Feedback and making connections

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

First off, I do think it is important that we, as teachers, develop connections in the classroom with our students, though I think the older we get, the more we may find this difficult. For example, once you have been out of school for a while and find yourself less and less understanding what is “popular culture” to these students, the more you may find it difficult to foster those connections.

Of course, you can also do this through love of the subject matter, which we all as teachers should always have, and sharing that appreciation with our students, some of whom feel the same way we do about that subject or maybe parts of what we teach. Or maybe they just cling to our enthusiasm and reciprocate that. I mean, as a student myself, I’ve always appreciated the more passionate teachers and even if I didn’t particularly like the subject matter, I usually was able to connect on some level with a teacher who showed passion for the subject. I respected that. I compared it to my own feelings about writing and literature and in that way I was able to at least feel all right in the classroom, even when I struggled with the subject matter, though I still always hated being called on since it was something I struggled with (I am thinking math here).

One of the things that, for me as a teacher, has always helped foster these connections is encouraging feedback from students and encouraging their questions. For new classes, I usually ask for feedback a few times during the semester, I usually try to time it out in 3-4 week intervals, and that works pretty well in terms of being able to change things and improve them based on that feedback. Students also seem to appreciate the openness as well since the more you do it, and are consistent with it, the more helpful the feedback becomes. I’ve found that the more open I am for questions, and the more I make myself available for these questions, the better the class progresses. When teaching a new class, I think this becomes even more important since it is not only new material for the students, but also for you as the teacher.

Sometimes this feeling of newness causes an appropriate level of panic, even in us teachers. We think this like oh no, what if I am going to be exposed as a fraud? We also think things like oh my, I have to make myself even more available for questions now since this material is as new for me as it is for them. And this kind of thinking sometimes leads to what I call crazy ideas, such as giving way too much personal information to students or allowing students to seriously contact you any time of the day, such as giving your phone number, even if you have a policy that states it can only be used during X amount of hours.Those ideas are all bad. For one, you are not teaching 24/7. Everyone needs time off. Everyone needs some level of privacy. For example, do we really want to hear about what our students did last Friday night? Not really. I am sure they wouldn’t want to know what we were doing either, though they may make up some funny or sad stories about it, if they wanted to. Giving too much information could lead to that information being abused, probably not by all students, but maybe one or two.

When I teach online, for example, there is the assumption with some students that because I teach online, I was always online and so if I didn’t answer their email within the hour they sent it, there was sometimes another email to follow, sometimes with all caps in the subject line. I mean, I could see this as amusing, and on some level it is now that it is in the past, but at the time all I could think was really? I am not online 24/7, much less do I typically check work email after 5 or 6 in the evening.

Because of this I’ve developed email policies that state a student should expect about 24 hours for an email reply during the weekday, but if a student emails Friday afternoon, that student may not get a response until Monday morning. I also never give my phone number out in my syllabus or elsewhere, even though I don’t have an office phone, though this has never been a problem since students typically email or talk to me after class or during office hours anyway. Though, I have given my number out to students who have had emergency or personal situations (a death of a parent and being 9 months pregnant, for example). In these instances, I thought it was OK and it wouldn’t be abused and it wasn’t abused.

But this isn’t to say that I don’t try to make it easier for students to contact me, as I am very concerned about my availability since I don’t have an office phone and because I am teaching a new class this semester, and so I have started to welcome students to use Twitter and given my course a hashtag so it is easier to ask me questions or communicate with me online. In my syllabus, I share my Twitter username @adventuresinphd and the course hashtag #engl459 so they can contact me with questions, share resources for the grant writing class, or just share any information they find relevant to the course. I encourage students to engage with the class using this as well. I also have them do a semester-long (or unit long, if they wish. I’m flexible to a fault) Twitter assignment that I have shared here.  I also had a similar assignment for my online summer class as well. Along with this, I also open a forum discussion thread in Blackboard for questions and encourage students to ask questions there as well as encourage students to answer, if they know the answer.

What I have noticed in doing this is that students will use whatever they are most comfortable with in terms of communicating with a professor and so far that has been email. I’ve had probably more students use the Blackboard discussion forum than Twitter, so far. But I also blame this on the Twitter assignment not being semester-long, only as long as an assignment. I think maybe a longer Twitter assignment will spark more engagement, or that is my theory, at least, though I also realize some students will be highly resistant, as is typical with social media assignments.

And so I guess I will just be updating you with how this all turns out. I feel teaching this grant writing class will in some ways be similar to getting thrown into the fire, but I always a like a challenge, so I guess I am OK with that. I know that, as a colleague has stated to me, it is probably the hardest class to teach in the upper division writing curriculum, and after writing the first unit, the agendas for the first two weeks, and the syllabus and schedule, I totally believe that.  I’ll keep you updated, as always.

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