The distance between professors and their students.

4 09 2010

There’s an interesting post up today at College Misery which can best be characterized by the question, “How much distance should there be between professors and their students?”:

During all of this a handful of people who I know a bit were listening, and they really became interested when I started talking about my relationship to my students. I was saying things that feel normal for me: “I want them to succeed, but it’s really up to them,” and “I gave that one guy a chance, but he pissed it away. He’ll have to take the class again.”

After a while one woman said, “I had no idea college professors were so disconnected from their students.” And another followed that up with, “I couldn’t do your job unless I really was connected to them as individuals.”

…Am I supposed to care more about them than I revealed that night? Should I “connect” with them as individuals?

I say that’s not our decision to make. As one of the commentators on this post suggests:

How can we “connect” with our students? As an adjunct, I teach SIX classes (at 30 students a piece) so that’s roughly 180 students a semester. I see them 2 – 3 times a week (when they show up) and only once a week for some classes. I struggle to learn all of their names (but I do try, very hard). I CAN’T connect with them all. Here’s the thing though; I do connect with some. The ones that work hard, come to see me during office hours, ask for feedback, self-disclose (appropriately) I do connect with.

Lucky for me (and my students) I’m not an adjunct with six classes, but I do have some classes that are bigger than others. I’ll learn every student’s name in the survey class in due time, but I’ll never know anything about them as people unless they talk in class or come to office hours or do something else to demonstrate that they’re genuinely interested in history. In my smaller, upper-level classes, personalities come out quickly because they’re mostly discussions. [This has proven particularly true teaching the history of food. Everybody wants to talk about what they like to eat, what they don’t like to eat and especially why they feel that way.] Indeed, since upper-level classes are full of history majors I likely already know many of my students there before class even starts.

The distance between professors and their students breaks down easily under repeated exposure to one another. We aren’t going to invite ourselves out to the bars on Friday night, so they’re the ones who have to make sure that that exposure occurs. And by the way, if you’re reading this blog and you happen to be one of my students, why not visit me in office hours some time so that we can both learn more about each other? I promise I don’t bite. Really.




One response

4 09 2010
Joshua Paddison

When I was a beginning T.A., I really really wanted to be liked by my students — I wanted to be the cool youngish prof who wasn’t too different from them. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve become less concerned with whether they like me and more interested in getting to know them as individuals. But I want to learn about them primarily so I can be a more effective teacher to them. Connecting is a way of being a better instructor. I make it clear that I want them to succeed and will do everything I can to help them, but ultimately it is up to them to work hard and seek out extra help from me if they need it.

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