little further into the sanitized world of administrative human resources that wants to drain the very life and meaning from our faces. 

After my humiliating encounter with the administrative official, I had very little time to gather my wits before entering the classroom. I have never felt so vulnerable as I did in taking a seat among the circle. This is a feeling experienced by many students, some of them my own, who feel unheard or unacknowledged in the classroom. At first, I found myself staring at the ground as I talked, unwilling to face the students, not knowing who among them had accused me. Would I see triumph in their eyes? Righteous disapproval? Or remorse? And could I trust myself to respond without resentment? All too human, this student and me. I looked up and met the collective gaze of my class, and I saw the students’ anxiety and fear, I saw their hope and joy, and they saw mine.

Then I smiled. This is how we learn.