I was thinking about how graduate students and faculty have a different relationship with campus than undergraduates, and how that might mean we have to do a little extra work if we want to be of most benefit possible to our students. I first came to Virginia Tech as a student in graduate school. My sister has been here since 2010, so I have visited and am vaguely familiar with aspects of campus and community life, but I, and I am sure many other graduate students, have a vastly different relationship to the university and town than undergraduate students. This is of concern to me when I think about preparing to teach my first course next year.
I want to be able to help my students not only succeed in my class but also college, overall, but I am concerned that I don’t know about the different resources available to them. If I don’t know what resources, services, etc. are available, I won’t be able to connect my students to the people, centers and services that might be of greatest help to them. I plan to spend some time this summer and over the fall semester visiting different buildings on campus to get a better sense of who and what is located where. I really want to incorporate campus resources into my classes (which will be comprised of primarily first-year students) so they can start off their college careers with a knowledge of where to turn when they need help.
When I was in undergrad, I was a peer facilitator for a group of 10 students in a freshman year seminar for the honors college. Each year, I had a variety of student personalities and strengths, including the exuberant and outgoing students and also the thoughtful and shy students.
I was fortunate to have such a small group because I was able to develop a system to gradually build shier students up to participating in group discussions without penalizing them for their personality and characteristics at the outset.
The first thing I did was set ground rules for our group. At the time, I had some quote or clip from The Daily Show or something similar, but now by rules are essentially “you are free to share a difference of opinion but will not be permitted to deny, denigrate or disrespect another individual’s identity or existence.” This helped to foster an open and inclusive conversation where everyone would feel comfortable sharing.
The purpose of grading class participation was as a means to gauge engagement with class topics and readings. So, for the first 3 weeks of class while everyone was still getting comfortable with one another, my shy students would have to take notes and email me their thoughts and places where they would have contributed in class. This way, I could ensure they were engaged, but they didn’t have to push themselves beyond their limits straightaway.
For the next 2-3 weeks, I would open class discussions by asking my shy students questions directly, so they were participating in group discussions but didn’t have to work themselves up right to find the breaks in conversation and courage to speak up or over other students.
After that sort of introductory period, I would have another face-to-face meeting with my students to check in and see how they were feeling and let them know that I would expect them to start actively participating in class. We would usually set a goal number of times per class that would increase over time.
I think this strategy works well with shy students, students with anxiety and could also work will for students who have a language barrier, with some adaptation. I know I will have to change some things to get this to work with the bigger classes at Tech, but I really want engaging all students to be a focus and area of success for me as an instructor.
I think that this sentiment has been made by my peers, but I am really hoping for a push toward more emphasis and respect for teaching positions and fields in the humanities and social sciences. Whether intentionally or not, often when we talk about the most highly respected or highly sought after positions, we assume that it’s the STEM fields. That assumption ignores not only the importance of the humanities and social sciences but also individual differences and preferences. Even though STEM fields might have a higher base salary, etc. not everyone prefers those fields, and if we don’t continue to encourage engagement in the humanities and social scientists, we’ll just have a lot of highly distinguished scholars with specialized research skills but no soft skills, which would honestly be terrible.
I would also like a shift toward recognizing the importance of teaching responsibilities, even at research-based institutions. If we focus too heavily on research and not on fostering education and passion within the next generations, there won’t be new cohorts of researchers to continue the work being done now.