David Pollock, PhD
Faculty Development Specialist
It’s that time of the semester again when Jan, an assistant professor of biology in her second year of teaching, reads her student feedback from courses she just taught. As usual, the ratings are OK but not what she wishes students felt about her and her classes. Last semester, her chair suggested that she needed to work on “getting more connected” to students as there have been frequent comments like, “uninterested in me as a student” and “doesn’t care,” and grades in the courses she teaches are a little lower than they had been in previous years.
Those comments, and others like them, hit her hard. She does care she insisted to her chair and is really unsure why some students think of her that way. There are always a few students who seem to connect with her. They even come by her office from time to time to chat. But she knows most students do not respond to her that way. She’s been called “stern” before, but she dismissed that label as a complaint from students who do not appreciate her high expectations of them.
“Teaching is not a popularity contest” she recalls one of her graduate school mentors telling her, and the idea of intentionally trying to make a connection with students feels so manipulative to her. “Asking my students how their weekend was on a Monday morning just feels so fake to me,” she told her chair. “I’m really not interested in hearing about the football game and the party afterward,” she added. “That’s just who I am.” But he insists that this is something she needs to work on.
Does she? Can an instructor be highly competent in the discipline, skilled at explaining things, and still be lacking because of students’ feelings about her? What would you do?
So what would you do? Is Jan right that she cannot move toward a more friendly way of
interacting with students if it doesn’t fit her personality? Or does she need to attempt a different way of interacting with students? And if so, how should she go about it if it doesn’t come naturally to her?
Here are some reader comments:
I would try to step back and think about the course as a whole and how I am approaching it. I would focus on the the needs and interests of students taking my course, and then make attempts to make changes to assignments or content as needed to better align with the students' goals. I can learn this about my students through a pre-class survey, a first week discussion/activity in class, or an assignment. This way, I am connecting with students in a way that is directly relevant to the course, a way that does not require changing my personality. I am always concerned when students think that I don't care about them, and I'd dig a little deeper to find out more about this. Sometimes students become overly concerned with grades and due dates and feel personally offended when I uphold a known course policy. I try to be flexible when I can, but also know that sometimes giving endless extensions is not feasible or helpful for anyone. Inviting students to discuss issues as they come up might be a way to mitigate this challenge. Clearly communicating to students that I do care about their learning and success in the course, in class and one-on-one, would be a priority for me.
Jan should consider becoming male. She will instantly have less cultural expectation of being nurturing and her businesslike demeanor will become an asset rather than a liability.