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I am going to start teaching next year in a university in the UK. One common question I get with students in one-to-one conversations is about my origin. I certainly have an accent, and they are naturally curious about it. I was wondering if it is fine that, when I introduce myself during the first lecture, I tell them where I am originally from? This is not an issue for me.

I understand that some lecturers get offended with the question "where are you originally from?", but I think sometimes students are genuinely interested on knowing this inconsequential information. I was, when I was a student, so I understand.

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    @Monika I was wondering if it is fine that when I introduce myself during the first lecture, I tell them where I am originally from. Sorry, I didn't use a question mark. – Name Dec 21 '18 at 11:45
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    I do understand your concerns! However, I think you must be smart enough to make your students believe in you as an instructor, no matter where are you from, it is all about you. Personally, I don't think so you have to tell your students where are you from, of course, they will be curious, but be open if anyone asks, you can answer in an intriguing way about your background. That is my opinion, If you told them where are you from, you can include beautiful slides in the beginning that to the break the ice. – user39171 Dec 21 '18 at 12:02
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    Is the difficulty / social awkwardness of this sort of disclosure a UK thing? In the US, these disclosures / conversations are almost the norm. I think I knew the origin of all my professors. Certainly I did with all of my Grad school instructors. But then again, all three of the universities I went to had sizable populations of foreign students and foreign-born professors. – Van Dec 21 '18 at 12:20
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    Why not simply put a short bio on your university web page? That way interested students can easily find the info. but you don't have to spend class time on it. – jamesqf Dec 21 '18 at 17:49
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    One of my US professors mentioned he was from Turkey on the first day and then asked us as a final exam bonus question. – Script Kitty Dec 21 '18 at 18:59
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You can certainly do so. Something like "I was born here. I did my undergraduate degree here, my masters degree here, and my PhD here. After my PhD ..." etc. It doesn't have to be very long and could also be part of your lecture slides.

One of my lecturers from my bachelor's degree did this, and I still remember she and my brother shared an alma mater.

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    It also adds "weight" when you embellish theory with real examples : "when I was at XXX this happened and we solved it with YYY"... – Solar Mike Dec 21 '18 at 12:45
  • I like it when professors do this, not just to answer the where are you from question but also to give an idea of what they do outside of lecturing... for example, if you sponsor or work with any student club, or if you have some interesting research going on. – user3067860 Dec 21 '18 at 14:02
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    I agree there's no harm in humanizing yourself a bit by sharing this small bit of personal information. Professors are people too, and people sometimes forget that. – Nuclear Wang Dec 21 '18 at 14:10
  • When I first visited the university that I ultimately would attend for undergraduate studies, I sat in with a group for a type of orientation led by a gentleman who was 'not from here'. He began with some brief information about the university, what we were going to do, and then said to the crowd in his relatively thick accent, "I know what you are thinking . . . I am not from Michigan." Everyone laughed. The timing was perfect because it was obvious English was not his native tongue and we'd all quite gotten accustomed to his accent by this time. – user16289 Dec 22 '18 at 14:15
  • @NuclearWang Professors sometimes forget that, too! – JiK Dec 24 '18 at 11:34
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I think it is a good thing to do, actually. In fact, anything you can do or say to make connections with them is good. In this case it places you in a context. You can also ask, assuming that the scale is reasonable, if anyone else comes from an "interesting" place. Don't press it if no one volunteers, but many people are proud of their origins. Others may not want to seem different from their peers.

The basic idea is to make yourself seem more human to them rather than just someone who will need to judge them eventually. Students sometimes fear their professors, especially in early courses when they have little experience. When they see you as a person they will probably be more willing to accept what you say when you, inevitably, correct them.

