Asymptotic behavior

The weekend before last, I attended two concerts: Cold War Kids at Bates, and Janelle Monae at Bowdoin. I am a huge music fan and absolutely love going to live shows. I have hosted a weekly radio show for many years, first at the UT Austin radio station, KVRX, and now at the Bates radio station, WRBC. As you can imagine, I went to concerts frequently during my grad school days in Austin (I mean, what better place than the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world for that?). The things that’s new these days, especially when attending these college-sponsored shows, is that I am no longer one more person in the crowd. I am a professor, and in many cases the math professor of a lot of the people at the show. That weekend, I may have recognized about a dozen or more of my former students (there were probably many more in the crowd). This was very strange and uncomfortable, but I couldn’t really decide why. In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts on the subject of how close is too close when it comes to socializing with students.

After thinking about this a little and talking to some of my professor friends who were at these concerts with me, I think the main reason these concerts were uncomfortable is that we were all equals. More specifically, it is hard for me to see them being fully themselves and letting loose, because I spend a lot of energy in the classroom trying to control their behavior (to a certain extent). But this part I decided was refreshing: to see them in their “natural habitat”, interacting with their peers, and my own freedom in the sense that I don’t have to be responsible for them. It is not my job, at that moment, to watch over them or discipline them. But there is a flipside to this situation, and that is that I still have to behave. I cannot be completely off guard and do a stupid dance, for example (I’m not a great dancer, think Elaine in Seinfeld). So I definitely feel restricted in my behavior when I’m closer to my students (hence the title). Even though we’re not in a classroom and we don’t have to have that kind of relationship, I definitely feel like I am always supposed to be a role model.

But are we really supposed to be role models? According to Wikipedia, a role model is a “person who serves as an example, whose behaviour is emulated by others”. But, as people who have taught a class know, most of our students are nothing like us and will not become anything like us. So am I really trying to get these students to be as excited about math as I was, and to like school and be responsible and listen to everything their “superiors” say? Ideally for me the answer would be yes, since I would rock at teaching that kind of student. In reality, what I think I strive to do these days is to get the most out of them given that I don’t think like they do. So yes, I will try to make the class enjoyable, but in some ways I can’t make them like Calculus any more than I can make them like chocolate (which I have discovered they also don’t like as much as I do, since there is always a lot of candy left over when I bring some for Halloween).  So I don’t think “teacher” should be equated with “role model”. A teacher is an aid in the process of learning. (I also don’t think a teacher is the same as a lecturer, but that is a story for another time.)

So this brings me to my next thought: if I am only there to help them learn mathematics, then how should I behave outside the classroom to make this optimal? First of all, I think it’s important that they believe that you will be a good aid in their learning. So regardless of how you behave in the classroom, if over the weekend they find you drinking tequila shots and being obnoxious they will probably not believe that you are the best person for the job. In short, you have to be respectable.

On the other hand, I have heard from many students, especially in the first-generation college student and underrepresented minority groups, that it helps a lot when they can identify with the professor. If they feel that the professor is an equal, or acts human, is supportive and more of a friend to them, they are more likely to feel included in the classroom and therefore perform better in the class. This last part is always tricky. I try to be friendly without being their friend, and I think to a certain degree this is one of my strongest assets when it comes to teaching.  But I still feel like there is a delicate balance. Sometimes if you’re too friendly then the learning environment in the classroom can become chaotic (for a sitcom example, see this episode of How I Met Your Mother). And of course, you can always opt to be the cool, easy professor that everyone loves because they get an A and have fun, but I don’t believe they ever learn anything in these types of classes (maybe I’m wrong? Discuss!). So if our main goal is to help them learn, this last option can be thrown out.

So far, I’ve only been discussing my behavior at a concert. But there are many other examples of socializing with students. Some of them are controlled, like college events such as math club meetings, graduation dinners, and religious services. But these are by definition still under the same constraints as a classroom (I think). But how about having end-of-semester gatherings at a professor’s house? I know many people that do this, and I really think this is where it gets more delicate. Some people are great at just being formal and social simultaneously. I think older, tenured, married professors can get away with things us younger, untenured, single ones can’t (and there are good reasons for that). Other issues have evolved with the times. It used to be not so scandalous when professors dated students (I’m glad that it is now deservedly scandalous and frowned-upon, although I don’t know if people get fired for this or not). Some of my colleagues will take a group of seniors to the local pub and celebrate the end of their college education with them, and I think that is an OK thing to do (although admittedly they have just become not their students).

