Enriching stu-fac relations

Whose responsibility is it to encourage student-faculty interactions at a school like Williams? Should the professor take the first step to make these interactions happen, or should the student? After three and a half years of being a part of this great community, I have come to a few, simple realizations: First, professors can often be just as shy as students. We may think that those extremely intelligent, incredibly good-looking, sweater-vested individuals we call “professor” are impervious to embarrassment and shyness, but we are wrong. Second, students can be just as busy as professors. It turns out that with all the homework and extracurricular activities we pursue, we barely have enough time to hang out with our student friends much less to try to forge lasting bonds with professors. These two facts go hand in hand regarding inhibiting student-faculty interactions outside of the classroom or other formal academic settings. There needs to be a joint effort from both groups in turning this situation around.

Casual social interactions between students and faculty have seemingly disappeared from the daily lives of those on campus. Some have made efforts to reclaim these interactions through special events, such as the Lyceum Dinner or Neighborhood stu-fac mixers, but the simple fact is that there seems to be huge and mutual hesitation for the two groups to engage in honest conversation. According to Frank Morgan, professor of math, only a few years ago, it was a common sight to see faculty and students eating meals in dining halls together on weekday nights. Professors were seen more often at entry snacks.

I’m thus not talking here about taking advantage of office hours or conversing about course grades, but about discussing life experiences that have led people to where they are today – the family dynamics, failures, successes, desires and personal characteristics that make each of us who we are. It is my opinion that knowing a professor’s background – where they have lived, how many siblings they have, what jobs they had when growing up – helps me understand how my professors got involved in the intellectual work that they do. My perspective changes, and my professor becomes a mentor with whom I feel more comfortable discussing a topic that I didn’t understand during class. In turn, once professors know more about my life, they feel more comfortable giving me honest and constructive feedback on my work.

So, on the academic front, increased casual student-faculty interactions are win-win. But let’s be honest: Who doesn’t want to have a beer with a professor (if you are of age) or sit down at dinner and just shoot the breeze with faculty? You don’t even have to take time out of your busy schedule to see a professor outside of class. Just ask your professor to your next meal in the dining hall, and their food will be completely paid for by the College through a program that the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) started last year. No need to dress up, no need to put together a list of talking points in case things get awkward – they won’t. In my experience, it’s way easier to ask a professor to a meal than ask a girl out on a date. The professors usually say yes, though don’t wait for them to make the first move (they can be a bit shy, too). If you don’t feel comfortable asking a professor to come to a meal with you (which shouldn’t be the case), ask one to come to your NBC performance, baseball game or even to join in on your occasional badminton match.

Professors do great things to interact with students, whether it is inviting classes over for dinner, taking students out to coffee or attending sporting events or theatre productions on campus. Whether they know it or not, they are often students’ role models, and they themselves should use this position to a greater extent to facilitate informal conversation. For example, I have always found it very useful when professors say, on the first day of class, that it is mandatory that all their students schedule a one-on-one meeting with them at some point during the semester. Instead of asking, “How is the class going for you so far?” professors should begin with questions like, “What is your hometown?” or “What kinds of things do you do around Williams other than schoolwork?” If professors are interested in who I am as a person, not just as a student, I become more comfortable in my interactions with them. Furthermore, professors should realize that students are thrilled when they are asked out for a cup of coffee – we are very unlikely to say no, so don’t be afraid to ask. And profs, we can treat you to a free meal at the dining hall, so don’t hesitate to ask us to take you.

Improved student-faculty interactions on a basic, informal level will enhance all of our Williams experiences. Instead of having only one administratively assigned advisor, imagine having a cohort of professors who know your interests and personality to advise you on class and career decisions. This is how a small liberal arts college should operate, and with a little more effort from both the students and professors, we can better achieve this model at Williams.

Mike Tcheyan ’10 is an English major from Chevy Chase, Md.