Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Checking Out

I have momentarily returned from my absence. Rest assured that I have not reappeared with my right hand mysteriously shriveled and blackened.

In the midst of an unusually busy time for me, I noted to myself again that students are funny. I don’t mean “funny” in the sense that they show up to class in a Groucho Marx mustache and entertain me with jokes (Though I certainly wouldn't be opposed to that). I mean “funny” in the sense that they sometimes misconstrue our relationship as professor and student.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean students any disrespect. Lord knows that I had similar misunderstandings when I was an undergraduate. Indeed, I would not like to have the freshman/sophomore version of me as student (though I would be delighted to be my professor as a junior or senior (Mmmmm – Me)).

Students frequently overestimate our level of familiarity. Some students imagine that their profs are out to harass them and make their lives a living hell. Others imagine that we wait moonfully over their every word. Neither of these things are true.

I respect my students and want to provide them opportunities to build new skills. In particular, I have classes where students can experiment with thinking about race, gender, and sexuality in the past. To that end, I give them some readings and background information to enter into an informed conversation. I also provide them feedback on their writing to help them better communicate their own ideas about race, gender, and sexuality in the past. We aren't friends. We aren't adversaries. We are in a professional relationship.

If all of my students put the effort into the class and earn “A’s,” I think that is great. If, on the other hand, they all blow it off and earn only “F’s,” I think that is a darn shame. I don’t really lose sleep either way, though. My paycheck will be the same.

Because I tend to teach classes on the holy triad, I think that students sometimes imagine my knowledge of them is much greater because the subject matter seems much more personal. After all, we all have racial, gender, and sexual identities that we have struggled (and continue to struggle) to understand. Often times, my classes are the first time in their entire education where they get to learn about these things (This was more true in Texas, but still fairly true here). This, it seems to me, makes my classes feel more personal than (I'm guessing) Chem 203.

Whatever the case, a student's pursuit of an education is always more of a personal experience than educating them is. After all, when they are in class there is only one of me. From my perspective, though, there are hundreds of them.

This comes up because the past week was the last opportunity for students to drop classes (with their professor’s approval). Coincidentally, it was also the week that I returned many of their midterms. As you might imagine, several students have come to seek release upon realizing their score in the class. Several showed up and apologized profusely about dropping. It was a sweet sentiment which is why my next statement will sound harsh. I don’t really care.

That is not to say that I don’t care about them as individuals. Nor am I saying that I don’t care about their education or the classes I teach (which I care about a great deal, actually). Indeed, I actually really enjoy being around young people and talking with them about the past. I simply don’t care, though, if an individual student decides that my particular class doesn’t work for him or her. It will affect their lives much more than mine. Unless students have been rude or disruptive, they have no reason to apologize for leaving.

Beyond the apologetic students, a couple others showed up to my office clearly expecting a fight. I was baffled that they imagined that I would be so invested in their presence or absence from my class that I would challenge their departure. Did they think I would greet their request for a signature with pistols and a duel? Why the defensive edge? I also wondered why (or if) other professors really do deny students the option of dropping a class.

It could be a form of “tough love,” I suppose, to make a student get the “F” on his or her transcript. To my mind, though, I actually respect a student more who has the good sense to get out of a class that he or she is failing. It at least shows enough self-insight that they are in a bad spot and are looking to fix it. Besides, if they stayed enrolled in the class, it would just mean that I would have to read more poorly written papers by students who didn’t have time or interest. To be honest, I would rather focus my energy on the students who are able to commit to the work.

In the end, I think its an individual student’s education and it should be more important to them than it is to us. I am around to help them and offer my own insight. If some decide to leave at half-time, that’s cool.


Anonymous said...

I actually obsess over whether or not I'm being overfamiliar with my professors, something that's gotten worse in grad school. I think it's because I'm always worried about making connections I'll need in the future. That, and I'm always on the prowl for professors I can rope into giving me their opinions on my historical writings.

bardelf said...

I cannot imagine a student dropping out of gayprof's class! Is he/she not aware that he/she is in the presence of the Great One?
(bardelf shakes his head in true disbelief)

Sisyphus said...

(though I would be delighted to be my professor as a junior or senior (Mmmmm – Me))

Ha! Love this!

But really I'm stopping in to say I think that's the most disturbing comic cover you've put on yet. Or the most needing of cultural analysis. Your pick.

Clio Bluestocking said...

I echo Bardelf's sentiment. If they get an F and drop, they are clearly unaware of the privlege that the cosmos has afforded them by placing them in Gayprof's path!

Having the sense to bail on a losing prospect shows a tremendous amount of maturity -- more than those who show up at the end of the semester and want to earn an A based solely on the extra credit that they hope you will offer them.

You are also correct that there is a certain level of not caring that you have to maintain (without being a total ass) in order to just emotionally survive teaching. You can care that they do well in your class, but, damn, you can't take on all their issues outside of it! (This is a sore spot for me right now because I ended up in this training class that seems to be all about how to be a more empathetic teacher, and it's drifting into territory that I consider somewhat inappropriate for that professionalism that you mention).