These were some of the things that were going through my head while deciding whether to do my stupid dance surrounded by many of my students. What do you guys think? Should I stress out about this less? More? What awkward situations have you been in that involved your students?

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14 Responses to Asymptotic behavior

  1. Michelle says:

    Here’s my question: do you friend students (current or former) on Facebook? I have never sent the request, but I get a lot of friend requests from students. I have in the past had a policy of former students only (since I have been known to kvetch about my classes and grading on FB). But I’m becoming less comfortable even with that.

    Many former students of mine are still students at the University, and through FB it becomes clear that we would never in a million years be real-life friends. I can be friendly with, supportive of, and tolerant towards students who are very different from me. But I’m less and less comfortable with seeing “who they really are” on FB, and possibly with their ability to do the same with me.

    At the same time, many former students are going to be K-12 math teachers nearby, and I’d like to maintain relationships with these folks in my outreach work. So a blanket policy of not friending former students is also unwise. I’m still struggling with this.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      Great question! I only friend students after they have graduated (really!) or unless they have some other connection with me. Most of my former student friends were also DJs on the radio stations I mentioned. But this point is also a tricky one, and I really think it should be related to how you friend people on facebook anyway. I mean, I usually friend people who are good friends or friends from the past, family, and math or music-related people. So maybe you include K-12 teachers on that list? It is definitely something I struggle with, too.

    • Shannon says:

      Maintain separate Facebook accounts. It’s really that simple. Have one for your family and your real friends, and have another for your students–current, former, etc.

  2. Cassie says:

    You bring up excellent questions, Adriana and Michelle. Even as a grad student these are plaguing questions. My former policy on FB was the same as Michelle’s – I would accept a friend request after they finished a course with me. But then I ended up with a repeat student. Granted, this particular student is someone I would consider myself a mentor for and have known for her entire college career (and now she’s about to graduate and head to Oregon for grad school), but the question remains…

    The worst, though, is running into a former student at the bar, with your third beer in hand. What do you say? So awkward… especially when you can’t remember their name…

  3. Xamuel says:

    Does “discipline and control” really account for more than, say, 0.1% of your teaching duties? Are students here at Ohio State University an anomaly, better behaved than students at other universities? Or maybe I’m naturally a dominant personality and control issues just never come up for me :)

    As for appropriate behavior, pick one thing and be consistent with it. If you’re the type of teacher who would dance in class (possibly to somehow illustrate a theorem), then knock yourself out. If you’re going for a more conservative classroom, don’t.

  4. Bonnie Shulman says:

    What a great post! I struggle with this as well, and appreciate your distinction: “friendly without being their friend” although many former students *have* become friends, but only after graduating. A delicate balance, indeed!

  5. Maria says:

    Well, all these questions are very delicate, especially when a female teacher is involved.
    To be a role model is huge responsibility. But I feel that somehow it is needed, especially to encourage female students to pursuit their career.
    I always thought that the students-friendship relation would become less problematic with the time, as the age gap increases. But listen to this:
    one time I was at a party (not school related at all!) and I saw a guy. I thought I knew him, so while I was waiting for my drink I said to him : ” I think I have met you before. are you friend with such and such (the party’s host) ? “. And he said: ” yes, I am. But you know me because I was in your class last year! “……….. (he was a student older than average who decided to take some extra math classes for his career).
    I admit: i didn’t really remember him, and even less his name. was that awkward ? I felt so….. But again, is there a way to avoid such situations ?

    • Kurt says:

      You need to learn to feel less awkward about it. I have a standard apology, that I have a relatively poor memory on the one hand and a large enough number of students on the other that I can’t remember everyone. The same goes when I fail to remember someone from any large organization that I belong to. Remembering names and faces is not my strong suit and I admit it. I apologize, then ask for their name again and continue the conversation as if I had met them for the first time.

      • Adriana Salerno says:

        But I think Maria’s point is that you might be in a social situation with a student and not even realize it! So how careful do you have to be? Do you need to be on your guard all the time? These are interesting questions, and I do not have the answer.

  6. Emily Sprague says:

    Perhaps you remember when you were in first grade and your teacher was the first adult with whom you forged a relationship which wasn’t negotiated by your parents. You wanted to find out EVERYTHING about this mysterious fascinating perhaps even beguiling creature. Kids want to know all about how adults, in particular their teachers, fit into the world at large, and especially do they want to add to their own store of preparatory knowledge about What Comes Next….

