söndag 19 augusti 2012

Bridging the distance between me and my students

I wrote a blog post about "bridging the student-teacher gap" last autumn. A group of students in one of my courses interviewed me about a(nother) course and about my personal interest in the topic of the course (i.e. "social media"). I contributed with some personal thoughts and anecdotes and the students contributed by editing the interview down into a 15-minute long podcast.

I later referred to this project when I wrote another blog post about different ways of solving the same problem. The podcast  was one way of solving a problem and a proposed computer system in a bachelor's thesis constituted another - and in my opinion less successful - way of solving "the same" problem; "how can students be supported in making informed choices about what courses to read - instead of finding out that a particular course wasn't their cup of tea some weeks after the course has started?"

The rest of this blog post concerns another suggestion for bridging the student-teacher gap. Before the proposed solution, I will start with describing the problem space. I'm right now reading a book where the empirical material that the authors analyze is management text from the 1960's and the 1990's. A quote struck a nerve with me, but do replace "boss" with "teacher" and "workforce" with "students":

"In large firms, the boss [...] loses contact with those who carry out orders: his orderers follow the hierarchical route [...] Since individual initiative is not welcome, orders from on high must be numerous and detailed [...] The attitude of the workforce becomes passive [...] The individual is now only a cog in an anonymous whole, subject not to human beings but to regulations."

This quote comes from a French management book from 1966, but there are far too many disturbing parallels with higher education 50 years later. I teach mostly (masters-level) courses with 50+ students, and I generally hardly get to know any of the students at all. I hardly meet them. I for sure lecture them and I communicate with them (including with "numerous and detailed orders from on high"). With e-mail, they can also communicate with me, but perhaps "communicate" is to say too much, as students generally write e-mails only to ask a specific question to get a clarification about an assignment, about the structure of the course, about the exam, about the grades, or to change seminar group next Tuesday.

I do get to know (some) students (some) at seminars, and I do get to know the chosen few as their thesis advisor, but even though the relationship can become kind-of personal, our respective roles as "teacher" and "student" choreographs the interaction pretty tightly so on the whole, I don't get to know my students and my students don't really have the opportunity to get to know me. To some extent I have to admit that I don't want to get to know my students (too much) because that takes time and I always have so much to do, so much to read as well as a life (and a family) outside of my job too. The path of least resistance is to hole up in my room and just answer all the email I get, but I also find this to be a regrettable state of affairs. It is partly the effect of the stressful tempo and of the larger size of and the bureaucratization of higher education during the last decades. But how can a trade-off between total accessibility and total inaccessibility be found?

With this blog post I also have a constructive proposal for myself for this coming academic year. I would like to set aside a weekday for an "open lunch" at a restaurant on campus where any and every students who wants to is welcome to join me. Instead of sending mail, calling me or looking me up and trying to catch me in my office, students would be able to informally and with a minimum of overhead (coordination costs) join me for lunch - just for the company or for more instrumental reasons.

A student might be genuinely interested in the topic of a specific lecture or a seminar and would like to continue the discussion. It might also be a good way to informally talk and provide feedback about a course - perhaps the pace is too tough or the purpose of the course is unclear. Perhaps a student experiences other problems or challenges. I will for example teach a project course during the whole autumn term, and I know that some project groups sometimes have internal problems (conflicts) that they really ought talk with me about at an early stage, but that I don't get to know about (unless they explode). So, joining me for lunch could be a way to raise topics that doesn't "fit" an email. A student would of course have to be prepared to articulate their case in the presence of other students joining for the lunch, but I still think it's worth a try.

There are some practical challenges that I need to figure out first. I have to find a suitable restaurant and preferably stake out a regular table (the Q house?). I have to figure out which week-day is the best (based on my schedule and other commitments). I have to spread the word to students.  Perhaps hardest of all, I have to make it a habit of being there every week - even if no-one turns up for the first four weeks - and I have to figure out what to do during those (hopefully few) occasions when I can't make it. A conference or a teaching commitments right before or after lunch can be planned for in advance, but being ill, or caring for a (suddenly) ill child is a harder nut to crack. Perhaps I should reserve some screen space on this blog/homepage for the status of upcoming open lunches?

I didn't come up with this open lunch concept by myself, it's something I heard about years and years ago. The headmaster of a large elementary school had weekly lunches at a nearby restaurant and invited parents to drop in if they wanted to discuss something they had on their mind regarding the school or their situation of their child. I thought it was a great idea already then.

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