Yale has too many extraordinary professors: John Merriman, Miki Havlíčková and Marvin Chun, just to name a few. The list goes on, but each of them contributes something different to our community through phenomenal research, teaching and mentorship.
But their success can also lead us as students to distance ourselves, afraid that they might reject us or cut off their support. This distance causes us to transform professors into divine entities, in order to justify our reclusive tendencies. As a result, a vicious cycle is established. If professors are “mystical” and “rare,” it becomes “normal” for us to restrict our access to them. In contrast, those who do manage to spend extra time with these “divine beings” are seen as lucky and showered with good graces.
Unfortunately, this idea leads students down the wrong path. It deprives them of the wealth of information and support our professors can and want to give. If you rarely speak to your professor, they never get to know or mentor you. We have limited time at Yale, so it only makes sense to try to get everything out of the experience.
One of my teaching fellows asked me why students are so hesitant to engage with their professors. When he was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, students and professors had a direct line of communication, whereas Yale students seem far more likely to seek help from their TFs. He further commented that most professors he has worked with love it when students speak with them.
“This cannot be the case at Yale,” I thought to myself. However, I quickly realized that aside from office hours, I rarely see students and professor interacting. Some people manage to break through the wall of fear, but the vast majority do not.
I myself am guilty of idolizing my professors and refraining from speaking with them or asking questions in class, afraid to appear ignorant. I did not always fall into this trap. I remember in high school spending hours speaking to my teachers at the end of the day, learning more about them and absorbing every piece of knowledge they had. While it does not seem feasible to spend as much time with our professors out of class due to Yalies’ hectic schedules, it cannot hurt to ask them to go to lunch on occasion.
Often, when students do interact with their professors, it is a purely superficial encounter. Students either make a one-off statement or ask a question about a problem set or midterm. Alternatively, a student might try to challenge their grade on a paper or exam. Nothing of true substance is said. Neither the professor nor the student learns about the other’s life and work in a meaningful way.
How might we go about changing this? The answer is not simple by any measure. But it starts with a cardinal rule: recognizing that we are all human. By acknowledging that, we can face our fears and accept the fact that some professors will love us and others will not. They are not divine entities devoid of emotion and understanding, but rather human beings who want to help us. So by alienating ourselves, we are only limiting our own potential and allowing our fears to dominate.
By deifying our professors, we are actually masking a fear: the fear of the unknown. If we don’t get to know them, then they can’t get to know us. We are spared the possibility of rejection from someone we hold in such high esteem. If we want to change this culture of mystification and alienation, we must start by taking small steps.
The next time you see one of your professors, ask them to lunch, ask them a question, ask them about their research or just ask how their week is going. I am sure your initiative will delight them.
Benjamin Nadolsky is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .