The Voice of the Student
Vanderbilt University places great importance on students’ satisfaction with the way in which the institution is run and the treatment they receive from its faculty members, therefore faculty members are encouraged to cultivate informal relationships with students alongside academic activities. This is expressed in many contexts including maintaining well-furnished and equipped buildings, lively campus life with lots of activities, well-kept areas dedicated to social meetings, rest and pleasure and providing excellent academic and other infrastructures for students. The campus has gardens and wide green spaces, rooms and areas comfortably furnished and accessible for formal and informal meetings. There is a large medical centre on campus, in which doctors and nurses provide services to students and lecturers. The clinic looks after those who are ill and provides preventative actions and health preservation activities such as information, lectures, vaccinations and more. A variety of cafeterias and restaurants can be found on campus providing a rich variety of alternatives such as world foods, vegetarian food, kosher food and others. Students are encouraged to lead healthy lives and the university supports competitive sports teams. There are a number of gymnasia, a heated swimming pool, sports fields and halls with tournaments and competitions for both amateur and professional sportspeople. The university also houses student welfare centres, food and book shops, dormitories, car hire outlets where it is possible to hire a car for a day and more.
Over and above lessons and courses, the university offers scores of activities, both enriching and for pleasure to students and lecturers throughout the week— events that invite and enable building interpersonal relationships between students and between students and faculty members.
Those responsible for the program encouraged its participants to view the campus events’ schedule and to actively join in. There are scores of extracurricular activities every day, from academic to social events, such as seminars, afternoon meetings, guest lectures, ceremonies and festivities, culturally enriching activities, musical performances, films, tours, etc. The student union is also very active and arranges a range of social and sporting activities such as competitive games, religious festivities, fetes, markets and so on.
It seemed to me that participating in with these events would contribute information to my research and open a further channel to learn about what was happening at the university. Thus I joined a variety of activities: festivities to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a Hindi festival, guided film viewing, a local business fair for students, music performances, a dance performance, football game, beer festival and more.
I had never encountered the style and subjects of these events at the college where I currently work or the university where I studied in Israel. Most of the events were well funded and interesting, including refreshments for participants and were open to students, lecturers and a wider interested audience from outside the university.
As part of the program’s requirements every participant had to take part in lessons with other students. Every participant registered as an auditing student for two courses of choice from the Master programs, and was given a student ID card. This card enabled participants to take part in different activities, to benefit from a range of services like all students, to register with the students’ union, enjoying their benefits and receiving their updates, etc.
As a result of receiving student status, we were added to those who received support from the university’s International Students Unit. This unit invited international students to participate in its special activities, such as workshops to improve spoken English and academic writing in English, intimate ceremonies to celebrate different religious festivals and meetings at which foreign students were given the opportunity to present the culture and education of their countries of origin.
One of the most fascinating projects initiated by the International Students Unit was the creation of links between international students and residents of the city of Nashville and its surroundings. Residents opened their homes to these students and invited them to their homes and get to know how local families live. The idea at the base of this hospitality was for the visitors to get to know American culture and the daily life of its residents. As a result of this initiative I participated in two visits to residents of the city - young couples with small children. Two or three other students from different countries joined me in these visits. The visit included dinner and conversation in which we each described our customs and cultures. I succeeded in establishing a warm relationship with one family and was invited to join them again, and we maintain contact to this day through social networks. These visits to American homes enabled us to get to know their way of life and how other Americans, who were neither lecturers nor students of the university, lived.
Attending courses as an auditing student taught me how lessons are managed and allowed me to investigate how they are perceived by students. Mingling with students enabled me to learn about their feelings and their attitudes to lessons, lecturers, assignments and university management. It was also an opportunity to get to know a number of students personally.
I was well received by students in the courses I attended. In one of the courses that dealt with teaching theories, I met a Masters’ student who worked as a teacher at a school adjacent to the university. Our acquaintance included many conversations and collaboration in lessons and preparing for them. With a deepening personal connection, he invited me to visit his class and observe lessons he was teaching. I was thrilled with this proposal and saw it as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the management of a public school. After he received permission from the school’s management, I visited him and observed math lessons. The student-teacher describes how he designed, arranged and managed his classroom, including his office, as a room in which he taught permanently and children came to their lessons according to their timetable. He told me about how he worked with children, parents, teachers and management. The classroom was constructed as a place to host parents, colleagues, student teachers or other visitors, and they were provided with a comfortable couch on which to sit. During a tour of the school, I learned about the infrastructures that serve teachers and children and about activities the school arranges in collaboration with parents for the benefit of the community and society.
During the lessons that we observed at the university, as well as in breaks between lessons, we saw the lecturers were punctilious in cultivating informal relations with students, expressed in a wide range of situations and opportunities throughout the year: lecturers participating in campus activities meant for students, eating together in cafeteria, students inviting lecturers to family events, lecturers hosting students in their homes, and so on. Even the College Dean took this approach and participated in different social events throughout the year, and at the beginning of each month, hosted a sort of open house, intended for all students, at her private-official university home.
