TAMPA — When Lois Roma-Deeley started her college teaching career, she got together twice a year with friends in the same situation.
They were all learning how to be good teachers. They poured tea and opened notebooks. And as they reflected on their last few months in the classroom, they always started with the same question: "What do we want to never have happen again?"
Now she is among the best.
Roma-Deeley joined three other nationally recognized professors, including University of South Florida professor of mechanical engineering Autar Kaw, for the school's third annual Student Success Conference on Wednesday at USF.
Faculty, graduate students, provosts, deans and librarians looked on at USF's Marshall Student Center, listening to tips and stories from the four 2012 U.S. Professors of the Year, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
It's a transformational time in college education, the professors said. Funding is in flux and large numbers of low-income students are finding it harder to get in. The emphasis is on accountability, results and technology.
And while college used to be a smaller, more elite endeavor, now it's a normal and expected path to take. Millennials — those in their 20s and early 30s — don't thrill in gaining information for information's sake, because they can find out anything immediately, said Christy Price, a psychology professor at Dalton State College in Georgia.
"They've been inundated with information from the time they were very young," she said. "Variety is really critical to the modern learner."
Teachers can't talk for long stretches and expect students to stay engaged, Price said. Now, it's about mini-lectures and participation.
The others agreed. As director of the laboratory science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf in New York, Todd Pagano signs to deaf students and speaks to hearing students at the same time. He said it forces him to slow down and use visuals, which benefits every student.
"You have to pulse your classroom with a whole bunch of different modalities," Pagano said. "There's nothing wrong with some chalk talk, but I'm a proponent of not overdoing it. … There's so much wonder in science. Every day in my classroom, there is and will be some sort of fire."
For USF's Kaw, it's about making an emotional connection with students. It can take time, he said, but some students tell him things they're not comfortable telling their parents. And on an academic level, it's about setting high expectations and not wavering.
"Sometimes I do get student comments that I expect too much from them," he said. "The word gets out that I do have high expectations so they do hunker down."
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Modern students expect professors to be available 24 hours a day, he said. Kaw hosts lectures on YouTube and asks students to submit input before class. They go into a face-to-face discussion knowing what to focus on. He answers questions on his blog, the Numerical Methods Guy, and is @numericalguy on Twitter.
"I don't believe the instructor is going to be replaced," he said. "What's going to shift is what the role of the instructor is going to be."
Passion has to come first, the professors agreed — before the contracts and tenure tracks, before the student comment forms and Rate My Professors websites, before university politics and technology. Students always respond to passion.
"I don't see much has changed since Socrates, at least for me," said Roma-Deeley. "They want to be challenged, they want to learn."
The head of creative writing and women's studies at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, Roma-Deeley said she got her values from her family. Her Italian grandmother was so desperate to be literate, she said, she would sneak away from an abusive home to sit outside classrooms and listen.
"What we do matters," she said. "I don't care what anybody says to you. … This is how you change the world."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.