Meeting Professors In Their Natural Habitat

This fall, I started playing weekly tennis games with one of my professors. I had taken a course with him in the spring, we had become friendly and both enjoyed tennis, though we both found discovering people to play with difficult.

Nothing about this felt odd until I started telling people about it. From my roommates, friends and classmates, I almost invariably received a reaction of “Why?” or else a winking smile, pat on the back and some variation of “Congratulations, that’s so smart of you, way to get ahead!”

From the very beginning of my time at Georgetown, popular conceptions of professor-student friendships struck me as ill-defined and odd. My parents, college professors themselves, encouraged me to go to each and every one of my professors’ office hours — but almost never to talk about assignments themselves. They told me to pick a topic, a book, something that had come up in class and to reach out and just have a discussion — the theory being, if you can’t learn from a professor outside of class, your time spent in class might not be so productive.

But when I talked to other peers, that thought was widely (though not universally) regarded as heretical. My classmates told me that going to office hours to talk about a midterm or final was natural and not self-centered, but to do so just to get to know a professor came off as scheming, ambitious: an attempt to get ahead by securing a recommendation, a “mentor,” a summer internship or research position. The irony was striking.

There are, of course, exceptions to this attitude: Georgetown University Student Association sponsored coffee trips with professors, exhortations from peer advisers and deans alike to find academic and professional mentors from among one’s teachers, there was even a module in the “What’s a Hoya” program devoted primarily to mentorship. From small proseminars for freshman in the School of Foreign Service to the Georgetown Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which pairs student and faculty for mentored research, it’s clear that at an institutional level, Georgetown undoubtedly favors close collaboration.

Nonetheless, in the student body these appeals fall largely on deaf ears. Whether that’s due to Georgetown’s preprofessional, career-oriented culture or a symptom of a larger, contemporary issue on college campuses, I can’t entirely say. Certainly, the current combative environment between students and teachers over curricular and sociopolitical issues that has been widely reported on in the media for the past few years cannot be an added good. There exist extreme cases, which show students and professors lodging official complaints and even lawsuits over differences in vocabulary and political philosophies. But more insidiously, there is a general sentiment of a changing relationship — from a cooperative, mutualistic partnership to one more based on demands on each other — where teachers report self-censorship and shirk from dealing with sensitive issues and undergraduates report a distrust of professors whose ideological beliefs clash with their own.

At the same time, the Hilltop’s vocational culture treats too much of the academic pursuit, whether it be elective classes or choosing the right professor for “Problem of God,” as a means to an end. The obsessive focus on networking — the sometimes defined, sometimes undefined “you know it when you see it” search for contacts to acquire summer internship options and an extra bullet point on the resume — treats people, be they be classmates, professors or McKinsey representatives in the Career Center as one and the same: objects for future success.

The “ideal relationship,” as campus culture would have it, between students and professors is far too utilitarian for my taste. When peers implied that they saw my hour spent playing tennis on Fridays in Yates Field House as an investment in a future job or recommendation for graduate school, I rejected their suppositions. Without dismissing the importance of teachers within the larger career process, there has to be flexibility for friendships within the academic community that don’t adhere to a set of mutual obligations. Otherwise, we might as well change “office hours” to read “mentorship, recommendation and career furtherance sessions.”
Besides, my tennis game isn’t nearly good enough to earn me a recommendation.

Jonathan Marrow is a sophomore in the College.

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