Level footing: the professor-student dynamic

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 5/10/17 2:30am

In season five, episode one of “How I Met Your Mother,” Ted Mosby is nervous before his first day of teaching class as a professor. His friend Barney Stinson advises him to refuse questions on the first day of class, asserting that Ted needs to clearly define his relationship with his students. Barney says, “You’re their teacher, not their friend.” The director of the television series used this anecdote to parallel Barney and Robin’s struggle to define their own relationship, but it also nicely illustrates a dilemma that every professor faces: What kind of classroom does he want to run?

His classroom can be discussion-based or lecture-based. He can encourage students to set up meetings. He can ask to be called by his first name. He can take questions. He can learn all his students’ names. Or he can choose not to do any of these. It’s all up to him.

We might logically assume that someone who is paid to educate would create the classroom environment that is most conducive to learning. But that is much easier said than done. There are different learning styles, personalities, class sizes and subject matters, and as a result, a “good professor” is something we can instinctively identify but struggle to define.

Here is my attempt at a definition: A good professor is one who empowers his students.

The word “power” often elicits images of corrupt public figures, decadence and decay, dictators, greed. But the Oxford English Dictionary offers a far more innocent definition: “Power (noun): The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality; the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.”

A good professor is one who gives his students the ability to digest and absorb the material and to guide their own learning. Education policy experts have a special word for power as it relates to learning: agency.

According to business management expert Marilyn Gist, self-efficacy, another word for agency or ownership, is strengthened when people (students) feel that they have some degree of control over their situation (learning environment) and that others (their professors) expect highly of them. In plain English: When your professor knows and cares about who you are and your capabilities, when he takes your opinion seriously, you believe in yourself and put more effort into your schooling.

Professors who foster a sense of agency in their students don’t view students as empty receptacles to be filled with knowledge. Rather, they engage students as partners in the learning process. They get to know their students outside of class. They point their students to co-curricular opportunities for further learning. They encourage, rather than shame, mistakes.

Any Dartmouth — or to be frank, any collegiate — tour guide will tell you that their school is characterized by close student-professor relationships that often develop into research opportunities and job references. That was certainly true for Sunny Drescher ’20.

“I’m actually going to be doing some research with [my professor] next year as a result of him being so encouraging of me pursuing quantitative social science,” she said.

But when I asked her to elaborate on what made that professor so great, what was most important to Drescher was the fact that her professor cared about her life outside the classroom. She often attended her professor’s office hours to ask questions about the material and the field of quantitative social science more broadly, and she pointed to these one-on-one interactions as playing a key role in developing their relationship.

Caroline Allen ’20 wished that her favorite professor was more accessible.

“He doesn’t really have a lot of office hours, so it’s harder to have more of a personal relationship,” she said.

Allen went to a small, discussion-based high school. For her, learning comes more naturally when it is seen as a collaborative process in which the professor and student, rather than playing the traditional roles of giver and taker, have a more egalitarian relationship.

“In high school, the teacher was another seat at the table — there was no front of the classroom,” Allen said. “So my whole high school was discussion-based, and for me, it’s really hard to learn in a classroom where you don’t really get to know your teacher, and your teacher doesn’t get to know you, like in [Psychology 1] or other introductory classes.”

The setup she described pressures students to engage with the material on a deeper level. Environmental studies professor Terry Osborne fully embraces this approach. In a traditional classroom, the lesson serves as a third party or buffer with which the professor and students interact, and the professor is not obligated to connect directly with his students. However, Osborne feels that his responsibility to his students comes before his responsibility to the material.

“I want to teach students and not the material,” he said. “That means if I keep the students primarily in mind and the material secondary, the learning of the material manifests itself more effectively. My focus is not necessarily on getting across the material. My focus is on getting across the material to the students. The material seems to have more of an impact when I keep in mind that this is an interaction between me and the students.”

In his classroom, personal relationships are very important. He holds conferences with his students regularly and asks them to “check in” at the beginning of each class by providing a brief update on how they are doing at that particular moment.

Professors in other departments use similar methods to engage with students. Drescher enjoyed having a teacher who cares about her and not just her assignments. She connected with her favorite professor at Dartmouth on a personal level and felt that she could talk to him about subjects outside of that week’s lesson plan.

“He was always super encouraging if I had an idea about something that was outside of class,” she explained.

This can be difficult in larger lecture-style classes, a fact acknowledged by Allen and Osborne. But even in these larger classes, Drescher’s professor made an effort to connect with his students.

According to Drescher, the professor described the importance of “just getting past the anonymity, recognizing that everyone in that room is someone who has a story and who is a human being.”

All of this — building a relationship between students and professors, helping students engage with the material outside of the classroom, approaching learning as a collaborative endeavor — may sound like a nice recipe for an eye roll. But these strategies serve to encourage students to take ownership of their education, thus motivating them to achieve at higher levels.

So perhaps, in a stunning turn of events, Barney was wrong. A professor can and should be a teacher and a friend.