Why can’t we be friends

13 10 2013

I’m not friends with my students.

Friendly—yes, but hanging out with them, exchanging casual e-mails and texts, inviting them to read this blog? No.

I’m not opposed to becoming friends with students, but it’s not something I look for, and, pretty clearly, not something my students are looking for. Perhaps had I remained at a more traditional university, one in which the students were not so clearly focused on the vocational aspects of their education, I might have had more students who wanted to hang out and talk theory, which in turn might have led to friendships.

Either way, it’s fine.

I had ignored the Slate article on why befriending one’s students is a bad idea both because I haven’t and, more importantly, I thought it would be a typically bumptious Slate piece in which everything the reader thought she knew about the world is declared wrong.

So tiring, that.

But a piece highlighted by Jonathan Bernstein, in which political science professor Steve Green notes that he regularly shares bits of his life with his students, prompted me to go back and read the Slate piece. It turns out the problem is less with befriending students than with, yes, being open and friendly with them.

When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives—particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics—there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviors. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behavior.

Slate writer Scott Jaschik notes that the study authors caution that instructor style influences 20 percent of “uncivil behavior” (packing up books early, texting), which means most of this behavior is outside of the control of the prof. Still, 20 percent ain’t beanbag, so if one wants a civil classroom, anything which detracts from credibility might work against that.

I don’t disagree with this. If one wants to establish authority in the classroom (as I most certainly do) without reverting to mere authoritarianism along the lines of “because I said so!” (as I most certainly do not), then establishing that one has the chops to stand in front of student, i.e., demonstrating one’s credibility, is the way to go. The reason you should listen to me is not because I am in charge but because I have the ability to teach you, which means you can learn something from me.

So am I wrong in thinking that telling my students, most of whom are first-generation college students from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds that I was a first-generation college student from a working-/lower-middle class background is a kind of encouragement to them? Am I demonstrating an ability to speak across apparent boundaries or am I, in transgressing those boundaries, reducing my credibility?

As Steve Greene notes, “Sharing about your personal life and sharing things that make you seen less competent are entirely different kettles of fish.” There’s also the question of whether sharing how you messed up, academically or pedagogically and then sorted it out demonstrates incompetence or competence.

Oh, and there’s the rather significant issue of the connection between uncivil behavior and learning. I have no problem believing that a student who’s texting isn’t paying attention, but is the student who isn’t texting paying attention? As for packing up books, well, that’s may be less about incivility than about needing to get to a class across campus and wanting to hit the bathroom/snack shop before that next class.

I want to be an effective teacher in a way which makes sense to me, so as a generally casual person an über-formal approach probably won’t work. I also know that the students aren’t there to learn all about me but all about the subject I’m teaching, so any storytelling ought to be minimized and only used to illustrate a pedagogical point.

Yeah, openness about oneself can go too far in terms of self-indulgence or indiscretion, but insofar as I take an open approach toward knowledge about the world, that I think that open approach is the best approach, I am skeptical that an appropriate openness with the students will cause their minds to snap shut.

When I tell my students on the first day that I don’t take myself too seriously (which is almost true) but I do take the work seriously (which is really true), I recognize that I may be sanding away some of my own authority in a way which dulls my own credibility, and thus may increase their skepticism of me.

That’s not such a bad thing: let them question me, which gives me the chance, in responding to them, to demonstrate that I do know what I’m doing, and that they might just want to follow along, to see what comes next.

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14 10 2013

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