Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Back to School Night

Monday, November 15, 2010

Back to School Night

And…the Chronicle has done it again! The magazine’s writers have made me think. Strange to think I didn't even know about it a year ago.
Though I’m not sure if it’s exactly the direction they intended my brain to go in.
Earlier this month, they published an article on “The Invisible Curriculum.” As the author, an English professor, describes it, the invisible curriculum is comprised of those moments when professors step out of their subject area to give life lessons in the classroom, or times that they forge personal connections with students  in office hours. You know, the parts of school you’ll remember for the rest of your life, even when stuff like the year Rome fell flies out of your head (although some of those crazy things stick too: 476 A.D. *boomboom*!).
Not being a professor myself, my brain took me past the advice on how to connect to students in a more meaningful way, and towards an examination of the other side of the experience. I started thinking about my own student-teacher relationships throughout my 21 years of schooling (I was only not in school for two years of my life. Creepy to think about, isn’t it? Don’t know how/if I’ll ever be able to think of “next year” as meaning January instead of September).
I went to a really small middle/high school. And I mean really small. My graduating high school class: 21. Before I entered college, the biggest class I’d been in was in 8th grade: 40 people (and we had two different homerooms). I went to the kind of tiny school that was overflowing with passionate individuals…but lacking in funds. If there was no classroom space available, we would walk over to the teacher’s house and have class there. Or, if we were in a small enough class and the teacher didn’t live nearby (2-3 person classes aren’t that uncommon at my middle/high school), we might even have class in the teacher’s car. In this kind of environment, everyone knows everyone else’s business. And that, to some extent at least, includes the teachers. And I don’t just mean that the teachers hear student gossip. It works the other way around too. When you go to a school that’s basically like a big extended family, you hear about your teacher’s private lives much more often than you would at a “normal” school.
So, obviously, college professors felt strangely distant to me. “You mean I don’t know whether my professor is married, or has kids, or where they grew up and went to college, or what they do on the weekends!?” It baffled my mind. Ok…maybe it didn’t quite do that. After all, I knew college was not going to be what I was used to. But it did feel a bit, well, unnatural to me that these people who I was learning so much from were also people I knew nothing about in any real personal way. Of course, even in college, if you get close to certain professors you do learn a little more about who they are outside of the classroom. But it was still not anything like what I was used to prior to college.
My solution? Nothing. I just kept on being myself, and thinking it was weird that I didn’t know who my professors’ “selves” were.
My early experiences obviously helped shape not only my educational expectations, but my personality. I’ve been told I’m a lot more open than most people. Fellow students are initially surprised at how much of my personal life I share right off the bat. Since, after I’ve been in class for a couple of weeks, I don’t immediately shut up when a professor walks in the room, I sometimes get odd looks from those who probably think I’m “oversharing.” I was never a “class clown,” but I sometimes crack jokes in class…because I never saw any reason to hide who I was just because I’m in a classroom setting. I don’t think professionalism and personality are mutually exclusive. Despite some initial skepticism, most people understand pretty quickly that I’m just being my quirky self and actually laugh along with me.
But what all this musing led me to eventually was this: is there, and should there be, a difference between professor-student relationships in undergrad. and grad. school? Coming from my very individual/eccentric educational background, it was difficult for me to analyze this question once it popped into my head. I know that, theoretically, we grad. students are treated very differently. Even if we enter straight from college, we’re suddenly seen as adults. Some of us have been out of school for a long time and have lived completely independent lives for many years. And, most importantly, since most of us are expected to go into the fields we’re studying once we enter the professional world, we’re seen as future colleagues. But is the difference really there in practice? Or is it just a concept? If part of the difference is based on our probable future status as colleagues, is there a different relationship between professors and Ph.D. students than between professors and M.A./M.S. students?
Finding answers to these kinds of questions for someone like me is pretty difficult. I’m still in touch with many of my high school teachers, and go out to lunch with them periodically. This probably skews my opinion of things. I think of my professors as teachers. And I have always thought of my teachers as real people. People who are smarter than me who deserve respect...but people nonetheless. So, when a professor finally does drop a personal tidbit in class, I always find it weird when I hear reactions from fellow students along the lines of “Oh my God he has a son!? It’s so weird thinking of him as a dad.”

But the most important question of all has to be this one: Is it ok to friend your graduate school professors on Facebook before you graduate? ;)

PS Speaking of professor-student relationships, this has been going around the internet for a few weeks now, and I thought I should share it. I’m not sure if it’s funny if you’re not a humanities grad. student, but I know I found it hysterical (and all too true): So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?

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