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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Professors out of their natural habitat; a field guide

Published: December 6, 2013
Section: Opinions

When I first visited Brandeis back in high school, one of the selling points the tour guide made about the “Brandeisian experience” was the usual Student Union event of taking a professor to lunch. The intriguing part of it was not just that you were receiving free food, but that students were also encouraged to get to know their professors in this intimate setting. It was not merely enough to get to know an instructor through classroom banter; instead, the school was proud to display the sort of connections students make with faculty outside of the confines of a semester-long course.

Thinking back to elementary school, I always assumed teachers lived in their classrooms. To see them at the supermarket or even walking to their car would create a moment of shock. I wasn’t used to seeing them out from behind their desks wearing normal clothes. In high school, there were teachers I liked and teachers I despised. My toleration of some was mostly based on how easy they were or them not caring too much about what was actually happening in their class. After matriculating into a university, I was extremely nervous about how my professors would view me. Professors who I respected tremendously, mostly as a result of the collection of letters succeeding their name, would have to deal with some punk kid who had no idea what he’s doing here, and I feared that they would justly disregard me as just some student.

So when I asked a certain professor if he would like to get coffee with a voucher provided by the Student Union, I felt about as anxious as I would have been asking a girl out of a date. During the semester, his lectures were very light-hearted, and I was able to talk to him during car rides to the different field trips off campus for class. He was just a really cool guy who you would not expect to have a doctorate from an Ivy League school, and I really wanted to take some time to get to know him a bit better.

I was elated to hear that he would love to have coffee with me one afternoon when our schedules would allow it, so we made a date. And between composting, eating an old roasted chicken with his Swiss Army knife and drinking hot chocolate, I had a tremendous conversation with my professor. Learning about his father, a retired physician who is now a volunteer urban forester, and how he would spend summers at his grandfather’s farm in rural Wisconsin, a realization came upon me: Even though professors hold a position of superiority and hold our academic careers in their hands, they are still as much of a regular group of people as one could find.

That simple fact makes college so much more bearable, and the more that people realize it, the less stressful life as a student becomes. There is a mutual respect between students and professors at Brandeis, something I am not certain is evident at other schools. This mutual respect is useful for creating a dialogue that lets professors know how the student is balancing the class, its workload and life outside of class. Professors are able to understand how students are dealing with issues from both in and out of class because they most likely have dealt with it before. Communicating these issues with a professor makes the course much simpler in the long run.

Now, he does have his idiosyncrasies of identifying random trees while walking and of pointing out birds, but who doesn’t do that? Professors do tend to live within an academic bubble of sorts where they do not really venture out of a highly intelligent group of acquaintances and where they tend to assume that others are just as smart as them, yet all of the professors I have interacted with here at Brandeis are generally interested in the welfare of their students and hope they do well for the benefit of the student, not just as a reflection of the professor’s teaching. There is always a bad apple in a bunch, but don’t let that spoil the whole cart.

One of the reasons tuition is so high at this school is that it employs some of the best instructors in the country, and students need to utilize that resource to get the most out of their money. If a student visits his or her professor during office hours, he or she can view the professor in a more personal light and can get more directed teaching. The professor I took out for lunch has been able to completely translate the subject matter of the class and numerous other topics (such as this past week when he taught our class the difference between tax deductions and tax credits) throughout the semester, and the same is true of so many other faculty members here.

The “take your professor to lunch” program is one of the more popular programs on campus, and most students have realized this, so if you have a chance to take a professor out for lunch, seize that opportunity. There is no need to worry about being rejected because the majority of faculty are honored to be asked to spend time with a student. This fact debunked the preconceived notion I had of professors when I first entered college, and it makes for a much more open community if students and teachers are able to freely get to know each other.