Last semester, I wrote a post about the mid-semester blues in which I described the ebbs and flows that both students and instructors experience over the fifteen weeks of ENG 1020. In that post I suggested some strategies for re-engaging students and re-energizing the classroom. One of the things I suggested was shifting the focus from classroom activities to conferences with students. I argued that conferences help remind both instructors and students of the core humanity of each person and help focus both parties on students’ individual intellectual projects and their individual progress and development.
With the beginning of the new semester, I want to make another pitch for connecting with students as individuals and argue that doing so at the beginning of the term is critical to establishing a solid foundation for a successful experience. Specifically, I want to encourage instructors to require all students to visit them in their office within the first three weeks of class. I also want to suggest that this first meeting should not be tied to a specific assignment, but rather should simply provide an opportunity to meet each other as people.
These visits only have to be a few minutes long and instead of asking students to make an appointment, I just set up an open door schedule for those first few weeks before moving to a more regular conference schedule. When they visit, I ask students to sit down or if more than one shows up at the same time, we chat around a table or in the hall. I ask questions; not too specific but not too general. I ask how many classes they’re taking. I ask which classes they’re worried about. I ask them where they went to high school. That usually gets the conversation going as connections emerge. Food is always a bonus; most everyone loves Tim Horton Timbits (doughnut holes) or Jolly Ranchers.
I’ve used this strategy for the past few semesters and I think it has numerous upsides for everyone involved. Here’s just a couple:
* For as many times as we encourage students to make an appointment, many never do. I think we often underestimate how intimidating meeting with instructors is for many students, particularly those who have not been well served and well treated in their previous school or other institutions they’ve had to deal with. Requiring students to come visit, and then making sure that visit is positive and nurturing helps break that wall and will make the next conference, which will almost certainly address student work, much more productive.
* Students need to know that instructors are real people and inviting them to our office is one of the best ways to do that. They need to see pictures of our partners on our desk and superhero action figures lined up on the window sill. We need to know about students’ lives: what they’re interested in, what they’re worried about, how they get to school, etc. Establishing some common ground and the sense that we care about them will go a long way when the time comes to evaluate students’ work and to talk to them honestly about their strengths and weaknesses. Talking to a student out in the hall about texting during class is much easier when a week earlier you were talking about the Lions.
It’s often noted that both students and instructors carry loads of preconceived notions about the other and that these assumptions frequently interfere with student learning. Our department has a long tradition of valuing student conferencing but too often those students who need our help the most simply don’t make it through the door. Requiring a non-work—related visit early in the semester is one way to change that. Give it a try.
Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. He is also a recent Ph.D. graduate of the department, whose dissertation “Rhetorical Outcomes: A Genre Analysis of Student Service-Learning Writing” used genre theory to theorize writing assessment issues in service-learning courses. Thomas is currently teaching ENG 1020, and has taught ENG 1010 and ENG 3010 previously.