Thursday, August 20, 2009

We Creep Them Out

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."

32 comments:

Si said...

I don't know, I think her attitude is quite common. An informal poll of acquaintances suggests that many of us avoided our professors as undergrads (poll group includes 1 ABD Ph.D. student, 1 academic professional, 1 Asst. Prof., and one Ph.D. student on job market). God knows I tried to avoid office hours at all costs. I'm not sure "creepy" is the right word, but "weird" would have covered most of my professors. In fact, I remember thinking at the age of 17 that I should become a professor, because I was also weird, and it seemed socially acceptable to weird as long as you were really, really smart.

Anonymous said...

I'm a pretty good (graduate) student, and I can count on one hand the number of conversations I had with professors whom I wasn't working for. Most of it was from a healthy dose of intimidation. Clearly, I was the dumbest person in the class, and talking to the professor would only show him (it was always a him, not counting the humanities classes) that I didn't understand a thing that was going on and didn't deserve the grades I was earning. The one time I went to a professor's office hours, I wound up at a blackboard in front of my peers for what felt like an eternity, completely lost, worrying if giving a stupid answer was worse than just admitting my ignorance. In the end I wound up just nodding along, and I left office hours no more knowledgeable than when I came.

Of course, this lack of interaction was entirely my fault, and I'm definitely more anxious than most when it comes to professor/student interactions. But I think having just one professor such as yourself, who actually made an effort to talk to me even though I wasn't full of cutting questions and didn't completely understand the material, would have made a huge difference in my confidence.

I never thought my professors were creepy, though. But I can see how a student, especially one who's not into research and doesn't buy into the whole academia system, could feel so. For some students, college is four years of feeling that professors only value extreme intelligence, have insane obsessions with trivial concepts, and that regular social graces are meaningless. Combine this with feelings of inadequacy and resentment, and it's not that far-fetched to go from calling professors 'interesting' to 'weird' to 'creepy'.

Kea said...

Of course, when I was an undergrad, many years ago, there was only one woman in the theory department, and I never took any classes from her. Some of the male professors really were creepy.

Oh wait. It's still like that.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I second to Si as I did develop a strong urge not to talk to any professors. It is possible that it's indirectly influenced by my personal tutor (in his 70's) who treated me rather like a kid but in general teachers and students don't really mix.

scicurious said...

Creepy or weird or not (usually not), you're an idiot if you don't make some attempt to talk to your profs, ESPECIALLY if you want to go to grad school, and you need that letter of recommendation.

OTOH, the "creepy" (and I do mean creepy) behavioral of a prof during undergrad has made me sufficiently squeamish to actually feel odd about working for male profs. I know they aren't all that way, but it still makes me nervous.

Liz said...

Great post. I agree with Si that I am not at all surprised by this as I too generally avoided my profs as an undergrad. I doubt this woman meant that they were literally "creepy" but more that the idea of chatting up a professor was intimidating and thus made her uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

Probably this was just a case of overgeneralization plus some hyperbole to make the point. I'll bet that she had plenty of professors who seemed perfectly normal to her; she doesn't doesn't remember them (or didn't want to, for the sake of saying something more outrageous).

Chris said...

I believe Si makes a valid point. When I returned to college as a non-traditional student I had frequent contact with my professors, but as a fresh undergraduate I avoided them as a matter of course. Even the ones who inspired me were intimidating to me. But I do find that seeking out conversations with students definitely helps.

Anonymous said...

Language Log wrote about shifting connotations of the word "creepy". link. They describe the word "creepy" losing its negative sense and coming to mean something closer to "uncanny" for younger generations.

I guess it doesn't really apply here, except to the extent that she may have only found them kind of strange rather than "disturbing and erratic", but I thought you might find it interesting.

Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

Maybe this is a large/research university (where classes are large and impersonal) vs. small/liberal arts college (where classes are small and professor/student interaction is encouraged) thing. I attended an exclusively undergraduate college, and I (and most of my friends) had no problems meeting with our professors for office hours. I had a couple of professors I rather enjoyed meeting with, and one who invited me to his home over the summer (not in a sketchy way) to discuss grad school options. And my husband now works at a PUI, and he has students dropping by his office all the time -- office hours or not.

Narya said...

Alternatively, the student might reminisce about how s/he was drawn into studying science by a professor who was enthusiastic and who made it a point to be welcoming. This might be particularly useful for young women.

I came from a small working-class town and it took me awhile to realize that I could and should talk to professors--and I went to a SPLAC. If I'd been at a big research university? Fuggedaboutit.

Maria said...

I think one of the greatest advantages of a SLAC is that students are more likely to have individual contact with their professors and are therefore less? likely to be creeped / weirded out.

