I’ve been roughing out schedules for my 2016-17 courses — even the winter term ones, because before I can order books for them I need some idea of how the readings will fit in. As I consider how best to allocate class time, especially for my first-year class, I’ve also been thinking about a very interesting conversation I had recently with a former student who now works in a Dalhousie office concerned, among other things, with understanding student retention.
My own anecdotal experience, which seems to be supported by data, is that a crucial factor in student engagement (which is key, in turn, to retention) is developing relationships — with other students, but also, crucially, with faculty. These can be hard to establish, especially in larger classes, which is why I try so hard to encourage students to come and see me one-on-one. I have often felt that the biggest difference I make is to students who actually take me up on my offer (as this student had). Not only can a one-on-one conference really help with the student’s understanding of course material or assignments, but it also — not always, but often — creates a stronger sense of commitment and community, a sense that we are both in this together. Some of that is just because it’s a chance for us to get to know each other a bit. Every time a student comes to my office, I open by asking them a bit about themselves, because this helps me understand where they are and what they need most for my course, sure, but also because I’m genuinely interested — I like getting a sense of who they are as people, not just as students. (I don’t mean I don’t always think of students as people, of course! Just that there are ways in which strictly teacher-student interactions, often of necessity, can be limited to practicalities.)
From our conversation, it was clear that our office meetings had been important to this former student, which was really good to know. (It was also very nice to hear ways in which our course materials had stayed with him in meaningful ways, including the pier glass passage from Middlemarch, which he said often occurred to him when he was thinking about how best to resolve a problem or answer a question.) In his work on retention, he told me that they talk a lot about identifying “high impact practices”: things professors can do that make a difference. Personal conferences, we agreed, are one such practice.
I have always believed in the value of the one-on-one meeting, so much so that in some small classes, I have made them mandatory, usually as early in the term as possible so that they break the ice in the class itself as well as making it more likely that students will come back on their own when they need help. I particularly like doing this with first-year students, who are usually new on campus and somewhat overwhelmed by the size and complexity of it. I would like to do that this year! But I will have 90 students in Pulp Fiction: even if I gave each of them only 10 minutes (hardly enough for much getting-to-know-you talk), there’s no way I can set aside that many hours in a time frame that would make it meaningful — keeping in mind, too, that the students themselves have very full schedules so it’s not like I can just pick three days and sit with my door open expecting them to file in.
I wonder what I could do instead. I will have scheduled office hours, of course, and as always will be available then and by appointment and (as I always advertise) any time my door is open — which, traditionally, has been almost all the time I’m on campus but not in actually class or meetings. Students only rarely take advantage of the opportunity to see me personally, though, and just waiting and hoping to see them isn’t the point. I could split the meetings up with the two teaching assistants I will have for the course — but their available hours are carefully (and rightly) limited by their contracts, and they also (wrongly) don’t usually have dedicated office space of their own, so committing them to several hours of meetings doesn’t seem fair. I could require email introductions from everyone and undertake to reply — but would that have the desired effect? It might also take nearly as long as meeting in person, with only the slight advantage that I could do my replies at any time. (Evenings and weekends, anyone?)
Ideas for “high impact practices” that would work for 90 students (and be feasible for me)? The goal would be to give them a genuine sense of connection to me as well as to the course.
The painting is Richard Redgrave’s “The Poor Teacher,” which is actually a very accurate depiction of me waiting forlornly for a student to come to my office hours.