Antagonym said...

While I agree with you for the most part, I did have a calculus professor in my freshman year of undergrad that fought me when I tried to withdraw from his class. Eventually I won out, but it was far more work than it should have been.

Artistic Soul said...

Students don't drop my classes often (most of them are required for the major), but when they do, I get a similar kind of reaction. I've always thought it was odd as well.

Alden said...

I suppose the faculty-student relationship is different in larger universities rather than smaller schools where everybody is sleeping with each other. Or maybe that's just art school.

vuboq said...

Wait. Are you saying that all of my professors in college didn't totally *heart* me?

I find that hard to believe. Everyone *hearts* me.

Joseph Duemer said...

This attitude strikes me as exactly the right balance. It's their life, after all. They have to make decisions. I like my students, I enjoy them (some more than others), but I ain't their momma. Even the students I take the most interest in are not my friends. That would be kind of icky.

Alan said...

I always had the same opinion when I was teaching HS. I taught a tough class, and I was glad to have the kids in it. But if they didn't want to be in it, I frankly didn't care. Their choices; their decisions.

I think the overfamiliarity with professors part comes from HS too, actually. I was astounded about what other teachers told their students about their lives. I on the other hand, preferred it if my students believed I simply melted into the floor tiles at night and spontaneously reappeared at the first bell the next morning.

GayProf said...

Chad: Profs don't mind professional connections or writing letters for good students. Just don't confuse that with friendship.

BardElf: Yeah, it's true. They are crazy to drop my class. I am the best.

Sisyphus: Oh, I don't know -- Wonder Woman has lots of disturbing comic covers. There is one where she is battling an Aztec priest, or being pulled by her hair by Aries, or another where she is being attacked by a Latino horseman. There are so many bad issues of race and gender in WW.

Clio: Yeah, there are those who think we should be some type of caretaker or therapist for our students. Those are dangerous notions given that we don't have the training to do that. It's also not in our job description.

Antagonym: This just makes me think that your Calculus prof was on some sort of power trip. Or he was an asshole. Either way, it makes no sense to me.

Artistic Soul: I usually get a small percentage who drop midway through the class. Some students just weren't able to keep up with the work.

Signalite: I haven't been at this university long enough to know whether profs are sleeping with their students. I hope not, though.

VUBOQ: Of course all of your college profs loved you! They told me so.

Joseph: It really bugs me that parents and some administrators want to make college an extension of high school. By my calculations, university students are adults. If they can enter the army or vote, they are old enough to decide whether HIST 105 is the right class for them.

Alan: Well, I am not sure I want my students to think of me as a piece of classroom equipment. I prefer them to think of me as human.

On the other hand, I totally agree about not being too familiar. It's true about some high school teachers. I still remember some of my teachers over-sharing about their lives. Even at the time, I thought that it was peculiar.

Sarah L Boyd said...

I find your prof-side analysis interesting (and actually, very comforting). As a post-sec student (undergrad, now law) I have more often had the opposite problem. Many profs I have encountered seem to think we are taking only their course, and are wholly devoted not only to their area but their specific analyses and thesis in that area. (Which is not to say I mind if profs have an angle. My favourite profs have all been people who admitted upfront what their bias/belief was/were and encouraged us to challenge it as long as we did so thoughtfully). Some of these profs could become a little hostile if you even took a sick day, let alone dropped a class. Maybe it's a Canadian thing?

ChristopherM said...

I love how you refer to your students as "young people" as though you were some wizened old goat in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. Some of them very well may be assuming such familiarity because you are barely older than them, particularly if your school is one with more than a few of those wizened old goats on the faculty. Our law school is starting to look like God's waiting room, but I still have a professor who is younger than me.

Artemis said...

As a grad student, I'm more concerned with profs who are too friendly with grad students: the prof who invited some people to his child's christening; the prof spotted the other day playing handball with a student. The intimacy of the boxed in and sweaty handball court was too much to witness. It's bad enough that the profs use the same gym as the students!

dpaste said...

So can we see pics of the apparently twink-ilicious you from those junior/senior college years?

zombieswan said...

I had a student last semester who wanted me to be her counselor. She had some issues she was dealing with, and while I'm glad that she felt comfortable enough with me to feel that I was a supportive person, I also am not at all qualified to handle the issues she needed to discuss. She would call me (I put my cell on my syllabus) and email me at inappropriate times. Indeed, she made me rethink my policy of putting said phone number on the syllabus. Then, she did not work very hard and ended up with a low "C". Which really, is not a BAD grade. But when I've seen her on campus, now, she seems to be avoiding me.

So do I rate, for her, kind of like an old bad date? I suspect so. Even though I didn't feel that invested, and while I was glad to be helping, did not want to be her BFF.

I do think it's a liberal arts thing, though. I doubt that chem profs have this kind of relationship with their undergrad students.

So I totally get it. I'm glad when they do well. I'm sad when they miss it. I'm not out to ruin their lives, and don't get "mad" and grade their papers in a huff.

