What students need from their professors.

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.

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My experience regarding distance, naming, challenging, etc. is that it really depends more on the student than the teacher. I currently have or had had in the past virtually all levels of and types of these arrangements, not because I've changed my approach but because I try to find out what the student is comfortable with and benefits from. For undergraduates, that is a bit paternalistic (I may feel that I know better .... but not always!!!!) and with graduate students it is much less so. The relationship is good, by at least one measure, when the student can lead in this particular dance. That can take a few days or a few years. Usually less than six months, though.

One could say that all advising should be student centered. That means a lot of work for the teacher/adviser. Not all students should be advised.

College students don't need professors to be their friends. They need professors to be professors.

This is true. It is also true for grad students and post-doctoral trainees. The features of a good friend and a good mentor--while they overlap to some extent--are quite different. I have enough friends, and I assume my trainees do as well. It does them (or me) no favors for me to attempt to befriend them.

I have no interest in their private lives per se, and they should have no interest in mine. We are professionals engaged in an intense, but professional, relationship. There is no good that can come out of developing a social relationship.

Some of the senior faculty in my department think this is terrible, and they befriend their trainees, and involve themselves personally and socially in each others lives. Guess what? All of those senior faculty are men, and all of the trainees they befriend are also men. Coincidence? I don't fucking think so.

But longtime readers know I'm also not fully committed to "Professor" as an honorific for myself.

You've got two fucking PhDs! Those little pissants better call you Professor! They better call you Professor Doctor Fucking Doctor!!

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.

When I interview trainees for my lab, I make them very intellectually uncomfortable, challenging them persistently to explain and defend whatever science we are discussing. This ensures that those who cannot benefit from that sort of an approach lose interest in joining my lab. If you want intellectual comfort, my lab is not the place to obtain it. If you're comfortable, you're not growing.

If you're comfortable, you're not growing.

Bullshit. That is a lousy, lazy excuse for your antipathy to your little pissants... I mean students. You are a teacher. If you have forgotten what that word means, I suggest you ask someone who still has some humanity left.

The function of a teacher is to make students comfortable with new material. If you are simply "challenging" (would a better word actually be "taunting?") your students with things they don't understand, without also encouraging and strengthening them, then you are a miserable teacher, but probably not as miserable as your students.

Tell me, do you hate your students as much as your writing appears to demonstrate? Do you think of your students as, at bottom, just dumb? Are you secretly (or overtly) rejoicing in your power to bar the common herd from your precious lab? Do you truly enjoy putting obstacles in the path of your students' progress? Do students succeed because of you, or despite you?

Thank you, but I want a teacher who is on my side, not one who is my avowed enemy. I am not asking for anything to which I'm not entitled. I know a teacher who coddles does the student no favors. But I do want them to be interested and encouraging and aware of who I am intellectually. I want them to rigorously maintain standards, but I also want them to give me the tools I need to meet those standards. That's not asking too much. That's what I'm in school to do.

If I ever overheard a teacher call me a "fucking pissant" for nothing more than failing to stroke their ego in the proper direction, I would probably not report them to the school authorities. I'm not the vindictive kind. I would probably feel helpless and betrayed. I would really question my place in school. I would really question the teacher's... pardon me, "professor's" place in a teaching role.

By speedwell (not verified) on 22 Mar 2008 #permalink

There is an aspect of student culture which says that a student interacting with the professor is a big no-no. I get this from things my students have told me and stories my daughter has told me about practically dragging some of her college friends in to see their professor about a problem.

I have read, and think it so, that there is a general difference in how males and females wish to feel in class. Males wish to feel that they are being treated fairly, but females wish to feel that they are being treated as individuals. In support, I can recall many instances where I have had a short chat, nothing cosmic, with a poorly performing female student. Almost immediately, the student's grade would improve by at least a full grade level. I've had the same sort of chats with male students with no apparent result.

There is a little book, read long ago,"Grading your Professors", which says that it is a professor's job to profess, to be a role model of one living the life of the mind.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 22 Mar 2008 #permalink

Jim, thank you so much. I think it's not exaggerating to say I was under a black cloud after reading the blog post and PhysioProf's comment. It precisely demonstrates your point that I felt immensely better after reading your comment... and it was not even directed to me personally!

As you might have guessed, I am a female pissant... sorry, student. (Maybe I should be proud of the word... after all, ants are famous for working hard and getting amazing things done even though they are, admittedly, beneath notice and easily crushed.) I can assure you that your principle is generalizable to more than just the professor-student relationship. It's something that partly explains who we women whine, "You never tell me you love me," even though we know perfectly damn well you do. We thrive on far, far less emotional feedback than men do, by and large, but that little is crucial. My boss, for example, can manage me with a few well-chosen words every few days, but I actually mope when he doesn't talk to me at all... he's based overseas, so I understand, but I need to not feel abandoned altogether.

