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Beyond the Syllabus

Beyond the Syllabus

How one TCC professor learned that "one size fits all" rarely applies to education.

“Can I have an extension?”  “ I’m struggling at home.”  “ I just need more help.”  These statements are endemic to the college campus. As instructors, we hear them all, and we laugh to ourselves when we hear the silly ones. We understand that these requests come with the territory.

But which way is the best way to truly help our students? I know I’m not alone when I say that, especially in a post-COVID world, our students seem to struggle with balancing their personal and academic lives.

If you had asked me about this six years ago, before I started working at TCC Trinity River, my answer would have been simple: Deadlines are deadlines for a reason, and students need to learn to keep up; this is college, after all. I had been taught by my professors to remain firm. “ Don’t smile for the first month,”  our main advisor suggested during our first-year graduate teaching practicum. “ Students take advantage of friendly instructors; stick to your schedules and focus on your own work.”  Many of us scribbled this down into our notebooks, figuring that this professor knew what he was talking about and wouldn’t steer us in the wrong direction.

However, what I grew to understand is that there is seldom a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

Jerrica Jordan, TCC Trinity River Professor of English

Students came to me with issues they were facing, looking for guidance on how to solve their problems and balance their academic concerns with their personal lives. I often tried to help, directing them to the counseling center or offering them a listening ear; other times I granted a quick extension. Either way, I could hear my advisor’s voice in my ear, and I wondered if I had again slipped up. I wasn’t a social worker; I couldn’t fix their problems. But I figured as long as the students turned in their work, things would be fine.

I started teaching at TCC in 2017 and I found myself revisiting this earlier advice. Coming from southern Illinois, my new environment was very different—I had previously been in a rural area, with students from all over the state—but the concerns were much the same. Students always need help. And as faculty members, we are often the first place they go.

But what I also learned was that students won’t always ask. For me, as a faculty member, this meant I had to figure out a way to bridge that gap and extend myself beyond the classroom setting. Supporting my student body meant that my Ph.D. advisor’s advice had to be finally cast aside; instead, I had to meet my students where they were and ask them what they needed.

I decided a few years ago, both in my online and in-person classes, that I wanted to make my courses more inviting.

I began each class with a simple question, writing on the board: ‘ What do you need to talk about today?’ 

Jerrica Jordan, TCC Trinity River Professor of English

Sometimes it was grades, sometimes it was personal concerns, sometimes it was even the assignment! Regardless, it gave them a platform where they knew their thoughts were valid.

Having my classes begin in this way encouraged students to talk about many social issues, voting concerns and gender-related problems. We didn’t always have a harmonious environment; however, the students knew they can speak openly and ask questions. It allowed them to learn more about their fellow students while finding ways to discuss issues in a more articulate and constructive way.

Jerrica JordanI know how hard it is to dedicate this time away from the syllabus. I’ve frequently wondered how I can possibly fit my chosen texts and activities alongside the basic information students should have. There is simply not enough time!

But that’s usually when I ask myself, What is it that students really need? Is telling them about research really going to help them if they are too overburdened with financial concerns? Will providing them with lectures about various poets and authors allow them to recover from any negative experiences? Sometimes, sure, it’s exactly what they need; we all undoubtedly understand the necessity of learning how to compartmentalize.

But if there are days when we can reach our students differently, I think that’s exactly what we should be doing.

So yes, I teach literature, and I love doing it. But I am also there to listen and show them how to ask for what they need. Because if there’s anything we should be doing right now, it’s learning how to advocate for ourselves.

Learn more about literature classes at TCC.