International relations student-staff lunches are a hit

Photo: Mika Schmeling
Photo: Mika Schmeling
Photo: Mika Schmeling

Class lectures are not usually the best opportunities to meet and speak with one’s professors, while seminars and tutorials most frequently serve as shared discussion spaces for a small group of students. As a result, office hours seem like the only set time and place to meet with teaching staff to discuss personal concerns or ideas. Yet, more often than not, students find they are unable to make it to that one or two hour time slot perhaps because they are located all the way across town or happening during the same time as yet another department tutor’s office hours. In the School of International Relations, students benefit from a different opportunity to meet with their professors and teaching staff. With weekly Student-Staff Lunches, students can discuss subjects of similar interest in a casual setting with their instructors.

The IR Student-Staff Lunches are a student-led initiative that was started in October 2014 and run by the Honours Level Staff Student Consultative Committee (SSCC) Class Representatives and former IR class representative, Robert Sellar. The lunches were formed in order to build better connections between students and faculty in the School of IR, as well as to help foster discussion on a variety of topics, for instance a previous lecture or a teaching fellow’s personal publication. Now in its third season, the lunches serve as a chance for staff to provide informal, practical support for career and individual development for IR students beyond their time at university. This year, the lunches are run by Second Year Class Representative Gavrilo Stajkovac and the president of the School of IR, Jessica Yin. With the help of Ms Yin, Mr Stajkovac works to schedule each meal, handle the financial logistics, allocate spaces for the lunch, and invite different staff members to speak.

This semester, lunches are held each week at 1 pm at Tony Macaroni. For students of International Relations, it is relatively easy to start attending these luncheons and benefiting from the several perks this casual meet and greet can offer. Although at first glance it might seem like attending one of these lunches is like placing a target sign on one’s self, students who have participated in these luncheons strongly argue against that fear. The lunches are opportunities for both staff and students alike to share some things about themselves and their specific interests and work in the subject of international relations.

No two lunches are exactly the same as they all feature a different theme. This theme usually consists of the guest staff member’s specialisation and specific field of interest (e.g. terrorism studies) and is a major reason why students get involved with the lunches. “I signed up for lunch with Dr Buranelli because I wanted to speak to him about his research,” said Louis Yau, a second year IR student. Fellow second year student Mansi Gaur also started attending for similar reasons, “I wanted to know more about the actual IR school. I saw that one of my favourite lecturers, Dr Bower, was part of them, so I really wanted to talk to him about his work. It pretty much just snowballed from there, and I’ve been attending whenever I can ever since!”

With one-on-one time, students have the chance to ask any specific questions they might have. For fourth year study abroad student Stefan Radević, the intimate and small group environment was what appealed most. “I am an exchange student here for a semester, and the university I come from only has 2400 students, with class sizes being a maximum of 30 students. All of my classes here have 250+ students, and I wanted to be in a scenario where I could have face-to-face interactions with a professor. “Attending a Lunch was much more rewarding than sitting in a lecture, and reminded me of the riveting in-class discussion we have at my uni.” For several students such as Mr Radević, the Lunches are a more comfortable setting than office hours to meet their professors.

Student-Staff Lunches also provide for students an alternative vision of their instructors. “Your professors and lecturers are human beings outside of the lecture hall, and it’s very cool to be able to see them in a more relaxed setting, and get to know them as people,” said first year IR student Caelan Mitchell-Bennet. Mr Mitchell-Bennet continued, “It is also a great place to make connections with not only influential people like staff, but other students who may share your interests.”

With sign-ups opening every week, students can drop in whenever they can, and those who do attend for consecutive weeks will benefit from a new, dynamic group of classmates to speak with. Discussing over food also helps to alleviate any nerves or stress a student might be feeling. “The casual atmosphere allows for a greater scope of discussion not limited to the lecture material,” said Mr Yau. As a result, the school lunches can also serve as an opportunity for staff members to advise students on more than just coursework. Students have a chance to discuss their futures, career plans and ambitions, and gain feedback from instructors who might reference their own personal history working in the field.

IR lecturer Dr Filippo Costa Buranelli, who recently hosted a lunch last month, said, “I was very happy to tell those students who attended the lunch about my career trajectory, and to share with them some personal experiences that I had when I was a student exactly like them.

