Thursday, April 28, 2005

Don't stand so close to me

I've been meaning to comment on this recent article, but I see that new kid has already done so, and done so brilliantly. Since she incorporates much of the original article, especially the creepiest aspects of Professor Too-Close, you should probably click on over there before you read any farther here.

Done?

Our semester is drawing to a close, and my patience for and devotion to my students has waned rapidly this term. So I'm not really in a frame of mind where "too close" is much of a temptation. And frankly, for whatever reason, I don't often feel tempted, even a little, to get too close to my students. Don't get me wrong--I'm very fond of many of them. And one of the nice things about my t-t job is the knowledge that I might get to know the best of them a little better, since I can be around for at least a while.

For me, Sofka's situation raised questions similar to those New Kid raises--about how much we, as professors, should or can allow ourselves to want to be liked by our students. I agree with NK that in general, faculty need to get their social affirmation from other "adults," by which I mean from those not subordinated to us by education, experience, age, or the gradebook. I have colleagues who seem to aspire more to "friend" status than faculty status, and I find it disturbing. On the one hand, it robs the students (most of whom, at my school, are in fact traditionally college-aged and relatively sheltered) of the chance to have a friendly relationship with someone who is, even if only in status, their "superior." For me, one of the most difficult parts of my graduate career has been learning to interact intellectually and socially with my own mentors--to figure out how to be friendly, even to be friends, within the hierarchy of our academic relationships. A friendship with a mentor who accepts his or her role as someone older, wiser, more experienced is a tremendous thing for any young person.

I also don't think our students owe us the burden of their friendship. College is hard enough without having to feed the ego of your thirty-something physics prof by convincing him that he's still up on the current slang. I would have found it incredibly nerve-wracking to have a drink with a professor when I was an undergraduate--it would have entirely destroyed the pleasurable release that alcohol appeared to bring back when I was that age.

And as a colleague, I really, really resent those chummy prof types--the ones that are inevitably referred to as 'cool' by my students--the ones who are always having coffee, or beers, or going to movies with our students. Even when there's nothing remotely sexual going on (although I would argue that those erotic tensions are always present), I think certain kinds and degrees of socializing risk cheapening the intellectual quality of the student-faculty relationship. And I firmly believe that it's part of the professor's responsibility to maintain carefully that intellectual friendship. I'm not a prude by any means--I enjoy time with my students outside of class. But it is always my job to make sure that those meetings are not about my need--for attention, adulation, confirmation, admiration--but about theirs. I'm not saying there isn't room for genuine reciprocity. I am suggesting that it is very difficult to establish that kind of reciprocity across the gulf in experience (and usually age), and that we have a duty not to mistake a student's desire for attention, or for guidance, with our own need to feel sexually or intellectually attractive.

In practice, too, my overly "friends-y" colleagues damage the relationships the rest of us have with students. Students already have trouble making the adjustment from the evaluative consumer (this sucks because I'm not interested in it; I'm not interested in it because it is not easily and directly applicable to my immediate needs) to engaged thinker. Having a professor who makes casual conversation and personal interaction the center of his or her pedagogy just makes it harder for the rest of us to convince those students that we are not their mothers, babysitters, or pals. The great revolution in student empowerment, while all but inarguable in theory, has in practice effectively diminished professorial authority almost beyond redemption. I don't think we need to be unfriendly hardasses to our students. But I also don't think we need to serve as yet another realm of mere friends--from whom they can expect blanket support and approval. In some ways, I think my calling as a teacher is higher than that. While I am eager to befriend my students, I think that I serve them better by offering them my challenge, my criticism, and my respect.

14 Comments:

At 1:17 PM , Blogger B2 said...

You're on the mark here -- students will learn even from cranky stand-offish professors.

 
At 11:29 AM , Blogger ABDmom said...

Checking in to see if you're OK--haven't seen you around. Hope all is well and that it's just the end of the year crunch that's getting to you!

 
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