Thursday, June 04, 2009

Mother Figure

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.


Anonymous said...

There's also quite a big difference between mother shhhhing and mom you want to hug.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

FSP--I had *exactly* the same experience the first time I taught a large lecture class and regularly asked the students to be quiet. I didn't sssh them at the beginning, but if they were having a conversation loud enough that I could hear it, I'd ask if one of them had a question (they never did). On my evaluations, they complained that I treated them like kindergartners and that they found my asking them if they had a question offensive and demeaning. It never occurred to me that they might not do this to a male professor, but I've never done it again.

Janus Professor said...

What about being a motherly adviser? As a grad student, I hugged my adviser on occasion, which is odd now that I think about it.

Alyssa said...

Absolutely! One can be nurturing and a good professor at the same time! I personally think that's something us women have over (most of) our male colleagues - it's a gift and should be used, not suppressed.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you; for me it feels a bit like the neighborhood it takes to raise a child.

I mentored a young woman this year who had lost her own mother during her college years. I am aware, and honored, that she relied on me for some emotional needs as well as her science needs. As mentors, we are more than just bosses or managers. So long as the science comes first, I am happy and proud to be a part of a mentee's raising in the broader sense.

My part in raising a child is indeed gender-based or gender-specific. So if a mentor sees me as a parent, then naturally I will be 'mom', and I have no problem with that.

chall said...

I do think it is an age thing.

when you are of a certain age as a woman, they just can't ignore you or dis you or whatever. they just see you as "an older person and therefore you probably know more than they do".

I think a "motherly professor" works... although, I think it is more the idea that you would be viewed as a "woman they would want to become further down the line".

I guess that is somewhat what (at least I do) we do with our mothers?!?!?

John said...

I obviously can't say for sure whether your student saw you as a mom or just as somebody who had been particularly helpful, but I can say that I have received one hug from a student in the five years I've been teaching sociology courses. It was at the end of a summer session, so the class was small and we had developed a good rapport, but it was definitely unexpected.

Of course, as a male I didn't worry about appearing to be a mother and I really hope she didn't think I was old enough to be her father, but there were other concerns related to whether the student was attracted to me and what the other students thought. Despite these concerns, and the weirdness factor, I interpreted her hug to be a simple "thank you" from a student who had connected with the course material and her classmates.

Kim said...

I've got enough students who are moms that any mom-like behavior from me is a good thing: it makes students think "she can do it; so can I." (I also deliberately invoke kindergarten when my students are behaving like kindergarteners - I've asked the class if I should say "one-two-three, eyes on me." Works well when the misbehaving students are majoring in elementary ed.)

But I didn't get away with things like that early in my career. By the time I got here, students respected me, and I had the freedom to be funny or casual or strict. When I started out, students didn't respect me, no matter what I did. That was frustrating.

Unknown said...

I think that your last paragraph hits it dead on.

And also, undergrads aside, being seen as somewhat maternal by the grad students you advise may not be a bad thing (so long as they don't see you as acting like their mother). I would think that a maternal perception of you would allow them to feel as if they could trust you. That's a big deal to a grad student. So many don't or can't or won't trust their advisors and the lack of trust makes it harder than it needs to be.

Anonymous said...

Generally students want their female professors to be the motherly kind and respond better to somewhat overweight mom like figures who dress like a mom. The shhsing incident may have been a situation of a non-mom looking person acting like a mother figure. I wonder if you shhsed them now, would they have the same reaction? Try it and let us know.

As you probably know female students are often nasty to female profs as conmpared to male profs. Think how much worse they can be to female profs of different skin color.

Anonymous said...

I think it doesn't have anything to do with you being a mother figure. Kids are into hugging these days.

U.S. teenagers big on hugging -

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, great post. That's horrifying about your evaluations, but I'm really grateful that you shared this story.

Anyway, the hug thing is a GOOD sign. It means you really connected with someone and she wanted to say thank-you with more than just some empty words.

I don't think I ever hugged a professor in college, but then again I don't think I ever was near failing a class to the point where I couldn't ask my fellow students for enough help to raise my grade. I might have hugged more than one TA!

And I still remember the look of surprise when I hugged my thesis advisor at my doctoral graduation. That was pretty funny but I'm still glad I did it. Now we hug when we see each other, which is only once every few years.

Here's hoping you get more hugs in the future. You deserve the heartfelt thanks for being a real mentor.

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad physics major at a particularly hostile university, my undergrad thesis advisor was especially supportive. He encouraged me to give a talk at a large conference and helped me prepare a lot - last minute data analysis, preparing slides, practicing the talk many times, etc.

After I gave the talk and we left the room, I gave him a hug - partially from relief it was over and partially as a thanks. Looking back, it was extremely odd. But at the time, it seemed so normal. Even now, a handshake would have been odd, and just saying thank you wouldn't have conveyed my thoughts.

Arlenna said...