    I find that this is still true now that I am teaching undergraduate mathematics to students ranging in age from seventeen to sixty-five. Even adult students want to know all about how post-students, the strange creatures who’ve Been Through It And Come Out, their teachers, fit into the world at large…

    Mostly, I find that a little awareness that I love to knit, listen to music, speak a bit of a few languages, practice a religious faith, checked groceries when I was an undergraduate and so forth really helps them feel like they can bring questions to a real human. Mostly I find that my willingness to practice and to encourage a few virtues beyond careful logic and accurate arithmetic, to discourage a few flaws like whining and laziness, is welcomed as they seek to figure out the landscape and boundaries of adulthood. I don’t force it. I’m always willing to switch back to “just the math, ma’am, just the math.” They make their own choices. And above all I only grade on mathmatical performance.

    But the bottom line is that all my students are terrified about something in their future adulthood and they feel a bit better about it when they can see examples, guideposts and warnings in the grownups around them.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      I really like this comment, especially because you explain how much of yourself you bring into the classroom and the positive effects it has on your students (and you sound like a great role model). My question is how to balance your personal life and your teacher life when you’re outside the classroom, and what positive and negative effects that might have on the classroom experience later. I think this is still tricky for many of us (especially when some of the things we like to do are potentially embarrassing, like dancing at concerts).

  7. Kurt says:

    Good topic.

    I think that if you are an instructor, whether a tenured faculty member or a graduate student, old or young, you cannot help but be a role model. You don’t have a choice. Students will look at your behavior and compare it with the various roles and pigeonholes you represent. This is not to say that all students will necessarily emulate you. (There are, after all, the negative type of role models, those who we know we do not wish to be like.) But they will use your example to add to their understanding of what a person can be like who is a teacher, or a mathematician, or a PhD, or a representative of the university, or as others mentioned, a female or ethnic minority member in any of these roles, etc.

    As Emily says, I think it is good and healthy to let students know that you too are human. If that means letting them know that you are an enthusiastic if unskilled dancer, then so be it. I certainly don’t pretend to be good at everything I enjoy.

    On the other hand, I think that Adriana does have a valid concern that the behavior that she exhibits in public, in front of her students in particular, should be consistent with her roles and the kind of person she wants to be in the mind of others. This principle applies to life in general, though perhaps it is more pronounced in this context. Because students will add these observations to their ongoing model of you, and this may trickle up to larger entities you represent, such as how the students view the school you work for. For this reason, many schools, especially private ones, have behavior codes for their faculty governing their behavior both off- and on-campus. But even in the absence of such codes, it is worth asking yourself, “What kind of person do I want others to know me as?”, and behave appropriately.

    So if you are prone to “wild behavior”, defined as anything you would be embarrassed or ashamed to let the general public view, then you have to take precautions that such behavior is constrained to contexts where potential viewers are those you trust and are comfortable with. Or you might even wish to consider which of those behaviors are appropriate, period. And even if some behavior is not wild or immoral or illegal, there is such a thing as “too much information”.

    I think an instructor can be friends with a student, and that can have many good aspects, including enhancing learning. (I’m not talking about Facebook since I don’t use it.) But it must be made clear to the student that being a friend does not cut them any slack in how they will be treated or graded in the class. If you, as an instructor, have trouble maintaining this sort of compartmentalization, then it may be best to back off of the friendships. I hate to be sexist, but I think that statistically men have an easier time with this sort of compartmentalization. It also comes easier the longer you have worked in environments where you have to play different roles at times with your colleagues.

    BTW, I, too, like the phrase “being friendly without being a friend”. More generally, you want to be able to fine tune the level of rapport you have with your students, where rapport is degree of openness of the “channel of communication” that you have with someone; it is not the same as friendliness or even liking someone. It is about being able to communicate — hearing and being heard.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      “I hate to be sexist, but I think that statistically men have an easier time with this sort of compartmentalization.” First of all, this is not really sexist (except that you pointed out that it might be… so now I can’t decide).

      I think it works the other way, too. I think students are more likely to accept a male instructor as a figure of authority, and as such can have an easier time with the instructor’s compartmentalization. I think they sometimes perceive female instructors (especially the friendly ones) as maternal figures, and expect a lot of empathy, kindness and support. And so when you DO compartmentalize, are nice and supportive in the classroom and out, but at the same time grade based on the math alone, it might backfire. Students can then feel confused and even a little hurt, because they expect us to compartmentalize less. At least, that’s my experience. I think this topic could be the beginning of a good blog post….

  8. Shannon says:

    I am a university lecturer, and I’ve learned to separate my professional and personal worlds. I just know that there are far too many potential (and probable) pitfalls with blending them.

    Good luck, and I hope you find the answers you’re seeking.

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