Lesson Number One – My Students are Incredible People

First, happy finals week to many of us in higher education. Whether you’re grading the papers and exams, taking them, or both, remember to smile and know that holiday vacation is near. And don’t forget to take little breaks to maintain your sanity, especially if you’re among the many of us who have been falling to the flu and colds that have been going around. If you’re in this group I would absolutely recommend mint tea be included in your finals week survival shopping. I generally consider it a fall finals necessity. Now, with my tea by my side, I’m happy to share my top pedagogical lesson I learned from working in Student Activities.

 

Number One – My Students are Incredible People

Yes, it’s true that as instructors we need to show up each day prepared to teach regardless of whether or not we know our students to be creative, engaged, brilliant, fun people. And I recognize that when you have a class of 200 students looking back at you the thought of knowing them all well seems not only impossible, but even perhaps  a little frightening. However, through my time in Student Activities I was excited to see how an engaged staff is able to connect with and support students in using what they learn to do meaningful real-world work. This work often draws on the academic skills that students are developing in the classroom (directly or indirectly) and pairs it with relevant transferable career skills. Although it may not be possible for instructors to get to know each of their students as individuals,  I do believe that with some collaboration across campus we can make a greater difference in student learning by finding ways to connect with more students more often.

 

How would we do this?

No, engaging with students outside the classroom is not just for the Student Activities and Residential Life  sides of the house. But yes, they have some of the best resources set in place for it. So don’t be afraid to make connections. Here are just a handful of ways that you could start working with students beyond classroom teaching as early as next semester.

1) Community Service: There are a variety of ways you can participate in community service with your students. Some are as formal and involved as including a graded service learning component that is semester-long or an intensive week of service. However, there are also much smaller, more manageable options. My class in spring, for example, is doing a Saturday of service in the local community. This day’s service will be connected to hunger, a major theme of the year.

2) Residential Life Collaboration: Hall Directors and RAs are regularly planning great events in the halls. Some of these are fun community-building activities. But they also are always looking for ways to engage their students intellectually. A great example of this is an Irish language event my community’s RA hosted last week. She invited a visiting Fulbright Scholar to teach the residents about the history of the Irish language, her work, travel to Ireland, and some fun phrases in Irish that could be used in everyday conversation. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.

3) Advising Clubs and Organizations: There are over 500 student organizations at the University of Connecticut. And new groups are created every semester. Each of these needs a faculty advisor and university staff to help them succeed. It can be a great way to connect with students who share your scholarly interest and to foster their excitement.

4) Connecting with a Learning Community: This is, of course, one of my personal favorites. Learning Communities (LCs) are holistic learning environments that a part of growing movement in higher education. In an LC students with similar interests live and study together. Current research suggests that one of the most important benefits of participation in an LC is the opportunity for students to build meaningful relationships with faculty and staff. If your university has LCs they are perfect places for you to connect with students in and out of the classroom.

5) Advising Independent Research: This suggestion is simultaneously the easiest and most challenging suggestion on my list. I say that it’s the easiest because it is the suggestion most clearly linked to teaching a course. And it is something that many faculty and staff do regularly. At the same time, I recognize that it is the most challenging because it can require a substantial commitment. This, however, can vary drastically. For example, I’m currently working on an interdepartmental team that is advising a multi-year documentary project. This will take substantial time and resource commitments from a number of advisors. On the other hand, it is very possible to have students collaborate on small creative projects of their own design in the span of a single semester. It is this small scale work that can be included in a course to add an experiential element to virtually any class.

 

What would we gain in the classroom from this work outside of the classroom?

Besides the fact that it’s fun to do things like go whitewater rafting with your students, why should anyone try to do more of the types of things I listed above? Because I enjoy lists I’m concluding this post with my top five reasons for taking the time to get to know your students outside of the classroom.

1) Knowing what interests your students makes you better prepared to explain how your course content relevant and meaningful.

2) This type of engagement makes you better prepared to create spaces for valuable individualized learning and meaningful contributions in class.

3) Knowing more than your students’ writing makes you better prepared to send meaningful letters of recommendation for amazing students who will go into the world and make your university (and you) very proud.

4) It makes teaching more fun.

5) It reminds us that we’re still people too, something we can occasionally lose under our piles of books and journal articles.

 

Thank you to Student Activities and to all of my incredible students for everything you’ve taught me so far. Happy finals week!

 

Question of the Week: Do you have any great ideas about how to create meaningful experiential events for your courses?

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