Immunology Professor Dante Descalzi-Montoya has student engagement down to a science, thanks to business-style background checks, work-review check-ins, and more.
Adjunct Professor of Immunology,Kean University, Union, NJ
PhD in Biomedical Sciences, Molecular Pathology and Immunology; MS in Biotechnology; BA in Biology
Dr. Dante Descalzi understands that good things happen when people show an interest in each other.
“I cannot tell you how many times, during my undergraduate years, it felt like I was just another ID number,” says the adjunct professor of immunology at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. “But once in a while I would run into that professor who actually remembered my name or even knew me before I started my first day because they had talked to other faculty.”
Experiences like that can be deeply motivating—an insight that is central to the way he teaches. “Students work extremely hard to get where they are, and they deserve to be valued as individuals, not enrollment numbers,” he says.
Developing a “culture of caring” is just one of the business-world strategies that Dr. Descalzi has adapted for the classroom. In addition to his teaching load, Dr. Descalzi works full-time as a cancer researcher and flow cytometry data analyst, so he has plenty of real-world experience to draw from.
Industry, he has found, offers plenty of best practices for promoting engagement, drawing out people’s best work, and encouraging more communication and critical thinking. Bringing those strategies on campus, says Dr. Descalzi, helps students get an early feel for the kinds of environments that await them after graduation.
Below, Dr. Descalzi offers tips and insights for engaging students and communicating high expectations for their work in class.
“In every student’s college experience, there will be classes they will love but are not required for their degree, and there will be classes they will absolutely hate but must be taken anyways, and sometimes you have a bit of both worlds. It is the educator’s responsibility to explain this principle to students. Not everyone loves learning about immunology or infectious diseases, but if you must take these courses, then take an interest as a student, because it will show respect, and that is extremely important.”
-Dante B. Descalzi, PhD
Course: BIO 4316 Immunology and BIO 4316L Immunology Laboratory
Course description: This course is designed to develop, from a conceptual and practical approach, a meaningful understanding of the fundamental principles as they relate to the study of the immune system. Particular emphasis is placed on the dissection of the innate and adaptive immune systems in the context of immune system pathologies. The laboratory section of this course provides training in 4 fundamental technical aspects in the Immunology field: Cell culture of an immune cell line model, Flow cytometry, ELISA, and Fluorescent Microscopy.
Course: BIO 3317 Infectious Disease
Description: This course offers an introduction to the 4 major classes of pathogens: viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi; their biological properties, pathogenicity, host-pathogen interactions, mode of transmission, and epidemiological basis of infection are reviewed.
6 workplace strategies to boost student engagement
Dr. Descalzi uses the following approaches he has seen in the working world to get students personally involved in the courses he teaches.
1. Do a background check
Just as a boss might check out the background and skills of a new hire prior to that person’s first day on the job, Dr. Descalzi makes sure to obtain a roster of his students’ names before class begins. He then uses the LinkedIn and Kean’s internal campus network (and campus newspaper) to find out as much as he can about his new students’ backgrounds, whenever possible.
“If I can find at least five people whose names and faces I can already know, it makes things a lot easier,” says Dr. Descalzi, who teaches two classes that range in size from 12 to 25 students. “I might say, ‘Oh, yes, your name is Shannon; I looked you up on LinkedIn, and you’ve done some great work.’ Right then, you can see a big difference in their reaction. It goes from ‘I don’t know this guy who’s going to teach me about biology’ to ‘Oh, wow!’”
2. Build rapport with “workplace humor”
Many bosses use humility and self-deprecating humor to put employees at ease. Dr. Descalzi brings the same strategy to the classroom. For example, at the start of the semester, he apologizes in advance for his habit of stumbling over names that have unfamiliar spellings, poking fun at his anticipated pronunciation problems.
“I’m Hispanic, and some names are very hard for me to say and remember, because there are people from various cultural backgrounds and races,” he says. “So I tell them, ‘Before I call on you again, I’m going to stare at you to try to recall your name.’”
Rather than make the students feel uncomfortable, the staring seems to have the opposite effect. “For some reason—I don’t know why—it eases them up,” says Dr. Descalzi. “It’s self-deprecation, and you’re making them laugh at your expense. So all of a sudden, they relax more, which takes the pressure off them.”
Humor may offer another bonus: Dr. Descalzi has found that connecting with students through humor often causes them to seek his advice more broadly, even if it is not related to the classwork.
