Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Professorial Distance?

I try to love my college and all of the nice folks who teach here with me. But there's a disturbing phenomena I witness fairly regularly and I'd love to find out if I'm alone in being bothered by it.

I have colleagues who love their students, who think those students are brilliant. They're always saying, "Aren't they great?" These are the same profs who have students over to their house for dinner and movie nights.

I admit that I teach a sort of "feel-good" place, and that I've been aware of how "special" our students are talked about, even by administration. But at some point I just reached saturation on all this nonsense.

I was never asked over to a prof's house for dinner in college. I never was told that I was unique or brilliant. But my colleagues do this routinely with their students, and OFTEN with majors.

Some of my colleagues have - I don't know what else to call them - pets. These majors huddle in the prof's office morning, noon, and night. They cluster around, never discussing the work, but just mindlessly nattering about Lady Gaga, where one might find a really good panini, and everyone's personal lives.

I believe more professorial distance is needed. I want to bring this up to my colleagues, but whenever I get on the topic of our majors with one of them, they get all moon-faced and say, "Aren't they great? We're so lucky to have these great kids."

Does this happen widely? Am I just missing the new model of higher education?


  1. Of course, you're right and your colleagues are weird, probably trying to pretend they're 20-somethings, too.

  2. What you have is fairly unusual, but not unheard-of. It sure beats the situation more typical of giant public R1 universities, where profs barely give the students the time of day. (But then, it's hard to blame them when they have classes of 200+.)

    At Dartmouth, a small school that inspires fierce student and alumni loyalty, we had closer bonds between faculty and students. One of our best professors had us over to his house for dinner or a movie night maybe once or twice per year. Another professor made a barrel of hard cider and invited the whole department and anyone else he could find over once per year, in the dead of winter. It was fun.

    Your colleagues, however, appear to be overdoing it. It's especially bad for them to have "pets": grading must be fair and objective, always.

    Does your department chair know about this? Also, how high are you on the totem pole? Unless you find any evidence that's really damning (for example, discarded articles of clothing, or seeing the faculty touching the students), I'd be careful if I were you, since this can easily be interpreted as you meddling.

  3. This is a problem more common than I think people realize. I see it at my own institution. It's as if you don't drink the "our students are speshul" koolaid, you're some kind of out of touch monster.

  4. I worry about this myself. I don't want to be best buds with my students because I suspect it will make me less than objective in evaluating their work. I don't want to do it...but I definitely see others doing it.

  5. Reminds me of graduate school. One of our instructors had a pet of the alpha-male type. I showed up to office hours one day and sat for an entire hour in her office while this guy sat there monopolizing. At about 5 minutes before the end of her office hour, she announced "Well, I have a midterm that I have to write for my next class." She then looked at me and asked, "Was there something you needed?" Later that day, the monopolizing alpha-male lectured me on how it's against the nature of the grad program to be getting help from the instructor. I replied, "Well, that doesn't seem to stop you now, does it?" He got pissed.

    I'm with Froderick. For face value, administrators will often claim that they want to hear about this stuff. Unfortunately, if you bring this up, you may find yourself receiving an unsatisfactory eval for classroom management (i.e. having a broken pencil sharpener in your classroom). Surely, the students see this happening. Let them complain. More is likely to be done about it if they do.

  6. I had one professor when I was a senior who had us to his house on a few occasions, but there were extenuating circumstances. He didn't start doing it until he hurt his back and couldn't drive in to campus, and there were only four of us in the seminar. After we'd been there twice, he figured that it would be okay if he had us stay for dinner the third time. I still remember the salmon curry.

    We weren't told that we were special, though since there were four of us, it could be assumed that we were at least different. I thought that it was a little unusual, but if the poor guy was on enough muscle relaxants to be able to sit up straight, he could barely remember our names.

  7. I went to a school that was a little like this. It was a very small institution which was very personable. There were faculty who would have dinners, etc for their majors.

    One english prof liked to through a Halloween party for her students where there was a reading of "The Raven" and we had to an A&E special on Poe. Booze flowed freely.

    For the most part there was nothing devious about it. It was just the nature of the school -a hold over from the 1950s.

    There were, of course, some faculty members that people thought were being inappropriate with students. I can neither confirm nor deny these activities. But these "creepy" profs were in the minority.

  8. In my experience, these types of faculty members are incredibly insecure. They populate their worlds with a collection of student/friends.

  9. In my Masters program (which was a cohort group), we went out on Fridays with some of the faculty for adult beverages, but there was always a friendly, collegial atmosphere, albeit with a professional distance.

    As a PhD student, there was actually a bit of a difference, except for specific occasions (a holiday party or an end-of-semester class/potluck session at a professor's house).

    I always keep my distance and I don't see anything like this where I am. From my old job (DoD), we were constantly drilled on appropriate behavior and it stuck with me.

  10. I went to a SLAC (and teach at one), where this is a problem. One of my colleagues (who is prone to collecting "disciples") has started to turn her light off and pretend she is not in her office because she does not need people camping out in her office monopolizing her time. She, at least, is aware of the problem. Others, however, actively SEEK students to act as their 'pets.'

    It is disturbing to me (first b/c I don't view any of my students are brilliant and insightful yet, & second, b/c I actively hear them gloating about having received a pass on something or an excuse from so-and-so b/c they are "friends"), but I don't say anything b/c I know some of the other students are saying things to the chair (who, btw, always invites majors & faculty to his house for dinner at least there times a year, but does not curry favor with individual ones).

    In my experience, it is much more impactful if students complain than if we do. They may be insecure sycophants who need students to build their egos, but unless we see completely inappropriate behavior, that's not our place to address the issue. It will end up on evals at some point. Eventually.

  11. Sorry about typos in previous post. I'm between student conferences and am typing furiously.

  12. I went to a huge, impersonal public institution, and I wasn't particularly well-known for showing up for class, in a fairly small department; to the point that though there was an 'in-group" of cool majors who hung out togeteether and occasionally could be seen socializing with profs, in large groups, I was not one. In fact I remember the only time I ever tried to sit in the department reading room/ lounge between classes; one of the Favoured Few stuck his head in and informed me that "this lounge is only for majors, you know". Now in fact I WAS a major, but this address made me feel strangely unwelcome, and I left.

    Does it give me pleasure, now, that I have a tenured job in the field and I have never heard of any of those twerps again? Why, now that you mention it ...

  13. I think you have to be in the right mindset. Some of my most mind-blowing relationships in undergrad were those 70's-era profs who treated me as an equal and had me to their cabin in Michigan for a weekend of wine and philosophy. Or to their homes on a Wednesday night to watch Roots, slowly over the course of the semester. With those professors, I genuinely felt I was living a scholarly life.

    But not everyone can pull that off. And if you force it, you'll just come off creepy.

  14. I really don't have much in common with most 20-year-olds, honestly. At that age they're mostly only interested in themselves, and the doings of their cohort, and whatever new, shiny thing happens to catch their eye.

    The vast majority of them don't have any real interest in me as a person, nor should I expect them to. I think most of the time when a 20-year-old wants to hang out with a 50-year-old professor, what they're doing is either brown-nosing or secretly thinking that they must be uber-smart if their presence is encouraged, which makes them feel "speshul". It's all about them.

    Sometimes unfortunately you get that sad sack, socially clueless little soul that has no friends and doesn't even know how to try to make them, who comes to talk to you just to have someone to talk to, because they're lonely.

    Those are the ones I feel for. But I can't really be their friend, and I know they're only hanging around me because everyone else avoids them.

    Long story short: I have friends. I think professors that try to assemble a cadre of friends and followers amongst their undergraduate students must be pretty needy, and I feel sorry for them, too.

