Developing and Practicing a Pedagogy of Kindness

Written by
Mary Lou Santovec

Oct 13, 2021

Oct 13, 2021 • by Mary Lou Santovec

Dr. Catherine Denial is no Pollyanna. But she does want faculty to practice a little kindness when dealing with their students. Denial is the Bright Distinguished Professor of American History at Knox College IL. Her article on the “Pedagogy of Kindness,” published in the online journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, gave structure to what many faculty members intuitively believe but are reluctant or unsure of how to practice.

A Desire to Learn New Things

Denial was born in Sheffield, in the north central part of England. She earned her BA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham. A history lover, Denial knew if she stayed in the UK for advanced work, she would simply learn more about kings and queens. “I was really excited to start over and learn new things,” she says of her decision to study abroad.

Denial received a fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she earned an MA in history. Her research focused on the status of women in Wisconsin and Michigan during the early 1800s.

She later received her PhD in history from the University of Iowa. Her dissertation centered on the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing during the 19th century in the Midwest. Denial’s research became Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country (2013). The Minnesota Historical Society Press was the book’s publisher.

After graduation, Denial became a visiting professor at Knox for one year, after which she was awarded a tenure track position. A significant bequest from the spouse of an alumna was used to create the Bright Institute, which Denial now heads.

The Institute brings together a cohort of liberal arts faculty from across the United States for an intensive, two-week seminar on the latest historical scholarship on U.S. history before 1848. Part of the Institute includes a focus on innovative teaching strategies. The Institute is for faculty of any rank who teach American history. The first cohort had 14 members.

Bright Institute participants, who receive $3,000 in research support for each of three years, travel to Knox for seminars. “We have been really lucky to have outstanding scholars come in and present their research,” says Denial.

“Liberal arts professors have less time to keep up with scholarship.” The seminars “look to fill the gap a little bit.”

Fake It Until You Make It

Denial’s interest in pedagogy came about “through trial and error.” As a new graduate student, who was also unfamiliar with the U.S. educational system, she was given one week of training on how to teach.

Realizing how unprepared she was, Denial sought out a lot of information on pedagogy on her own. “It became clear quite quickly that it [my teaching] wasn’t working,” she says. “I faked it until I could do better.”

While at Iowa, Denial was part of a curriculum and professional development series called Bringing History Home. The grant-funded series introduces elementary school teachers to research-quality methods of teaching history that professional historians use. The series supported Denial’s interest in pedagogy. She joined Twitter and found a group of like-minded people.

A seminar at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute housed at the University of Mary Washington VA opened Denial’s eyes to the concept of kindness. She says, “It coalesced for me that everything was about kindness [and] it brought into sharp focus [for me] why aren’t we all kind?”

Finding Space for Every Student

The pedagogy of kindness is centered around three principles: justice, believing people and believing in people. “Classrooms are sites of vast inequity,” says Denial [and] “seeking justice helps to rectify them.”

Believing people means just that. “When students tell me that their grandfather died, I believe them,” she says, noting that she wants to come from “a place of trust.” In graduate school, Denial was taught that the students would take advantage of her and look for ways to “cheat and scam.” But with the pedagogy of kindness, she worked on “changing my mindset that I’m going to believe them.”


Believing in people looks to collaborate with students to help them learn. In Denial’s classes she employs the philosophy of “universal design.” She defined “universal design” as “finding a way for everyone in the space to do the very best work they can.” Her students help create the syllabus and determine the grading standard.

Rather than writing papers, students do “un-essays” where they can show her what they learned during the term. The students can utilize any type of media to complete the work.

Denial stressed that kindness and niceness are not the same concept. “You can lie and be a nice person,” she says. She has the hard conversations with students with honesty: “The pedagogy of kindness is about being authentic.”

Kindness, Not Coddling

When kindness is used in the classroom, students have reacted “super positively,” says Denial. Students note on their teaching evaluations that making kindness an “operating principle” changed the classroom experience for them.

She has seen a dramatic change since she began employing the pedagogy “The creativity of students’ work increased and the curiosity of students to learn new things also went up,” Denial notes.

“I’ve seen more students coming to see me during office hours,” she says. Her Knox colleagues are interested and supportive of the concept.

Denial is currently trying to spread the word about the pedagogy of kindness across academia. She’s presented on the topic at several liberal arts colleges and is active on Twitter. She’s also working on a manuscript titled The Pedagogy of Kindness for the West Virginia University Press.

To those who think she’s coddling students with her pedagogical philosophy, Denial isn’t a fan of the survival of the fittest philosophy. “It’s a tremendously sad way to go through life,” she says.