TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, September 10, 2018

One Way To Show Students You Care — And Why You Might Want To Try It

Chronicle of Higher Education, One Way to Show Students You Care — And Why You Might Want to Try It:

For years, Reesa-Marie Dawkins has included on her course syllabi a note to students titled: “When life happens … send me an email.” In several paragraphs, Dawkins, an adjunct professor for the University of Alaska system who teaches statistics and logistics online, describes the kinds of personal challenges students might confront during the term, and urges them to seek her help when they do. “I will help you get through it,” she writes, “(no matter what it is).”

Dawkins’s message is unusually detailed and personal, but it’s part of an emerging pattern in which instructors seek to communicate their care and concern for students from the outset of a course. Professors, of course, are no monolith, and the matter of how involved they ought to get in students’ lives is in flux. Some point to changes in the college-going population — today’s students are less advantaged than those of years past, and more likely to experience depression and anxiety — and see a need to intervene more proactively.

Others hold that such interactions are beyond the purview of their jobs. That’s why such mundane-seeming matters as enforcing attendance policies and requesting that students purchase a stapler can spark impassioned debates among instructors on social media. No one wants to feel that students are taking advantage of their generosity. But those who urge generosity anyhow say that flexible, humane policies reduce the pressure students may feel to lie, and are ultimately more fair for everyone.

In the current version of her note, Dawkins writes: “My students have lost family members, gone through breakups and divorces, and one even called to tell me she was homeless (We got her in a dorm the same day).” Even happy events, like a marriage or the birth of a child, can cause upheaval, she adds.

When such issues crop up, “I can give extended grace periods, tutor you one-on-one by phone, be a good listener, offer a list of campus resources, and help you catch back up, if you have fallen behind,” Dawkins writes.

When professors write course policies, they draw on past experiences with students, said Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. And not necessarily the positive ones. So the words they choose often sound defensive, and suggest that the professor has thought of every issue that might arise. The problem with that, Stommel said: “Even though I’ve been teaching for 18 years, I can’t possibly imagine what we’re going to do together this semester.” ...

Professors who share details of their personal lives selectively and strategically can model for students how to bring their “full selves” into the classroom, Stommel said. This is both more important and more difficult to achieve when professors teach online, as Dawkins does, he added. “At least when I show up in a classroom and hand out a list of policies,” Stommel said, “I also have a body.”

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