  15. I run a Writing Center. There are a certain number of students who hang out there. Like somebody mentioned above, I would turn out my light and hide some days if I could just to get some of my own work done, but I can't because my office features a big window out into the Writing Center proper. No, I'm not allowed to put up curtains or blinds. I asked.

    I'm somebody the students can come to for help and I give it, and thus I have a clan of disciples. However, I don't (and wouldn't) take them out for meals, invite them to my home, etc. Some of them are probably coming to my dissertation defense which is the closest we'll ever come since there are signs hung up for that.

    Some students are really going to latch on and like your teaching style. Fine. But I've never let it get unprofessional and I don't play favorites.

  16. At my small undergraduate institution it seemed to be expected that professors would socialize with us, have us over, etc. (in fact, I believe each class had a budget for something like a meal out). We regularly held symposiums at a professor's house (he had Trader Joe's cookies. Yum) and discussed lofty scholarly ideas (or... tried to). Heck, faculty were embedded into the dorms. Alcohol was frowned upon, obviously, but socializing was encouraged. It never felt odd or wrong to me, because it was always academic in nature (I remember a class on China where our professor took us to a nice Chinese restaurant and invited the curator of the Asian section of the art museum). In fact, I was surprised and dismayed when I got to my giant mega doctoral program and realized this wasn't true everywhere. I feel like food and unprofessional are being conflated in a way that feels false to me.

  17. Oh yes, "Miss Brodie's set." I taught at a SLAC where, for those that liked that sort of thing, well, that is the sort of think they liked.

    I did not. When disciples gathered, or I got wind of their speculations about me, it made me feel pathetic and weird, like I didn't have enough of a life.

    Hooray for the R1, I say. I love my smaller classes there and miss having more of them, but the boundaries are much better.

  18. ...thing they liked, not think.

    Very tired now.

  19. Have you ever considered the possibility that you are a miserable joykill?

  20. There were attempts at faculty-student interaction at both my undergrad and grad institutions (and in fact the grad institution, which was located in a very expensive outer suburb of a major city, essentially served as mortgage broker/real estate agent to faculty, so that they could afford to live in the big houses near campus by dint of 40- or even 50-year mortgages that were basically lease arrangements with tax-deduction and equity-building opportunities built in), but they didn't, frankly, come to much. Proffies definitely had "disciples," but, partly because these were very much publish-or-perish environments, they tended to spend more energy escaping than cultivating them.

    On a related note, I had occasion to read my present institution's guidelines for teachers of online classes for the first time recently. It turns out that we are explicitly expected to share personal information about ourselves with students, and to try to elicit personal information from them, as a way of forming a more effective teacher-student relationship. It doesn't say what kind of personal information, but ick. And eek. I think I'll just misread that as sharing information about my academic/professional interests with my students, and eliciting information about same from them, which I'm already doing, and seems to work reasonably well.

  21. James, no. My abundance of friends my own age suggests that I am not a miserable killjoy (I believe that's the word), and my lack of need for approval from the 18-22 set suggests that I've gotten through my own adolescence just fine.

    Any more questions?

  22. I am an undergrad and as much as I respect my profs, I HATE when they show up at the pub where students frequent. I most certainly do not want to be judged by my behaviour off-campus, nor should they. In fact, just last weekend a prof who seems to want to be "bffs" with all her students showed up at the pub for a student's birthday, and then was later caught by a series of students in a mad make-out session with someone who was not her husband. All the witnesses are conflicted, and I sincerely believe she lost a lot of respect from a great many of us. I'm not saying she isn't allowed to have her own life, but when you're attending a student's birthday perhaps behave yourself. And of course don't let students rub on you in a sexual way, another actual occurence. There is nothing "scholarly" about this prof's relationships with any of her students. I agree that there should not be relationships between students and profs, friendships or otherwise, because it is difficult to remain objective. I work hard, and I don't feel anyone should get special treatment based on their relationship with the prof.


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