There is more to teaching and life than having a good small-talk game.
Dear Captain Awkward,
This question is not so much about a single major situation or a crisis as it is about a recurring, if minor, situation that I encounter again and again. I am a graduate student at a medium-sized research university where graduate students do a lot of teaching. As a result, I encounter former students on campus on a very regular basis. I hope very much to keep teaching college students long-term, though who knows what my future holds.
The problem I have is this. My classes are often fairly popular with students, in part because my teaching persona is very warm and approachable, and in the classroom, I am good at not taking myself too seriously and putting other people (i.e. students) at ease. In real life I am none of those things: I am awkward, introverted, and ill-at-ease with social acquaintances, and I overread Every. Damn. Detail. of routine social interactions. I often feel that students who run into me in public social settings (at coffee shops, libraries, etc.) are surprised by what they perceive as a change in my affect, and that–put bluntly–I make them feel uncomfortable when they greet me after our class is over. I hate that. I feel I talk too long, or not long enough, or that I greet them when they’d rather avoid me, or that I avoid them when they’d rather greet me.
I should say that, while many college instructors resist or resent outside encounters with students, I don’t feel that way at all. I enjoy keeping up with former students. Even more importantly, I think that students at my large, cold, competitive institution need as many one-on-one adult contacts as they can get, and that it’s important for them to feel like they are part of a supportive social network made up of people of many different ages. I think that having good, positive, low-key, supportive encounters–not with every single student, but with students who actually want to say “hi” or catch up briefly in passing–is an important part of my job. But I’m not good at it.
I’m asking you because I know you are a college professor, and I imagine that–like me–you have a lot of students who would like to keep in touch, or who check in when you pass them in the hallway. Any advice on how to make these encounters productive, or at least comfortable?
Wants to Be That Supportive Former Teacher
Librarian by day, dorkus malorkus by night.
Thanks for this letter. You’re describing a situation that comes up in my life a lot, and it’s also something I deal with without necessarily thinking about it. Metacognition time!
In and around class, there is a structure and a hierarchy that governs interactions between students and instructors. One aspect of it is that the instructor will have an open door policy (literally, with office hours), and the instructors will often set explicit rules around how and when communication should happen (email only, texts are fine until 9pm but not on weekends, etc.) This is important to keep in mind: Different institutions and different disciplines will have different cultures and vastly different expectations about how “friendly” and/or accessible professors are supposed to be and how much they are expected to interact with students. At a certain kind of small school the expectation might be that students have your home number and that you’ll take calls anytime. In another place “come to office hours or make an appointment, otherwise, work it out yourself” might be the expectation. I’m sure it would not surprise you that expectations are heavily skewed by gender, race, and age and that double-standards prevail in deciding who is “a gruff but beloved eccentric” or “focused and professional” vs. “Unavailable and uncaring.”
After the class is over, a lot of the bones of the professor-student relationship structure stay in place. For instance, former students will sometimes drop by current office hours or run into me on campus and want to catch up, or speed-pitch an idea, or ask a question about navigating the institution, and that’s mostly great. I like knowing about what films they are making now and bragging on their successes, I don’t mind writing recommendation letters at all, and I like feeling part of a friendly community that goes on after the class is over. Since filmmaking is collaborative, I often see former students again and again as my fellow crew members on shoots. I’ve had to set boundaries about not reading screenplays not written in my class because if I said yes I would literally never do anything else, and that’s been met with disappointment but understanding. The culture of my institution is very informal. Students call us by first names, everyone dresses very casually, and aside from some obvious age differences, a stranger coming into a classroom could be forgiven for not knowing which person is the instructor. At another institution, as a young female instructor I might take pains to dress more formally and behave more formally while I learned the lay of the land, but for now it’s not even a noticeable leap to code switch from instructor role to regular person role.
Outside of on-campus interactions, social media is where I have the most interactions with former students. Lots of schools have policies about how this is supposed to work, mine doesn’t have one that covers part-time instructors, so this is my own policy: I don’t friend-request former students, period. I only accept requests from students after graduation or in some cases after they’ve completed the portion of the curriculum I teach in, so we know for sure that I won’t be their teacher again. I do it with the caveat that Facebook, etc. is my personal space for my personal interactions, views, politics, etc.; I’m not representing the school, and we’re all just humans here. And, where it gets a little weird, I only accept requests from students that I personally like* and want to be in touch with after the class. It has to be mutually voluntary, or else it’s a no-go. Over time, we find a flow that feels right. Depending on how the algorithm is feeling today, we might never actually interact there. Or, if we do, I might comment on their latest films and film-related stuff they share, congratulate them on big life events, and send internship and job postings or interesting film-related links the way I would with anyone I know from a professional context, but I leave their day-to-day social stuff mostly alone. I completely ignore posts about religion, politics, sex, drugs, drinking, etc. or anything where a comment from me might get contentious or sound parental, and I try to watch my snark factor. We’re in this age where online identities are hybrid and we’re using a single platform like Facebook or Twitter to interact with people we know from many contexts, and I think it’s a good idea sometimes to ask whether you are the intended audience for a given post before diving in.
