Professors Are Parents, Too

When his son goes off to college, Peter Cleary Yeager finds himself thinking about students in a different way.

November 21, 2005

One day he was here. The next day he was gone.

And I cried.

I know I'm not the first parent to lose a child to college. And after years of teaching college freshmen myself, I would have thought I’d have more familiarity with this rite of passage. I was wrong.

But one thing's for certain: From now on I am unlikely to view the freshmen I teach in the way I once did.

I have always preferred to see my first-year students as young adults, ready to learn to think on their own. My only obligation to them was to challenge their minds and rate their progress. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of the wider truth about them. One time, a freshman tentatively raised his hand at the end of a discussion of a social theory of religion, his face etched with worry. Was it possible, he asked, to be a sociologist and still believe in God?

I felt a dull ache as I suddenly realized that challenging minds and traumatizing children could equally well fall out of my well-intended lesson plans. I scrambled to reassure him that science and faith are different realms of meaning that we can embrace without contradiction.

Another time -- Sept. 11, 2001 -- I faced a very different reminder that students are someone’s children, too. Just before giving my lecture that morning, I learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. Before I could reach the podium I was confronted by students in tears asking if they might miss class because they were looking for parents who worked at the World Trade Center or who were otherwise affected by the attack.

Without warning, the parent in me sat down the professor. I felt ashamed that my professor’s role required them to ask permission for such desperate business.

Later in class one young woman asked a question that humbled my professional self: "Are we safe, here in Boston?" We all knew the two planes that had targeted the twin towers had left from Boston’s airport, only a few miles from our lecture hall. Were other horrors likely to fall from the sky onto our classroom buildings and dorms?

The professor in me didn't have the answer, but the parent within felt required to respond. It occurred to me that my own son was in his very first week at his new high school near the airport, located directly under the flight path of commercial jets. I did my best to reassure other people’s children that lightning was not likely to strike twice, so soon, with the authorities now on alert.

There have been other moments like this, when I could feel the parent trying to nudge aside the professor. Occasions such as brave, heart-rending explanations about assignments being missed because a parent had died, or because a husband had been killed, leaving my 19-year-old student a widowed mother of two babies of her own.

Dispassionate responses, however understanding, seemed empty at these moments, but the professor always kept his distance -- from both the student and the prodding parent within.

My son’s going off to college this fall has further unsettled this delicate ballet of roles and responsibilities. When he tells me that a professor has insisted that he must take the exams as scheduled, even though they are oddly slotted in the middle of his other courses' meeting times, a protective shout builds up in me: HE’S ONLY A KID! SPARE HIM IMPOSSIBLE SCHEDULING CONFLICTS FOR COURSES YOU TELL HIM HE NEEDS! 
And while you’re at it, keep your office hours so that you are available to answer his questions and address his concerns, ask him how he's doing as a new student, encourage him to ask questions and make comments in class. DON'T TREAT HIM LIKE A NUMBER.  PAY ATTENTION TO HIM. KNOW HIS NAME! He's unique, a whole person, a child....

Already, the professor in me rises to object. I'm not responsible for children; I’m educating adults. I can’t take time for all of these students. I need to protect my research and writing time.

I realize that I will continue to experience this sort of tension, and that I won't always like my resolutions.  Reflexively, I will sometimes blanch at lines of students awaiting my office hours and fail to remember names and interests of students.

But now I suspect I will be less accepting of those responses.  As I ask of my son’s professors, I will increase my effort to know names, encourage students to seek more feedback outside of class, ask them how their semesters are going, and smile at even long lines at office hours -- or face the knowing disapproval of the parent within who recognizes other people’s children when he sees them.  


Peter Cleary Yeager is a professor of sociology at Boston University. He is co-author of Corporate Crime and author of The Limits of Law: The Public Regulation of Private Pollution.


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