When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, on various occasions my parents met some of my professors. This was fine with me. My mother still has a plant in her backyard that she grew from a cutting given to her by a former professor of mine. I have no idea how or why they ever had a conversation about plants, much less exchanged plant material, but the evidence exists in the backyard of my ancestral home.
When I was in graduate school, I don't think my parents ever met any of my professors, nor did I want them to meet. Similarly, my mother never met my postdoc supervisor, nor did I want them to meet.
When I was briefly a professor at a small liberal arts college, I met the parents of many of my students. I met some at the beginning of the year, I met some on a Parents Weekend type event during which I was expected to be in my department on a Saturday for various festivities and informal conversations, and I met even more of them at graduation in the spring. This was mostly OK with me, and even kind of fascinating. What were the parents like of the student who cried all the time? What were the parents like of the student whom I had enjoyed supervising in a research project? What were the parents like of the student who spoke openly of her relationship with her drug dealer?
Perhaps my memory is failing me, but I don't recall meeting (m)any parents at my previous research university. At my current university, however, there are graduation events in the department, and these are attended by graduating students and their families. Professors are expected to attend. We are reminded about this expectation repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the main social event, and we are lectured on proper behavior: We should not attend the event and talk only to each other or show up only to graze at the buffet. We should mingle with the parents and say nice things about their kids. We should not throw food, disconnect grandma from her oxygen tank, or mention that cheating incident.
A few years ago I had a traumatic experience at one of these events. I walked into the room, and was immediately invited to sit with the family of an undergrad who had taken two classes from me and who had spent the entire year whining, complaining, and blaming others (including me) for her poor grades and lack of effort. I found it difficult to think of nice things to say about her, but I managed to say "It's so great that Sara is graduating", which was a completely sincere statement because I was glad to see her go. I met her fiance, who expressed some doubts about the usefulness of a college degree and made disparaging comments about Ph.D.'s and cushy professor jobs (tenure, summers "off", lots of vacations). I met her mother, who asked me if I thought her daughter was too fat. I met her father, although he did not speak, and I met her wheelchair-bound grandmother, who didn't feel well but who, when she complained, was told by her family to "shut up".
Most families are not this ghastly, of course. Most are very nice, and it is great to see so many proud relatives and their happy graduating students. Even so, when I go to these events, I come prepared with excuses to leave early and/or suddenly:
- I left something running in a lab and if I don't get down there in a few minutes, the entire building might explode;
- I forgot that I have a highly contagious disease and should not be at a social gathering; and/or
- I have to go finish calculating and uploading grades so that some of the students in this room can actually graduate.
10 months ago