The personal, relational character of education

Jonathan Malesic writes from Dallas on his experience teaching in a (not quite) post-pandemic culture at Southern Methodist University, where his experiences of student disengagement are said to mirror those being experienced by professors nationally. Malesic compares that disengagement and general loss of momentum to the University of Dallas, which went remote only during the early weeks of the pandemic and which has been operating normally and in-person since the Fall 2020 semester:

To the people I spoke with at the University of Dallas, the personal, relational character of education is inseparable from high intellectual standards. Ms. Capizzi recalled a literature course she took with a professor who was known as a hard grader. She visited his office at least once a week to talk about the material, and even more often when there was a paper due. “Him having a high standard for each of us was good, but then we have the standard for ourselves,” she said. “It’s difficult, but you want it to be difficult, and you want to be a part of it because it’s difficult.”

Ms. Capizzi’s comments echo those of the sociologists Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, who in their 2014 book, “How College Works,” found that students learn when they’re motivated, and “the strongest motivation to work on basic skills comes from an emotionally based face-to-face relationship with specific other people — for instance, the one-on-one writing tutorial with a respected professor who cares about this student’s work.”

Those relationships are much harder to forge remotely, and students who don’t discover early on that they learn through relationships will never know to seek them out. Even Mr. Vancil, who wishes he could take all his classes remotely, said he learns a great deal from his frequent visits to his professors’ office hours.

Professors must recognize that caring for students means wanting to see them thrive. That entails high expectations and a willingness to help students exceed them. Administrators will need to enact policies that put relationships at the center. That will mean resisting the temptation to expand remote learning, even if students demand it, and ensuring that faculty workloads leave time for individual attention to students.

“Young people are the hope of the world,” Dr. Crider told me. Current students, he added, “are capable of rising to the same standards as before, and we do them a disservice when we presume they’re too mentally ill or too traumatized to function.”

A mantra of teaching, at any level, is “Meet the students where they are.” But if education is built on relationships, then colleges must equally insist students meet their teachers where they are. The classroom, the lab and the office are where we instructors do our best and where a vast majority of students can do their best, too. Our goal is to take students somewhere far beyond where they meet us.