Having recently posted on professors who challenged (and frequently scared) me, I was struck by a post at the Reality-Based Community suggesting that being the cool prof is not the path to effectiveness:
I want to make students uncomfortable– challenging them to question their own ideas, take opposing views seriously, and grapple with difficult assignments and questions. I want to get them out of the echo chambers so many of us inhabit and learn that smart, good people can disagree. I want them to know that in the real world, effort is not the same thing as achievement, and that striving for excellence means that even an A paper can get better. Learning is hard. It is also endlessly rewarding.
College students don’t need professors to be their friends. They need professors to be professors.
I’m pretty sure this is the approach my professors took. Of those mentioned in my earlier post, there might have been one who preferred that students address her by her first name. (I’ve mentioned before the quirky convention in place at my undergraduate institution, where none of our professors was addressed as Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname, but instead as Mr. Lastname, or Ms. Lastname, or Miss Lastname, or Mrs. Lastname. If I could trust my memory about which of my professors used which honorific, that’s how I would have identified them in my post.)
But longtime readers know I’m also not fully committed to “Professor” as an honorific for myself. One interpretation of this is that I’m waffling on establishing the proper distance between student and teacher that will allow me to challenge my students and make them uncomfortable.
Possibly, though, there are students who need to see me as not too threatening, even as “relatable”*, in order for me to get far enough with them that they’re ready to do the serious thinking and the self-reflection that can get really uncomfortable. It’s kind of a warm, nurturing fluffy bunny Trojan horse** full of probing Socratic questions.
I’m refining my approach as I go. I suspect the details of a particular population of students (and the strategies of the teachers they’ve had before me) matter quite a lot in terms of what is required to achieve the goal of getting them passionate about learning and aware of the ways that intellectual engagement matters in real life.
I have to get to know them well enough to meet them where they live. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be meeting them there for beers or a play date.
*”Relatable” is too a real word. I heard Tyra Banks use it on America’s Next Top Model.
**Our team is the Spartans, not the Trojans, so I use this metaphor with some hesitation.