To a certain extent, I understand that instructor bias is unavoidable. For example, my interest in gender, race, and social psychology certainly mold the discussions we have in the classroom - we spend more time talking about these issues than about international relations or comparative economics, for example. Bias in coverage is not great (these issues I talk less about are still important!), but ideological bias is much more pernicious. Students can feel like their opinions are not welcome, so they don't speak up in class, hurting their participation grades. Additionally, if a liberal student with a conservative instructor does poorly on a writing assignment, they might believe that they cannot do well in the class because of ideological differences between themselves and the instructor. Even if this is not the case, it still shuts the student down and demotivates them from critically engaging with the classroom.
Not revealing my political ideology is one way I try to make the classroom a more comfortable place. I also try to start students off really slow - we don't just launch into sensitive topics. For example, I don't think it's a good idea to immediately start talking about race relations, or about the injustices that certain economics systems generate upon their populace. Students who aren't as informed about these topics will be unable to to engage, and those who are able to engage may not want to in front of strangers. Getting students comfortable with talking about these ideas is crucial - for example, we spend the first discussion section in race and ethnic politics talking about what race and ethnicity are, and why we study them. We talk about the current categorizations, as well as some of the strengths and weaknesses of these categories. In the course on the economy of political communication, we spent the first period talking about some of the ideas in the course, such as democracy, capitalism, and socialism. Gaining clarity on these ideas helped the entire class feel comfortable engaging with the material, so that nobody will be left behind or feel like they have nothing to contribute. I remember reading somewhere that a huge problem with college is students feeling like nobody would miss them if they were gone, and that they have nothing to contribute. Keeping everybody on the same page can help fight this feeling.
Something else I've done to make the classroom a better place is think about how my personality translates into a classroom environment. Any of my friends will tell you that I communicate pretty much exclusively through dark humor, sarcasm, and obscure pop culture references. This may come in handy when creating our weekly trivia team names. However delightful this personality trait may be to some of my students, I know for a fact that it turns some of them off. I've gotten some pretty searing comments about it, like "the sarcasm was cute at first but got really old" - OUCH. Once I recovered from that comment, I started thinking about how I need to turn parts of my personality off, if only for a few hours a week, for the benefit of the students. This doesn't mean that I need to be a fake - I'm sure my students aren't surprised when they come to my office and see my nerd paraphernalia laying around. It just means I need to be polished, and not be careless when it comes to creating a positive learning environment for students.
Other than keeping my political beliefs secret, starting off slow, and dialing back the sarcasm, it's really hard to put my finger on what I do to make students feel comfortable. Generally, I try to be nice to students, and try not to let my nervousness mask my excitement. I'll have to think a little bit more about what I do and what I should be doing to make the classroom a better place for all students.
What are your thoughts, Internet?