Conferencing and Conversation: Talking to Students

I. Office Hours: “Can we talk?”

Trepidation—a likely descriptor for our students’ emotional response to the prospect of making an office hours visit. What leads me to this assumption is, in part, my own undergrad experience. I was an above-average student with a subdued affect and a solid record of attendance. I was also, in several significant ways, a traditional college student. So why would I still feel anxious about a one-on-one interaction with a professor? I suppose it was ultimately about knowledge and power (I felt I had little of both). The few times I did attend office hours, it was to collect a book left behind in class or to ask for a signature on an add/drop petition. Without exception, my professors were affable and courteous, even self-effacing. They did their level best, I think, to consciously disrupt the power dynamic and allay what must have been my obvious unease. Still, I did not seek counsel when it would have benefitted me to do so. Rather, I just tried to figure things out on my own.

Considering my undergrad history of limited interpersonal exchanges with faculty, one would think that I should have a clear view as to why I am typically alone during my own office hours, but I don’t. I feel that I have gone above and beyond to be engaging, accessible, and—often to my students’ chagrin—“entertaining.” But does all of this seeming self-awareness equate to a line of students outside my door? Sadly, no. I consistently offer up invitations during class; I write positively-framed solicitations on homework and essays; I email specific students and encourage them to drop by for a chat. However, unless I make it mandatory, I will have but few visitors. Meanwhile, my colleague in an adjoining office consistently has a que of students snaking down the hall. So how can I (and those in a like situation) get more participation? How do we convince those reticent students that a one-on-one meeting with a professor will be something other than a Kafkaesque experience?

A recent piece by Elissa Nadworny, Higher Education Correspondent for NPR, suggests that students, despite our explanations and exhortations, don’t really understand what office hours are for:

They’re part of what some students say is a hidden curriculum—the set of rules on a college campus that no one ever tells you about. And then what students do know is that you have to meet one-on-one with your professor, which in some cases means talking to the smartest, most powerful person you know (remember, professors are the ones giving our the grades!).

Clearly, this obstacle exists on any college or university campus. Indeed, it is endemic and systemic. There are, however, some simple ways to begin disrupting our perceived authoritarian role in hopes of getting more participation. Recent literature on the topic of office hours tends to identify common strategies for getting more buy-in from students. Some of these are becoming common practice at our own college, for example, serving one’s hours at a more neutral site—the library, student engagement centers, a table in an outdoor common area. And, of course, online office hours have become second nature thanks to the pandemic. Taking the “office” out of the equation could pay real dividends when it comes to easing students’ anxieties about engaging faculty.

I think most of us would agree with Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard professor and author of The Privileged Poor, that “[t]he students who are least likely to go to office hours are the students who would benefit from them the most.” Is this not the crux of the matter? Our students with developed social and academic skill sets will frequent office hours to discourse on a variety of topics while those who are in most need of intervention (i.e. our care and support) will go to great lengths to avoid what they can only anticipate as being a moment of negative judgement in which an inherent lack in their intellect or character will be exposed and dissected. As Jack rightly asserts, those most apt to avoid contact are those we are striving to reach. Our non-traditional, underrepresented, historically-marginalized populations have a fraught relationship with formal education. We must acknowledge that our students’ previous experiences with/at schools may well have involved stereotyping, discrimination—veiled or overt, and/or a culture of low expectations and reduced opportunities. Inequality with respect to access, retention, and success results from overlapping systemic barriers that disadvantage these groups. How can we convince all of our students, and especially the aforementioned at-risk populations, that the faculty office is a space in which their agency and cultural capital can be enhanced and advanced? One way is to require they come. And, to make certain they do, we can tie it to their grade in some way. This brings us to the second issue of focus.

II. The Grading Conference: “If you grade it, they will come.”

So if encouraging participation in office hours doesn’t produce the contact we are seeking with students, how about the one-on-one grading conference? We have all certainly heard of this strategy (and its varying forms), and a few of us have been practicing it for some time. For those who have not yet given it a try and may be curious about the practical methodology and pedagogical benefits of the in-person grading conference, we can offer a few ideas.

