Jonathan Dresner alerts me to this very interesting post by New Kid on the Hallway: How Close is Too Close? It’s a commentary on this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about UVA professor James Sofka, who has been disciplined for "inappropriate behavior" with his students. Do read both pieces.
New Kid has some valuable points on the thin line between mentoring and friendship between undergrads and their professors:
When you’re teaching students who are your own age, that’s one thing. But if you’re teaching students who are 18-21 (as I am), and you’re in your 30s (Sofka is 37; most Ph.D.s I know have been at least 30 when they’ve started full-time jobs), that’s a big difference (or it should be!). I like the vast majority of my students; I care about many of them; I care deeply about a number of them. I would even say that I have loved some of my students (except that "love" is such an ambiguous word in English and even saying that can raise eyebrows if you use the wrong sort of tone; we need all the nuances of the different ancient Greek terms for love, I guess).
But I’m pretty loath to say that I am friends with any of my students. I can be friendly with many of them, and enjoy spending time with them, but to me, friendship requires a certain degree of equality, or parity, that doesn’t exist between students and professors.
Bold emphasis is mine, and I’m in complete agreement with New Kid. I’ve come, over the years, to have a considerable appreciation for the value of good and healthy boundaries between professors and students. I’d like to think I’m a good mentor, at least to those who actively seek out mentoring.
I’d like to add a point that New Kid only addresses obliquely. When I grade and evaluate my students, they need to trust that I am giving them a genuinely honest assessment of their work. When I write a glowing letter of recommendation for a student transferring to a four-year college, he or she needs to know that what I wrote reflects my real feelings about their work, not my own desire to flatter them or to maintain our personal friendship. Inappropriate closeness between a teacher and a student makes it far more difficult for a young person to believe in the accuracy and the validity of the feedback they receive.
When I first started teaching full-time at the college, at age 26, I found it quite difficult to draw the distinction between mentor and friend. My youth and inexperience meant that I didn’t really believe I could mentor those, who, in many cases were only a couple of years younger than I was. In addition to being insecure about what I had to offer professionally, I was eager to be liked. When I was tenure-track, I was anxious to have strong student evaluations, knowing the vital role they play in getting tenure. As I’ve aged in the past dozen years, I’ve also (I hope) matured. The gap between me and the average age of my students has gone from five years to more than fifteen. I’ve finished a Ph.D, gotten tenure, and learned infinitely more about what it means to be a teacher.
I’m less interested in being liked and more interested in being of service to the young people with whom I work. As my own confidence and maturity have increased, my own need for their validation has diminished correspondingly. I am much more able to focus on their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs when I am not in need of their approval. Most of them have plenty of friends. They don’t need another one. They need a teacher who will be honest with them, and a few of them, those who choose to seek me out, need a mentor whom they can trust to put their growth first. After years of trial and error and mistakes, I’d like to think I’ve become that sort of professional.
I hope that Professor Sofka has a similar opportunity.