At the end of the final exam for my Large Science Class, most students silently placed their completed exam on the front table with varying degrees of force -- some tentative, some emphatic. Some students smiled and said goodbye, a few even said thanks.
One student left without smiling or saying anything or even looking at me, and I was a little surprised because I had helped that student a lot during the term. She had been failing and I worked out a plan with her to keep her on track, and she ended up doing much better as the term progressed. She had feared she would not graduate because she was failing this course, but unless she completely blew the final exam, she would pass the course and she would graduate. I hoped her lack of eye contact during exam turn-in didn't mean that she had failed (or thought she had failed) the exam.
A few minutes later, though, she came rushing back in and came up to me and said "I forgot to say goodbye because I was so distracted but I wanted to thank you" and then she gave me a quick hug.
I have never been hugged by a student before and it was kind of weird. I told my husband about it later and he said "You have finally gotten old enough that you seem like a mother to them".
I had to think about this for a while. This was a new concept for me even though I am quite aware that I am old enough to be the mother of an undergraduate. I think that I am having trouble getting used to the idea not because the old-enough-to-be-their-mother thing freaks me out but because I do not feel maternal towards my students.
Alternatively, the hugging incident could have been a random event involving a student who likes to hug people.
Let's assume that my husband is right (this time) with the Mother Hypothesis.
Is being a motherly professor a good thing?
I used to think it wasn't. Early in my teaching career when I taught an enormous class in a giant auditorium, I imitated a technique that one of my teaching mentors, a male professor, had used very effectively to quiet a large class down so he could start teaching: I said "Sssshhhh". When he did this, the students quieted down and he started class. I saw him do it at the beginning of almost every class.
It wasn't quite as effective for me, but I didn't think anything of it until I got my teaching evaluations at the end of the term. A number of students commented that they found this Ssshhhing "offensive" and "insulting", as if I were a "kindergarten teacher" or " a mom".
I asked the person from whom I had borrowed this technique whether this was a problem for him. He was very surprised. Not a single student had ever commented on this to him before, not in evaluations, not in person, not ever. It was not a problem, not even an issue.
When a male professor said Sssshhhh, the students saw and heard a professor who wanted them to be quiet so he could teach them things. When a female professor said Sssshhhh, the students saw and heard a kindergarten teacher or (horrors) a mom who was treating them like disobedient children.
I never Sssshhhhed a class again, and I have worked very hard over the years to erase the preconceived idea that female professors aren't real professors or somehow lack that professorial je ne sais quoi that male professors have.
But now that I am middle aged, maybe it's OK if I seem mom-like, as long as I seem professorial at the same time. Maybe the fact that more moms are professors and more professors are moms will come to represent a good thing, not a cause for feelings of discomfort and humiliation by students.
8 years ago