Outside of the Classroom

Whenever most people think about professors’ work outside of the classroom, they think either of research or committee work.  At the school where I teach, both of those are part of our jobs, but they’re not what I tend to focus on.  Instead, I try to find areas where I can work with students outside the classroom, which is much more enjoyable (for me) and more meaningful.  This week, for example, I’ll be traveling with 11 students and an additional faculty member, as we attend the Sigma Tau Delta (the English honor society, and, yes, our initials are STD) convention in New Mexico.  I’m looking forward to the convention, but I’m looking forward to spending time with the students and getting to know them better.

Perhaps my interest comes from the few years I worked in private high schools.  In my first job, when I taught at a boarding school, we had a variety of extracurricular expectations.  I had to help with an evening study hall in the library once every two weeks or so, and I even had to stay in the dorms (though not overnight) a couple of nights a year.  We were also expected to help with a major extracurricular activity (drama, sports, the yearbook) in some way.  One woman led the study hall for the hockey team, for example.  I was the assistant coach on the varsity girls’ basketball team.  I’ve also been an assistant coach to high school boys and girls tennis (at two different schools) and middle school boys and girls cross country.  I have loved these experiences.

The main thing that I love about these opportunities is that I get to know students in a different way, and they get to know me as more of a person, as well.  At the first basketball practice many years ago, a student who was in my English class asked me how they were to refer to me, if they should call me Dr. Brown.  I replied that I should be addressed the same as other coaches, as I didn’t (and don’t) have a Ph.D. in basketball.

During various trips with these teams, they got to see how I approached sports, certainly, but we also talked about music and movies, went out to eat various places, and talked about almost anything but English.  Once, coming back from the head coach’s house, we performed what my generation called a Chinese fire drill (sorry for the racist connotations there, but I don’t know what these are called now–essentially, when stopped at a red light, everyone gets out of the car and runs around it, usually ending up in a different seat, though I clearly ended up back in the driver’s seat).

At previous Sigma Tau Delta conventions, we developed inside jokes based on speakers we heard or things that have gone wrong.  A few years ago, I tried to take a van into a parking garage that clearly communicated the height requirements, which I equally clearly ignored.  The woman working there stared me down and shook her heard while all the students just laughed.  Another year, a group of students put a ransom note under my door, threatening the health of Moby-Dick, a book they know I love.

Some might argue that this is not a valuable use of professors’ time, that it would be better spent attending conferences of our own or doing important committee work (not meaningless committee work, which we all know happens all too often) or performing research or even simply preparing for classes.  But these extracurriculars do impact my teaching in a positive way.

I am a much better teacher of these students when I get to know them better and vice versa.  They are more willing to engage in class and even work harder because they know me as a person and not just someone who stands in front of them three days a week.  I learn more about their strengths and weaknesses as students, which I can then draw from during the semesters they are in my class.

I have also had more meaningful discussions about their academic careers and lives on these trips than in my office.  We talk about the profession, graduate school, their struggles as they go through serious intellectual and emotional changes on van rides or while waiting in airports.  Essentially, we learn to trust each other more, which can only help the teacher-student relationship.  Not surprisingly, the students I’ve worked with outside class are the ones who keep in touch with me after graduation.  They are the ones I tend to become friends with, and that makes all the extra time and effort worth it.

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