Saturday, August 26, 2006

Thoughts on student-faculty interaction

Originated in a comment over at B*:

I should provide a disclaimer that I'm male, Anglo, and recently-tenured, so my perspective may be only marginally useful--so salt to taste.

My feeling is that the student behaved in a socially-awkward (read "challenged") way but not in a fashion that was inherently, intentionally, or necessarily disrespectful. In fact I agree with you that as professors and mentors we *do* need to maintain a certain mode of discourse with our students.

However, my experience and observation suggest that "setting boundaries" is *much* more effectively-accomplished by *modeling* the behavior you want to elicit. In other words, with students--of any level or age--it is both more effective--and will be perceived as less dictatorial and defensive--if you *show* them how you want them to behave, rather than *tell* them how they must behave.

Case in point. In the classroom, I am always careful to introduce graduate teaching assistants to the undergraduate students as "Mr X" and "Ms Y." These TA's may be only a year or two older than the UGs, may be in the same program or classses with the UGs, and may in fact be personal friends with said UGs. Nevertheless, in the classroom I model the "Mr X" and "Ms Y" construction. And the UGs, who are at least as immature and as intuitive as house-training puppies, *see* this modeled mode of discourse, and use it very consistently thenceforth, without my ever having to *tell* them that they must.

Similarly, though I encourage my teaching assistants to call me by my first name outside of lectures, none of them do: they all (so far) prefer to use the "Dr S---" figuration. Some of these are students who I play music with, or have socialized with. We hug each other after a semester break, inquire after one another's significant others', and not infrequently share discreet snark about institutional hassles (though NEVER EVER about my colleagues). But they still *feel more comfortable* with the "Dr S---" construction. I have to assume that this is because they have understood the mode of discourse that has been modeled for them.

How does this apply to the social anecdote you described (if it does)? Well, in a situation like that, I might have met the "Hey girls!" (or "Hey boys!") query with a pause, a thoughtful look, and then a reference using appropriate discourse to my colleagues present at the table; e.g.,:

"Well, Dr X [indicate one present colleague] and Dr Y [indicate another present colleague] and I are planning to [go to dinner, visit some local sights, etc--but expressed *unspecifically*]. What are *you* planning to do?"

At that point, if the student wants to join the party, s/he'd have to ask. Which provides you the opportunity to say "Well, my colleagues and I really just preferred to spend this time with one another. But I'd be happy to 'visit with you' [as we say in Texas] at another time. Have a pleasant evening!"

This, to me, sends the message and models the appropriate discourse--whereas getting up and walking away from the table could, potentially, be confusing. Or make you seem defensive. Or tight-assed. Or all three.



Lisa said...

Having been a Student of Life for over a year now, I sometimes wonder about how I will be treated when I return to a university. I will be mid-20s, married, and have several years of work experience in various jobs - not your usual undergraduate profile. I will likely have at least TAs my own age or younger than I. To be honest, I didn't like being talked down to when I was 18 and I'm pretty sure I won't be any fonder of it at 23-25. I've had several professors (and TAs!) that were rather... "Holier Than Thou" - not an appropriate attitude for a classroom, in my opinion. I have a hunch that at that stage I'd be a lot more inclined to bring up the issue in private.

Your take, sir?


CJS said...

Yes. The classroom can be a rather hierarchical place. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that there *are* always ways to ensure that the hiearchy is eradicable. Some college professors, simply because they have been a position of authority over students for so long, can develop a rather pompous attitude. Typically this is not intended or conscious; it's just the product of decades of being able to require that young people hang on you every word. This is in fact rather intoxicating and it can be easy wind up taking it for granted--and behaving pompously.

In my observation and experience, TAs exhibit attitudinal problems for other reasons, most typically when (as they often are) they are thrown into a teaching situation in which they have not been given adequate tools for asserting their expertise or authority to students. Undergrad students are *often* disrespectful to TAs; as a result, some TAs, seeking to establish their (entitled) classroom authority, develop rather condescending, or simply awkward, classroom manner. I can't bring myself to blame them, though--it's a hard job, physically and mentally demanding, and it doesn't pay very well.

Moreover, the reality of the college situation is that *age* is simply not the marker of seniority. In the university world, those who are older are *not* automatically the authority figures, just as those who are younger are *not* automatically of less authority. In the university, *academic achievement* and *rank* are the markers of seniority. If you're a genius who earned a doctorate by age 20, you are *entitled and expected* to have, and display, authority over a master's candidate who is 10 years older.

This can be uncomfortable, because it inverts the usual equation of age = seniority (and because the inversion is relatively uncommon), but it is the norm and it is appropriate. If somebody is serving as your TA, it does not matter if s/he is 5 years older or 5 years younger than you are: that person has appropriate authority and is entitled to exercise it. Of course, one can hope and try to ensure that the authority is exerted appropriately and tactfully, but the reality is that this sometimes does not happen.

Sometimes TAs or junior professers (or *senior* professors) are inconfident about their own personal authority, and sometimes they choose awkward or obnoxious ways of trying to display and employ it. That's part of the price of doing business in an academic environment.

But remember that those people (a) work hard; (b) *have* worked hard to get where they are; (c) have information and/or insight which they've earned and which you need; and (d) don't really, in the usual final analysis, *intend* to be "holier than thou." If it nevertheless happens that they behave in such a fashion, my typical advice would be to say "look, understand their situation, curse them under your breath if you must, approach a senior supervisor if you find the behavior massively inappropriate. But beyond that, recognize that displays of authority are part of the price of doing business, that someone *else* acting holier-than-thou need not actually have *any* impact on your own perspective or behavior (or will only if you let it), and, finally, suck it up and let it go.

Good luck!