Why You Should Have a (Platonic) Relationship with Your Professor

New students sit and listen as they are welcomed in one of the lecture halls. (Photo: TORSTEN SILZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Many students only see professors in crowded lecture halls. (Photo: TORSTEN SILZ/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve never been fond of formal college commencement ceremonies, but there is one graduation tradition that always moves me and that has implications for higher education at a time when 32 percent of first-year students and 25 percent of seniors report they never spoke with a faculty member outside of class.

The tradition at my school, Sarah Lawrence College, is a pre-graduation dinner attended by seniors and those of us who taught them during their freshman year. We have continued to advise these students throughout their college careers, and as a result of this continuity, we have gotten to know them. Our goodbye dinner is mercifully free of the small talk that characterizes so many graduation encounters between faculty and students who have only glimpsed each other across crowded lecture halls.

Meaningful contact between faculty and students that transcends the classroom can only occur when there is a structure in place that encourages it to happen. A voluntary system that depends on a small cadre of “good guys” who welcome students during, and even after, office hours won’t do the trick. That only makes increased contact between students and their professors a function of kindness.

A shift in spending priorities would make more faculty available to meet one on one with students. But a change in how faculty think about students needs to accompany this shift for it to be effective.

At my school we’ve created a structure fostering one-on-one contact. We’ve made the seminar, rather than the large lecture, our predominant mode of teaching; to make sure the seminar doesn’t grow into a mini-lecture, we have capped them at 15 students.

Most important, we’ve made sure individual conferences are integral to our seminars. When I teach a first-year class, I meet each student in a half-hour conference once a week. In the rest of my classes, it’s a half-hour conference every other week.

During conferences the student and I discuss the books read in class, but we also work on a conference paper that is tailored to the student’s interests. The system is one that a clever student can game, but that’s a rarity in my experience. Most students realize their conferences offer them a unique chance to go beyond the boundaries of the course syllabus.

When students and faculty don’t get to know each other on a one-on-one basis, the result is bad for both. What’s lost is the chance for real mentoring, as well as a serious exchange about what it means to be from different generations. There is a practical loss, too. It’s hard to write a reference for students you only know by their papers. The whole question of character goes out the window.

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of bringing students and faculty together. The seminars, conferences and low faculty-student ratio where I teach are not easy to duplicate or afford, but there are still practical ways for universities to diminish the impersonal nature of education.

Some schools cap seminars at 15 students. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some schools cap seminars at 15 students. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not talking about a large institution with an entering class in the thousands becoming a warm, fuzzy place. But I am talking about such an institution changing its priorities so that its students get the chance for greater interaction with professors—meet with them in their offices at least two times a year, for example, when the student is taking a seminar.

The first change in priorities that will help usher in such a modest development needs to come in the way universities spend money. In recent years, institutions have been trying to attract students by going on a spending binge in which they pour money into constructing food courts, athletic complexes and recreational centers; Forbes calls it “the college amenities arms race,” pointing out that in 1995 American colleges spent just $6.1 billion on construction projects but are now spending $10.9 billion annually.

Faculty have not only been losing out to this building boom, they have been losing out to administrators when it comes to who gets hired during periods of expansion. According to the U.S. Department of Education, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew 60 percent between 1993 and 2009—a rate 10 times the increase in tenured faculty positions.

A shift in spending priorities would make more faculty available to meet one on one with students. But a change in how faculty think about students needs to accompany this shift for it to be effective. When career promotion and salary depend primarily on publication (“publish or perish”), faculty have little incentive to spend time with students. Instead, schools should reward professors for the time they devote to students.

We have made teaching online seem glamorous, and we’ve done the same for faculty who use social media to engage students. What we forget is that when students look back on their college experience, it’s not a great email most recall, but the personal contact they had with one another and—albeit too rarely—with a professor who took an interest in them, no matter how they scored on an exam or a term paper.

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THREE WAYS TO GET YOUR TEACHER’S ATTENTION

Give free reign to your contrarian spirit. Measured dissent is always more interesting to a good professor than agreement. Take note of seeming inconsistencies in the books you’re reading or the ideas of your professor. As long as you aren’t playing “gotcha,” your attentiveness will be appreciated.

Let your age be a plus. Emphasize how the material in the course deals with values that characterize your generation as opposed to the professor’s.

See the big picture. Don’t hesitate to ask what’s at stake in the material presented by the course.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is also author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower (2008).

Why You Should Have a (Platonic) Relationship with Your Professor