But, now that I'm at a much smaller school and have older students, sometimes I find myself seeing someone who, if I had met them IRL, I might have been friends with. And that is a little sad, cause I won't pursue it. I think it's inappropriate, mostly, to be friends with your students outside of school. I can see exceptions, but.

Anyway. Hope your tiara is nicely polished from your tiara polishing break. :)

Marlan said...

As an adjunct who teaches primarily adult students, I agree with most of what you wrote--especially about students being overly familiar. After a few years of dealing with excessive friendliness, especially through the Internet, I've finally come to the point of including a no-contact-outside-of-professional/class-business clause in the syllabus.

I tell them quite frankly that I care about their success, but it is a professional relationship and that I don't appreciate their forwarding of "Prayer of the Day," or "Joke of the Day," or worse to me.

Does it work? Mostly.

Doug said...

I had a professor who gave me a multi-week fight over letting me drop his course. I think some like the power. Some try to force their students to try harder. I tried harder; to drop his course, that is. ;)

And I'm with everyone else: I'd never drop your course. Though as a freshman/sophomore in college, I was an ass and an idiot, so I might have back then.

Steven said...

I think your last sentence of the second-to-the-last paragraph says it all. Glad there are professors like you still out there. While I was studying Architecture in college, my classes were fairly rigid with little or no choice for electives, so there was no choice to drop a course.

tornwordo said...

So true. I'm teaching adults and it's the same thing. There's no paperwork though. When they apologize for not doing an assignment, I say,"cool, less for me to correct."

Roger Owen Green said...

Interesting. As I think back to my undergrad days in the mid '70s, there was one prof (in Poli Sci) who did befriend not just me but several of us. We ate at his house, listening to Stevie Wonder a lot.
When I was in grad school (library) , there were a couple of profs who were known Lotharios with the female students. I think there are enough mixed signals out there that your students' confusion is understandable.

Laverne said...

Oh how I dream of students dropping my class.

Different story though at my level. Mid-term grades just went home; I've got about 15 kids total with D's and F's.

Frustrating too, because I have to show all the interventions I've taken (letting them make up work, calling home, emailing parents, conferencing with students, staying in at lunchtime so kids can get extra help), to show I'm doing my job.

Because you know,it's my fault they're flunking.

Marius said...

As an undergrad, I didn't care much for my professors. I was a rebellious lad. Of course, I was always respectful. I would love to audit one of your courses. You will always have my undivided attention, Gayprof. :)

Anonymous said...

My friends and I had "prof crushes" in undergrad-we'd take several of the courses and even with the reticent ones-try to piece together as much as their lives as possible. You must be more charming than most.

Anonymous said...

When I graduated the first time round (1997, archaeology) my department was nice and small, grad students and undergrads socialized, faculty joined us (several had only recently been grad students at that same school so why would they stop?) and all of us were on far-flung summer feild projects together. Everybody was very social, profs hosted dept parties at their houses, I babysat for one of them (kid had a disability, I had advanced first aid). I'm sure there was inappropriate stuff, but it ran the gossip mill, got settled and disappeared. I hope that dept hasn't changed...

Anonymous said...

Which reminds me...I need to write a mail to Dr. Minus, my very own advisor. At least the adjoined picture of WonderWoman got me an A on my last assignment. (And Thanks for that!) Maybe if I build her a shrine...

Anonymous said...

Having read your blog for quite a while, may I say you can also be pedantic and boring?

I especially love your passionate argument that ENDA should be cratered because that last drag queen blowing someone high on drugs wasn't covered.

Well done. Seriously, you bring the high-minded priss constantly.

GayProf said...

Anon: Well, I guess I am lucky that I don't write the blog for you.

Anonymous said...

"Black and withered"? But they told me all that would happen is that hair would grow on my palms and that maybe I'd go blind! (Hasn't happened. Yet.)

But, seriously...Anonymous, do you really believe that even a significant slice of the T in LGBT are...what was the charming description? Oh, yes: "drag queen(s) blowing someone high on drugs." First, what kinds of parties are going to, and may I attend? Most Ts I have known have been youth counselors or hardware store clerks or city commissioners who wouldn't touch drugs. By the time they get to the stage of showing their T-itude, they've worked so hard at their mental health that they don't need such escapes.

The mangled syntax of your tired slam, while nothing like its mangled logic, confuses me: is the putative blowee the one who's high on drugs, or is the blowing drag queen? If you're going to be a bigoted asshat, can't you at least do it with good grammar?

And just for the record, pissy pedantry is why most of us keep coming back to Center of Gravitas; that, and his unavoidable animal magnetism. If you don't like it, I advise you to go back to the Westboro Baptist Church's blog, where I expect you'll feel much more at home.

Paul said...

I've got to disagree with your "lack of care" about your students.

Yes, your paycheck may be the same (in the short-term), but who's paying for the education?

I don't ever recall any of my teachers paying me to come to class?

My best/favorite/more-remembered/most appreciated professors were those that accepted the responsibility to challenge me while insuring that I was able to grasp a command of the subject matter.