No matter how we approach the question of “what makes for good teaching,” our research findings usually come down to: it’s the instructor. So when we ask people about their experiences as students, we are really asking them to tell us about their teachers. Who was your favourite teacher? What did they do? How did they inspire you? Frustratingly – for the researchers among us – good instructors do not actually have a lot in common. They are kind, enthusiastic, formal, calm, knowledgeable, or keen to learn. They wander the room, they stand in one spot, they use slides, or they talk for three hours and write two words on the board. It’s a junk drawer of approaches and students benefit from this variety within their academic careers. What matters most is that instructors have thought deeply about who they are as teachers and as people and that they are deliberate in their approaches.
Critical to high impact teaching practice is that students engage meaningfully with their instructors. Even a short interaction can make a big difference and one thing that often varies is the modality in which students can engage with their instructor beyond scheduled class time. Sometimes instructors hold scheduled in-person office hours, perhaps one hour per week, for students to drop by the office for brief conversations. Sometimes instructors include the phrase “office hours by appointment” on their syllabus, and students must schedule a time to meet. Occasionally, instructors host virtual chats where students can log into the course learning management system to ask questions. And often, students hang around immediately after class to ask quick questions, usually related to the material of the day’s lecture or perhaps to clarify something about the course logistics.
We know from previous research that only one third of students reach out to instructors through any of the available modalities. This means that only one third are accessing a potential beneficial interaction with their instructor. We wondered: does the modality introduce barriers to access? So, in a recent study we offered every possible contact modality in two different sections of a course, split between three instructors, and we tracked student contact. In the different sections, we switched around which instructor was offering each office hour modality (we called them student hours – either by appointment or drop in), and we tracked all of the incoming emails, the lineups at the end of class, and the virtual chats.
And did this increase student engagement outside of scheduled class time? Did instructors interact with more students than before? Nope. Of the 885 students in the course, only 37 per cent reached out at least once. But, of those that did, the majority reached out by email. And, of those who sought out either email or in-person interactions, the overwhelming majority sought out an instructor from an equity-deserving community (e.g. women, racialized groups, LGBTQ, people with disabilities). It’s not surprising. We have had many important national conversations about the increase in emotional and service labour among equity-deserving faculty within the professoriate. But what the findings of this study caused us to realize is the conversation has been focused on how to recognize or share the labour contributions of instructors and not much on the importance of the student right to have access to their instructors.
What we know is that who the instructor is, is a barrier or a gateway to high impact teaching practice. We know that this affects how students engage in their education. And we know that this matters most to students from equity-deserving communities. The evidence already exists within the education research literature and it must be considered. So who we choose to instruct our courses – perhaps especially in first year, where students make big decisions about whether to continue with their education – is an equity issue for both instructor and students. As a teaching team of limited diversity representation, we wonder whether we ever could increase student contact to beyond 37 per cent in our own teaching practice. Probably not. And do our students deserve to have access to instructors who will engage them in their education? Absolutely.
While we had originally set out to do a study on accessibility and inclusive access to instructors, what we learned was that who we are as instructors is one of those key variables. Non-equity deserving faculty (allies and others – both instructors and administrators) must acknowledge this. As “overrun” as you may feel, and as “well attended” as you know your student access opportunities to be, what you are experiencing is likely an order of magnitude less than what your equity-deserving colleagues experience. You/we need to work to make that labour visible and rewarded and then work with your/our colleagues to ensure that you/we better share the load. As administrators, we must seek out opportunities to increase student engagement with instructors, and we must ensure that they are recognized and compensated. Our students deserve it.
As we continue these important conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion, let us never lose sight of the fact that commitment to values is (only) an excellent first step and what needs to follow is disruptive action. Action that ensures that we aren’t just picking from the best who make it through our system but that the system itself supports us in becoming our best. This means that we must be deliberate about not only what and how we teach but also who teaches, and when. Ask yourself, “How long was I in school before my teacher was like me?” Was it right away? Too long? Never? We all deserve to be part of our education and to have our community reflected in who is teaching us to become better. This will require a restructuring of how we recruit, hire and compensate. But without such action, we remain committed to values without change.
Shoshanah Jacobs is an associate professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph and a researcher of biomimicry and higher education; Alex Smith is an associate professor in the department of integrative biology at the U of Guelph and an ecologist inspired by biodiversity and passionate about sharing that enthusiasm; Lisa Robertson is an assistant professor, teaching stream in the department of biology at York University and a researcher of higher education; Victoria Rea is a PhD candidate studying the effects of the gut microbiome on brain development at the U of Guelph; Bailey Bingham is a science educator and ecologist currently working as a course coordinator at the U of Guelph.