Now that I am back in the classroom, after many years in the
wilds of administration, I have been able to concentrate on teaching. And despite having started this gig teaching college
students in 1981, I am still learning, and now learning from my younger colleagues.
Just this last week I was reminded that some of what I have
learned is paying off. It’s just past midterms. Students are concerned about
their grades and where they will end up. I’m prodding them in each class session
to take action. They are meeting with me to think through what they can do to
At the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, a year and a
half ago, one of our newer Biblical Studies professors, Dr. Melanie Howard,
gave a brief presentation on working with first generation students. She gave several suggestions, one of which I began
to try out, and am still using. I now hold traditional office hours in the
coffee shop each week. After my early class I head over to the coffee shop,
Charlotte’s Corner (in Alumni Hall) get a drink and hang out, do some work,
read, review for classes, whatever is pressing. Students can drop by without an
appointment to chat about anything they have on their minds. Sometimes I buy
them a cup of coffee.
In the past when I waited in my actual office for students
to show up, I met with a handful over the course of the semester. Now I average 2-3 a week. If I saw six
students over the semester in my office, I now see 30+. They stop by to clarify
something said in class, check on the topic of an assignment or reading, get
help on a paper, ask what they can do to improve their grades, or sometimes just
to talk for a few minutes.
Melanie explained that going to a professor’s office can be
intimidating. And it’s out of the way,
takes special effort to get over too it.
The coffee shop is easy, on the main footpath, and a safer environment.
I still meet with students in my office, especially if they want to go over grades
or talk about a personal situation with greater privacy. But those more casual
conversations in the coffee shop, even if just for a few minutes, seem to be appreciated
and to work for students.
Many years ago, probably about 20, one of our then younger professors,
Dr. Tim Neufeld, professor of Christian ministry, gave me a piece of advice
that I continue to rely on. He may not even remember it. I asked him what was important about advising
and mentoring for the traditional college age student—the 18 to 23-year-old. His
reply was something like this. They want to be able to drop in when they need
something—advice, information, or just to make contact with someone. They want
to be free to leave, be on their own, and make their own decisions, but they
also need someone available. He was more eloquent, and probably had more to
say, but this is the gist of what I remember. And so, I don’t press too hard,
and I let students set the tone and depth of what they want to discuss. If the
chat is 3 minutes or 30 minutes, that is ok. I have been following Tim’s
guidance ever since.
Many tell us that in college advising and mentoring, we need
to make sure that students—young adults—make their own decisions. Tim’s advice
fits that goal. Be available, offer counsel, encourage, then let them go, knowing
they have support but will also be responsible for the decisions they make.
One other new practice has developed, sort of on its own
over the last couple of years. One day in class, with a paper due in a few
days, I announced that I would read and make suggestions on papers if students
sent them to me at least a day before they were due. To my surprise several students
took me up on it.
I’ve developed a simple pattern of making suggestions for
things they might consider in the final revision of a paper. I do not grade them, tell them what their grades
might be, revise for them, or proof read.
I simply make suggestions. They range from “you might want to proofread
very carefully and make sure your work is grammatical,” to “look at the actual assignment,
you do not seem to be addressing it directly.”
Or it might be about the topic: “look at the reading again; have you covered
all of the most important points?” I might suggest that they test their logic,
that they make sure they include a topic or thesis statement, that their
conclusion flows from the body of the paper. I might offer some guidance on the
meaning of a term or remind them of the historical context they are working
within. I read through their paper and offer a few lines to prod them to deeper
thinking, clearer writing (the two go together), and more thoughtful analysis.
In a class of 50 students, 5-10% of the students might take me up on it,
depending on the pressures of that particular time of the semester.
There is one additional benefit. I remind them often that
good academic work is not about dashing off their first thoughts. Good papers
and learning are the result of considered thinking and writing, developed and
reconsidered over time. This means that they must write a paper, set it aside,
go back to it, revise it to make sure it addresses questions and presents
thoughts well and deeply, flows logically and reads grammatically. Reading
follows the same pattern. We don’t get everything the first time we read it. We
have to read, let it simmer in our minds, go back to it and stir again. If a
few students plan their work so that they get a draft done a day earlier than
they might have otherwise, and then take the time to revise it carefully, that
is an added benefit. It takes me an hour or two for each assignment, but it has
become one of my standard practices—I set aside time for it. It also makes grading
enjoyable. I can see the progress some of the students have made. They seem to
be proud of that progress.
So, if you thought that professors mostly just hang out in
coffee shops, talk with students, and avoid real work, well, you were at least
partially correct! Thanks to Tim and Melanie, and my other colleagues who continue
to teach me how to teach. (I’ve revised this piece several times…)