As for the rest of it, remember when you were a kid and you ran into your teachers in a context outside of school and it was the weirdest thing? Teachers don’t….sleep at the school? They go to concerts and buy groceries? Two of my high school teachers fell in love and got married while I was a student there, and now I try to imagine them dating in our tiny town and my heart goes out to them for all the times they must have run into students when out together but before their relationship was public.”Please open your books to page 150” (THEY KNOW) “And let’s do the first 5 problems as a speed-quiz right now. You have 15 minutes.” (THEY DEFINITELY KNOW)
When your students run into you outside of class, one reason it might feel awkward is they are very likely doing a swift mental recalculation, trying to place you in context, and you are doing the same to them. “Whoa, who is that? That’s…okay…um, hi! I see you also…eat…breakfast?” You’re neither of you in the modes you usually wear to communicate with one another, and it takes a second for brain and mouth to sync up. I think that might generate a lot of the anxiety and awkwardness you feel, but I think it’s happening just as much to the student in those interactions.
Awkward Story Time: Once I was all dressed up to go to a friend’s drag show, wearing lot of makeup and a halter top that a friend had screen-printed for me that said “Classy Earl’s House of Class and Tits” (you could also see a bit more of the actual tits than would normally be on display), in the company of several drag performers who were also dressed to the nines. On the same train was one of my former students, his parents, and his grandparents, in town for Parent’s Weekend. He spotted me and his face lit up and he started moving toward me to introduce me to his folks. It turns out that it is hard to shake someone’s hand while crossing your arms over your chest, but it can be done.
Awkward Story Time: Once I was on the eL at 2 am and I ran into a former student. After exchanging hellos we had one of the most awkward and stilted conversations in recorded history, because once we acknowledged each other it’s like we had sealed our fate and had to talk but didn’t really have anything to talk about. After a few minutes I said “It’s really nice to see you, but I’m tired and having a hard time thinking of stuff to say” and he laughed and said “Meeeeee toooooo” and then we sat in silence and I pulled out a book and he did too and this is why you should always carry a book.
Awkward Story Time: Once right after I got done teaching a class I went to lunch at a place next door and basically the whole class had gone to lunch together at that place, too, and it was like, “do I leave oh no they’ve spotted me now we have to talk” and they were like “Hi Jennifer!” and I said “Hello!” and then I think I paused a bit too long before automatically leaving so one of them said “Well, this is awkward” and I said “Yes, for me too” and then I remembered an urgent errand that I had to run at the Trader Joe’s across the street. I’m sure they laughed as soon as I was out of earshot, but I also laughed all the way to the grocery store. What was that, even?
Awkward Story Time: In production classes, once we’re well into shooting, I sometimes give out my cell phone number so that students can text me from location if they run into an emergency on set. Once a student sent me a 2 a.m. text offering to do some things. Private things. Described with a level of detail one would expect from a talented writer and visual artist. I wrote back “Hi (studentname), thanks but no. Maybe recheck the # you were sending to?” 10 horrible minutes later I got a text that said “wrong jennifer” and another one that said “sorry” (which I imagine happening in the smallest and most pitiful possible voice) and when I saw him in class the following week he wore his hoodie basically like this:
I obviously did not mention it and by the end of the semester his hoodie was more like this:
See? It can always get awkwarder. So let’s talk about the interactions you are having and most likely to have, and see if we can’t generate some scripts.
If you’re in the library working, or in a cafe, and you spot former students, let them be the ones to approach you. If they do not, but they do see you, it’s more than okay to just smile/nod/wave/acknowledge them somehow and then go back to your work or your meal or whatever. The most likely scenario is that they respect and understand that you’re busy and just want to get on with their own stuff. If you feel like it, swing by their table for a brief hello if you get up for a bathroom break or on your way out. This can literally be “Hi, nice to see you” as you walk by. If they do approach you, have a short conversation. You can ask them how they are doing. If you like, you can tell them briefly what you’re working on and how you are doing. It’s good sometimes to reset the expectations a bit, like, when we were in class we focused 100% on your work, but I also have my own work that is important to me the way yours is important to you.
