Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Professor-Student Relations

No, this post is not about Professor-Student relationships. Rather, it's about how profs and students interact in this modern world of 24/7 access and e-mail. There's a great article in today's New York Times called To: Professor @ University.edu Subject: Why It's All About Me. You can link to the article here. I recommend it heartily.

This article paints a doom-and-gloom picture of teaching and the demise of deference from students to teachers. It's funny too; I never would have dreamed of skipping class and then asking the professor for copies of her teaching notes. And it's true that with e-mail, students are more likely than ever to contact professors, and ask some potentially odd questions.

Here's my take on it: this is just like anything else in our modern, internet-connected society. There's been a general decline in deference in our society for some decades now, but is that so bad, really? Is it better to expect people to earn respect than to automatically give it? Is it so bad to require professors, who live a wonderful life of relative academic freedom and flexible schedules, to be more responsive to their student constituencies? Isn't this a learning opportunity for teaching people how to interact as adults? Maybe some students didn't learn manners at home, and student-teacher relations are a perfect framework for reducing the manners deficit.

I have invariably found that when you tell someone what you expect from them, by and large you get it. I tell my students to be on time for class and to turn in assignments on time, and guess what: they do. I tell them how to analyze specific types of issues on a final exam--not giving the answer, but providing a useful framework for analysis--and guess what? Those who follow my instructions tend to do better on the exam. In the practice of law, the senior lawyer who tells the newbie lawyer what she expects and why is far more likely to get the desired result. So this is an opportunity to train students in the etiquette of proper communication with superiors.

Perhaps I am jaded by my years practicing in a big firm. A few student calls there and there, a few potential intrusions--they're nothing like what I am used to from my practice days. And we should never, ever, discourage professor/student interaction. Manage it, yes. Discourage it? No.

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