Wow Pippin, your students said they "found (you) asking them if they had a question offensive and demeaning..."?? I'd like to say back to them that we find them talking about unrelated stuff during class offensive and demeaning!! Maybe if they didn't ACT like kindergartners they wouldn't have to be "treated like" them.

I myself got a lot of irrelevant evaluation comments about my looks and about how I "seemed unsure of myself," neither of which have been an issue for my male colleague who is teaching the same group of students in the 2nd semester and who is at the exact same stage as I am in my teaching career.

Kevin said...

May also be a regional thing. Hugging someone in California has a totally different social meaning than it does in Boston.

landsnark said...

I had a student hug me after turning in her final this semester, also my first time. It was a similar situation, a student who had spent a lot of time in my office working her way up from near-failing to being pretty secure on the final. I just figured she's a hugger.

My evals always include a few who say I'm treating them like kindergartners (for asking them to be quiet and put away the cell phones) and a few who say I'm treating them like grad students (apparently that's the level of understanding I expect from them in this 100-level class.) Meh.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear hugging is making a comeback. I heard the same thing about a supposed teenage trend.

I am a hugger but usually repress the urge in academic settings, because as the comments illustrate, it is rare and therefore seems somehow inappropriate, even when it feels right.

On occasion, I get the urge to hug one of my students or a special mentor, but generally not my fellow grad students. I agree there seems to be a parent-child bond aspect to the phenomenon.

Kate said...

I'm not sure I would say that I saw to many professors as mother figures, but many of the professors I remember fondly from my small liberal arts college days were the ones who also managed to give you advice the rest of your life and stuff, as well as teach you a subject. Some might call that motherly.

Female professors seemed to be able to do that more than men, although younger male professors (often father's of young children) seemed better at it than babyboomer male professors. I suspect that had lots to do with changing gender roles.

Anonymous said...

First they didn't respect me because I seemed too much like a girlfriend. Now they don't respect me because I seem too much like their mother. Soon they won't respect me because I seem too much like their grandmother.

I'm with Pippin, Azulao, et al. This is not a problem I created, only a problem I have to deal with. In our department, the male profs who are chummy get teaching awards; the female profs who are chummy get a terminal year.

lost academic said...

Some people hug. My brother, back when he entered high school, grew gradually more and more anxious as the summer wore on. He finally confessed to me that he though his teachers would not let or want him to hug them. He's still like that, 15 years later.

EliRabett said...

As to the hug thing, try to resist the urge to analyze and enjoy the sharing of joy.

Anonymous said...

my PhD advisor was very unapproachable even to his own students. He was often openly rude and hostile to us and we actually didn't like him on a personal level very much. We always thought he could have used some medication to control his mood swings and rages. He was just a boss to us, we didn't feel a mentor-mentee connection with him. But there was one girl in our lab group (who was beginning her PhD just as I was finishing mine) who had a totally different relationship with him. She would describe him a "father figure" and would think nothing of going to his office to burst into tears and spill out her personal problems and apparently he didn't kick her out of the lab for doing that, which is something none of us could understand. The guys in the group thought her special relationship with him was cos she's female and therefore could get away with being more emotional or personal. But I'm also female, yet my relationship to our advisor was identical to the guys', and I found it very disconcerting and creepy to imagine this younger female student in our group having such a personal father-daughter relationship with our advisor. Well, fast forward a few years when I ran into this same girl at a conference. I had long since graduated and left the lab, and she was now nearing the end of her PhD. At some point we were talking about our advisor. This time her reaction was totally different. Now she experienced the same side of him as the rest of us did - the hostile, rude, unmedicated side. She no longer thought of him as this warm fuzzy father-figure.

My postdoc advisor was a lot more "normal" in his interpersonal reactions, but was also very formal, like a boss or manager.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, in this post by FSP I can't relate to the idea of FSP - or any other professor - being seen as a mother figure. In my book, you just don't look to your professors as parental figures.

while I can't think of a good reason why it would be bad, it just seems weird and inappropriate to me

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post. I'm a young professor in a physical science (the youngest assoc. prof in our department's history) so I'm barely older than my grad students (and actually not older in many cases when I'm teaching). But, I know that they see me as somewhat of a mom - or maybe a cool aunt. I don't see that as a bad thing. I'm not overly chummy with them but when I encourage them when they're having a bad time, it's not uncommon for one to give me a hug or say something sort of sappy. Some other faculty (mostly male) have actually commented on that in a positive way, asking me how I manage to be so effective in motivating my students through the difficult times all students face in grad school. I still have to deal with my share of clueless, rude, or downright sexist colleagues, but it's nice to find out that few of them are in my own department!

Doctor Pion said...

I found that "kindergarten teacher" comment fascinating because one thing that has been evolving in my mind is the possibility that the FSPs I work with are taken less seriously by their students because so many of their students equate "female teacher" with "K-12 teacher". (K-12 teachers are often viewed as people who could not get a right answer without the Teacher Edition of the textbook.)

