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From: Beckie Supiano
Subject: Teaching: The ‘Motivating Presence’ of Professors and Peers
- I share some reflections on students and professors missing the kinds of interactions that usually define a college campus.
- I pass along a question from a reader and invite your responses.
- I point to some recent articles you may have missed.
A Window to What Could Have Been
For many professors, the move to remote instruction was chaotic and stressful. It was also sad: a common theme I heard from professors in those early weeks was how much they missed being together with their students.
A year later, that’s still broadly true — even though professors have gotten more comfortable teaching online — even at colleges that are holding classes in person. Campuses are designed to foster connections that are awfully difficult to square with social-distancing guidelines.
Those in-person interactions are sometimes seen as a luxury. But research suggests they create the conditions for learning and shape the student experience.
Here’s what Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs found in the longitudinal study of Hamilton College students detailed in their 2014 book, How College Works:
“People, far more than programs, majors, or classes, are decisive in students’ experiences of college,” they write. “Without the motivating presence of friends, teachers, and mentors, even the best-designed, potentially most-valuable academic programs will fail.”
That “motivating presence” is often felt most powerfully in person. “Time and again,” the authors write, “a single dinner at a professor’s home, or a single focused conversation with a professor about a student’s work, seemed to have an outsized impact on the student’s success.” A bit later, they add: “Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college.”
The way students form relationships, with professors and with one another, can feel random. But colleges can do a lot to create environments in which such connections are likely to develop, Chambliss and Takacs argue. (A few years back, I wrote about one college’s efforts to put this idea into practice here.)
Colleges can, of course, work to build community online, too. Los Angeles Pacific University, for instance, is always fully online. As part of a new mobile app, it has created channels for students with common interests to find one another outside of classes.
How did the pandemic affect these meaningful connections between students and professors? Dan Berrett — a Chronicle editor whom longtime readers might recognize as the founder of this newsletter — encouraged me to focus on that question by writing about a college senior working closely on a project with a professor. So this semester I followed along with Morgan Pedroso Curry, an environmental-geoscience major at the College of Wooster, and Shelley Judge, his faculty mentor.
Most college students, of course, don’t have the experience of collaborating with a faculty member this intensely. But a lot of what I’ll carry away from working on this story — which you can read here — is how Pedroso Curry and Judge described what has been missing this year.
Here, for instance, is what Pedroso Curry told me after attending an outdoor party following the completion of his project: “Having this one party for the whole year brought me to a window, showing me what it could have been.”
That feeling, I think, would ring true for many students; as Judge’s frustration with not being able to do some of the things she normally does with and for her students will with many professors.
Students and professors alike are missing something that matters. We’ve written a bit about efforts to help instructors make sense of pandemic teaching and the importance of giving a campus community room to mourn. I wonder: What other support do your students — or you — need to move into the coming academic year? Have you thought about what building connections with your students might look like come fall? Share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they may be included in a future newsletter.
Returning to In-Person Teaching
A reader recently wrote in with a question we thought you might be able to answer: Have you come across resources for helping faculty members plan a switch back to face-to-face instruction after teaching remotely?
If you know of anything that could fit the bill, please send it to me at email@example.com. If we get some good responses, we’ll share them back in a future newsletter.
- Inside Higher Ed has the story of one university that said “no” to online-proctoring services and “yes” to investing in faculty development.
- On Twitter, Maha Bali shares a successful warm-up activity she did with her students.
- The Chronicle is compiling a list of colleges requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 for the fall semester; you can follow it here.