As I prepare for the upcoming academic year, I’m eagerly looking forward to greeting a new and different crop of students on the first day of class. But after more than 30 years as a university professor, I know one thing will stay the same: the last day of each class I teach will be bittersweet. On that day, I will tell my students that it is probably the last time most of us will ever see each other. I realize that is a harsh fact to spring on my students, but it is important for them, as they move forward in their lives, to reflect on the time we had together and to appreciate our intellectual journey.
Why is the realization of not seeing my students again so difficult for me? The simple answer is that, by the end of the semester, my undergraduates are not just a name on my class list. Instead, the students and I have forged a connection, more akin to that of a mentor and mentee.
Of course, this connection is stronger in some cases than others. It is relatively difficult — although still possible — to connect to students in a mega-sized class where I do most of the talking. But in a senior seminar of 10 to 15 students where the primary pedagogy is discussion, the students and I really get to know one another. In the latter context, students are pushed to interact with me in a way that — especially at a large university– is foreign to them because they have had so many large classes. The seminar requires them to talk, and talk, and then talk some more. This is their opportunity to let me hear what they are thinking, and at the same time, show me who they are.
Also, in my senior seminar classes, I not only discuss specific content in great detail, but also offer guidance on career issues, since the students are actively navigating various career paths. Career possibilities are quite varied and include everything from applying to graduate school to becoming a police officer. Those career discussions go a long way toward developing a connection between my students and me.
After many years of teaching, I recently got to thinking why, after the work required to forge the bond described above, I would let it all slip away after a class was over or when a student graduated. Quite simply, I was no longer willing to cut my ties with my students. I investigated various ways of keeping connected and settled on a social media application that several of my students suggested: Instagram.
You heard right — this popular photo-sharing social networking service that emphasizes mobile use has allowed me to stay connected with my students in a way I never imagined. I have my own Instagram account that my students can follow, and I follow students who were in my seminar classes and have an Instagram account.
On my own account, I post a photo a few days each week either at work (e.g., leading a discussion in my new senior seminar) or at some event (e.g., a university basketball game). Typically, I provide a short comment about what I am doing in the photo. My followers can see what I look like and read about the new things I am involved with. Followers can also engage me in a conversation.
A clear example of that was when I recently turned 60 and posted a birthday photo at my favorite restaurant in town; all of my students know which restaurant this is. It was amazing — and quite humbling — to see the number of former students who had “liked” my post, and to read kind words from those students.
In addition to my own photo posts, I am able to view the photos of students I follow and keep track of their life journey. Thus, I can maintain contact — visually and by asking them questions if I so choose — as they move forward in their lives. For example, I have been able to view photos of one of my students I had two years ago and follow her as she moves closer to her medical school graduation. In addition, I have been able to see photos of my students at important life events, such as our university’s graduation ceremony and their weddings or career moves to new cities.
I understand that my use of Instagram is not for everyone. I can just hear some of my colleagues now: “You’re just catering to the students.” “A professor should not be on Instagram, especially at your age.” “Are you a member of the Academy, or a member of a fraternity?” Or, “Just let them go.”
Of course, trying new things in academe is not for everyone. I am old enough to recall some colleagues telling me I should not switch from a chalkboard to overheads — and definitely not from overheads to PowerPoint. Still, I encourage those of you who are also faculty members to take the plunge and embrace Instagram. You will experience, as I have, the joy of being able to stay connected with your students from the first day of class until long after the last one.