Amanda said...

I didn't go talk to my profs, not because they creeped me out, but because I was afraid I would waste their time asking stupid questions, annoy them, make them think I was dumb, or other, similar self-conscious fears.

FemgineerPhD said...

If "creepy" means "not personable," then it doesn't surprise me that a student would make this comment. There is a common perception among graduate students that many faculty (especially at the top MRUs) are difficult to speak with. Though some of these assumptions are made by people who have never even attempted to start a conversation with a faculty member, the majority are based on bad experiences (being spoken to sarcastically or condescendingly during a talk, or when asking a question, etc.).

My personal feeling is that academia breeds a certain lack of accountability in how faculty interact with students. You're at the top of a totem pole where students are insignificant by comparison (I think Jorge Cham has some very funny PhDcomics about this). This culture tends to be self-perpetuating, and is one of the many reasons graduate students feel intimidated about academic career paths. What do I hope to do about it? Be approachable (maybe even smile a little- universally a sign of welcome unless you're an ape), strike up conversations with students that show a general interest in their intellectual well-being, and hopefully show that there isn't just "one model" of being successful in academia.

Ms.PhD said...

I think this may depend a lot on departmental culture.

I interacted a lot with almost all of my professors in almost all of my science and non-science departments, even at a big-ish school with some giga-sized classes. HOWEVER, there were a couple of departments (physics was one) where all the (yes, exclusively male) professors seemed, for lack of a better word, a little bit creepy (aka, more weird than most scientists).

I don't think I interacted with any of them. The TAs were okay, though, which was good since I didn't learn much from the giga-lectures in those classes.

For my part, it made me like physics a lot less because I couldn't identify with those professors at all, and coincidentally they were terrible teachers, so I never seriously considered majoring in physics after noticing the trend (n=2 semesters of physics classes).

For their part, those professors didn't make any attempts to interact with me, either.

To be fair, though, the two history professors I had (both male) were also creepy- by the more traditional sexual harassment definition of the word.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who tried to interact with professors? I had some success in the geology department (famous for friendly) and with the Supreme Court prof. I went to Caltech, and here's a broad appeal to Caltech: your math profs were useless! I wanted to do a senior thesis; they said they hadn't had one in years. I wanted to do an independent study instead of another class that was too basic for me; the prof brushed me off. (Fine, he didn't want to do the work associated with an independent study. He didn't even offer any reading suggestions.) I wanted feedback on classes and grad school prep; my advisor simply nodded and said, "That's nice!" to *everything.* Utterly useless.

This was before they hired a lot of faculty, including some women who I know are personable. I hope more conversations with students who are wannabe professors are happening. There was only one prof back then who was helpful: VK, you are the first prof to talk to me about math and about how to do math research. It was brief, but it meant a lot. I even still remember a piece of your advice!

The other people who got me to where I am now are the postdocs. They were wonderful. Helpful, would hang out and talk math, nice people, just great.

Anonymous said...

I find professors threatening. First, for the obvious self conscious reasons (I am afraid they will think I am stupid, or "find out" how stupid I really am). Even my most approachable professors have tended to be a little standoff-ish in office hours and I felt like I was wasting their time. I've also gotten a strange vibe from several of my professors recently, when a large part of the class is struggling with something, it's almost as if they are proud. As in, their topic of specialty is so difficult they know none of us will understand it without 20 hours a week of studying. I've seen little smiles creep on their faces when they announce 5 minutes left in a midterm and everyone is still sitting, madly scrambling to finish, and the class as a whole groans in response. On the other hand, I've had some really cool professors who cared more about what we all were learning or could understand, they just seem to be few and far between. In fact, I've never mentioned to a single professor that I work time, and am worried if any found out their reaction would not be one of support for what I need to do, but instead one of criticism where they suspect I don't have the academic dedication and think I should just fail out. So I understand being intimidated by professors.

female Science Professor said...

I've seen little smiles creep on their faces when they announce 5 minutes left in a midterm and everyone is still sitting, madly scrambling to finish

You could be right, but consider also that in the stress of the moment (combined with your other feelings about professors) you misinterpret a smile as evil when in fact it is meant to be encouraging or sympathetic.

Space Prof said...

As a prof at an MRU, I am sad to report that there are others in my department that creep out other faculty. Creepy here meaning not only awkwardly weird social habits (some fit this category), but also belligerently antagonistic communication styles. I can only imagine how students feel about these professors. I hope that I am not and don't become part of either of these categories of creepy prof personalities.

Anonymous said...