Your experience definitely reinforces something I learned long ago when talking with FSPs, which is that they should never take my advice in the classroom. But I will share one thing I learned from a HS teacher: Don't try to talk over them, just stop talking. Better yet, walk up into the classroom and listen in on a conversation. "Oh, I thought you might be talking about a (science) problem." But that might come off as the action of Snooper Mom, so who knows? Could be damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Now I have to go deal with the possibility that my students might be viewing me as a Fatherly Professor. (I still have the classroom self-image of a highly experienced grad student who is about 10 years older than my students.) But, as Mrs. CH pointed out, I don't see anything wrong with being supportive while also providing honest feedback.

butterflywings said...

Yes - if students act like 5 year olds, treat them like 5 year olds. Talking in lectures is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

I personally would find shh-ing annoying, whether by a male or female professor. That said, most people judge women more harshly than they do men.

The 'mum' thing. A guy I work with once snapped back 'Yes, mum' when asked to do something by our boss. In a normal, boss type way.
I guess some people can't handle a woman with authority over them, so interpret her as 'mum' like as that is the only model of female power and authority they can deal with.

Anonymous said...

I've had several college professors seem 'motherly'--in terms of the type of advice they chose to give us as a class, and in the way they presented themselves.

Perhaps I'm fortunate to have a very professional mother (a scientist who has switched fields multiple times, but has a PhD in one of them), and thus think of the 'motherly' attribute differently than other undergrads, BUT I've always appreciated this characteristic in my professors, when I get it.

I've had very few female professors (I'm in CS), and it's nice to feel like part of the family.

It has in no way made me respect their professional capacities less (in fact, possibly more--to know that they can do everything the less nurturing professors do and MORE).

-anonymous female undergrad

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Oh, I've been the "MyField"Mom for years now and have come to actually like it!

And today when one of my thesis students waddled up onto the stage at commencement to be awarded the "Best Student in "MyField"" Award nine months pregnant, I was really a proud Mommy! She (and her parents and father-of-the-child) thanked me for all of the support, and it was really great, and I kind of enjoyed the Mommy-business.

Wiping noses and tying shoelaces I can do without, although teaching "MyField"101 often feels like this.

Hugging is quite popular in Europe, so maybe it is making its way over the puddle. I wouldn't want to hug all of my students, but from the occasional one - fine!

Candid Engineer said...

Interesting post. Because I have always been surrounded by men at every stage of my post-high school career, I've often asked myself, what can I give my field/project/situation/collaboration that my male colleagues cannot?

And the potential to be a 'mother figure' is most certainly one of those things. Of course it is important to remain professional, but most students/colleagues respect their mothers, trust their mothers, and want to please their mothers. In return, mothers guide their children (hopefully) in a firm but nurturing manner. I actually think this is a huge plus in the workplace.

Maybe your student was a hugger, but she wouldn't have hugged you if she didn't A)like you B)feel comfortable around you and C)feel appreciative of the help you provided for her. So good for you FSP! You are doing plenty right.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Though this isn't totally related but kinds of fits in well.

Two years ago, during my second year at uni, there was a lecturer who taught us with a box of chocolates in site. At the first lecture he proposed a problem and asked us to solve it. My lecture class then, c.a. 200, was definitely a noise bunch, but as I always liked to answer questions I put my hand up and provided a correct answer, luckily. It was definitely a shock when my lecturer opened that box of chocolate then threw one to me as he explained to the rest of the class why I was right. For the rest of the lectures that we had with him, there were always complete silence when he was teaching and especially much more enthusiasm when a problem was openly proposed.

You would say that undergrads would have been very much 'grown-up' and for some people this may have been demeaning but it really worked.

The same method was also used in another, smaller, graduate class that I had taken with a much older lecturer. The same results occur though some of the rather old graduates may have been a little embarassed but actually rather enjoyed the process.

There was also another lecturer that I had during my undergrad years who liked to show us 5 minute clips from any film that was related to the lecture. It always maintained maximum turnout though not that useful at controlling student volumes.

Unknown said...

I just want to say that I agree that there's very likely many things that get seen differently by students from male and female professors (which is sad/crappy) but I also don't think being a motherly (or fatherly!) professor is a bad thing unless it's the kind of parent that lets you get away with everything. As an undergrad I had an adviser that was very much a fatherly figure and I definitely hugged him goodbye (even though I still keep in touch with him on a regular basis and see him occasionally). He helped me out a lot and put in the extra time and effort that makes good professors, well, good.

Anonymous said...

I had a education lecturer this term who would do a lot of shushing and please be quiet sort of things before the lecture. I felt really offended by that cause I thought she was treating us like kindigarteners (which, being a former kindigarten teacher, was not really suprising). It makes me feel better to know that maybe she didn't mean to treat us that way. And yes, you're right. If a male lecturer did the shhh thing I wouldn't care but if a female lecturer did it I would feel it was patronising. How sexist!

Elliana said...

I lost my mom, this is my huge pain. Since that happened, I have been always craving for a hug from my professor but I never told her my feeling nor the problems I'm going through in my life right now.. She just doesn't show she cares enough to be open with her and talk to her. What's your advice?