As a friend and I left class, navigating the deceptively placed exit signs of Gibbs Lab, he turned to me and asked, “What do you call the professor? You know, in emails.”
Here we are in October; we’ve been in class for a few weeks, sent the requisite “Dear Professor so-and-so” a few times and there’s the general feeling that if it’s okay to make the leap to first-name basis, the time is now. It’s like the trick question on midterms.
I responded that I used his first name, but prefaced my response by telling my friend that, personally, I tend to be exceptionally liberal on this front. One email from a professor signed with their first name, and I’ll send in reading responses and homework questions to Dear Sam or Sarah with little second-guessing.
For me, this casual tone does not at all signify a lower level of respect or forced efforts toward something superficially resembling friendship. Rather, it speaks to the question: What is a professor for?
In the past two years and half a semester of college, I’ve decided that a professor is something in between a best friend and a lecturer at the front of a hall who delivers pearls of wisdom to our ears. Obviously, this covers a very wide spectrum. Where my relationships with professors fall on this range varies widely by the type of class they teach and how each of them chooses to interact with students in and out of the classroom.
It’s said in admissions info sessions and on the Yale website, but it’s true on the ground — professors decide to teach at Yale because they want to interact with undergraduates. They want both to help us learn their disciplines and to help us become the best versions of ourselves. A professor is for instructing, for challenging ideas and for grading problem sets and papers. But professors are also for us, as individuals and not just as students at Yale.
In life, I designate a set of people — my parents, my brother, my trusted friends — as advisors: people to call for advice in moments of indecision and self-doubt. At Yale, even though we’re given faculty advisors, it’s tempting to solely rely on this set of family and friends for guidance. But I’ve found it more satisfying to consult with a battalion of unofficial advisors from Yale’s faculty.
My parents know what “interdisciplinary” means, but they don’t know how to best articulate that approach through course selection. My friends understand how I handle stress and workload, but they don’t know the genres of writing that come naturally or pose the most intense challenges. Even though I’ve known my “official” advisor since freshman year, there are so many others able to suggest the perfect class, pass along an interesting internship and write a letter of recommendation.
This is not a recommendation to play teacher’s pet. In the third grade, as both a very strange child and a teacher’s pet, I skipped recess for mah-jongg with Ms. Oltman. Though I learned a skill that may prove valuable in retirement, these lunch sessions did not really create deeper interests. Mostly, they made me feel special in an arbitrary way that isolated me from other students. In college, figuring out a role for a professor outside the seminar room or the lecture hall does not mean sucking up or creating the semblance of friendship or picking their advice over the advice of all others. It’s simply an opportunity to establish another source of input.
For me, breaking the first name barrier does not imply closeness. Rather, “Dear Sarah” takes the edge off the formality of a teacher-student relationship without reducing the value of a voice of authority. Authority comes from experience, not a title. It is the experience I lack that my professors have, and the perspectives they have developed that I most want from them — not my midterm grades.
Caroline Sydney is a junior in Silliman College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.