“If you’ve made them feel comfortable enough, they’ll come and say, ‘Hey, I’ve looked you up, and you’ve done a lot in your career, and what do you recommend for me?’” says Dr. Descalzi. “And even though it’s not really my job as an instructor, I think you must mentor your students if they come to you. I consider it a great honor when a student comes for advice.”
3. Offer career guidance to keep people on track
Just as workplace managers counsel their employees periodically, Dr. Descalzi holds regular, brief, one-on-one meetings with students throughout the semester. Such conversations can play an important role in helping students understand whether they are on an appropriate career path. But for the counsel to work effectively, Dr. Descalzi knows he must pay close, personal attention. “You have to be like an MD or a surgeon. You have so many patients, but you have to make sure you put in 200% for those five minutes. You have to be there, and you have to engage.”
Modeling this type of engagement can provide benefits far beyond the classroom, he adds. As Dr. Descalzi tells his students, “If you’re in a meeting and don’t show you’re serious about being there as you present scientific data, people will suddenly be on their cell phones texting.”
He also tells students that they have a right to be respected by others: Case in point, he actually turned down a recent job offer in the private sector because the two people who would be responsible for guiding him were on their devices throughout the interview. “I thought it was very disrespectful,” he says.
4. Make it clear that success must be earned
In a world where students are often praised for minor accomplishments—a scenario far different from the workplace—Dr. Descalzi insists that an A is not easily achieved in his classes as a final grade.
“In every student’s college experience, there will be classes they will love but are not required for their degree, and there will be classes they will absolutely hate but must be taken anyways, and sometimes you have a bit of both worlds,” he says. “It is the educator’s responsibility to explain this principle to students. Not everyone loves learning about immunology or infectious diseases, but if you must take these courses, then take an interest as a student, because it will show respect, and that is extremely important. I make sure to emphasize this point to my students after the first quiz, and I tell them that, if they did not do well, not to worry; however, they must have a good explanation for the low grade; otherwise, it would be a sign of disrespect, as it implies they may not be paying attention in class.”
Dr. Descalzi’s strict grading standards are also part of a teaching strategy designed to keep students motivated for the duration of the semester. “If you give them too much comfort in the beginning, you just won’t get the best out of them, and they’ll slack off by the middle of the semester. I must thank my former WPUNJ [William Paterson University of New Jersey] graduate professor Dr. Pradeep Patnaik for that,” he explains.
5. Present information in a businesslike manner
Knowing that attention may wander, Dr. Descalzi conducts his classes like business meetings, in which busy workers may be distracted by their phones or anxious to get back to their to-do lists. Some of his tips are drawn from successful strategies of sales presenters and TED Talk speakers.
He asks lots of questions, is succinct, and summarizes key points with a lecture or PowerPoint presentation before class ends. He monitors his voice to prevent his vocal intonations and rhythms from becoming either too high energy or too flat and drowsy, and he helps students stay organized by identifying important details (and key test questions) as he goes along.
He also asks students questions throughout the class, and he lets students know that he expects them to respond with enthusiasm. This is another parallel with the workplace, where successful employees participate in meetings and contribute to discussions.
“The bottom line is, when you come to the class meeting, stay if you wish to learn and do well, or respectfully leave. Sorry to be so blunt!” he tells them. “I must add that students do respond to this kind of thinking, and I have had no one walk out on me; perhaps a couple of them dropped the course in four years at Kean, but I am sure it was for the better.”
6. Give honest appraisals of work
Like a boss who wants to cultivate his employees’ careers but also needs to meet industry deadlines and goals, Dr. Descalzi embraces a policy of being honest with students about their future in the sciences.
“I tell them, ‘If you don’t do well on the first exam [in any course]—which is often the easiest—then drop the class,’” he says. “You have to get out. It’s either the teacher’s approach, or the material is too dense, or you need a remedial course, or something.”
Rather than seeing this as dashing students’ hopes for success in a particular field, Dr. Descalzi believes that early, honest appraisals can liberate them from unrealistic expectations of themselves and reroute them to more satisfying pathways. This may be especially true for students who are struggling with a difficult course load or are balancing school with full-time work or family obligations.
Ultimately, his authenticity and genuine interest help make students more receptive to talking with him about their goals. “One manner in which to accomplish this is by taking time to learn about their lives inside and outside the classroom. For example, questions like: ‘What do you do for a living now? Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you expect to accomplish at Kean?’ are simple questions, but they definitely set the stage for a successful student-professor relationship,” he says. “These are great opportunities to learn about their experiences and show them that you wish to be part of their academic success.”