I am actually rather surprised by this. From what I recall as an undergrad, I didn't find any of my professors especially creepy, or even intimidating. Probably there were a couple but none I specifically remember. Even among the physics profs (who were basically all old grey-haired men), I had no problem talking to any of them, and from what I recall they were generally rather nice. Is this really so unusual? Maybe just variation between schools? i went to a rather average, large-ish university though, so I don't see that it was so special. hmm...

Anonymous said...

"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,"

Okay... As an undergrad I would find this creepy.

Alex said...

The only time I've felt creepy in my short professorial career is when I was an adjunct teaching a grad class. After class, I was chatting about something research-related with students, and we were walking as we talked. I was heading toward the building exits which were mostly in the general vicinity of student offices. Being new I didn't realize this, so as we continued walking and chatting, I found myself about to enter the grad student office suite. I then realized that I was about to intrude on territory where faculty shouldn't enter, so I excused myself and said I had to catch a bus. (Which was true.)

female Science Professor said...

In a small class (< 20 students), don't you think it would be weird NOT to chat with the professor?

Comrade Physioprof said...

There are a few washed-up dead-wood asshole senior faculty in my department who creep *me* the fuck out.

Kevin said...

Anonymous said "I found myself about to enter the grad student office suite. I then realized that I was about to intrude on territory where faculty shouldn't enter,"

What? Faculty aren't welcome in the grad office suite? That's like saying faculty aren't welcome in the wet lab. Yes, it is not a place to hang out for those not assigned there, but it is perfectly appropriate for faculty to look for grad students or talk with grad students in "their" space rather than waiting for them to show up in "our" space.

We have a weekly social event in one of our larger grad offices for faculty, grads, and tech staff to get together. It is fairly common for small groups of grad students and faculty to have informal meetings in the office (regularly scheduled meetings are in the conference room next door).

female Science Professor said...

I sense a Topic for a post, maybe tomorrow..

DrDoyenne said...

Making an effort to talk with your professors (creepy or not) is good preparation for dealing with people in the workplace once you get out of school and into the "real world".

If I had it to do over, I would take those student-professor interaction opportunities as a way to gain experience dealing with different types of people.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, talk to them about what they're interested already. Gossip Girl, LOLcats, whatever... It won't kill you and Ed Westwick is actually pretty hot.

John V said...

Here are a couple of reactions to this discussion:

From my high school daughter, creepy means exactly what one would think it does - an adjective for a "creeper", one who is a creep.

Some students are reluctant to talk to older guys like me, especially if we are grading them. For whatever reason, perhaps past experience, perhaps distain for authority. Some students warm up if one talks to them in labs and office hours, and they decide we're not too boring and are only trying to further their education, some never do.

My suspicion is that we profs think talking to us is more useful than many students do, and they don't underestimate its usefulness as much as we overestimate it.

Still, lack of rapport with our students is a mark of poor teaching.

Anonymous said...

The first time I went to visit a professor to talk about an erroneous grade, I was told that "the semester is over, please leave my office." I didn't speak to another professor for 2 years. I really missed out on getting the most of my education because I was so terrified after that. As a prof myself now, I realize that this deadwood probably had no funding which is why he was stuck teaching freshman chemistry. I vowed to never be that horrible to a student, no matter what.

Anonymous said...

Early during my B.A. I met my fair share of fellow undergraduates 'creeped out' by the professors who were teaching us.

As I was feeling more and more uncomfortable at the prospect of signing up for classes with the 'creepiest' professors, I decided to go proactive and face my fear. So I went to these professors' offices (not even during office hour, as I had no clue when their office hours were), knocked on the door, presented myself as a student who will be registering for their class... and got a nice 90 min. chitchat session.

I found out that professors do not bite, even during impromptu visits by random overzealous students. They even seemed to enjoy them.

I repeated the process when came the time to sign up for an M.A. - showing up at my future department (I had been accepted), requesting a few minutes of the professors' time "if you can spare the time, please"

I just did it again for a school I am considering for my PhD and for a professor whose research I found interesting. Getting a good, personal impression of a department's faculty makes things much easier on my nerves...

I am still easily spooked however. I do not dare ask questions in public during conferences (I ask in private, once the talk is over). Getting me to write emails to professors I do not know about their research is nerve-wrecking. When I go see my advisor, I usually fidget uncomfortably and avoid much eye contact (we tend to communicate using chat because we both feel more at ease this way).

Anonymous said...

In the past I have had really good relationships with them, and it's fairly reciprocal (one just friended me on facebook; another recently sent me an unsolicited e-mail pointing me to a paper he thought I'd like).

My advisor, on the other hand... we did not get along at all, and I am now an ex grad student.