Energized by the Society for Community Research and Action conference held in Chicago, Melonie Sexton, professor, psychology, uncovered four techniques essential to creating a sense of community in Valencia classrooms. In the personal reflection below, Melonie shares those techniques, detailing how each of them can be applied to Valencia College courses.
By Melonie Sexton, Professor, Psychology
I recently returned from a conference in Chicago, called the Society for Community Research and Action. The subfield of community psychology is one of the lesser-known areas of my discipline, and, yet, much of these theories are directly applicable to the values of Valencia College. Although I am a cognitive neuroscientist by training, this experience taught me that as a citizen of the College and Orlando community, I can utilize these concepts in my everyday practice. During my time away, I attended a number of talks and workshops about how to be a more mindful, welcoming professor. After careful reflection, here are four techniques I’d like to share:
1. Tell Students Your Story – I know most of us already do this on the first day of class. We orient students with the syllabus, the course web page and usually give a brief introduction about ourselves. Over the years, I have learned that students really appreciate the latter gesture. Not only do they learn about my academic journey, they begin to see me as an actual individual with outside factors affecting my everyday life. One easy addition I started doing to remain personable all year-round is to include some information about myself in my signature line. I thought this was useful because now not only do my students get a reminder about me and my willingness to put myself out there, but anyone from the outside can learn a little about me as well and it provides food for thought about how they too present themselves.
2. Double Check Your Syllabus – Every semester, I comb through my syllabus to make sure my policies and requirements are up to date. This summer, I combed through my syllabus to remove any exclusionary language. You’d be surprised to find how certain phrases or wording can actually be a deterrent to someone in need. I tried to limit making punitive statements and instead created language that said “please talk to your professor” for emergency/special situations. These changes may seem obvious to some but, to a student who is new to college and unfamiliar with higher educational practices, this may be the difference between failing and passing a class.
3. Allow Negotiate and Choice – This technique will not work with every class, but if you’re flexible and willing to try it, I think it has great potential to get students really invested in their own learning. In Negotiate and Choice, students get to decide what they learn and how they are assessed. For instance, if you are at a point in the semester where you have the discretion to choose which topics need to be covered, why not allow the students to pick? Simply present the options to the class and take a vote. Another way to encourage student voices is to have them choose the method of assessment. Would they rather complete a five-page research paper or write a short essay for two prompts? Students get the chance to make the class their own.
4. Connect with Community/Content Partners – Diversifying the curriculum is something that academia has been working on for several years now. Introducing new and outside perspectives can sometimes be challenging, especially when you — as the instructor — aren’t as familiar with the external content. That said, we are lucky to live in an age and location where connecting with outside entities can be done quite easily. In the past, I have frequently asked colleagues and professors from other disciplines to guest lecture in my class. However, this year, I am trying something different and reaching out to new partners. In an effort to demonstrate practical application of subject-matter, I have begun partnering with our local libraries, the Orlando Science Center and neighborhood community councils. In situations where partners cannot physically make it to the classroom, we have discussed having them engage students via a Skype conference or even a previously recorded lecture.
As a member of the Downtown Campus inaugural faculty, I have spent the last year working closely with my colleagues to explore what kind of academic environment we want to create for incoming students. Additionally, this summer, I have had several opportunities to reflect on my pedagogical practices as a psychology professor; first in Destination’s Inclusive Teaching track and later in a daylong Alternative Break Citizenship training program. Overall, it has been an enriching summer. I have enjoyed learning about ways to become a better educator, and I am excited to try out all of the new information I have acquired.
Do you know a faculty member doing great work? Or, perhaps you’d like to share the work you’re doing? Send the colleague’s (or your) name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu and include Faculty Highlight Nomination in the subject line of your email. We might just feature your colleague (or you) as an upcoming Faculty Highlight.