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Title

Words With Students

Make time for more off-the-cuff student conferences

June 5, 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 still love The Smiths. The songs performed by the 1980s English alternative rock band, like “How Soon is Now,” and co-written by its angsty lead singer (Steven) Morrissey helped me survive (ignore the worst of) my high school years and the days beyond. Though Morrissey’s recently publicized personal politics have forced me to rethink my brand loyalty to him, even so, this summer I plan to unearth my framed 1985 band concert poster from the attic, wipe off the years’ accumulated dust, and wistfully hang it in my academic office.

I have, in previous years and in previous offices, featured the print. When the students who came through looked up and saw The Smiths picture adorning my wall, it usually sparked curiosity and a few extemporized conversations. And, despite really having no deliberate ulterior motives, that was partially the point. I thought that once they eyed the print or my glowing Himalayan salt lamp, my enlarged snapshot of a partially submerged polar bear at the Central Park Zoo in New York City (see above), or the affective portrait of my son, then maybe it would prompt from students more dynamic chats, disarm any tension or anxiety they felt while sitting in an instructor’s office, and, possibly, allow me opportunities to reveal some remarkable (yes!) personal details about myself.

Gradhackers have discussed ways that we complement our classroom pedagogy with student conferences – namely, those focused moments when we engage our students one-on-one, academically. But we, instructors, continually in pursuit of encouraging student academic success, should also make time to connect with our students more informally, as we employ scholarship that we believe to be critical to their academic success.

This thought permeates my academic psyche as I debrief the semester that just ended. And recent studies seem to leave a wide berth for more research on the bearing that faculty interaction and faculty social integration have on student education outcomes.

While I mandated last semester that students meet with me for at least one mandatory 15-minute student conference for a small percentage of their grade, a handful of students blew the appointment off. Should I have followed up with them more stridently after emailing them and engaging them in brief conversations before and after class? Or should I merely continue to hold students accountable for their actions (or inactions)?

Based on my academic experiences and conversations with peers, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. Aside from initiating difficult conversations related to lackluster academic performance or chronic absenteeism, some students either simply don’t wish to engage informally with faculty, don’t know how or don’t feel comfortable doing so. Numerous articles targeted to higher ed students bear this out; there are commentaries that advise students on how to talk to their professors, tips on what to discuss with instructors during office hours, and recommendations on ways that undergraduates and graduate students, alike, should properly interact with famous academics.

A further flick through the research seems to reveal a hodgepodge when it comes to construing any links between faculty social interaction and positive student learning outcomes, including the following assertions: 1) that the effects of faculty social integration and faculty interaction impact students differently when it comes to student achievement; 2) that there’s a dearth of research on student learning outcomes, specifically, examining the impacts of the informal relationships between students and teachers in higher education, and 3) that analyses seems to coalesce around the finding that informal interactions with students, alone, do not guarantee effective learning and development, but rather that the quality of such interactions matter.

In other reflections of my past semester, I remember a particular student who was always distracted and inattentive in class during the increasingly rare instances they were in attendance. When it was just the two of us in the room before class began, I engaged them in light conversation and ascertained that they were much more engrossed in the course than I had presumed. And that other student, who I saw leave my class early for several days that one week? They were participating in a series of interviews for a prized internship spot.

I regret that there were students whom I didn’t get to communicate with much, if at all, outside the classroom. Either they failed to meet with me or I didn’t go to extra lengths to pursue increased engagement with them. Time during and immediately before or after class sessions are all too brief. Back in the day, I honestly don’t remember participating in too many meetings with my own undergraduate instructors (aside from major advisors and mentors) or if I would have been excited to be summoned to the office of my professor just to chat.

I have written before about the unexpected moments I encountered soon after welcoming students into my office and simply asking them how they were doing; often their responses are startling and would elicit compassion from many of us.

Moving forward, I aim to hold more student conferences earlier in the semester to casually and confidentially chat informally about whatever my students would care to share. During past meetings, discussions about their challenges (especially, as freshmen), family, hometowns, food, and movies, have smoothed the way for weightier subjects related to academics and, by extension, their instructor implicitly expecting their full engagement in class.

While the portraits and ambient lighting that I choose to feature in my office may not help to establish common ground with all my students, my office accessories may serve as icebreakers;  why not enable fruitful conversations with students that can help dissolve existing tensions and anxiety that may already be impeding their academic success from the outset?

What is your experience with student conferences? Do you have some recommendations that have proven effective? Tell us about it in the comments below or on Twitter!

[Image of the polar bear exhibit at the Central Park Zoo in New York City taken and submitted by the author.]

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