Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not a popularity contest

On the last day of term one of my students dropped by my office. She's someone I've mentioned before--a smart, funny woman who's taken three consecutive classes with me. She graduates later this month and is in the process of applying to grad schools.

I've always been fond of her, but we're friendly in a purely professional context: she'd drop by to talk about a paper or to ask for advice about grad school, and although I was likely to joke around a bit or share a relevant personal story or two, that was the extent of our intimacy. In some ways I've wanted to know her better, but she clearly has a strong sense of the faculty/student divide--and that's a feeling I share.* In theory? Hanging out at the bar with one's prize students (as a certain recent ex of mine did) sounds kinda cool. In practice? It strikes me as totally weird and uncomfortable-making for everyone. . . and suggests, moreover, if not the desire for then at least the complacent acceptance of a cult of personality.**

But. On this visit she told me that--if it wasn't too weird, or inappropriate, or whatever--she and two of her friends (also my former students) were hoping that I might be interested in going out for lunch with them sometime after break.

There are still things, apparently, that can warm the cockles of my cold, cold heart.


*A number of my freshmen have friended me on Facebook. I find this weird.

**This is not to say that I reject utterly the idea of having a cult of personality. But to me that cult is best maintained from a distance: the front of the classroom, say. Or the text of one's blog.


RLM said...

Hooray for you! That is awesome. Do you think you'll go?

adjunct whore said...

that is really nice, flavia. something similiar happened to me recently and i too share a healthy regard for the professional teacher/student divide and suspicion about personality (cult or otherwise!).

but then i realized that this student actually saw me as a role model and i got all warm and fuzzy and kind of surprised because i've never been that before.

it sounds like you already have a nice relationship with your student, based on respect rather than personality. i would go.

meansomething said...

One of my happiest memories from college is when a friend and I invited our favorite professor (when we were no longer taking a class with her) to lunch. It wasn't weird at all and she told us lots of charming, though discreet, anecdotes about writers she had known. It's much easier to maintain comfortable boundaries at lunch than at a bar.

life_of_a_fool said...

Ah, it's so refreshing to me to hear others share my boundary issues with students. And yet, this does sound like this offer is based in respect, and from others who share your sense of boundaries. Which is also refreshing.

scr said...

One of my business school profs (and not one of the typically cooler ones, either, although he was a very friendly and entertaining guy) announced during our final that we should meet him at the bar immediately afterwards, where he then bought the whole class pitchers. It was a good time.

Not that I have a problem with interacting with profs outside of class, but there is also quite a difference between regularly meeting students, and meeting up with students once or twice after they are done with school/your class/whatever. So, sounds like fun.

By the way, I'll be back early, so I'll see you on the 20th.

Neophyte said...

Yes. Boundaries. I'm in a very small program now, and it produces odd effects -- I spend enough time with the faculty that a kind of intimacy necessarily evolves, and it can be difficult to distinguish what is personal from what is professional. I am further confused by the cultural differences in boundary-drawing between the US and the UK -- it is normal practice to close office doors for one-on-one conference. Raised as I was in the sexual-harassment-paranoid States, the sound of the door closing makes me feel vaguely dirty. And a very small degree of touching is acceptable -- I never touched any of my profs in undergrad, unless/until I had gotten to know them very, very well.

I think, though, that there is a particular brand of, I don't know, call it "professional friendship" that can be lovely. That's the relationship I have with my undergrad advisor, who continues to be my most important mentor -- we rarely talk about anything personal (I didn't know she was married until I'd known her for two years), and we are still very much teacher and student, and probably always will be. But we meet somewhat regularly for coffee or a meal, exchange gifts at appropriate times, and so on, and there's a very warm closeness to our friendship. I love that it's somehow "purely professional" -- that makes it unique, among my relationships with others, and I cherish it. Oddly, the "boundary" is precisely what enables closeness. It's neat.

Susan said...

My undergrad institution had dinners where we were supposed to invite profs. It was always interesting, and it gave you a sponsored way of interacting with profs outside of class. Without that sponsorship, it always feels more tricky. But this sounds nice. And I think that what lots of students are looking for is ways to live in the world, and how else do they figure it out than interacting with people informally as well as formally?

Flavia said...

And I think that what lots of students are looking for is ways to live in the world.

I really like the way you've phrased this, Susan, and I think you're right. I remember that period of my own life very well, and I like to think that I now have a life and a way of living that are both quite satisfying (to me) and appealing (to others).

All these women are thinking about PhD programs (one is currently an MA student at a nearby institution), but more importantly they're all quirky and unusual in one way or another and I can imagine they may still be looking for their peer group(s). . . or just for a way of becoming the people that they want and hope to become.

Anonymous said...

I am now a graduate student in my field and am STILL so aware of the student/faculty divide that I am terrified at the thought of just dropping by my undergraduate professors' offices to chat about things if I am in town. Some of my favorite moments as an undergraduate were the very few where a professor and I had coffee to talk about my thesis or some such. There was a charity event once, and a few friends and I bought the right to have coffee with one of our favorite professors because we were to nervous just to ask her if she would chat with us----so I think it would really make your students very happy if you do so--and done right (and I think lunch is a good way to do it) I think it can still be very professional- but professional in the way that says that I respect you as good students and interesting people, and I want to get to know you a little less formally because we can admire and respect each other in this fashion.