John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s in a Handshake? A Start.

John N. Gardner

I write this reflection the weekend in September 2013 after both the leaders of the United States and Iran addressed the United Nations. This was also the occasion for much speculation about whether there not there would even be a “handshake” between the leaders of these two critical nations (to the world’s prospects for peace) between whom there have been no diplomatic relations since 1979. I was very struck by how much media attention was being directed to the significance of the handshake. So I ask, what is the relevance of the handshake to our work with students? It’s a start.

In western culture the handshake is a sign of respect. It is an expression or an attempt to span differences of power, authority, wealth, status to indicate some common basis of parity and equality. It is an act of civility. It conveys that those who engage in it have acquired the socially appropriate “manners.”

When I had my own students at the University of South Carolina and they came to visit me during office hours, I would stand, invite them to come in, and when they did so I would put out my hand as an offer for a handshake. I noticed that very often they were surprised by this gesture. Were they struck by my formality? Or by my willingness to convey respect and a symbolic gesture of equality? I think largely the latter. Our students do not assume they are equal to us in any way.

There are so many ways in which we interact with our students that really matter. There are so many ways we could show respect, if we thought about it. And, if we thought about the projection of respect as a means to empower our students, here is another way to do that. One aspect of how we convey respect, and may start a supportive relationship, is how we arrange the space in our offices for interaction, assuming that students still visit us at all instead of texting or e-mailing, especially the former.

One of the first lessons I learned as a US Air Force psychiatric social worker from my first, supervising, mentor psychiatrist, was that it was really important how I arranged the furniture in my office. He wanted me to understand how the placement of the furniture either encouraged or inhibited verbal communication. It was a lesson I have never forgotten and practice 46 years later. So when my students at USC came to visit me in my office, the “student” chair was never placed in front of my desk. I never talked to my students with any intervening piece of furniture in the space between us. There were other ways of my maintaining appropriate social distance and I did.

During the 25 years I directed our University 101 first-year seminar, in our instructor training, one of the many strategies we suggested our instructors put into practice was the idea of a required “office visit” by each student in the first-year seminar, to the office of the instructor, during the first four to six weeks.  It was really very simple. We asked the instructors to require a visit of each of the twenty or so students. Students were told that this would be for the purpose of getting to know each other; that the conversation would be informal, painless, and non invasive, respectful of privacy. We suggested some kind of sign up process and gave the instructors total freedom to do this or not, and if they did to determine what length of conversation to tell the students to expect. We told them that we thought even a five minute conversation would be salutary. In our training, we used this activity to discuss why out-of-class interaction was important; how to arrange office furniture to facilitate communication; and suggested they start the interaction with a handshake.

Over the years many instructors told me that they thought this process was one of the most important in which they engaged the students. The instructors reported that after the office conversation they could literally discern changes in levels of student engagement, participation. And there was general consensus that the whole mood, ambience, culture of the class as a whole, was different—improved, more comfortable, open, respectful, after the four to six week period of the required conversations had taken place.

So what do I think might explain this perceived change in the feel of this class? I hypothesize that what went on was the following x 20: The student came to see me for the required 5-10 minute in-office visit conversation. After the visit the student says to him/herself—

Well, that wasn’t so bad. Professor Gardner is a kinda strange guy. Never had anybody like him in high school. I was surprised. I actually enjoyed visiting him in his office. Was interesting to see all the stuff on his walls and some of the personal photos. He was actually polite to me. Why he even shook my hand when I came in, even though I was ten minutes late for my appointment.  I was embarrassed about that.  What surprised me the most was that he seemed genuinely interested in me as a person, a lowly freshman. I guess it would be good if I could show a little interest in him and in his course. He obviously loves teaching this class. How could I show some interest without looking like a brownnoser? Well, maybe I could ask a question now and then. But, now that I think about that, I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of smarter kids so maybe I better read the assignments before I open my mouth in class so I won’t sound stupid. I really think at times that I am stupid. But he didn’t talk to me like he thought I was stupid. Maybe the best way to show more interest would simply be to come to class, no more cuts. That’s a no-brainer. And another really easy thing I could do would be to move from the back of the class to somewhere near the front, at least on the days when he doesn’t have us all sitting in that darn circle. And I think it annoys him when he sees us texting when he is all excited explaining something to us. I admit, I have trouble controlling my phone use, in class, out of class, everywhere. He seems so focused on us when he is teaching. I wonder if I could ever focus like that. Won’t know unless I try.

With students, you just have to get them started. One positive step and change leads to the next one. We make positive predictions of them and create self fulfilling prophecies.

 n conclusion, I would continue to recommend this technique of the mandatory office hour conversation. Yes, this would require an investment of time, especially for those of us who teach. But this would provide a structural context to convey respect and interest to those who are paying our salaries. And, yes, I would recommend we start with a handshake. It conveys optimism that something good could come from this. We now hope the same for US/Iranian relations. And, of course, that’s why the possible handshake of the two Presidents was a big deal. The handshake never happened. But a phone call did, initiated by our President. Apparently, he is still something of a twentieth century communicator: he used the phone instead of an e-mail or text.

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