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November 23, 2005

Teaching excellence fair: Teaching outside the classroom

For undergraduates making the transition to adulthood, classroom experience is merely the tip of the iceberg in preparing for the real world.

“Teaching outside the classroom for me is something that I do every day. It is an unavoidable component in my teaching experience,” said theatre arts professor Melanie Dreyer-Lude. “If we think of teaching outside the classroom in its broadest context, it’s the intersection of two primary ideas.”

The first idea is the recognition that students are more than enrollees in a professor’s class: They have other classes, they have a family and a social life and they have outside-the-class pressures, such as homework assignments, job responsibilities, financial worries and relationship issues.

“The second thing is that students hunger to see us as human beings,” Dreyer-Lude said. “When students can identify teachers as members of a family, as people who also have obstacles outside the classroom that they have to deal with, and as people who make mistakes and have to take responsibility for those — then students feel more comfortable approaching that instructor and saying, ‘I’m having a difficult time with this’ or ‘I wanted your advice on that.’”

So, Dreyer-Lude makes a point of flaunting her role as family member. “My office door is covered with pictures of my 4-year-old child and I make sure everybody knows how important to me my family is,” she said. “Students want and need role models. They look to me as an example, especially the young women. I want them to see I constantly struggle with balancing family and career. I’m ambitious, I’m successful, my name shows up in the paper now and then, but my family is really important to me and it’s that that I want to demonstrate.”

Teaching theatre arts has built-in advantages supporting these ideas, said Dreyer-Lude, who directs the department’s performance pedagogy program.

“With the exception of two or three classes, our student-teacher ratio is very low, usually 14:1 as a maximum number,” she said. “That means I automatically have a more intimate relationship with my students than many professors do, and it obligates an awareness of them as human beings in their overall learning process, or I can’t accomplish what I need to in the classroom.”

Relating to students as human beings allows professors to help instill in them a helpful, lifelong concept, she said: “the idea that they are students of life, not students of a subject, and that we are teaching them to self-actualize and to recognize their own gifts. It is in that recognition, of who they are and what they have to contribute, that will help them become important and valuable members of society.”

Dreyer-Lude offered some examples of outside-the-class teaching and mentoring opportunities that encourage positive life skills and reinforce classroom material: advising sessions, departmental functions and cross-curricular coordination where, for example, history of theatre faculty assign plays that students are performing in at the time.

Those attending Dreyer-Lude’s presentation acknowledged that opportunities to interact with students are plentiful, but said that enticing students to take advantage of those opportunities is difficult.

To encourage students to share real-life experiences with their professors, faculty have to be proactive, Dreyer-Lude maintained.

“I make the point as often as possible — even though I’m busy like everybody else — of being in my office a lot more than just my office hours and keeping my office door always open,” she said. “I’m also willing to interrupt a conversation in my office to say ‘hi’ to a passerby who may be doing a fly-by, sees that I’m busy and says, ‘Well, I tried.’”

Undergraduates, in many cases, suffer from low self-initiative, she noted. “The way I solve that problem is I spend time in a casual encounter to interact with students: ‘Hi, Michael, how are you today? I’d love to chat with you about this or that. Are you free tomorrow?’

“Rather than putting the burden on the student to come to your office, I suggest it would be my pleasure to have the opportunity to have a conversation. That way it is not set up as a confrontation in any way. Instead it’s an opportunity to get to know each other,” she said. “There are ways in which if we just reach out a little bit more, students will find that initiative to overcome whatever those obstacles are.”

Getting students to reach a comfort level has positive ramifications in the classroom as well, Dreyer-Lude said, including making students feel they can share experiences in their personal lives that are stimulated by the class material.

Participant Deborah Dalton of the Graduate School of Public Health agreed with Dreyer-Lude — to a point. “I think students do want more of that personal involvement. But having taught in a number of different venues and different disciplines, I have found that I have taught at times to different purposes.”

Undergraduates majoring in communication, for example, pursue a number of careers, such as in business or the corporate world, where self-expression is not only discouraged, it can be penalized, Dalton said. “I find that what I end up doing with these students is something different than what I’ve done in the humanities. I try to tell them how to perform, or maybe how to be less expressive of themselves, just to let them know that they will be in environments where people do not care for them in that way. Instead, [their bosses] will care about productivity, being on time, delivering what’s expected in the job.”

Dreyer-Lude responded, “That addresses the idea of balance. Students need to feel nurtured and supported and recognized but, finally, they need to learn how to take responsibility for fulfilling their role, doing their work, growing up.”

This balance both motivates and intrigues her, Dreyer-Lude added.

“I’m fascinated by the 18 to 22 age group, when students become adults,” she said. “They have to make that transition from a high school environment in which much of their life is dictated to them to graduating from undergrad school and deciding: ‘Am I going to wait tables?’ ‘Am I going to graduate school?’ ‘Who am I going to be?’ I love mentoring that particular age-group on that journey, which is why I love teaching at the college level because so much happens to those individuals and who they become during their undergraduate years.

“We always need balance,” she continued. “We as teachers are not allowed to use our outside lives as an excuse for not returning papers on time, for example, or even to share something inappropriate, because there are boundaries that are important for students to recognize: You’re the professor and they’re the students and you need some sense of divided distance between us. But what we can do is show students the doors and the windows to the possibility of self-actualization.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 7

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