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Deidra Faye Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Whenever I scroll through dozens of published dissertations, I’m always riveted by the humanity that’s illustrated – illuminated, really – within the preliminary pages well before the nitty gritty research begins to unfold. Lively discussions revolving around whom people thanked in their dissertations took place on Twitter recently when Jennifer Polk, who, as a life, career, and wellness coach for graduate students and PhDs, assists them with job searches and helps them live their best work and business lives, initiated the interesting discussion. In her own dissertation, Polk said she thanked her favorite band, while some responders said they had acknowledged their pets, coffee shop staffs, supervisors, medical professionals, and others to celebrate the end of their research exposition.

But, perhaps even more fascinating and revealing are the insights found among the dedication pages. Unassuming, and often just one or two lines in length, dedications can be intense. It’s as if when it came time to create that optional page, graduate student researchers were told, “Yaaasss, go ahead and let it all out!” For some, the culmination of one’s academic life’s work demands such an outpouring. Dissertation dedications are a way of formally offering your research exposition to a person or entity as a “testimony of affection or respect.” When you read some dedications, evidence of the struggle within reveals itself. Phrases directed at others, such as “helping me through the tears,” “shoulder to cry on,” “endless love,” and “tireless support” are common, as are varied affirmations of religious faith and such words as “understanding,” “sacrifice,” “unselfish,” “blessed,” and “sustains” that also are aimed at another.

Recently, I sifted through dissertation dedications seeking inspiration as I wrote my own, hoping to strike just the right tone as I near the end of my own academic journey. However, as I read so many heartfelt testaments, I couldn’t help but think of the legions of students I’d advised and taught over the years. These dedications reminded me of the higher education struggles that they had endured, mostly in silence, and at times in concert with us graduate student researchers, who also were dealing with issues related to work-life-family balance, finances, imposter syndrome, illness, and other ordeals.

The times when I simply asked students how they were doing frequently elicited unexpected responses that would provoke empathy from the most hardened among us. Willingly or not, instructors and advisers are on the front lines when it comes to confronting students’ health and well-being and unless students have major emotional and mental health issues, for which only professionals should intervene, we should make the time outside of class to at least listen to them, especially when they seek us out.

But as an instructor, if you’ve ever been lied to and deceived by the very students you either taught or encouraged or have had to sideline your own research to address urgent student issues, it can be tough to always want to swing open your office doors or clear your schedule to possibly invite in more magical thinking or disruptions. But looking at it from another perspective, such dishonesty, which also illustrates the depths of some students’ crises, is usually the exception and not the rule. In addition, students may have decided to reach out to you because something you said or did made them feel secure enough to do so.  

I’ve learned that following a simple formula that’s academic and holistic in nature can help graduate instructors deliver on the educational and, often, altruistic promises they guarantee at the start of the semester: check in with your students; extend availabilities to meet; offer feedback, and follow up

These four steps, approached independently and consecutively, tells students that they are seen, heard, and that they matter, and lets them know that you’re in it for the long (or at least semester-long) haul.

We all are going through some stuff and our students are no exception. Instructors expend a lot of energy in the first several weeks of class ensuring that students get a firm start and can hit the ground running. In the beginning of the semester, we learn students’ names, are privy to a few of their personal details, and hear about their career goals. But as the semester progresses, we get busier, we deal with distractions that blow up our pre-planned course designs, and we field unexpected calls from parents. Somewhere along the way, we may lose the first-week momentum we tried to sustain through the end of the semester.

Effective and creative ways to connect with students face-to-face and online are well-researched and well-written. Pop culture has lampooned some of the over-the-top approaches that instructors have taken to bond with their students. Prevalent, too, are ways to maintain student engagement. Doing so successfully is tricky but not impossible. That’s where (re)connecting with your students stands to make the most difference. And though most graduate instructors don’t teach for accolades alone, it’s not uncommon to hear students who’ve benefited from their mentorship compliment instructors using the same sincere words that echo the dedications in dissertations.   

How do you go about (re)connecting with your students? If you’re effective at it, how do you negotiate having an open-door policy and furthering your own research? Share your story in the comments below!

[Image from Flickr User, Mitchells Butlers, used under the Public Domain.]

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