The class roster was daunting: 54 students enrolled in “Ethics, Law and Diversity for Strategic Communications,” the required capstone class for Advertising and Public Relations majors where I teach.
Fifty four students isn’t large at some universities, or in some subjects, but it’s a large class in a journalism school, where individual attention and mentoring are key to student success. But budgets are tight and the faculty is small, so all the stratcommers are lumped together into one drab, windowless classroom two days a week to study ethical codes and learn how to make ethical decisions.
The other classes I teach are mostly PR writing classes—intimate gatherings that include many one-on-one coaching and editing sessions in my office. I get to know those students pretty well—their dreams, their fears, their aspirations. Some of them open up about their lives and ask for personal coaching, and I do the best I can with that, even if it’s only to listen and let them know I care. I become close to these kids, and genuinely care about them and their futures. Many stay in touch after graduation to ask professional advice and share important milestones. They’ve become a sort of extended family.
In the big ethics class I already know most of the PR majors, or have them in my PR class that semester. The advertising majors, for the most part, are new to me. Since I want to know everybody by name, I call roll. Yes, it takes time at the beginning of class, but if I passed an attendance sheet around I’d never hear some of their voices, never make eye contact even for that instant when they say “here” and look back down at their iPhone.
I try to get discussions going, and often break the kids into small groups to discuss cases in class. I roam around and try to get to know the kids, but it’s hard in such a large group. I always encourage the kids to come see me in my office, but they rarely do. I want to know their names, where they’re from, what they want to do after graduation. I want to help them if I can, and I can do that better if I know them.
So the day the students presented their first case studies to the class I realized with some sadness I’ll never know most of these kids. Broken into groups of 5, they analyzed an advertising or PR case and made a presentation of their findings. As I sat there watching them prepare their materials I was struck by how many kids I didn’t recognize. I’d look at the group list and at their faces and think “Where did that girl come from? I’ve never seen her before.” “Is that young man the one who sits in the back and never speaks? Who is he, again?”
I still call roll at the beginning of class. As long as they sit in the same seat every day I can usually look in their direction when I call their name, meaning I am at least associating a name with a region of the classroom. But would I know their name outside of class? Probably not. I know the ones who have reached out—those who’ve joined me for lunch or invited me for a beverage with the student association after class. But those are the ones I’d know anyway, because they drop by the office to say ‘hi” and speak up in class. They ask pertinent questions and challenge me and that makes an impression.
Many studies have been done about why students drop out of college. Besides expenses, many reasons related to depression and not fitting in are cited. Feeling like the professors don’t know you or don’t care is a factor in these feelings. Large classes are definitely detrimental to developing close student—professor relationships, but students could do more, too. Walk up to the professor after class, introduce yourself and ask a question—even a lame question is better than nothing. Ask to clarify a concept, ask about the book, the syllabus, anything to show you are engaged with the material and interested in learning. Drop by the professor’s office during office hours, even if it’s to say “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d say ‘hi’.” Bring a graded paper with you and ask about something written in the margin. Ask about another class, or about an internship. You’ll start a relationship with the professor that will enrich your learning and enhance your collegiate experience. You may even find you have a new friend or mentor for life. But you, the student, need to make the first move, or risk becoming a nameless face in the back of class staring at a mobile device.
In a week or so they’ll make their 4th group presentation to class. By now, they all look familiar enough that I know they’re enrolled in the class, but I wish I could name them all on sight, even in the classroom. The ultimate luxury would be to know them by name if I run into them elsewhere on campus, or out in town. Then I’d know we had developed the solid professional relationship that good networking and mentoring is built upon.
C’mon kids, drop in and see me. Next semester there are 67 kids in that class. I’ll need all the help I can get getting to know you.