A brick wall.
That’s right: In most colleges, there’s a brick wall looking you straight in the face. How do you choose to see it? Is it a nice architectural choice, or a metaphor for the separation you feel from your professors? Many students may feel that this wall prevents them from developing real relationships with their professors. This barrier may be a problem you face — but it’s one you have the power to fix.
The Ideal Relationship
As a professor, I am very satisfied to hear a student say,“I wanted to do well in your class because I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Performance in a class shouldn’t be just about the grade. It’s also about establishing a connection, and these students didn’t want to do less than what I knew they were capable of. That’s the type of trust all professors and students should strive for.
Of course, that sentiment goes both ways: As a teacher, I want to perform well so I don’t disappoint my students, either. (I joke with my students that I want them to feel they got their money’s worth.) I want my students to feel they got what they needed out of my class — and hopefully received something they didn’t expect, but were glad to get.
Professors are doing their students a service when they allow students the opportunity and space to be leaders in the classroom. The best work comes from professors and students having equal footing as explorers, working together to discover something new. That’s the kind of relationship every student should build during an academic career: a shared partnership in intellectual curiosity.
Finding the Right Connection
It’s a professor’s job to diffuse a certain level of knowledge to the entire class. If a student wants to explore past that level of knowledge, he should certainly seek me out in my office. Students need to ask questions — after that, I can individualize their learning, without individualizing my syllabus.
If you’re trying to find a professor to connect with, first look at what each faculty member is interested in. Instead of just looking at grade distribution or reviewing a profile on “Rate My Professor,” look at what they research and what they’re active in, inside and outside of the classroom. Take a look at your professors’ LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts to see their backgrounds and get a taste of their personalities.
A Common Misconception Between Big vs. Small
There’s a common misconception that if you choose to go to a state school, all of your classes will be held in a 500-person auditorium, leaving students with no hope of connecting with a professor. That’s just not true. Just because a class isn’t held in the most intimate classroom setting doesn’t mean you can’t connect with your professor. You may simply have to work a little harder to get noticed.
When I worked at a small, private college, my office was Grand Central Station, thanks to its location and open door. At a larger college, it may be harder to create that atmosphere, but not impossible. Unfortunately, sometimes when students visit me, it’s common to hear “This is the first time I have been to a professor’s office” — from seniors. Obviously, this troubles me.
So, how can you engage with a professor at a larger school? It takes initiative, pure and simple. Even when you’re in that 500-person class, you can still make a connection. Start by introducing yourself or stopping by the professor’s office. I’m a professor who is interested in what my students are interested in, but they have to give me the opportunity to connect with them.
Benefits — Now and Later
Students are more confident when they have a mentorship with a professor. It’s easier to find professional networking opportunities, thanks to professors’ contacts in their industries — and that small difference can have exponential benefits throughout a student’s career. The result is a stronger web of connections for the rest of the university, too.
For example, one of my students recently chatted with me about her future opportunities, and because of a still-strong relationship with a former student employed by a promotion company in New York, I was able to connect the two. This has been the case with other students as well: Students who engage with me, and stay engaged, often create opportunities for my current students.
But it’s not just a professional boost; it’s an intellectual and interpersonal one, too. A strong student-professor connection is, in my opinion, an essential part of a college education. I don’t think you’ve truly experienced college unless you can still call up a former professor five years later and have that person know who you are. That’s a bond that can help you reap even more benefits from your education, right now and for years down the road.
It’s time to break down the brick wall. The best way to start: Check out your professor’s office hours, pop in, and say “hi.” Really, it’s that simple.
Charles W. Keene is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business. Charles has been nominated for, and honored with, numerous teaching and mentoring awards at both small private and large public institutions.
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