The Case of the Lonely Professor (or Why Students Should Reach Out to Their Professors)

There she is, sitting in her office surrounded by books and maybe a wilting plant. The Lonely Professor. Piles of papers on her desk and no one comes to see her. She has her lonely apple for lunch. She thinks about the students she sees in her classes and wonders what they are doing now. They certainly are not in her office, that is for sure.

Well -- maybe that is a bit dramatic. But I do know that I have had those moments when teaching where I did wonder where my students were. Not that I did not have enough to do -- in addition to teaching I was usually doing something else like being a dean or director of some program. And I had papers to correct, course plans to create. There was always enough to do. But there was sometimes that missing element... connecting one-on-one with my students. Maybe this phenomenon of the lonely professor exists because students don't know why they should reach out to their faculty. What is the value to them?

The students who have over the years found their way to me have been the source of great joy and many are still friends virtual and actual. We share Facebook photos and actual meals. But when they were still students what we shared was collaboration on what their lives might become. A conversation about the shape or theme of a paper could lead to shared understandings about each other's backgrounds and perspectives. There were definitely times when a student had to be lifted out of a morass of his or her own creation. There were times to celebrate when the reference letter I had crafted led to some wonderful opportunity. There were strategy sessions on how to manage relationships with some of my colleagues. There were pretty horrible lunches in student centers and better ones in faculty dining rooms.

In my own experience as an undergraduate, I remember at Bryn Mawr long talks with utterly brilliant women faculty and being handed a stack of books to use in a paper.

Where are the students of today? A recent conversation with a student who was sure he was failing a paper for a course revealed that he was afraid to tell the professor how confused and behind he was. He was so embarrassed that he was willing to risk an otherwise stellar GPA dropping several points. It has been my experience too, whether as a dean or a professor, that the male students would be the last to seek help. At the ninth hour they would appear with assurances that they could do a semester's worth of work over a weekend if they just got the tiniest extension. But it had not occurred to them to talk to the professor earlier when things were not a crisis stage.

I have had students whose cultures placed people with the title of professor in an exalted light rendering them intimidating. Even now there are those students whom I have known for decades and who have families and children who still call me dean or professor or doctor. At this stage of our relationship I really can be just me. But the intimidation factor played into the failure to reach out and see me as an ally and collaborator with them in achieving their hopes, dreams and goals.

There is the reality of a power relationship. Professors do give grades. That is a lot of power. But they also tend to enter the field with two interests -- sharing a subject they care about and caring about the students they teach. Some faculty give more weight to one than the other but both are part of what draws them to the work. It pains professors to give failing grades. To some extent grade inflation may be a function of trying to help students succeed -- in a way that, in reality, may not always be useful in the long term. But that power held in the giving of grades can also be a source of fear for the student. The fear is that if a student asks questions or reveals weakness they will be judged as lacking and less worthy. That suggests too that there is some responsibility of faculty to keep antennae up for students in hiding and to maybe initiate that conversation.

That fear of being judged as less than -- which we all face at different times of our lives -- plays out particularly for first generation, low-income and students of color. The reality that asking questions or even asking for help is a sign of interest and curiosity is not understood by these groups. We as faculty begin our work by asking questions about our world. When students bring their questions to us they are engaging us in discourse on something we care about and want others to understand. It is not a sign of deficit but of interest to ask. It is just fine. But students need to know that.

A friend and colleague told me the story of her graduate school days when as a student in sociology she did not understand the term "variable" and as readings and lectures went on it was clear that it was a really important term. She finally got up the courage to approach the professor after class. The professor closed her door and with patience and kindness taught my friend all she needed to know. In later years my colleague became a professor in her own right and a friend of that instructor who had been so kind to her. She may never have finished her degree and gone on to the stellar career she had in academe and public service without having asked that key question and found the professor to be totally willing to help.

I know a student who said that he owed his 4.0 GPA to having built ties with his professors whom he felt he could ask questions. They, in turn, saw drive and curiosity in his inquiries leading them to offer him chances to do the kind of research that lead him to a course of study as a PhD student in a top university.

The reality too is that faculty relationships need to be cultivated for professional reasons. They may know of job opportunities. They have colleagues who can lead to slots in grad schools. They can be references.

As a Dean and a professor I tended to find that the students who were silent were often those struggling the most. Savvy and thoughtful faculty have spoken up when a student disappears, asking what is going on. But not all classes lend themselves to that kind of observation and not every school can keep track when there are thousands of students to keep track of. So it is up to the student to know that faculty are allies. We are there to serve, teach, support, nurture and develop the students in front of us as best we can. But the student has to meet us part way. The outcome can be far richer than they could imagine.

This is also a two way street. I have been asked what about the professor that does not seem to care or the adjunct who is not around because of juggling multiple roles. Those are realities too. But in every department there are those who generations of students will know are available and accessible. Upperclassmen can let new students know who those are likely to be in a department. To some extent too the faculty themselves will send a signal in what they say about their availability. All will indicate office hours and schedules on the syllabus and those parameters should be adhered to.

Courtesy also counts. A student should email a professor to make an appointment and be formal and polite in doing so. If possible students should indicate what they want to discuss -- the fascinating point made in class or the idea not quite understood or the guidelines for the paper due at the end of the month. While it is probably safe to assume that one can drop in during office hours, but making a more formal approach will make an impression that one is respectful and organized. All good things to be.

The bottom line is that professors are paid and have chosen this field in large part to engage with with students. The ties made with them can be among the most valuable of the college experience.... life changing even.

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide