This post was written by former Gradhacker author Trent M Kays

It’s the time of the semester when students start filing into my office to talk about their grades, course work, and other concerns. Students seem to be perpetually wondering how they’re doing in a course, and I’m always elated to talk to students, especially if they come to my office hours or want to meet for coffee. I think meeting with students outside of the normal class time is one of my favorite activities because it gives me a chance to talk one-on-one with students. It also presents students with the opportunity to have me all to themselves for a period of time. They can talk about whatever they need to and get help on many things.

It’s usually about this time of the semester that I schedule extra student meeting time and work in some individual conferences. When you teach writing, individual conferences are absolutely necessary. There are just some things in a student’s writing that can only be expressed in person and intimately. When I meet with students, I follow three simple rules:

1. Schedule Enough Time: I have many colleagues who seem to never schedule enough time to meet with students. Meeting with students one-on-one is critical to those students’ development in relation to the course material. I know we’re all busy, we all have our own projects, and we have scores of other meetings, but it’s essential for us to make time for our students.

I use online scheduling software when I set up individual student meetings: I discovered Tungle a few years ago, and I love it. It syncs with Google Calendar flawlessly, and it makes it very easy for students to connect with you and see when you’re available. In addition, you can create a widget for your website so anyone who wants to meet with you can see when you’re available.

2. Be Organized: I always ask my students to be organized when they come for a specific meeting. If they need help with something, then they should be prepared to articulate it. I tell my students they can expect the same from me. I will be organized and prepared to help them with whatever issue they need help with. Everyone has his or her own organizational system. I set up student folders for each class, so I have the work of all my students in specific folders and in a specific place. This helps me immensely because I’m an extremely abstract thinker, and I’ve been known to misplace things.

This rule is much more flexible if a student just drops in for office hours. I’m much more open to talking about whatever they want to talk about. I find that I’m often equally a confidant and teacher with my students. Sometimes students just need to vent about their other courses and work, and that’s okay.

3. Laugh with Candy: I think the best thing you can do to relax students and help them open up during one-on-one meetings is to make them laugh. In my office, I have a jar filled with Tootsie Roll Pops and a hidden fart machine. When students come into my office, I give them a lollipop and randomly set off the fart machine. Is the machine a bit crude? Well, of course, but it breaks the tension and makes my students giggle a bit. What’s wrong with that?

Sometimes I think academics take themselves too seriously, so I like to show students that I know how to have fun and relax. Moreover, it’s nice to sit around with a lollipop, tell jokes, and just talk. It calms students down, and it allows them to open up about issues related to their coursework and lives. I’ve always had great luck with this method, though I know it’s not for everyone.

The main issue is that during this time of the semester students and teachers are both stressed, and sometimes we (as teachers) need to set aside our own stress and focus on our students. I do this by making sure I’m accessible to my students, being organized, and trying to make them laugh. It works for me.

How do you handle student meetings? Where do you meet? What do you do to make student comfortable?

Photo by Flickr user jo-h // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

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5 Responses to Of Fart Machines, Tootsie Roll Pops, and Meeting with Students

  1. Alex Galarza says:

    I think your advice on relaxing students is an important one. I don’t consider myself particularly intimidating and believe that I develop strong rapport with my students, but a one-on-one session can often put students on edge.

    To build on your advice, I often try and engage the student about their major, campus life, or sports before we get down to business. This breaks the mechanical relationship they have with you as authority/arbiter. If you can convince students that you really do care about their experience in the class, I find that they tend to invest more of their time in honing the skills you are teaching.

    • Trent M Kays says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. I think you’re exactly right. Too often students are mystified by their instructors when, in reality, they’re not that much different. This is especially true of grad students who are also teachers.

      Though, I’ve always been unorthodox in my teaching style. I prefer to laugh, dance, and have fun while learning.

  2. My sister and I joke that our family motto is that “farting is always funny.” I, sadly, only teach online and it is even harder to do this in the asynchronous, text-only medium of email, which is the largest proportion of my contact with students. Synchronous communication does still happen, and scheduling synchronous video chats helps reduce the lack of contact as you describe above. Maybe I’ll download some fart noises to iTunes for when I Skype ? I also do crazy stuff in my posted lecture videos, like pretend I am teaching on the moon. It’s really embarrassing if I think about it too hard, but I maintain that it makes me more approachable as well as helping the students feel comfortable taking their own risks in creating largely online products. Also, it makes it fun for me. Thanks for the post, as always!

    • Trent M Kays says:

      Thanks for the comment, Andrea! I think it really helps students to see their teachers let loose every once in a while. It’s productive for meetings and such.

      Also, I’m just a crazy nut. But, it works for me. ?

  3. Amy R says:

    First, please tell me more about this fart machine. Where did you get it, and how does it work? I don’t think I could actually use that in my meetings to break the ice, though. My face would turn three shades of red and stay that way for the entire meeting.

    I also use some of the same strategies as Alex, particularly early in the semester. Inviting anyone to talk about him/herself always helps break the ice. (Side note: freshmen seem particularly interested in talking about where they’re coming from.)

    When I teach writing and a student is visiting me about his/her work in the drafting stage, I ask that he/she bring 2-3 “specific questions.” I define what this means (questions that use our class vocabulary ) and also provide an example ahead of time, whether that’s in a email to an individual or to the whole class during conference sign-ups . I find that this takes care of the “read this and tell me what you think” response. I hate this question because the conference becomes less about the student and more about me. Plus, by having students ask questions using course terminology, I can show them that they do, in fact, “know” something about writing well, even if they’re struggling with a draft.

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