Higher Ed Faculty: Teachers, Mentors, Advisors, Parents, or Friends?

A recent inquiry by one of my colleagues regarding faculty members’ student attendance policies in class has prompted me to revisit a handful of related questions that I am often asking myself and others: What is the scope of my responsibility as a teacher to my students? Will it help or hinder my students if I am too stringent, lax, or paternalistic in my policies? Is it my job to instill in my students ideas about responsibility, etiquette, and professionalism? (Note that I teach at a law school.) Or would I be crossing the line, coddling my students, and undermining my students’ autonomy by undertaking such responsibilities? These questions that float through my mind pertain not only to the issue of attendance policies, but also extend to matters such as appropriate greetings, questions and comments in class and office hours, and e-mail etiquette.

The American Bar Association (ABA)—the institution governing law school accreditation—mandates that law schools “require regular and punctual class attendance” by students. Of course student attendance is important to law school education. Fully understanding textbook and lecture content is essential to law student learning. Moreover, class participation, including the unique faculty-student question-and-answer sessions that often take place in law school classrooms, is also essential to law student learning. But the students I teach already have college degrees, and many of them have also held full-time positions in the work force before attending law school. They are adults. Is there some point at which we should trust them to determine whether it is in their best interests to attend class? I imagine (and hope) that many law students would continue to attend class just as regularly if the ABA did not require law schools to mandate class attendance. And I am not certain whether I support or oppose (or neither) the ABA attendance policy. But it does make me question whether, as a faculty member, I should require class attendance only for the sake of attendance.

Something perhaps more concerning for me is what I view as an erosion, or at least change in, student communications with faculty. Call me old-fashioned, but I admit that I am sometimes shocked by e-mails that I receive from students because of their lack of formality and/or accuracy. It concerns me to receive e-mails with no greetings, where the student-author simply jumps into his or her questions. It concerns me to receive e-mails that begin: “Prof!,” “What’s up?,” or “Ms. Ryan.” It concerns me to receive e-mails that contain typographical errors, misspellings, and grammatical mistakes. When receiving these kinds of e-mails, I worry about the e-mails that my students might be sending to potential and current employers. When I was practicing law before entering into academia, these types of communications would not have been happily received by legal employers, and my guess is that employers today still do not appreciate these types of communications. But is it my place as these students’ doctrinal teacher to explain to them that they really ought to be more careful in sending e-mails? And if it is not my place to do it, will anyone else fill the void?

Today we find ourselves in a new place where relationships between students and teachers have changed, and the values placed on student autonomy, teaching, and technology have also mutated. This makes for a confusing academic landscape in which I know I could use some further direction. I have not found any clear answers to the questions I have asked, but I think it could be useful to highlight these seemingly minor matters that could potentially have a significant impact on the futures of students who graduate from our institution.

About Meghan Ryan

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