As a student, I loved Syllabus Day.
I appreciated the professors who embraced the practice of easing into the semester; dipping a toe rather than plunging into the deep-end. It eased anxiety, reduced stress, and, let’s be honest, ensured that one-fifteenth of the semester would be easy.
Now, as a professor, I find that these benefits still apply to some degree, but I’ve come to enjoy Syllabus Day for another reason. That is, by giving the intense intellectual pursuits time to breathe, I am able to work on building personal connections with my students.
The first day in my classes usually involves some fairly typical course-overview fare; highlights of the syllabus, grading requirements and expectations, class policies, and the like. Pretty standard stuff. I also talk more broadly about suggestions for succeeding as a college student, including the proper ways to communicate with faculty members (such as ensuring you use “Professor” or “Dr.” unless told otherwise).
Then, I shift gears.
I tell students about my own background — that I am both a Northerner and a Southerner, and that I studied sociology and history before transitioning more squarely into criminology. I tell them about my deep passion for wrongful conviction work and my connections to advocacy efforts in that area. I tell them about my interests and hobbies — my love of reading and writing, that I play guitar, that I’m a sports fan and music lover and nerd who plays video games and watches Star Wars.
Some may see this as out-of-place. It is, after all, a college classroom in which the sharing and expansion of knowledge is the only relevant factor. I’d argue, however, that this is an unnecessarily narrow view that may actually limit the effectiveness of our educational efforts.
This is not to say that my perspective on this issue is correct. Faculty members are often hesitant to share much in the way of personal information with students, and that may be with good reason. I keep in mind here my frame of reference, as I wrote about last week. There are certain benefits I have as a result of who I am, and that gives me a level of freedom that others may not enjoy. Still, to the extent possible, I believe that building personal connections with our students is important if we are to truly fulfill the potential of higher education.
I am now in my eighth year of teaching undergraduates in some capacity. In my teaching evaluations during that time, I’m proud of the most consistent comments I’ve received, specifically, that students find me approachable and caring.
I share this not to brag. I’m far from the best teacher you’ll ever see. I understand that these positive comments are due in part to a variety of factors that are not my own doing — for example, that I’ve been a relatively young teacher and thus may come across as less intimidating than a more senior professor. It’s also a fact that such compliments have come amidst a fair number of complaints and critiques.
However, I share them because friends and colleagues have sometimes asked me why, in a profession where teaching too often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and the high-priority student-focus too often turns toward the institutional or individual, I enjoy being in the classroom with my students so much. I’ve been asked how I get students to “like me,” and how I know which students are basketball fans and which are football fans and which ones like anime or that one of them has three pet frogs.
My answer to these and other similar questions is usually tied to the fact that I allow students in. I share with them bits and pieces of myself beyond the academy.
I am not defined solely (or even mostly) by my work, and I think it’s okay for students to know that. They can know that I am as human as they are, with all sorts of faults and quirks and idiosyncrasies. They can know about the little things; that I get deeply upset when the Knicks lose (which they do, a lot), or that I’m tired and cranky because my cat woke me up six times last night, or that I enjoy frozen pizza as much as they do. Or, they can know about the big things; one of my classes knew that I was engaged before some friends and family members did, and another knew I was upset and distracted one week because the vet thought our dog had cancer (he didn’t).
These non-academic things are all parts of what make me who I am. And sharing them with students allows them to see me. It also often encourages them to share bits and pieces of themselves, and therefore helps me to see them. They give me grief when the Knicks lose; I give it right back when the Lakers lose.
In short, we build connections. Real, meaningful, human connections that exist beyond a letter on their college transcript and a 5 on my teaching evaluation.
With fear of overstating their importance, I’d argue that these connections increase the sense of humanity in the classroom. They open pathways to caring and empathy and compassion. And with these, we are more likely to fulfill the ultimate goal learning, growing, and becoming better.
To learn more about my work, or to contact me, head over to www.rjnorris.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @RNorris_PhD.