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Mind the Gap: The Separate Lives of Students and Faculty

Campus | October 4, 2011

The lifestyle of a Tufts student is an amalgam of a little bit of everything. We study hard, all too often barely sleeping, but we also are involved in a slew of extracurricular activities, all the while still trying to have a good time, let loose, and experience new things. But what do our professors think of all this? How do they perceive us?

In high school, when I was doing my college visits, countless people told me that one of the most important things to take away from college is to get to know your professors outside of class. My parents and their friends all had their stories about that one professor who used to invite them over for dinner or the one with whom they still exchange occasional emails. College students and faculty are frequently in entirely different places in their lives, which can make it difficult to connect but also holds the potential for valuable communication across generational or cultural differences.

After talking to a few faculty members here at Tufts, it became clear that many students don’t share much, if any, of their personal lives with their professors, in the way they would with their peers. This seems fairly intuitive (as it may be awkward to approach your biology professor after lecture to talk about a recent hookup, for example), but at the same time, bonds between students and teachers are built from a basic level and strengthen over time. And generally, these types of relationships are beneficial for creating a positive learning environment as teachers grow to understand their students, as well as provide an outlet for faculty members to mentor their students in areas that may be less directly academic.

Maybe we just assume that our professors are too busy to hear what is going on in our lives, or maybe that they just aren’t interested, or pass judgment on us for our decisions. But regardless of the reasoning, many faculty members don’t have a good sense of their students’ lives outside the classroom.

Despite some feelings of being in the dark, journalism and non-fiction writing professor Neil Miller gave some comments on his perceptions on Tufts students’ lifestyles. “I sort of have a contradictory idea about it,” he said, “Being over-extended is one thing [that comes to mind]. They’ve been programmed to work really hard and be really involved in a lot of things. But on the other hand, there’s the staying up all night, getting drunk on weekends side of it. I don’t know, maybe that’s just the release they need.”

Professor Miller laughs his way through anecdotes about various students he’s had in the past, and reflects on the way life was different when he was in school (Miller went to Brown University). “When I was in college,” he recalls, “so many people were in relationships. I just don’t get that feeling here at Tufts.” Miller says he doesn’t know whether times have simply changed, or whether the hookup culture at Tufts is similar to that of other schools.

Overall, Miller has a very realistic sense of what it means to be a young adult in college. “Generally I’ve found that Tufts students seem to be pretty responsible when it comes to doing their work,” he said. After a few moments, he corrected himself and went on to say, “I don’t know, what’s responsible? I think college is a time when you should be doing all sorts of things, not just studying… People go through different stages of life. I guess [Tufts students] use their time ‘responsibly,’ if you want to use that term, but it’s also just a time to experiment and try different things.”

English professor Julia Genster shared similar sentiments to Professor Miller in regard to her level of knowledge about students’ lives. She started off with the disclaimer, “I am going to tell you that I don’t think I have very good information.” Professor Genster expressed her belief that there is less of an expectation now to study for extended periods of time and, compared with her experiences when she was in school, assignments can be much less time-consuming. Of the party scene, she said jokingly, “The idea of what the weekend is has expanded to include much larger swaths of the week.” But Genster feels as though, with the exception of a few students with whom she maintains close relationships, she doesn’t really have much insight into the Tufts student lifestyle. “I don’t think [we] have a very well-developed sense of what [students] social lives are like,” she said. “[It seems that] the Venn diagram in which teachers and students overlap is almost entirely restricted to the classroom.”

From this small sample, it seems that we, as students, should perhaps make a more concentrated effort to get to know our professors and let them get to know us. Bridging the gap between students and faculty could help us make meaningful and lasting connections for the future, in both a social as well as professional sense. Both the student body and the faculty at Tufts have a lot to offer through their diverse passions, interests and aspirations. Our professors’ familiarity with our lifestyles should not be gleaned through the grapevine, as Miller suggested when he said, “It’s just things I hear and things I see. I mean, I don’t really know that much about the lifestyle of a Tufts student.” O