A hug. At its best it communicates affection, love, respect, admiration — a spontaneous expression of (positive) emotions. At other times, it’s an obligation — a turned cheek, a sloppy hand over a shoulder, a quick pat on the back and we move on, relieved to have put the encounter behind us.
When I was a young graduate student, I never hugged my students. I was trying hard to be taken seriously, by students who were barely younger than I was and were sometimes even older than I was. I was trying hard to establish my “authority” in the classroom. I even dressed very formally .
So when I became a professor, at first I simply carried those same old rules with me that I had learned and established in graduate school: Distance, authority, formality. The problem was none of that fit my personality (not even the clothes!) and none of that fit my way of teaching as I started to develop my own teaching style and persona. So I relaxed my rules about how I dressed, how I spoke in class, how much I joked around with my students. All of this was facilitated by being at a small liberal arts college, where we are encouraged to interact with our students outside of the classroom (lunch programs, talks/presentations in dorms, informal discussions in the coffee shop with smaller groups of students).
But there was one rule that I hadn’t changed much. I didn’t hug my students. Of course there were some teary-eyed students at graduation who always hugged. But graduation day isn’t really reflective of our normal relationships with students. But then something strange happened when I went on sabbatical for a semester. Towards the end of my sabbatical, I was involved in a departmental search for a new faculty, so I went to campus to meet with our finalists. As I was walking the candidate over to her talk, I ran into a student. The student ran over to me and gave me a big hug and asked when I was coming back. We chatted for a little while and then I went on. A few minutes later another student saw me and did the same thing! Then I got to the room where the candidate’s talk was being held, and another old student of mine came running from the other end of the room and gave me a hug. Embarrassed, I mumbled something to the other professors about how our students must really miss us when we’re gone.
Experiences like these continued whenever I showed up on campus during my sabbatical. Here’s the interesting thing though: after the first few times, my discomfort at hugging my students disappeared. My students were expressing spontaneous joy at seeing me. . . I should be happy about that!
I understand very well all the dangers for young professors, who are trying to establish themselves as an authority. Hugging your students is not seen as “professional”, and it (might) make students think that you’re just one of them. But as I’ve gained more experience over the years as a teacher, I’ve come to understand that the rules I had established for myself as a graduate student (about how to dress, what kind of language to use for instance) were merely “crutches”, making up for what I lacked: experience and self-confidence. As I’ve gained more experience in the classroom, I’ve learned to let go of the crutches and realize that I can do just fine without them. I wouldn’t advise young graduate student teachers, or somebody who is just starting to teach to go around hugging their students – the crutches are helpful to lean on until you become more comfortable in the classroom
Sometimes, hugging is not a matter of comfort or experience in the classroom at all. It seems to me (based on anecdotes and observations) that there is a significant gender difference when it comes to hugging. Male professors are generally much more cautious around students and they certainly need to be given that their behavior is more likely to be seen as predatory. As a woman I have the privilege of not having a hug be read as “creepy” whereas not many male professors can hug their students without raising eyebrows.
That’s too bad really. Because a hug is best when it is spontaneous, non-obligatory; and that’s exactly the kind of hug students give when they’re genuinely happy to see you.
New London, Connecticut in the US.
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of  Venus  and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .