Managing the Openness-Closedness Dialectic: How Graduate Teaching Assistants Handle the Tension
Webb, Nathan G.
University of Kansas
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Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are a pervasive part of undergraduate education. When interacting with undergraduate students, GTAs must balance a tension of being a friend and an authority figure with students. One of the ways that balance is managed is through GTA self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is defined as, "the act of revealing personal information to others" (Jourard, 1971, p. 2). Prior research has linked instructor self-disclosure to positive learning outcomes. The current study, therefore, examined the ways in which GTAs balance a dialectic between being open and closed with their private information in the classroom. Rooted in communication privacy management theory (Petronio, 1991), relational dialectics theory (Baxter, 1988), and the affective learning model (Rodriguez, Plax, & Kearney, 1996), this qualitative study examined: (1) how GTAs make decisions about what private information to disclose to students; (2) GTA motivations for self-disclosing to students; and (3) GTA perceptions of the effects of self-disclosure on undergraduate learning. Twenty-three, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with GTAs at a large Midwestern University. Participants were asked to talk about their experiences and perceptions of self-disclosure in higher education classrooms. Data were inductively coded to reveal 13 overarching themes regarding GTA self-disclosure. Results revealed that GTAs make decisions about self-disclosure by: considering the nature of topics, learning about a culture of self-disclosure, and balancing a friendship-authority dialectic. Data also indicated that GTAs are motivated to self-disclose: for interpersonal reasons, to increase credibility, for reciprocity, to explain course content, to keep students' attention, and to improve student evaluations. Results also suggested that GTAs perceive that self-disclosure: makes them more approachable, increases student motivation, is a useful tool for explaining course content, and can assist students' retention of course material.
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