One of the most ubiquitous recommendations for teachers is to get to know your students.  It is a powerful tool, but not always possible and definitely not always easy.  College students are on guard and on their dignity in the classroom, and the persona they present is at most a fraction of their true selves.  (I know that is true for all of us at any given time, but I think the artificiality of the classroom, the authority and power of the instructor, and students’ individual experiences with education or the lack thereof combine to make the classroom a difficult place in which to be genuine.)

One of my colleagues has come up with a technique I admire (maybe because I do love a show) – he puts on public exhibitions based on the content being studied in his classes and spends his time at those exhibitions talking to students, standing by their sides.  He told me that his students are so much more open and relaxed when he is by their side rather than in front of the classroom.  The stories students have shared with him have made his teaching easier as he understands what were formerly confusing or misleading responses, and he doesn’t mis-interpret student statements as often.   The effort required to put on an exhibit is amply repaid by the increased understanding he has gained.

Somewhere else recently (I apologize to the author of this as I have no idea where I read it – wasn’t thinking about noting the source for this blog at the time, apparently!) I read a suggestion to move your office outside – walk with students when you are meeting with them.  It has a similar effect to the exhibition conversations – being side by side offsets the power imbalance, even if only by a little bit, and students are more relaxed and honest.  The logistics seem a little challenging when I look at our campus, but I like the idea.  A friend of mine who advises first generation college students often walks with his advisees during their appointments – he says at the very least it keeps his weight down!

Both of these techniques are a start toward dismantling the barricades that prevent honest communication between instructors and students, and neither compromises dignity – trying to be like the kids is a road to disaster for me, so I appreciate a path that doesn’t require (hmmm – everything I start to write here sounds like a grumpy old professor who doesn’t want to go to the raucous noisy student events – I think I’ll just stop here!)

We’re walking, we’re talking.  I like.