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?