Art of Listening: Office Hours

Each year during the latter part of the year, I find that my office hours and extra appointments are busy meeting with students. Office Hours are important, and they are not about me. This is the moment in which I do lots of listening. Typically this is the time of the year when students are scrambling to work on their papers, proposals, and other assignments. This last week my office hours were teeming with students who wanted to get help with their major research projects. Many wanted more direction about my comments, so that they could improve their assignment. For some students this process is not easy. I can see hands shaking and nervous looks as they sat and chat with me.

But, I would be remiss if I did not address that a small number of students come to office hours and are somewhat defensive. Again, this is a small amount and I would offer that one common trait with this small number is that they do not really listen. They are typically waiting to talk and respond, but tend to not listen to the advice or direction that I offer. And, they usually preface the meeting with something like this, “I am not here to ask for more marks.” <–Actually, you are or at least 9 out of 10 times, this is the case with the student in my office. It is better to note, “I want to do better with the next assignment.”

This small group is also typically convinced that their idea/topic is perfect and does not need any revision. These moments cause interesting conversations, as I am trying to help and I am cognizant of my grading rubric. It is my class! And, I am almost twenty years into teaching and have sound feedback to give. But, I cannot be defensive nor scold my students. Listening is important. I have to take a step back and think if the rubric or information in class or in the syllabus was clear.

Last year I had one student note in the course experience evaluation that my three sentences in the syllabus about an assignment was unacceptable. I took that to heart and reviewed my syllabus and lectures. Now, responding to the comment. The three class sessions dedicated to the assignment and extra office hours did not exist?! C’mon. I also had a student note that they did not know what they had to do to get the A+. I include a grading scale in my syllabus and it is clear that A+ work is exceptional. I point this out as I reflect on the comments and want to remind that patience works both ways.

That is right, the best advice I can give is patience. It is hard to review and revise our work and this is also hard for our students. We grade them and they get one official time to “grade”¬†us. Smiling. This does not count RMP, Yik Yak or other social media. Patience is important. I keep on reminding myself of this when each student enters my office. And, I explain this to my Teaching Assistants, and other colleagues.

Lessons Learned from Advising

Officially I was an Undergraduate Advisor for some odd five years, but unofficially I have worked as a mentor, coach or advisor to my students and peers for as long as I have been in higher ed. Now, that I am a mere two months out of that official capacity I am repeatedly finding that I learned lots from those various moments. I was always appreciative of the special opportunity I had helping students maneuver through their undergrad, grad school, or higher ed more broadly speaking.

First, people often are too busy or perhaps not aware of the institutional or departmental guidelines. This is akin to an instructor reminding students to read the syllabus. We all experience information overload and need reminders to read the syllabus, the agenda, the meeting documents in Sharepoint, the Strategic Plan or the Framework Agreement. People want someone to bounce ideas off or have someone listen to them. Lots of people do not like change and react from a place of fear or anger and these feelings can manifest in some negative ways.

Second, I am often reminded that we forget that if the students were not on campus, we would not have jobs. This is not a controversial statement, but I am well aware that it is. I am not saying that students pay my wage, as that is not the case. Taxpayers pay my wage and that includes me. The current class of kids in Kindergarten is smaller than the graduating class of Grade 12 students. This means that all of the colleges, trade programs, and universities are competing for a shrinking pool of students. In the US, the pool of students is also more diverse and are the babies of the “Leave No Child Behind” policies. Depending on your political inclination, your reaction to this policy will vary. Having other educators in my family means that I am quite familiar with the way in which public school teachers must teach to the test, but this is really a discussion for a different post.

Third, I am a better listener thanks to my years of working with students, advising, and peer mentoring. You cannot help someone if you do not listen. And, listening is a real skill. I do not mean listening and waiting your turn to speak, but really listening to someone. I find that many of us wait to speak, but listening takes more work. I’m still learning, but feel that I am a mindful listener. As I work on a different career path for the next year or so, I look forward to listening and leading.

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My Lifetime Listens to Yours. Muriel Ruckeyser

I have a book of quotes that serves as writing prompts and this is prompt two. There is space to write on the page, but I sent the first prompt to a friend in¬†another¬†department. And, have torn out the second prompt. Now, the title of this post comes from part of poem and the lengthy poem says lots. But, what does this excerpt say or how does it speak to you. I am thinking like a Political Scientist or Social Scientist at the moment and how I learn from reading and listening. If I think from a mentor’s point of view, I know that my reading and listening includes what is not said or spoken. People have “tells” for when they lie or feel uncomfortable and these nuances of movement are important to support and understand. What is your tell? I have different tells, but one is to stop and think and take a drink of water. During this short moment, I am thinking of my response–formulating what I want to say next.

We listen with more than our ears. But, do we learn from what we hear and see? I am in the midst of heavy marking and looked forward to this writing prompt and I come back to learning from others. I have also had several hours of office hours and meetings and tried my best to listen intently these past few work days. I firmly believe in life-long learning and this prompt reminds me of the importance of mindfulness. When I think of mindfulness, I always picture Dr. Juliann Allison, as she practices mindfulness in all that she does. This week I am trying to actively practice mindfulness. The Ruckeyser quote was the perfect reminder, as I try to balance out meetings, honors presentations, grading, and planning a conference. And, that is only part of the to do list. I’m breathing in and out and trying to listen.

Art of Listening

This last week my office hours were teeming with students who wanted to get help with their paper proposals. Many wanted more direction about my comments, so that they could improve their assignment. For some students this process is not easy. I can see hands shaking and nervous looks as they sat and chatted with me.

But, I would be remiss if I did not address that a small number of students come to office hours and are somewhat defensive. Again, this is a small amount and I would offer that one common trait with this small number is that they do not really listen. They are typically waiting to talk and respond, but tend to not listen to the advice or direction that I offer.

This small group is also typically convinced that their idea/topic is perfect and does not need any revision. These moments cause interesting conversations, as I am trying to help and I am cognizant of my grading rubric. It is my class!

The best advice I can give is patience. It is hard to review and revision our work and this is also hard for our students. I keep on reminding myself of this when each student enters my office. And, I explain this to my Teaching Assistants, too.

Advising Undergradutes

I am one of the department’s three Undergraduate Advisors and I have come to love this part of my job. I’ve previously posted about this, but today I want to speak to the little things that I take special care to do in my office. I am well aware that some students are intimidated by this advising thing. They want good news. They really want me to say, “Yes, you’re on the right track to graduate.”

I am an advocate for them and will do what I can with the university policies. But, ultimately they have to take the classes and pass them. I find that listening is the biggest part of advising. Advising takes time. And, I try to establish a rapport with the student. It’s during these moments that I am trying to demystify the hoops that the students have to jump through. Sure, the student could look at the website and check of classes, but some don’t. They want an instructor or advisor to help them with this–to triple check and I’m OK with that.

I have to admit that I do prefer the face to face advising. When I get a rather long-winded email about advising issues, my first response is sending my office hour schedule to the student. There is something about the face to face contact and then the other conversations that come out. Students are more apt to ask about the next term’s courses, work, and letters of reference in advising appointment. I do feel that I can do more face to face, but that’s just me.