Editorial: Oct. 12
Do you love your department? Does returning there after a long bout of classes outside of your discipline make you feel like Odysseus coming home to Ithaca? Do the professors know you by name? If so, you, my lucky friend, are a part of a great department.
Maybe you’re just a freshman who has yet to decide your major. A word of advice: choose one where you feel at home. It’s the place you’ll end up spending a lot of your time, so it’s worth it to consider the professors, the activities and the physical atmosphere of a department. It can make all the difference.
Maybe you’re a senior whose department isn’t all you hoped. While it might be a bit late to change majors, it’s not too late to change your department! Start a new tradition, form a relationship with a professor — make it feel like home.
Not sure where to start? Here’s my recipe for a great department.
1. Have a physical space. Now, there’s not a lot some of you can do about this. Certain departments are more blessed than others in the way of physical space (not everyone’s got an atrium), but most at least have a room set aside as a “lounge” area. Make this place comfortable for students — those desk chairs get old pretty quickly. Something other than florescent lighting is preferred, and a semi-quiet environment is best for allowing studying as well as quiet conversations. Also make this place convenient. A couple of public computers and a printer connected to WebPrint can be a lifesaver in a pinch and save students a trip to the library.
2. Have faculty present in that space. It shouldn’t just be a student hangout. Professors should be there as well, socializing, giving tips on homework or just laughing at clever YouTube videos. This point is really just a way to say “have good professors.” Teachers who are willing to engage with students outside the classroom is vital for fostering a strong departmental community. They have to remind you they’re real people.
3. Invite students to professors’ houses. This is the ultimate when it comes to professor/student relationships. At such a small college, it’s easy to facilitate gatherings off campus and professors should make an effort to be transparent and casual with their students. There’s a place for formality, but there’s also a place for drinking tea and discussing the big ideas of your discipline.
4. Speaking of gatherings, have them frequently. Parties, retreats and informal get togethers are the best way to help students get to know their fellow majors. They can also just be plain fun. Have lots of different types of gatherings, specifically non-academic ones. Everybody needs a little bowling to blow off steam after a long week. (P.S. Interim is a really great time to do these things. Have a weekly lunch together, or show a film in the afternoons.)
5. Have a great department assistant. Seriously, these men and women are the heart of a department. THEY KNOW EVERYTHING. They overhear the dirty jokes professors tell, are excellent communicators and have intimate knowledge of how the department works. They’re the glue that holds a department together, and can help students feel informed and connected.
6. Encourage one-on-one mentorship. Having a close relationship with a professor helps students in so many ways — advice, recommendations, venting sessions, etc. For a student, the feeling that one person in the department is looking out for you can make all the difference.
7. Connect with alumni. Creating a community that extends beyond the campus is a great way to show current students what they can do with their major. It can also open up lots of great opportunities for internships and job counseling, and can make recent grads feel comfortable moving to a new city after graduation.
8. Offer specialized classes. 300-level seminars are some of the best things a department can offer. They offer the dual benefit of creating a tight-knit group of professors and students, as well as allowing students to pursue specific interests. Most students love their majors — they’ve chosen their subjects because it’s something they’re passionate about, and they love to delve deep into the heart of the matter. High-level classes with interesting topics help students get the most of their tuition.
9. Host lectures. Lectures are a mini version of upper-level classes that can help students explore areas of the major they’ve never considered. They also show students that the department is invested in them and wants to broaden their horizons.
10. Create traditions. Why is summer camp fun? Traditions. Why do we love holidays? Traditions. They give us something to look forward to and the special knowledge they require helps us feel part of a group. Traditions can also draw new students to a department and help it flourish from year to year.
Sounds good, right? Students, professors, administration: take note. Departments are the little pieces that build a strong college community.