Archive for December 4th, 2011

Brad Koch recently posted about the difficult balance between professor and friend, even at a liberal arts school.  While I didn’t attend a liberal arts school, by the end of my undergraduate years I considered myself to be relatively close to my mentor, who frequently took me to lunch as we discussed research projects or graduate school options.  Also, as I’ve noted before, I invited students in the classes I taught as a graduate student to call me by my first name.  (While I don’t do this now, the more frequent contact that I have with repeat students in my classes and those who frequently work in a computer lab near my office have led to students calling me all kinds of things.)  Despite the increased opportunities for talking with students I have found a number of barriers to true friendship.

The primary factor is that professors and students adopt particular roles in their interactions with each other.  While we might know a lot about students’ intellectual lives, we often know very little about their personal lives (including basic things like whether or not they smoke).  These barriers can erode over time as we hear students talking to each other about drinking, parties, and relationships before class but this doesn’t change the fact that the person we are making a judgment about possibly befriending is not an actual person but an idealized version focused on academics.

The other side of this is that faculty members withhold information about themselves in order to foster a sense of objectivity in the classroom.  As a rule I do not discuss my personal religious or political views with students and before I was marked by a wedding ring I was also hesitant to discuss being heterosexual (though I hope that someday this indicator will be blurred by equality).  The parts of ourselves that we keep from each other prevent us from discussing the things that are at the basis of many friendships.  Overhearing students talking about drunken hookups or all-night study sessions reminds me that although I was once a student, I (thankfully) no longer inhabit their world.  Similarly, most of my students are about ten years away from inhabiting my world.

None of these things make it impossible to connect with students over lunch, or even a beer, but they make it very difficult to truly be their friends.  Although I have not had any off-campus contact with any of my current students, I was invited to (and attended) several game nights with former students when I was a graduate student.  At the time, the social distance was slightly reduced (they were seniors, I was 27 or 28) and there was no chance of them having another class with me.  Still, I approached these encounters with a sort of detached amusement.  By this I mean that I ate dinner with them, laughed with them about their college-student troubles, and shared small tidbits about my own life when appropriate but largely felt like an outside observer.

When interacting with my current students outside of class I still largely feel this way.  This doesn’t mean that we could never become friends if some of them graduate and stay in the area, just that the transition is much more likely to occur when a number of the current boundaries have resolved themselves.

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