At some point, you should take steps to end the conversation. I think this is one of the sources of awkwardness that is present. You still have an aura of authority about you left over from being their teacher, so some students will want some sort of permission from you to disengage, because they are worried about being rude to you and they don’t know how to end the conversation either. Other students will treat all interactions with you like extended Office Hours, where the Starbucks line or the library or the subway ride is a chance for them to ask you questions and discuss their work and their lives, without recognition that you might have your own reasons for being there and your own stuff to do. In both cases, you saying “Well, it’s nice catching up with you, but I do have to get back to my stuff. Good luck with (whatever)!” before YOU start feeling awkward and uncomfortable is a kindness, to them and to yourself. Undergraduate students are also learning how to adult at the same time they are learning about everything else, so cut them and yourself some slack. They might do awkward stuff, you might have to actively model a constructive way of interacting. You do actually know how to do this, because you do it when you’re in professor mode, so don’t let the idea that you are “naturally” geeky or introverted stop you.
If you get the vibe that a former student really had more to say or needed some more TLC than you could afford during whatever random sighting you had, you can always follow up by email: “Hello, I was very glad to run into you in the library the other day. If you’d like to continue our conversation, my office hours this semester are (schedule). Please stop by whenever you like, or make an appointment, I’d like to hear more about/ tackle your questions about/take a look at your thesis/walk you through the next slate of classes in the program when I can give you my full attention.” That’s an actually supportive and caring way to respond, and probably more useful in the end than trying to do serious listening or advising when you’re distracted with your life, but it also has some professional boundaries around it. If they never stop by, then it probably wasn’t that urgent, but they’ll still appreciate that you cared.
Moral of all the Awkward Stories: Students are people. Teachers are people. People are awkward. You and your students can survive momentary passing awkwardness when you meet in public. You can be your introverted self, with a slightly more professional filter than you might use with peers or friends, and let go of the mantle of being the most supportive and inspiring and friendly teacher ever. If you make the interactions as comfortable as possible for you, these other humans will mostly get it and it will work out just fine, and if it doesn’t, one awkward encounter hopefully won’t undo all your good work. The class is over. The evals are in. Mostly your former students probably don’t think about you that much, and if they do you’ll probably never know about it. To be a teacher is to sow a lot of crops and never really know how or if they grew or what pieces of the class they retained.
Bonus Awkward Story Time: A friend of a friend did tech support in a fancy hotel with a lot of celebrity guests, and when at that job he had to help Tom Cruise connect to the internet, print some stuff off – a few minor things from time to time. Tom Cruise, as you may have guessed, is pretty intense. He makes deep eye contact and holds it and gives a firm handshake and uses your name a lot. The tech support guy was quick to say that he’s really nice, but that the niceness was so aggressive that it was a bit creepy, like you’re attending a one-man Tom Cruise show and you are the only audience member and you can’t leave because the Wi-Fi isn’t connecting and Tom Cruise is holding you prisoner in the tractor-beam of his gaze because he wants to make this moment PERFECT and MEMORABLE and everyone is feeling the strain of that. I’ve met Cruise, once long ago at a premiere in Prague (they were shooting Mission Impossible near my dorms when Interview With A Vampire came out, so he came to the premiere), and this bears out. He was really friendly to this awkward expat college student, but I think my hand is still a little mangled from the handshake and my soul still has a few spots missing from where his eyes scraped it when they looked into mine.
That is to say, Letter Writer, when you run into your former students you have a heightened sense of being visible and wanting very much to live up to a role. So does Tom Cruise. People will notice what he does, and they will talk about it amongst themselves (like we are doing now), so it’s not wrong or weird at all that he would be conscious of how he comes across or that he tries hard to be nice. But he should probably relax, like, a lot, because he will weird people out if he turns basic interactions into a show. He’s thinking way too much about himself and trying to hit his marks, to the point that he’s ignoring other people’s and probably his own comfort level in an attempt to give them what he thinks they want. This is a recipe for awkwardness anywhere; see also “the person who is trying to be the perfect date.” So, learn from this cautionary tale. It’s a good idea to be conscious of professional behavior when you run into students in other contexts, but It is okay and in fact preferable if you do not put on a “professor show” when you do. Look after your own comfort level in interactions. If you are a supportive teacher, they already know. If something misfires, it’s a big school, and there are other people who can also answer their questions and guide them through their education. Teachers don’t sleep at the school, and the students have to learn that sometime.
*This is mostly a non-issue, but not everyone is destined to be friends. Every now and then there is a student who follows me into the bathroom on class breaks to ask questions, and when I say “Can we talk about this later? I am busy right now” says “I don’t mind!” and keeps going, and when I say “Ok but I mind” and they say “Sorry” but keep talking anyway, graaaaaaaaaah! And then afterward I say gently “I want to answer your questions, but not in the bathroom” but then a few weeks later they do it AGAIN. It’s not even about not liking them necessarily, it’s just, hey, our interaction styles are really incompatible in a way that makes it a bad idea to have an ongoing, personal relationship.