[pullquote]In less informal settings, they look at you not as a ‘professor’, but as an intellectual mentor, which, if you ask me, is more rewarding and fulfilling[/pullquote]

The insight gained from professionals can also be very motivating, as lecturers can be put on the spot by students’ questions. “It’s like reading a textbook, but if you hear bias or something you disagree with, you can immediately bring it up,” said Mr. Radević. “Seeing the professor have to take certain points/scenarios into consideration that they might not have expected, and give a very well thought out answer on the spot is really interesting because you can see how truly well versed they are in their field. It’s quite motivating” he added.

Professors involved in the Student-Staff Lunches also achieve certain benefits. It is incredibly rewarding for professors and teaching staff to see their students interested and engaged in the material being taught, especially when these interests are shared between teacher and student. Dr Buranelli said that through these lunches, “Staff members can get to know students better in terms of their interests, their aspirations, their needs and their passions.” By getting to know their students, staff are thus able to tailor their lectures and material to better cater to their classes. For instance, at his Lunch earlier this month, Head of School Professor Anthony Lang openly discussed with students his plan to change the structure of the sub-honours years in the School of IR. He insisted on hearing the students’ thoughts on his ideas. “That helped students feel important and special,” said Mr Stajkovac. Furthermore, alongside office hours and scheduling a time to meet, Dr Buranelli highlights the benefits of such casual meetings. “Learning does not take place in lectures and tutorials only, but it can be well enhanced in informal situations too.” At his Lunch in October, based on their discussions, one student was able to go as far as to establish what specific topic he wanted to do for his Master Thesis!

The Student-Staff lunches have been met with much enthusiasm from staff and students. When asked how receptive people have been, Mr Stajkovac grinned, and cited his joy to be contributing in such a way to the University, “Honestly, amazing. I am very happy to have an opportunity to help my class and actually change or influence something within our School. I cannot describe my happiness when I receive dozens of emails in which both students and staff members are thanking me for organising the Lunches. Feedback is really good and that is what keeps me going.” He also took a moment to thank the professors and lecturers for their involvement, as they seem to enjoy this project as much as himself and the students involved. “Most staff members who participate once, want to participate every year,” he said. In other instances, students and staff members bond so well that it is not unusual for a group to meet for coffee a few weeks later in order to continue a discussion started at a Lunch. “The environment is that friendly, that for a moment, you can forget that you are sitting with your professor. It looks like a normal lunch between good friends!” said Mr Stajkovac.

The Student-Staff lunches promote a stronger IR community, and face to face with one’s professor, students can ask more in-depth questions on certain topics of study that perhaps only a professor or module coordinator could give an accurate answer to. While students can talk to professors and lecturers during seminars, workshops, and employability events, projects such as the Student-Staff Lunches and next semester, IR Movie Nights, will provide a casual opportunity for students and staff to talk.

Students and staff involved encourage others to join in on the fun. As Mr Mitchell-Bennet said, “All in all, they’re just fun. Don’t be nervous to mingle with staff and older students, even as a first year. It’s a great way to learn new things, and help you get out of our shell when it comes to your topic of study. I would definitely recommend these lunches!” Meanwhile, Dr Buranelli encourages students to join in, noting these events as “valuable opportunities to go beyond an academic link with your professors.” “These moments of conviviality enrich, enhance, and entrench the academic side of the student-professor relationship, and add a warm, human touch to it,” he said. In other words, these Lunches put a face and person behind the material a student might be having difficulty comprehending.

As for the Class Representatives, Mr Stajkovac is incredibly proud to be hosting such events, “Most importantly, Student-Staff Lunches really help foster the sense of community within the School of International Relations and, being students’ social representative in the School, that is my main goal this year which I set for myself when elected.” So whether or not 100% confident on a week’s topic of discussion, attending a lunch could still greatly benefit a student, connecting them to their course of study and individuals with similar interests as themselves in the St Andrews community.

The next Lunch is on Wednesday 23 November with Dr Bernhard Blumenau, an expert in terrorism studies and a member of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV). Sign-up sheets and previews of who will lead later Lunches and what topics will be featured are easily accessible, as the class reps regularly update the IR Class of 2019 Facebook page and class rep emails with the necessary information. Furthermore, Mr Stajkovac revealed that there is much more to come from himself and the rest of the IR Representatives next semester, “IR Ball, IR Clothing Kit and IR Movie Nights are all coming in Semester 2! So stay tuned!”


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