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Comfort zone: Professor makes effort to meet students where they are

You don’t have to call him professor. Please don’t call him Kyle. In fact, “Dr. Woo” fits just fine.

The respectful nickname for associate professor Kyle Woosnam, who teaches parks, recreation and tourism management in the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, echoes the relationship he has with his students. He wants to see his students as more than just a face in a classroom, and through the environment he creates, he hopes, they can ask him about anything—assignments or otherwise.

Woosnam recently received Warnell’s Alumni Association Outstanding Professor Award, one of six given to faculty members each spring. Woosnam recalls professors who had an influence on him, and says he now wants to carry that forward with the next generation.

“I had really good professors when I was an undergrad, and that got me really excited about being a professor too,” says Woosnam, who has been at Warnell for four years. “And so, I avail myself to the students—I give them my cellphone number on the syllabus. When I first got here, I would have the students out once a semester for a meal at my house.”

In recent years that’s gotten a little more difficult, with four kids at home. Instead, Woosnam now treats his students to a meal out. What’s important is having a time to sit together and talk about things beyond the coursework. “I tell them, ‘You can’t spend more than $10,” he says, laughing. “But that’s something I always look forward to because it sort of signals the end of the semester, but we break bread together and talk about how the semester went, and if they need letters of recommendation and such moving forward.”

As a social scientist, Woosnam says he always tries to practice empathy with his students. Many are taking three or four classes and also hold a job outside of school, so while he challenges them, he also tries to be flexible.

Woosnam also acknowledges that he’s able to get to know his students over their time at Warnell. He teaches a range of classes—from a Freshman Odyssey course to an elective to some upper-level research and management courses. He also co-teaches the parks, recreation and tourism management field course with Kris Irwin, and through that experience, he gets to spend three weeks trekking through Georgia with rising seniors in the program, cooking out over a campfire and exploring the parks and tourism industry with professionals in the field.

Even so, Woosnam says, he tries to approach the beginning of every semester with open eyes. Every class responds differently, and he makes a point to adjust his teaching by reading the room.

“When I start a semester, I try to treat every class like a living organism. I don’t know how it’s going to respond based on how the students interact with each other,” he adds. “I usually try to change things up to the benefit of the student and not get too difficult, but I try to gauge early on if it’s going to be more conducive to a discussion-based class, or if I have to rely more on lecturing—then I try to do more group activities to get them more active.”

But when you make that connection, he says, it makes all the difference. He feels he has a good rapport with his students that’s strengthened as they move through the program. The nickname “Dr. Woo” evolved from a similar place.

“I’ve arrived at a kind of hybrid of Dr. Woo because it gets at the personal but also the professional. Plus, it’s easier to say my name that way,” he says. “But yeah, I’ve been very grateful for the students I’ve had.”

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