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    In the UK, the question "where are you originally from?" tends to be tricky. They often think it is because they look different. I like your other points, it is just that asking this question to the students may only lead to a cringe silence. – Name Dec 21 '18 at 11:51
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    I usually ask who else is from abroad. My courses are on EU politics, so it's a natural ice-breaker. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 21 '18 at 12:02
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    @PeterK. - in 1989 I stayed in a hotel in Jamaica that had ~90% US guests; everyone from the north-east of the US assumed from my accent (I'm from Essex in the UK) I was from Chicago; people from Chicago thought I was from Kansas; people from Kansas thought I was Texan; Texans thought I was Californian; Californians thought I was Australian. Hearing that Americans think you're British kind-of closes that circle for me :-) – Spratty Dec 21 '18 at 14:38
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    @PeterK. I attended a conference talk that opened with "I should point out that I'm Swedish. I like to say this at the start of every talk that I give because otherwise I find that the audience spends about half of their time trying to figure out where my accent is from and I'd prefer you listen to what I have to say instead." I found it was a great way to break the ice. – Wes Toleman Dec 22 '18 at 4:07
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    @WesToleman Of course, as a Swede, having the skills to break ice is important. – pipe Dec 22 '18 at 11:19
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I usually introduce myself in my first lecture by giving a short overview about my background. Since I'm not very different from most students, there is nothing surprising in this, but if I would have a different background, I would mention it since it helps building a relationship to your students. If you are having an accent, they will recognize that you are not a native speaker anyway ;-).

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I teach in what is not my first language. I speak more or less correctly, but my accent is strong to the ear of a native speaker. On the first day of class I generally make some jokes about my accent, so that students know I am not oblivious to potential problems understanding me, and I ask them to stop me whenever they don't understand something because of my accent or grammatical errors (this occurs occasionally), but I don't usually explain where I am from unless (better said, until) asked. The class is not about me, it's about whatever I am teaching, and I prefer to spend lecture time talking about mathematics than about myself, since in any case there is no reason to enter into personal details. Moreover, many students can guess from where I come, and inevitably by the middle of the semester someone asks anyway.

In general, opinions differ about how much to personalize interactions with students, and different degrees of personalization can work well for different teachers. I try to maintain a certain distance and focus on subject matter, and my uninteresting life story is not relevant to the subject matter, but it would be entirely reasonable to spend two minutes the first day explaining from where one comes. This seems to me mainly a matter of personal taste and teaching style.

  • I took linear algebra from a professor who was from Australia. The first couple weeks of the course were all about manipulating matrices with the variables X, Y, and Z, terms which were mentioned constantly. Two weeks in, he asks if anybody has any questions, and a student raises their hand: "what's zed?" (Z is pronounced "zee" in US English). There's absolutely no problem with having an accent, but even if you don't have a strong accent, it's good to make it clear up front that you want to make sure everyone is understanding each other and welcome the opportunity to clarify. – Zach Lipton Dec 23 '18 at 20:48
  • @ZachLipton: The instructor has to become aware of where his/her speech may cause problems for students, and take steps to ameliorate the problem. For example, in my case, when I teach in Spanish, because I do not pronounce the Spanish 'r' well, I have to take care to distinguish words such as "ortogonal" and "ortonormal" that appear in similar contexts with closely related, but different meanings (the way I pronounce the second 'r' in "ortonormal" is hard for a native to hear, making it hard to distinguish from "ortogonal"). – Dan Fox Dec 23 '18 at 21:02
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To be honest, your birthplace, ethnicity, and nationality are irrelevant, and it is not appropriate for people to ask questions of that sort in a professional context. You may not mind the question, but others may. By introducing the information as a preliminary, you are setting a precedent that will pressurise your colleagues who may prefer not to discuss the matter.

Personally, I do not generally tell people about my birthplace, ethnicity, and nationality in the course of teaching, unless it had some connection to the subject-matter at hand (e.g.: if I were citing my own experience/background to illustrate an argument I am presenting in the lecture -- I am in a humanities subject, so that does occur in some instances).

However, when I used to work in Scotland, I was open in declaring that I am not local (but without specifying much more), since my accent (British-English Received Pronunciation) makes it fairly obvious (although, as an ostensibly "neutral" accent, it does not tell you much more). When I mispronounced the Scottish name of one of the students, I apologised and added

"as you can tell, I am not Scottish -- in fact, I live south of the border"

(in the UK, it is quite common for academics to not live in the same city as their university).

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My Physics 1 teaching assistant had an uncommon accent, but instead of telling us, when someone brought it up she said we can try and guess, and she would tell us if we got it right. We didn't... but it contributed to a more jovial, humorous atmosphere. This will not work for just anyone though, only if you're generally an outgoing person, smile occasionally etc; also, it works in the group setting rather than in 1-on-1 conversations.

Maybe you can also think of "gamefying" this aspect of your interaction with students.

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