Two summers ago, I landed my first research assistantship with a professor. After hearing about his expertise in the field, I only became more nervous about our fateful first meeting. On that day, I was literally shaking when I walked into his office, and this was already after I stood outside his door for five minutes taking deep breaths in order to regulate my breathing. I still wonder what he must’ve thought when I advanced meekly into his office and introduced myself in a quavering voice. And now, as I look back on it, he was probably thinking, “What’s wrong with her?”
I was terrified, and this is because I’ve always regarded teachers and professors as an elite group far removed from their students. All of this is strange in light of the fact that, well, my dad is a university professor. You think I would’ve grown up with the notion that professors have homes and families just like everyone else even as they give you grades and write recommendation letters that could determine your entire future.
Rather, I was one of those kids who, in my single digit ages, did think that the teachers lived at school. Where else would they go? It made complete sense to me at the time. And then in middle school, I experienced the first of my revelations. One of my best friends in sixth grade was the daughter of our science teacher. And if she had a house, that meant that her father had to live in that house with her. Therefore, because she did not live at our middle school, her father had to live in a house that was not our middle school. Q.E.D.
Armed with the knowledge that teachers lived in residences separate from their classrooms, I went to high school. But even if they didn’t sleep at their desks, teachers were still not people to befriend. One of my absolute favorite teachers had a habit of calling me an idiot, ridiculing my attempts at programming in Java and making plenty of jokes at my expense. But I never would’ve shot back with a retort the way I would’ve with a friend. Even with this informality, which I completely enjoyed, I would still never have brought myself to retaliate. It just wasn’t allowed.
As a result, even in college I still regarded professors as a completely separate and elite class of people. These were the foremost minds of our day, the premier academics of our age, and I was just the undergraduate wasting their time. The more well known or senior the professor, the more terrified and intimidated I became. I resented the students who could chat with a professor easily and without a trace of fear, but I could not bring myself to emulate their behavior.
Unsurprisingly, it was Facebook that helped me overcome my problems. I first friended a professor on Facebook during my sophomore year. The class was in a 300-person lecture hall, so I knew that my identity would still be anonymous. And after perusing some pictures of my professor from her fourth grade class and seeing what kinds of music she liked, I began to internalize a key realization: professors aren’t demigods or some other kind of superior beings.
It took me nearly two years into my student career before I was able to fully act upon this revelation. I slowly, tentatively began to work on my level of social ease with professors. And I realized that it is possible for a certain kind of friendship to happen between students and professors. Most importantly, it finally struck me that professors don’t dismiss undergraduates as stupid, immature children; they may want to talk to us just as much as we want to learn from them. I learned this two summers ago as I met with my professor and we talked about my research project. He liked my ideas, and I was pleasantly surprised when the professor I held in such high regard found my work valuable.
Now, I’m quite comfortable with the notion of student-professor interaction. But there are, of course, always limitations. You’re never quite friends with your professor the way you’re friends with your college roommate, and I’m never sure when to try to take the extra step. Do I invite a professor out to lunch? Do I post on his Facebook profile? Can I be sarcastic with a professor? How do I balance the respect I feel for a professor with the informality of friendship?
The delicate balance between professor-friendship and peer-friendship is best explained with a story. One time, during a break in a small seminar class, my professor and I walked out of class together and soon realized we were both headed to the restroom. Talk about “awkward.” We made small talk about some academic paper until we arrived, at which point conversation promptly halted and was only revived when we were washing our hands. With a friend, I might’ve chatted all the way through. But again, this wasn’t just my friend down the hall. It was my professor. And the rules aren’t quite the same.
Miriam wonders, if any of her professors read this, will they email her? [email protected]