We female students don't have crushes on you or anything, really. We just need a nod, a word, some feedback. Your "little chat" allows us to borrow your strength to help us out of a hole. We really believe you when you say you think we should... that we CAN... do better. Why don't male students feel like this? I don't know. Maybe underachieving men feel like failures compared to you, and so it's difficult for them to partner with you in making the wheels of education turn smoothly.

By speedwell (not verified) on 22 Mar 2008 #permalink

Speedwell, you misunderstood my kidding around with Janet about her two PhDs and whether her students call her "Professor".

I care very deeply about my students and trainees, and I put a tremendous of time and effort into mentoring them. There is an extensive easily accesible public record of my statements on this topic that clearly demonstrate my attitude towards mentoring.

From "The Ballenger F.A.Q.", a famously entertaining set of instructions included with every course syllabus my friend Dr. Ballenger ever handed out to students.

"Q: What's with the Dr. stuff? Why so formal?
A: If someone walks up to me on the street and says, "Dr. Ballenger..." I know I'm dealing with a current or former student, so I'll be polite, guaranteed, no matter how bad a mood I may be in. If someone says, "Hey, Hank..." they get what they get, for good or ill. It's a way of classifying people and my responses to them before I get close enough to visually identify them. Call me Dr. Ballenger for your own protection. Just don't call me at home."

mmm...speedwell, I suggets you check out PhysioProf's blog - you will understand the tone of the comment better. Not to say I agree with PhysioProf at all - but get my point...you totally gave him/her what s/he was looking for.

By steppen wolf (not verified) on 22 Mar 2008 #permalink

Please accept my apologies. I apparently have that "oversensitivity" trigger set up much too high. (Would you accept my getting a bill from the IRS today for twenty thousand dollars, based on income I didn't even receive, as the excuse for my momentary insanity?)

By speedwell (not verified) on 22 Mar 2008 #permalink

speedwell, no apology necessary. I feel bad that what I wrote darkened your mood. I truly love all my trainees, not as friends, but it is a type of love nonetheless.

That is never my intention, except for any demented right-wing fucking wackaloons that read my writing.

I don't want my professors to be my "best friends" or anything, but acting with courtesy, respect and interest will always keep my attention and get me thinking. The professors who act like they can't be bothered to breathe the same air as me, or that I'm wasting their time, I won't bother with them if I can avoid it.

Fortunately, most of my professors love their areas of teaching and are happy to interact, discuss the subjects at hand with students.

Only one felt we were beneath his consideration as humans, and his contempt showed in his teaching. Did I learn anything in his class? No. He was too busy being a sadist to us first years, and not much better to his TA's.

(I'm a female bio student finishing first year. I can see how professors get frustrated at the perpetual dingbat student who doesn't show up for labs, doesn't do the readings, doesn't attend lecture and then wails that they're in the weeds, at the end of term. It's embarrassing to my gender, I'll admit that right now. How some of the TA's get through the term without pulling out all their hair, I do not know.)

I don't necessarily think that a proper honorific and close friendship are mutually exclusive. Personally, I realize that getting a PhD (in the sciences, I'm not talking about a PhD in art theory) is no easy feat, and I think that deserves a level of acknowledgment and respect from a student/professor interaction. That doesn't mean I feel any less close or friendly with some of my professors. Though you can be assured that, after the long haul of earning my own PhD, should I encounter one of my former professors, I'll introduce myself as Dr. [lastname].

In many science classes, professors don't need to go out of their way to "challenge" students -- the material does that on its own. The prof's job, as I see it, is to help the students master the material. Sometimes that means building up their confidence. I went from being math-phobic to working on Ph.D. in systems ecology (involving much mathematical modeling) thanks to a mathematical ecology professor who was able to look at my failing midterm and see not just mistakes but, in his words, "excellent intuition". His support enabled me to put in the work to find a classmate tutor and relearn much basic math by convincing me that the work would, in fact, pay off.

In the "professor vs. friend" argument, how is "friend" being defined? It's not necessary to have casual friendships with students -- but if some relationships evolve in that direction, great! (Field conditions tend to promote that.) However, my closest friends are the people with whom I can have deep conversations and, if necessary, ask for help or advice. I think every college student should be friends in this sense with at least one or two professors.

I was a physics major at a school with the same policy of address as Wellesley. It was a close knit department: undergraduates when to seminar and colloquium with the graduate students and faculty, we had the holiday party together, we knew everyone there, and there was actually space set aside for us in the building.

And we had a system of address, a cultural norm passed down through this tightly knit structure: professors without really long Slavic last names were referred to in the third person by those last names; with a long Slavic last name, the first name was permissible. In the second person, we avoided the vocative, or if we really needed it, used Dr. so-and-so. But this Dr. was really a voluntary term of respect, as there were a few professors who were called Dr. even in the third person, and they were the ones who would never have dreamed of insisting on it. This system ended at the department boundaries, except for a few mathematicians and chemists.

Bizarre, no? Yet as a ritual it maintained a very professional attitude in a very friendly department.

With two doctorates you should insist on 'Herr Doktor Doktor Professor Free-ride.'