SPIRIT fund creates opportunities for student-professor interaction
Students break bread with professors
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 08:04
Among the benefits of a liberal arts education, some may say, is the opportunity for students to build relationships with professors, a feat that can be difficult at larger institutions. Even at Tufts, with an advertised student-faculty ratio of nine to one, it is not always easy to interact with professors outside of the classroom.
The Students and Professors Integrating Recreation, Intellect and Teaching (SPIRIT) Fund at Tufts was designed to facilitate informal interaction between professors and their students and advisees.
A component of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education’s annual budget, the fund supports a wide variety of faculty-student engagement. Two of the larger programs the fund sponsors are “Take Your Professor to Lunch Week,” which offers professors a free lunch when they join a student at Carmichael or Dewick-MacPhie Dining halls, and “Coffee with a Professor,” which covers the cost of beverages when students meet with professors at the Tower Café in Tisch Library or Brown and Brew, according to Dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies Carmen Lowe.
The fund also helps subsidize a variety of events, such as year-end receptions within departments to celebrate graduating seniors, a pie-eating contest between students and faculty in the Mathematics Department in honor of Pi Day and a Chinese New Year celebration in the Chinese Department.
“The fund gives us the support to organize events [that we would not be able to ordinarily] to bring [together] students and faculty,” Professor of Mathematics Eric Quinto said.
SPIRIT also helps cover professors’ expenses for hosting a class or group of advisees at their home for dinner. This gives students the opportunity to build a personal relationship with professors and can ease the natural anxiety of interacting with them, sophomore Anika Ades said.
“My advisor was a French professor, and she cooked us a traditional French meal,” Ades said. “She wanted us to feel like we had someone on campus we could talk to who was an adult, and she was welcoming and accommodating.”
History Lecturer David Proctor has used the fund to help defray ticket costs for class trips to the opera, and most recently to see the “A Day in Pompeii” exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston. In addition to adding value to his classics courses, the trips have helped build community outside of the classroom, according to Proctor.
“It’s a really great use of university resources to encourage faculty and students to interact in an informal setting outside of the classroom,” he said. “These trips help build lasting connections between students and faculty.”
According to Lowe, the major criterion for SPIRIT fund applications is that the event involves student-professor interaction. Professors must email Lowe a request, and proposals are granted while funds last. While the total varies from year to year, SPIRIT has funded more than 30 events since September — just about one per week of classes in session — in addition to picking up the bill from Dining Services for coffee at the Tower Cafe and “Take Your Professor to Lunch Week,” Lowe said.
In most cases, professors must take the initiative when applying for funding, Lowe added, but the interactions themselves often hinge upon the willingness of students to engage.
Sophomore Katherine Applegate broke bread with her Spanish professor during “Take Your Professor to Lunch Week” this semester.
“It’s hard to form a good relationship with professors, so I thought this would be a good way to get to know a little about her, which is something I was very curious about,” Applegate said. “She was very enthusiastic when I approached her.”
Applegate, who heard of the opportunity, through a friend, knew of few other students who had taken advantage.
“I didn’t hear enough about it before it was too late,” sophomore Alissandra Rocchi said of the event. “If I had heard more, I definitely would have made more of an effort to take advantage.”
Lack of awareness can especially pose a problem for first-year students. Freshman Hayley Kanner said that she was not aware of the opportunity to take her professor to lunch. Approaching a professor can also be daunting for first-year students, according to freshman Hannah Foley.
“It never really crossed my mind, and to be honest it’s a little intimidating,” Foley said.
Despite challenges on the part of students, professors find SPIRIT funds accessible.
“I think the fund is pretty comprehensive and pretty flexible,” Proctor said. “The Dean’s office has always been open to considering proposals and has broadened over the years in what it’s willing to cover.”
With support from SPIRIT on the table, students are responsible for taking advantage of the opportunities, Applegate said, with tangible benefits as a result.
“It’s nice that sitting down for one simple lunch was able to improve my relationship with my professor in class,” she said.