A strikingly clear memory from high school still plays through my mind every so often — no matter how I try and suppress it. A security guard in the office had requested I fetch a student from another classroom to have him move his car. I waited at the door of Ms. Beck’s AP Spanish classroom for a presentation to finish before knocking, then apologizing to Ms. Beck for the interruption, and turning to the student. As soon as I asked to speak to him for a moment in the hallway, I was hit with an unfathomably vicious tirade.
Ms. Beck railed at me for interrupting a serious class period, yelling (among other things), “Who do you think you are?!” I stumbled away from the room, unsure of what holy right I had broken to elicit such a ridiculous response, only to be called down to the office the next day to “discuss my disciplinary infraction” with the vice principal.
Coming from such an environment, I expected self-absorbed attitudes like Ms. Beck’s to be multiplied astronomically among the distinguished members of Yale’s ladder faculty. This is why I was surprised when my freshmen seminar professor invited my class to dinner to “get to know us before classes started.” But it was his request to call him by his first name that elicited a strangled, barely muffled cry.
Here was a Ph.D., recognized as an expert in his field, telling us that “Professor” makes him feel too old, and that just a simple “Gordon” will suffice. The other shocked faces around the table confirmed that I wasn’t alone in my expectations of teaching figures.
Such a radical shift in my daily interactions with instructors initially left me fumbling for an explanation, for some clarification. It wasn’t the unlimited freedom, the torrent of reading, the piles of laundry, nor the uncanny amount of alcohol here that took getting used to. Instead, I have had to revamp my views on the entire philosophy behind education.
Viewing the teacher as the adversary, an obstacle waiting to be overcome, has been ingrained in me since my first moments in an educational facility. The process of essentially “beating” the teachers was what defined academic success and advance to the next grade level.
Granted, I can make no broad, sweeping judgments having spent just a few months in the collegiate environment, but I have yet to encounter a highfalutin’ Yale faculty member. Professors introduce themselves by their first and last names, not their deserved titles, nor even a more plebeian Mister or Missus.
The educator’s evolution from a seemingly power-drunk authority figure to the relatively friendly, often jovial Yale professor has major implications. The fact that in my first three microeconomics lectures I learned the equivalent of my year-long high school course cannot be attributed solely to the caliber of the faculty, but to the manner in which they interact with the student body.
The availability of this personable contact allows for purer relationships than were provided for in the high school setting. Red tape removed, silly bureaucratic garbage left behind, the professors here seem to enjoy teaching, and therefore do it well. Having proven themselves by holding the position that they do, they apparently feel no need to flex their academic muscles nor rev their intellectual engines in an attempt to distance themselves from their pupils. This allows for not only a more productive classroom, but a more enjoyable one.
A central goal of Yale University should be to foster this down-to-earth mentality. Primarily, the University should not hire faculty based purely on their resumes. While it may be thrilling to be lectured to by ubiquitous names, the best known academics are not necessarily the best teachers.
The undergraduate should recognize and take advantage of the nature of student-professor relationships here at Yale. For those lucky enough to have had high school experiences characterized by extensive contact with teachers and a relatively easygoing relationship, consider yourself blessed, but don’t let that blind you to the opportunities currently present.
Evan Leitner is a freshman in Pierson College.