On being friendly with students

So, as you would not be surprised to learn, I definitely like to share personal anecdotes with my classes.  All my students know that the Blasters (my oldest’s U14 rec soccer team that I coach) are kicking butt and taking names.  They know I have four kids who I love that drive me crazy.  They know that my mom was pretty much the archetype of the “Independent leaner” who insisted on calling herself an independent but pretty much always voted for Democrats.  They know that I really enjoyed Gravity this past weekend and that I learned about twerking from the recent Miley Cyrus uproar.  Anyway, I know all this makes me more approachable to my students, and I am pretty sure creates a collegial, lower stress, learning environment.   And I like it.  It is who I am– I gotta be me, college professor or not.

Anyway, I was thus quite intrigued by this Slate article entitled “Professors shouldn’t try to be so buddy-buddy with students.  It doesn’t help.”  Hmm, one should not cross lines, of course, but that didn’t sound right to me.  And, as it turns out, my affability in the classroom may very well result in more students putting away their notebooks prematurely.  Not exactly a classroom disaster:

Professors who want to establish classroom connections with their students receive lots of advice. And some experts have over the years advised the use of “self-disclosure,” telling students stories about themselves, using self-deprecating humor as a way to make students feel comfortable and to view the instructor as an ally.

Ignore that advice. That’s the recommendation of a study being published today in Communication Education, a journal of the National Communication Association. The study was based on surveys of 438 undergraduates at a Southeastern university. The students—from across disciplines—were asked about the class they had attended just before taking the survey. And for that class, they were asked both about their instructors and about whether they engaged in certain “uncivil” behaviors, such as packing up books before class was over or texting during lectures. The researchers then compared attitudes the students had about professors with the students’ behaviors…

“This model, taking into account only instructor-related factors, explained 20 percent of the variance in self-reported uncivil behaviors among our participants—not a huge proportion, but enough to make a noticeable difference to a frustrated teacher.”

Seriously?  I don’t know if this is a horribly written Slate article or absurd research.  But the DV should be student learning!  Or at least student engagement.  But “uncivil behaviors”?  Get real.  And then, you read a bit more and the whole enterprise is completely undermined:

But while previous studies have stressed the importance of promoting engagement, this one suggests clear limits to such strategies. When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives—particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics—there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviors. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behavior.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Sharing about your personal life and sharing things that make you seen less competent are entirely different kettles of fish.  My students know that my kids exasperate me and when I’ve had a morning of cleaning up vomit due to a stomach bug, but they also know that I am extraordinarily well-versed in American government.  (I’ll spare you the open-ended responses on my class evals, but trust me on this).  The idea that sharing personal details in anyway diminishes subject-matter credibility strikes me as highly suspect.

When I’m back in class next week, I’ll probably mention whatever movie I might watch this weekend and my participation in the Triangle Run/Walk for Autism.  And somehow, I think it will all be okay.

(And on a side note, one of my very best friends is a former student who first came to visit me in me office because he knew of my love for Seinfeld, from my sharing with the class).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to On being friendly with students

  1. Thomas Parker says:

    Slate loves publishing “all or nothing” articles. “Parents should never supervise their toddler’s toliet training” – that’s why I find I’m reading at the site less and less. But regarding this point, personally friendly relations with students probably help some professors and their classes, and probably hurt some. Be friendly if that’s your style, but keep one thing in mind – we all suffer under the delusion that we’re far, far more interesting to others than we really are.

  2. Pingback: Why can’t we be friends | AbsurdBeats

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