Just read an interesting little snippet in “The Undergrauate” section of the July/August 2008 issue of Harvard Magazine (yes, I’m that cool): “Education by Office Hour” by Samuel Bjork ’09. Bjork discusses the reason for office hours, and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that have come from student-professor interactions brought on by this frightening, but fruitful institution.
Bjork got me thinking about my own college experience.
After being a reasonably successful high school student, I went through an intense period of humbling in college. I sat in lectures and read books and began to realize that I did not have all the answers. In fact, I seemed to have none of them. This new found humility really did a number on me. Part of me wanted to react: “Stephen, you don’t know anything. You better get crackin’!” Another part of me said: “Stephen, you don’t know anything. What’s the point? Watch some TV.”
I went on to make a 3.5 my freshman year, which is admirable, but not what I wanted. It was truly symptomatic of what I was going through. I felt really motivated to do well in some classes. I tended to ace those classes. For other courses, effort seemed futile or useless — those typically resulted in B’s. My sophomore year was very much the same.
I also had a genuine fear of professors. They intimidated the heck out of me. As Professor Lino Pertile told Samuel Bjork:
“Students are always afraid that any conversation with their professors will become an exam, or interrogation, or a test of knowledge.”
That sums me up perfectly. I was so worried that these professors would expose me for the fraud that I was. They would lay me open for all the world to see: “Stephen Hebert is a dumbass. It’s been proven…once and for all!”
Luckily, through required meetings, I ran into a couple of University of Texas professors who made me feel at ease: L. Michael White and Ernest Kaulbach. Both of these professors made me feel OK about not knowing everything. They encouraged me to ask questions and come by their offices to chat. It was a healthy relationship. My final two years at UT were drastically different because I felt like I could approach professors and ask them questions. I started to learn.
This practice carried over to Harvard. Even the title “Harvard Professor” couldn’t intimidate me. In fact, it probably made me more eager to ask questions. Thankfully, certain professors really took me in — even into their homes. Frequent lunches or dinners with exemplary fellows like Helmut Koester and Francois Bovon set me at ease. There was a time when I would have feared a meeting with a professor, not the case with Helmut and Francois.
As with most other aspects of life, proper relationships yield excellent results. Restoring the appropriate student-professor relationship yielded excellent academic results. Students and professors should operate out of a mutual respect for one another. There is a symbiotic relationship going on here. Students need professors to help them learn. Professors need students to fill their classrooms so that they can get a paycheck. Well, professors might also learn a thing or two from a student. Students shouldn’t fear professors. Professors shouldn’t be annoyed by students (you did choose a career in teaching after all).
Bottom-Line: If you are a student headed to college, I strongly encourage you to cultivate some relationships with professors. Luckily, most schools have institutionalized office hours: time set aside for you to come in and ask your questions and have conversation about important issues without the pressures of lectures and seminars. Take advantage of it! You’re paying tuition…get your money’s worth!