From Student-Teacher to Apprentice-Master?

A couple of students, Joe and Shannon, attended this year’s Faculty Academy, and generally hung out with the DTLT ‘Team’ and our outside speakers.

Yesterday I heard that Joe was taking a course this summer with Angela, one of the faculty members of the team. It reminded me of something I’ve noticed over time. For about ten years, I have taken a group of students to present their research at a regional economics conference. That experience seems to change the dynamics of the subsequent student-teacher relationship.

The change begins when students commit to attending the conference. To be eligible, they submit a research paper. However ‘complete’ their research papers, we always revise them during the Spring semester prior to the conference. This work is done neither for grade nor credit, simply because it’s what is necessary to make the paper conference-ready. It seems to me that during this process, I become more a mentor than a (traditional) teacher. The relationship seems more collegial than hierarchical.

The conference is a tremendous experience in which we get to know each other far deeper than is typical with students and teachers. Part of this is spending several intense days together. But I think an important part is when students see the teacher acting as a professional in his or her field, and when the students are accepted as similar albeit journeyman professionals.

What is particularly interesting is to see the extent to which the changed relationship persists when we return from the conference Some of the students are in my courses–or they take one next semester. In those classes, the students seem less concerned by grades and more interested in learning. They seem to relate to me as a helpful expert, less as the person responsible for their grade.

Has anyone else had this experience with students? If so, how might we build this into our courses more generally?

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6 Responses to From Student-Teacher to Apprentice-Master?

  1. Martha says:


    You’re making me think. . .

    I throw around the terms mentor and teacher a lot, and I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down and thought about how they’re the same and how they’re different.

    Some of my teachers became my mentors, but I’m sure I know lots of people who never had that experience.

    I’m not sure I could say what sparked the changed, but now I’m going to have to think about it. . .


  2. Martha says:

    folllow-up: could you (in your teacher role) mentor *every* student? Would you want to? Or, would you want to try to?

  3. James says:

    Martha’s follow-up is an important one, which makes me remember this exchange ( from a while back.

    I wonder if the most that can be expected of any teacher is to set the stage for mentoring relationships because as with all relationships it takes two to tango.

  4. Mary-Kathryn says:

    Your post let me sit back for awhile and reflect on what you are saying, both as a student and as a parent.

    My question as a parent is this: If you change the teacher-student relationship how will you maintain the proper boundaries of authority that I believe kids need? I know they are young adults, but in my parent’s eye the key word is “young.”

    As a student, I think having a mentor would be invaluable. Of course my mother’s heart is kicking into overdrive here and I would like to see the more non-verbal students chosen. I’ve observed that many of these young people just need an opportunity to bloom.

    Maybe I should set up a mother’s den at UMW and just leave you in peace :o)

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  6. Shannon says:

    Well, I suppose I can throw my student perspective in here.
    I’m going to have to go with James’ comment, the most you can do is set the stage. Not all students are looking for their professors to be mentors, so it is unlikely a prof would have to mentor *every* student.

    In regards to Mary-Kathryn’s comment about “non-verbal students”, and Steve can either agree or disagree on this but, I was never really talkative in his class but, I think technology helps communication by making it easier for the quiet students to navigate the scary realms of communication with a professor. Most of the profs on campus will communicate by e-mail and what is even better most want to talk to you in person so they take the initiative to reach out past the web connection.

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