I have complained about the distance between me and my students several times on this blog. Back in 2011 I wrote a text about "the student-teacher gap" and I followed it up with a 2012 text about "Bridging the distance between me and my students". The latter text describes an experiment that later failed (but it hadn't and I didn't know it would fail at the time when I wrote the blog post).
My conclusion back then was that the only students I really got to know and that I had a personal relationship with were the (few) students to whom I was their bachelor's or master's thesis advisor. These students I actually did know (some) and I could quite easily write a letter of recommendation for them. It was very hard to write such a letter to students who instead took one of my courses together with 50 or 60 other students. This was not very satisfying neither for me nor my/our students (I presume). It felt like we passed each other by on conveyor belts that were moving in the opposite direction. My course was one out of many courses they took and I was just one out of many teachers. To me they were part of a constant stream of students who flowed through my courses and continued elsewhere - out of sight. Only a few students managed to make a strong impression on me. I have also realized that I hardly know anything at all on a personal level even about those few students who actually did made an impression on me.
The university I describe above has become an "education factory" with the students as raw materials to be moulded. During the last few years, a few things have finally started to happen that have changed the situation fundamentally - at least on the master's level.
The first was my sabbatical at University of California Irvine three years ago. I was very inspired by sitting in Bill Tomlinson's lab together with for the most part his graduate students. Graduate students means master's students and ph.d. students. The big divide there was between studies at the bachelor's level and the master's level. Even though not all master's students continue to pursue a ph.d., the master's level studies were much more directed towards research (and interaction with ph.d. students and researchers) than studies at the same level is in Sweden. This also differs a lot from Sweden where there the big divide instead is between master's level students and ph.d. students - who are hired, get a more-than-decent salary, are covered by the social insurance system (get sick leave, parental leave etc.) and so on. It was very inspiring to see many examples of how master's students were part of the research effort to a much higher extent and how they were seen as an asset. I imagine it must be much more satisfying for the master's students to be involved in "real research" too.
The second was the fact that some students wanted us to continue to have regular seminars also after our course ended one and a half years ago. We continued to meet for half a semester and I wrote a blog post about it ("Student Sustainability Lunch Seminars"). It ended after a few months due to the extended Christmas break and due to the the fact that most students then started to write their master's theses and had other things on their mind. Still, it was very inspiring to have a student (August E!) stand up in front of the other students and query about their interest in continuing to meet and talk about sustainability also after the course ended.
The third and most decisive change is this year's switch to a new master's program in "Interactive Media Technology" where the new program replaces the two previous programs we had. Me and Elina have pitched two new master's level courses for the new program and the first has been developed ("DM2720 Sustainable ICT in practice") and is currently given to our first cohort of master's students in the new program. The second (yet-to-be-developed) course would have been given a year from now if not for the fact that I will be on a sabbatical then - so we will give next year a pass and start giving it the year after that. A new project course (replacing my project course "Future of Media") will also be given for the first time during the next academic year, but we don't know that much about it at this point. Finally our first crop of students in the new master's program will write their master's theses next spring (Jan-June 2018) and the difference between these students and those who do so now is that next year's students will have taken two of our courses on ICT and Sustainability rather than just one.
Having read one rather than two courses about Sustainability and ICT might not sound like a huge difference, but it is. The first course is compulsory and 50-70 students study it every year. The new course is voluntary and exclusive - only 17 students are taking it and that really does change everything. Now I have circled back to the main topic of this blog post - the relationship between me as a teacher and my students. With 14 out of 17 students being graduates of our previous course that we gave just before Christmas, I knew the names of every single students in our course already at the very first lecture. This means there is a foundation for a personal relationship with each student already when the course starts. The fact that there are few rather than many students means there is a different ambiance and much greater opportunities for interacting during breaks etc. Since these students are as close as it's possible to come to being "our" students, the clincher was that I invited them all (as well all members of our research team) to a cocktail party in my home this past weekend. Nine students from the course showed up (as well as some research team members) and we had a great time eating, drinking and talking until the last guests ambled away at 11.30 pm. It was also interesting to see my kids interact with the students - my oldest son talked to one of the students about his studies and with another student about computer games and my youngest son got very attached to a student and spontaneously gave her a big hug when she left.
I don't yet know what the "effect" of inviting my students to a party is but I imagine it's pretty rare for students to see the inside of their teachers' homes - I just assume it must have been a first for most or for all of the students. I didn't primarily invite the students to my home for it to have any particular "effect" but rather just because it seemed like a good idea - it's nice, we have the space and they are a manageable bunch size-wise. I do however imagine that one effect is that we will be much more proactive in recruiting master's students to write their theses in our research projects next year. It might be hard to headhunt and match students with specific tasks since we still don't really know what particular interests individual students have and how these interests of theirs could match our research projects. It could the be that the new project course (next year) might set them on a course that could be matched by tailored offers but at this point we'll just have to wait and see. A good start is that some students have chosen to join our research team's distribution list so we will have opportunities to better learn what their interests are from now on and they will also have opportunities to learn some about what it is we are doing during from now on.
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