For Andrew Reynolds, learning with students starts with coffee
March 31, 2017 | William Kumpf
These days there are a lot of ways for students to connect with their professors: emails, phone calls, text messages, instant message, Twitter, etc. Professor Andrew Reynolds uses a different approach.
“It’s very simple. It’s Ruel Tyson’s idea about conversation” Reynolds says, referring to the Institute’s founder. “You have a conversation, and we’re all interested in learning and understanding. It’s like IAH’s table talk when we have grown up dinners. It’s the same principal. And it’s fabulous.”
The professor is referring to “Coffee with Reynolds,” a program he started nearly sixteen years ago when he first arrived at the University. He started it in his 300-person Introduction to Comparative Politics class as a way to get to know the students who comprise his larger lectures.
Reynolds uses a simple sign-up sheet to coordinate the meetings, and sits down for coffee with six students at a time. There are usually eight meetings over the course of the semester, allowing Reynolds to better know nearly fifty students from each class.
“Regardless of the class size, it’s nice to be able to sit down and learn more about the students,” he says. They discuss their upbringings, relationship to North Carolina, and offer insights into the unique perspectives of native North Carolinians, which Reynolds, a native of London, England, finds valuable.
The discussion also focuses on mentorship, travel, and experiencing the world. Reynolds, a widely-traveled man, shares some of his “war stories,” and guides students toward opportunities that jibe with their interests.
There are also a lot of questions about how Reynolds got where he is, something he calls an “accident of history.” He advises them to follow what they’re passionate about. “Learn, and dig in deeply,” he says. He tells his students to knock on a professor’s door, and take advantage of office hours. “You might get lucky and find a mentor for life.”
Over time, Reynolds extended the program to other, smaller classes. It’s not uncommon for students to follow Reynolds from one class to the next. That’s exactly what friends Brooke Murad and Kaitlyn Karcher have done. Both began in Reynolds Introduction to Comparative Politics class before following him to other classes
Karcher, a sophomore Journalism and Political Science major from Sylva, N.C., is currently enrolled in Reynold’s African Politics and Societies class. She’s grateful to be able to spend meaningful time with someone as accomplished as Reynolds.
“There is a gap at a school this big where you have such large lectures or the professors are doing a lot of independent research, and are very busy and do other things in addition to teaching three classes” she says.
For Karcher, Reynolds is accessible and open. “He enjoys talking to students, and doesn’t see that as beneath his valuable time” she says. She attributes the passion he has for his work to his engaging presence in the classroom.
During one of his IAH fellowships, Reynolds encountered “The Joy of Teaching” by Peter Filene. The book and discussion with other faculty members had an impact on his teaching. It taught the fellows how to make the classroom a more engaging place.
“One of the Institute’s great benefits is that it gives you time. It gives you time to think and it gives you time to interact, and it gives you time to write, and all those things are important,” Reynolds says.
Murad, a sophomore Advertising and Political Science major from Ridgefield, CT is in her second class with Reynolds, Sexuality, Race, and Gender: Identity and Political Representation. She says that the passion he demonstrates for his scholarship translates directly into the classroom.
“Some professors, while very knowledgeable in their field, are just sort of dry. They’ll give you good information, but they’re not conveying it to you in a way that makes you enthusiastic. When a professor shows enthusiasm about his subject, it’s so much more likely to make the students enthusiastic about it too. Once you can find interest in it, it makes me more likely to reach out to the professor because I’m engaged and want to learn more.”
The transference of scholarship takes other forms, too. Murad explains that Reynolds uses yet-to-be-published excerpts from his upcoming book in their class discussions. She’s excited about being able to see the scholarship evolve, and to get a sneak peek at the material. “It’s cool to get the inside look before it’s even released,” she says.
Nearly two decades into his role as a professor, Reynolds is beginning to see former students become accomplished professionals. “Students from my first year seminars are now doing significant things,” he says. At a recent IAH event at Durham’s Ponysaurus Brewing Company, Reynolds was approached by a former student who is in the process of completing his Ph.D. at Harvard.
“I saw him a couple of months ago. He came up to me and he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I remember you!’ Now he’s a big deal. It’s cool!” Reynolds says with a smile.
Professor Reynolds research focuses on electoral politics, constitutional design, and democratization. He pays special attention to the roles of minorities and marginalized communities with a larger state. Reynolds has worked for a variety of national and international organizations, including the United Nations, the UK Department for International Development, and the US State Department. His upcoming book, The Children of Harvey Milk is due in October, 2017.