I elected to attend a course called “Analysing Teaching”, which took place once a week for three hours and another called “Research Methods”, which took place twice a week for one and a half hours (I only attended once a week). Each course had its own supplemental Internet site that served as a means of communication between lecturers and students, presenting lesson materials, publicizing assignments and messages from the lecturer, discussing problems connected to studies and the like. Every student had a laptop and used them to take notes, complete assignments in class and more. The Internet was widely used as a study tool and means of completing tasks in lessons. Nonetheless, one could see that students carried out online activities during lessons that had nothing to do with the class, such as surfing the web, reading and answering emails and the like.
During lessons, I was able to participate in a variety of teaching activities: frontal lectures, seminars, working in groups, and teaching colleagues through which students presented papers.
I was especially impressed by the “Research Methods” lecturer. Over 75 students from different college departments attended this course. He addressed each student by name. We thought that when he addressed students by name at the very first lesson, that he must have known them from previous courses, but we saw that the students themselves were surprised that he knew their names. We asked him how he knew the names and he told us that before the beginning of each academic year, he learned the names from their student ID cards, which include a photograph. However, since not all the student ID photographs are up to date, he only learned the names of about half the students.
Halfway through the semester, the same lecturer told students that he intended to bake cookies for them for the next lesson. He asked how many students preferred brownies and how many preferred coconut cookies. And indeed, a week later he brought it to class, much to the joy of the students. This lecturer also used examples from his private life, shared details of his life with students, and in one break, even introduced them to his children who were visiting the university. Over and above the close relationship he fostered with his students, his lessons were also fascinating and interesting. Students loved his teaching strategy and graded him as one of the excellent lecturers at the university.
By holding many informal meetings and counselling sessions, faculty members have a well-developed system of personal relationships with students.
It is an accepted practice for lecturers to invite students for family meals at their homes.
I was invited to the homes of faculty members, with whom I had established personal connections, a number of times, and on each occasion I discovered that two or three of their students had also been invited. Hospitality in lecturers’ homes and spending time with their families enabled me to establish unique relationships with them and become acquainted with their personal aspects. One of the lecturers on the Master programs invited the whole class to his home three times during the course of the semester.
Personal relationships between lecturers and students sometimes continue after students complete their studies and go on their professional ways. One graduate, who works as a high school teacher and novice university faculty member, told me that he had maintained contact with his lecturer even after he had completed his studies, and regards him as a part of his life:
In VU the professors really stay in your life. When I was starting out as a teacher I could email my professors... They were my support net group... so I didn’t feel like cut loose.
Research literature argues that informal relationships between lecturers and students in higher education, relationships that go beyond formal academic interactions, are of the utmost importance. These relationships, whether formed in classroom or outside, are established in random and personal meetings or guidance and counselling sessions (Cox and Orehovec 2007). It has been found that informal relationships significantly influence students’ development and achievements regardless of gender, race or social status. They positively influence students’ social integration into an institution and its culture. They contribute to students’ academic achievements, to their personal and intellectual development, to their perseverance with their studies and consolidation of their ambitions to advance in their professional careers (Cox and Orehovec 2007; Endo and Harpel 1982; Lamport 1993). As a result, researchers have called upon higher education institutions to create an atmosphere that enables positive and significant interactions (Hagedorn et al. 2000; Young and Sax 2009) and there are those who recommend that this should be taken into consideration when designing study spaces, as spaces that invite such encounters (Cotten and Wilson 2006). It turns out that the frequency and content quality of these informal encounters result in improved institutional environment and levels of achievement (Endo and Harpel 1982). This also positively influences the atmosphere of academic institutions and the results of these meetings (Endo and Harpel 1982). Therefore, researchers have called upon academics to consider these advantages and recognize that they inspire students to invest greater efforts into their studies and aspire to academic interactions. Faculty members should constantly examine how they can broaden and increase frequency of their informal interactions (Cotten and Wilson 2006).
Institutional culture and social norms influence informal relations and researchers recommend regularly investigating what factors help establish relationships, in order to develop them (Cotten and Wilson 2006). To implement this, institutions should create an atmosphere that enables situations in which positive and significant interactions and informal relationships with preservice teachers are established because this is likely to be a model for them on how to construct good and empowering relationships with school pupils (Hagedorn et al. 2000; Young and Sax 2009).
In seeing the amount of effort university faculty members invest in building informal relations with students, a number of questions, which seemed important to discuss arose: Does this closeness create a better foundation for teacher education, serve as a model and provide tools to establish personal relationships with pupils - such that students will develop similar relationships with their pupils? Will these behaviour lead students to be teachers who create and experience informal relationships with their future pupils? Does this personal relationship, which is so important to students, create a preference when choosing an institution at which to study? That is to say, does this contribute to increasing the number of applications especially in countries where competition between institutions is so intense? Are relationships between lecturers and students deeper when students are far from home and family and the university becomes their principal social net? And more.