While dining in a small restaurant not long ago, I was sitting near a group of young (twentysomething) people who were reminiscing about their college days. One of the young women said:
I, like, never talked to professors if I could help it. They creeped me out.
My initial hope was that this woman had attended a distant university or college that only employed disturbing and erratic faculty, but the restaurant in question is about a meter from a particular university campus, the one at which I happen to work, and subsequent clues in the conversation indicated that she was in fact creeped out by her professors at MyUniversity. I am not objective about this issue, but I don't think the professors at MyUniversity are, as a population, particularly creepy.
When I was a student I had a few professors who creeped me out, but they did so on an individual basis owing to particular incidents in which they displayed creep behavior. The fact that this young woman avoided talking to all of her professors strongly suggests that she had trouble dealing with professors because they were professors.
I suppose I should be outraged on behalf of the professors of the world. What if she were creeped out by other employment sectors? Would that be socially acceptable? What if she had announced that she is creeped out by telemarketers who repeatedly call during dinner? OK, never mind about that. But professors?
Mostly I am sad about her view of professors. I am sad that this person went through at least 4 (and probably more) years of university feeling very uncomfortable with every single professor, to the point of not wanting to talk to them. What would it have taken to de-creep her feelings towards the professoriate?
I don't know, but this incident has strengthened my resolve about one aspect of my teaching. I am not teaching any gigaclasses this year so it is within the realm of the possible that I will have a conversation with each of my students, including freshmen. My goal is to have a conversation (ideally about Science) with each and every student so that each student will see that it is at least possible to have a conversation with a professor, perhaps even an interesting conversation, but that might be asking for too much; and then, if we do converse, statements such as the one I overheard in the restaurant can be averted.
In a rare and fleeting cynical moment, I could suppose that, years from now, a reminiscing student might say "I never talked to my professors if I could help it, but there was that one strange woman who kept trying to say something to me, though I was never sure what she was saying. It creeped me out."
7 months ago