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Demolish the “Ivory Tower of Academia”: Show Students Your Human Side

To help her students succeed, Dr. Samiksha Raut shares her life story, struggles, lunches, and personal interests—with impressive results.

Educator

Samiksha Raut, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

PhD in Environmental Toxicology, MS and BS in Biology

Dr. Samiksha Raut’s road to becoming a biology professor at The University of Alabama, Birmingham, was a windy one, but its twists and turns made her the inclusive teacher she is today. Encouraged by her engineer father to pursue an undergraduate degree in computer science, she was two years in when she realized she was miserable—yet she was reluctant to start over. “All of my peers were ahead of me,” she recalls. “It was the isolation and frustration I felt as a student that made me want to be particularly inclusive and helpful as a professor,” she says. “That was not something I had experienced at [the] university.”

When she began teaching, Raut was further inspired to find ways to build connections when she realized that students often do not find professors approachable due to the power dynamic. “This bothered me,” she says. “I don’t think of college as an ivory tower where professors are very separate from the students. As an immigrant and part of a culture that is underrepresented, I want to make myself approachable, relatable, and accommodating so that students feel welcome and can become successful.”

Today, Raut constantly seeks out small opportunities to create human connections with each of the 200-some students who pack her courses, including freshman-level Introductory Biology I. Her methods, not surprisingly, include sharing—sharing stories, sharing hardships, sharing meals, and sharing interests. Below, she shares four of her favorite and most effective “getting to know you” strategies.

Context

“I don’t think of college as an ivory tower where professors are very separate from the students. As an immigrant and part of a culture that is underrepresented, I want to make myself approachable, relatable, and accommodating so that students feel welcome and become successful.”

— Samiksha Raut, PhD

Course: BY 123 Introductory Biology I

Course description: Basic chemistry, cell structure and function, metabolism, genetics, evolution, bacteria, and protists. For major in biology and related fields. Lecture and laboratory.

 

 

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1. Talk on Day One about what inspired your life journey to college

“I’m not that professor who arrives, sets down a big briefcase next to me at the podium, and begins to lecture,” Raut says with a laugh. “I only carry a small tote,” she jokes. “Before even I hit the high points on the syllabus, I start talking about what inspired my journey towards pursuing biology in college through a personal story.” She candidly opens up about one of her dilemmas as an undergraduate in a different field of study, feeling like a fish out of water and needing to start over with a new major. “I felt like a failure,” she tells her class. “I broke down. I did not know what to do. Then my mother convinced me to follow my passion.” This relatable story shows students that she, too, has struggled—and emerged successfully. “Showing students that I made it humanizes me,” she says. “It also teaches students that, in life, they may need to improvise [and change direction] to get where they want to be.”

2. Schedule “Faculty Friday” lunches

Throughout the semester, Raut hosts several lunches that are open to the entire class—all 200 of them!—though typically only a dozen show up at a time. Her chosen location (the students’ cafeteria) and timing (Fridays, when the class doesn’t meet) ensures that students feel comfortable and are likely free to attend. She lets students know that she will be in the cafeteria through an in-class announcement.

“It’s a way for students to know more about me,” she says of these shared meals. “Of course, I am open but do not overshare. One topic that interests students is what it was like for me growing up in Nagpur, India.” The story she shares makes it clear that she was always destined to work in the life sciences: As a young child, she studied her own pet pigeons that were housed in the balcony of her family’s apartment complex, filling notebooks with her observations of them and their eggs. “At one point these birds multiplied so much that there were about 25 birds outside my window!” she laughs.

Raut also uses time around the table to discuss the importance of research opportunities, citing her own undergraduate experience working with dragonflies as a unique research opportunity that paved way to a graduate degree later. This helps her remind the students of the importance of undergraduate research, and she works closely with the Office of Undergraduate Research to recruit more students into these endeavors. In fact, many students from her own classes work under her supervision today on various biology education projects.

3. Get to know more than their names

Memorizing an average of 200 names (per class!) is not child’s play! Yet within a few weeks, Raut knows most of her students’ names—and preferred pronouns—something that clearly can foster connection. “I study the roster before each class,” she says. “Most students sit in the same place each class, too, which helps me to visualize and remember who they are.” (So does her strategy of getting to know them better as people during her faculty Friday lunches and office hours.)

She makes it a point to arrive a few minutes before each class to catch up. “Even chatting with students in the hallway can be inclusive,” she says. “I’ll ask them, ‘How was your weekend?’ Or I’ll share a detail about mine.”

Through these conversations and by keeping an eye on campus news, Raut says she is able to learn some personal details about what is important to students. She uses this information (in conjunction with their names) to show she is paying attention. “If I see that a student has won an art contest, scholarship, award, etc., for instance, I stop them outside of my class to say, ‘Great job!’ and mention why I liked their work,” says Raut.

4. Celebrate the diversity of the group

“There is nothing more human than showing someone that you understand that they have a unique identity and set of values,” Raut says. She feels this is important everywhere, but particularly in courses like hers, where a significant percentage of her students are underrepresented minorities. “As a woman and an immigrant, I can relate to what my students may be experiencing in college,” she says.

A powerful way to bond with such students, she says, is to offer them knowledge of opportunities that they may not know are available. For example, if a student seems particularly down, she may privately mention the mental health resources on campus. If one looks stressed before class, she might ask, “Were you able to finish the assignment? Do you want to set up a time to see me during office hours?”

Raut has also worked to bring down the costs of books and materials for her students, winning grants and working with publishers to change the format (and thus lower the price) of certain class texts. But perhaps some of her biggest impact has come from encouraging students to apply for scholarships, student research grants, or research positions that they would otherwise not have known existed. “I once knew a first-generation, underrepresented college student,” she says. “I pushed this student to apply for several travel fellowships, awards, and scholarships to get over the hesitation to just apply. This student not only earned top honors but is now slated to begin graduate school—so that was a real game changer for the student.”

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