Students and faculty build strong ties
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. At Minnesota’s Private Colleges, students know they are more than just a number. Most classes have fewer than 20 students and nearly 99 percent have fewer than 50 students. We often hear about these small class sizes — but what exactly does it mean for the student?
“At Saint Mary’s, and other private colleges, the successful faculty have a bias that inclines them toward the student,” argues Joe Tadie, associate professor in the department of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. “The emphasis is on the student and on their learning and developmental needs.” Tadie helps in the leadership of the Living Learning Communities (LLC), groups of first-year students who choose to live together because they share common interests and goals. The LLC effort believes that it takes a certain type of professor to be committed to building both the curricular and the co-curricular connections with students. “The focus on students depends on the faculty. Faculty have to adopt a learning agenda versus a disciplinary teaching-lecturing agenda. Building these learning communities is an invitation for both faculty and students to stretch and be stretched. "
Dr. Jeanne Minnerath, associate professor of biology, echoes Tadie’s sentiments. “We get these students as freshman and set high expectations and start to build these respectful relationships,” she said. “Because of the small class sizes, students really have the opportunity to get to know their professors and we know them.”
Minnerath, who recently participated along with two students in the Private College Scholars Showcase, exemplifies this commitment to students. While she has office hours, she is always available to students — even sharing her cellphone number and attending sporting events on campus. And while she continues her own research, she finds ways for students to not only participate but design and conduct research on their own. “By the time these students are juniors, they know what professors expect and they have developed friendly relationships. So when they reach the stage of time to do a research or thesis project, they are not starting from scratch,” she said. “They know they have to have their stuff together, and they don’t want to disappoint professors.”
Senior Bridget Pethke, a biology and pre-physical therapy major and member of the women’s basketball team, traveled to the Philippines to study native plants and their anti-microbial activity last May with Minnerath. “She encouraged me to apply for this opportunity and I got it. It was an amazing experience,” Pethke said. “Through Dr. Minnerath and my other professors I realize how much they care. It can be really intimidating at first but she fits everyone in her schedule. She shows us that it is important to make time for others. When I first stepped on campus, all my professors were genuinely and sincerely interested in students as individuals and as students. They are there for us and we just have to take the initiative.”
For Tadie, faculty need to be willing to grow their pedagogical sensibilities. For example, Tadie has taught his “History of Medieval Philosophy” course in a chemistry lab in the science building. “The medieval era was a robust time for innovation in science, but no matter how often and how well I may have lectured about this fact in the past, once I adopted a shared-inquiry format and moved the class into the science building, the point made itself. The burden of discovery of that fact was shifted to the learners, and I think the simple fact of having them enter the halls of the science facility was even more significant. The process has not been seamless and yet it has helped me grow as a teacher and deepened the students powers of inquiry, and their feeling for their place in science and inquiry, even as researchers in the history of medieval philosophy.”
Tadie and Minnerath both point to their roles beyond the classroom and say they do a fair amount of advising as well. “When students get here, we have high expectations and expect the students to meet them, yet we are still nurturing,” Minnerath said. “We are there for you, even in college. These students are still growing up. And don’t we all need to hear ‘everything is going to be okay’ every once in a while?”
“I love watching them grow and develop problem-solving skills and critical thinking. I love it when they get to the stage that they argue with me and become experts,” she said. “And that happens because we provide high expectations and opportunities for close attention.”