Student life: less time, more pressure

March 6, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

Mark Leier’s office hours have become lonely affairs. Not one of the 250 undergraduates in his History 102 class dropped by last semester to discuss the course.
So Leier is now going to the students. Every Tuesday from 1–2 pm he grabs a table at Renaissance coffee in the AQ and waits for students to recognize him and stop for a chat. It’s an idea he borrowed from a visiting scholar, and it’s working well.

The first day, he chatted with four students on topics ranging from the course lecture to careers in academia. And each week more of them are dropping by.

Since Leier is a past winner of an SFU Excellence in Teaching award, it’s unlikely that students are shunning him because he’s a boring or poor professor.

Instead, he attributes his empty office to a number of factors: increased university communication via e-mail, students’ busy lives (he says more work 20–30 hours a week than ever before) and bigger, less personal classes. Students are younger than in previous years and, he finds, often intimidated by professors. They’re pragmatic about university outcomes, he says, obtaining degrees as a means to an end rather than out of a passionate interest in learning. The end result: They’re less interested in chewing the facts or shooting the breeze with a professor.

In her book My Freshman Year, Cathy Small identified similar problems at U.S. universities. Small, an anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University, went ‘undercover’ as a freshman to see how student life has changed. Her experience, says Leier, is similar to his own. While many professors are turning to Facebook to make new connections with students, Leier has been reluctant to adopt the social networking site.

“It may be necessary,” he says, “but the real problems we face aren’t problems of technology. They’re problems of time, of pressure, of intensified work. Technology may help us manage those problems, but it doesn’t solve them. That requires action on a social scale, and that means people meeting face-to-face.”
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