Saturday, July 23, 2011

All growed up

I don't know if being a professor is like being a parent. I'm a professor now and sometimes it feels that way (I don't always mean this in a positive way, sadly), but I haven't had to be an actual parent to this point so I don't know if they compare.

In five years of teaching I've had a few students compare me to a parental figure in their life. It's an honor to be thought of that way for sure. Ideally you become a teacher because you care about the whole person, not just that part of the brain that is supposed to house the narrow bits of information you bring to the classroom.

But compliment that it is, to be thought of as a father figure also scares me a bit. I was never trained to be that and don't really know what I'm doing in that role. Grad school helped me acquire knowledge, and we sat around talking about fancypants things like "pedagogy" when it came to classroom stuff (pedagogy is your teaching approach - yes, we make everything harder than it needs to be in academia). So the first time a student compared me to a father figure I was honored and terrified at the same time - I have no playbook for the latter role. To be honest I'm not even sure where that part of me that students see comes from. Aren't professors supposed to care about their students? Isn't what they call fatherly just a case of me trying to be a decent human being?

The other side of that, naturally, is that if a student thinks of you as a dad then there is a backstory there that sucks. Sometimes it's worse than others, but it's usually not good. Too often the collateral damage is in their confidence level.

Professors approach their role in many ways. Some see professional detachment, a type of cool objectivity akin to being a doctor, as the way to go. Others think authority and hierarchy help set rules and discipline. I know my approach isn't standard. Brad King has said his role is to be so hard on his students that they hate him. I just can't do it that way.

I think of myself as a guide, a learned friend who knows some things about things and is there to help. In this model, students are responsible for walking the road to learning; I've said many times I can't make a student care or try, but when they do it's my goal to make sure they get everything they can out of the journey. Don't misinterpret the word "friend" .... I'm not begging to be liked and sometimes I am pretty hard on them. I'm often hardest on the ones that I think have the most potential.

But here's the thing: I feel a measure of pride in watching my students go out and conquer something. I'm not sure if it's pride per se. I've never liked to say I'm proud of someone because to me that implies you're taking some credit for their accomplishments, and that feels weird. But it's something like that pride thing. It feels, dare I say, like watching your kids succeed.

I'm proud of all our #LUBlogTribe folks who've stuck with this. Proud of our students who are finding jobs and sticking to it even when they get rejections, knowing that opportunity is coming soon. And I'm proud of our own Michael Ojo, who tonight took a huge step in his quest to play professional basketball. I watch my students go out and pursue their dreams, fight for what they want in life, and not give up. To the degree that I can help or advise, I do it. But the inspiration comes from inside of them

In other words I'm the guide, making sure the bus stays moving in the right direction. Call it being a dad or just giving a damn as a professor, but it is one of the best roles I've been privileged to play in life.


Post #38 in my 90-in-90 blog challenge. Blog with us and join the fun. I'll be blogging both here and on my professional blog for the challenge. For more about the 90/90 challenge, read about my call for participants. The blogs participating are on the list at the right, or follow us on the #LUBlogTribe hashtag on Twitter


  1. Don't forget how torn up one feels when we see deserving students struggle.

  2. Yeah I almost wrote about that but didn't know how to say it. When I see amazing students struggle I want to take those bullets for them in any way I can. I don't mean it like that. I don't really have words for it at the moment.