Challenging myself to learn actively alongside my students

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One of the reasons, among many, I love being a professor is because of the ability to constantly learn and grow myself. Even a course I’ve taught umpteen times, I take away something new every semester. I learn from my students, I learn as new research develops, I learn as I enter the next phase of my own life and apply communication and relational theories in unique ways. But this January I learned alongside my students in the Cultivating Quality Communication course.

I believe individuals learn the most when they are actively challenging themselves and being intentional. As a relational communication scholar there are few things I prize more than quality interactions with others. Put those two sentiments together and the Quality Conversation assignment developed.

During the course of our January-term, students had to reach out to individuals and create opportunities for quality conversations. This included setting aside significant time, removing interruptions (no distractions or devices), preparing ideas or conversation avenues, and considering how to connect in meaningful ways using their communication knowledge. But there was a catch! While half of the conversations could be of their choosing (the only caveat being they had to challenge themselves and be intentional with whom they selected and how it could influence that relationship), the other half had certain requirements. The first conversation had to be with someone they didn’t know at all or knew little, the second with a friend they had not spoken to or interacted with recently, and the third with a family member they had not spoken to or interacted with recently. *Gasp* As I explained the assignment, noted their concerned looks, listened to their nerves as they asked questions, I blurted, “I’ll do it, too!” Well, then. Thus began my own challenging January learning experience.

For the conversations of my choosing, I interacted with my 4-year-old son, my husband, and a friend I hadn’t seen in about 8 months. For the required conversations, I selected a group of long-time friends (strangers to me) at a coffee shop, a friend from graduate school I haven’t seen or spoken to face-to-face (only text or email) in 10 years, and my brother, to whom I haven’t seen or spoken (other than a few Facebook comments here and there) in 17 years. Talk about challenging myself to learn from intentional interactions. Let me share a few takeaways from the conversations.

Conversations of my choosing:

  • 4-year-old son: It is so easy to multi-task as that age chatters on. Giving him undivided attention was a challenge but meaningful in such a busy world. And I learned! He wants to be a garbage truck driver. Cool, buddy!
  • Husband: It was an important reminder of the importance of carving out time for each other when many interactions involve coordinating “life.” And with creativity (I prepared questions such as, “Tell me your life story in four minutes”), I actually learned new details about his childhood.
  • Friend: We enjoyed connecting in-person and I made myself vulnerable by disclosing about some stresses. We made a plan to check-in and hold each other accountable on navigating stresses in healthy ways. A support team is important.

Conversations with requirements:

  • Coffee shop group: I really don’t like approaching or conversing with strangers. It took me 40 minutes to get up the nerve, my heart was racing, and I had to force myself outside of my comfort zone. But the pride in knowing I can do it when I need to was awesome. And I learned a lot about their histories with the community and their views on long-time friendships (some of the men had been friends for 30-40 years).
  • Graduate school friend: I cannot put into words the joy of hearing her laughter and seeing her smile. It is too easy to get caught up in technology as a medium to keep in-touch. This moment connecting via video messenger was the highlight of my day.
  • Brother: It is trippy to interact (video-chat) with someone who has shared DNA and you see so much familiarity and yet don’t know one another well. I was taken back to my childhood in ways I hadn’t thought of in years when I heard him chuckle. Family can be complex, but intentionality can go a long way. We hope to do this again.

These summaries merely scratch the surface of the moments and lessons from participating in the assignment. At the time I couldn’t believe I agreed to join my students, but now I am so glad I did.

Sarah Wilder is an associate professor of Communication Studies at Luther College where she teaches courses such as Interpersonal Communication and Family Communication. Wilder's research revolves around supportive communication and relational development. She enjoys living in the beautiful Decorah area with her husband and their two children.

Sarah Wilder, Associate Professor of Communication Studies

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  • February 28 2019 at 5:28 pm
    Loren Toussaint

    Nothing but the best from Dr. Wilder. What an incredible "classroom" experience.

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