First, it is important to note that when the rationale and manner of the conference are explained to students up front, there is no resistance. Students understand that this is the way their formal writing will be evaluated in the class, and they get it. Obviously, the trepidation mentioned at the top of this post can sometimes follow them into the first grading session, and I consciously work to ameliorate any anxiety they may be experiencing. However, because they have a clear understanding of the agenda and what will occur in the conference, there is very little of the disconcerting ambiguity that hangs about the office hours visit. Moreover, after that first conference, student buy-in is typically at or near 100%. Some anecdotal evidence to support my assertion seems appropriate here. Late in the term, when we get to the fourth essay, I offer the option of a face-to-face grading conference or a traditional response in which I mark the paper with corrections, comments, and an end note. Unfailingly, all of the students (with a rare exception) choose the conference. This has been my experience, class after class, semester after semester.  

Now, why should students so overwhelmingly prefer the grading conference over traditional marking? There are a couple key reasons. One, the interpersonal exchange eliminates the anonymity and distance (both psychic and physical) that students and professors can experience in the classroom. In brief, the conference humanizes each to the other. The power dynamic shifts—though, granted, it is still present—and association replaces alienation. According to Alexandra Gold, who teaches in Harvard’s College Writing Program, “the conference is, in fact, a space for collaboration, not an inquisition. Perhaps the defining aspect of the student conference is the sheer humanity of the interaction, including intangibles like the configuration of physical space, tone, and body language.” We become real for our students when we can demonstrate our investment in a shared cause: their ability to think critically and express themselves clearly in written academic discourse.

Another reason the grading conference may trump traditional evaluation is the way it compels students to process our critique. When returning graded papers in class, I used to ponder the percentage of students who would look through my feedback, let along give it genuine consideration. The in-person grading session ensures that my comments are understood, that follow-up questions can be asked and answered, that we are having a meaningful dialog about the student’s experience with the material and how they developed the ideas in their essay.

 Michael Millner, associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, shares his takeaway on the grading conference: “What was most important—and most rewarding—for me and for my students, I think, was that I stopped pointing at things and they stopped expecting me to point. Instead, they were able to see their papers as part of an interesting and continuing collaboration with me and ultimately with themselves.” The conference encourages students to see their work in a different light, one that enables metacognition and meaningful reflection. I also honestly believe it improves the quality of the writing I receive. Simply, students take more pride in their work because they know they will be sitting next to me, going over it together.

A final benefit of the conference is that it proves fertile ground for fostering relationships of understanding and empathy. Students who will politely ignore an invitation to office hours but show up for a mandatory grading session may find themselves returning, under their own volition, to discuss academic options, personal dilemmas, or recent successes. The conference becomes an avenue for making those critical connections with our at-risk, underserved, underrepresented students. It can be one more implement in our arsenal as we prosecute the war against inequity.

–Christine Sandoval and Jason Spangler

3 thoughts on “Conferencing and Conversation: Talking to Students

  1. Kelly Douglass

    This is an encouraging strategy, and the anecdote you share about getting near-total buy-in for the grading conference on the research paper is too. I wonder if student participation would be at that same level if offered in the beginning of the term and would create more comfort attending office hours earlier in the term. Do you pre-read essays for grading conferences, or is your read with them the first look at that essay? Looking forward to the 19th for more!

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  2. cmrosales

    Thank you for this insight and for offering some tangible strategies. I must say, the graded conference always intimidated me because, honestly, it’s a lot of time to dedicate. As I can tell from your experience, this time is well spent! I know other instructors also assign a mandatory office hour visit early in the semester, even if it’s just to drop by once and say “HI.” I’m wondering if this also has the same ice-breaking effect as the grading conference?

    I’m intrigued and have lots of questions (mainly logistical), so I will bring them all to the workshop on the 19th. See you then!

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  3. Janelle

    I love this topic! Star really inspired me by working research paper conferences into her 1A course. When I was mapping out F2F for 1A, I was intentionally planning class sessions that allowed for individual conferencing while others rotated through peer review in pairs or small groups. The reading for this session got me thinking more about group conferences for peer review to maximize time spent on addressing major concerns or issues, but I struggle with visualizing how the group conference functions. I do not want students to feel like I’m calling them out in front of others.

    Thank you for the ideas! I am excited for our next meeting!

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