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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Memes, ‘Fam,’ and Dabbing

Engaging students – to retain them – transcends adopting hip lingo, proving social media savvy.

January 24, 2019

Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

I did it.

One morning last month, I greeted my undergraduate students with a “Hey, Fam!” (That’s slang for “family” for the uninitiated.) I was half-serious, and you could tell that my sarcastic tone belied my sincerity in that moment. An instant later, my students laughed, and I laughed with them. I had briefly adopted “their” lingo in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to engage with them on “their” level. I’ve been considering the many layers of student engagement, including the ways that I and other instructors in higher education personally interact with students to enable and keep them absorbed in learning.

Take, for example, new technology, social media, and the power of the Net. With their universal reach, influence, and ability to use innovation and creativity to sway audiences, it seemed inevitable that the Web would be integrated into some higher education pedagogy. New media wakes up old classes and pulls them into the future, we’re told. Social media, for example, has been injected into academic courses as a way for traditional curriculums to embrace the new age, enliven contemporary courses, and make academics more accessible to our students, whom many of us believe to be cyber-smart.

So, it is common for some professors to teach and assign memes, GIFs, blogs, and the like to further engage millennial students, for whom the internet has always been omnipresent, and who are presumed fully conversant in all things internet. What I’ve witnessed during my teaching tenure reminds me of the perils of making assumptions: taking anything for granted is never good. In this case, students’ allegiant use of their mobile phones, video consoles, and media tablets does not imply their overall social media savvy. Ergo, trying to bridge students’ learning pathways with hip lingo and digital tech does not automatically ensure effective student engagement that beneficially connects students and faculty.

Engaging students in higher education – to retain them – transcends social media and prevailing popular cultural savviness. Inspiring and mentoring young intellects and helping students find their voices may do more to invigorate their learning than hyping trendsetting knowledge.

It’s impressed on higher education faculty that successful student engagement, which extends into mentoring and advising, service-learning, learning communities, and beyond, leads to positive student retention percentages, the ultimate metric for most public colleges and universities. The latest 2018 results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which examined the quality of undergraduate education in preparing first-years and seniors for careers, also measured students’ interactions with faculty aimed at helping prospective graduates develop skills relevant to the workplace. Just within these basic contacts in this area, surveys indicate that there still is room for improvement.

On a more general level, when it comes to student engagement, I’ve learned that short is the shelf-life of discussions on the numerous viral moments in urban, pop, and other cultural cycles. It’s more work for instructors who choose to stay social-media relevant and meld such engagement with their classroom topics. You’ve got to constantly keep up to stay hip and significant. And the memes! There are so many memes, including the ones adjacent to higher education. The memes you teach today, already will be obsolete by the end of the day.

While there are more complex levels of student engagement that may yield more meaningful retention data and might better illustrate how we faculty comport ourselves before our students, what could be considered engagement on the most basic level – how instructors personally relate to students inside and outside of the classroom – shouldn’t be regarded as insignificant.

My own academic research on the historical perceptions of faculty scholarly productivity and college teaching, led me to this assertion by Joseph Katz in his 1962 article, “Personality and Interpersonal Relations in the Classroom,” which summarized the results of his interdisciplinary study of the dynamics of college teaching: “The instructor’s personality and manner of dealing with students are potential influences upon student performance.” Negative behaviors characterized as “impatient” or “hostile” may impede student discussions and other class contributions and build negative class perceptions. Conversely, instructors who exhibit other behaviors deemed more affirming, such as “understanding” and “responsiveness,” may inspire higher class performance and more positive mindsets about pursuing scholarship. But, human nature being complex, Katz noted that some students may react contrary to the findings, and excel or underperform regardless of their instructors’ behaviors.

No doubt some academics will scoff at the notion of taking time to reflect on how their students perceive them, when facilitating mastery of a field is their prime goal. But as instructors, it’s worth examining our teaching demeanor and considering whether what our students observe in us encourages their learning or not. In doing so, you may opt, as I have, to draw the line at dabbing in class, which is now beyond passé. I will not dab, nor discuss dabbing, in an attempt to seek favor with my students. Though, on the recent 97th birthday of this icon, I may make an exception.

How have you successfully you engaged your students? What challenges have you experienced or considered with student engagement? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter!

[Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash and under the Creative Commons license.]


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